Archive for the ‘rawk’ Category

Ask Me Some Questions: The Graham Parker Interview, Part 4

Monday, April 21st, 2014

Continued from Part Three

Bill Kopp: As much as I love your songwriting, two of my favorite tunes of yours have always been “Hold Back the Night” and “I Want You Back,” both soul/r&b covers. How did you discover that sort of music when you were young, and – since it has clearly influenced your style – what do you think it was and is about that kind of music that connected with you on an emotional level?

Graham Parker: None of that was a stretch in England in the 70s. After The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, there was a sort of subculture of soul, ska and Motown. And a sort of mod look, but more like skinheads. We looked like skinheads, but without the violence. Well [chuckles], sometimes, but not always.

And the culture was going to the clubs and listening to that music. Even going to see The Skatalites in the suburbs of England! I saw them, for goodness’ sake, in a provincial town, a nowheresville. These people would tour ’round here. [In the 60s] Otis Redding would play at a big scene about five miles from me. I was probably about fourteen [circa 1964-5]. Maybe sixteen. And in those days, we knew about things by seeing posters. And if you didn’t go out in a car that week, you wouldn’t see a poster. And you’d miss Otis Redding, playing down the road!

It wasn’t a stretch for us to be into that kind of music. It was a semi-underground thing; the charts were still much more pop music. But it was really something that got into my blood at that age. And then you get out of that and into the psychedelic era, then the blues era – Peter Green and Chicken Shack – I went through all that and forgot about soul music.

By the time I got to my early 20s, I might hear “I Want you Back” on the radio. And I realized, “That’s never gonna die.” Whereas a lot of this progressive rock, it’s dead in the water, y’know? So my entire attitude changed once again. I rediscovered that music, and I suddenly had a plan, as it were, or a direction to reinstate soul music into the culture. But to do it in an English way, of course. Like the Rolling Stones had done blues in an English way. And the Beatles did “Please Mr. Postman” and stuff like that.

BK: It’s part of the proud tradition of British artists serving up American music to Americans, filtering it though a British sensibility.

GP: Right. There was really nothing original about what I was doing. I was just doing it in my way, and it sounded like me. And it was extremely aggressive. We were also doing “You Can’t Hurry Love.” It’s on the [1976] Live at Marble Arch record, I think. Which at the time, 1976-76, was radical. The audience would see us doing that, and they would think we were doing bad pop music. They didn’t understand, because it wasn’t progressive, and there weren’t big lead guitar solos. But we took soul music and beefed it up into hard rock’n'roll style. But as I say, it wasn’t any more original than what The Beatles or Stones or Chris Farlowe were doing.

I was writing songs that were very soul influenced, but with more intellectual lyrics. But it wasn’t slavish, like the Alabama Shakes, which is basically a very good slavish copy. I wasn’t doing that, ever.

BK: A good bit of the film focuses on the events leading up to and including the making of Three Chords Good. What abut the experience of making that record was the same as the old days, and what was different?

GP: It was much different because we didn’t have a producer. It was me and my engineer/co-producer Dave Cook, saying, “We’re doing it. No way are we looking for some outside producer; it’s not going to happen.” And the band went along with it. Everybody in the studio was very glad of that. We know what we’re doing now; all that mystique about a great producer, that’s gone. It’s rubbish. What you need is an engineer who knows what he’s doing. And I had the experience to know what my songs are about. You don’t need someone walking in who’s heard them twice and thinks they know what they are! They never did; it was really getting in the way.

It was better. Everyone could relax and come up with their own ideas. And nobody had to listen to another guy who they’d barely met. Because [producers] always want to put their ten cents in. They’re being paid to do that.

BK: All the upcoming dates listed on your site are in the UK or western Europe. Do you have any plans to tour the states, or is that even feasible?

GP: Because we did it twice – and we did all of my markets in the States, and let’s face it: I have a limited amount of markets – there are only so many markets that make it feasible for a six-piece band and crew to come through without going broke.

It just seemed to happen. We did four dates in England; Shepherd’s Bush was sold out months in advance. To a certain extent, the response was even better than in America. In America, we’d just fill out a 1000-seat venue in New York for the last few dates. In England, we’d fill out a 2000-seater months in advance. So basically, I go where I’m in demand. And as soon as my agent saw that – him and the promoter – they went out thick as thieves and said, “Let’s do some more!” And I kind of got bowled along with it. Now we’ve got all this stuff lined up, including Europe, and I don’t really know how much I want to do this all year’ round. And – to talk in hard terms – I don’t think I can strain my market. And to tour America again that soon with The Rumour, I think that this year is out as far as the U.S. Is concerned. I’ve got other markets, like Scandinavia and Spain, that I have not toured in a long time. They want me to go other there solo, or any way possible. But how much life there is in this dog, I don’t know. I really take it bit by bit.

BK: Two Chords Good was released more than a year and a half ago. And while the bootleg box set is a recent release, what are your plans as far as recording releases for the future?

GP: Well, the lot of us are meeting in London, and we’re doing a record in about a week’s time. How about that? [chuckles]

BK: Fantastic!

GP: You may be the first to know that.

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Ask Me Some Questions: The Graham Parker Interview, Part 3

Friday, April 18th, 2014

Continued from Part Two

Bill Kopp: As the new Ask Me No Questions documentary points out, you parted ways with The Rumour after The Up Escalator (1980), but with the exception of Another Grey Area (1982), you pretty much continued to work with guitarist Brinsley Schwarz on many of your recordings. What was it about him that led you to keep using him but not the other guys in The Rumour?

Graham Parker: I’ve never really been able to answer that questions, really. Actually it was him and Andrew [Bodnar] on the bass as well. They continued on quite a lot of stuff. If you think of The Mona Lisa’s Sister [1988] – which was quite a radical record for me, production-wise – I had gotten fed up with all these 80s-sounding producers, and wanted something with as few instruments as possible. I had never really done that, and I pulled off something quite different, I think. Brinsley and Andrew were part of that, and they were on the road with me. So we did quite a lot together.

But I don’t really know the answer; it just seemed to fall into place without me thinking about it. Brinsley is a foil for me; he can take off the rough edges a bit. Martin [Belmont], as a guitarist, is sort of rough-edged. He’s a brilliant guitarist, and he actually played some incredible guitar on Howling Wind. That’s a lot of him playing the lead on songs like “Don’t Ask Me Questions.” Much more than people think. But he’s got that incredible intensity: Martin cannot lay back. Brinsley adds a dimension that real counts against what I do. So it seemed normal and natural to me; I don’t know how it happened, but I just started talking to Brinsley, and I said,”I want you to help me with The Mona Lisa’s Sister.” He was also on Steady Nerves [1985].

Also, some of the guitarists I was finding myself working with via producers like Jack Douglas on Another Grey Area, I didn’t think they were quite right for me. I didn’t think they had enough individuality in their playing; Brinsley has great individuality. So he has both of those things: a style that can smooth of some of my edges, making a very nice balance, and also individuality as a player. But it’s only now looking back and analyzing it that I can see why I did it.

BK: You mentioned about the 80s sound on some of the records. For me, the only one that really has what I’d consider “dated” production is the one that has “Break Them Down” on it…

GP: Steady Nerves, yeah. That was around the time I was saying, “Oh, I should be my own producer.” But I didn’t really have the guts to do it completely. So I got this guy Bill Whitman, who had engineered the She’s So Unusual album by Cyndi Lauper. And if you think of the sound of that, it personifies the 80s. Not that it wasn’t good; it was very good. He had done that record, and he was in that mode. There was no shaking him out of that. And I went along with it, because it was what you did then. You made an absolutely enormous drum sound, and all the instrument had a load of reverb on them. Everything was drenched in that sound. And that one’s definitely a culprit.

And that’s why I went radically against it with The Mona Lisa’s Sister. I really wanted to do the opposite. Although, if you listen to “Start a Fire” now, you could very well say, “That sounds very 80s.” The difference is, there’s one acoustic guitar doing the rhythm on a sort of disco beat song. Which is sort of unusual; that song is on a lot of alternative [compilation] records. But on that record, I stopped at four instruments: “We’re not gonna double the guitars.” That’s what you did on 80s records; if I played a rhythm guitar on Steady Nerves, the producer would say, “Double it.” So then you’d play what you did again, and they’d copy it. Because it made everything “bigger.” But in hindsight, it made everything smaller, in a strange kind of way. It squashed it with lots of treatment, lots of reverb. And that kind of production really canceled out the rock’n'roll element. It did so very effectively. And we were all guilty of that. We were searching for a bigger sound, but what we were getting was a louder sound. So it was very good to make The Mona Lisa’s Sister, and even better to make Struck by Lightning [1991]. By then, everything was much more grassroots again. There are a couple of tracks on that one that are overdone with production, but mostly, it’s back to the roots.

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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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