Archive for the ‘review’ Category

Hundred-word Reviews for September, Part 2 of 8

Tuesday, September 1st, 2015

More hundred-word reviews. Today it’s progjazz, prog-rock, and rock rock.

Lorenzo Feliciati – Koi
Rare Noise Records can reliably be counted upon to release challenging, outsider-flavored music that leans toward, jazz, avant-garde, and/or progressive directions. Koi is Lorenzo Felicati (basses, guitars, keyboard and more), Alessandro Gwis (keyboards and computers) and percussionist Steve Jansen. But they’re joined by various horn players and (on one track) King Crimson drummer extraordinaire Pat Mastelotto. The musical vibe is sinister yet atmospheric and tuneful, and it’s more accessible (that is to say less avant-garde) than many Rare Noise offerings. Think of it as bop-jazz influenced music (with a touch of space-rock) played on modern, state of the art instruments.

XaDu – Random Abstract
If you want to know about interesting new music (generally in progressive rock/jazz idioms) being made in southeast Asia and other non-USA locales, your first stop should be Leondardo Pavkovic‘s MoonJune Records. The artists in Leonardo’s stable are as prolific as they are skilled, and they often team up in various collaborative efforts. Two artists I’ve covered before – Xavi Reija and Dusan Jevtovic – come together to make this free-form work displaying the power of rock, the grandeur of prog, and the precision and exploratory nature of jazz. Drums and guitar duos don’t usually pique my interest; this does.

Landmarq – Roadskill: Live in the Netherlands
This long-running progressive act from the UK has largely flown under the radar for most of their existence. Their music deserves a wider audience, and clearly somebody knows who they are, as this live disc demonstrates. Tracy Hitchings is one of relatively few female lead vocalists in the progressive idiom, and while her pipes are vaguely reminiscent of Annie Haslam (Renaissance), the musical backing rocks harder (and a tad more interestingly) in a sort of Spock’s Beard kind of way. The special edition features a 78-minute concert CD plus a DVD that adds two tunes plus interviews and other goodies.

Kinetic Element – Travelog
Five long tracks – the shortest is a shade under ten minutes; the longest, more than twice that – make up this disc. The four-piece group is made up of some decidedly not-young musicians, but their sound is delightfully timeless progressive rock. Kinetic Element are and instrumental outfit, but they bring in guest vocalists for each of the tracks. That said, the pieces are still primarily instro in nature. Those who enjoy the slow burn of epic prog – think YesClose to the Edge more than Tales From Topographic Oceans – will enjoy this delightfully adventurous yet accessible set.

Marco Minnemann – Celebration
One of music’s busiest, most in-demand players has somehow found time to write, play and record a solo album. And Celebration is a solo set in the truest sense of the word: save a bit of spoken-word on one track, everything you’ll hear on this disc is Minnemann. If Joe Satriani made a progressive rock record, it might sound something like this. Metallic guitar and drums push up against vibes, synthesized horns, and uber-heavy, bone-crushing bass lines. Imagine 70s-era Jean-Luc Ponty putting down the violin and picking up a really bad attitude. Thrillingly out-there, tuneful, endlessly varied and thus unclassifiable.

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Hundred-word Reviews for September (sic), Part 1 of 8

Monday, August 31st, 2015

Time to clear the backlog of discs – worthy ones all – cluttering my office. Beginning today, and occasionally interrupted by other content, here’s a solid two weeks of hundred-word reviews.

Terell Stafford – BrotherLee Love

Lee Morgan was a hard bop trumpeter who recorded between the mid 1950s and 1971, mostly for the Blue Note label. His most renowned sideman session was John Coltrane‘s Blue Trane (1957), and he was a longtime member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. On this album, Philadelphia-based trumpeter Stafford pays homage to Morgan. Stafford and a tight four-piece run through nine cuts associated with – and nearly all composed by – the late Morgan. Tasty stuff indeed, rendered in adventurous hard bop style. Plenty of solo breaks make this a worthwhile listen even for those who don’t know Morgan’s work.

Alison Faith Levy – The Start of Things

Former Sippy Cups member Levy records for Mystery Lawn Music, a label renowned for its intelligent power pop and art-pop artist stable. Levy makes music for kids, but her appeal extends far beyond the tot-rocking set. The lyrics are squarely aimed at youngsters, but not in a saccharine-sweet manner; Levy never “sings down” to her audience. And adults will find plenty to like in the music and arrangements. Levy’s music truly does bridge the gap between music for children and for grown-ups; in that way she’s heir to the music of The Banana Splits, nearly always a very good thing.

The Lucky Losers – A Winning Hand

To my ears, most modern blues is stale and uninspired. I can’t think of another genre that cranks out so much dull material. So when an exception comes along, it’s all that ore remarkable. Cathy Lemons and Phil Berkowitz sing together in harmony, and trade vocal lines on this album’s dozen tunes, backed by a solid but not showy) band and horn section. They capture the fun and excitement of a bluesy band in a dimly lit bar. And at its core, that’s what modern blues is about. That Berkowitz is a skilled blues harpist only adds to the enjoyment.

Otis Taylor – Hey Joe Opus: Red Meat
Sixty-seven year old bluesman Otis Taylor has a long and storied career. This idiosyncratic outing finds the multi-instrumentalist and singer constructing a sort of song cycle built around the chestnut “Hey Joe.” His readings don’t recall Hendrix or The Leaves; no, they have more of an Americana feel. Some of the guitar work recalls The Allman Brothers (thanks to guest Warren Haynes), and the musical dialogue between guitar and fiddle) has shades of Jefferson Airplane with Papa John Creach. Extensive use of cornet (Taylor Scott) adds an interesting character to the songs. On the whole, exceedingly eclectic, understated, and worthwhile.

Phil Lee – Some Gotta Lose…

Lee’s previous album, The Fall & Further Decline of the Mighty King of Love, knocked me out with its windswept singer-songwriter vibe. He reminds me a bit of James McMurtry crossed with Leon Russell, and his music is equally informed by blues, Americana, old-school country and plain old rock’n'roll. Some Gotta Lose… is another showcase for Lee’s well-worn voice. This is as real as it gets, straightforward poetry and stories set to music. One of these days, he and I really will meet up for that cup of coffee; until that day, I’ll enjoy his music on this shiny disc.

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Album Review: Muddy Waters 100

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015

I’m on record stating my belief that the majority of tribute albums are generally a waste of nearly everyone’s time. Often, the tribute version of the tributee’s songs are too reverent by half, adding nothing to the original. Or, in other cases, the artists go too far, applying their own trademark “sound” for better or worse (usually the latter) to a song that really didn’t need any help, thanks.

Tribute albums tend to be indulgent and self-conscious even when they don’t involve the participation of the omnipresent three (Bono, Jack White, Dave Grohl) who seem, somehow, to attach themselves to every project that’s ostensibly about someone else.

And it’s because of that baggage that I bring to my listening experience that very few tribute albums make it past my slush pile. But I’m very pleased to report that Muddy Waters 100 is a highly worthy exception to the rule. In celebration of what would have been the 100th birthday of Muddy Waters (born McKinley Morganfield), Chicago producer Larry Skoller has brought together a superb band to interpret  fifteen of Waters’ best-loved songs, and some well-chosen guests help out.

John Primer is no youngster himself; at 70 years of age, he’s a well-seasoned journeyman bluesman. His guitar and vocal skills are stellar, and he manages to conjure the ambience and spirit of Muddy while (a) not aping the great man and (b) maintaining his own identity in the process. Backed by a crack team of musicians that includes guitarist Bob Margolin (he and Primer were members of Waters’ band) plus some younger but supremely talented players, Primer leads the band through Waters tunes that are well-known (“Got My Mojo Working,” “Mannish Boy”) as well as some that won’t be familiar to those who aren’t hardcore blues fiends.

The guests are players whose presence make sense: musicians who’ve been influenced by Muddy Waters show up here, as opposed to flavor-of-the-month stars brought in more for their marquee value. But nonetheless, they’re names most listeners will recognize, and their participation is welcome. Derek Trucks, Johnny Winter (in one of his last sessions before his death), James Cotton, Gary Clark Jr., and Keb’ Mo’ are just some of the spotlighted guests.

The arrangements are familiar enough that purists shouldn’t be put off, but they happily avoid that slavish reverence to which I alluded earlier. Modern beats find their way into some of the performances, but unobtrusively so. One can’t help think that the man who once deigned to make Electric Mud would have smilingly approved.

The well-annotated booklet provides some historical context for the songs chosen. An excellent essay on Muddy Waters provides more background. And the photography deserves mention: all manner of archival photos of the master at work are included in stunning clarity. The hardbound case makes the whole package a souvenir-of-sorts, but it’s all in service to the music therein.

True, April 4, 2013 was the actual 100-year anniversary of Muddy’s birth, but these things take a while to assemble, and the care that went into the making of this package – the music, the liner notes, the booklet and the physical package itself – is such that Skoller and company deserve a pass on that minor point.

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Concert Review: Jaga Jazzist — Asheville NC, 23 June 2015

Monday, August 24th, 2015

Demonstrating yet again that – more than sixty-odd years after the dawn of rock’n'roll – popular music idioms remain fertile ground for experimentation and cross-fertilization, Jaga Jazzist combines rock, jazz, electronica, trip-hop, and who-knows-what-else into music that is all and none of those things at once. And as their recent show at New Mountain in Asheville, North Carolina illustrated, modern-day audiences are open to musical journeys of the sort undertaken by the group, even if those audience members don’t always completely understand what’s going on.

If one were to have polled the June 23 audience at New Mountain, asking each person whether they enjoyed jazz, my own guess is that most would give a noncommittal answer of the “Some of it’s okay, I guess” variety. Yet the audience reaction to Jaga Jazzist’s performance was enthusiastic and attentive. With eight members onstage (drums; bass/keyboards; guitar/keyboards; guitar/vibraphone/analog synthesizers; brass; brass/synthesizers; synthesizer/guitar; and synthesizer), the group occupied a very busy (and busy-looking) stage; the musician setup was obviously based more on facilitating visual and auditory communication amongst the musicians, and made few if any concessions to visual-aesthetic considerations.

Save for the odd bit of wordless vocalization from the two-person brass backline, the music of Jaga Jazzist is completely instrumental. The lengthy tunes – typically six minutes or more, and sometimes much more – allow the band to engage in multiple musical dialogues, and while the pieces seem designed to allow plenty of space for the individual players to express themselves, the music always seems to be headed someplace specific. Jaga Jazzist are not a “noodling” band; while what they do might be categorized as experimental jazz, the music is firmly rooted in conventional styles; that built-in contrast lets the group weave unique works on the fly, but it also keeps the group grounded enough so as to not lose an audience weaned on more conventional music.

Lars Horntveth took center stage, but rather than acting as a front man, he busied himself musically, constantly switching (often multiple times within a given musical piece) between guitar, Korg analog synth, and vibraphone. And all the while, Horntveth engaged in only an occasional quick and subtle meeting of eyes with the other players; the level of unspoken communication among the seven men and one woman onstage seemed to operate at a very high level.

Drummer (and co-leader with brother Lars) Martin Horntveth handled the daunting task of laying down a thick and solid backbeat for the group’s exploratory music; his approach drew upon the finesse of a jazz drummer, the precision of a percussionist in a metal band, and the sheer power of a straight-ahead rock drummer. His duties also included acting as the band spokesman; other than an occasional quick smile and nod of recognition and appreciation, the other seven members of Jaga Jazzist opted not to speak to the audience during the set.

The group showcased several numbers from their latest, 2015′s Starfire (reviewed here), but they also dug into their back catalog, pulling out winning tracks such as the title work from 2009′s One Armed Bandit. Expanding a bit upon the studio version, Jaga Jazzist wrapped the work’s signature melodic lines around a dense, thickly-layered arrangement that featured plenty of crosstalk between instruments. The group skillfully juxtaposed classical/acoustic instruments with throbbing synthesizers, sinewy electric guitars, and the buttery intonation of the vibraphone.

Combining such disparate instrumentation could easily result in a sonic mishmash, but the carefully arranged music of Jaga Jazzist brings those disparate instruments together in a way that suggests deeply evocative soundtrack music. Yet unlike soundtrack scores, pieces that are designed to complement a moving visual image, Jaga Jazzist’s music serves as a soundtrack to whatever mental images it conjures in the mind of the audience members.

I noticed one guy who was clearly getting into the music, trying to follow the beat. He never quite could manage to hold onto the (often tricky time signature) groove for more than a few seconds here and there, but his thorough enjoyment of the music was nonetheless manifest. In that way, he was a fairly typical audience member this night.

There really aren’t many groups to whom Jaga Jazzist can be likened. Their synthesizer-centric instrumentals occasionally call to mind the psychedelic jam of Ozric Tentacles; their inventive arrangements and hypnotic guitars coupled with modern jazz ideas suggests some of Dungen‘s work (most notably on One Armed Bandit‘s “Banafluer Overalt”). But ultimately, this eight-piece group from Norway charts their own musical path.

All photos © 2015 Bill Kopp

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Album Review: Pete Townshend’s Classic Quadrophenia

Friday, August 21st, 2015

On one hand, the existence of this album makes perfect sense. Among many Who fans (myself most assuredly included), Quadrophenia ranks among the most celebrated work from Pete Townshend and/or The Who. While Tommy was arguably more groundbreaking – often (and incorrectly) cited as the first “rock opera” – Quadrophenia remains a more musically and lyrically satisfying work. While it’s true that Quadrophenia‘s story line remains more than a bit murky, it’s far more straightforward and linear than that of Tommy (or, to be sure, the never-finished Lifehouse project).

And as an expression of Townshend’s understanding – both emotionally and intellectually – of the Mod phenomenon (what Pete Meaden described as “clean living under difficult circumstances,” or something like that), Quadrophenia represents one of the composer’s most fully-realized and deeply textured works.

When The Who attempted to mount a tour in support of Quadrophenia, it didn’t really work. Between songs, Roger Daltrey(!) would attempt to explain the songs and story line, and while his intentions were good, the narration destroyed some of the flow. One can easily imagine an early 70s concert crowd responding with something along the lines of “shut up and rock!” The Quadrophenia tour-as-such was quietly abandoned in favor of a hit-laden set that featured a few Quadrophenia tracks.

But Townshend was demonstrably not finished with Quadrophenia. Though having moved on (into what we might call the post-Who era) to working on a stage version of Tommy, as well as the vastly underrated solo rock opera Psychoderelict, Townshend still wanted to put across the Quadrophenia material in its original, complete form.

The late 70s film went some way toward realizing that goal; it’s a far more nuanced movie than the overblown Tommy could have ever hoped to be, and the film version made some linear sense out of the muddled, slightly obscure story line.

But that wasn’t enough. In the early years of the new century, a reactivated Who toured the Quadrophenia material, enlisting guest vocalists to flesh out the characters. With the advantage of being able to draw upon modern sound technology, the group was able to put Quadrophenia across onstage in a way impossible a few decades earlier. They did it again on their 2012-2013 tour as well.

But even that wasn’t enough, which brings us ’round to what’s billed as Pete Townshend’s Classic Quadrophenia. Proper operatic-type vocalists (and then some) are backed by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Oriana Choir in a new version of the extended work. Townshend’s significant other, Rachel Fuller, took on the daunting task of adapting Townshend’s material into the classical idiom.

How much one enjoys this new reading of Quadrophenia will depend to a great degree upon what it is that one liked/likes about the original 1973 double album. If John Entwistle‘s powerful bass work and the propulsive, barely-reined-in drumming of Keith Moon were among the highlights for you, then Classic Quadrophenia might feel like a letdown. As thrillingly bombastic as the orchestra can be, there’s simply no way to channel the power of the original Who’s rhythm section using classical/orchestral instrumentation.

And if Townshend’s slashing guitar and glistening, lyrical piano were big parts of what you enjoyed in Quadrophenia, you still might be disappointed in this new reading. Townshend is present on guitar here and there, and in voice. But not unlike his role in the (now greatly maligned) 25th Anniversary tour, Townshend’s presence is not a central component of Classic Quadrophenia. He’s more akin to a celebrity guest in his own work.

And finally, if Roger Daltrey’s expressive vocals were what caused you to appreciate Quadrophenia, then you’ll miss the vocals greatly on this new set. Taking the lead vocal here is Alfie Boe, a tenor most closely associated with musical theatre (Les Misérables, La bohème). Boe’s vocal performance doesn’t stray too far notes-wise from Daltrey’s version, but Boe definitely adds a “showy” and operatic shade to his reading that would be completely out of place on a rock recording.

And in fact, as rendered on Classic Quadrophenia, the material isn’t really rock at all. The orchestral trapping don’t seem at all out of place, and in many ways one suspects that this version might be closer to what Townshend originally had in mind for the material; it may well have been that since in 1973 The Who was his primary musical vehicle, that’s the route he took.

A few other vocalists of note appear on the album. Billy Idol had been involved in some of those early 21st-century performances of Quadrophenia, and few could argue that he’s the wrong choice to assist on “Bell Boy,” picking up the baton once held (shakily) by Keith Moon and then more assuredly by Sting.

And the star of Franc Roddam‘s film version of Quadrophenia, Phil Daniels, is now all grown up (56 in fact!) and lends his vocals to “Helpless Dancer” and a few other tracks. His presence establishes some conceptual continuity between this and those earlier versions of Quadrophenia, even though he’s not playing the “Jimmy” role in this new version.

To those weaned on a steady diet of rock’n'roll, Pete Townshend’s Classic Quadrophenia might – upon first listen — seem mannered and a bit stiff. But if one can open one’s mind to hearing the material presented in a classical-cum-stage idiom, there are many joys to be found.

Note: the album is available digitally, on CD, and on vinyl. This review is based upon the vinyl-format release.

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Book Review: So Many Roads, The Life and Times of The Grateful Dead

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

I’m on record as being very critical of The Grateful Dead. Despite what some of the hardest of hardcore Dead Heads might think, I don’t hate the Dead; not at all. I own and enjoy quite a few of their studio albums, and even like a couple of the live ones, most notably, Europe ’72 and Reckoning (aka For the Faithful). And far be it from me to deny their cultural (if perhaps not so much musical) importance. So I was very interested to read David Browne‘s So Many Roads, a new history of the band that takes a unique approach to its storytelling.

That unique approach is the best thing about Browne’s book. Rather than attempt a linear narrative, Browne picks fifteen specific dates in the history of the band, and expands the story from there. Those dates are sometimes pivotal, sometimes not. But they provide anchors of a sort from which the author can weave the tale. Browne recounts the important dates in the band’s history – December 6, 1969, for example, was the date of the notorious festival at Altamont Motor Speedway – but he doesn’t build the narrative around them; Altamont is discussed in the first chapter, one that ostensibly centers on a date some two months later.

As the author explains in the book’s acknowledgments, So Many Roads draws upon extensive interviews with many people in and around the group: musicians, friends and ex-friends, lovers and ex-lovers, business associates and ex-associates, fans. In general, such an approach can provide the opportunity to create a nuanced, balanced portrait of its subject. And to an extent, that’s what happens with Browne’s book. But although most key members of the group cooperated with the author, So Many Roads seems to draw remarkably little from their input. Perhaps the information Browne gleaned from those interviews formed a narrative rather than direct quotes; but that’s merely a guess.

Browne is a clear and insightful writer, and although So Many Roads is a long book (nearly 500 pages), its most striking quality is its lack of surprises. There are no real revelations within its pages. Instead readers get relatively cursory accountants of how Lenny Hart (Mickey Hart‘s father) ripped the band off of substantial sums of money; how they were caught off guard by the tragic events of Altamont; and so on. None of that will be news to even the most casual fan of the Grateful Dead.

Neither is it news that the band approached album recording sessions with a the sort of dismissive, let’s-get-it-over-with attitude most people bring to a dentist appointment (and it often showed on the albums). It’s not a surprise that (on one hand) the Grateful Dead were totally out of their depth running a record label of their own, or any business, for that matter, and (on the other hand) that they strongly resisted “interference” from outsiders (“suits”) who might have been able to do a better job. And it will surprise absolutely no one that they took a whole lot of drugs, only instituting a “no piles of cocaine on the performing stage” policy in the 1990s. Yes, the nineteen-nineties. (Apparently the nitrous oxide tanks stayed.)

Browne makes the point that there really is not a “keyboard player curse” upon the band, pointing out that Tom Constanten and Bruce Hornsby remain among the living (Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Keith Godchaux, Brent Mydland and Vince Welnick, however, all did die prematurely). The band members’ laissez-faire approach to each others’ private lives – even when said behavior had serious effects upon the band – is shown to be a primary cause of many of the problems they’d endure.

Though the band seemed to operate in a way that encouraged a sort of leaderless democracy by consent, So Many Roads illustrates that in practice Jerry Garcia was the leader of the band. Any number of meetings are described in which the various members and auxiliary staff would chew on a topic for some time, unable to reach agreement. Garcia would utter a few words – “let’s do it” or some such – and that would be that. This approach may have served them well in their earlier days, but as Garcia’s health problems (drug-induced and otherwise) worsened, it seems pretty clear that having him in a so-called leadership role was, in practice, a pretty awful idea.

In fact, the band’s method of dealing  with Garcia — seemingly as a sort of cash cow that they’d need to prop up so they could keep the machine running — made me think of him as a sort of corollary to The Beach Boys‘ pimping of Brian Wilson (witness the endless “Brian’s back!” efforts of the 70s and 80s).

I suppose one cannot understand the mindset of a Dead Head unless one is a Dead Head. For me, the group’s hardcore appeal is dubious: if one wants exploratory music, any number of jazz artists did it far better than the Grateful Dead. And if one desires musicality within the “jam band” idiom, The Allman Brothers – live and studio – make for a much more fulfilling listen. Sloppy and listless are two words that come to mind when discussing the onstage musicianship of the Dead. And their hardcore fan base seems inexplicably uncritical when it comes to the Dead’s legacy: they love it all, seeming to make little discernment between the dross and the relatively fleeting flights of creativity.

And with that kind of mindset, they’ll probably want to read So Many Roads regardless of whether a reviewer eviscerates it or holds it up as the greatest book ever written. Truth be told, it’s quite good; it’s simply not anything like a definitive biography of the band.

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Album Mini-review: Iggy Pop — Psychophonic Medicine

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

File next to: New York Dolls, The Stooges

If you made a list of the most unsentimental rock acts, Iggy Pop would be near the top of the list. Right? He never looked back, always charted his own unique, peanut-butter-and-glass-coated path, right? Well, apparently not. As this 2CD set illustrates, James Newell Osterberg acknowledged his roots, if only on recordings clearly not planned for official release. Across 21 tracks drawn from sessions and live dates in 1981 and 1985, he pays bizarre tribute to The Animals (or perhaps David Johansen?), Robert Plant‘s Honeydrippers, Jimi Hendrix, and his old band, (the 1960s version of) The Stooges. The tracks are outtakes from his critically-shellacked 1981 commercial bid Party; sessions produced by Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones; and a live date in San Francisco. Strange even by Iggy standards, this set seems to collect his most ill-advised efforts. That it still doesn’t (totally) suck is a testament to his importance, I guess.

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Album Mini-review: District 97 — In Vaults

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

File next to: Spock’s Beard, King Crimson

This band has been busy. With the unlikeliest of vocalists – American Idol contestant Leslie Hunt – they nonetheless kicked the door down into progressive rock, and proceeded to cut a live disc with one of John Wetton, one of the genre’s icons (King Crimson‘s 1974 Red pretty much invented the genre of prog-metal, and hasn’t been bettered since). On this, their fourth album, they dial back the classical trappings of their earlier material, but keep the melodic quotient high. Those who insist that prog can only be done properly on the Atlantic’s Eastern shores clearly haven’t heard D97. Hunt is a stunningly expressive vocalist; as such, she can hold her own amidst tricky time signatures and the slashing, angular chording that is part and parcel of modern prog. With extensive use of vocal harmonies, In Vaults deftly balances melody with the adventurism that fans of the genre demand.

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Album Mini-review: Wizzz! French Psychedelic 1966-1969 Volume 1

Monday, August 17th, 2015

File Next to: Nuggets II: British Empire and Beyond, Roman Coppola’s CQ Soundtrack

France has long been notorious for its musical insularity. Listen to a bootleg of the Beatles‘ February 1964 show – the height of worldwide Beatlemania – and you can hear the group just fine; the Parisians merely clap. And they simply couldn’t accept the real Elvis Presley; they had to mint one of their own, Johnny Hallyday. France was seemingly resistant to outside musical influences, and that worked both ways: Françoise Hardy and Serge Gainsbourg were huge stars at home, but got relatively little traction internationally. But a newly-reissued collection shows that French musical artists did pay attention to what was happening elsewhere. Fuzztone guitars, combo organs and simple, trashy melodies are all the rage on this fourteen-track set. Is it derivative? Sure. But it’s always undeniably French, with a vaguely square café jazz vibe applied to songs worthy of (if not The Seeds, then) Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood.

An edited version of this review previously appeared in the Colorado Springs Independent.

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Album Mini-review: Jaga Jazzist — Starfire

Monday, August 17th, 2015

File Next to: Dungen, Zero 7

With their fifth album, 2010′s One-Armed Bandit, Jaga Jazzist seemed to have distilled their multifarious sound into a cohesive synthesis of downtempo, trip-hop, electronica, and experimental jazz; their approach suggested a cross between Zero 7 and Dungen. They followed that studio album with a live set, 2013′s Live with Britten Sinfonia, expanding on their already thick and deeply textured arrangements. Now with Starfire, the Norwegian instrumental ensemble moves into longer, denser, more adventurous song structures. At eight minutes and change, the title track is evocative of some spy adventure shot in European locales. But the group’s music is far too interesting to serve as soundtrack accompaniment; the eight-or-nine musician Jaga Jazzist has always been skilled at putting varied instruments to intelligent use. The group skillfully combines analog synthesizers, brass, and standard rock band instrumentation in a way that makes the combination seem perfectly natural. Even the long songs never meander.

An edited version of this review previously appeared in the Colorado Springs Independent.

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