Archive for the ‘review’ Category

Hundred Word Reviews for March 2015, Part 1

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

Time for some more backlog-clearing hundred-word reviews. All of these are worth my (and your) time in some way, but because of the sheer volume of worthy material in my inbox, I regularly do these short-form reviews to keep them from languishing on my desk. Today’s four are all artists I’ve covered before.


The New Trocaderos – Frenzy in the Hips
Recently I reviewed the recent three-song disc from this Northeastern trio, and while I liked it a lot, I found the stylistic ground covered disparate enough so as to be confusing. This six-song disc repeats three of those cuts. The new three are reminiscent of some quality Southern acts of the 80s — specifically Georgia Satellites and Jason & the Scorchers — and serve better to define the group’s sound. Little Steven (he of the Underground Garage digital radio program) is a fan; he’s bestowed the “Coolest Song in the World” designation to two of the cuts on this disc.


The Well Wishers – A Shattering Sky
Jeff Shelton is one prolific guy; almost like clockwork a CD from him shows up in my mailbox every few months. And even though he’s not high profile, I cover his stuff because it’s good. If you’re the sort who picked up Jordan Oakes‘ peerless Yellow Pills powerpop compilation CDs back in the 90s (or most anything from Bruce Brodeen‘s NotLame label) then this is the stuff you’re looking for circa 2015. Any of the twelve cuts here would be right at home on a Yellow Pills set. Like-minded pals Chuck Lindo and Bradley Skaught help out on some cuts.


Red Jacket Mine – Pure Delight
As with their 2013 long player, on this six-song disc, Lincoln Barr‘s Red Jacket Mine is stylistically varied. Barr’s voice is the centerpiece of these well-assembled tunes, and some interesting keyboard textures (funky 70s-styled clavinet, some really well-recorded piano) plus some tasty synth strings give the disc a vaguely Ben Folds feel (minus the humor), even though Barr’s a guitarist. The soulful “Crow” and the sing/songwriter-flavored “AM” are both a bit of a left turn, departing from the group’s generally upbeat approach. “Nearly Marjorie” is retro in that “(Just Like) Starting Over” kind of way. “Get Paid” is wryly humorous.

Dewa Budjana – Hasta Karma
This Indonesian guitarist is a busy guy; like Jeff Shelton (see above), he seems to always have something new for his listeners. Of course where Shelton’s nominally powerpop, Budjana is progjazz, with a style that’s reminiscent of the better mainstream fusion albums of the 1970s (specifically Jean-Luc Ponty‘s albums). His music is ambitious and intricate while remaining highly melodic and accessible. Joe Locke‘s vibraphones keep things in a jazz vein, as does Ben Williams‘ upright bass (which often sounds like a fretless electric bass guitar). Recommended as a disc to spin for jazz friends who don’t think they like prog.

More capsule reviews to come.

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Album Review: Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas – Secret Evil

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

It’s easy – too easy, in fact – to note that on Secret Evil, Jessica Hernandez & The Deltas sound a good bit like Amy Winehouse. Yes, there are similarities in both vocal style and instrumentation. But the comparison underestimates the strength and originality of Hernandez and her music.

The Detroit-based vocalist paid some serious dues to bring Secret Evil to the musical marketplace; originally signed to Blue Note, she recorded an album that ended up in the musical equivalent of what the film industry calls “turnaround.” Put simply, it never came out on Blue Note. Eventually she freed herself from the contract, released a EP, and now we have the first full-length from Hernandez and her band.

“No Place Left to Hide” has hints of KT Tunstall‘s early style, albeit with soulful backing from a full band. It’s a strong opening track for an album, but it’s eclipsed by the classic-to-be, “Sorry I Stole Your Man.” Equal parts trash-talking swagger and coyly knowing giggle, the song has everything a hit ought to have: great vocals with memorable “Ah-ooo” lines, solid musical backing with plenty of hooks, some subtle acrobatics from the players (check the descending organ line in the chorus) and a punchy mix.

Hernandez is equally effective turning out torchy, romantic numbers like the contemplative “Cry Cry Cry,” in which the singer shows off her precise vocal control. And she does it without the all-over-the-scale showoffy melismas so common to female pop singers. When Hernandez reaches for the upper register, she makes it sound like the most effortless thing in the world. She sings like most of us talk.

“Dead Brains” weds an effects-laden electric guitar figure to a pop-centric arrangement. The upbeat melody is almost bubblegum, but The Deltas’ arrangement gives it a harder edge, providing an effective backdrop for the lyrics-heavy track.

The band is strong and assured throughout the disc’s eleven cuts, and The Deltas manage to sound like a cohesive band rather than a group of musicians backing a singer. Hernandez’s vocals augment the instruments, and vice versa. The bridge of “Tired Oak” evokes a carnival carousel, but does so in an understated way. The track’s dynamics are emblematic of a group that sounds like they’ve been together for ages.

In “organic” styles of music, synthesizers must be used judiciously; otherwise the tunes can end up with a sterile, assembly-line feel. The synths (or treated guitars; it’s tough to tell which) on “Over” enhance the melody without overwhelming it.

On “Caught Up,” The Deltas open with a familiar drum pattern that gives way to a rocker. For those who fell in love with “Sorry I Stole Your Man,” this track may well be your second-favorite track on Secret Evil. It’s cut from similar musical cloth but isn’t a “Sorry” rewrite. The shifts in dynamics – and the great guitar solo – are thrilling, and a bit reminiscent of fellow Detroiters Dirtbombs.

“Neck Tattoo” – a rumination on romance and regret – affects a musical arrangement that feels film-noir-ish, and it curiously evokes some of John Lennon‘s better mid 1970s work. “Run Run Run” has an odd ambience that seems to combine a gypsy jazz feel with elements of techno, though it really doesn’t sound like either of those things.

Some clever horn charts enliven “Downtown Man,” a track in which Hernandez continues to demonstrate her skill at jumping vocally around the scale without distracting from her lyrics.

Jessica Hernandez & The Deltas choose a melancholy, low-key number to close out Secret Evil. “Lovers First” has a late-night, low-lights vibe. Restrained musical accompaniment from The Deltas showcases a vocal that’s both subtle and dazzling.

As a whole, Secret Evil is as impressive a debut long-player as I’ve heard from a vocalist (and her band) in some time. Recommended.

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DVD Review: Scarred But Smarter

Friday, February 20th, 2015

Plenty of bands have but one good album in them. In the old days – when record companies were still a thing – it went like this: band forms, usually around the songwriting skills of one or more member. Band gigs hard in obscurity. Band develops local following. Band gets noticed. Band gets signed. Band records album full of songs they’ve been honing to a sharp point for ages. Band releases album, tours heavily (perhaps as opening act) to promote album. Album sells, so band is rushed back into studio to record the followup.

If you follow rock music at all, you can probably write the next few sentences. There’s a reason that phrases like “the difficult second album” and “sophomore slump” exist. As the saying goes, you have your whole like to write the songs for your first album, and then ten months to write the songs for the second one.

Atlanta-based Drivin N Cryin somehow managed to avoid that particular pitfall. After releasing their debut – 1986′s Scarred but Smarter, a title that would presciently sum up their career over the ensuing thirty years – they followed up with Whisper Tames the Lion, an equally satisfying album.

Of course things began to go wrong with their third album. By their fifth, they had made some fundamental changes in their style, and for their trouble gained their highest profile to date. But while from an objective point of view (or at least one that doesn’t figure in the band’s earlier material) the harder-rocking sound of Fly Me Courageous is an excellent album, it started the band down a path that they would find unsustainable. To say that they crashed and burned with the next album (1993′s Smoke) is an understatement.

That could have been the end of the band. And it almost was. But they got their shit together, came back more focused than ever, and resumed a career – on their own terms, for the first time in a long time – and continue today.

Sure, summed up like that, the Drivin N Cryin story reads a bit like a VH-1 Behind the Music. And it could be, if told in a manner adhering to that arc: fame, fall, redemption. But in his documentary on the band, Eric von Haessler goes deeper. Scarred But Smarter is a film-length rumination on the nature of fame, a meditation on what is important and why. It’s not overly philosophical in tone, but a mature undercurrent informs the film.

A parade of personalities better known than anyone in the band help tell the story: R.E.M.‘s Peter Buck, guys from southern rock sensation Blackberry Smoke, David Lowery (Camper Van Beethoven, Cracker), renowned producer Anton Fier. And for those (like me) who grew up in Atlanta, many familiar faces and places show up in the film: Michelle Malone, notoriously prickly music critic/book store clerk David T. Lindsay (mentioned but not seen), The Nightporters (Tim Nielsen‘s pre-Drivin N Cryin band), Ty Pennington (a local Drivin’ N Cryin’ fan who’d later make it big as a TV personality), the famous 688 Club. Von Haessler eschews narration, letting the people involved tell the story. Ex-members explain on why they left (or were kicked out), and pretty much everyone takes an unflinching, no-holds-barred approach to recounting their stories. The director weaves it all together with a minimum of visual gimmickry.

There’s lots of music in Scarred But Smarter. And for those new to the band, the selections will help drive home a fundamental truth behind the band’s lack of (by conventional standards) success: they’re all over the place. As Kinney relates near the film’s end, it’s near impossible to pin Drivin N Cryin down stylistically. Folk? Rock? College/indie rock? Hard rock? Southern rock? Yes and no to each of those. One onscreen personality calls them a “punk band,” but that’s probably overreach. What they were and remain is very good, and very underrated. Their 2009 album The Great American Bubble Factor is a winner, and the series of EPs that followed it played to perhaps the band’s greatest strength: their skill in a wide variety of musical idioms.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from the story of Kevn Kinney and his band mates, it’s one similar to the lessons your parents tried to teach you when you were a kid (if you were lucky). Don’t follow the example of the kool kids (read: record company executives). Don’t get involved in dangerous drugs (read: dangerous drugs). Follow your muse, do what you love, and you’ll find success on your own terms. At its heart, that’s the positive message of Scarred But Smarter.

Asheville readers: Drivin N Cryin will play The Altamont on Saturday, March 7. See you there.

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Concert Photography in a Local Light: “Front Row Focus”

Thursday, February 19th, 2015

In 2015, nearly every concertgoer carries a smart phone with a built-in camera, so snapshots of the onstage performers aren’t exactly a rare commodity. But there’s a long and proud tradition of legitimate concert photography, and it’s no hyperbole to call it an art form. Some of the most iconic images in music have come from the lenses of such giants as Elaine Mayes (her Monterey Pop concert shots of Pete Townshend and Jimi Hendrix are classics), Mick Rock, Jim Marshall, Anton Corbijn and Jenny Lens.

 

Avett Brothers Halloween 2014 Photo by www.DavidSimchock.com

Avett Brothers Halloween 2014 Photo by www.DavidSimchock.com

Asheville has its own modern-day exponents of concert photography. You’ve likely seen these characters at any number of local venues; they’re the ones who not only understand the rules (no flash photography, “pit photography” allowed for the first three songs only), but have a keen and discerning eye. Concert photography is about so much more than snapping the shutter at the right moment; it’s about synthesizing what’s special about a performer – someone who deals in sound and movement – into a still and silent visual image that captures the essence of that performer.

Three of the finest Asheville-based concert photographers have created an exhibition of their best work, on display now through April 15 at The Green Sage Café (Westgate). “Front Row Focus” presents arresting images from the cameras of Nick King, David Simchock, and Frank Zipperer. Though all three travel on assignments, “Front Row Focus” is drawn from the best images documenting local performances. Curated by Paul Rollins, the exhibit features dozens of color and black-and-white photos.

The works of the three photographers are displayed throughout the Green Sage’s airy, open space; while the room is well-lit after dark, the photos are seen to their best effect surrounded by natural light. Zipperer – a photographer whose tastes run toward jazz – presents his concert photos primarily in black-and-white format; that format allows the photographer to make visual statements about his subjects through controlled use of contrast. The shots are often up close and personal, and always lead themselves to contemplation and close study.

Much of Simchock’s work displayed at “Front Row Focus” features rich, deeply saturated colors that lend the images an almost three-dimensional quality. The hyper-realism and stunningly sharp focus creates a you-are-there ambience. Nearly all of Simchock’s photos document performances in Asheville; the few exceptions – photos taken in New Orleans and Philadelphia, for example — are so breathtaking and remarkable that their inclusion makes sense.

King’s work is superb in its capturing of those just-right onstage moments; though dealing with subjects who are constantly on the move, the photographer’s documenting of a split-second slice of the performance somehow captures and conveys all of the movement. And it does so with astounding clarity. Though he, too, sometimes works in close-up, King’s wide-angle lens brilliantly and effectively captures the stage as a whole.

All of the photos on display at “Front Row Focus” are available for purchase, but it costs nothing to view them at the exhibit. The photography installation is open for viewing during Green Sage’s normal operating hours (daily 8:00am – 7:00pm).

Who: “Front Row Focus” featuring the work of Nick King, David Simchock, and Frank Zipperer
Where: Green Sage Café (Westgate), Asheville NC
When: Now through April 15, daily 8:00am – 7:00pm
Door: Free, and prints are available for sale.

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Album Review: Dengue Fever — The Deepest Lake

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015

The band Dengue Fever has been together for about twelve years; prior to their latest album, they’ve released six full-lenth albums (including a film soundtrack) and three EPs. But somehow I’ve missed them until now. My only prior exposure to the group was via their curating a 2010 compilation called Dengue Fever Presents Electric Cambodia. In my measured review, I put across the reaction that the disc was a bit exotic for my tastes. And my tempered enthusiasm for it stuck with me, making me (by extension) less receptive to music from Los Angeles-based Dengue Fever.

The loss was clearly mine, as I discovered when I gave the band’s latest, The Deepest Lake, a spin. Where the tracks on the 2010 compilation betrayed miniscule or nonexistent recording budgets and a musical sensibility somewhat alien to western ears, the music of Dengue Fever bears none of those characteristics.

Sure, it leans in a decidedly “world music” direction, but Dengue Fever’s music is firmly rooted in western styles – most notably (but by no means exclusively) sixties garage and psychedelic rock – with a pan-global sensibility folded into the music.

Right out of the gate, Dengue Fever employs an approach that seamlessly blends east and west: on “Tokay,” drum machines chug along right alongside “real” percussion by Paul Dreux Smith, and a southeast Asian-flavored melodic line is delivered using western instruments like Ethan Holtzman‘s venerable combo organ and synthesizer. Lead vocalist Chhom Nimol sings in an unfamiliar language (Khmer), but Zac Holtzman delivers some delightfully reverberated spaghetti-western electric guitar. The result is exotic and familiar all at once, and quite hypnotic. We don’t know what Nimol is singing about, but we like it.

“No Sudden Moves” is, if anything, an even more successful hybrid of Asian and western textures; David Ralicke‘s soulful horns nudge the group’s sound in the direction of bands like New Mastersounds and DC Fontana, and Zac Holtzman’s surf-n-spy guitar licks. But Nimol’s delightful, expressive and high-register Khmer vocals take the music other places indeed.

For “Rom Say Sok,” Nimol not only sings in English, but the band adds in backing harmony vocals; the result sounds not unlike X crossed with the go-go-dance aesthetic of The B-52′s, with some ultra-cool guitar and synth work layered on top. As good as the first two tracks are, with “Rom Say Sok,” The Deepest Lake really hits its stride. And Ralicke’s horn charts on the cut are thrilling.

“The Ghost Voice” dials back the energy, creating a gentle, swaying ambience. Nimol returns to singing in Khmer, and the stuttering beat of the tune – lots of cowbell – will draw listeners in. But everyone in the band contributes something interesting and valuable, so picking the song apart in one’s head yields further delights. That it all works together smoothly – that it’s not some sort of gruesome or precious hybrid – is a testament to Dengue Fever’s skill at songwriting and (especially) arrangement. (Composition of all of the band’s music is credited to the full band.)

“The Deepest Lake on the Planet” weds western ba-ba-ba vocals (from the Mamas & the Papas / Turtles school of pop) to a spooky, slinky melody with a dreamy Khmer vocal from Nimol. One could imagine the band playing this in some smoky Cambodian bar while a tuxedoed James Bond sips on a vesper nearby. “Cardboard Castles” continues in that vein, adding some appealingly twangy lead guitar licks throughout. Here, Nimol alternates effortlessly between Khmer and English.

I’m not sure if it’s a real or sampled flute that opens “Vacant Lot,” but whichever it is, the effect is lovely. Because of the Khmer vocals (and lack of a lyric sheet), it’s impossible to know for sure, but one can’t help wonder if Dengue Fever’s songs on The Deepest Lake concern themselves with melancholic and poignant subject matter; some of the titles certainly suggest it’s the case. The music on “Vacant Lot” and many of the album’s nine other tracks delivers beauty and sadness in equal parts.

The upbeat “Still Waters Run Deep” uses Nimol’s vocal lines as a musical instrument; the Memphis-styled horn battle that provides the song’s centerpiece is easily the most exciting musical moment on an already highly engaging album. “Taxi Dancer” is one of the few tracks on The Deepest Lake in which male (backing) vocals can be heard clearly; the English-language response to Nimol’s Khmer call is a bit unexpected, but it works.

The album closes with “Golden Flute,” featuring a stripped-down arrangement that feels like Martin Denny crossed with Parisian street music; it’s delightfully disorienting in its musical hard-to-pin-down-ness.

Listeners who are open to an album featuring little in the way of English-language vocals are strongly encouraged to give Dengue Fever’s The Deepest Lake a spin; the alluring performances and strong melodies will win over the open-minded.

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Album Review: Siena Root — Pioneers

Monday, February 16th, 2015

I feel that it’s my duty to take an unusual approach to this review: instead of some sort of contextual introduction, I’m going to go directly to my main thesis. Here it is. Ready?

On Pioneers, Siena Root sound very, very, very much like Deep Purple.

There it is. And I’m not talking Book of Taliesyn Deep Purple; no, Siena Root has the Machine Head / Who Do We Think We Are / Burn / Made in Japan sound down pat. From the husky, assured rock’n'roar of Jonas “Joe Nash” Ahlén‘s lead vocal, to the swirling, assertive, leading-the-pack organ pyrotechnics of Erik “Errika” Petersson to the fiery yet lean-and-mean fretwork of lead guitarist Matte Gustafson (whose ability to conjure Blackmore-styled riffage is nothing short of uncanny), this group succinctly and superbly nails the early 70s vibe of one of rock’s most popular hard rock outfits.

But that’s not the most important thing about Siena Root. No: putting together a band that sounds like it includes Ian Gillan, Jon Lord and Ritchie Blackmore isn’t (in and of itself) all that remarkable; Deep Purple did it for a few years, after all. What makes Siena Root special is the music. This five piece from (as you might have guessed from the surnames) Stockholm creates songs with strong hooks, solid, hummable melodic lines, and enough high-octane rock punch to hit the mark squarely.

Siena Root’s lyrics aren’t deathless poetics: their topics range from women who done them wrong (the album’s standout “7 Years”), who-we-are position statements (“Root Rock Pioneers”), and what sounds like “Highway Star” styled space travel (“Spiral Trip”). And when they do cover someone else’s tune, it’s not Blackmore and Co.; it’s the early Led Zeppelin chestnut, “Whole Lotta Love.” But when Siena Root covers Zep, they make it their own: The signature riff that underpins the song is delivered via Hammond organ routed through an extremely overdriven Leslie speaker.

If your idea of a good time includes a fist-in-the-air rock soundtrack a la the early 1970s, but you want something you haven’t heard hundreds of times (no “Smoke on the Water” in Guitar Center, please), then you can’t do much better than Siena Root’s Pioneers.

There are plenty of dynamics with Siena Root’s tunes; they’re not lunkheaded, piledriving rockers. (Or put another way, they don’t look to Status Quo for inspiration.) The musical twists and turns on tracks like “7 Years” make sense, and unfold in a logical way; Siena Root are here to rock you, not impress you with fussy, progressive arrangements. But the shifting gears of that tune’s tempos – driven largely by the rhythm section of bassist Sam Riffer (his real name?) and Love “Billy” Forsberg on drums – add an element vaguely sinister excitement to the proceedings. (They all have long hair and beards, too. Which helps.)

The sticker on the CD case calls Pioneers – the group’s sixth(!) album but their U.S. debut – “stoner rock,” and unapologetically describes it as “a heavy blend of Deep Purple & Iron Butterfly.” As if there could be any other variety of blend. And as if there should be.

So yes, Siena Root are derivative, and they’re unashamed to admit it. But their musical fountainhead is some seriously prime rock that combines the best aspects of heaviosity and melody, and they up the ante with good songs. If you thought Wolfmother‘s first few albums were good and you wished they hadn’t run out of steam, you’ll greet Siena Root’s Pioneers with welcome ears.

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Album Review: The Residents’ Commercial Album

Friday, February 13th, 2015

Ex-Turtles and Mothers vocalists Flo and Eddie (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan) used to have a nationally-syndicated radio show. One recurring component of the merry duo’s program involved spinning records by some of their musical peers. The thing is, they wouldn’t play anywhere near the whole song: after they felt like they had given listeners the gist of a song, off it went.

The thinking behind that practice was simple: once you’ve heard a minute or so of a pop song, you’ve pretty well heard everything it has to offer. The rest is repetition. This is true (perhaps to an alarming extent) for most pop, rock, blues, country, soul, funk, and r&b. In fact I apply that thinking whenever I’m doing one of my periodic “smash or trash” exercises to determine which submissions get reviewed. (Because of the complexity and shifting tone that are hallmarks of jazz and progressive rock, music of those genres gets a more thorough once-over).

But I didn’t invent the idea, and as much as I love Flo and Eddie, they didn’t come up with it, either. Neither, perhaps, did The Residents, but they may well have been the first musical artists to explore the idea in depth and then craft an entire album by applying its principles.

That’s the underlying premise/concept of the group’s 1980 album The Residents’ Commercial Album. Certainly not commercial in the most popular definition (as in, accessible and lending itself to mass marketing), the Commercial Album takes its name from the fact that each of its forty tracks are exactly sixty seconds long…like a television commercial.

Across forty tracks, The inscrutable collective that is The Residents explore the pop landscape from their skewed perspective. But in its own twisted way, Commercial Album is – by Residential standards – fairly accessible stuff. Stripping their compositions down to the most basic elements, The Residents still endeavor to give listeners what (in other contexts) would be considered a verse and chorus. Often the vocals are delivered in the peculiar sung-spoken style that is the group’s trademark, but other times there’s actual singing (sometimes by guest artists including Lene Lovich and Snakefinger, both of whom have more, um, accessible vocal tones).

The instrumentation on Commercial Album‘s tracks varies from exceedingly minimalist (say, one synthesizer and a drum machine) to fully-developed “band” type arrangements that feature multiple musicians (or at least multiple overdubbed instrument parts). Occasionally, the tunes fall into a samey-ness of meter, but then – knowing The Residents – that characteristic may be a way for the group to wordlessly comment on the generic nature of much of what passes for pop music.

There are some catchy tunes here, as well. The first two cuts (“Easter Woman” and “Perfect Love”) are nothing if not pop-leaning in their construction and delivery (note that when it comes to matters of accessibility, The Residents are graded on a curve). It’s worth noting just how far The Residents traveled musically between their debut album Meet the Residents (recorded 1974, but not widely released until 1977) and Commercial Album just a few years later. For pop-attuned ears, Commercial Album is far easier to take than the group’s first disc. But the changes/refinements The Residents made to their music in the interim didn’t dilute their vision a bit: Commercial Album is as weird and wonderful as ever.

It’s also worth pointing out just how difficult it is to create forty distinct songs that are all exactly the same length. Some groups have almost achieved that kind of thing by accident (see The Ramones‘ early catalog for evidence) but doing it on purpose is some sort of accomplishment in and of itself.

That The Residents’ Commercial Album is listenable and entertaining start to finish is a testament to the group’s quality of vision. The 2014 CD reissue of the album by MVD doesn’t offer anything new in the way of bonus tracks (a 1988 reissue had ten) or liner notes(!), but then The Residents’ Commercial Album has always been just fine the way it is.

By the way, four more of my Residents reviews (and an interview!) are HERE.

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Album Review: The Silos – Cuba

Friday, February 6th, 2015

When music historians write or speak about the college-rock music of the 1980s, and when they focus on the country-leaning exponents of that sound, many worthy acts get mentioned. The Long Ryders, The Blasters, Lone Justice, even R.E.M. all get recognized. But too often overlooked are The Silos. Formed in the middle of that decade, The Silos were the musical vehicle for Walter Salas-Humara (formerly of The Vulgar Boatmen) and Bob Rupe. On their second album, 1987′s Cuba, the folky, acoustic-leaning Silos wedded a tuneful sensibility to singer/songwriterly lyrics, and wrapped it all in a genre-spanning sound that took in elements of c&w (notably David Pearlman‘s pedal steel that graces “Margaret”) and alt-folk a la Camper Van Beethoven (for example, Mary Rowell‘s fiddle all over the album).

Rupe and Salas-Humara both sing in a decidedly Southern rock-inflected style, but the tunes on Cuba aren’t beer drinkin’ barn burners; as often as not, the songs concern themselves with marriage, wives, memories and other universal, workaday concerns.

The album blows by in a hurry; the second side rocks harder than the first, kicking off with “Memories,” among the album’s most commercially-oriented tracks. That quality may be related to the full-band (read: electric) arrangement that features the only use of keyboards (guest Rick Wagner on organ) on the entire record.

Cuba is an unassuming record; the songs don’t jump out at the listener. Even the careening and distorted electric guitar squalls on “Just This Morning” are couched in a ramshackle, near-campfire sort of arrangement that keeps the focus on the vocals and lyrics. And a roomful of guests add to what would otherwise be a one-vocal-and-acoustic guitar affair on “Going Round.” With the augmented lineup featuring voices and classical string instrumentation, it’s a thing of beauty.

“It’s Alright” is a wistful number that’s very much in the style of Sid Griffin‘s Long Ryders work; again its lyrics concerns itself with life’s little pleasures. The tune also features Rowell’s most effective violin work on the disc. “All Falls Away” applies the Silos sound to a three-chord rocker; the result feels like a rougher-hewn rethink of Violent Femmes (with much less affected vocals). Taken as a whole the songs on Cuba have much more depth to them than might be initially evident; as such, Cuba is an album that rewards the listener who spends more time with it.

The 2015 reissue of Cuba applies a star black label to a creamy white vinyl LP. A contrasty band poster promoting Cuba is also included; its size and style are evocative of the gig posters of the era. A download card is also included, but I’m quite happy to stick to the vinyl version.

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Album Review: The Ben Webster Quintet — Soulville

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

The folks at Vinyl Me Please have struck gold once again. The mail-order subscription label has carved a unique niche in the music marketplace with its carefully-chosen and -curated monthly LP releases, and its latest offering – The Ben Webster Quintet‘s 1957 Soulville – continues the label’s trend of exquisite reissues.

Tenor saxophonist Webster had played with Duke Ellington for many years, but by the time of this album – the fourth under his own name – Webster had made a name for himself as a soloist and bandleader in his own right. With a who’s-who band that featured Oscar Peterson on piano, bassist Ray Brown, Stan Levey on drums, and guitarist Herb Ellis, Soulville is peak Webster. The songs vary from understated, bluesy workouts to more uptempo cuts, and throughout, everyone takes his turn at soloing.

The aptly-named title track is cool and understated, built around a blues framework. “Late Night” is a blues as well, but a much more sexy, uptempo one that swings. The romantic “Time on My Hands” features some exquisitely expressive sax work from Webster. “Where Are You” is skillful, subdued, late-night minimalistic jazz. The familiar “Makin’ Whoopee” is given a suitably playful reading by Webster, with solid support from is band mates.

A 2003 reissue of Soulville (on another label) appended the set with three bonus tracks that featured Webster on (sprightly if loose-limbed) piano; one of those cuts (“Boogie Woogie”) is included on the Vinyl Me Please reissue; other than that, it’s a straight reissue of the original Verve LP. It’s noteworthy (and odd) that the new LP doesn’t have a paper label; instead, the Verve logo and other info that would have been printed is instead tooled directly into the black vinyl.

The heavy-gauge LP comes in a deluxe paper sleeve, and – as with all Vinyl Me Please reissues – includes a poster featuring new artwork, and an overleaf sleeve that features brief notes from VMP’s Tyler Barstow. And as ever, the overleaf includes a recipe for a cocktail that Barstow believes well-matched to the music; in this case it’s a very old-school Gin and Tonic. I can vouch for its successful pairing with Ben Webster’s Soulville.

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Album Review: JJ Cale — Rewind: Unreleased Recordings

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015

To the music-buying public at large, J.J. Cale is little more than a footnote. Some recognize his name and acknowledge he’s the guy who wrote two of Eric Clapton‘s biggest hits, “After Midnight” and “Cocaine.” Some know a bit more, and note that he also composed “Call Me the Breeze” (a popular Lynyrd Skynyrd tune). Some confuse him with ex-Velvet Underground viola player John Cale.

Fewer still are familiar with his own word as a recording artist. Cale released fifteen albums between the early 1970s and the end of the new century’s first decade (he passed away in 2013). A good half-dozen compilations have sought to distill his work down to single-album proportions, and for the listener new to the man’s work, any of those is a fine place to start.

For those interested in diving further into Cale’s music, a 2007 album titled Rewind: Unreleased Recordings provides a surprisingly complete overview of Cale’s talents. Newly reissued on vinyl, Rewind doesn’t sound at all like a collection of leftovers, discards and half-baked efforts. It’s a fully realized album, and it’s all the more remarkable this it is so, seeing as the fourteen cuts are drawn from all phases of his career.

To those less familiar with his material, Cale’s style as showcased on Rewind will sound remarkably similar to Clapton’s laid-back, post-Derek and the Dominos musical persona. The mot charitable view is that when British guitarist Clapton got back to his roots, he just happened to end up sounding like Oklahoma City-born guitarist. No matter: Cale’s sound is heavily influenced with a Southern gospel/roots sensibility, a sly, quiet shuffle style that imbues all of his work with a smoky, smoldering aura.

As showcased on Rewind, Cale is a most understated character. Even when he rips out a wah-wah laden solo (as on “Since You Said Goodbye”), his musical fire quietly glows more than it licks at the sky. His countrified musical sensibility never asserts itself; his approach seems to be more along the lines of, “Her’s what I’m doing. Stay and listen if you like.” That approach may help for account for the man’s relatively low profile. He seemed more content to stay and play in the shadows, away from the limelight.

While many of the first several cuts on the disc are Cale’s reinterpretations of the work of others (Randy Newman, Clapton, and Leon Russell: like-minded artists all), the second half (and in this case, second side) of Rewind is all Cale originals.

The closest that Cale comes to high energy on Rewind is “Bluebird,” but its uptempo vibe is more bluegrass-leaning than anything else. Pedal steel guitar is the highlight of My Baby and Me,” the closest Cale gets to old-style country on this collection. “Lawdy Mama” feels a bit like a rewrite that combines “After Midnight” and “Call Me the Breeze.” Though it’s a fine tune, its tail-chasing nature makes it less fulfilling listen (and perhaps explains why it went unrevealed for years).

Unfortunately, the 2015 vinyl reissue of Rewind doesn’t include any discographical information, so we don’t know the recording dates or years for these cuts, and the studio personnel can only be guessed at. But none of that detracts from enjoying the listening experience that is Rewind: Unreleased Recordings. Those new to Cale will get a fine introduction to his work, and further investigation will yield richer rewards. And Cale fans will want it for completeness’ sake. Either way, it’s a fine record, made all the more special as a warm and wonderful sounding180-gram vinyl edition.

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