Archive for the ‘rawk’ Category

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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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 9

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

Today’s roundup of capsule reviews focuses on reissues or previously-unreleased material by acts who came to prominence (or something approaching it) in the 1980s or later.

Old 97′s – Hitchhike to Rhome
In the 1950s, country and rock’n'roll were sometimes hard to discern form one another. Then they split into to two very different styles, only occasionally re-intersecting. By my count, country rock has had three periods of resurgence. The first centered around The Byrds. The second happened during the 1980s (Lone Justice etc.). And the third – which could be said to have influenced Americana – took place in the 1990s and featured Austin’s Old 97′s as its exemplar. Omnivore Recordings continues its intelligent digging into the past with this expanded (2cd) set built around the band’s excellent 1994 debut LP.

Willie Nile – The Bottom Line Archive
One of the observations made about 1960s rock is that owing to a glut of great acts, many very good ones fell through the cracks and languished in obscurity. Good point, but it happened in other decades, too. When I saw The Who on their mini-tour of the USA in 1980, Willie Nile was the opener. He never did quite make the big time, but he gigged pretty hard. Disc One features a great show from that same year. A second disc documents a 2000 show. Nile’s “Vagabond Moon” is a highlight of both. Nile sounds not unlike Roger McGuinn.

Game Theory – Real Nighttime
Among fans of the band, 1985′s Real Nighttime is generally considered their best album. With improved songwriting and excellent signature production from Mitch Easter, Real Nighttime is a great improvement over already-very-good earlier albums. As I’ve noted before, to my ears Game Theory often sound a bit like Let’s Active crossed with The Three O’clock and Sneakers; based on this album I’d add R.E.M.,the Bangles and maybe even a bit of Hoodoo Gurus to that list. Great company to be in, I’d say. The reissue features the original 12-track album plus thirteen bonus tracks, most of which are previously unreleased.

Camper Van Beethoven – New Roman Times
This one’s a bit of a head-scratcher. Camper Van Beethoven enjoyed their heyday in the second half of the 1980s, a time during which they were that decade’s answer to Kaleidoscope (not that many asked the question). After folding in 1989, they reunited with an idiosyncratic “cover album” of Fleetwood Mac‘s Tusk. Only then did they release 2004′s New Roman Times. It’s a strong return to form, and was released on the tiny indie Pitch-A-Tent label. It’s still available, and Amazon has used copies for 1¢. But Omnivore has seen fit to reissue the album, now with four bonus tracks.

Mike + the Mechanics – Living Years
Phil Collins took breaks from his gig with Genesis, venturing out to make popular solo albums. It was only reasonable that his bandmates would make similar moves. Guitarist Mike Rutherford had success of his own with Mike + The Mechanics. Their second album Living Years (1988) was a big seller thanks to the haunting title track, and led to successful touring that continued on and off into 2004. The group’s lineup featured mainstay vocalists Paul Young and Paul Carrack (Young died in 2000). This reissue adds a disc full of live tracks and a studio remake of the title tune.

Still more to come.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 6

Monday, May 11th, 2015

Last week I presented 25 capsule reviews; 100 words each, these were quick critical looks at new CD (and vinyl) releases. This week, I dive into the pile of reissue/compilation CDs that have been crowding my office. Don’t mistake my relative brevity for mild praise; all of the discs reviewed deserve attention.

Chuck Berry – The Complete Chess Singles As & Bs
Thanks to the different (read: less restrictive) laws in the UK concerning licensing and royalties, compilations like this are cost-effective efforts on the part of reissue labels. This fifty-track 2CD set collects all of the 45rpm A- and B-sides from Chuck Berry’s tenure on Chess Records. I’m not going to waste space explaining the musical/historical importance of this set. Nicely packaged, expertly annotated, and featuring an informative essay from Paul Watts, it contains exactly what the title indicates, and seems to be truer soundwise to the originals than the controversially “cleaned up” Chess Box released stateside in the late 1980s.

Various – Beale Street Saturday Night
Omnivore Recordings is at the vanguard of interesting, intelligent reissues. And here’s another one. The Memphis Development Foundation was founded in 1977 to support the rescue/renewal of the historic city so important in the history of American music (blues, country, rock’n'roll, jazz…you name it). Originally issued in 1979as an unbanded LP, this album is described as “a hi-fi recording of a lo-fi sound.” It deftly mixes music and spoken word, and features Memphis legends Furry Lewis, Sleepy John Estes, Grandma Dixie Davis, and others. Conceptually related to the Alabama State Troupers album, it’s a pop culture lesson with great music.

Various – Apollo Saturday Night / Saturday Night at the Uptown
In 1961, the now-legendary Atlantic Records entered into a fruitful relationship with Memphis-based Stax Records; Ahmet Ertegun and his team knew a good thing when they saw and heard it. These two LPs were released in 1964, and documented live showcases featuring great and less-known acts at their best. Ben E. King, Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, Barbara Lynn and other leading lights are captured live onstage at the height of their powers. These all-killer-no-filler LPs haven’t been paired before, and they fit together nicely. Kudos to the folks at Real Gone Music for thinking of it. Great liner notes, too.

Various – All About Elvis: A Tribute to the King
Sam Phillips is often remembered by his quote, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” Of course he did find such a man in Elvis Presley, but the billion dollars part didn’t quote work out. Still, in the wake of Elvis, countless artists (and their management) sought to grab their own piece of that pie. This 3CD collection brings together nearly 100 artists – some well-known, others exceedingly obscure – all of whom pay tribute to (read: rip off) Elvis’ style. Many do quite well.

Jerry Williams – Gone
Pop music history is littered with stories of near-misses and shoulda-beens. This 1979 LP from Texas-born Williams (not to be confused with the man born with the same name but known as Swamp Dogg) was (until this Real Gone Music reissue) a fairly rare item. Imagine JJ Cale with a horn section and some shuffle/disco influences (or early Boz Scaggs with the dance-oriented feel of, well, mid-period Boz Scaggs), and you’ll have a rough idea of what this sounds like. Williams is better known for the tunes he’s written for others, but he acquits himself well on this, his third LP.

More to come.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 4

Thursday, May 7th, 2015

My unrelenting trip through my CD backlog continues today with five more capsule reviews. These five are rock and/or soul and/or pop.

The Monochrome Set – Spaces Everywhere
Heroes of the first wave of new wave, The Monochrome Set formed in the late 1970s. Though they never achieved any measurable success in the USA, they’ve persisted. Lucky us. Their songs have a lot in common with that UK style pub rock. On their latest, they head in some new directions: on several tunes, lead singer Bid sounds uncannily like The Smiths‘ singer Morrisey. Guitarist Lester Square (great stage name!) turns in tasty lead guitar lick after lick, making Spaces Everywhere a consistently rewarding listen. And dig that Hammond organ and those female backing choruses! You should hear this.

Dina Regine – Right On, Alright
Soulful rocking with assured lead vocals is the order of the day on this, the debut disc from New York-based Dina Regine. None of that fancy Autotune nonsense – or synthesizers, for that matter – appear on Right On, Alright. Instead it’s an organic album with solid rocking rhythm section and beefy horn section. The disc’s winning opening track, “”Gotta Tell You,” was named one of Underground Garage‘s “coolest song(s) in the world,” but there are even better tunes elsewhere on the disc. The ominous “Can’t find You Anywhere” bears the hallmarks of a mature songwriter. Check this one out.

The Neighborhood Bullys – Callin’ All Rockers!
This five-song EP is the band’s second in a planned series of four releases, and features straight-ahead rock’n'roll tunes that all but compel the listener to follow along with fist-pumps, air guitar or air drums. Though they’ve worked with famed bubblegum/glam producer Mike Chapman before, the production aesthetic here doesn’t betray those origins. You’ve heard all of these riffs before – hundreds if not thousands of times – but this Los Angeles quartet makes every one of them sound fresh and new, and whets your appetite for the next EP release. Neat trick. I suspect they’re very good live, too.

Paul Kelly Presents the Merri Soul Sessions
Paul Kelly is rightly revered in Australia and beyond for his music. He writes and sings memorable tunes, and his catalog is deep, with twenty albums released between 1981 and the present. On his latest, he takes a radically different approach: while he wrote or co-wrote all of the album’s eleven songs (and play rhythm guitar), as a vocalist he’s nearly absent. Instead, vocal duties are variously handled by several singers (mostly women). The band assembled for this project, Merri Soul, has a very slinky Memphis vibe that is true to the classic Stax/Volt arrangement aesthetic without slavishly copying it.

BP Fallon – Live in Texas
I know my rock history pretty well, but even I didn’t know that BP Fallon was a recording artist. I’ve always known of him as a disc jockey and, well, personality. Apparently his career as a recording artists didn’t really commence until a 2009 collaboration with the ubiquitous Jack White. That track – “Fame #9” – kicks off this set. Fallon doesn’t play an instrument; guitar duties are ably handled by Joe “King” Carrasco. What Fallon does is recite is poetry/lyrics, occasionally breaking into a singsong that follows the music. It’s fascinating stuff, and the guitar fireworks add tone color.

More to come.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 3

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

I’m not complaining; it’s a good problem to have. But even after culling the ones I don’t like (and skipping the ones that impress me only mildly), I still end up with a massive pile of albums for review. And when said pile gets out of hand, I do a string of 100-word reviews. I’m right in the midst of that now; today’s collection features artists that fall more or less into the jazz category.

Nekozurashi – Ahostractions
This Osaka-based collective is led by composer/arranger/guitarist Koota Tanimura. The group’s sound distills a wide array of influences, including free jazz, big band, rock, hip-hop and more. Those who came to appreciate jazz form a rock-oriented point of view are likely to enjoy this disc, and will discern echoes of Grand Wazoo and Waka/Jawaka-era Frank Zappa. The tunes always swing, and sometimes swing for the fences. And there are even some ginchy pop songs (sung in Japanese) thrown in; those recall Absolutely Free-era Mothers crossed with, say, The Mops, and approached with a sensibility that recalls Le Sacre du Tympan.

Jason Miles and Ingrid Jensen – Kind of New
The album title is a play on Miles Davis‘ immortal Kind of Blue, but it’s not hubris for this team to reference the master; Jason Miles was Davis’ keyboard player for several years. This delightful disc features Ingrid Jensen on trumpet, and while the tracks occasionally evoke memories of Davis’ Jack Johnson period, the groove and melodies are rooted in a more accessible foundation. Mellow but never, ever falling into the tepid “smooth jazz” trap, Kind of New works equally as well as rewarding subject of active listening as it would for groovy background music for your next cocktail party.

The Aristocrats – Culture Clash Live!
Truth told, The Aristrocrats aren’t most people’s idea of jazz. But while the trio – shredding guitarist Guthrie Govan, monster bassist Bryan Bellar and drummer extraordinaire Marco Minnemann – rock out with the best of ‘em, they do in fact come from a jazz sensibility. Those who enjoy the pyrotechnics of a Steve Vai or a Joe Satriani definitely need to check out this group. There’s a bit of overlap between the tracks on the live CD and the live DVD in this package, but they’re different enough not to be redundant. Fun instrumentals include “Sweaty Knockers” and “Blues Fuckers.”

Jack DeJohnette – Made in Chicago
A giant in the jazz-rock fusion world, drummer DeJohnette was an early member of the venerated Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. This live disc finds him reuniting with old friends and musical associates including sax/flautist Henry Threadgill and ECM head Manfred Eichler (the latter mixed the recording). That said, this isn’t fusion; it leans in a much more improvisational/exploratory direction, with little in the way of rigid meter or conventional melody. Put another way, it’s the kind of thing that those who dislike jazz point to to support their view. Recommended for fans of the abstract and adventurous.

Chris Potter Underground Orchestra – Imaginary Cities
Another title from the venerated ECM label, Imaginary Cities often feels more like modern classical music (of a most accessible kind) rather than jazz proper. But as soon as one acclimates oneself to that style, the music shifts into some highly melodic movements that give the various players in this large ensemble their chance to shine. The expansive title track is a four-part suite that makes up the bulk of the disc, and it’s exceedingly effective at conveying a wide range of moods. Beautiful, contemplative stuff, Imaginary Cities is worth your undivided attention. A sublime triumph from start to finish.

More to come.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 2

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

My march through the CD backlog in my office continues today with quick (100-word) looks at five new albums. Though the artists themselves might not always welcome the classification, these are all what I consider powerpop (or guitar pop, if you prefer). Fans of the genre will recognize some of the names as exemplars of the genre; the artists you don’t know create music of a very high standard as well.

Lazy Lions – When Dreaming Lets You Down…
With a sound that suggests a more pop-flavored Smithereens (or an American Rockpile), this Brooklyn (NYC) quartet adds a few unexpected ingredients to the mix: female vocals (bassist Anne-Marie Stehn) and combo organ. Rather than playing full-on, the group favors a more finely textured approach that gives the songs room to breathe. The disc includes twelve memorable melodies, most of which feel familiar without overtly quoting anyone else. With a different vocalist (not that they need one, but one can imagine Jim Allen singing c&w), any of the songs would have fit nicely on the That Thing You Do! soundtrack.

The Rubinoos – 45
These guys are true believers in the power of pop. And the title of their latest album is a reminder that the Berkeley-based group has been at it for 45 years. In a just world, The Rubinoos would have made the big time; instead, they’re known primarily to powerpop fanatics. That’s a shame, because four and a half decades on, they’re crafting winning tunes as endearing as anything they’ve done before. Fantastic harmonies and a preternatural knack for creating wonderful earworms are hallmarks of the Rubinoos approach. There’s a warm, inviting vibe throughout this album; it’s polished without being slick.

The Grip Weeds – How I Won the War
Another group that has kept the powerpop fire burning, The Grip Weeds favor an approach that recalls The Who (Pete Townshend is often credited with coining the term powerpop) and The Kinks. Finally getting ’round to the most obvious of album titles, The Grip Weeds have another winner on their hands. With a perfect balance of creamy (and often intricate) vocal harmonies and heavy power chording, the New Jersey group’s latest shows that 27 years after their debut, they still have plenty to say musically. If anything, they’re getting better with age; when they want to, they rock quite hard.

Dwight Twilley – Always
Since the mid 1970s, this Tulsa, Oklahoma-born singer-guitarist has been plying his trade. Though his “I’m on Fire” is a stone classic of the genre, Twilley has rarely seen much in the way of commercial success. In 2015 he shows that his skill at crafting pop gems remains sharp. While he’s clearly the star of his own album, the list of musicians involved reads like a powerpop who’s who, with Cowsills and Posies, members of Let’s Active and 20/20 playing alongside Tommy Keene and Leland Sklar. In a clever bit of self-referencing, the title track quotes his famous 1976 single.

Various – Power Pop Planet Volume 4
Powerpop fans know the name Bruce Brodeen. Founder of legendary label NotLame, Brodeen was at the vanguard of the genre’s 1990s renaissance, right alongside Jordan Oakes and a select few others. While NotLame is long gone now, Brodeen remains active. This fourth in an ongoing series picks up the baton that Oakes launched with his own Yellow Pills compilation series. As always, your individual taste might mean you dislike a few of the 34 bands (and 34 songs) on this 2CD set, but most of it is excellent, upbeat pop that will remind you of everything you love about powerpop. [BUY]

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 1

Monday, May 4th, 2015

Once again, it’s time for me to review several handfuls of CDs. Today’s five all fall (more or less) into the progressive rock bag, and are decidedly European in sensibility. Here we go.

Metallic Taste of Blood – Doctoring the Dead
Perhaps the first thing you should know about this international collective is that it counts Australian bassist Colin Edwin as a member; he’s the eternally-bemused looking bassist from the still-on-hiatus Porcupine Tree. The other three musicians are from Italy, the USA, and Great Britain. This instrumental quartet crafts brooding yet melodic soundscapes. Very much on the accessible end of the progressive/art rock scale, Metallic Taste of Blood might be better severed by a less gothic moniker; don’t let the name (or the impossibly gruesome cover art) scare you off. The group’s music is super-heavy yet soaring and full of grandeur.

Obscured by Echoes – Avidonia Part 1: The Escape
Never let it be said that this space/psych unit doesn’t make their influences clear: with a band name that references works by Pink Floyd (those being the 1972 LP Obscured By Clouds and the epic “Echoes” from 1971′s Meddle). Based – like so many current psych bands – in Austin TX, the group aims for the multi-part suite approach favored in the early 70s. Their sound leans closer to Hawkwind than Pink Floyd, though, with a plodding (in a good way!) and menacing approach that leaves plenty of room for bone-crushing riffage, bloopy synth fills and the like. Excellent stuff.

Mollmaskin – Heartbreak in ((Stereo))
When the average 21st century rock fan thinks of Norway, the first subgenre that springs to mind is black metal. That particularly Scandinavian style is foreboding and – in its own way – evokes the bleak and endless night that is Winter. But Mollmaskin is actually a solo project featuring only Anders Bjermland, member of psychedelic outfit Flashback Caruso. The sound is closer to the softer, dreamy side of Dungen‘s best works. The impressionistic tunes are beautiful, and Bjermland sings variously in Norwegian and English. The sprawling 2CD set will thrill lovers of Mellotron, Fender Rhodes and yearning vocal harmonies.

Kaukasis – I
Heavier and more foreboding than the previously-mentioned disc, this Norwegian group featuring Rhys Marsh on vocals, very much in a Jim Morrison / Ian Astbury vibe. Which is to say that while it’s metal-leaning progressive rock, it’s very much song-based. Full of melodrama, the hypnotic songs approach symphonic prog in their scope and arrangement, and there’s a strong middle eastern flavor along the lines of Led Zeppelin‘s “Kashmir.” Fans of Steve Hackett-era Genesis will find a lot to like here as well. Theirs is a big sound, consider that the group is a trio. This is a disc worth settling into.

E Gone – All the Suns of the Earth
Another solo effort, E Gone is Sweden’s Daniel Westerlund. As at home with trip-hop and electronica as he is with psychedelic and garage styles, Westerlund crafts intricate, highly hooky songs that employ a kitchen sink approach. In the first two minutes you’ll hear sitar, bouzouki, banjo, sampled beats, and analog synth. Some pieces are songs, while others are ambient works. I’m behind the curve on this one, having been meaning to review it long ago; the follow-up (Where I’ve Been Is Places and What I’ve Seen Is Things) came out this week. This disc (available on vinyl) is highly recommended.

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