Archive for the ‘review’ Category

Album Review: Sloan — Commonwealth

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

Rock fans who fall into a certain age bracket may recall the buzz around the release of Liz Phair‘s major-label debut, 1993′s Exile in Guyville. As the popular story went, the album was a track-by-track feminist response to The Rolling Stones‘ 1972 double LP Exile on Main Street. Or something like that; on close examination, the argument didn’t hold up. But the album was superb, regardless.

I’m not here today to convince you that Sloan‘s Commonwealth is the Canadian quartet’s answer to The Beatles‘ self-titled 1968 double LP. But surface similarities do exist.

First off, the new Sloan album is divided into four sections. All four members of the band compose, play and sing, and rather than mix things up (like, say, John and Yoko did on Double Fantasy), each member gets his own side (the album is available on vinyl, though my review copy is a silver CD). Each songwriter gets thirteen to fifteen minutes or so to present a suite of songs that display his own distinct personality and perspective. But here’s the kicker: unlike the white album, where some tracks featured only Lennon, and others might even have Paul McCartney behind the drum kit(!), on Commonwealth, the all-for-one/one-for-all approach means that each side finds the composer/vocalist ably and enthusiastically backed by his band mates. Commonwealth is that rarest of albums: a series of tracks from distinct individuals, all presented in a way that makes the disc into a cohesive whole.

The first five songs are labeled Diamond Side and are composed by Jay Ferguson. Sounding a bit like Belle and Sebastian, Ferguson’s songs – most notably the lovely midtempo “Three Sisters” feature clever flourishes that might remind listeners of Ringo Starr‘s Revolver-period drum fills. Each of the tunes is generally built around a piano melody, but plenty of muscular lead guitar is woven into the arrangement. The five tunes segue smoothly into one another; let your attention slip a bit and you might miss the transition to the shimmering “You’ve Got a Lot on Your Mind.” The band ups the tempo and energy level for the infectious vibe of “Cleopatra.” Guaranteed ear candy, Ferguson’s songs alone plus filler would equal a very, very good album.

Chris Murphy‘s Heart Side is next. His “Carried Away” may well be the most soaring tune on Commonwealth, but he and his band mates offer strong competition. A lovely string section leads into a chorus you won’t soon forget. With its elegiac piano and cynical lyrics, “So Far So Good” sounds like something off John Lennon’s Imagine. More of those wonderful drums-down-the-stairs fills, Leslie’d lead guitar and creamy ahhh vocal harmonies make it a standout track. The stuttering beat of the brief “Get Out” distantly recalls George Harrison‘s “Old Brown Shoe.” The melancholy “Misty’s Beside Herself” is full of beauty and heartbreak. Murphy rocks out on his last spotlight track, “You Don’t Need Excuses to Be Good.” The minor-key number features a lengthy but stinging riff as the basis of its chorus. It’s a rare songwriter who can compose ballads and rockers of equal quality, and then sequence them on an album in a way that isn’t jarring, in a sequence that makes sense. Murphy succeeds.

Shamrock Side features four songs from Patrick Pentland. Right out of the gate he serves up “13 (Under A Bad Sign),” a rocker that swaggers like T. Rex. Wonderfully distorted guitar fills leave the listener wanting more. Some bursts of noise and what initially sounds like the same backing track used on “13” lead straight into “Take it Easy.” Even more distorted, nearly atonal guitar skronk atop the chugging, insistent rhythm section brings out the rock in Shamrock Side. “What’s Inside” is a slow, gauzy, almost psychedelic swirl that is highly appealing and will draw listeners into its musical maelstrom. Pentland’s side wraps up with the Rolling Stones-y “Keep Swinging (Downtown).” Some wonderfully retro combo organ textures recall the mid 1960s garage scene, and a brief effects-laden guitar solo is yet another highlight.

Commonwealth ends with Spade Side, an eighteen-minute suite of Andrew Scott compositions all woven together under the singe title “Forty-eight Portraits.” The opening section could – if one wishes to labor the white album comparison – be thought of as Commonwealth‘s “Revolution #9.” Found sounds (barking dogs, alarm clocks, out-of-tune parlor piano) unfold gradually, and then the piano rises from the aural mist, seamlessly unfolding into a beautiful melody topped by some tight dual lead vocal harmony work. While none of Scott’s melodies sound like lifts, there’s a definite Abbey Road (Side Two, specifically) vibe to the mini-songs; the manner in which they hang together only strengthens the similarity. Had he cared to, Scott could have easily extended any and all of the brief “songlets” into full-length numbers, creating an entire excellent album in the process. It’s a testament to the democratic approach of Sloan that he and his band mates chose otherwise. The thirty-second section that begins around the 11:20 mark is perhaps the hookiest segment of “Forty-eight Portraits,” but there’s not a weak moment in the entire track. Around 12:15 Sloan take us back –albeit briefly – to the Summer of Love, with insistent piano and brass that backs the vocal countermelodies. Then there’s a bit that recalls the weary yet jubilant rooftop vibe of “I’ve Got a Feeling,” featuring some children’s chorus vocals that recall early Traffic, XTC and the Rolling Stones all at once. The song then gradually takes off into the ether, explicitly recalling either Abbey Road‘s “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” Badfinger‘s “Timeless,” or – most likely – both.

And then it’s over. Luckily you can play it again. And you’ll want to. Commonwealth truly displays the common wealth of songwriting prowess among Sloan’s four very equal members. Easily a strong contender for Musoscribe’s best album of 2014, Commonwealth earns my enthusiastic Must Buy recommendation.

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Album Review: The Legal Matters

Monday, September 8th, 2014

My friend Bruce Brodeen occasionally endures some good-natured ribbing for those mini-reviews he penned in his NotLame mail order catalogs of the 90s. If you viewed his writing a certain way, it seemed like he thought everything was great. But I’m reminded of the (possibly apocryphal) conversation between a fan and Raymond Burr of TV’s Perry Mason: approached on the street and asked how he could possibly win every case, Burr is said to have replied, “Well, madam, you only see the cases I try on Thursdays!” Point being, some reviewers (myself included) don’t waste much time shining light on lesser efforts, unless they deserve it. With that in mind, here’s another review in which I basically tell you that I really dig the music.

I first stumbled across the music of Andy Reed in early 2012, around the time his album Always on the Run (credited to An American Underdog) was released. Reed’s a busy guy: he’s also a member of The Verve Pipe, whose recent album Overboard is enthusiastically recommended to fans of timeless pop (rock guitar and vocal variant). But those two ongoing projects are seemingly not enough to keep him occupied; he has of late joined forces with two songwriters (and musicians and singers) of comparable merit to form The Legal Matters. Fans of shimmering, memorable pop rock won’t want to miss their self-titled debut album. Joining Reed are Keith Klingensmith and Chris Richards; the trio share composition duties, and take turns on lead vocals.

“Stubborn” is some delightful midtempo rock with just a hint of country influence, on the level of Tom Petty or Gin Blossoms. There isn’t any filler on The Legal Matters: subtly distorted guitars are joined by rhythm guitar (often acoustic, always a good thing in this sort of context), plus plenty of lovely vocal harmonies, like the “la la la” and “ooh” bits peppered throughout Reed’s “The Legend of Walter Wright.” The Legal Matters don’t sound exactly like anyone else, but there are some production and composition signatures that suggest a stripped down answer to Rick Hromadka‘s Maple Mars.

Klingensmith and Reed cowrote “Mary Anne,” one of the most gentle and contemplative tunes on the disc. Subtle instrumental backing supports some carefully stacked vocals.

The Legal Matters might be thought of as a songwriters’ collective. Richards’ “It’s Not What I Say” would work well enough as a guitar-and-single-vocal tune, but here, with the (still understated) backing of band mates, Richards and his song end up recalling the best of soft rockers like Pure Prairie League. An acoustic guitar solo is the cherry on top.

The spare and restrained instrumentation on Richards’ rock-oriented “Before We Get it Right” recalls The Beatles‘ “Getting Better.” Reed’s “So Long Sunny Days” strikes a wistful tone, and his lyrics are wholly consistent with that approach. Once again, the tight and carefully-applied vocal harmonies are a highlight. The c&w influence is more pronounced on “Outer Space,” but it’s presented well within a melodic pop context, free of artifice; the song’s bridge takes things to another (higher) level entirely.

The Legal Matters closes with Reed’s “We Were Enemies,” wherein the trio judiciously applies a bit of keyboards to support the melancholy number. The soaring harmonies and electric lead guitar balance things nicely, ending the album on a perfect note. The extended outro (full of ahhh vocals) is a delight.

More, please. Timeless pop like this is never in great enough supply, though The Legal Matters are certainly doing their part.

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Album Review: The Small Faces — There Are But Four Small Faces

Friday, September 5th, 2014

History has a way of playing tricks on us. How many of us American fans of Beach Boys music remember that Pet Sounds was – upon its original release – considered something of a commercial failure? The album’s subsequent elevation into the Pantheon of great albums has caused us to forget that inconvenient bit of trivia.

So, too, do many of us – and I’m first thinking of myself here – fail to recall that as impressive a body of work as they created, The Small Faces were not hit makers on the US charts. Chalk it up to any of several factors: “they were too British” is a common explanation. They themselves in interviews have opined that their lack of touring stateside had a good deal to do with it.

No matter. The music they created is filled with charms. And with the benefit of hindsight and context, it’s very much of a piece with the best of the era’s rock, and doubtless influenced those other artists who did hear it.

The group’s 1967 album There Are But Four Small Faces may well be the group’s most accessible entry point for the uninitiated. The following year’s legendary Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake is arguably even better, yet at the same time more idiosyncratic, giving rise to those “too British” sentiments. But on There Are But Four Small Faces, the quartet’s brand of rhythm and blues-influencd rock meshes nicely with Summer of Love styles and sentiments. From the memorable “it’s all too beautiful” refrain of “Itchycoo Park” to Kenney Jones‘ phase-shifter-treated drum fills on the same tune, the album is that rarest of creatures: very much of its time, yet somehow timeless. The stomping r&b of “Talk to You” – featuring some lovely piano figures from Ian McLagan – is a near perfect balance of finely-tuned subtlety and uncompromising rock. Throughout the twelve-track album – now reissued on vinyl alongside a 2CD version that features stereo and (DJ promo) mono mixes and bonus tracks – the Small Faces assert their right to the label “best British band you’re least familiar with.”

“I’m Only Dreaming” utilizes gentle piano and vibes, and finds Steve Marriott leaning in a melodramatic crooner direction, but the song’s dynamics include plenty of space for the vocalist to belt it out as well; that shift in tone inside a song was a hallmark of the group, and served to showcase all of their strentghts within the confines of a three-minute (or so) pop tune. And echoes of that style can be heard in subsequent material from The Marmalade and Grapefruit, two of the many acts greatly influenced by The Small Faces. (The fact that you may well not have heard of those groups is yet further testament to The Small Faces limited chimerical reach in the 60s).

“I Feel Much Better” weds a twee “do waddy waddy / shang a lang” vocal chant to some thunderous bottom-end work from bassist Ronnie Lane; the group seemingly had an endless knack for melding the sweet and sour, the light and the heavy.

The albums’ song most well-known (to Americans) is “Tin Soldier.” McLagan’s memorable electric piano introduction, followed by an overdubbed organ, joined then by Marriott’s crunchy lead and the rest of the band: all these together would be enough to render the tune a stone classic. But it develops from there, showcasing the ace riffage and vocal-chord-shredding performance from Marriott and his band mates.

Perhaps it’s mild overstatement to compare a brief tune such as “Get Yourself Together” to the mini-operas Pete Townshend was writing – see: “A Quick One (While He’s Away)” – but the variety put into Small Faces tunes such as this often rivaled the intricacy of late 60s songs from The Who.

“Show Me the Way” (not the later Peter Frampton tune) is built around some very baroque harpsichord work from McLagan; it’s the most of-its-time sounding track on There Are But Four Small Faces, but it’s an understated gem nonetheless.

Owing to its clear drug-taking lyrical references, “Here Come the Nice” was a controversial tune in the UK. But that didn’t keep it from being a great tune. And “Green Circles” is reminiscent of some of the Yardbirds’ late-period pop experiments; again that combination of heavy rock and light-classic influenced pop is a winning recipe.

The album wraps with “(Tell Me) Have You Ever Seen Me,” ensuring that There Are But Four Small Faces is a no-filler album, itself a rarity in the mid 60s. The CD reissue version’s inclusion of the mono mixes – designed for maximum impact on AM radio – are enjoyable in their own way, but as the stereo album is relatively free of wide-panning stereo gimmickry, the two mixes are not a world away form one another. The CD set comes in a very nice hardbound book, plus a well-put-together booklet of photos and essays. But there’s something about the vinyl. Unlike me, you might not need both. But if you appreciate any of the best rock the mid 60s had to offer, you need at least one.

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Album Review: The Mojo Gurus — Who Asked Ya?

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

Once upon a time, rock was rock. In the days before popular music fell prey to market segmentation, the catch-all term of rock conjured – at least to some extent – a kind of music that was played (usually) by men who possessed an onstage demeanor and attitude that said “we’re here to rock.”

Sometimes it didn’t say much more than that. And sometimes – oftentimes, in fact – that was enough. Nobody really looked to Aerosmith or Van Halen (or Led Zeppelin, for that matter) for great statements about the human condition. The songs expressed sentiments no deeper than, say, “ I Can’t Drive 55.”

That kind of music seems in short supply in 2014. Instead we have mope-rock, wherein the vocalists don’t look the audience in the eye, turn their backs to the crowd when it’s (extended) solo time, and generally seem to apologize for their existence. Not to suggest any sort of violence be associated with music, but if a “real” rocker stumbled across that kind of thing, their music would – at least figuratively – kick that kind of thing right off the stage.

Such rare creatures do still exist, though one has to dig a bit to find them. (And yes, I will readily concede that lessened demand plays a part in the scarcity of the style.) A showpiece of the we’re-ready-to-rock-you approach is Tampa, Florida’s Mojo Gurus. The name – at least for me – immediately brings to mind classic bluesmen (as in, “Got My Mojo Workin’”) and the melodic rocking of Austalia’s Hoodoo Gurus. And the music itself is the kind of thing that efficiently gets across the sort of attitude that says in essence, “fuck it, let’s party.”

The Mojo Gurus know that they’re this kind of band, too: their current tour is billed – without a hint of false humility – as “The Last Rock ‘N’ Roll Show Tour.” And why not? The new album, Who Asked Ya?, blasts right out of the speakers with opener, “Where You Hidin’ Your Love.” A beefy horn section cranks out an insistent riff while the four-piece band swaggers their way through the tune without compromise. Musically, it’s straight-ahead blues changes and Doc Lovett‘s stinging guitar solo right exactly where you’d expect it, doubled in length because that’s just how it oughta be. And for good measure, there’s a second guitar solo. Again, just because.

Sure, these guys could probably slay “Mustang Sally,” but so could a billion other bar bands. But The Mojo Gurus ply their trade without artifice. “Hoodoo Man” is hard-charging blooz-rock: not only does lead vocalist Kevin Steele‘s harmonica sound like it’s played through the de rigueur Green Bullet mic, but the vocals and guitars have that overdriven-right-into-the-red vibe as well. The band conjures a storm.

The opening of “Devil to Pay” is more than a bit reminiscent of The Rolling Stones‘ “Honky Tonk Women,” bu from there it’s a piano-led barroom rocker. It’s slightly understated compared to the rest of the disc, but subtlety and restraint are –by design – not part of The Mojo Gurus’ bag of musical tricks. Imagine if ZZ Top widened their musical approach just a bit ( and packed up the synthesizers and sequencers for good), and you’d have something not far from The Mojo Gurus.

A quick scan of the song titles provides a rundown of this band’s musical and lyrical worldview: “No Damn Good,” “Bad Attitude,” “C’mon Over to My House.” But they do more than just rock out 24/7. “No Damn Good” is built around guest musician Nina Wegmann‘s accordion, and the tune has an aura that suggests Los Lobos covering The Drifters‘ “Save the Last Dance for Me.” But that calm respite is over as the band pivots right back to “Someone Else Will, with its pegging piano figures and stomping beat. When the music stops at the end of a phrase, allowing Steele to sing the chorus lyrics without accompaniment, you might think briefly of The Georgia Satellites‘ “Keep Your Hands to Yourself.” Is that a bad thing? I think not.

They do some porch-rocking c&w on “Bad Attitude,” with Steele doing a good vocal approximation of one of the characters from Squidbillies. Jason (Del McCoury Band) Carter‘s keening fiddle and mass-singalong backing suggests the band could make a career out of the style, were they not such unrepentant rock’n'rollers. And the group does some convincing spaghetti western, Herb Alpert-meets-surf-rock on the instrumental raver “Bandito.”

In keeping with their “this is how it used to be done” approach, the group has issued two of the disc’s standout tracks – “Where You Hidin’ Your Love” b/w “Bandito” – on 7” vinyl with a picture sleeve.

Who Asked Ya? won’t change the world. And The Mojo Gurus don’t seem to be intent on any such lofty goals. They just wanna rock, and if you do too, you’re advised to check them out.

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Album Review: Wendy Carlos (and Journey) — TRON Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014

The soundtrack of the 1982 motion picture TRON showcased the work of synthesist-composer Wendy Carlos in a more commercial context than was normally the case for her work. A new 2LP edition restores deleted material that wouldn’t fit on the original single-LP version.

After the brief “Creation of TRON,” which barely registers as tune, “Only Solutions” features – of all things – Journey, doing what soundtrack supervisor Michael Fremer characterizes as their best Police impersonation. (The Police were in fact Fremer’s first choice to provide the required pop track for the film.) Aside from gated reverb drums, it’s not a bad tune. Journey were near the apex of their commercial viability in ’82, and — consistent with the tenor of the times — the studio (Disney) threatened not to release a soundtrack album without a potential single.

Most of the remainder of the TRON soundtrack album is Carlos’ work. Perhaps surprisingly, the material is the opposite of what one might suspect: the orchestral parts – courtesy the London Philharmonic Orchestra – were cut first; only then did Carlos judiciously add her synthesizer parts to the score. The result is an album that’s richer – and far less dated – than synth-centric works tend to be.

Like any science fiction movie with dramatic content, parts of the TRON score recall Gustav Holst‘s “Mars, the Bringer of War” from The Planets. But Carlos does so in a way that’s not overstated; her synth parts on “Ring Game and Escape” put more sonic distance between her and Holst.

Clearly, the music was intended to convey and support the emotional themes displayed on celluloid: the workmanlike titles (“Love Theme,” “Ending Titles”) make that explicit. But the music stands well on its own. Carlos’ synthesizers do form the basis of a few tracks, most notably “TRON Scherzo.”

The Sweeping, magisterial “Miracle and Magician” wouldn’t be out of place in one of the Lord of the Rings films. And “Theme from TRON” has almost no synth, Carlos’ composition relying instead on the LSO for its delivery. “1990′s Theme” is Journey’s second and last appearance on the soundtrack. As an instrumental theme, it works well. But as the track is full of what now sound like 80s pop tropes, its whiny guitar effects and stiff drum tracks feel dated.

With heavenly choirs and orchestral arrangement, “Love Theme” seems a bit over the top; but probably fit perfectly with its film scene. If you were a kid when you saw TRON, this is probably the moment in the film when you got up and went for another bucket of popcorn.

“Tower Music – Let Us Pray” is the album’s most effective pairing of electronic and orchestral sounds; unless one listens very closely, it is difficult to discern which sounds are from which. And on a good stereo system, the lower register notes on “Sea of Simulation” will shake your home’s foundation.

“Ending Titles” brings things to a close with some sumptuous pipe organ work under the film’s closing credits; it’s a fitting end to an evocative score.

The new 2014 2LP version of the TRON soundtrack benefits from a remaster, and spreading music onto two discs allows a louder and clearer sound overall. About the only thing that could have been done to improve this vinyl reissue would have been to make one disc translucent red, the other blue. (Both records are blue on my review copy.)

The excellent liner notes (a Wendy Carlos-penned essay from the 2001 CD release, plus a 2014 essay from Fremer) help place this groundbreaking and forward-looking soundtrack album in its proper historical context.

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Album Review: Sade — Love is Stronger Than Pride

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

Love is Stronger Than Pride, the third album from Sade (the band named after lead vocalist Sade Adu) was a commercial juggernaut on its original 1988 release, yielding four hit singles in eight months, three of which made the US charts. With its recent reissue, now seems as good a time as any to review it with the hindsight of more than a quarter century(!)

Sade Adu could be considered an Astrud Gilberto for the late 1980s; though Sade’s music wasn’t categorized as jazz, it had an exotic, world-music vibe that was a key ingredient of its success. The soft and sultry voiced chanteuse crafted albums full of mellow, generally minimalistic instrumentation.

The title track opens the record in characteristic fashion, with guitar leads held until near the song’s end. The nearly cymbal-free percussion feels like hand drumming. “Paradise” moves in a more uptempo, dance-oriented direction, though – like most all Sade songs – it never finds its way into rock territory. The tune stakes out a hypnotic beat, while Adu’s overdubbed vocal harmonies are joined here and there by breathy backing vocals.

The sleek arrangement features lyrics that won’t be most people’s idea of groundbreaking poetry, but neither will they embarrass the group. Musically, it’s little more than a two chord jam that goes nowhere, but it doesn’t really need to. It’s greater than sum of its relatively humble parts.

“Nothing Can Come Between Us” starts off as if it were “Paradise, Part Two,” but some nice dialogue between bass and guitar (with electric piano backing) improves things. The song’s reliance (once again) on but two chords threatens to become problematic. For all its charms, it’s a vamp in search of a song.

The Spanish guitar figures that form the basis of “Haunt Me” offer a welcome change from the album’s stasis. Graceful acoustic guitar and Andrew Hale‘s agile piano backing provide a backdrop for Adu’s smooth, yearning vocal. A soulful saxophone solo and subtle string section work provide texture. The album credits mention a solo violin on this track, but it’s so low-key as to be nearly inaudible.

“Turn My Back On You” approaches funk territory – or what passes for funk on a Sade album– in a muted fashion. Here Adu explores the upper register of her vocal range. For the first (and thankfully, almost only) time on Love is Stronger than Pride, the drums have a heavily processed, 80s feel to them. The song is built upon an unusual time signature, but – like many components of the group’s music – it’s so subtle as to be barely noticeable.

“Keep Looking” is more in keeping with Sade’s signature slick European style; as ever Adu seems not to be breaking a sweat cutting her vocal parts. Some tasty guitar soloing from Stuart Matthewman once again mines a Spanish style. “Clean Heart” doesn’t veer far from the confines already established on the disc, but it does feature one of the album’s stronger melodic lines. The track also features some appealing brass section work that’s not heard elsewhere on the record. Congas enliven “Give It Up,” but overall the album’s homogeneity starts to wear thin for the listener interested in a bit of sonic variety. Electric piano gives “I Never Thought I’d See the Day” a contemplative air; the song is pretty but underdeveloped.

It’s curious, then, that Sade would choose to close their third long player with “Siempre Hay Esperanza,” an instrumental groove. The track is pleasant enough but — here we go again — fails to go anywhere; a single bass figure atop an exceedingly subtle two-chord vamp is about all that happens here. But the backing does provide a suitable showcase for some sax work.

In 2014, Audio Fidelity has reissued Love is Stronger Than Pride on limited-edition, 180-gram vinyl. The audio has been remastered, and discs are issued in limited, numbered editions. The sturdy and heavy gatefold sleeve opens to display a full set of lyrics and a curiously low-quality (scanned?) photo of the group. Sade Adu penned all the lyrics, and had a hand in writing all of the album’s music; she also arranged and produced the sessions, which took place in Nassau and Paris. The group would wait four years to follow the album up; 1992′s Love Deluxe offered more of the same styles, and once again charted worldwide.

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Album Review: Hedersleben — Die Neuen Welten

Friday, August 29th, 2014

According to our friends over at Wikipedia, krautrock is defined as “a form of rock and electronic music that originated in Germany in the late 1960s, with a tendency towards improvisation around minimalistic arrangements.” Though the style had its adherents in the 1970s – famed tastemaker/DJ John Peel among the most well-known of them – the style never caught on in a commercial sense outside Germany.

But the style – hypnotic, pulsing, almost tone-poem music – never went away. Julian Cope went so far as to write a book about it, 1995′s Krautrocksampler: One Head’s Guide to the Great Kosmische Musik – 1968 Onwards. And thanks in no small part of Cope’s championing of the music made by groups such as Amon Düül II and Faust, krautrock has persisted right into the 21st century.

The music of Nik Turner (late of Hawkwind) lends itself especially well to a krautrock approach, especially in a live setting. So it’s no surprise that beginning around 2013, Turner enlisted the able aid of an outfit naming themselves after a city halfway between Hanover and Berlin. Hedersleben features the guitar work of Nicky Garratt, the British musician best known for his work in seminal punk group UK Subs. American drummer Jason Willer also played in UK Subs with Garratt, and Bryce Shelton (from San Francisco) plays bass with Hedersleben. Keyboardist Kephera Moon is also from San Francisco. All of this may make you wonder what exactly is the German connection to this band. Good question; the answer lies within their music and their overall sonic approach.

The band does a bit of shape-shifting: when they record or perform with Turner, they’re sometimes billed As Nik Turner’s Hawkwind. When backing Swiss musician Joel Vandroogenbroeck, they’re the current-day lineup of psychedelic band Brainticket.

But when they play their own music – the largely instrumental examples of which are showcased on Die Neuen Welten (The New Worlds), Hedersleben have a personality all of their own. With Moon’s Ray Manzarek-like organ work out front, the dreamscapes of tunes like “Zu Den Neuen Welten” and “XO5B” take their time to unfold. The densely-layered music floats along; Shelton’s bass lines weave their way under the textures in a way that sometimes feels like Gary Wright‘s Moog bass circa The Dream Weaver. Garratt’s often heavily-treated guitar soars above the mix in a decidedly non-punky fashion, and Willer’s spellbinding drum patterns evoke warm memories of Nick Mason circa A Saucerful of Secrets.

Kephera Moon makes extensive use of synthesizers: Mellotron-sounding samples recall early Tangerine Dream, and gurgling analog synth sounds show that she understand the intelligent uses to which synths can be applied; the synthesizers are never used as mere “sound effects.”

Garratt’s lead guitar is a highlight of “On the Ground (Safe and Sound),” in which he solos over a chugging one-chord vamp. As with most of the band’s work, vocals (here little more than the whispered/chanted recitation of the song’s title) are mostly used as a textural element, rather than to convey anything like a story. That role is left to the music.

Garratt’s acoustic guitar underpins some stinging lead guitar overdubs on “Nomad World (Dreamstate).” It’s the gentlest tune on the disc, and some chanted ahhh-style vocalizing from Kati Knox adds to the dreamy vibe made explicit by the title. The faraway-sounding “XO5B” feels like a Pink Floyd jam from the More/Obscured by Clouds era; Garratt’s fret-buzzing guitar and Moon’s celestial organ work are the track’s highlights.

The five-track album closes with “Tiny Flowers/Little Moon,” at once the most conventional and most accessible tune on Die Neuen Welten. With standard signing (again courtesy Knox) and recognizable lyrics, here Hedersleben sounds of a piece with bands like The Black Angels. A vaguely sunshine-pop texture lends the tune an air not unlike the rare pop-leaning moments of The Velvet Underground and Nico. Moon’s delicate piano work – occasionally punctuated by guitar stabs from Garratt – ends the album on an extended, reflective note.

Though there are no Germans on the album; though it was recorded in Oakland, California; , though it veers close to tuneful rock in places; Hedersleben’s Die Neuen Welten is highly recommended on its own merits.

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Album Review: Rog & Pip — Our Revolution

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

I’ve just stumbled upon what sounds like the greatest album Sweet ever made. The thing is, most of the tunes on Our Revolution have gone unreleased – or have been available only on one-off, Europe-only 45rpm singles – since 1974. Oh, and one more thing: none of the guys that gave the world “Little Willy,” “Fox on the Run” and “Love is Like Oxygen” are on these tracks, and the hit production team of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman had nothing to do with the recordings.

And this newly-released album is credited to the duo Rog & Pip. In fact, other than the location (merrie olde England) and the era (the first half of the 1970s), Our Revolution has nothing to do with Sweet. So of course a bit of explanation is in order.

Philip “Pip” Whitcher left hit-making group The Sorrows to form a songwriting team with guitarist Roger Lomas. Whitcher’s involvement with The Sorrows predated Don Fardon, the singer who fronted the band for the hit “Take a Heart” (most easily found today on the essential 4CD Nuggets II: British Empire and Beyond). Lomas had been an early member of the group as well. But by the 70s they wished to strike out on their own, and while the fruits of their labors earned them next to nothing in fame nor fortune, the dozen songs now collected as Our Revolution will leave fans of stomping, good-time hook-laden 70s- style hard pop wondering why Rog & Pip weren’t as big as Slade or any of the era’s other glam-rocking hit makers.

Rog & Pip may have had a musical personality of their own, but there’s no mistaking the fact that everything about “Why Don’t You Do What I Want?” screams Sweet: the insistent beat, the shouted lead vocals and high backing voices, the fuzz-laden guitar, the direct and simple sentiments expressed in the song’s lyrics.

“My Revolution “ is even better, sounding to all the world like a cross between T. Rex and Uriah Heep (less the organs and histrionics). First-pumping and head-nodding are near-involuntary reactions to the rocker. “Rock With Me” adds some assured harmonica work, expanding the duo’s sound in interesting directions while staying well inside the format: “Come on and rock with me!” exhorts Pip while the tune chugs along, full-tilt. The phase-shifting riffage of “Evil Hearted Woman,” plus some guitar-and-bass lockstep work and nimble drumming may remind listeners of Deep Purple, or perhaps of an uncharacteristically upbeat Black Sabbath.

And speaking of Sabbath, on “Gold,” the band slows things down to the sludgy pace favored by Birmingham’s finest; the result is reminiscent of The Open Mind (“Magic Potion,” also on Nuggets II). For “Doin’ Alright Tonight,” it’s back to the stomping boogie, with some nice staccato riffage enlivened by – you knew it was coming – cowbell. When the band sings the tile lyric, you’ll find yourself singing along in a shout (mirroring the lead vocal) or perhaps in a helium-voiced pitch (along with the backing singers). The Free-style lead guitar breaks are icing on the cake.

Rog & Pip won’t have won any awards for subtlety or originality with tunes like “A Little Rock ‘n’ Roll,” but the hard-rocking tune – in the mold of a Mud or even Suzi Quatro – remains fun indeed. The snaky, vaguely sinister “Hot Rodder” ranks as Our Revolution‘s most subtly-rendered tune, but if subtlety is your taste, best keep moving past this in-your-face set of tunes. “It’s a Lonely World” slows things down and sounds like a cross between The Marmalade (once again, check Nuggets II) and Jimi Hendrix‘s “Hey Joe.”

“Why Do You Treat Me Like That?” is in many ways a retread of “Why Won’t You Do What I Want?” but then since Rog & Pip didn’t hit pay dirt with the original tune, one can’t blame them for rewriting it in hopes of success (however futile). “From a Window” is not a cover of the Lennon/McCartney obscurity, but is instead a heavy riffer that ranks among Our Revolution‘s strongest tracks. It also moves beyond the glam style toward something heavier, all while keeping the tune built around insistent licks, a (one would have thought) sure-fire recipe for success.

Alas, it was not to be. The heavy “War Lord” combines the Black Sabbath aesthetic with the bubblegum sensibilities of Sweet, and the result is another ace tune. But none of Rog & Pip’s efforts got them anywhere, and their association ended by 1977. The liner notes that accompany this 2014 release tell the story in exacting and engrossing detail; lots of photos (the performing lineups, the rare singles and picture sleeves) make an very good package even better. Though the band’s “revolution” was not, in the end, widely broadcast, the discerning retro-minded rocker should not be without Rog & Pip’s Our Revolution.

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Hundred Word Reviews for August 2014, Part 5

Friday, August 15th, 2014

My week-long run of hundred-word reviews wraps up with five new and recently-released jazz albums.


Michael Bellar and The As-is Ensemble – Oh No Oh Wow
Keyboards anchor this varied release that goes in many directions at once: even on the opening (title) track, Bellar alternates between creamy, fusion-y electric piano and Vince Guaraldi-styled acoustic piano runs. Too melodic to be prog, too rocking to be jazz, too adventurous to be labeled rock’n'roll, Oh Now Oh Wow is delightfully all over the map. The ten instrumentals – all Bellar originals save a reading of Jimi Hendrix‘s “Voodoo Chile” and a Bob Marley song – show a dizzying command of instruments, the studio, and arrangement. Your ears might fool you into thinking you hear guitars. (You don’t.)


Elias Haslanger – Live at the Gallery
This disc features tenor saxophonist Haslanger’s quintet at their weekly haunt, Austin Texas’ Continental Club Gallery; the gig is known as “Church on Monday.” And the group does testify, as they blow their way through a mix heavy on standards (“Watermelon Man,” “In a Sentimental Mood”). Jake Langley‘s electric hollowbody guitar runs are alternately mellow and biting. Dr. James Polk’s B3 adds a soulful foundation to the mix. The inventive yet solid rhythm section (Scott Laningham on drums, bassist Daniel Durham) take their turns in the spotlight as well. The appreciative but unobtrusive audience adds the right amount of texture.


Alessandro Scala Quartet – Viaggio Stellare
I’m still working to be as well-versed in jazz as I’d like to be; I suspect it will be a lifelong process. But the opening strains of “Mood” sound to these ears like a hard-bop reading of something off of Dave Brubeck‘s classic 1959 Time Out LP. It’s more than the 5/4 meter; there’s a vibe that this Italian quartet-plus-two seems to achieve effortlessly. But then that’s the trick, isn’t it: making the difficult seem effortless. Perhaps it was: the entire eleven-track album was cut in a single Summer 2012 session. Fun fact: the album title translates as “Star Trek.”


Yves Léveillé – Essences du Bois
This light, airy and gentle album is full of classical-leaning instrumentation (flute, oboe, Cor Anglais, clarinet and bass clarinet) along with instruments more readily identified with jazz (piano, upright bass, saxophones and drums). The result is pretty, impressionistic and contemplative, but not really adventurous or exciting (the subtle and varied drum work of Alain Bastien is a notable exception). Only on the strutting “Monarque” (with a very nice bass solo and some skittering piano) do things get inventive. Extra points are happily given for the fact that all eight pieces by this French Canadian ensemble are pianist Léveillé’s original works.


Vincent Gagnon – Tome III Errances
This 2013 Québec concert date showcases the compositions of bandleader and pianist Vincent Gagnon (plus one cover). The small band consists only of Gagnon plus two sax players, a double (upright) bassist and drummer. But that quintet makes the most of what they have, and the result feels like refined yet swinging Eurojazz, occasionally leaning in a big band style (if not arrangement). There’s a pleasing groove even when the rhythm section is blowing in something outside the 4/4 format. Plenty of tasty solos abound on this seven-track collection culled from the best of a three-night stand at Palais Montcalm.

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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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