Archive for the ‘review’ Category

Album Review: Gramercy Arms — The Seasons of Love

Friday, October 31st, 2014

As a rule, I make it a point to avoid reading reviews of an album before writing a review of my own. I don’t want my opinion formed by the undue influence of some other reviewer’s point of view. But I do like to do a bit of basic research – to get some background – before I write about an album. And so occasionally I accidentally stumble across a review during that endeavor.

That’s what happened while I was looking for a bit of information on The Seasons of Love, the new album from Gramercy Arms. I got the CD some time ago, and by the time it came to review it, I had largely forgotten the background of the group (whom I had not heard of prior to this year). I had a vague sense that Gramercy Arms is some sort of supergroup (akin to The New Pornographers, who I’ll be seeing in concert next week) or perhaps someone’s side project. (Neither assumption was correct, as it turns out.) In my quick search for details, I found a review that described the group’s sound as “slightly cheesy.”

Whoa. Hey, I understand that one man’s Velveeta is another man’s fine fromage, but there’s nothing cheesy about The Seasons of Love. Yes, the songs do concern themselves largely with matters of life and love – the song titles make that plain – but this is some high quality stuff. Perhaps someone raised on a steady diet of 90s grunge rock might find the melodic quotient too high, but for anyone who appreciates the melodic sense of, say, Paul McCartney, Gramercy Arms’ new album is a real treat.

For those attuned to melodicism, The Seasons of Love ensnares the listener right out of the gate. “Always in Love” has a sprightly, upbeat, piano-and-drums led rhythm that strongly recalls Electric Light Orchestra‘s “Mister Blue Sky.” Or perhaps Ben Folds Five‘s masterful “Kate.” It sounds unlike either of those, really, but there’s a composition-in-the-proud-tradition vibe that tells you they know and appreciate a good, strong tune.

Knowing, lived-in lyrics come at you rapid fire; throwaway lines rush by quickly, but if you catch them, you might crack a little smile when you hear “you and whatshisname still goin’ strong” and such. Economic use of horn charts is a hallmark of the tune (and the album as a whole) too.

The minor-key soulful tip of “Beautiful Disguise” makes it clear quickly that Gramercy Arms aren’t all about sweetness and light. But there’s a sense of authenticity in this achingly beautiful song. Gramercy Arms is the project of Dave Derby, a songwriter who busies himself with all manner of projects including work for film and television. That commercial media focus shows itself in his accessible approach to songwriting. And Derby is a fan of that reliably melodic kind of music; on The Season of Love, he enlists some of his friends/heroes; their talent shines throughout the record. Erin Moran (not the actress but instead the artist also known as A Girl Called Eddy) is one; Lloyd Cole (who has his own excellent new album, to reviewed here soon) is another. Matthew Caws (Nada Surf) and Tanya Donnelly (Throwing Muses, The Breeders, Belly) are two more.

Still, it’s Derby’s show. And not all of the songs are built around piano: “The Night is Your Only Friend” is a shimmering acoustic guitar-based tune that strikes a note halfway between the bright pop of “Always in Love” and the melancholy of the slower numbers. Strong melodies and sharp hooks are supported by memorable lead guitar runs and soaring , carefully-placed horn charts.

“Novemberlong” is another winning tune in that classic pop mold, but “Playing With Fire” weds reverbed, spaghetti western guitar and a sting section (violin, voila and cello) and what sounds like a pedal steel guitar to create an intimate, somber, contemplative mood. “Yours Untruly” launches with a slow-as-molasses drum beat that gives way to a soaring arrangement that is reminiscent of Polyphonic Spree; the massed vocal chorus strengthens that connection, but the distorted lead vocal and stabbing, soaring guitar leads keep it more in rock territory.

“The Season of Love” (note the slightly different spelling) features lead vocal from Donnelly and Verena Wiesendanger; oddly enough, it sounds like Elliot Smith supported by a Burt Bacharach arrangement. Put another way, it’s pure pop bliss, and if Mike Myers ever makes that rumored fourth Austin Powers film, it belongs on the soundtrack.

“Say the Word” is another unassuming yet lovely pop tune with lots of oooh vocalisms. “Thin” wraps up the album in somber fashion, with a funereal pace punctuated by sustained piano minor chords. As the tune unfolds, more instruments – gurgling organ, single-note electric guitar lines – are added into the mix. It has the feeling of a slow-waving goodby on a misty morning. And then it’s over. But those who dig solid songwriting with a high melodic quotient would do well to keep an eye and ear out for the next Gramercy Arms album, whenever it happens. Meanwhile the absolutely-not-a-bit-cheesy The Seasons of Love is short-listed for Musoscribe’s best albums of 2014.

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Album Review: R.L. Burnside — Too Bad Jim

Thursday, October 30th, 2014

Here’s something that can be described as the sweet spot in a Venn diagram charting a curiosity, a history lesson, and an authentic modern-day reading of country blues. R.L. Burnside‘s Too Bad Jim – newly reissued on vinyl; more about that presently – sounds for all the world like a classic country blues session, the kind of thing Alan Lomax might have captured for the Smithsonian decades ago. Burnside’s delivery – vocal and guitar – is deeply redolent of Mississippi delta bluesmen of old (most notably Fred McDowell), but the production values are positively 21st century.

Which isn’t to say that Too Bad Jim has been gimmicked-up, akin to some sort of White Stripes dilettantism. No, Burnside is indeed the real deal. His blues tunes are true to the spirit of those old field recordings in that his blues is not confined to modern/commercial notions of how long each verse should be. In that he shares a sensibility with artists such as John Lee Hooker: Burnside uses the blues form more as a jumping off point than as a framework. He’s a bluesman, to be sure, but he bends the form to suit his needs. His electrified approach is supported on Too Bad Jim by the sparest of backing: this 1993 recording finds him joined only by bass and drums. Not only is their contribution simple and basic – keeping the spotlight where it belongs – but it’s relatively low in the mix.

And by “mix” I don’t wish to imply that Too Bad Jim has the sound of a multi-track studio recording. The sound is crystal clear and uncluttered, but it very much has the feel of one mic hanging from the ceiling (alongside perhaps a lone, naked incandescent lightbulb). There’s a late-night feel to the ten tracks on Too Bad Jim; that vibe pervades Burnside’s mix of originals, traditional numbers, and a cover of Hooker’s “When My First Life Left Me.” His original numbers – take “Short Haired Woman” for as good an example as any – could have been written ninety years ago, but in Burnside’s capable hands, the songs are timeless. His singing and playing is in turns heartfelt, impassioned, assured, and it’s always authentic.

Too Bad Jim was originally issued on the venerable Fat Possum label. A new subscription service called Vinyl Me Please featured Burnside’s second and highly regarded album as its October 2014 selection. Thick, sturdy heavyweight vinyl is packaged in a higher-gauge cardboard sleeve, along with a download card giving purchasers access to 320kbps (read: high quality) MP3 files. A nice foldout poster will evoke warm memories among those who came of age in vinyl’s 1970s heyday. As part of Vinyl Me Please’s good-natured approach, the package for Too Bad Jim also includes a recipe card for a relevant cocktail, in this case a variation on the Bloody Mary, one that was reputedly a favorite of Burnside’s.

With its monthly offerings, the Vinyl Me Please catalog explores a wide array of genres; the only unifying characteristic seems to be high quality.

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Book Review: Vinyl Lives On

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014

Florida-based author/journalist James Goss digs his vinyl. Though he never writes about his own interests or collection, his abiding fascination with the medium of vinyl records shines through loud and clear in his writing. His first two books on the subject – Vinyl Lives and Vinyl Lives II – offered profiles of many of the more notable independent record shops that have endured through the years and/or popped up in the wake of vinyl’s mini-resurgence. Goss’ knowing questions elicited illuminating responses from the shop owners, and that raw material – deftly combined with his own research and existing knowledge – resulted in some very interesting pieces.

That format is used in Goss’ newest book, Vinyl Lives On: Profiles of Musician Collectors and Record Store Owners. As its title makes plain, this book enjoys a widening of Goss’ scope to include collectors of note. And while a good chunk of Vinyl Lives On still focuses upon indie shops (happily, their number has been growing since publication of Goss’ earlier books), the chapters devoted to profiles of collectors provide a balance and an added level of insight.

Goss’ interview/profile of Henry Rollins is in itself worth the price of admission. Rollins is an unfailingly rewarding interview subject, and Goss’ experience was clearly no exception. The subject of record collecting clearly stuck a chord with Rollins; his numerous quotes are unceasingly interesting, shedding light on his voracious appetite for music (and other recorded material) across a wide array of genres.

Some of the author’s profiles of other collectors are marginally less interesting, but that has as much to do with what they have to say (or don’t have to say) as anything else. Goss’ chapters on Bill Frisell and Billy Vera both focus more on overall biographies of the musicians, so their interest in vinyl represents a smaller part of the content.

Not to focus too greatly on form versus content, but two points deserve mention here. First, Goss’ series of books – though published under the imprint of Aventine Press – are for all intents and purposes self-published works. This does show through in the relatively simple cover art and (to my mind, anyway) questionable choices of font and type size. But those issues are largely matters of taste, and don’t appreciably affect the quality of the books one way or another.

The second point is more substantial. Though Vinyl Lives On and its predecessors aren’t published by a major or well-known house, Goss’ books have obviously received a much more thorough editing than is the norm these days. I’ve read innumerable books these last few years, and am relentlessly barraged with syntax errors, factual mistakes, poor and inconsistent spelling. Goss’ comparatively humble books have virtually none of these issues: they’re well-written and expertly edited. For a writer/editor, reading works filled with mistakes can be an especially distracting experience. With Vinyl Lives On and its earlier two volumes, readers are free to focus on the content, well-presented as it should be.

James Goss’ Vinyl Lives On makes it three-in-a-row for my recommendation.

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DVD Review: BB King — The Life of Riley

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

I know people who argue that – as a creative work – the music documentary is dead. They point out that the medium has become a rote retreading of tired techniques; that every possible clever, creative or even interesting method of telling a story onscreen has been beaten to death, leaving only the shell of a concept in its wake.

I understand what they mean. It’s nigh upon impossible to find a music documentary that doesn’t have these four things:

  1. Character actors “reenact” the musician’s early years while stock audio (that evokes the style of the subject matter without having to actually, y’know, pay royalties for using the actual music) plays in the background
  2. Post-production digital gimmicks like “fake scratched 16mm film” or “fake sepia tinting” or “fake [insert any of the myriad effects]”
  3. Bono, and possibly Dave Grohl
  4. Narration by Morgan Freeman.

Okay, I overstate things a bit here, both to make a point and possibly elicit a small chuckle. But the fact remains that – like the book says – when it comes to music documentaries, it often seems as if there’s nothing new under the sun.

Jon Brewer‘s new documentary B.B. King: The Life of Riley falls into many of these traps: it has the actors, the post-production, U2‘s ubiquitous lead singer, and Freeman (the last as both off-screen narrator and onscreen “talking head”). But despite its often rote approach, The Life of Riley transcends cliché. This is no doubt thanks to its subject matter. B.B. King is very much the real deal, and so even when tired devices are used to chronicle his life, the substance wins out over the style.

Throughout the film, Brewer’s approach seems to be chronological, but a close watch shows that the narrative often jumps forward and backward in the timeline, in service of the mini-narrative being explored. As much is left out of the story as is put in, and the viewer likely comes away feeling that they haven’t been told the whole story. (For example, we’re left wondering if he’s still married to Sue Carol Hall; he’s not). And his monumental, historic 1974 concert in Africa deserves more than the cursory mention it gets in the film. But in the absence of any other career-spanning look at King, The Life of Riley is what we have. And in the wake of King’s very recent suspension of his tour (for health reasons; he’s currently 89 years of age), now is the perfect time for such a film to appear.

In Brewer’s defense, The Life of Riley is perhaps the only music documentary in which the inescapable likeness and voice of Bono does truly deserve its place in the film. U2 toured and performed with King, and their “When Love Comes to Town” (featuring King on vocals and guitar) is one of the better pieces of music they’ve produced. (It’s less clear, however, why Bruce Willis gets screen time, but we’ll leave that one for another day.) And despite the fact that having Freeman narrate your film has become tired even as a joke device, the man’s clear yet laconic cadence is an excellent vehicle for narration.

As portrayed in The Life of Riley, King is painted as something of a good-natured rascal, one who always has a smile but whom you’d best not cross; it seems once he achieved success, he invariably (and inviolably) got his way. Fair enough: if any musician can be said to have paid his dues, King – who came from indisputably hardscrabble beginnings – is that man.

Music fans will come away from The Life of Riley wishing there was more in the way of performance clips in the film. But for that, there’s always King’s deep catalog of music. His most recent album is the Grammy-winning One Kind Favor; I reviewed it on release way back in 2008.

In the end, unlike its subject matter, The Life of Riley doesn’t yield anything that’s groundbreaking or especially inspiring. It’s perhaps only a small notch above an A&E Biography TV special (do they even make those any more?), but it remains worthwhile viewing.

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DVD Review: Ian Anderson – Thick As A Brick Live in Iceland

Monday, October 27th, 2014

In 2012, Jethro Tull leader Ian Anderson mounted a tour to promote his latest solo album, Thick As a Brick 2: What Ever Happened to Gerald Bostock? The tour and album both represented a high point in the recent musical activity of the ever-busy Anderson.

I saw the Asheville date of that tour in my hometown, and got the chance to interview Anderson for a print feature in advance of the performance. At the time, however, I reviewed neither the album nor the live show. This new DVD (also available on Blu-Ray) is a document of the show, which is in part a document of the album.

While in the last several years, Anderson’s flute playing has actually improved (we discussed that in our first interview, back in 2007), his vocal ability hasn’t fared so well. In fact, a 2010 DVD (Jethro Tull – Live at Avo Session Basel) vividly illustrates what the ravages of time have done to Anderson’s pipes). Still, as the Thick As a Brick 2 album shows, his songwriting and arrangement skills (and, again, his flute playing) remain sharp, reliable tools.

It is clear that Anderson realizes his strengths and weaknesses. And his solution to this set of challenges is nothing less than inspired: he’s added a new character to the onstage lineup. The Yorkshire-born Ryan O’Donnell was born in 1982, the same year Jethro Tull released their fourtten studio album, The Broadsword and the Beast; around the time of O’Donnel’s fifth birthday, Tull received the dubious honor of a Grammy Award for “best heavy metal album.”

But while the young O’Donnell may not have grown up during the classic era of Jethro Tull (arguably 1970-77), his demonstrably understands and appreciates the Tull aesthetic. Leaping about the stage in a most theatrical fashion – and freed from the demands of having to play an instrument – O’Donnell is able to convey not only the sound of his voice (and let it be said that his vocal texture and phrasing are very similar to that of Anderson in his prime), but the movement and visual flourishes so critical to the narrative of Thick As a Brick 2.

O’Donnell’s onstage presence allows Anderson to have it both ways: he can play his delightful flute parts – including ones that overlay the vocal lines, something he’s obviously never been able to do before now – and he can sing the parts of his signature vocals that lie within his diminished range. And with O’Donnell’s help, it all sounds as good as it possibly can.

Thick As A Brick 2 picks up the story of the child character Gerald Bostock, now fully grown and full of modern malaise. Onstage, Anderson and his team make full use of video clips at key points in the story; these – starring Anderson in one of several character roles – show that in addition to his myriad other skills, the sixty-something Anderson is a fine and natural actor.

Thick As A Brick 2 is full of humor, sarcasm, wit, drama…and lots of good music. Similar to the approach used on the original 1972 Thick As A Brick, the work is presented more or less as a single piece (yet with its sections distinctly titled), and is built around a central musical motif. But unlike, say, Roger Waters‘ three-note riff that represented most of Pink Floyd‘s 1979 The Wall, the Thick As A Brick 2 motif is at its core quite musical, and involved enough to sustain its use across an entire album.

The 2012 performance in Iceland is – by design – nearly identical to the performance I witnessed that same year in Asheville. The choreography dictates that this is so. The first half of the performance is a live reading of the 1972 album; after a brief intermission ,the band returns to present Thick As A Brick 2. And while when I first heard the modern-day sequel (studio version), I sensed that it paled somewhat in comparison to the ’72 album, when the two pieces are performed live, end-to-end, Thick As A Brick 2 benefits greatly. It’s a worthy successor to its predecessor. And with the flawlessly performed, filmed and (courtesy of King Crimson‘s Jakko Jakszyk) audio-recorded DVD Thick As A Brick Live in Iceland, fans of Anderson and Jethro Tull are presented with a must-have purchase. And that’s no mean feat for someone like Anderson, producing vital works some 45 years after releasing his debut album. If you like anything you’ve ever heard from Anderson, you definitely won’t want to sit this one out.

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Book Review: Wounds to Bind

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

The 1960s music scene was populated with people who – if they survived – have tales to tell. First-hand witnesses to (or participants in) the social and cultural upheavals that changed the way we looked at the world; movers and shakers in the development of new and groundbreaking musical forms: those are the stories we enjoy reading.

With due respect to Jerry Burgan, one of several guitarists in folk-rock group We Five, his new book Wounds to Bind: A Memoir of the Folk-Rock Revolution is not a leading exemplar of those kinds of stories. This is not to say that his tale isn’t interesting; it most certainly is, and he (aided by coauthor Alan Rifkin) tells his story in brilliant detail, with much shade, light and color.

But the thing is, We Five are notable in equal parts for having one hit (the gloriously spine-tingling “You Were On My Mind”) and, it must be said, for being on the periphery — as opposed to being an active part –  of the scene. As worthy as “You Were On My Mind” was and is, the group didn’t write the song – Sylvia (Fricker) Tyson composed it. And Burgan didn’t come up with We Five’s inventive arrangement: guitarist/arranger Mike Stewart did that.

To his credit, Burgan never casts himself in the role of hero/protagonist: he never makes outsized claims as to his importance. Instead he places himself as close-proximity witness to the events that unfolded around him, and his recounting of the story maintains his sense of awe and wonder. Wounds to Bind isn’t a score-settling tome: Burgan has good things to say about (nearly) everyone with whom he worked. Still, Wounds to Bind does present one man’s perspective on the folk rock scene of the mid 1960s.

Burgan is at his rhapsodic best when writing about the arrangement and recording of “You Were On My Mind.” His (and Rifkin’s) written deconstruction of the song and its genesis serves to highlight the brilliance of the We Five version of the Ian and Sylvia tune. In fact, theirs is less a “version” and more a rethinking: in addition to changing the lyrics (for airplay), Mike Stewart and company created lyrical emphases that didn’t exist in the original, and added instrumental flourishes that made the song a timeless, transcendent piece of earnest folk-pop-rock.

Burgan’s recounting of his time on the road in Dick Clark‘s traveling revue is also a richly rewarding read. Of particular note are his characterization of Paul Revere and the Raiders, and his telling of a Thanksgiving episode in rural West Virginia. And Burgan rightly highlights the significance of having drummer John Chambers in the band in a time when mixed-race groups were highly unusual (to say the least). And his stories about We Five (by then on the downhill side of success) performing in front of ultraconservative audiences in Texas and Utah are well-told and (rare within the context of the book) simply hilarious.

The fact of the matter remains that We Five never capitalized on the success of their lone hit single. Near the book’s tail-end, Burgan recounts a recent conversation with Jerry Moss, co-founder (with Herb Alpert) of A&M Records, the label that released We Five’s music. Moss apparently has fond memories of the first We Five album, struggled to recall the second…and as for the third? Nothing. That same reaction likely holds true for even the hardest of hardcore sixties folk fans: nothing We Five did post-”You Were On My mind” got notice, and – based on Burgan’s telling of the story – not a whole lot of it was all that memorable anyway.

And therein lies the challenge in a book such as Wounds to Bind. The story that most people want to know about takes place within the space of a few years in the middle of the 1960s. But of course Burgan can’t just leave it like that; doing so wouldn’t make sense. So a chunk of the book (arguably a disproportionate amount) is given over to discussing events post-”You Were On My Mind.” Sadly, it gets less and less interesting – and farther from the core of the folk-rock story – as it goes along. Anecdotes about Burgan and his wife playing desultory gigs in Las Vegas and Reno are more than a little depressing, and his memories of Sammy Davis Jr., Jerry Van Dyke, and Gary Lewis are serious downers as well. And though Burgan makes no apologies for it – nor should he – the story of him moving into pharmaceutical sales seems to exemplify the “selling out” that so many sixties luminaries railed against.

That said, Burgan makes it clear that he – unlike pretty much every other figure from that era about whom I’ve ever read – was largely apolitical. And a guy’s gotta eat. So while no one’s questioning his life choices, a significant percentage of Wounds to Bind covers material that’s just not all that compelling.

Sad, too, are the fates met by all of Burgan’s ex-bandmates. Wounds to Bind does “solve” the “mystery” of whatever happened to vocalist Beverly Bivens, but that story might be met by most readers with a resigned shrug and a sigh. Surprisingly little is discussed about Burgan’s wife Debbie’s role as Bivens’ replacement in We Five (documented on the now-rare Return of the We Five and Catch the Wind LPs), beyond the author making clear again and again the Debbie didn’t much care for touring (or drugs).

Some mention is made of the 2009 compilation There Stands the Door, a best-of/rarities CD that shows We Five to far better effect than did their A&M releases, highlighting the fact that the group drew influences not only from folk (such as the group Mike Stewart‘s brother John was in, The Kingston Trio), but Tin Pan Alley and show tunes. That focus suggests that – had We Five held together and been better marketed by A&M, they might have had a shot at a place in the music scene not unlike Spanky and Our Gang achieved. But because A&M had their hands full with “adult” pop (The Tijuana Brass, Sergio Mendes’ Brasil ’66, The Baja Marimba Band), and viewed We Five as too far into the rock sound (ironic considering how little regard its members had for rock music in general), things never went that way.

At its best, Wounds to Bind is a fascinating memoir of an important time in music and culture. Unfortunately, at its worst, it’s simply not all that compelling. Many glaring errors (one moment The Raiders’ lead singer is named Marc Lindsay; the next’s he’s Mark Lindsay, then Marc again; that’s just one example of several I could cite) suggest that Wounds to Bind could have benefited from an editor’s careful once- or twice-over.

Verdict: a qualified recommendation. Parts One and Two are well-written, essential reading, and those who get that far will want to read the rest, but Part Three is downbeat and less rewarding for the reader.

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Album Review: Halloween Nuggets

Friday, October 17th, 2014

Halloween’s coming: October 31 is a mere two weeks away. Personally, it’s my favorite holiday: for several years I lived on one of my city’s busiest residential streets, the go-to location on Halloween. This upscale neighborhood (we were firmly at the bottom of of the street’s socioeconomic scale there, by the way) was very popular with trick-or-treaters. So much so, in fact, that people chartered vans and buses – I kid you not – just to drive their kids to our street where they could collect candy. One year, we had over 500 kids ring our doorbell.

Leaving other family members to dispense the loot, I stood out front in a creepy mask, hood and gloves, playing (well, playing after-a-fashion) my Theremin. The spooky tones fit perfectly for the play-fun that is modern Halloween. Music – especially music laden with eerie, gimmicky sounds – has long been a staple of this fall holiday.

Like Christmas, Halloween has engendered a fair amount of its own theme music. But not a lot of it has hit the charts in a big way, despite its quality. And so when an artist records a Halloween-themed tune, it usually slides quickly into obscurity. I mean, who wants to hear spooky music once November rolls around?

Well, if you’re thinking to yourself, “Me,” then I have a treat for you. Rock Beat Music has put together a box set – three discs packed to the limit – of 1960s music loosely built around the theme of ghosts, goblins, witches and monsters. Drawing mostly from among the era’s hopelessly obscure sides, Halloween Nuggets: Monster Sixties A Go-go is a fun if modest collection of ninety-plus tracks.

Because from a cultural point of view “the sixties” really began circa February 1964, there are a number of 50s-sounding tunes here. Most lay on the gimmicky theme a bit thick – loads of spooky sonds, scream and whatnot – but the underlying theme is an undeniably kitschy sort of fun. While there are a few duds – Ralph Nieson and the Chancellors‘ manic psychobilly raver “Scream” is repetitive enough to give even the most die-hard listeners a headache – there are plenty of gems here. The song titles (“Tombstone No. 9,” “Cha Cha with the Zombies”) and one-off band names alone (Frankie Stein and His Ghouls, The Graveyard Five) are entertaining enough, and a lot of songs are goofily wonderful.

Some of these tunes will be familiar to connoisseurs of garage rock obscurities: Positively 13 O’clock‘s reading of The Count Five‘s “Psychotic Reaction” has been comped many times, as has Kiriae Crucible‘s “Salem With Trial.” But for every one of those, there’s a too-rarely-heard track like Baron Daemon & the Vampires‘ “Ghost Guitars.”

The track sequence is peppered with laughably awful audio tracks from B-movie trailers. You don’t really need visuals to know what The Astro Zombies or Night of the Blood Beast are about; their inclusion here doesn’t impede the flow of the music. Instead they just add to the fun.

James Austin – the label’s leading light when it comes to compilations: see also Los Nuggetz – has done his usual fine job of collecting and choosing the songs. What he hasn’t done – and where Halloween Nuggets leaves me a bit wanting – is to provide anything along the line of discographical information, or any sort of liner notes, for that matter. So listeners are left to wonder exactly what was behind an admittedly ace number such as Ervinna & the Stylers‘ “Witch Queen of New Orleans” or the good-timing garage jangle of The Circus‘ “Burn Witch Burn.” (The exceedingly tiny type used for track listing on the box’s back is frustrating to readers of a certain age, too).

But those are minor issues; we’re here primarily for the music. And Halloween Nuggets digs deeply into the graveyard of rock’n'roll (and pop) obscurities for this set. And this 3CD set might be just the ticket to enjoying a little bit of lightweight fun before the Christmas decorations come out. (How’s that for scary?)

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Album Review: Caleb Hawley

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

While it might come off a bit melodramatic to say so, sometimes I experience some emotional rollercoasterism when receiving new music in my mailbox. Case in point: not long ago I went outside to collect the mail, only to find a box leaned up against my front door (it wouldn’t fit in the mailbox). The familiar cardboard dimensions – a bit over 12” x 12” – made all but certain that it was vinyl.

I love vinyl.

The return address indicated that said package was shipped to me from a publicist in whom I trust, one with whom I share similar musical tastes; further, she”gets” my specific likes and dislikes, and tends to steer toward me music that is likely to get a fair listen. She turned me on to The Explorers Club, in fact. In short, a professional.

I took the package inside and opened it. What I found was a record with cover art as you see above. A guy who looks a bit like Noah Wyle, the actor who rose to fame on ER. My first thought was, “Oh. A singer songwriter.”

My heart sank.

But knowing the publicist as I do, I was more than willing to give the record a spin. How bad could it be? So I removed the shrink wrap and put the vinyl platter on the turntable. The first track, “Would You Even Try,” blasted out of the speakers.

I was thrilled.

And so it goes. One can’t always judge an LP by its cover. The self-titled debut from Minneapolis-born Caleb Hawley has much more in common with, say, Mayer Hawthorne – another white guy who creates authentic, heartfelt soul music – than any navel-gazing, overly precious singer-songwriter.

“Would You Even Try” has slinky, soulful guitar riffs and thundering bass as its foundation, but Hawley’s strong voice – supported by hot Latin-flavored percussion, bright horn charts and subtle Motown-styled strings – is the focus here. It’s undeniably retro, and it’s also exciting as hell.

“Sometimes a Good Feeling (Just Can’t Last)” is another pop delight. It’s as strong as any soul/r&b 45 from the early 70s. The sax work and female vocal chorus are standout elements, but it’s a deftly executed tune all around.

Hawley slows things waaay down for “I Just Want You,” heading for a gospel-flavored Wilson Pickett style. The thrill quotient is lower, but that’s clearly by design. Hawley’s neo-soul approach here is reminiscent of James Morrison‘s debut (let’s hope Hawley can maintain the quality of his music, a feat Morrison hasn’t quite been able to master).

While “When My Baby’s Gone” is a fine tune, here Hawley oversteps the boundaries just a bit: the tune is a too-direct lift of The Supremes‘ “You Can’t Hurry Love.” The not-exactly-original lyric “just my imagination running wild” doesn’t help things, either. Still, let’s give Hawley a one-time pass on this one: Mayer Hawthrone gave us a similar product with A Strange Arrangement‘s “Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin’,” and he’s done okay for himself since.

Some tasty Memphis-styled guitar funk forms the basis of “Crying Wolf.” On “Let a Little Love In,” Hawley and his players build the song around some lovely piano work; the resullt feels like Tapestry-era Carole King, and that’s never, ever a bad thing.

The vocal chorus fades slowly in on “My Hell,” a tune much more upbeat than its title might suggest. Hawley’s impassioned delivery is heightened by massed handclaps moving the tune along. The drum corps intro of “Little Miss Sunshine” is fascinating, and it leads into a slinky dim-the-lights-baby jam.

“Bada Boom, Bada Bling” puts the focus more on the instrumentation. Wahwah guitars and a super-funky beat make the tune; the melody isn’t as strong as most of what’s on Caleb Hawley, but perhaps as a dance floor number it works.

A few odd production choices mar “Long Life,” and the seemingly autobiographical lyrics detract from the fun a bit. Too gimmicky by half, it’s the album’s weakest track, and sticks out like a sore thumb ion an otherwise fine disc.

Hawley gets back on solid footing with the Earth, Wind & Fire-styled “Give it Away.” His command of falsetto is impressive; it’s a testament to his (or someone’s) restraint that the vocal technique isn’t splashed all over the album. Leaving ‘em wanting more is always a good strategy for a performer new to the scene. Musically, it feels not unlike something Michael Jackson might’ve done in the mid 1980s.

Caleb Hawley wraps up with “Find It,” a number that starts out understated, only to unfold halfway through as a pull-out-all-the-stops big finish. Vocals and instruments go all-in here, and “Find It” sounds to these ears like the perfect live set closer. It fulfills that role equally well on this album.

Perhaps a bit oddly, Hawley initially released an EP called Side 1; his latest short-form release is – wait for it – Side 2. The first focused on 60s styles, while the second has a more (but not too) contemporary feel. His self-titled vinyl LP includes both sides, and it’s the way to go.

In the future, when and if I receive a package indicting Caleb Hawley’s involvement, I’ll be expecting good things.

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Album Review: Orgone Box — Centaur

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

Looking backward for one’s musical inspiration (and/or sound) is not a new approach. Countless bands and solo artists have built careers out of recreating a style that has come and gone, and quite a few of them have won critical and even commercial success for their efforts. But more often than not, when this approach is employed, the results manifest themselves as overly studied: they may impress aficionados of the style, but they fail to offer much in the way of anything new or exciting.

What that means is that when an act that creates a pastiche of an old style comes along and does manage to be new and exciting, it’s a rare thing. And that is what has happened with Orgone Box. Another in a proud and long line of bands-that-are-mostly-one-guy (see also Karl Wallinger‘s World Party, Trent Reznor‘s Nine Inch Nails, etc.) Orgone Box is the brainchild of Rick Corcoran. Corcoran’s approach is to make music that sounds as if it were written and recorded either in 1967 England (think of The Pretty ThingsSF Sorrow and much of the music on Nuggets II: British Empire and Beyond) and/or the late 1980s (think of the so-called “Paisley Underground” groups out of Los Angeles), and/or the 1990s Britpop explosion (See: Oasis, Cast, Blur). In my estimation, one could do a lot worse than reference those musical touchstones.

Orgone Box’s new album Centaur isn’t really a new album, though: the group’s 2001 self-titled debut contained a dozen songs, and 2014′s Centaur (released on the Kool Kat Musik label) reprises seven of them, albeit with slightly altered titles (and possibly different takes/mixes/versions). (A 2005 album called My Reply may be the source for some Centaur tracks; I haven’t done an A/B comparison.) But the fact that Orgone Box failed to make any impression stateside a dozen-plus years ago more than justifies Kool Kat bringing this fine music to the attention of contemporary audiences.

The entirety of Centaur hangs together nicely, but there are true standouts among the ten tunes. The mid-tempo “Anaesthesia” is vaguely reminiscent of The Church, and features a straightforward and brief but exceedingly memorable lead guitar solo. “Mirrorball” leans on the phase shifter a bit heavily, but it delivers a hypnotic vibe.

The shimmering, folk rock of “Ticket With No Return” sounds like The La‘s fronted by Robyn Hitchcock. And that points out a quality of all Orgone Box music: Corcoran’s voice sounds a heckuva lot like the former Soft Boy. As Corcoran’s themes center more around love and other workaday concerns, he does answer the question “what would Robyn Hitchcock sound like if he didn’t sing about spiders, frogs and lightbulb heads?”

“Hello Central” adds a Help! era jangle to an 80s-style arrangement. But one of Centaur‘s two finest tunes is the earworm of “Judy Over the Rainbow.” Yes, the title alone evokes thoughts of 1967, but the hard-driving guitar riff (effectively doubled in places by the bass guitar) has more in common with Revolver. If you don’t nod along with this tune, you’re probably wasting your time with this review. The song is a delight.

But “Judy” isn’t even the best tune on “Centaur.” That honor goes to “Find the One,” a gentle, breezy We Five-styled folk rocker with impeccable production values. The volume peal work on the signature riff is reminiscent of The Beatles‘ “Yes It Is,” but the tune itself is timeless. Corcoran’s densely overdubbed vocal harmonies (full of la-da-da vocalisms) float effortlessly atop lovely acoustic guitars and softly jangling electric guitars. Some very subtle string synthesizer work adds the finishing touch. Notably, it’s the only track on Centaur that exceeds the four-minute mark.

Much was made at the time of Orgone Box’s debut about the album’s so-called lo-fi production aesthetic. That DIY spirit remains on Centaur, but there’s enough polish here to make one thin the songs were cut at Abbey Road. It’s a fully realized sonic effort.

If you like the sonic approach used on this album, you’ll love the songs. If retro-minded music isn’t your cup of tea, you’ll likely want to look elsewhere for your new-music fix . As for me, I’ll be hoping that Centaur sells well enough to spur the recording and release of more new Orgone Box tunes.

Centaur is available on CD from Kool Kat Musik.

UPDATE: I’ve just learned that Centaur was also released earlier (2013) on vinyl; it’s available from UK-based Sugarbush Records.

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Book Review: The Next Elvis

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

There have been countless books written about Elvis Presley and/or the early years of Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. But a new book by someone who was there (for a time, at least) sheds some new light on the tiny yet famous and incalculably important label. Barbara Barnes SimsThe Next Elvis: Searching for Stardom at Sun Records is a quick, episodic trip through the period 1957-1960 at Sun Records. The author (then known by her coworkers at Sun as “BB,” short for her then-unmarried name) effectively replaced legendary figure Marion Keisker and worked as assistant to Sam Phillips for more than four years.

Viewed from one point of view, it can be said that during Barnes’ time at Sun, she was firsthand witness to the steady decline of the label: Elvis’ contract had already been sold to RCA; Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison both cut material for Sun and left for greener pastures; Jerry Lee Lewis‘ promising career effectively imploded in the wake of his marriage to his “almost fourteen year old” cousin Myra; and –as Barnes recounts in vivid detail – the promising talent of Charlie Rich was overlooked as not worth nurturing.

Barnes isn’t afraid to shine a light on the shortcomings of her boss and co-workers; she never does it from the standpoint of a dirt-disher; rather, as someone who knew these people as flesh-and-blood humans rather than iconic figures of pop culture history – she merely calls ‘em like she sees ‘em.

There’s a Mad Man-esque quality to Barnes’ reminiscences of her trips to the big (New York) and comparatively bad (Chicago) cities to take part in the old-boys networks of record company execs, mobbed-up jukebox companies, and the like; the sense of wonder experienced by the young Barnes (then in her mid-twenties) is palpable. Clear, too, is the impression that she was nobody’s fool, no pushover, no shrinking violet.

If you’ve ever read the (relatively brief) liner notes on the back of such treasured LPs as Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar! or Dance Album of Carl Perkins, you’ve read Barnes’ prose already. Her writing in The Next Elvis is every bit as clear and concise, but the book’s pace – a slightly choppy series of one- to three-page vignettes (the one-page “Sam Tells Me His Life Story” is an illustrative example) – feels a bit more like a manuscript than a finished book. Also – and, one supposes, befitting a Southern woman now in her late seventies or beyond – The Next Elvis has the feeling of a book that has left out some of the juicier bits.

A few characters from Barnes’ story leap off the pages, characterized by the author as in possession of more talent than their overall success might suggest. Billy Riley (aka Billy Lee Riley) is one; Jack Clement is another. And some of the characters – people you might think of as somewhat lovable – come off as just the opposite (Orbison is one, painted by Barnes as a deeply depressed figure). Of course Jerry Lee is every bit as volatile as one might expect. And The Next Elvis tells the reader more about the overlooked Jud Phillips (Sam’s brother) and his role in the label’s operations than any other book of which I’m aware.

Still, the author’s depiction of the man at the center of it all feels a bit too circumspect: Barnes seems to be trying mightily to walk the fine line between sketching a full and accurate portrait of Sam Phillips and honoring his memory by not going too far into the dark corners. To be fair, her characterization of Phillips (whose family cooperated to a great extent in providing images for the book) does suggest a divided, flawed man capable of greatness and its opposite, just like everybody.

The author’s work at Sun – or, more accurately, for Phillips International, an associated label – included the key responsibility of writing and laying out an industry tip sheet of sorts called Scandal Sheet. In this periodical, Barnes not only highlighted current Sun and Phillips International releases, but weighed in on worthy material put out by – gasp! – Phillips’ competitors. Such a broad-minded vision is all but unthinkable in the modern marketplace, but Barnes was a pioneer of this even-handed approach. It’s the sort of thing only a true fan of the music (and a gifted writer) could think of pulling off.

While it’s a worthy gambit to draw interested readers, the book’s title is ever-so-misleading as well: there’s little in Barnes’ written history that suggests anything along the lines of a talent search. More representative is the throwaway line about Sun staffers making an enemy of the postal carrier by refusing any and all unsolicited “audition tapes” sent in the mail. And though Barnes’ own tastes in those days often ran toward the harder rhythm and blues stuff, she makes it clear that Phillips’ failure to appreciate the importance of country music (not to mention his failure to anticipate its commercial rise) helped lead to the demise of the label’s best years.

The Next Elvis tells one person’s story of her experiences at Sun during an important period, and so for anyone with even the mildest interest in the history of rock’n'roll, it’s a worthwhile read.

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