Archive for the ‘rawk’ Category

Hundred Word Reviews for August 2014, Part 4

Thursday, August 14th, 2014

This set of five 100-word reviews focuses on new music, some of which is from familiar names; others might be new to you. All are worthwhile and enthusiastically recommended.


Murali Coryell – Restless Mind
This son of legendary fusion guitarist Larry Coryell is charting a musical path quite different from his dad: he plays tasty blues with a clear melodic rock sensibility and a well-developed playful sense of humor (see the Sammy Hagar-ish “Sex Maniac”). Fans of Robert Cray and Eric Johnson will dig this well-produced (but not slick) album. Not as fiery as Steve Ray Vaughan, this guitarist prefers the slow burn. The disc features a nice cover of Marvin Gaye‘s “Let’s Get it On.” Bonus points to Coryell for titling his album with a sly reference to one of his pop’s records.


Worldline – Compass Sky
Compass Sky is the kind of music they rarely make any more. Worldline creates alluring melodies with that hint of melancholy you might find in a Pink Floyd record (or a Porcupine Tree CD). Brian Turner‘s synth lines don’t aim to dazzle as much as they help carry the song along, and Andrew Schatzberg‘s strong vocals bear the influence of most any great band of the 70s you can think of, but they’re more classic (in a good way) than retro. The record’s strong start to finish. They’re from my hometown (Asheville) but sadly I’ve yet to see them live.


The Verve Pipe – Overboard
I can almost hear you thinking, “weren’t these guys a 90s band?” Yes: they scored a few chart singles in the second half of that decade, but haven’t charted since 2001. As is too often the case, the music is better than the chart performance suggests. While the album artwork is derivative (Storm Thorgerson? Bill EvansUndercurrent?), the music is fresh. Only leader/producer/songwriter Brian Vander Ark remains from the 1990s lineup. Their breezy, heartland-styled rock is vaguely reminiscent of fellow midwesterners Semisonic; the melancholy “Crash Landing” is nearly anthemic in its arrangement, but there’s lots of varied texture throughout. Recommended.


Global Noize – Sly Reimagined: The Music of Sly and The Family Stone
Sylvester Stewart didn’t fare too well on his most recent comeback/self-tribute, but there’s no denying the strength of his 1967-73 material. This aggregation, put together by producer/keyboardist Jason Miles, shows the enduring power of Stone’s songs, interpreted here for modern audiences by a long list of players. The marquee names here are Family Stone drummer Greg Errico (on four cuts), Nona Hendryx (lead vocal on three cuts), Roberta Flack (sultry vocals on “It’s a Family Affair”) and – for the young folks – turntablist DJ Logic. Sly Reimagined is the next best thing to the originals, and that’s saying something.


Ian McLagan & the Bump Band – United States
Former Small Faces and Rolling Stones keyboardist Ian McLagan told me about this forthcoming album last year when I interviewed him about the Small Faces box set. Long having relocated to Austin TX, London-born McLagan shows influence of American musical forms more than British ones. A New Orleans flavor is shot through his bluesy tunes; using the widest interpretation of the term, the music on United States can reasonably be termed Americana. Mac’s always-engaging keyboard work (acoustic and electric pianos, organ) are the highlight but never steal the show: this really is a band, not some guy with faceless sidemen.

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Hundred Word Reviews for August 2014, Part 3

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

Five new releases are the focus of this clutch of hundred-word reviews.


Analog Son – Analog Son
The name might conjure mental visions of a synthesizer outfit, but the sounds that this duo-plus-friends (guitarist Jordan Linit and Josh Fairman on bass) produces is some fresh and uptempo funk. Seven of the ten tracks are instrumentals that satisfy on multiple levels: there’s plenty of hot soloing and musical interplay, but both groove and melody are deftly woven into the mix. The studio guest list includes members of The New Mastersounds and Dumpstaphunk among others, but Analog Son never sounds like a jam. Linit wrote or co-wrote all the tunes, and was involved in the horn arrangements as well.


Wishone Ash – Blue Horizon
Wishbone Ash are one of those hard-working second-string bands who never quite hit the big time. Enjoying some chart success in the early 1970s, the band has gone through myriad lineups – both John Wetton (King Crimson, Asia, UK) and Trevor Bolder (David Bowie’s Spiders From Mars) have passed through the band’s ranks. Today only Andy Powell (guitarist on the group’s more than two dozen albums) remains. The group’s sound is radio-ready, making their lack of high profile success more perplexing. Fans of melodic meat’n'potatoes rock with hooks, appealing vocals and twin lead guitars shouldn’t let Blue Horizon go unheard.


Focus – Golden Oldies
On one hand, it’s mystifying that a band that’s been around forever would record new versions of their best material: aren’t the originals still available? (Yes.) Do the arrangements differ wildly from those originals? (No.) But considering that the 2014 lineup of Focus features only two members of the classic lineup – leader and multi-instrumentalist Thijs van Leer and drummer Pierre van der Linden – it makes some sense to show that a band now fitted with a pair of young axemen can still play the intricate, jazzy, loopy prog that has always been the band’s trademark. Surprisingly, refreshingly fun.


The Bamboo Trading Company – From Kitty Hawk to Surf City
A breezy, laid back and highly polished sound reminiscent of early 70s Beach Boys is the chosen style of this aggregation. And in fact Beach Boys connections abound on this song cycle about a cross-country biplane journey: Matt Jardine (son of Al) is one of the vocalists; Mark Linett mastered the recording; Randell Kirsch and Gary Griffin used to back Jan & Dean. And Dean Torrence himself guests on the so-odd-you-gotta-hear “Shrewd Awakening.” The production and arrangements are intricate but not overly fussy, reminiscent of that other former Beach Boy, the one who had a sandbox in his living room.


Marshall Crenshaw – Red Wine
The fourth in Crenshaw’s excellent series of EP releases follows the same format as the previous three. As his website succinctly describes it, Red Wine “features a new song (‘Red Wine’), a cover (James McMurtry’s ‘Right Here Now’), and a new take on an old Marshall classic (‘Hey Delilah’).” The title track features a spare arrangement in support of Crenshaw’s characteristically evocative vocals. The reverb on those vocals here and there will transport listeners back to Crenshaw’s self-titled 1982 debut. Electric sitar on “Right Here Now” is a delight; the stripped-down reading of early 90s “Hey Delilah” is ace too.

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Hundred Word Reviews for August 2014, Part 1

Monday, August 11th, 2014

Some familiar names and some true obscurities are highlighted in this, the first of five sets of five capsule reviews. This week I’ll review 25 albums, arbitrarily limiting myself to exactly one hundred words each.


Gene Rains – Far Away Lands: The Exotic Music of Gene Rains
Exotica – that early 60s genre featuring wide-panned stereo, vibes, “jungle” percussion and all manner of whoops, bird calls and such – was a big seller; the genre’s two primary exponents were Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman. The lesser-known Gene Rains cut three albums that are in the same league; all are long out of print and rare. This new compilation from Real Gone Music collects the best from those LPs, and adds an excellent new liner note essay from Randy Poe (and a lovely cheesecake cover featuring MeduSirena). This disc should be considered essential for fans of the genre.


Pete Seeger – Sing Out America! The Best of Pete Seeger
There seem to have been at least sixty compilations that have attempted to provide some sort of overview to the musical legacy of folk master and American treasure Pete Seeger. Some are long out of print; other remain available. Well, here’s another one. Sing Out America! features fifty tracks, variously credited to The Almanac Singers (an aggregation that also included Woody Guthrie), The Weavers, and Seeger solo. One can’t assail the quality of the music herein, but lack of liner notes and/or discographical info (recording date?) means that this set is a great listen, but unsatisfying as a historical document.


Peggy Lipton – The Complete Ode Recordings
Those of a certain age remember Peggy Lipton as a star of TV’s The Mod Squad (“One black, one white…one blonde!”). But they may well be surprised to learn Lipton had a recording career. And unlike some artists-turned-singers (see: Clint Eastwood), the recordings Lipton released on her self-titled 1968 LP and a handful of later singles show her to be a commanding vocalist. The nineteen tasteful Lou Adler-produced sides (including four previously-unreleased songs) owe a lot to the Laura Nyro school. Lipton composed a number of the tunes, and they hold up nicely alongside readings of classics like “Stoney End.”


Eric Clapton – Behind the Sun
Some insist that Eric Clapton should have hung up his guitar after 1970′s Layla and Assorted Other Love Songs. Clapton didn’t often rock very hard after that (the brief Cream reunion notwithstanding). This 1985 album – newly reissued on SACD – has its rocking moments, though it more often veers toward breezy, easy listening. Behind the Sun is easily identified as a product of its era: Simmons drum sounds abound; prominent synthesizer sounds are equally dated. In places it’s reminiscent of Roger Waters‘ 1984 The Pro and Cons of Hitchhiking (on which Clapton played). Not bad, but definitely not great.


Various Artists – Chicago Bound: Chess Blues, R&B and Rock ‘n’ Roll
England-based Fantastic Voyage has carved an excellent niche in the world of compilation albums. Their thoughtful collections have provided tidy surveys of long-lost music, more often than not from the USA. The legendary Chess label was home to a staggering list of classic artists, and this 3CD set brings together some of the best sides from artists including Sonny Boy Williamson, Chuck Berry, and Muddy Waters. It also highlights the work of lesser-known acts including J. B. Lenoir (“Eisenhower Blues”) and Bobby Saxton (“Trying to Make a Living”). Chicago Bound is up to Fantastic Voyage’s typical high level of quality.

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Album Review: The Move — Live at the Fillmore 1969

Thursday, August 7th, 2014


Here’s another case of a long-circulating bootleg finding official release (see also: yesterday’s review of an Iron Butterfly live set). The Move were big in the UK, but went largely unknown in America. At least, that is, until they shifted personnel a bit and rebranded themselves as Electric Light Orchestra.

The band certainly knew all about America, though. Many years before its inclusion on Lenny Kaye‘s influential Nuggets compilation, The Nazz‘s “Open My Eyes” was a staple of The Move’s live set. Though the group had an impressive string of hit singles, on this night in 1969 at San Francisco’s Fillmore, they chose to open with a tune released two years earlier (to no great sales) by the Philadelphia group featuring a very young Todd Rundgren. The Move’s excellent live version does overextend the excellent tune just a bit, however.

On this recording – sourced from low-generation copies of that circulating tape* and/or subjected to some expert sound clean-up – The Move turns in exciting covers of Tom Paxton (“Last Thing on My Mind”) and relatively obscure art-prog group Ars Nova (“Fields of People,” included on The Move’s 1969 Shazam LP). The Carole King and Gerry Goffin tune “Goin’ Back” gets The Move treatment as well. The sound isn’t quite up to standard release quality on this 2CD set, but the music is good and important enough to give the audio quality a pass.

The band were big fans of American rock: their sets often included The Byrds‘ “So You Want to Be a Rock’n'Roll Star” and Moby Grape‘s “Hey Grandma,” though neither were performed on this Fillmore date. Rick Price‘s super-heavy bass lines and Bev Bevan‘s drums presage the approach used by Black Sabbath, but Carl Wayne‘s lead vocal plus Roy Wood‘s keen harmony vocals add a pop sensibility that leavens the heaviness. “Cherry Blossom Clinic Revisited” is perhaps the best example of all of the Move’s strengths in a single tune: gentle guitar parts, a capella vocal harmonies, and thunderous backbeat; the song’s suite-like character may remind some listeners of The Who‘s “A Quick One (While He’s Away).” They also manage a clever juxtaposition of a classical theme (you’ll recognize it) into the tune, before doing such things was (for a time) a de rigeuer part of rock performance. The Move manage to convey power and subtlety onstage without the use of keyboards or acoustic guitar.

The Move’s set closes as it began, with another Nazz cover: this time it’s “Under the Ice,” from Rundgren’s group’s then-current Nazz Nazz LP. The tapes as circulated among collectors purported to document a set from October 1969. As presented on this official set, the recording features additional performances of “Don’t Make My Baby Blue, “Cherry Blossom Clinic Revisited” and “The Last Thing on My Mind,” plus a contemporary recording – more than ten minutes in length – in which drummer Bevan recalls the ’69 tour.

Completists note: If you have the bootleg version of this tape, you might want to hold onto it: most copies include a live version of The Move’s Tchaikovsky-meets-psychpop classic, “Night of Fear” that’s not found on this new official set.

Live at the Fillmore 1969 is highly recommended to anyone who appreciates late 60s hard rock, British variant, done with a deft combination of panache and excessive volume.

* A quote in the liner notes suggests that vocalist Carl Wayne was in possession of the original tapes.

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Album Review: Iron Butterfly — Live at the Galaxy 1967

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

There’s been a spate of previously-unreleased live albums released of late; this week I’m focusing on five of them. The first, a 1975 set by Magma, offered way-out music and excellent sonic quality. The second, a 1980 Captain Beefheart set, showcased equally strange (but quite different) music in terrible audio quality. Today’s entry features much more accessible music, from psychedelic -era heroes Iron Butterfly, in sound quality that falls somewhere in between the previous two.

In 1967 Iron Butterfly were still several months away from recording and releasing their classic “In-a-gadda-da-vida,” so listeners who give Live at the Galaxy 1967 a spin won’t hear that tune. What they’ll find instead is a club gig heavy (ha) on tracks from the band’s debut LP Heavy which hadn’t even been recorded at the time of this set.

In addition to the hypnotic “Possession” (featuring Doug Ingle‘s husky vocalizations atop a lockstep riff that is equal parts his Vox organ and Danny Weis‘ fuzztone lead guitar), perennial closer “Iron Butterfly Theme” and “Gentle As it May Seem,” the set offers up a few standards along with some tracks that wouldn’t surface until the band’s third LP Ball (the excellent “Filled With Fear,” “Lonely Boy”). The lineup that is documented on this set wouldn’t remain together long enough to tour behind their debut album; buy that point in the band’s lifespan, Ingle had recruited new players to join him and drummer Ron Bushy.

Live at the Galaxy 1967 seems to be a soundboard recording (albeit an nth generation dub of one); between tracks, when Ingle addresses the crowd, his voice is clear and distinct. But when the band all launches in (this seems to have been an extremely loud performance at the band’s regular Hollywood hangout), Ingle’s vocals are largely obscured by the instruments. His Vox survives the onslaught, however: his simple but effective keyboard riffage rises above the thunder of the bass, guitars and cymbal-heavy drumming. The recording has circulated for years among bootleg collector circles; I’ve had a copy going all the way back to the days when we traded cassette dubs. It’s likely that this official release was sourced from one of those unknown-generation tapes.

Iron Butterfly’s music has often been described as riffs in search of songs: as exemplified on this recording, the band often hit its mark. While the vocals can’t easily be followed, the tunes never meander; built around solid and memorable riffs and allowing space for effective solos, tracks like “It’s Up to You” (a good tune they’d never release) make their point in rather economical fashion. Ingle introduces “Gloomy Day to Remember” (which is quite reminiscent of The Blues Magoos) as another of the band’s original tunes; it, too has gone unreleased in any form until now.

As a document of the band’s earliest incarnation, replete with songs you won’t hear anywhere else, Live at the Galaxy 1967 is recommended to fans of the band as well as to fans of that particular brand of 60s psych that bridges the gap between heavy and poppy.

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EP Review: The Fauntleroys — Below the Pink Pony

Friday, August 1st, 2014

I can’t find the specific quote I’m looking for at the moment, but there’s an entry in Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia (the original 1969 edition, not the lousy and lifeless early 70s update edited by Ed Naha) in which the author predicts the rise of one-off collaborations between established music. Again, I can only paraphrase, but Lillian Roxon cites the artistic freedom inherent in such temporary musical unions.

The whole concept didn’t catch on in rock to quite the degree Roxon predicted (though it was and remains a fundamental principle in jazz, where “groups” often assemble for a single project and then dissolve and move on). But when it does happen, the results can be impressive, and do fall in line with Roxon’s predictions.

The Fauntleroys are the latest example of an ad-hoc group made up of established artists. This alt-rock supergroup (there, I’ve said it) features Alejandro Escovedo (The Nuns, Rank and File, substantial solo work), Ivan Julian (Richard Hell and the Voidoids, excellent solo work, and production for such greats as Richard Barone and The Fleshtones), Linda Pitmon (Miracle 3, The Baseball Project) and Nicholas Tremulis* (Candy Golde, and yet more stellar solo work), all coming together to record and release the six-song EP Below the Pink Pony.

Each of the quartet’s straightforward melodies comes wrapped inside a slashing, barbed-wire arrangement that conveys danger, and a sort of elegant scuzziness, a streetwise beauty that will feel familiar to fans of these players’ back catalogs. Their collaborative approach to songwriting – working from snippets and building the tracks in Julian’s NYC studio – means that the songs have the fingerprints of all four members on them, rather than sounding like the work of one member backed by three others. Below the Pink Pony is, then, the antithesis of something like The Beatles’ white album.

That said, Tremulis’ powerful and commanding lead vocals gives him what sounds like a slightly larger role in the finished product. Pitmon’s backing vocal on “(This Can’t Be) Julie’s Song” and others balances things out a bit, though. Julian’s snaky guitar slashes and Escovedo’s distorted, buzzing guitar work mesh together to convey a sense of peril, even when the lyrics lean (slightly) toward the positive and uplifting.

The production finish on the album is spiky and rough, and one senses that’s exactly as the four musicians hoped it would be. The balance between studio polish and first-take vitality is perfect. And the best news about The Fauntleroys is that – unlike what Roxon described in 1969 – the group has plans to tour and release a full-length album. I’ll be keeping an eye and ear out for that one, as should you.

* I’m still waiting for Tremulis to paint my house as promised (inside joke).

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Album Review: NRBQ — Brass Tacks

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

NRBQ are one of America’s great musical treasures. Though they’ve never enjoyed the sort of commercial success of, say, a Creedence Clearwater Revival or The Band, the catalog of this band formed in 1967 is filled with riches that draw from all manner of musical forms. Listeners are as likely to hear shades of cajun swamp pop as they are hints of pianist Terry Adams‘ hero Sun Ra. And though the lineup of NRBQ has changed significantly from the old days (only leader Adams remains from the original lineup), the group’s signature approach to music remains intact.

Wry lyrics are the highlight of many NRBQ tunes, and “Greetings From Delaware” on Brass Tacks, the group’s latest, continues that tradition. Like all the tunes on the disc, “Greetings” sounds as if it was recorded live in the studio. There’s a loose-limbed feel that never feels about to fall apart; it’s the kind of aesthetic that results from a band touring and playing together for a long time, road-testing the tunes and honing them to sharpness before ever setting foot in a studio.

Adams’ assured and stylistically varied piano playing is often the centerpiece of the musical arrangements, but the rest of the band (guitarist Scott Ligon, bassist Casey McDonough, and Conrad Choucron on drums) all shine. Adams’ “Sit in My Lap” feels like a distant cousin to John Lennon‘s “(Just Like”) Starting Over,” minus the retro trappings. McDonald’s “Fightin’ Back” has a pop-country vibe (the good kind), and this lineup of NRBQ gains strength from its drawing upon the songwriting talents of three members.

NRBQ’s approach has always been modest and unassuming; the band’s music doesn’t reach out and grab listeners; instead the tunes are warm, welcoming and inviting: it’s up to to the listener whether to come in or not. The song titles alone give a tidy overview of the concerns dealt with on Brass Tacks: “It’ll Be Alight,” “Love This Love We Got,” and a knowing reading of the Great American Songbook classic “Getting to Know You.” Adams’ harmonica on “I’d Like to Know” sounds and feels like an accordion, and his piano on “Places Far Away” – the disc’s most outré number – sounds as if it’s informed equally by Randy Newman and Sun Ra. “Can’t Wait to Kiss” You” is a delightful singalong in a classic pop vein, and features a brief, ear-candy guitar solo.

Brass Tacks isn’t likely to catapult the band into mega-stardom, but for fans of the band’s friendly and intimate aesthetic, it’s a joy to hear that the band is busy and as vital as ever.

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Hundred-word Reviews July 2014, Part Five

Friday, July 25th, 2014

All this week, I’ve been working to reduce the contents of my in-box to manageable levels; these are the last five of 25 albums in that effort, each review adhering to a 100-word limit. Don’t mistake brevity for a negative review; these are all worthwhile releases.

Today’s five – all reissues – are all over the map stylewise.

Mike Keneally & Beer for Dolphins – Sluggo!
Mike Keneally shares a rather unique quality with fellow Frank Zappa alum with Adrian Belew: the ability to straddle two camps: angular, progressive rock and catchy, hook-filled rock. Nowhere is that ability more on display than on Keneally’s 1997 album Sluggo! Reissued after being out of print for more than a decade, Sluggo! is perhaps the one album that prog fans can play for their ostensibly prog-hating friends. This reissue offers an improved, Keneally-approved remix, plus a second (DVD) disc featuring the album in all sorts of hi-res formats, plus yet another DVD with a bunch of related audiovisual goodies.

The Bats – Volume 1
There was a time when (cough) some people thought that Kiwi rock was going to be the Next big Thing™. Despite the fact that few New Zealand bands wormed their way into global pop consciousness, they left behind some lovely music that drew from the tuneful end of rock’s spectrum. And one of the most enduring of all the acts in that category is Christchurch-based quintet The Bats. Their 1987 debut Daddy’s Highway has been compiled with 1990′s The Law of Things and Compiletely Bats (itself a compilation of the band’s first three EPs), yielding this splendid tidy 3CD set.

Gary Windo – Steam Radio Tapes
I had seen Windo’s name on albums by The Psychedelic Furs and Todd Rundgren, but I had never heard any of the music released under his own name. Playing tenor sax, alto sax and bass clarinet, Windo’s solo material bears a passing resemblance to the sole album made by one of his associates, Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason. On the posthumous compilation, he’s joined by a long list of heavy friends including Julie Tippets (neé Driscoll), Soft Machine‘s Hugh Hopper, 801‘s Bill MacCormick, and Mason himself. Those artists are a good signpost indicating what this delightfully eclectic set sounds like.

Gary Windo – Dogface
Along with the above title, a reissue of this 1982 album has been part of Gonzo Multimedia’s campaign of interesting, previously-overlooked releases. This is an (instrumental) concept album: each track features a different lineup with its own fanciful moniker (Gary and the Woofs, Gary and the K9s…you get the idea) playing primarily instrumental tunes with related titles (“Guard Duty,” “The Husky”). The guys from the then-current lineup of NRBQ back up Windo on three tunes. Some tracks are one-chord workouts laying the groundwork for Windo’s impressive soloing (“Puppy Kisses”). The trebly, lo-fi production values detract from an otherwise splendid album.

Ned Doheny – Separate Oceans
Numero Group has a well-deserved reputation for digging deeper than your average cratedigger in search of material for release. Ned Doheny isn’t a name you’re likely to recognize, despite the fact that he recorded and released a half dozen albums between 1973 and 1993. Part of the California singer/songwriter mafia (The Eagles, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt et. al.), Doheny never achieved success on a par with any of his mega-famous pals. This new collection draws from his catalog, imbued with a sort of discofied cocaine cowboy vibe that calls to mind a hybrid of Stephen Bishop and “Lowdown”-era Boz Scaggs.

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Hundred-word Reviews July 2014, Part Four

Thursday, July 24th, 2014

I’m bound and determined to reduce the contents of my in-box to manageable levels, so this week I’ll be covering 25 albums, each adhering to a 100-word limit. Don’t mistake brevity for a negative review; these are all worthwhile releases.

Today’s five are the last in this particular run of new releases; tomorrow’s five will be recent reissues and compilations of note.

Chris Braide – Fifty Dollar Planets and Twenty Cent Stars
This British rocker is based -n Los Angeles, and on his new lengthy-titled long player, he’s aided by Pete Glenister, best known as the late Kirsty MacColl‘s guitarist. That said, listeners won’t find much jangle on this disc; Braide prefers a swaggering rock style that owes more to David Bowie and INXS. This is mostly wide-screen arena-ready rock with a melancholy feel. On tracks like “Fascinating,” Braide dials it down for a smoky, intimate vibe, but most tracks on Fifty Dollar Planets straddle the line between heavy rock and yearning power balladeering (but is far better than that label suggests).

Howlin’ Rain – Live Rain
This band began their life as a near-homage to The Allman Brothers, but quickly outgrew that on subsequent offerings such as The Russian Wilds. This set – compiled from “various locations around the world in the year 2012” – captures the emotional intensity of their live show. The band rocks hard on the eleven-minute-plus “Self Made Man,” and they resurrect the ghost of Led Zeppelin on the stomping “”Can’t Satisfy Me.” For those who dig the 70s sound but want to see it live, Howlin’ Rain is the band; until they’re in town, Live Rain is the next best thing.

The Fleshtones – Wheel of Talent
This Greenpoint (Brooklyn) quartet is a sentimental favorite of mine. On Wheel of Talent, they’ve changed their approach, but just a little. In addition to the quartet (guitar, bass, keys and drums), tunes like “Available” make prominent use of cello and violin(!) There’s one other major departure: more tracks than usual feature the lead vocals of guitarist Keith Streng rather than nominal lead singer (and keyboardist) Peter Zaremba. But the wit and swagger of the quartet that bills itself as “America’s garage band” is delightfully intact on tunes like the (previously available only as a single) tribute “Remember the Ramones.”

Archie Powell & the Exports – Back in Black
This album has nothing – insofar as I can tell – to do with AC/DC. But if you can wrap your mind around the idea of a singer/songwriter – that is, someone concentrating on lyrics first – backed by a hard rocking, ramshackle band, you’ll have an idea of what this sounds like. In fact, Archie Powell and his band sounds a lot like a less-drunk prime-era Replacements on the opener, “Everything’s Fucked.” Elsewhere they take singalong melodies and rock ‘em up; up-front acoustic guitar is too seldom used in uptempo rock; this band understands how to do it right.

Jim Mize – Jim Mize
It’s fair to label Jim Mize a “late bloomer.” This 57-year-old Arkansan has been knocking around for years, but he didn’t get into a recording studio until well into his thirties. His latest – this self-titled effort on the tastemaker Big Legal Mess imprint/sub-label of Fat Possum Records – is soulful rock that should appeal to fans of Tom Petty, John Hiatt and Nick Lowe‘s more rock-oriented material. Aided on this LP by John Paul Keith and Jimbo Mathus, Mize delivers finely-honed songcraft wrapped in memorable melodies. Mize says he plans to tour when he retires; for now, there’s this.

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Hundred-word Reviews July 2014, Part One

Monday, July 21st, 2014

I’m bound and determined to reduce the contents of my in-box to manageable levels, so this week I’ll be covering 25 albums, each adhering to a 100-word limit. Don’t mistake brevity for a negative review; these are all worthwhile releases.

Today’s five – all new releases – are all more or less pop (in its classical definition) releases.

Jamie & Steve – Circling
This duo (half of The Spongetones) have maintained a regular schedule of EP releases of late. On Circling, the pair sound decidedly liberated from The Spongetones’ trademark sound, though the hooks, power and vocal harmonies are happily present in abundance. All six tracks on this disc are delightful, but the edge goes to the title track, with its breathtaking vocal arrangement and detailed (though never fussy) arrangement. Steve Stoeckel and Jamie Hoover have quite a way with a melody, and the vaguely Merseybeat-ish “You” and the closer “Wonder Girl” will leave listeners waiting for the next EP. Shouldn’t be long.

Neil Finn – Dizzy Heights
From Split Enz through Crowded House and his string of solo albums, Neil Finn has demonstrated an uncanny ability to craft enduring melodies. But his solo work – while excellent – somehow sounds less immediate than his other music; the songs often require multiple spins to sink in. That’s truer than ever on Dizzy Heights; the soft-focus arrangements bury the melodies a bit deep. On first listen, I was wholly disappointed in the album, but on subsequent spins I appreciated the groove on tracks like “Flying in the Face of Love.” Finn remains in a league with Lennon and McCartney.

Dan Wilson – Love Without Fear
As a key member of the grievously under-appreciated Trip Shakespeare and the more successful Semisonic, Dan Wilson proved the skill with which he could sing, play and compose. And if that weren’t enough, he penned three tracks on Adele‘s massively popular 21 album. On Love Without Fear, Wilson heads in quite the low-key direction. His radio-ready voice soars above arrangements that owe more to pop-country production values than anything he’s done previously. Fans of his earlier music may have to adjust their thinking a bit, but this collection might just bridge the gap between critical success and unit-shifting commercial triumph.

Various – I Saved Latin! A Tribute to Wes Anderson
Now, Wes Anderson isn’t a songwriter. What he is – besides a successful and idiosyncratic filmmaker – is a keen fan of great music. His films unfailingly make effective use of great, left-field tunes, working them into the narrative. This 2CD collection includes knowing covers of classic (but not overexposed) tunes by twenty-three hip/current artists. The originals all figured in Anderson’s films, and I Saved Latin!‘s bouquet of song originally recorded by The Who, Love, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Bobby Fuller and others is a delight; the tracks manage to sound fresh and new. This album is highly recommended.

Rotary Downs – Traces
This New Orleans outfit creates music that is hypnotic, catchy and alluring. They prefer to be thought of as “psychedelic art-pop,” but putting them in that bag might chase away listeners who would appreciate their strong and hooky songwriting. Their driving yet generally midtempo tunes make extensive use of synthesizers, but they do so in a way that never feels “synthy” or over-processed. You’ll find plenty of real guitar, bass and drums, too. For once, I don’t hear any clear antecedent in a band’s music, but Rotary Downs’ feel (though not their actual sound) isn’t miles away from The Church.

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