Archive for the ‘rawk’ Category

Ask Me Some Questions: The Graham Parker Interview, Part 2

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: In the new documentary film Don’t Ask Me Questions, you come off very authentically as a sensitive, soft-spoken individual. But back in the 80s, like many people, I think, I was convinced of your reputation as an angry, sort of perhaps even confrontational artist. How and why do you think that reputation developed?

Graham Parker: Well [laughs], there’s some brilliant stuff from Bruce Springsteen on that, about my material. He said that there was always this “caustic sound.” And that’s true. Because when I started, I’d had pretty much zero experience. I’d written these songs, and was totally green to the whole process. And I found myself instantly with a record deal. I had found the right people, like David Robinson, who managed me and then got all those great musicians behind me. And once that had happened, there was a record deal. Out of the blue, really.

So my style was already very aggressive. That just seemed to be the way I was writing and singing at that point in my life, in my early twenties leading up to 1975 when we started. I developed that style of singing, and I didn’t really know anything else.

It’s still there in my vocals, but it’s softened a lot. Because I enjoy actually singing now. I think it’s much more suitable for the kind of songs I write, and probably would have been more suitable in the first place. But there again, hindsight et cetera.

You can’t help but hear it: “This guy is really pissed off!” And [laughs] I did it on love songs as well. It was a style; I just wanted to be harder and louder and nastier. Remember, in that part of the 70s, there wasn’t any punk rock or any of that, and I wanted to sort of change what was going on. And somehow I found this extremely aggressive vocal style, and stuck to it.

So it’s understandable that people have that impression. And that’s okay.

BK: You’re know for your heartfelt lyrics; A Graham Parker song is never a simple moon-june love ditty. But many of those deeply heartfelt songs – especially from the period during which you worked with The Rumour – were written by a man in his 20s. When you sing those now, do the lyrics still resonate with you, or do you feel that since you’re singing the words of a man less than half your age that they sentiments are somehow alien or even naïve?

GP: Ah, that’s an interesting point. It doesn’t strike me that they’re out-of-date. It doesn’t strike me that way at all. Because obviously – with or without The Rumour – I do play those songs from my early-early career. There’s a few periods where I might be doing shows where I’m really concentrating on a newer period, but there’s always old ones. Especially from Howling Wind; they seem fairly universal to me.

There are some songs where I think, “Nah, I don’t really want to do that.” They’re not quite right; they don’t quite sit right for me, now. But for the most part, I don’t listen to them and think, “I don’t understand this.” I know what I was thinking. They all make sense. Some of them I wouldn’t write now, but there’s nothing alien to me there.

BK: There’s a belief among some that conflict, turmoil and distress are somehow essential ingredients for artists to create enduring works. And while I’d say that that “Mercury Poisoning” is one of my favorite of your tracks, I’m not sure I buy the argument that – if you’ll pardon the horrible metaphor – you have to have sand in the oyster to get the pearl. What do you think?

GP: “Mercury Poisoning,” for instance, is a joke. When an artist starts complaining about his record company in his songs, you should start worrying. It’s not a good sign; it’s a sign of running out of ideas.

My manager was much angrier than me, and he told me to write an entire album of hate-songs. That’s literally how it came about! I wrote one, and said, “I’ve said it all in this song, Dave. That’s enough. Okay?” So I stopped there, thankfully, and wrote [the songs for] Squeezing Out Sparks. A much better idea, really; let’s face it.

People never, ever seem to get it. But the first album had songs like “Between You and Me” on it. And “Gypsy Blood,” though that’s a song I don’t like now; it’s a sort of maudlin, romantic song. But they don’t remember that, and so they think that “Mercury Poisoning” sums it all up. “New York Shuffle” is another one. And that’s really a very, very small part of what I do. But again, I would even do a love song back in the 70s as if I were trying to hurt somebody. And it took a long time for me to temper that with some actual singing.

To be continued…

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Ask Me Some Questions: The Graham Parker Interview, Part 1

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

Once pegged as one of rock’s angry young men, these days Graham Parker is neither angry nor young. And while his profile these last few decades has been lower than in his commercial heyday (1976 to the mid 80s, and even then only a modest commercial success), Parker has continued to release a remarkably consistent string of albums that are true to the virtues he’s long championed. As he sang on his (best) album, 1979′s Squeezing Out Sparks, “Passion is No Ordinary Word.” But it’s a word that aptly sums up Parker and his music. As he told an NME interviewer in 1979, “All I want to do is send a shiver up people’s spines.”

Bursting on the scene in the late 70s, Parker thrilled critics but confounded the marketplace; was he a punk? Was he part of the then-nascent UK pub-rock scene? Was he part of rock’s heartfelt old guard (Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Phil Lynott)? Or was he – as the odd passerby still sometimes asks him – Gram Parsons?

A new documentary film, Don’t Ask Me Questions attempts to answer these and other burning questions. And it does so with the full and enthusiastic cooperation of Parker, who – surprisingly to those taken in by his angry persona – happily fields queries, reggaefied song titles be damned. Luckier still for me, he is happy to answer my questions as well.

Bill Kopp: When you were first approached about the film Don’t Ask Me Questions, what was you reaction? Were you skeptical? Suspicious? Enthusiastic?

Graham Parker: It was in the late 90s that I met them. I was doing a gig; I remember it specifically. It was something for the Long Island Brewing Company. I don’t know why I remember that, because there’s a lot of gaps in my memory! But that’s when (director/producer) Michael Gramaglia and his brother approached me. They had done the Ramones film, End of the Century. And I said, “Well, that’s a story: The Ramones.” It’s sort of Shakespearean, y’know. I said, “You won’t get much material from me. It’s boring, really.” But they didn’t really believe that.

It took a couple of years. I’d just put them off, really. I told them, “I just don’t think there’s the material there. I don’t think it’s worth it.” It would be a lot of trouble for something that would just be…a flop. I didn’t have any confidence in it.

In 2001, I had this short story book, Cod Fishing on Valium published. And I thought that was quite an exciting thing, that I’d got St. Martin’s Press behind it, and a literary agent who loved it. It was going very well, and then I did a little tour promoting the book, reading bits of it. And playing songs specifically written for the stories, which is a very gutsy, unusual sort of thing to do. I did about eight to ten gigs like that, mostly in the Northeast.

I called them up and said, “Why don’t you do a film about this?” And of course then I had opened the door. Once you open the door, all bets are off. So from then it just kept going. So every year, a few times, Michael might film a bit of me, come to a studio, do an interview. So now he’s got tons of footage of stuff that didn’t make it [into the finished film].

It just went on like that. That’s why it took so long. Filmmaking can take many, many years. And it was really finished…until I went and dropped the bomb. I’d done it: I’d re-formed The Rumour. And I was going to be in this Jud Apatow film [This is 40]. The documentary was finished; we’d already had a screening in New York. Three of The Rumour came, and we had all these [Kickstarter] donors. And suddenly I dumped this [reunion project which culminated in the release of 2011's Three Chords Good] on them, and so it wasn’t finished at all.

But then [Gramaglia] had the finish he wanted; he had always wanted something dramatic. And I had been telling him, “It’s not gonna happen.” I don’t work on plans; I work more on whims, really. But we got a more satisfying finish for the film.

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Preview: The Graham Parker Interview

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

I first discovered the music of Graham Parker in the early-early 80s, in the finale year of my high school career. This was before MTV; if I recall correctly – this was a looong time ago – I learned of him via his association with other British acts I enjoyed. People like Nick Lowe (who produced Parker’s Stick to Me album) and so forth. At the time, I didn’t know enough about pop music history to understand how Parker fit into the musical mosaic; later I’d appreciate this his music draws upon American soul and r&b as much as rock, and was part of the proud tradition of deeply personal and powerful singer/songwriters (see also: Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison and Thin Lizzy‘s Phil Lynott) but even then I had the feeling that he was well apart from the punk/new wave scene.

I grabbed up his albums whenever I found them; I even snagged a copy of The Pink Parker, the 1977 EP that contained Graham Parker and The Rumour‘s thrilling cover of The Trammps‘ “Hold Back the Night.” But once the vinyl era ended, I began to lose contact with Parker’s music. Live! Alone in America was the last Parker album (cassette, actually) I heard for many years.

Recently I discovered that he’s remained active, and that I well should have continued to pay attention. He reunited with his old band The Rumour in 2012 for a well-received album called Three Chords Good. And the fire still burns brightly for Parker and his mates.

The other big bit of news is the release – this week, in fact – of the long-gestating documentary film Don’t Ask Me Questions. It’s an incisive look at Parker and his music, from the beginning ’til now. Available on DVD and download, it’s a highly enjoyable and well-paced look at Parker, and of course the music is stellar.

I was even more thrilled to have scored an interview with Graham. I spoke to him last weekend, and am rush-releasing the resulting feature for release next week. In the meantime, I highly recommend Don’t Ask Me Questions. Keep an eye out for my Parker interview, right here, middle of next week (around April 16).

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Festival Review: Big Ears 2014, Day 3 (Part One)

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

Dean and Britta
I had already seen Dean Wareham and his wife/collaborator Britta Phillips on Day One of Big Ears 2014. But what was advertised for their Sunday performance – this time at the smaller Bijou – was intriguing enough to get my attention. The plan was to project thirteen of Andy Warhol‘s famous “screen test” films while the musicians provided a real-time soundtrack. I figured it would bear a passing similarity to Marc Ribot‘s accompaniment to the Chaplin film from Day Two.

I was wrong. While Ribot was shrouded in total darkness, leaving our auditory senses the only ones to process his real-time work, Dean and Britta (and band) played on a lit stage. They also provided commentary between the films.

The music was good, but there was a definite self-conscious air about it all. As each piece wound its way toward the end, Wareham could be seen intently studying a flat-panel monitor at the foot of the stage. This, I suspect, had the films on it plus a time clock. So while the songs had been rehearsed out to follow the rough run time of each film, Wareham had to signal the band to (in some cases) vamp an ending a bit longer or (other times) end sooner than planned. That’s all well and good, but seeing the wizards’ goings-on behind the curtain did indeed detract from the experience, making it seem a bit stiff.

Britta’s lead vocal turn on Bob Dylan‘s “I’ll Keep it With Mine” (accompanying a Nico screen test) was a highlight. And the sight of Lou Reed onscreen moved some in the audience to give said screen a standing-o.

One other slight off-note: when I saw Wareham on Friday, he made a comment during the second song to the effect of “There are a lot of photographers up here.” It was said with what I took to be equal parts discomfort and distaste. But I decided to forget about it. Until Sunday, when Wareham took the opportunity between songs to approach the front edge of the stage, lean down toward the front row, and scold a photographer (not me) for shining a light in his eyes. (They weren’t using a flash, and were shooting during the proscribed first three-songs period.) Now, Wareham wasn’t pulling a Cat Power, and nobody likes having a light shone in their eyes, but as I say, the episode added an unsettling feel to the show as a whole.

Rachel Grimes
The vibe could not have been more different when Rachel Grimes took the stage for her shortish yet delightful set. Initially it was just her and a grand piano, with highly melodic and expressive instrumental pieces. It was good enough that – had that been all we got – it would have been well worth the time spent.

But then it got better. Grimes, who was clearly thrilled to be onstage at Big Ears, refreshingly seeming as much a fan as a performer, introduced Helen Money (aka Chesley) on cello. We were thrilled, since Money’s earlier solo show was one we hadn’t been able to make. As she sawed expressively on her cello while Grimes played more of her lovely tunes, it was truly a thing of beauty.

And then it got better still. Sax player Jacob Duncan joined the two women onstage. And – shades of Rashaan Roland Kirk – he played two saxes at once. It was amazing from a technical point of view, but none of that would have mattered if the music wasn’t breathtaking. It was. As was the entire set.

Earth
We then headed over to the tiny Scruffy City Hall for what would be our only show at that venue. The standing-room-only crowd there was – at least in terms of my own Big Ears experience – an anomaly, but we didn’t mind, since we were going to see and hear a buzzworthy band.

About all I can say regarding Earth is that they’re the perfect band for anyone who thinks Black Sabbath plays too fast, or doesn’t drop-tune far enough. The low groan of Earth’s songs offered little in the way of melody or variation. And please understand that I say this as rock fan who’s been to hundreds of concerts, but it was fucking LOUD. And, honestly, pretty boring.

Amusingly, a look around the packed room found countless heads nodding slooowly in time to the music, like a flock of stoner dippy birds. They all reminded me of someone struggling to stay awake but nodding off anyway.

After several samey songs, they announced that the next piece would be “a new one.” We decided to stick around and give it a chance. The piece started off every bit as monotonously slow, uneventful and deafeningly loud as the others, but what we heard felt like an extended intro. So we waited, half-expecting at any moment after an endless droning squall of feedback to hear the drummer count off a quicker one-two-three-four and kick up the tempo.

It never happened. We left.

Coming in the next installment: review of a set of Steve Reich compositions that capped the three-day festival, and some closing thoughts on Big Ears 2014 overall.

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Festival Review: Big Ears 2014, Day 2 (Part 2)

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

After getting (respectively) a headache and a power nap, my sweetheart and I headed back to the Tennessee Theatre, remarking all the while how well-thought-out Big Ears 2014 is as a whole. The four primary venues all lay in a straight line in downtown, the farthest apart being no more than about six blocks. And while the lack of crowds might not have exactly been part of the game plan for the organizers, it sure made things nice for those of us who were attending. No lines, no jostling…just music and good vibes.

Wordless Music Orchestra
I wasn’t altogether sure what to expect from this outfit. The festival guide described it as performances of film music, mostly by Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead), and mostly from a handful of critically well-received films, There Will Be Blood and Norwegian Wood among them.

Greenwood himself wouldn’t figure into this particular performance (that would come on Sunday), and what concertgoers got instead was a smallish ensemble mostly made up of violinists (with some celli, some basses), seated in rows facing each other. The sight of a projection screen above the musicians led me to anticipate scenes from these films flashing by whilst the players ran through the scores, but that was not to be. Instead, the screen merely indicated the name of each piece, its composer, and the film from which it came (if it was a film piece; some weren’t).

Overall, it was a bit monochromatic. The musicians were all fine; excellent, probably. But the music was less varied than I might have hoped, and a good portion of it was melancholy, sometimes almost dreary. The Greenwood pieces were the best; some of the other pieces bordered on the unpleasant. As a way to spent an hour on a Saturday afternoon, it was worthwhile, but the excitement quotient was largely nonexistent.

Steve Reich’s Drumming
Another case of the putative marquee name not being part of the performance, this one was nonetheless a stunning showcase. Featuring a pair of ensembles called So Percussion and nief-norf Project, this concert was one nonstop piece of percussive music. The work started from nearly nothing – one person hitting some small tuned drums – and built to a climax. Then it ebbed, flowed, swelled and receded. Players were added. Players sat down. The music never stopped, and the audience was held in thrall.

Occasionally vocalists were added to the mix; while the piece was totally scored, it had an organic, seemingly improvised feel to it. The vocalists, for example, seemed to seek out the patterns and melodies as opposed to merely react to them. A recognizable pattern would emerge, and then as soon as a listener such as myself started to groove on it, it would disappear into the percussive maelstrom. I’d never seen nor heard anything like Drumming before (and no, the drum circles here in Asheville don’t compare), and felt honored and awed to be in the presence of such an amazing performance.

Television
It was quite a temporal shift, then, to remain in our seats when the next act came out. New wave / no wave/ punk heroes Television took the stage at the Tennessee Theatre. With three-fourths of the classic lineup – guitarist/vocalist Tom Verlaine, drummer Billy Ficca and bassist Fred Smith – the band was joined by longtime Verlaine associate Jimmy Rip (guitarist Richard Lloyd left the band amicably in 2007).

Television have long held an odd place in rock history; they’re often (rightly or wrongly) lumped in with the late 70s NYC scene that included The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads and the like. But with two stellar lead guitarists (there’s rarely any “rhythm guitar” in Television songs) the group came on more like the era’s answer to Thin Lizzy. Or something.

Guitar heroics without all the histrionics and posing: that was a big part of what made Television great then, and it’s what brought the house down this night. Rip is an ace player, and did a great job of both satisfying those who wanted to hear the songs done the way Lloyd woulda done ‘em and making sure that people knew he’s his own man with plenty to say in his own playing.

The songs were long, but never meandering; the guitar dialogue between Verlaine and Rip was electric, and Ficca and Smith provided a thrilling yet rock-solid foundation for the guitarists. The group even pulled out a new song that will hopefully show up on a new Television album…some day.

Stay tuned for more Big Ears 2014 coverage.

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Festival Review: Big Ears 2014, Day 1

Monday, March 31st, 2014

Dean Wareham
We arrived in Knoxville in plenty of time to grab front-row seats in the beautiful Tennessee Theatre. It certainly helped that attendance for Wareham’s set was light (the venue filled in pretty well as the performance got under way). A relatively low-key performance free of any sort of visual effects, Wareham’s set included songs form his new (and first) solo album, titled Dean Wareham (“I couldn’t think of anything else to call it,” he deadpanned).

The set also included some numbers from his Luna and Galaxie 500 days; the crowd helped the relatively uninformed among us (myself included) know when one of these was beginning by helpfully applauding a bar or two into the tunes. Wareham’s spouse and musical collaborator Britta Phillips held down a nimble bottom end on her p-bass, while the second lead guitarist added plenty of tone color via understated but highly effective lines on his SG, and some lovely slide work.

Wareham’s tunes hit the sweet spot between indie-rock and catchy, hooky pop, providing a surprisingly accessible opener for what I had assumed would be a rather avant garde festival.

Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog
That assumption was confirmed, however, with the second set we witnessed this evening. At the Bijou (conveniently located mere steps form the Tennessee Theatre; Big Ears is nothing if not an intelligently laid out festival), thanks in part to the later start time, a relatively larger (adjusted for venue size) crowd turned up.

In general, I often equate seated musicians with low energy, laconic performances (see: Grateful Dead, 1987). But Ribot and his band mates – drummer Ches Smith and Shahzad Ismaily on bass, percussion and electronics – put the lie to that assumption. Tearing through a set of mostly original material, the trio served up what will stand in my memory as one of the most musically unclassifiable performances I’ve ever witnessed. There was punk-skronk, avant-jazz, and even a sort of weird rethink of heavy 70s rock done in some bizarre time signature that would threaten to break the ankle of anyone who dared try to tap their foot along in time.

While Ribot’s original material was fascinating – especially his acerbic “Masters of the Internet” – for me the highlight was a heavily rearranged take of Dave Brubeck‘s “Take Five.” The basic structure of the tune was there, but the band headed off into myriad exploratory directions, making the chestnut truly their own.

Most assuredly not the easiest of listening, Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog brought together the experimental and accessible in a way that was at least intriguing, and at best thrilling.

Susanna
The Norwegian thrush is possessed of a crystalline voice and stately, regal manner. Seated at her grand piano on the dimly lit stage of the Tennessee Theatre, she delivered her icy-cool yet emotionally wrought songs with the subtle aid of a drummer who as often as not played mallets and provided splashes of percussive color rather than a beat) and a guitarist who was equal parts understatement and finesse.

Susanna’s songs conjured strong images in my imagination: cold, grey, desolate landscapes that are somehow beautiful in their own way…that kind of thing. Her songs about death and whatnot are designed to produce just such a reaction, I suspect. Early on in her set, Susanna explained to the crowd that “I am Susanna, and,” gesturing to her bandmates, “we are Susanna.” She further explained that she has released many albums in the last decade, under her own name and other guises as well, and that she has something of a reputation for doing unusual covers (reinterpretations is a better word) of other artists’ material.

She proved this last point by performing an elegaic rendering of Thin Lizzy‘s “Jailbreak.” Slowed to the breaking point, and punctuated with simple yet lovely piano melodic lines, she offered a wholly original concept of the hard rock classic.

More Big Ears 2014 coverage throughout the next several days.

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Album Review: Lisa Loeb — No Fairy Tale

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

Last weekend I was wandering about in an antique/ephemera mall that also housed a coffeehouse (this is Asheville; you routinely find such things here). There was an acoustic guitar singer-songwriter type of middling to good ability purveying his tunes to the assembled coffee drinkers. He wasn’t bad, but his original songs were a bit run-of-the-mill for my tastes, so I kept rifling through the piles of old Paul Revere and the Raiders LPs. Eventually he threw in a cover, and it was (for me, anyway) the best tune of the set. But his choice of, um, “oldie” was something totally unexpected. He ran through a credible reading of Oasis‘ “Chapagne Supernova” from their 1995 album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? It was a bit of sweet nostalgia for me, because I love that whole album. I still play it at least once a month.

And so I’m reminded that there was quite a lot of really good, tuneful music on the rock/alternative/whatever charts in the 90s. It was but a year before “Champage Supernova” that Lisa Loeb‘s “Stay (I Missed You)” ruled the airwaves. Thanks in no small part to its prominence as part of the Reality Bites soundtrack, the wistful tune – with a sweet melody and Loeb’s fetching voice – gave Loeb a #1 charting single before she had even inked a record deal.

I will admit I didn’t follow her career after that. But neither did I ever change the station when the song came on; had I listened to a lot of radio, I might have found the song overplayed. But as it was, I liked it, and still do.

Lisa Loeb is still busy recording and releasing albums. While her tenth album (2011′s Lisa Loeb’s Silly Silly Sing-Along) was made for kids, her most recent is most definitely aimed at an older market. No Fairy Tale was initially released in 2013, but of late it’s been getting a renewed marketing push, with vinyl copies (with different cover art, more of which presently) sent to reviewers who respond with interest.

No Fairy Tale is quite good, though not in the way that “Stay” was, or, I suspect (but cannot verify) in the way her kid-themed album was successful. The songs have, if you’ll pardon the dated reference, a sort of Riot Grrl vibe to them. Loeb (on vocals, electric and acoustic guitars) is ably supported by her co-producer Chad Gilbert on guitar, with Colin Strahm on drums plus a handful of other musicians on various tracks.

It’s worth noting, perhaps, that one of those other musicians is one Brad Wood, who also mixed No Fairy Tale. Wood is best known as a producer himself, and his best known production is Liz Phair‘s Exile in Guyville. He’s also worked the boards for Veruca Salt and The Bangles. So it’s safe to say he knows how to help female rockers get the sound they want.

None of which is intended to take away from Loeb’s talents. About half of the twelve tunes were written by Loeb herself, and most of the remainder are co-writes. The two songs she didn’t pen herself were composed by Tegan and Sara (Quin), credible female indie rockers themselves.

But it’s still Loeb’s show all the way. No Fairy Tale rocks far more often than it doesn’t. The opening title track kicks off with crunchy power chords worthy of The Who. The power trio of Loeb, Gilbert and Strahm charges through the song, and Loeb’s tightly arranged overdubbed vocals make “No Fairy Tale” a statement of grown-up purpose in a modern world.

Loeb doesn’t kid around: she’s got a riffy rocker called “The ’90s” that mentions videos, name checks MTV, and tells listeners, “You say you loved me then, but I don’t want to go back.” Her wry, acerbic wit and refreshing self-awareness are on full display as she sings, “So alternative, just like everybody else in the mainstream.”

Even when she runs through a more plaintive, contemplative number like “Weak Day,” Loeb delivers it in the manner of a rocker who’s dialing it down, rather than a folkie who finally gets to play with fewer of those nasty electric guitars. “Walls” is another appealing rocker with a soaring melody. For “A Hot Minute,” Loeb spits out the lyrics at top speed, right in line with the song’s urgent tone. She teases with the lyric, “I”m not asking for forever / I’m just asking for tonight,” but the remaining lyrics suggest that she knows the object of the song feels pretty much the same way, at best. In its own way, “A Hot Minute” (one of the Tegan and Sara tunes) is more forthright than anything on the supposedly nakedly confessional Exile in Guyville.

The shifting tempos of the folk-rocker “Sick, Sick, Sick” show that Loeb’s got a lot going on musically, but she couches it all in winning, tuneful and memorable songcraft.

Side Two kicks in with “Matches,” another chugging rocker that Cheap Trick wouldn’t be embarrassed to include on one of their albums. “Married” is a cautionary message to a friend (“He’s married / you don’t know what you’re doing”). “Swept Away” is a midetempo rocker with another strong melody, made even better by the overdubbed vocals and multiple-guitar leads that evoke not the 90s but the 70s.

“He Loved You So Much” is a sort of rock answer to the sort of song Loeb did nearly two decades ago with “Stay.” And on “”Ami, I’m Sorry,” Loeb does (briefly) return to her folkie singer-songwriter roots, with a song of heartbreak. Gilbert and Wood are on hand, but their contributions are nearly inaudible, and – it seems – not really needed. The album wraps with “The Worst,” a sort of campfire pop tune that offers words of encouragement (“Don’t worry; the worst is there to comfort you”). A lovely end to a lovely record.

The special repackaging of No Fairy Tale features a cartoon image of Loeb, who in actual photos looks a bit like a bespectacled cross between Jennifer Garner and Rachael Ray. And each of these special LP versions is personalized with Loeb’s autograph and brief message. Hey, if it’s a shameless marketing ploy, it’s done for a good reason: it got me to listen to a wonderful album by an artist whose name I knew, but whose catalog I did not. Fair enough. Lisa Loeb’s No Fairy Tale is highly recommended.

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Album Review: American Professionals — We Make It Our Business

Friday, March 21st, 2014

Opinions vary – they’re in fact quote polarized on the issue – but people seem to either love or hate powerpop. While at its worst, it’s weak and derivative, at its best, powerpop expresses a sort of exuberance that few other types of music can communicate.

When it’s insipid, it suffers from being what the British call twee: excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental. But when it goes the other way: muscular and oftentimes lyrically clever and even sarcastic – it’s a thrill. Cheap Trick is an exemplar of the latter, as are many of the tracks on Jordan OakesYellow Pills compilations (find ‘em if you can), most notably The Critics‘ “You Can’t Lie” on YP Volume 1.

Now, honestly, when We Make It Our Business arrived in my mail several weeks ago, I was fooled: I honestly thought it was a data CD from one of my clients (in my “spare time” I’m a marketing consultant and web designer). The oh-so-business logo and monochrome globe image, coupled with the track list disguised as sales-chart-graphic threw me. The band name: American Professionals (shortened to AMPROS on the digipak)…well, that offered few clues itself.

But when I popped the CD into the player, I realized the We Make It Our Business is that rarest of creatures: a fully-executed album, from start to finish. It’s a powerpop album – often a smart-alecky one – disguised as corporate marketing materials. If that makes some of my readers of a certain age think of Completion Backward Principle by The Tubes, well, we’re on the same page in our annual report.

The music is first-rate. Crunchy guitar riffage, thundering bass, and Adam White‘s assured, smash-n-crash drums all support the driving tunes. If there’s a formula at work here, it’s a solid one: strong lead vocals, tight, soaring harmonies on the choruses, and memorable hooks throughout. Guitarist Chuck Lindo‘s lead vocals remind me just a bit of Van Temple of The Producers, but the fact that AMPROS have a female bassist (Cheryl Hendrickson) with a great voice expands their vocal range manifold. The vocal harmony parts twist around each other like snakes on a caduceus. While there’s judiciously applied fret buzz and distortion, the songs are sleek and streamlined.

And when AMPROS briefly go melancholy and midtempo — as on the lovely “The Mist” — they’re every bit as wonderful.

Simply put, there are no weak tunes on We Make It Our Business. Contenders for best and/or representative might be “Dr Holly” or “Champion” or “The Way It Goes,” but if you like one, you’ll like ‘em all (which is most definitely not to imply that the songs are similar or run together).

We Make It Our Business is one of those albums that makes this listener hope that there’s a follow-up, and soon. Essential.

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Album Review: Various — The Del Shannon Tribute: Songwriter Vol. 1

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

The history of rock’n’roll is littered with artists who — for one reason or another – never quite got their due. Del Shannon is on that list. Best known as the man who gave the world the 1961 hit “Runaway,” he also achieved permanent trivia question-fodder status as the first American to cover a Beatles song on record, “From Me to You.” Shannon’s version actually hit the charts before the original did so.

Shannon enjoyed several hits (albeit mostly in the lower reaches of the charts) in the period 1961-67, and then faded from view for many years, due in large part to his alcoholism. Newly sober by the 80s, he enjoyed a brief return to prominence when the now-cult-status TV show Crime Story used “Runaway” as its theme song. Though he was mooted to replace Roy Orbison in the Traveling Wilburys, that never came to pass. A lifelong sufferer of depression, Shannon took his own life in 1990.

His influence has persisted, though, and a new tribute album (with the hopeful subtitle “Volume 1”) is titled The Del Shannon Tribute: Songwriter. As the title suggests, this sixteen-track CD focuses on Shannon’s original works. A who’s who of powerpop and established-indie acts participated in this nonprofit, with proceeds going to the Del Shannon Memorial Scholarship Fund in Coopersville MI, the town in which Shannon grew up.

Kelley Ryan’s reading of “Drop Down and Get Me” has a pop-country (in the best way) feel that’s reminiscent of Jackie DeShannon or Marti Jones (the latter of whom also has a cut on this set). Her arrangement completely removes anything that would peg the obscure song as having been written decades ago.

Randy Bachman’s version of “Runaway” wisely steers clear of the original arrangement; instead, it’s a breezy, acoustic flavored tune that sounds like a modern number as well. Son Tal Bachman (who did “She’s So High” in 1999 and then all but disappeared) assists. The tune has a toes-in-the sand, cocktail-in-hand vibe.

Pixies singer/guitarist Frank Black turns in a dark, moody interpretation of “Sister Isabelle.” Like most of the artists on this collection, he makes the song his own. It’s a testament to Shannon’s songwriting skills that these songs nearly all up sounding like originals; his song construction allows each artist to sculpt the songs to their own aesthetic.

While Marshall Crenshaw is an esteemed songwriter himself, he often records thoughtfully-chosen covers. “The House Where Nobody Lives” is catchy, with subtle flavorings of Vox organ. The result sounds not wholly unlike a laid-back version of “Runaway” (it shares a similar structure and chord pattern).

Dave Smalley will be familiar to powerpop fans thanks to his work with The Choir (“It’s Cold Outside”) and The Raspberries. But the country flavor with which he imbues “Restless” might come as a surprise. It sounds more like something The Eagles (or Against the Wind era Bob Seger) might do.

The aforementioned Marti Jones turn in a two-step countrified “You Still Live Here.” Her clear-as-a-bell voice shines through on this old-fashioned weeper.

Back in the 90s, Nash Kato was one-third of Chicago scenesters Urge Overkill (that band is back together, sources say). A feedback-drenched high lonesome reading of “Silver Birch” continues in the countrified style that pervades this record.

Carla Olson and Peter Case pick things up with the ebullient “Keep Searchin’,” with all of the energy – albeit in acoustic fashion – one finds on Plimsouls records. Yes, it’ll probably remind you of “Runaway,” but it’s great anyway.

The Brittanicas are an American/Australian act (yup, technology allow such things) that have been covered in this blog before. Guitarist Joe Algeri (working as The JAC)’s latest EP Love Dumb is well worth seeking out. Here they tackle I Got You,” a melancholy number that’s well suited to their jangling approach.

I first met my pal Patrick Potts at 2012’s Americana Music Fest, while together we enjoyed the tribute to a band we both love, Big Star. So it’s no surprise that Patrick’s band The Drysdales takes on a chiming, catchy number like “I Go To Pieces,” one of the strongest tracks on this entire disc. Listen for a brief yet tasty guitar solo, and lots of George Harrison-esque rhythm guitar work.

I’m totally unfamiliar with husband-and-wife duo StayStillPills, but this Irish band’s take on the riffy rocker “Move it on Over” (a cowrite with Dennis Coffey) is another contender for the album’s best cut. Note to self: find out more about this act.

Joe Glickman & the Zippity Doo Wop Band are equally unknown to me. Their yakety-sax version of “So Long Baby” is gimmicky and retro; they sound like a cross between They Might Be Giants and Sha Na Na. Tracks like this are why the “skip” button was invented. The track is redeemed – if only slightly – by the participation of Max Crook, Musitron player on the original “Runaway.”

Lovely electric 12-string adorns Richard Snow’s cover of “Over You.” Snow played and engineered every sound heard on the track.

The Rubinoos take a retro approach to “Hats Off To Larry,” but in their capable hands, the backward-looking approach works. The tune is a joyous, fun-filled couple of minutes, featuring the par excellence vocals of Jon Rubin, and a tasty horn section. And though it might seem a bit odd, the drum throne is ably filled on this track by Nick D’Virgilio, former drummer/lead singer for America’s best prog band, Spock’s Beard.

Overlord is the third totally-unknown-to-me act on this set. They turn in a gentle, Merseybeat flavored cover of Del Shannon’s “Kelly.” While everything about the tune is well done, it’s the vocal harmonies that truly excel.

Pop auteur Don Dixon wraps up the disc with “Distant Ghost.” The subtle, midtempo number ends the album on a suitably melancholy note.

The Del Shannon Tribute: Songwriter (Volume 1) is a belated sampler of the underappreciated songwriting talents of this American artist, as interpreted by an excellent collection of sympathetic acts influenced by him. Recommended.

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Album Review: Alice Cooper — Billion Dollar Babies

Monday, March 17th, 2014

On the occasion of its 2014 reissue on Hybrid SACD, Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies is due for a critical second-look. Originally released in 1973, Billion Dollar Babies was Cooper’s sixth LP, and the second-to-last to feature the original band. Though by the time of Babies, ace session guitarists Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner were already being enlisted to add their talents to the tracks.

By this point in the band’s career, they had achieved concert headlining status, and had a number of hit albums (Love it to Death and Killer in 1971, and School’s Out in 1972), and three Top 40 singles (“I’m Eighteen,” “School’s Out” and “Elected”) under their belts. Billion Dollar Babies would be their first number-one album (in both the USA and UK) and spawned three charting singles.

But it was as an album that Billion Dollar Babies achieved its greatest success. Not quite a concept album, the record does feature a sort of thematic unity. As ever, the songs explored outré subject matter and aimed to shock. How else to explain songs titled “Raped and Freezin’” and “I Love the Dead.”

With crystal-clear production by Bob Ezrin, Billion Dollar Babies makes complete the band’s move away from muddy, garage vibe of their days on Frank Zappa’s Straight label. With a production and arrangement aesthetic that positioned each of the record’s ten cuts as an anthem of sorts, the group perfected the balance of grimy scuzz-rock and gleaming, streamlined commerciality.

The Hunter-Wagner twin guitar attack makes its grand appearance in the album’s opener, “Hello Hooray,” a template for Cooper-the-man’s stage show. The theatrical bent that was central to the live show was successfully conveyed in this track. And while I haven’t done an A/B comparision between this SACD version and my old vinyl, Cooper’s (Furnier’s) voice seems to stand out a bit clearer in the sonic spectrum on the new release. There’s a definite tophat-and-tails overblown vibe to the track, but that’s certainly by design.

Its prurient title aside, “Raped and Freezin’” is a top-notch rock and roller, one that sounds like the group, something that can’t really be said of the opener. One supposes that since it’s the singer/narrator who ends up raped and freezin’, it’s okay. No matter: it’s a winner, and the stylistic left turn that it takes near the end (sort of a piss-take on Santana, perhaps) adds to its interest.

“Elected” is the album’s first breakout track. Cooper’s voice is still deep in the murk; the guitars are mixed much more forward than the vocal. But the thrilling chord progression that makes up the song’s chorus is stunning. And while the marching-band style horn arrangement no doubt came as a surprise to listeners on initial hearing, it pushes the song into classic status; nothing else the band did before or since sounds like “Elected.” The track may well have influenced The Tubes’ “White Punks on Dope” from just a year later, right down to the spoken outro.

The title track features another killer riff, and another left-field production choice: the addition of vocals by – of all people — Donovan. Hard rock with neck-snapping guitar duels was the order of the day in ’73 (see also: Thin Lizzy) and this cut is an exemplar.

“Unfinished Sweet” is the lengthiest cut on Billion Dollar Babies. Cooper’s singing is about as good as it gets, and the arrangement is quite interesting – there’s a spy-movie soundtrack include that quotes “James Bond Theme” — but somehow the whole track doesn’t hold together. Though the spy bit sounds great, it has nothing conceptually to do with the song’s slight lyric. And when the track devolves into a squawking interlude, one can’t help but think that it probably worked better live: it sounds like the soundtrack for some or other wordless onstage antics.

Billion Dollar Babies hits its high point on what was the vinyl LP’s opening side-two cut, “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” A near-perfect combination of memorable riffs, a singalong chorus and the band’s smart-alecky stance, it sounds as fresh in 2014 as it must have back in 1973. The track’s backing vocals are a key to its success, but every detail is in just the right place.

With “Generation Landslide,” the band aims for a T. Rex vibe, and takes a more musically subtle approach than anywhere else on the album. The track features shimmering acoustic guitar as well as delightfully busy, nimble and lyrical drum work from Neal Smith. Cooper emotes over the top of all that, and while he does a creditable job, the vocals are the least interesting component of “Generation Landslide.” The harmonica solo suggests what it might have been like to be sitting around a prairie campfire with the band. (Okay, not really.) Some tasteful vibroslap and an nice extended guitar solo make a good song even better.

“Sick Things” hasn’t worn well in the ensuing years since its release. Again, it probably worked exceptionally well onstage, with Alice running ‘round with snakes and guillotines and whatnot. And the arrangement ideas – specifically the turgid pace of the song — might have been filed away in producer Ezrin’s memory for use six years later when he worked on Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Ezrin got a co-credit on the tune.

The brief “Mary-Ann” is another piss-take, this time aimed squarely to shock and discomfit the band’s detractors who found their decadence (real and/or imagined) too much to take. The mock love song’s kicker (“I thought you were my man”) sits in stark contrast to the swirling music-hall piano arrangement.

That elegiac piano forms the basis of “I Love the Dead,” in which the Coop speaks a good portion of the lyric. The melody is punctuated by stinging guitar lines. Ezrin’s hand in the song is obvious; it’s more theater than music, and when Cooper finally does sing, it’s in a faux-scat dialogue with the lead guitar. Eventually the song hits its stride for a few measure, and then it breaks into a big production extravaganza, complete with a singalong feel to the title lyric. And then it’s all over.

It’s little more than my belated speculation, of course, but I’m left to wonder if the band wasn’t too enamored of the Wagnerian (sic) aesthetic that permeates a good half of the album, preferring instead to rock out a bit harder. That might help explain the more stripped-down approach taken on the next album, Muscle of Love. But that album and its (in relative terms, at least) commercial failure would be the last gasp for Alice Cooper the band; subsequent releases would feature Alice Cooper the man, and a new team built around Hunter and Wagner.

The 2014 SACD release features no bonus tracks, but it does include a booklet that reproduces all of the album’s original artwork and lyric sheets, as well as the one-billion-dollar note that came with the original LP. The SACD discs are released in numbered editions for those who care about such things; mine’s #1086.

You may also enjoy my review of three other Alice Cooper albums: Special Forces, Zipper Catches Skin, and Dada.

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