Archive for the ‘review’ Category

Hundred-word Reviews: January 2015, Part 5

Friday, January 30th, 2015

There’s a never-ending stream of reissued music, too. So it’s time once again for some hundred-worders to work off some of my backlog. As always, these all deserve full reviews, but with limited time and resources, 100 words will have to do. I’ll cut to the chase. This week-long run of quick reviews wraps up with a look at five reissue/compilation releases.


Game Theory – Dead Center
Omnivore Recordings‘ championing of this under-appreciated 80s group continues with the reissue of the band’s 1984 compilation, Dead Center. Like all Game Theory albums, this one has long been out of print, and tough to find. Dead Center collected the band’s strongest material in hopes of helping them catch onto a wider audience. The Three O’Clock‘s Michael Quercio produced several tracks, and whether it’s his influence or simply a musical like-mindedness, much of this music sounds like him. Another crystal clear influence is (post-Big Star) Alex Chilton; Game Theory’s reading of “The Letter” sounds like how Alex might’ve done it.


Frank Rosolino – I Play Trombone
Part of the ongoing reissue of long-lost Bethlehem Records jazz releases, this six-track album (originally released in 1956) presents the trombonist Rosolino. He had previously appeared on sides by Stan Kenton and alongside Zoot Sims, but this was only his second album as leader. The agreeably swinging tunes balance subtlety with melodic interplay between Rosolino and his piano-bass-drums sidemen. Rosolino would go on to release several more albums, but the bulk of his work would be as sideman to a list of jazz greats that included Horace Silver and Dizzy Gillespie. I Play Trombone is an early and auspicious outing.


Dick Wagner – Dick Wagner
Long held in high esteem by rock aficionados, songwriter/guitarist Dick Wagner gained his greatest fame lending his considerable talents to the work others. But in 1978 he recorded and released an album under his own name. With a wide-screen vibe that recalls Meat Loaf and/or Jim Steinman, that album showed Wagner’s talent to excellent effect. Unfortunately, a generic album cover and a poorly-thought-out title (Richard Wagner) doomed the album to obscurity; it was often mis-filed in record stores in the classical section. Happily, it’s again available (with a revised title); sadly, Wagner passed away just before Real Gone Music‘s reissue.


Blood, Sweat & Tears – Child is Father to the Man
Though they would enjoy commercial success with an altered lineup (fronted by the gruesome vocals of David Clayton-Thomas), Blood, Sweat & Tears started out as a highly ambitious (almost progressive) outfit led by Al Kooper. Kooper left (or was forced out) after their debut, but the album the original lineup left behind is a stone classic. With a sound not miles away from The Butterfield Blues Band, early BS&T was soulful and loaded with chops. This hybrid multichannel SACD presents the debut in stunning audio quality, making it the definitive version. This is what Chicago wishes they could have been.


Barbara Lynn – The Complete Atlantic Recordings
Some of the most interesting and important work that Real Gone Music does is its series of compilation albums, collecting the work of underappreciated artists from the catalogs of Atlantic, Dunhill and others. Texas-born Barbara Lynn cut one album for Atlantic (the left-handed electric guitarist went on to a blues-oriented career that continues to this day); that disc (Here is Barbara Lynn) is included here in its entirety along with an impressive number of singles and rarities. This material focuses on Lynn’s vocals. Many of these tunes sound like hits; only one (“This is the Thanks I Get”) actually was.

As always, more reviews of CDs, DVDs and vinyl, plus interviews and essays to come.

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Hundred-word Reviews: January 2015, Part 4

Thursday, January 29th, 2015

There’s a never-ending stream of new music, so it’s time once again for some hundred-worders to work off some of my backlog. As always, these all deserve full reviews, but with limited time and resources, 100 words will have to do. I’ll cut to the chase. Today I look at five new releases form indie (i.e. not on a big label) artists.


Jason Sadites – Tales
The prog community is rife with all sorts of cross-fertilization, collaboration and creativity. Guitarist Jason Sadites is well plugged into this scene; his list of collaborators on his previous four releases reads like a who’s who of progressive rock. On Tales, he’s joined by the ubiquitous Marco Minnemann (drums) and bassist Ric Fierabracci. The eight accessible instrumental tracks on Tales have enough melodicism to hold the interest of a general audience, while the players execute enough musical twist and turns to keep prog fans’ attention. The album’s excellent mix makes the listener feel as if s/he is in the studio.


Arrica Rose & the …’s – Wavefunction
Gently rocking, catchy indie rock is the order of the day here. Rose’s smoky, alluring and slightly breathy voice is mixed out front, with the band sometimes sounding as if they’re in the next room. Rose and producer Daniel Garcia are confident enough of her pipes to keep the production free form effects on her vocals. Rose is up-front about the importance of song sequencing; the tracks on Wavefunction are arranged around two different moods. The later tracks are more subdued and contemplative, but Rose’s voice is the glue holding everything together. “Love You Like That” is the standout track.


Abbie Barrett & the Last Date – The Triples
In 2011, I made an exception and reviewed a three-song EP by Barrett; the tunes were strong enough – and showed enough promise – to warrant the coverage. Her preferred format continued after that, but this disc offers nine tracks, half of which are new. The promise suggested on the earlier EPs is delivered upon here. Fans of New Pornographers – at least ones who enjoy the more rocking end of their oeuvre – should check this one out. And those who missed the earlier discs will find their highlights collected here. You can expect more good things from Barrett.


David Bierman Overdrive – Standard Skies
On Standard Skies, the former Junk Monkey guitarist presents an indie-rock perspective on classic melodic midwestern rock. Catchy, near-singalong melodies are placed into straightforward arrangements that feel warm and intimate. When Bierman plays it up close and personal (“Clock”), he’s effective, but when he rocks out (“Superhuman”), that feels every bit as authentic. Subtle shades of Gin Blossoms are given added weight by the Cheap Trick-like energy of Bierman’s band; the word “Overdrive” is part of their name for good reason. Every tune has a strong hook, and that’s no small feat. Apparently live gigs by the group are rare.


Anton Vezuv – Into the Sea
In 2012, I was turned onto the wonderful guitar pop of Budapest-based The Poster Boy. I had always assumed that there would be good music coming out of the former Eastern bloc, but most of it would never reach the ears of most westerners. So I was pleased when one of The Poster Boy’s members referred me to Anton Vezuv. (That’s a band name, not a person.) Leader Istvan Gyulai sings in English, and is pointedly credited for the band’s “sad songs.” I’d suggest the words wistful and melancholy instead: wonderfully textured songs in classic tradition with a rainy-day vibe.

Still more capsule reviews to come.

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Hundred-word Reviews: January 2015, Part 2

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

There’s a never-ending stream of new music, so it’s time once again for some hundred-worders to work off some of my backlog. As always, these all deserve full reviews, but with limited time and resources, 100 words will have to do. I’ll cut to the chase. Today’s five all feature guitarists, but the styles vary widely.


Udi Levy – A Sudden Transition
A Sudden Transition is melody-forward power trio excursion in the manner of such shredders as Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson. Equal parts technical finesse and dogged determination to keep the melodic quotient high result in a winning album from guitarist Levy. Here he’s joined only by bass and drum, and that’s enough. Occasionally he veers a bit too close to his heroes – the tasty original “The Fast Lane” sounds like an Satriani tune (circa Surfing With the Alien) you just haven’t heard before – but Levy’s chops are undeniable. Fans of Jeff Beck and Steve Vai will enjoy this.


Steve Hunter – Tone Poems Live
For me, Steve Hunter will always be treasured as the guy who – with Dick Wagner – gave us the transcendent live “Intro” to Lou Reed‘s Rock’n'Roll Animal live album. These days he’s in more restrained blues rocker mode. Hunter is backed here by some of the best in the business, including Tony Levin. The album was cut live in the studio, and filmed for a DVD (available separately). Nine sturdy originals sit nicely aside covers of Peter Gabriel (“Solsbury Hill”) and Steve Ray Vaughan (“Riviera Paradise”). Tone Poems Live is a solid collection of flawlessly executed instrumentals with heart.


The Vibrators – Punk Mania: Back to the Roots
One thing about the genuine, authentic punk ethos is that it never, ever relies on nostalgia or looking backward. And that makes a “return to the roots” project by a punk group a bit problematic, perhaps even a bit suspect. The Vibratorslast album collected collaborations with a bunch of their pals; this latest disc attempts to recapture the fore if the band’s early days. The thing is, Punk Mania! is reasonably successful on that score. From the politically incorrect opener (“Retard”) right through the bonus tracks (including a cover of Flamin’ Groovies‘ “Slow Death,” the band still rocks out.


Carl Verheyen – Mustang Run
One can’t ( and shouldn’t) begrudge a musician – or his publicist – for flogging his credits in the press kit; how you got this far is a relevant subject. But the fact that Carl Verheyen had three long-term stints with Supertramp has zero to do sonically with the music on Mustang Run. His work has certainly given him an impressive Rolodex: the album includes instrumental support from Greg Bissonette, Simon Phillips, Chad Wackerman and Bill Evans (the sax player, not the dead jazz pianist). What you’ll find here is Steely Dan-ish instrumental stuff: lots of precision, not much fire.


Marty Walsh – The Total Plan
Here’s another guitarist whose music doesn’t sound like his pedigree. In this case, it’s pop-jazz guitarist Marty Walsh, who was involved with Supertramp (them again!) in the post-hits period. Walsh’s many guests get solo showcases, but it’s still the guitarist’s show all down the line. The Total Plan features more uptempo and rocking tunes than one night expect, and Walsh’s songwriting chops (he wrote or co-wrote all ten cuts) is undeniably impressive. The melodies – mostly but not exclusively in the form of guitar licks – stay in the listener’s head after the songs end. This one’s worth seeking out.

Yet more capsule reviews to come.

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Hundred-word Reviews: January 2015, Part 2

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015

There’s a never-ending stream of new music, so it’s time once again for some hundred-worders to work off some of my backlog. As always, these all deserve full reviews, but with limited time and resources, 100 words will have to do. I’ll cut to the chase. Today it’s a wide assortment of music, from rock to jazz to Americana.


Keith Emerson & Greg Lake – Live From Manticore Hall
It would seem that the days of Emerson, Lake and Palmer are gone forever; other than their one-off reunion several years ago, they’ve all moved on to other things. That said, one of those other things was a 2010 concert series featuring the keyboardist and the guitarist/vocalist. This CD documents that dinner-theatre styled tour; there’s no Manticore Hall; this show was recorded in Connecticut. Toned-down readings – with less synthesizer than you’d expect – of the many classics from the ELP catalog are showcased here, and a lovely version of “I Talk to the Wind” recalls Lake’s King Crimson days.


The Satisfactors – The Satisfactors
This quartet plays rock’n'roll of the old-fashioned variety: power chords, shouted and swaggering vocals, songs about women, and so forth. Fans of stripped-down yet clever songwriting – think of The Romantics, Smithereens and the like – will appreciate the back-to-basics approach of The Satisfactors. An arena-rock feel is applied to songs that recall 70s punk, New York variety. Rolling Stones and Mott the Hoople sensibility shines through on tunes like the self-explanatory “I Love Girls.” Something about these guys reminds me of Donnie Iris (“Ah! Leah!”) but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Either way, it’s fun stuff.


Dylan Howe – Subterranean: New Designs on Bowie’s Berlin
Using music from one of David Bowie‘s most fascinating periods – his Berlin years which borne “Heroes,” Low and Lodger – seems like an intriguing approach for a new album. But presenting those songs – most of which are quite static and impressionistic, owing to Brian Eno‘s involvement – in a jazz idiom is downright odd. But that’s the idiosyncratic concept at work on this album from drummer Dylan Howe. The drummer’s dad (a certain Steve Howe) guests on one track, but not on guitar. My advice is to ignore the Bowie connection and instead enjoy the arrangements for what they are.


The Psycho Sisters – Up On the Chair, Beatrice
Near-lifelong friends Susan Cowsill (The Cowsills, Continental Drifters) and Vicki Peterson (Bangles, Continental Drifters) have worked together extensively, but Up On the Chair, Beatrice is the first collaborative album from the duo. Not rock a la Bangles (save for “Numb”), and not especially Americana-leaning as were Continental Drifters, the music here resembles a baroque, pop-centric rethink of The Roches. Quite varied in texture, the album is full of delights. “Never Never Boys” is reminiscent of the criminally-overlooked Cowsills album, Global, though it has a more countrified feel. Think of The Psycho Sisters as a sort of distaff Holsapple and Stamey.


The Apache Relay – The Apache Relay
The sweeping, majestic strings that open “Katie Queen of Tennessee” will pull you in, right from the get-go; there’s a depth of emotionality that’s conveyed by the string arrangement, a sort of modern Phil Spector wall of sound that adds dimension to the otherwise Americana styling of this Nashville band. If they never did anything beyond that opening track, they’d be noteworthy. But their self-titled debut is filled with goodies that combine the modern folkie-ness of Fleet Foxes with the studio-as-instrument aesthetic of SMiLE-era Brian Wilson. They’ll play Asheville February 28; look for more about them closer to that date.

More capsule reviews to come.

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Hundred-word Reviews: January 2015, Part 1

Monday, January 26th, 2015

There’s a never-ending stream of new music, so it’s time once again for some hundred-worders to work off some of my backlog. As always, these all deserve full reviews, but with limited time and resources, 100 words will have to do. I’ll cut to the chase. Today it’s five acts nominally in the jazz/fusion/prog genres, all with names that will sound odd to American ears.


Tohpati – Tribal Dance
If you dig melodic guitar shredding that mixes jazz fusion and rock, do check out this album from Indonesian guitarist Tohpati. In places his clean chording and single-note runs are reminiscent of Eric Johnson, but with a heavier bottom end. That heaviness is thanks to his rhythm section on Tribal Dance: bassist Jimmy Haslip and former Frank Zappa drummer Chad Wackerman. Tohpati also sometimes sounds like Jeff Beck – especially the latter’s mid 70s material – but the album’s overall sound is imbued with an Eastern sensibility that certainly adds interest. Mainstream enough for rock fans, adventurous enough for jazzers.


Xavi Reija – Resolution
Leonardo Pavkovic‘s MoonJune label is responsible for a surprisingly high volume of new music, and the label’s quality standard is quite high overall. Here’s yet another. Catalan (Spain) drummer Xavi Reija is nominally the session’s leader, but musical cohorts Bernat Hernandez and guitarists Dusan Jevtovic do plenty of heavy lifting as well. Jazz sensibility applied to thickly chorded rock riffage, engagingly busy basswork and expressive, precise percussion are the hallmarks of this eleven-track instrumental album. Several tracks push the eight-minute mark, taking their time to develop. In turns forceful and contemplative, Resolution is a deeply textured collection of post-rock tunes.


Molé – RGB
Everything from ECM-styled atmospheric jazz to funky, uptempo workouts is explored on this trio album. Featuring keyboardist Mark Aanderud, electric bassist Stomu Takeshi, and Hernan Hecht on drums, RGB is delightfully varied for a piano trio. At times – as on “Trichromatic” – the melody is buried in a flurry of notes, but the musicians don’t seem to be improvising: they give a real sense of knowing where they’re going on each track. The cuts are occasionally punctuated by some strange sound effects, but that other-worldliness is offset by the impressionistic, pastoral textures of “Winip,” and the surprisingly melodic “Freelance.”


Jü and Kjetil Møster – Jü Meets Møster
The cover art on this disc is reminiscent of Lasse Hoile‘s nightmarish, dreamscape-like photography work for Porcupine Tree and Steven Wilson. Musically, it’s something else altogether. Guest saxophonist Kjetil Møster starts things off out front, leading the listener away from anticipation of the skronky, fleet-fingered distorted guitar work of Àdàm Mézáros that is to follow. At times, the group sounds like an unholy amalgam of punk, prog and jazz. But it works, and well. At times, Møster’s sax sounds like an electric violin. This album is crazy, weird, and worthwhile, but probably not designed for the less adventurously inclined listener.


Trio 3 + Vijay Iyer – Wiring
This release is neither fusion nor post-rock; instead, it’s nearly seventy minutes of modern jazz. All eleven tracks are originals, variously composed by the participants: alto saxophonist Oliver Lake, pianist Vijay Iyer, Reggie Workman on bass, and drummer Andrew Cyrille. Lake and Iyer tend to be out front on these compositions that range from tuneful, MJQ-styled pieces to weedy, atonal skronk like Workman’s “Synapse II.” Though the English-language presskit doesn’t mention it (the German translation does), “guest pianist” Iyer was a 2013 recipient of one of those MacArthur Foundation “genius grants.” His lovely “Willow Song” is almost Gershwinesque in places.

More capsule reviews to come.

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Book Review: The Clash — The Only Band That Mattered

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

One of the exciting – and at the same time exceedingly frustrating – qualities of modern media is the disappearance of what we might call the gatekeeper. Time was, if you wanted to establish a platform for musical criticism (say, not unlike this blog), you had to go through channels. Those channels included editors and/or publishers who – the story went – would make sure that you possessed some level of skill. The idea was quality control: not just any clown could have a soapbox of his or her own. And it worked. But in the process, the variety of voices was undeniably muted. In practice, the arrangement meant that someone with all the necessary skills, but perhaps having a contrarian, unpopular, and/or heterodox point of view might not be given the means to express him/herself.

Of course the internet has changed that. Anyone with a blog can have a platform, and they can shout their thoughts from the rooftops (in a manner of speaking). The inevitable result of this death of the gatekeeper, however, is that quality control is a thing of the past. If someone makes an unfounded assertion, not only is it archived forever, but – assuming they understand a bit about how search engines work – it’s indexed nearly immediately by Google.

Because of all these new realities, and even though I am most certainly one who benefits from this no-gatekeepers set of circumstances – I still prefer the printed word. Books (and to a lesser extent, magazines) are created, for the most part, with many or most of the old safeguards in place. As such, all other things being the same (in theory at least), printed matter enjoys a higher level of quality control.

And the best example at hand of quality control in musical historical analysis/criticism is a new book, The Clash: The Only Band That Mattered, by Sean Egan. At first glance, at just over 200 pages, Egan’s book might seem to be a slim volume. But because of Egan’s deep understanding of his subject, and his keen, concise analysis, The Clash: The Only Band That Mattered is an important work.

I don’t employ that phrase lightly. Egan’s analysis is so much more than a song-by-song review of The Clash‘s corpus. In a sense it is just that, but what the author does here is to contextualize every song, every EP, every album with not only a full appreciation for who and what The Clash were and what they represented, but Egan contextualizes it all like few other writers could.

Relatively speaking, England is a small country. And while for a very, very long time the sun never set on the British Empire, by the post World War II period, the once mighty Great Britain had fallen on hard times. And while many writers have explored the socioeconomic situations that helped give rise to punk in the 1970s, Egan delves into the topic with the keen insight of a sociologist (which I believe he is not). Egan explores the tension between Britain’s welfare state and the unchecked power of trade unions, and the resulting all-but-stalemate situation in 70s England. And against this richly-woven tapestry of context, his history and analysis of The Clash affords the reader a much, much, much deeper understanding of the band and their music.

Egan is the truest of Clash fans, too, but this fact requires a bit of explaining here. A true fan is the sort who takes the time to understand and appreciate an artist’s work, but s/he is also one who doesn’t blindly applaud and accept everything the artist does. For example, a true Beatles fan is likely to concede (for example) that the group’s reading of “Mr Moonlight” is pretty dreadful; that “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)” is a mildly entertaining throwaway; that for all its avant-garde bonafides “Revolution 9” remains somewhat unlistenable. And at the same time he or she can still assert that The Beatles are the greatest group of all time.

So it is with Sean Egan and The Clash. The author argues again and again as to the worth of much of The Clash’s music (including many tracks known only to the hardest of hardcore fans), but he is no Clash apologist. He dismisses much of the band’s work as slight, a good deal of it as shallow and opportunistic bandwagon jumping, and some of it as just plain forgettable. As a result of his clear-eyed approach to the band – and with all assertions backed up with plenty of here’s-why-I-say-that detail – his praising of The Clash’s best work is rendered all that much more powerful.

A central theme of The Clash: The Only Band That Mattered is that very early on, Joe Strummer and his bandmates effectively painted themselves into a corner. By staking out nominally pro-proletariat positions (but often quite poorly-thought-out ones), the group limited the directions in which their subsequent lyrical content might go. Their youthful, generally well-meaning pronouncements became difficult to live up to as they became rock stars. The result would be some quite uneven albums. Egan also explores the complicated inner dynamics of the band, including the reasons for Terry Chimes‘ (aka Tory Crimes) departure from the band; his return after Nicky (Topper) Headon was sacked, and – most significantly – the split between Strummer and Mick Jones that resulted in the de facto end of the group. (But even then, Egan goes on to point out a few redeeming qualities about the universally maligned post-Jones, Clash-in-name-only Cut the Crap LP.) Egan concedes early on that Paul Simonon was no great shakes as a bassist, going so far as to point out that on Clash albums, his parts were often played by others. But then the author highlights tracks on which Simonon’s bass work is exemplary and even the best thing about certain Clash cuts.

As rock history/analysis tomes go, The Clash: The Only Band That Mattered is essential reading. For those who don’t especially appreciate The Clash but who would like a better understanding of the society and economy of Margaret Thatcher-era Britain, the book is equally highly recommended.

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Capsule DVD Reviews, January 2015 Part 2

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

Picking up where I left off yesterday, here are four more brief DVD reviews.

Rockin’ the Wall
Most people will agree that the communist regimes that ruled on the other side of the so-called Iron Curtain were repressive. What they may or may not agree on is the contention of this film: the manner in which rock’n'roll helped bring about the demise of that system. The fact that rock music was all but banned in Eastern Europe is well-documented; there’s little doubt that the whole rock’n'roll aesthetic was a threat to the power of those repressive governments. The film explores the ways in which that paranoia manifested itself, employing firsthand interviews with people who lived in the then-communist bloc countries. All that said, just why the film chooses as its “rock experts” seems to have more to do with who the filmmakers knew and/or could get ahold of, rather than any specific relevance. How else to explain Mark Stein and Vinny Martell of Vanilla Fudge, Toto‘s David Paich, a guy from Quiet Riot, and members of Atlanta funk band Mother’s Finest? Their contributions are entertaining, but decidedly lightweight when set against the contributions of the people who lived under the communist regimes. Still worth a look.

Carl Palmer – Decade 10th Anniversary
Drummer Carl Palmer is the youngest among the ELP trio; at just shy of 65, he’s five years younger than Keith Emerson, two years younger than Greg Lake. And though all three former member remains busy, it’s Palmer who performs the most. After a long stint in Asia (one that continues to this day) Palmer launched a performing project of his own, called ELP Legacy. As one would expect, this group (The Carl Palmer Band) features Palmer and tow other guys whose names you won’t recognize, and they play music from ELP’s catalog. This DVD documents a 2011 concert in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, part of a music festival. To Palmer’s (and his young bandmates’) credit, the group doesn’t attempt to ape the original versions. First off, there’s no keyboards. So what audiences get instead are interpretations of ELP music in classic power trio format. Lots of thunderous bass, shredding guitar (reinterpreting Emerson’s lightning runs on piano, organ and synthesizer), and – as you’d fully expect form a project with the drummer’s name out front – Carl Palmer front and center. These fresh takes on ELP are welcome, and fans of the band – or at least those with an open mind – should enjoy the show.

Suzanne Vega – Solitude Standing Live
This one’s a bit odd, and I’ve seen the word “semi-official” used to describe its status. In 2012, Suzanne Vega released a CD titled Solitude Standing: Live at the Barbican. That concert CD documented a performance from the 25th anniversary of the release of the Solitude Standing album, among Vega’s most admired works. This is not a DVD from that tour. Instead it’s a 2003 concert from Rome, Italy. Yes, Vega does perform “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner,” but so does she at pretty much every show. But once you understand what this DVD is and isn’t, you can enjoy an excellent (and excellently shot and recorded) concert in which Vega fronts a band,sometimes perform solo, and often contextualizes the songs with monologues. It’s a bit annoying for English-only speakers to sit idly by when – after Vega finishes each monologue – a translator repeats it in its entirety in Italian while the singer/guitarist stands patiently. Her acoustic-based readings of such tunes as “When Heroes Go Down” (from her underrated 99°F) have a wholly different feel than their studio counterparts, but they remain excellent. A couple spoken-word pieces show that Vega’s talents extend far beyond mere music.

The Point
In the very early 1970s, animator Fred Wolf put together an animated television special called The Point. Ostensibly aimed at children, The Point was sophisticated enough to appeal to adults as well. While the animation style is crude by 21st century standards, it possesses an undeniable charm. Featuring narration by one Ringo Starr and original songs composed and performed by his pal Harry Nilsson, The Point was a critical and commercial success. The original story came to Nilsson during an acid trip, and while the animated feature is no Yellow Submarine, it has the hip feel of the era’s pop culture animations. “Me and My Arrow” was a big hit single, too. This DVD verion is billed a “Definitive Collector’s Edition,” but (like every version of the film except its original TV broadcast), Dustin Hoffman‘s vocal parts have been wiped and replaced by Ringo. The print is of reasonably good quality, and the story is timeless and endearing. Some brief bonus features discuss the genesis of the project; there’s even a plug for the Who is Harry Nilsson? DVD (I did an extensive interview with that film’s director; click here to read it).

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Capsule DVD Reviews, January 2015 Part 1

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

Every so often, I do a set of capsule reviews. Those short-take looks at CDs are a way of clearing my backlog. There’s so much good music out there – so much that I want to tell readers about – that it’s impossible to get to all of it. So the capsule reviews help a bit.

It’s even tougher with music-related DVDs. At least with CDs, I can listen (to a certain extent) while doing other things. But with DVDs, it’s pretty much a case of watching and doing little else. As a result, I have far too many DVDs and Blu-ray discs still awaiting review. To help clear that backlog, I’m applying the capsule review approach to a pile of DVDs that have been languishing far too long on my desk. My standard disclaimer applies: all of these titles deserve a fuller analysis, but it’s this or nothing.

Oil City Confidential: The Story of Dr Feelgood
Pub rockers Dr Feelgood are all but unknown in the USA. Though their musical style led to the rise of new wave (but not really to punk), the defiantly British sensibility of the group pretty much pecluded their sound transating to American ears. The band’s no-bullshit straight-ahead sound is sort of a missing link between, say, The Faces and Graham Parker. Julien Temple brings high production values to this documentary about the band, largely told though they eyes (and ears, and voice) of Wilko Johnson. Temple weaves in film from other sources – archival footage, old British movies – but does so in a way that makes them feel relevant to what’s being discussed. As one of the band recalls, “Bearing in mind what was around at the time – Gary Glitter, Sweet – we must have stuck out like sore thumbs: ‘Oo’s this lot?’” There are no great revelations in the film beyond a sense that Dr Feelgood deserved better. Oil City Confidential is a well-deserved look at the place in history occupied by this overlooked band.

Blowing Fuses Left & Right
Three hours is a rather long running time for a DVD of interviews, but when those interviews are with Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton (who passed away in 2009), MC5 singer Rob Tyner (who died in 1991) and MC5 drummer Dennis Thompson (who’s still alive), then the run time is warranted. Those guys didn’t do a whole lot of interviews. In the late 1980s, a young fan of Detroit hard rock – 19-year-old Gil Margulis — made a low-budget documentary about the historic Detroit rockers of the late 60s and early 70s. This DVD isn’t that film; instead, it’s a compilation of the interviews with Tyner, Asheton and Thompson. Production values are near-nonexistent: for the most part, a tripod-mounted camera and cheap mic capture the interviews. The subject is nearly-full-frame, and the questions are off-camera and sometimes off-mic. A bit of location shooting shows the the camera operator’s lack of experience. But none of that will matter much to those interested in firsthand recollections of the era.

Tribute to Ron Asheton
In the wake of Ron Asheton ( see above) dying in 2009, his Stooges bandmates mounted a memorial concert in his hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. This DVD documents that April 2011 concert, and adds in reminiscences from Stooges members, musical guest Deniz Tek (Radio Birdman), and Henry Rollins. The concert is well-shot, and the audio is crystalline, showcasing the (ahem) raw power of Asheton’s surviving bandmates. Something’s lacking, of course, without Asheton’s signature guitar style, but the concert is worthwhile nonetheless. The addition of a string section(!) on a few tracks may strike viewers as odd – it certainly did me – but it works better than one might expect.

Eric Clapton: The 1970s Review
I would never advocate that a musician descend into hard drug use in search of his or her muse. And getting clean after years of drug addiction can only be a good thing. That said, for me, Eric Clapton‘s music lost its power after Derek and the Dominos; his subsequent solo work is for me far too lachrymose and lazy. Naturally, this documentary picks up where Eric Clapton: The 1960s Review leaves off. It begins with the Layla material and continues forward, giving the music a fresh new look, and – to my mind – giving it a more studied and thoughtful treatment than it generally deserves. The DVD gives evenhanded, unblinking coverage to Clapton’s drug addiction and subsequent recovery. And as the deacde was peppered with some good work from the guitarist – his work with Delaney and Bonnie, for example – the film is interesting. The Sexy Intellectual people are responsible for a very long list of this kind of documentary, and The 1970s Review is to their high standards. And though the producers didn’t secure Clapton’s cooperation, some archival interview footage tells at least part of the story in his words.

More DVD reviews tomorrow.

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Album Review: Son of Kraut: The Next Generation of Krautrock

Friday, January 16th, 2015

Though it might seem otherwise to the casual observer, the term krautrock is neither pejorative nor disparaging. In its classic sense, the label refers to improvisationally-based rock with spare musical foundation. As the word suggests (in an undeniably gauche manner), the form originated in Germany.

When one thinks of krautrock, the first bands that often come to mind are Can, Tangerine Dream, and Kraftwerk (the latter’s hypnotic, album-length “Autobahn” is an exemplar of the genre).

The style reached its apex in the 1970s; today when one sees or hears the term, it’s nearly always I nthe context of music form the past. But – depending on how the term is understood – the krautrock label can be applied to modern-day music. Especially if a strictly literal interpretation is used (in other words, German rock), all manner of musical artists fit under the umbrella.

Certainly garage/psych revival bands like The Roaring 420s don’t fit into this discussion. Nor, of course, do some fantastic American expat artists who have made Berlin their base of operations (Anton Barbeau, The Fuzztones, and Brian Jonestown Massacre‘s Anton Newcombe, to name but three). But a number of interesting artists do fit the bill, and while they’re made barely a ripple on the musical consciousness of American listeners, collectively they’ve created a body of work that bears further investigation.

But how to do so? One could start by reading Krautrocksampler, the 1995 book by the genre’s most prominent champion, Julian Cope. But there are two problems with that idea: first off, the book is now twenty years old, so it can’t address, y’know, current acts. More problematic is the going rate for the long out-of-print title: currently upwards of $230 for a used copy on Amazon.

With that option off the table (PDF scans of Cope’s book do circulate online, and as of summer 2014 there’s “talk” of reissuing it), we turn instead to a compilation CD. The German label Sireena released a fine overview of “classic” krautrock not long ago: Live Kraut: Live Rock Explosions from the Heyday of Krautrock! focused on what one might call the first wave of the genre. Band names like Grobschnitt, Guru Guru and Jane will be wholly unfamiliar to American audiences, but for the most part, their music isn’t so out-there as to be unintelligible to American ears. (The same can’t be said for some of krautrock’s more adventurous acts: Kraan and Birth Control are pretty freaky; I have a few vinyl albums by each, and hope to find more later this year when I visit Germany.)

Happily, Sireena has filled this niche by releasing another compilation, Son of Kraut: The Next Generation of Krautrock (never let it be said that the Germans don’t spell it right out for you in their titles). Once again, here is a disc (with twelve tracks) filled with artists who are virtually unknown in the USA. RPWL might be familiar to those who regularly visit this blog; I’ve both reviewed their music and interviewed the group’s Yogi Lang. RPWL are featured on this set with “World Through My Eyes,” the title track off their 2005 album. It’s fine enough, but doesn’t show the group at their best, and isn’t truly representative of the band’s oft-displayed appealing characteristics.

The other eleven tracks are a varied lot. Some do explicitly build on the motorik textures of older krautrock: Ear Tranceport‘s “Lock In (Namby Pamby)” has that chugging, mechanical beat applied to a melody that’s largely driven by acoustic guitar. And the one-chord “Stranded” from Space Debris will delight fans of Pink Floyd‘s Ummagumma, as it meanders purposefully though similar sonic territory over the course of its nearly ten minutes.

Sankt Otten‘s vaguely sinister instrumental “Nach Dir Die Sinnseflut” will remind listeners of Tangerine Dream at their soundtrackiest. Electric Moon deliver a deeply textured vibe on “Madrigal Meridian,” sounding like a Teutonic (and at times, more tuneful) Nine Inch Nails. One man band Level Pi engages in some evocative krautrock that features some straightforward rock guitar riffage; it too wouldn’t be out of place in a film soundtrack.

The Perc Meets the Hidden Gentleman is a wholly different affair. Seemingly taking its sonic inspiration from former Berlin resident David Bowie, “The Moon of Both Sides” is perhaps the track on Son of Kraut most likely to connect with the casual listener. The brooding, dreamy “I Can’t Walk My Floor” by Tarwater is cut from similar cloth as the music of Austin’s Black Angels.

“Psysomsyl” from Electric Orange features seven minutes’ workout on a single chord; the track grows in intensity, not unlike some of Glenn Branca‘s work, or classic-period Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Things take a decidedly more tuneful direction with “On Stranger Tides” from Fantasyy Factoryy. The hand drumming and repetitve electric guitar riff suggest a campfire version of Pink Floyd, as does the track’s Roger Waters-like vocal.

The intriguing instrumental “”O.M.E.N.” from Le Mur initially heads back into the psych revival region, but some treated saxophone riffage suggest what Black Sabbath might sound like with some added brass instrumentation.

Son of Kraut wraps up with some prog-metal, a genre heretofore unexplored on the set. Both the band name (Panzerballet) and the song title (“Vulgar Display of Sauerkraut”) provide hints as to where this Teutonic Metallica are headed. Some tenor sax will throw metalhead for a loop, but otherwise, the genre’s hallmarks – blindingly fast guitar licks, thundering rhythm semitone – are all here. Overall, it’s a bit jarring in the context of Son of Kraut‘s mostly moody atmosphere, but it gets better as it goes along.

The poster-styled liner notes (in both German and a chuckle-eliciting English translation) provide enough information to help those wishing to investigate the bands further. For listeners interested in a sampler that is both adventurous and not music not a million musical miles away form their comfort zone, Son of Kraut is recommended. It’s a safe bet that you’ll find something you enjoy in this album field with unfamiliar names.

N.B.: There’s an additional title in this series, a disc called Jazzkruat: Teutonal Jazz Rock Excursions. It features the aforementioned Kraan and Volker Kriegel; I will do my best to score a copy and review it here when I can.

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Album Review: Sid Griffin — The Trick is to Breathe

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

In the immediate wake of the excesses brought forth by psychedelia, popular (rock) music took a decided turn toward the simpler, more pastoral. Mere months after Cream were hitting the charts with “Sunshine of Your Love” and Jimi Hendrix was endeavoring to stand next to our fire, groups like The Band were finding success with a much more toned-down, sepia-tinted sort of music. That style owed more to acoustic instruments, even when they were employed in rock fashion.

While the charts splintered into genres as the 70s wore on, this simpler (dare I say softer) approach was taken to another level – a higher or lower one, depending on one’s need for rock in their musical diet – with the rise of the sensitive singer/songwriter. For all his merits, James Taylor exemplifies this turn away from the visceral in popular music, at least for a significant portion of the listening public.

But before the singer/songwriters took hold, and in connection with the pastoral approach, some very interesting (and creatively fertile) things were happening in popular music. The Byrds, Poco, Moby Grape and a few others had been investigating the sweet spot where rock and more acoustic-based forms met, and the results were sometimes exemplary. But the hybrid style didn’t gain a strong foothold in the pop marketplace.

Not right away, anyhow. But more than a decade later, concurrent with the rise of what is sometimes called the paisley underground movement, a number of musical artists took another look at combining rock and folk (and/or country) styles. There wasn’t really a succinct name for the hybrid then – today we might call it proto-Americana – but the music from artists such as The Blasters and Lone Justice had as its foundation that commingling of musical genres.

And without a doubt the giant among these was The Long Ryders. Led by guitarist (and player of other stringed instruments) Sid Griffin, The Long Ryders could be pointed to by decided fans of hard-rocking music of the 80s as the one “twangy” band that they really, really dug. The group folded near the end of the decade (happily they reunite on occasion), and the members went their various ways. Griffin continued to cultivate his career as a writer, a curator of music, and a musician with solo albums. He also started a group called The Coal Porters; almost wholly rooted in Americana-type instrumentation, they also rocked.

Griffin’s latest album, The Trick is to Breathe, combines the best elements of the hybrid rock-Americana style, and it’s also a lyrics-focused album that fans of the singer/songwriter genre will find very rewarding. It’s most certainly not a rock record – there’s not a note of electric instrumentation to be found – but it has an undeniable (if hard to pin down) rock sensibility about it. Griffin’s vocals are mixed right out front, allowing listeners to follow along in his story-songs without straining their ears. On the gentle “Ode to Bobbie Gentry,” Griffin makes the observation that “no one ever comes to no good in the show-biz world,” but the fact that he’s making albums like this strongly suggests otherwise. “Blue Yodel No. 12 & 35” is a bluegrass romp, but one that’s fun and free of artifice; even an avowed non-grasser such as this writer can’t be helped but drawn in by the lighthearted lyric set against a familiar melodic structure. Maybe it’s purely coincidental (and maybe not), but “Circle Bar” is vaguely reminiscent of Tom Rush‘s reading of Joni Mitchell‘s similarly-titled “The Circle Game.”

Griffin’s gentle mandolin plucking is at the center of “Between the General and the Grave,” and some melancholy fiddle work helps create a fragile ambience for this tale of war. Perhaps the most interesting track on The Trick is to Breathe, “Elvis Presley Calls His Mother After The Ed Sullivan Show” is also the track that sounds the most like The Long Ryders. This fanciful rethink of an imagined conversation between the King and Gladys Presley is warm and sentimental, painting a portrait of Elvis when he was young and relatively innocent (“I’ll still be your son when all is done”). Griffin’s Elvis conveys some hard-earned wisdom to his mother: “Mama, never party after the show.” Musically, it’s a cousin to “Harriet Tubman’s Gonna Carry Me Home,” from The Long Ryders’ 1987 LP Two Fisted Tales. Whatever its provenance, it’s a delight.

“Everywhere” is the album’s longest track, and it waits until more than halfway through to change up the arrangement. But it’s worth the wait, with some wonderful close harmony vocal work. A reinvention of the sixties folk-rock classic “Get Together” is nearly unrecognizable, but in Griffin’s capable bluegrass-centric hands, the old adage “a good song is a good song” is proved yet again. With its fade-in and fade-out, the brief, clanging instrumental “Front Porch Fandango” sounds for all the world like a spontaneous jam that happened to get caught on tape; more of it would be even better.

“Punk Rock Club” is a bizarre – yet enthusiastically welcomed – left turn on The Trick is to Breathe. On this spoken-word track, Griffin recites a collection of comments, perhaps from selected audience members. In their most deadpan voices, Griffin and his friends give us lines such as, “Why is the singer so angry?” and “Why does the drummer hit so hard?” This piss-take of rock’s poseur tendencies is very knowing, and very, very funny. The crosstalk near the track’s end is reminiscent of some of the experiments Robert Fripp did with The Roches on his The League of Gentlemen album.

The gentle guitar picking on “Who’s Got a Broken Heart” finds Griffin with both feet in singer/songwriter territory. He reaches deep and pulls out a more nuanced vocal than is typical, and subtle cello sawing adds the perfect accompaniment. The three-quarter time story-song “We’ve Run Out of Road” feels like the kind of song Willie Nelson comes up with at his best. Griffin’s careful arrangement touches help the song strike the perfect balance between slick and down-home.

Griffin wraps up the stellar album with “I’ll Forget You Very Well,” a high-speed bluegrass tune that riffs on tried-and-true phrases and lyrical snippets that overtly reference Bob Dylan and The Beatles (“No Direction Home,” “I Saw Her Standing There,”) all put to clever, smile-eliciting use.

The Trick is to Breathe is a start-to-finish triumph.

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