Archive for the ‘rawk’ Category

Hundred-word Reviews: January 2015, Part 4

Thursday, January 29th, 2015

There’s a never-ending stream of new music, so it’s time once again for some hundred-worders to work off some of my backlog. As always, these all deserve full reviews, but with limited time and resources, 100 words will have to do. I’ll cut to the chase. Today I look at five new releases form indie (i.e. not on a big label) artists.


Jason Sadites – Tales
The prog community is rife with all sorts of cross-fertilization, collaboration and creativity. Guitarist Jason Sadites is well plugged into this scene; his list of collaborators on his previous four releases reads like a who’s who of progressive rock. On Tales, he’s joined by the ubiquitous Marco Minnemann (drums) and bassist Ric Fierabracci. The eight accessible instrumental tracks on Tales have enough melodicism to hold the interest of a general audience, while the players execute enough musical twist and turns to keep prog fans’ attention. The album’s excellent mix makes the listener feel as if s/he is in the studio.


Arrica Rose & the …’s – Wavefunction
Gently rocking, catchy indie rock is the order of the day here. Rose’s smoky, alluring and slightly breathy voice is mixed out front, with the band sometimes sounding as if they’re in the next room. Rose and producer Daniel Garcia are confident enough of her pipes to keep the production free form effects on her vocals. Rose is up-front about the importance of song sequencing; the tracks on Wavefunction are arranged around two different moods. The later tracks are more subdued and contemplative, but Rose’s voice is the glue holding everything together. “Love You Like That” is the standout track.


Abbie Barrett & the Last Date – The Triples
In 2011, I made an exception and reviewed a three-song EP by Barrett; the tunes were strong enough – and showed enough promise – to warrant the coverage. Her preferred format continued after that, but this disc offers nine tracks, half of which are new. The promise suggested on the earlier EPs is delivered upon here. Fans of New Pornographers – at least ones who enjoy the more rocking end of their oeuvre – should check this one out. And those who missed the earlier discs will find their highlights collected here. You can expect more good things from Barrett.


David Bierman Overdrive – Standard Skies
On Standard Skies, the former Junk Monkey guitarist presents an indie-rock perspective on classic melodic midwestern rock. Catchy, near-singalong melodies are placed into straightforward arrangements that feel warm and intimate. When Bierman plays it up close and personal (“Clock”), he’s effective, but when he rocks out (“Superhuman”), that feels every bit as authentic. Subtle shades of Gin Blossoms are given added weight by the Cheap Trick-like energy of Bierman’s band; the word “Overdrive” is part of their name for good reason. Every tune has a strong hook, and that’s no small feat. Apparently live gigs by the group are rare.


Anton Vezuv – Into the Sea
In 2012, I was turned onto the wonderful guitar pop of Budapest-based The Poster Boy. I had always assumed that there would be good music coming out of the former Eastern bloc, but most of it would never reach the ears of most westerners. So I was pleased when one of The Poster Boy’s members referred me to Anton Vezuv. (That’s a band name, not a person.) Leader Istvan Gyulai sings in English, and is pointedly credited for the band’s “sad songs.” I’d suggest the words wistful and melancholy instead: wonderfully textured songs in classic tradition with a rainy-day vibe.

Still more capsule reviews to come.

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Hundred-word Reviews: January 2015, Part 2

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

There’s a never-ending stream of new music, so it’s time once again for some hundred-worders to work off some of my backlog. As always, these all deserve full reviews, but with limited time and resources, 100 words will have to do. I’ll cut to the chase. Today’s five all feature guitarists, but the styles vary widely.


Udi Levy – A Sudden Transition
A Sudden Transition is melody-forward power trio excursion in the manner of such shredders as Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson. Equal parts technical finesse and dogged determination to keep the melodic quotient high result in a winning album from guitarist Levy. Here he’s joined only by bass and drum, and that’s enough. Occasionally he veers a bit too close to his heroes – the tasty original “The Fast Lane” sounds like an Satriani tune (circa Surfing With the Alien) you just haven’t heard before – but Levy’s chops are undeniable. Fans of Jeff Beck and Steve Vai will enjoy this.


Steve Hunter – Tone Poems Live
For me, Steve Hunter will always be treasured as the guy who – with Dick Wagner – gave us the transcendent live “Intro” to Lou Reed‘s Rock’n'Roll Animal live album. These days he’s in more restrained blues rocker mode. Hunter is backed here by some of the best in the business, including Tony Levin. The album was cut live in the studio, and filmed for a DVD (available separately). Nine sturdy originals sit nicely aside covers of Peter Gabriel (“Solsbury Hill”) and Steve Ray Vaughan (“Riviera Paradise”). Tone Poems Live is a solid collection of flawlessly executed instrumentals with heart.


The Vibrators – Punk Mania: Back to the Roots
One thing about the genuine, authentic punk ethos is that it never, ever relies on nostalgia or looking backward. And that makes a “return to the roots” project by a punk group a bit problematic, perhaps even a bit suspect. The Vibratorslast album collected collaborations with a bunch of their pals; this latest disc attempts to recapture the fore if the band’s early days. The thing is, Punk Mania! is reasonably successful on that score. From the politically incorrect opener (“Retard”) right through the bonus tracks (including a cover of Flamin’ Groovies‘ “Slow Death,” the band still rocks out.


Carl Verheyen – Mustang Run
One can’t ( and shouldn’t) begrudge a musician – or his publicist – for flogging his credits in the press kit; how you got this far is a relevant subject. But the fact that Carl Verheyen had three long-term stints with Supertramp has zero to do sonically with the music on Mustang Run. His work has certainly given him an impressive Rolodex: the album includes instrumental support from Greg Bissonette, Simon Phillips, Chad Wackerman and Bill Evans (the sax player, not the dead jazz pianist). What you’ll find here is Steely Dan-ish instrumental stuff: lots of precision, not much fire.


Marty Walsh – The Total Plan
Here’s another guitarist whose music doesn’t sound like his pedigree. In this case, it’s pop-jazz guitarist Marty Walsh, who was involved with Supertramp (them again!) in the post-hits period. Walsh’s many guests get solo showcases, but it’s still the guitarist’s show all down the line. The Total Plan features more uptempo and rocking tunes than one night expect, and Walsh’s songwriting chops (he wrote or co-wrote all ten cuts) is undeniably impressive. The melodies – mostly but not exclusively in the form of guitar licks – stay in the listener’s head after the songs end. This one’s worth seeking out.

Yet more capsule reviews to come.

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Hundred-word Reviews: January 2015, Part 2

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015

There’s a never-ending stream of new music, so it’s time once again for some hundred-worders to work off some of my backlog. As always, these all deserve full reviews, but with limited time and resources, 100 words will have to do. I’ll cut to the chase. Today it’s a wide assortment of music, from rock to jazz to Americana.


Keith Emerson & Greg Lake – Live From Manticore Hall
It would seem that the days of Emerson, Lake and Palmer are gone forever; other than their one-off reunion several years ago, they’ve all moved on to other things. That said, one of those other things was a 2010 concert series featuring the keyboardist and the guitarist/vocalist. This CD documents that dinner-theatre styled tour; there’s no Manticore Hall; this show was recorded in Connecticut. Toned-down readings – with less synthesizer than you’d expect – of the many classics from the ELP catalog are showcased here, and a lovely version of “I Talk to the Wind” recalls Lake’s King Crimson days.


The Satisfactors – The Satisfactors
This quartet plays rock’n'roll of the old-fashioned variety: power chords, shouted and swaggering vocals, songs about women, and so forth. Fans of stripped-down yet clever songwriting – think of The Romantics, Smithereens and the like – will appreciate the back-to-basics approach of The Satisfactors. An arena-rock feel is applied to songs that recall 70s punk, New York variety. Rolling Stones and Mott the Hoople sensibility shines through on tunes like the self-explanatory “I Love Girls.” Something about these guys reminds me of Donnie Iris (“Ah! Leah!”) but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Either way, it’s fun stuff.


Dylan Howe – Subterranean: New Designs on Bowie’s Berlin
Using music from one of David Bowie‘s most fascinating periods – his Berlin years which borne “Heroes,” Low and Lodger – seems like an intriguing approach for a new album. But presenting those songs – most of which are quite static and impressionistic, owing to Brian Eno‘s involvement – in a jazz idiom is downright odd. But that’s the idiosyncratic concept at work on this album from drummer Dylan Howe. The drummer’s dad (a certain Steve Howe) guests on one track, but not on guitar. My advice is to ignore the Bowie connection and instead enjoy the arrangements for what they are.


The Psycho Sisters – Up On the Chair, Beatrice
Near-lifelong friends Susan Cowsill (The Cowsills, Continental Drifters) and Vicki Peterson (Bangles, Continental Drifters) have worked together extensively, but Up On the Chair, Beatrice is the first collaborative album from the duo. Not rock a la Bangles (save for “Numb”), and not especially Americana-leaning as were Continental Drifters, the music here resembles a baroque, pop-centric rethink of The Roches. Quite varied in texture, the album is full of delights. “Never Never Boys” is reminiscent of the criminally-overlooked Cowsills album, Global, though it has a more countrified feel. Think of The Psycho Sisters as a sort of distaff Holsapple and Stamey.


The Apache Relay – The Apache Relay
The sweeping, majestic strings that open “Katie Queen of Tennessee” will pull you in, right from the get-go; there’s a depth of emotionality that’s conveyed by the string arrangement, a sort of modern Phil Spector wall of sound that adds dimension to the otherwise Americana styling of this Nashville band. If they never did anything beyond that opening track, they’d be noteworthy. But their self-titled debut is filled with goodies that combine the modern folkie-ness of Fleet Foxes with the studio-as-instrument aesthetic of SMiLE-era Brian Wilson. They’ll play Asheville February 28; look for more about them closer to that date.

More capsule reviews to come.

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Hoo-Ever Land: A Chat with Jamie Hoover, Part 2

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015

Continued from Part One

What I didn’t realize at the time is that the setback of rotator cuff surgery and recovery wouldn’t keep Jamie Hoover from creating new music and new recordings. “I thought, ‘Well, I’m not gonna be able able to play guitar for while,’” Hoover recalls. “So I got interested in the idea of trying to sing the parts.” Thus began the process of a vocals-only project. Initially, Hoover had in mind another Jamie and Steve EP. “I talked with Steve [Stoeckel] about it, and he wasn’t really into doing a whole record like that. And you’ve got to really be into something like this to be able to do it.” So Hoover began work on what would become Jamie Two Ever. (In the end, only a portion of the disc is vocal-only tracks.)

“I wanted to make a point of not using drum machines on it,” he says. “I played buckets and pots and pans instead. So it has that sound to it.” Despite the inclusion of a track titled “Honest Work,” Jamie Two Ever is very much unlike Todd Rundgren‘s A Cappella, a 1985 album that – on paper, at least – seems like pretty much the same sort of musical excursion as the original idea for Jamie Two Ever. “I’m a big Todd fan,” Hoover says. “I make no bones about that. And I’m very familiar with that record. But I didn’t want to do what he did, which was basically sampling [vocals] on an Emulator.” Rather than treating his vocals through a sampler, on Jamie Two Ever‘s vocal tracks, it’s mostly Hoover’s natural voice.

Despite the grab-bag approach to songs on the album – some vocals-only, some with instruments, most solo, one with Steve Stoeckel guesting – Jamie Two Ever holds together as a cohesive whole, and provides a good sampler of the Jamie Hoover signature sound. The guiding principle when making the recordings was simple, Hoover laughs. “I just wanted to please myself. If I get it to where I’m happy with it, then the narcissism comes out, and I’m ready to say, ‘Hey! Look at this!’” And since the disc wasn’t made with the idea of creating an album, it has more of a collection-of-singles feel. “I always think in terms of, what sounds like a single? And then it’s a matter of sequencing those songs so they flow together.”

The digital and physical (CD) versions of Jamie Hoover’s new album differ significantly: the CD includes nearly twice as many tracks (fifteen total). “The difference is simply financial,” Hoover states. In days gone by, a record label would handle the distribution of composer royalties for songs “covered” on an artist’s album; today, the onus sits squarely on the recording artist himself. As far as the songwriters getting paid, Hoover has no qualms with that. “It’s the right thing to do, of course.” But the current arrangement exerts significant front-end financial pressures on the recording artists. “I did that for my [2004] Jamie Hoo-Ever album, and it cost me an additional $800. That – for an individual doing an independent release – is really expensive.” So the digital version includes only Hoover originals, leaving off his vocals-only reading of The Beatles‘ “Misery” and a truly weird all-minor-chords reinvention of Rubber Soul‘s “I’m Looking Through You.”

“I decided to make it a kind of marketing thing: only the 300 physical copies would include those other songs. If you want those, you have to buy the CD.” He laughs and adds, “Shameless promotion.”

Meanwhile, Hoover is still on the mend following his recent surgeries. Another Jamie and Steve EP is in the works. “We [The Spongetones] did some unannounced gigs not long ago. And I’m still producing, working on a lot of projects. And I can play. But my arms still hurt like hell. I can’t do push-ups or anything like that, but I can play. I’ll play until I’m tired.” He chuckles, “I think I could still do a four-hour gig, but at the end I’d feel like I’d been thrown off a truck.”

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Hoo-Ever Land: A Chat with Jamie Hoover, Part 1

Monday, January 19th, 2015

For the last thirty-plus years or so, Jamie Hoover has been known as a highly regarded producer, musical collaborator, and member of the Spongetones. I first noticed his production credit on 1983′s Emotional Geography, an excellent (if obscure) album from Charleston SC’s Killer Whales, a Police-like trio who frequented the Atlanta clubs I haunted in those days. He went on to produce albums for Robert Crenshaw (Marshall’s brother), Bob Lind and (quite recently) up-and-comers Porch 40. Hoover’s collaborative projects first caught my notice with his credits on mid-80s albums from Don Dixon and Marti Jones. And in the 1990s, Hoover released a pair of albums with Bryan Shumate; the duo dubbed themselves The Van DeLecki’s. And all along the way, Hoover released solo material, first as scattered tracks on compilations, and then via solo albums.

But despite those impressive lists of credits, it has been as a member (and a primary songwriter) in The Spongetones that Hoover gained the most recognition. Beginning with 1982′s Beat Music, Hoover crafted songs in the tradition of pre-Sgt. Pepper Beatles. As the group progressed, they widened their musical scope, keeping the Beatlesque characteristics that established them, while adding songs to their catalog that displayed the wealth of less-derivative riches they were quite capable of producing.

The Spongetones wound down as a recording entity around the time of the release of Scrambled Eggs; while that 2009 album ranks among the finest in the band’s catalog, diminishing commercial returns convinced the quartet that future albums weren’t practical (they continue as a performing group). “Spongetones albums have always been a labor of love for me,” says Hoover. “They also take an incredible amount of time. If I’m going to make an album that has my name on it anywhere, I’m going to take the time it needs.” But after 2008′s Too Clever by Half and then Scrambled Eggs, the time and effort required didn’t make sense. “I didn’t feel like anybody really wanted [another Spongetones album].” But to Hoover, working alone or as part of a smaller unit did make sense: “I can make stuff in an afternoon that sounds like a record,” Hoover points out.

With that in mind, Hoover and his bandmate Steve Stoeckel (the group’s other most prolific songwriter) launched a new career as Jamie and Steve. To date the duo have released an album (English Afterthoughts) and three EPs. The Jamie and Steve project is a logical extension of the musicians’ Spongetones work: it features their original-minded songs plus other compositions that cast a wider stylistic net for their influences. As impressive as The Spongetones were/are, it seems that casting off the yoke of that brand has allowed Stoeckel and Hoover to assert their individuality (and collaborative identity) more effectively. EPs are now the duo’s preferred format: “I think that’s about the attention span of listeners nowadays,” chuckles Hoover.

I was in touch with Stoeckel in mid 2014, discussing the possibility of hiring The Spongetones to play at my wedding reception in September. Discussions didn’t get very far at all before a piece of news scuttled the idea: Jamie Hoover was due for rotator cuff surgery on both shoulders – two separate surgeries, months apart – and as a result, he would be out of commission as a player/performer for several months.

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Album Review: Son of Kraut: The Next Generation of Krautrock

Friday, January 16th, 2015

Though it might seem otherwise to the casual observer, the term krautrock is neither pejorative nor disparaging. In its classic sense, the label refers to improvisationally-based rock with spare musical foundation. As the word suggests (in an undeniably gauche manner), the form originated in Germany.

When one thinks of krautrock, the first bands that often come to mind are Can, Tangerine Dream, and Kraftwerk (the latter’s hypnotic, album-length “Autobahn” is an exemplar of the genre).

The style reached its apex in the 1970s; today when one sees or hears the term, it’s nearly always I nthe context of music form the past. But – depending on how the term is understood – the krautrock label can be applied to modern-day music. Especially if a strictly literal interpretation is used (in other words, German rock), all manner of musical artists fit under the umbrella.

Certainly garage/psych revival bands like The Roaring 420s don’t fit into this discussion. Nor, of course, do some fantastic American expat artists who have made Berlin their base of operations (Anton Barbeau, The Fuzztones, and Brian Jonestown Massacre‘s Anton Newcombe, to name but three). But a number of interesting artists do fit the bill, and while they’re made barely a ripple on the musical consciousness of American listeners, collectively they’ve created a body of work that bears further investigation.

But how to do so? One could start by reading Krautrocksampler, the 1995 book by the genre’s most prominent champion, Julian Cope. But there are two problems with that idea: first off, the book is now twenty years old, so it can’t address, y’know, current acts. More problematic is the going rate for the long out-of-print title: currently upwards of $230 for a used copy on Amazon.

With that option off the table (PDF scans of Cope’s book do circulate online, and as of summer 2014 there’s “talk” of reissuing it), we turn instead to a compilation CD. The German label Sireena released a fine overview of “classic” krautrock not long ago: Live Kraut: Live Rock Explosions from the Heyday of Krautrock! focused on what one might call the first wave of the genre. Band names like Grobschnitt, Guru Guru and Jane will be wholly unfamiliar to American audiences, but for the most part, their music isn’t so out-there as to be unintelligible to American ears. (The same can’t be said for some of krautrock’s more adventurous acts: Kraan and Birth Control are pretty freaky; I have a few vinyl albums by each, and hope to find more later this year when I visit Germany.)

Happily, Sireena has filled this niche by releasing another compilation, Son of Kraut: The Next Generation of Krautrock (never let it be said that the Germans don’t spell it right out for you in their titles). Once again, here is a disc (with twelve tracks) filled with artists who are virtually unknown in the USA. RPWL might be familiar to those who regularly visit this blog; I’ve both reviewed their music and interviewed the group’s Yogi Lang. RPWL are featured on this set with “World Through My Eyes,” the title track off their 2005 album. It’s fine enough, but doesn’t show the group at their best, and isn’t truly representative of the band’s oft-displayed appealing characteristics.

The other eleven tracks are a varied lot. Some do explicitly build on the motorik textures of older krautrock: Ear Tranceport‘s “Lock In (Namby Pamby)” has that chugging, mechanical beat applied to a melody that’s largely driven by acoustic guitar. And the one-chord “Stranded” from Space Debris will delight fans of Pink Floyd‘s Ummagumma, as it meanders purposefully though similar sonic territory over the course of its nearly ten minutes.

Sankt Otten‘s vaguely sinister instrumental “Nach Dir Die Sinnseflut” will remind listeners of Tangerine Dream at their soundtrackiest. Electric Moon deliver a deeply textured vibe on “Madrigal Meridian,” sounding like a Teutonic (and at times, more tuneful) Nine Inch Nails. One man band Level Pi engages in some evocative krautrock that features some straightforward rock guitar riffage; it too wouldn’t be out of place in a film soundtrack.

The Perc Meets the Hidden Gentleman is a wholly different affair. Seemingly taking its sonic inspiration from former Berlin resident David Bowie, “The Moon of Both Sides” is perhaps the track on Son of Kraut most likely to connect with the casual listener. The brooding, dreamy “I Can’t Walk My Floor” by Tarwater is cut from similar cloth as the music of Austin’s Black Angels.

“Psysomsyl” from Electric Orange features seven minutes’ workout on a single chord; the track grows in intensity, not unlike some of Glenn Branca‘s work, or classic-period Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Things take a decidedly more tuneful direction with “On Stranger Tides” from Fantasyy Factoryy. The hand drumming and repetitve electric guitar riff suggest a campfire version of Pink Floyd, as does the track’s Roger Waters-like vocal.

The intriguing instrumental “”O.M.E.N.” from Le Mur initially heads back into the psych revival region, but some treated saxophone riffage suggest what Black Sabbath might sound like with some added brass instrumentation.

Son of Kraut wraps up with some prog-metal, a genre heretofore unexplored on the set. Both the band name (Panzerballet) and the song title (“Vulgar Display of Sauerkraut”) provide hints as to where this Teutonic Metallica are headed. Some tenor sax will throw metalhead for a loop, but otherwise, the genre’s hallmarks – blindingly fast guitar licks, thundering rhythm semitone – are all here. Overall, it’s a bit jarring in the context of Son of Kraut‘s mostly moody atmosphere, but it gets better as it goes along.

The poster-styled liner notes (in both German and a chuckle-eliciting English translation) provide enough information to help those wishing to investigate the bands further. For listeners interested in a sampler that is both adventurous and not music not a million musical miles away form their comfort zone, Son of Kraut is recommended. It’s a safe bet that you’ll find something you enjoy in this album field with unfamiliar names.

N.B.: There’s an additional title in this series, a disc called Jazzkruat: Teutonal Jazz Rock Excursions. It features the aforementioned Kraan and Volker Kriegel; I will do my best to score a copy and review it here when I can.

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Book Review: British Invasion

Monday, January 12th, 2015

I’ve read countless books about The Beatles, about their fellow British Invasion (aka Beat Era) acts, and about the sixties from both musical and socio-cultural points of view. To say that the overall topic interests me is grand understatement. So I was intrigued when I learned of a new book called British Invasion: The Crosscurrents of Musical Influence. Having some familiarity with other works from the book’s publish (Rowman & Littlefield), I suspected that British Invasion wouldn’t be a pop-culture, general readership tome; no, I fully expected it to lean in a more scholarly direction. And that would be fine by me.

Author Simon Philo is a British citizen who – as he relates in the book’s introduction – first traveled to the USA many years ago. That inaugural visit lit a fire within him to better understand the ways in which British music of the 1960s influenced American music and culture. What an interesting idea, I thought: many books have looked through the lens from the opposite end, charting how The Beatles (and others) were influenced by such things as (a) the film The Girl Can’t Help It, (b) Bill Haley’s UK tour, and (c) records brought to Britain by merchant seamen landing at Liverpool docks (though this last one has been – if not debunked – shown to have happened much less often than many music chroniclers have claimed/guessed).

But considering how the music of The Beatles and other British groups influenced American music at the time (as opposed to in the grand scheme of things) is a topic that hasn’t been done to death. So Philo’s book is welcome. In the earliest chapters – truth be told, the best, most insightful ones among the book’s 150-plus pages – Philo outlines British pop music history, and he does so in a manner that places skiffle and trad jazz (the two biggest pre-rock musical sensations in postwar England) in their proper context. Philo displays a deep understanding of these forms and how they fit into the big picture.

As the story progresses, British Invasion focuses more than one might expect upon The Beatles. Yes, they were the biggest (and I’d say best) among the British musical exports of the era, but the bands that followed in their wake get perfunctory discussion in the book. Philo does a commendable job of outlining the American cultural scene into which The Beatles sprang in early 1964, debunking a few myths of his own (namely, that the country was in a deep depression post-JFK, and that The Beatles single-handedly rescued American consciousness from that malaise). But immediately after making a good case for his viewpoint, he writes (though in far more eloquent terms than I’m paraphrasing), “well, but yeah, they kinda did cheer things up.”

From there, Philo’s analysis is astute, and he makes all manner of useful connections. Still, he all but breaks down every single Beatles album, exploring its cross-cultural effects, and spends little time on the works of any other artists (save The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan). Granted, since the Beatles had the lion’s share of the hits, they do deserve full discussion. But the work of other groups (The Animals, for example) is perhaps deserving of a more thorough and nuanced analysis than it gets here.

Where British Invasion seems to falter is in its last third: while Philo is very careful to include citations for many of his quotes (and conclusions stated previously by others), toward the end of the book, he makes some serious mistakes. The author discusses (at some length) the genesis of the Byrds song “Eight Miles High,” and while he gets many of the details right, he cites Roger (Jim) McGuinn‘s fear of flying as the source from which his (McGuinn’s) lyric came. The thing is, it was Gene Clark who was uncomfortable in airplanes, and the song featured his lyrics (with help from David Crosby). McGuinn was responsible for the music.

And so on. In the most offhand manner, Philo unquestioningly repeats the long-discredited urban legend that mass murderer Charles Manson auditioned for The Monkees in 1965 (Manson was a guest of the United States Federal Prison System in the years 1961-67). And he seems to think that Abbey Road was met with roundly thumbs-down reviews upon its release (that sounds more like Let it Be). All that said, it’s only because of Philo’s overall careful and thorough approach to his subject that these lazy mistakes are so glaring.

That final third of British Invasion is actually the part in which Philo’s keen observations are the most significant. He discusses the “Britishness” of the Monterey Pop Festival; touches on the (discussed-ad infinitum) contrast between the Woodstock and Altamont festivals, and then breezily discusses the relationship between UK and American music from the mid 1970s onward. But he then jumps back to his own personal story circa 1981, neatly stepping over punk and new wave.

As scholarly works go, British Invasion is good on the merits (Philo strives to make as many original points as he possibly can, and nearly always hits the mark), but it falls down on the details (perhaps a looming deadline resulted in some glossing over of easily fact-checked errors). As a general audience reader, it’s a bit heady, lacking in any firsthand reportage (seemingly all musician quotes are sourced from the works of other writers) and occasionally getting pretty far into the academic weeds. But there’s enough straightforward analysis to make the required few hours spent with British Invasion most rewarding.

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Album Review: Jellyfish — Bellybutton and Spilt Milk

Friday, January 9th, 2015

Nineteen-ninety was a curious year in rock music. The top hitmaking artists of the year included Madonna, Mariah Carey, Phil Collins, Michael Bolton, Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson. If you liked rock music and wanted to find it in the mass-consumption media (in other words, on radio), your choices were largely limited to Jon Bon Jovi, Heart, Billy Idol, or (shudder) Poison. (The so-called grunge rock of Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam was still a few years away.)

There wasn’t a whole lot going on in high-profile rock that suggested the form was anything besides moribund. For more compelling rock-based music, one had to turn to an emerging format called “new rock” or “alternative rock.” (For the purposes of this discussion, I’m conveniently forgetting about non-commercial college radio – which counted for a lot of what I enjoyed in those days – because it wasn’t as widespread).

Alternative rock stations such as the one in my then-hometown of Atlanta set their sights on what one might call “guitar pop.” Melodic, rock based music was in, and synthesizer-based pop confections were out. Out, too, were the “dinosaurs” of rock who had (supposedly) been left behind in the wake of punk and new wave; one wouldn’t likely hear Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Dire Straits or any number of classic acts on alternative rock playlists.

In the same manner as early MTV did almost exactly a decade earlier, this new format paved the way for some very good artists to get their music heard by the masses. Those rock fans who dug “classic rock” and perhaps new wave were often left cold by the glam-metal antics of Poison, and perhaps a bit bored by Genesis drummer/lead singer Phil Collins‘ turn toward adult MOR balladeering. But the music found on these alternative rock stations often hit the sweet spot for those listeners, programming as it did new music from younger artists whose musical sensibilities were rooted in a similar mindset to the rock acts of the past.

What this meant in practical terms is that artists like Michael Penn (1992′s “Seen the Doctor”), Matthew Sweet (1991′s “I’ve Been Waiting”), Greenberry Woods (1994′s “Trampoline”) and even Bob Mould‘s harder-edged Sugar (1992′s “If I Can’t Change Your Mind”) all broke into the mainstream. Arguably, none of these acts would have enjoyed mainstream success on the level they did without the rise of alternative rock radio.

Into this mix came Jellyfish. And for rock fans like myself, it was a huge breath of fresh air. Jellyfish’s original music drew upon the highly complex arrangements aesthetic of 1970s bands such as Supertramp, Queen, 10CC, Paul McCartney and Wings, and the like. Their visual appeal drew upon glam rock, but rather than the androgynous, faux-sexy approach favored by (shudder) Poison, Jellyfish’s visual aesthetic was filtered through a playful, Sid & Marty Kroft kind of sensibility. In short, Jellyfish were fun.

And the music was fun, too. Hardcore Jellyfish fans (see: this writer) have long been divided on which of the group’s two albums is the superior effort, but for those who dig the style, both Bellybutton (1990) and 1993′s Spilt Milk are crammed to the brim with ear-candy gems.

The band split amidst internal dissent not long after the release of Spilt Milk, and that was it. After a long silent period, additional Jellyfish material turned up on Fan Club, a 4CD set that was expensive to begin with. Issued on the now-defunct NotLame label, it was pressed in rather limited quantities, and soon went out of print. Today, used copies fetch hundreds of dollars. Fan Club served up a buffet of demos, outtakes and live tracks that – besides tripling the amount of officially-available Jellyfish music – showed that the collective musical artistic vision of Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning and their band mates burst forth fully formed.

While there are differences between the demo- and official versions of Jellyfish songs, the demos show that the subtle ideas and flourishes were there from the start; it took only a bigger recording budget and the expertise of producers Albhy Galuten and Jack Joseph Puig to present the ideas in a shinier, commercially-digestible format.

Now in the 21st century, the long-gone Jellyfish are fondly remembered. To my knowledge, there’s never once been any serious talk of the band reuniting, but a steady flow of additional Jellyfish material has found its way to the marketplace, thanks to the efforts of Omnivore Recordings. A live-for-radio set (Radio Jellyfish ) and instrumental mixes of both albums (Stack-a-Tracks ) have been released in the last few years. But (likely owing to the expense involved and the limited commercial appeal) there hasn’t been a reissue of that Fan Club box set.

What Omnivore has done instead is to comb through the eighty(!) tracks on Fan Club, collect the ones relevant to Bellybutton and Spilt Milk, and then create new reissues of each of those two albums, appending the original discs (now remastered) with bonus material that fills the first disc of each to capacity, and a second disc as well.

The contextual placement of live and demo versions of tunes such as “The King is Half Undressed” makes sonic sense for listeners, and it makes for a better listen overall than the solely odds-and-sods Fan Club. The well-known versions of the songs remain the definitive versions, though: it’s hard to top the chiming, upbeat arrangement and production of “Baby’s Coming Back.”

Live and onstage, Jellyfish were – as the live tracks illustrate – a much better band than one might expect. With (at least on the first album) the guitar skills of Jason Falkner, they managed the nigh-on-impossible feat of presenting Just Like the Record versions of complicated arrangements. And that’s no small feat if your lead singer’s the drummer (just ask Phil Collins. Or Chester Thompson).

Bellybutton is the more musically straightforward of the two original albums; it is, I’m told, the favorite of most listeners expressing a preference. I give the nod to Spilt Milk, an even richer tapestry of ideas woven into a seamless whole. Though perhaps my favorite individual tracks are on the first (specifically ‘Baby’s Coming Back” and “That is Why”), Spilt Milk stands up better as a start-to-finish album. Appended with bonus tracks that – among other things – tip the band’s hands as to their influences, both albums benefit from the added context.

As essential for the Jellyfish fan as Fan Club is (or was), these new expanded versions of Bellybutton and Spilt Milk earn the right to be termed definitive.

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“Go Now” and Then: The Ray Thomas Interview, Part 2

Thursday, January 8th, 2015

Continued from Part One

Back in 1965, the original lineup of The Moody Blues did seem poised for bigger things: that year they played the prestigious and televised NME Poll Winners Concert, along with The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Animals, and Kinks. Those – and sessions for Thank Your Lucky Stars and Ready Steady Go aren’t on this set, either, but the second disc does include more than a dozen tracks cut for Saturday Club and other BBC radio programs.

In the original lineup, Ray Thomas shared lead vocal duties with Denny Laine; he would continue that role – though sharing with more vocalists – in the later lineup. While his flute is a feature of some early Moodies tracks (notably “I’ve Got a Dream”), it became a centerpiece of the later lineup’s style. In the original lineup, Thomas’ role could have been described as “singer who also plays flute,” and in the later lineup, “musician who plays many instruments – flute, piccolo, oboe, French horn, harmonica, etc. – and also sings.” Surprisingly, Thomas is a wholly self-taught musician. “I’ve never had a music lesson in me life,” he says. “And I don’t read music; it’s all done by ear.”

Those flute parts were difficult to hear onstage in those days. “All the sound was literally coming from the stage,” Thomas recalls. “That’s what finished The Beatles playing live. Paul [McCartney] said to me, ‘It’s useless. All we hear is “Yester-” and then the rest is all screams.’” Thomas relates an anecdote from the tour when the Moody Blues opened for The Beatles, the latter’s final UK tour. “’Watch this,’ John [Lennon] told me. The band was introduced, went onstage and started playing. And John played a completely different song! And nobody could hear anything!”

Thomas continues, “I was actually one of the first people to use foldback [also known as monitor speakers] onstage. I couldn’t hear myself play, and with flute you’ve got to be pretty precise with your embouchure. So I asked [live sound engineer] Gene Clair if he could put a speaker in front of me. And he did, and it worked. And then everybody started doing it!”

The era of composing in the studio largely began with The Beatles. But even for The Moody Blues, a rare spare moment in the studio might be used to compose songs. “I used to write songs in the broom cupboard,” chuckles Thomas. “There was a glockenspiel in there. I used to take a scotch and Coke in there – and maybe a little substance, y’know – and play on this glockenspiel and write my songs.”

Some time 1967, after the string of hit singles faded, the group seemed at a dead end. “Clint [Warwick]‘s wife didn’t want him going on the road,” Thomas recalls, “so he went back to the family business in Birmingham. And Denny fancied his chances at going solo.” But since they were already moving (albeit subtly) in the musical direction that would flower on Days of Future Passed, they recruited new members, and kept the band name.

“I’ve known John [Lodge] since I was fourteen,” Thomas says. “I was fifteen. We worked in a band together in Birmingham.” Both had day jobs as apprentice toolmakers. “I wanted to go professional [playing music], and my dad said to me exactly what John’s dad said to him: ‘Finish your apprenticeship, because you might not score in this musical venture. And if you don’t, you’ve always got a trade to fall back on.’ Sound advice.” But since Lodge was younger than Thomas, he still had a year to go. So we got Clint in The Moody Blues instead. But from starting that band, things took off quickly. And a year later, we couldn’t very well say to Clint, ‘See ya, mate.’ Because he had put in a lot of hard work.” But when Warwick left of his own accord, Lodge was in the following day. Thomas’ friend Eric Burdon provided a list of guitarists who had answered a blind ad searching for a guitarist/vocalist for Burdon’s new Animals, and that led to them finding Justin Hayward.

Thomas retired from The Moody Blues and live performance in 2002. As far as the original band, Thomas says that a reunion is out of the question: “Clint [Warwick] died [in 2004] and Denny is over in the States. And Mike Pinder had decided much earlier on [the late 70s] that he didn’t want to go back on the road.” The Moodies’ other founding member Graeme Edge remains in the current touring Moody Blues lineup with Hayward and Lodge.

These days, Thomas lives in England with his wife. In October 2014, he announced via his website raythomas.me that he is being treated for prostate cancer, adding, “the cancer is being held in remission, but I”ll be receiving this treatment for the rest of my life…I urge all males to get tested NOW.”

But Thomas isn’t finished with music. “I have recently worked with John,” he reveals. Lodge has been working on a solo album, his first since 1977. “He’d written a song for his grandson, John Henry. He came over to my pad and asked me, would I go in the studio and put flute on it. And I said, “Sure!”

“This story goes on,” Thomas tells me. “Mike [Pinder] hadn’t spoken to John in years. But the night John got home from the session with me, his phone rang. It was Mike! ‘I hear you’ve been in the studio,’ Mike said. John said, ‘Right…?’ ‘Can I put the strings on the track?’” Lodge gladly accepted the offer. Pinder went into his home studio with his son (and fellow recording musician) Michael Lee Pinder, and cut his Mellotron parts in a single day. So for the first time since 1978, Lodge, Pinder and Ray Thomas will be together on a newly recorded track.

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“Go Now” and Then: The Ray Thomas Interview, Part 1

Wednesday, January 7th, 2015

The Moody Blues made their most indelible mark on pop music with the landmark LP Days of Future Passed. That concept album was one of the earliest successful combinations of light-classical music and rock. Though it was released in 1967 – the fertile period that also gave the world Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – the album-proper didn’t make its mark on American charts until 1972. (They did hit the US singles chart a number of times, however.) And by that time, the band’s pre-Days music had largely been forgotten (if was ever known at all). The earliest music made by The Moody Blues features a significantly different lineup of musicians, and – at least initially – a sound almost completely removed from the approach used on Days of Future Passed and subsequent albums.

The original Moody Blues featured Denny Laine – later of Wings with Paul McCartney – on lead vocals and guitar, as well as bassist Clint Warwick. The other three members – drummer Graeme Edge, keyboardist Mike Pinder (with Laine, the band’s chief songwriter at this stage), and vocalist/flautist Ray Thomas – would stay on to become the foundation of the more well-known lineup featuring Justin Hayward and John Lodge. The early Moodies sound was built around readings of American rhythm and blues and Merseybeat-flavored tracks; they were for the most part a cover band. As the group progressed, they began writing original material that established a more focused identity, but it was songs such as a cover of Bessie Banks‘ “Go Now” that established the group. They were rewarded for such tunes with spots on the British music charts: “Go Now” reached number one in Britain.

The original group’s sole album The Magnificent Moodies has been reissued and repackaged countless times in the the ensuing nearly-fifty years. In the US the album was reordered and released as Go Now: The Moodies #1, though – like The Magnificent Moodies – it did not chart. Subsequent reissues added various non-album tracks from the era – the group was essentially a singles band – but none of the releases could truly be called comprehensive.

That has changed now, with the new release of The Magnificent Moodies that includes everything the group cut in those pre-Days of Future Passed years, plus a collection of radio broadcast material. Fifty-odd tracks document the period in full. Showing a band in transition from beat group to tunes that tip the group’s hand, the music gives subtle hints of the direction they’d follow soon after Laine’s departure.

Of course 1965 was a long time ago, so perhaps it should come as little surprise that when I ask Ray Thomas the story behind there being two versions of “Go Now” on the new box set – the well-known version plus a slower take with softer piano part – he responds, “I haven’t got a clue.”

“I can imagine,” he continues, “we were just trying things out in the studio. Some of these tracks that have been dug up, I can’t remember ever recording! Denny might remember.”

Taken together, the bonus tracks on the first disc alone of  The Magnificent Moodies box set add up to enough material for a whole additional album. The material is strong, and is weighted more toward originals than the album-proper. “We were really busy – either playing or recording – in those days,” says Thomas. “We were doing a lot of cover versions: James Brown, Tim Hardin stuff.” Thomas doesn’t remember cutting some of the material that ended up on the box set, most notably the songs cut in 1966 with producer Denny Cordell. “I was just doing an interview with another guy in the States, and he was going on about [our cover of] ‘Hang Onto a Dream’ by Tim Hardin. I was absolutely knocked out! The vocal backing on that particular track, I thought, were great. I’m blowing me own trumpet here, but I thought, ‘That’s mighty good.’” Thomas also doesn’t remember cutting “The 23rd Psalm” another bonus track (from 1964) included on the box set.

“When we got an eight-track machine in the studio, we were gobsmacked: ‘Look at all this!’” Thomas laughs. “But these were all four tracks. If you had to do any four-to-two to make room for overdubs, it was all razorblades and sellotape. Derek Varnals [producer] was amazing. We’d all sit around and watch while he took one note out. Now, you just press a button.”

“In those days,” Thomas recalls, “We’d do three tracks in two hours. Decca had so many A&R [artists and repertoire] people in those days, for classical, Mantovani-type stuff right through. They had three studios in West Hampstead, London, and they were always booked full. To get studio time was bloody impossible.” So the groups had best be prepared when they got their time in the studio. When the Moody Blues got their turn at the mic, “We used to play live, near enough,” says Thomas. “You had to have ‘em all rehearsed up.”

Thomas hopes that this latest – and greatly expanded – version of The Magnificent Moodies will be considered the definitive release of that period of Moody Blues music. “The only thing that I’m a bit pissed off about,” Thomas says, “is that we did a hell of a lot of work on television in France. We were very popular earlier on in France. We did shows with Johnny Hallyday, Josephine Baker. When Cherry Red were putting together this box set, we got in touch with the French version of the BBC; they have reams and reams of these old rock shows. We said, ‘Can we have some of this to put on our box set?’ And they said, “Yes, you can, but this is how much we want.’ It just wasn’t worth it; they wanted so much money.”

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