Archive for the ‘review’ Category

Album Review: The Moody Blues — The Magnificent Moodies (Part 2)

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015

Continued from Part One...

The early Moody Blues certainly deserved better success than they found. Their lack of chart action was certainly a factor in Denny Laine‘s departure. But during his time with the group, The Moody Blues recorded enough material for another album in a pair of sessions (one day in July 1964 and then a string of dates between April and September 1966, with Denny Cordell in the producer’s chair). Those previously unreleased sessions form half of the new The Magnificent Moodies set’s second disc.

An almost painfully slow reading of “Go Now” serves to point how right a decision it was to record and release the faster version we all know. The bits of studio chatter are fun for those (like myself) who enjoy studio outtakes and such, and remind listeners that in those days, a band tended to play their live set, live in the studio, for recording sessions with minimal overdub.

A quite bizarre reading of the 23rd Psalm is one of this new box set’s great finds. Arranged by the entire group, the song finds Ray Thomas singing in a vaguely Elvis balladeer style while the band provides vocal accompaniment and some vaguely Merseybeat musical backing. Then the song lurches unexpectedly into an upbeat “negro spiritual” arrangement, replete with handclapping. Talk about stylistic left-turns; it’s easy to understand why this track was left in the can for decades, but it’s an interesting curio to be sure.

The BBC Saturday Club tracks remind listeners yet again that The Moody Blues were a tight, impeccably rehearsed outfit; the BBC versions differ little from their official counterparts. Clearly they were given little time in the studio for either situation (Decca or BBC), but their songs and arrangements didn’t seem to require more time or effort than was given/spent. “From the Bottom of My Heart” showcases Mike Pinder‘s piano and Thomas’ flute. While enjoyable, the group’s reading of Rufus Thomas‘ “Jump Back” is perhaps the least-convincing of their r&b excursions; likely part of their live set, no Decca studio version of the tune exists.

A pair of tries at Tim Hardin‘s waltzing “How Can We Hang on to a Dream” again lead (in context) to the later Moody Blues sound. And while neither “Jago & Jilly” nor “We’re Broken” rank as a lost classic, they do feature the closest thing to guitar riffage as one is likely to find in the early Moody Blues catalog. Those two tracks are also much closer to the rock-leaning side of later Moodies, having almost completely shed any rhythm and blues trappings.

Pinder’s barrelhouse piano is the centerpiece of his “I Really Haven’t Got the Time,” a chirpy number that wouldn’t have been out of place in the crowded UK charts of early 1967. “Red Wine” suggests what The Who might have sounded by had they been led by a pianist instead of a guitarist.

The set’s third version of “This is My House (But Nobody Calls)” is the best, both in terms of recording (it’s in stereo) and performance, and it wraps up the 2CD The Magnificent Moodies in style. The entire set is housed in an attractive, study and colorful box; both CDs are packaged in LP facsimile sleeves with color artwork. A 24-page booklet is stuffed with discographical information, informative essays and great photo memorabilia. A handful of reproduced fan club handbills and a large, foldout full-color poster will remind music fans of a certain age of rock’s golden days when every album seemed to come stuffed full of relevant (if extramusical) goodies. Taken as a whole, The Magnificent Moodies is an essential purchase for fans of British sixties pop, as well as for those who love the Days of Future Passed-and-onward lineup of the group but remain interested in from whence the group came.

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Album Review: The Moody Blues — The Magnificent Moodies (Part 1)

Monday, April 27th, 2015

Not long ago I interviewed Moody Blues founding member/flautist/vocalist Ray Thomas; much of our conversation centered around a new box set documenting the group’s pre-Days of Future Passed material. That music originally took the form of a UK album called The Magnificent Moodies (issued around the same time stateside as Go Now: The Moody Blues #1). The group also issued a number of non-album singles during that time, and – as was standard practice, especially for a group with the relatively high profile they enjoyed – they appeared on a number of radio programs in the UK.

There have been several reissues of The Magnificent Moodies, but none has approached the level at which the term “comprehensive” is an accurate description. Until now, that is: the new Esoteric Recordings release of The Magnificent Moodies collects the original July 1965 Decca album, adds fourteen non-album cuts from the era, and also adds an earlier, unreleased take of “Go Now!”

And that’s only the first disc. A second CD features seven additional studio outtakes (including, as Ray Thomas mentioned, material he doesn’t even recall having recorded), a dozen songs from various Saturday Club radio sessions, a mid-60s interview (also from Saturday Club) with Thomas and co-founder/drummer Graeme Edge (here’s my 2010 interview with him), a Coca-Cola radio spot, and an entire additional seven-song session the band cut with producer Denny Cordell. Pretty much the only audio missing from this set is the French radio appearances the Moody Blues did in the 1960s, but as Thomas told me, they couldn’t come to financial terms with the French (he used another word) that would secure rights to the recordings.

Taken as a whole, the new The Magnificent Moodies set paints a picture of a group very different from the one that would go on to worldwide success as a Mellotron-centric band fronted by vocalists Justin Hayward (guitar) and John Lodge (bass). The early lineup included neither of them. Instead, the early Moody Blues featured Denny Laine (later of Wings) on lead vocal and guitar, plus bassist Clint Warwick. Keyboardist Mike Pinder (here’s my interview with him) was the remaining member, another co-founder and one of three (with Thomas and Edge) who would go on to the “new” Moody Blues, much as the rhythm section of John McVie and Mick Fleetwood would form the basis of the old and “new” versions of another British group of the era(s), Fleetwood Mac.

Those early Moody Blues sides show a band very much in a American r&b vocal vein, the kind of group one would expect to see and hear in a club in a period-piece film like The Who‘s Quadrophenia, or perhaps on an episode of the Inspector Morse prequel Endeavour. Their torrid run-through of James Brown‘s “I’ll Go Crazy” doesn’t attempt to ape the original, but it’s more soulful than The Blues Magoos‘ version from 1967. And though it was their biggest early hit, “Go Now” is a cover, too; the original was cut shortly before by Bessie Banks (wife of the song’s composer) in the USA.

It’s only on Side Two of that original album that one finds any group-penned tunes, making clear the fact that – at least in those early days – The Moody Blues métier was the interpretation of rhythm and blues classics and obscurities. And that they did quite convincingly.

That second side introduces the Laine/Pinder writing team, and tracks like “Let Me Go” display a softer, more refined sound that presages the later lineup’s sound in some subtly yet important ways. The layered vocals of Pinder and Thomas are shown to more nuanced effect, and Ray Thomas’ flute playing is showcased. The songwriting is solid, but nothing of the sort that would give Lennon/McCartney a run for their money; “Thank You Baby” is not unlike the kind of thing Graham Gouldman was writing for The Mockingbirds at the time.

The singles (A’s and B’s) that fill out the first disc of the new expanded The Magnificent Moodies are quality as well, and none would have been out of place on the album proper. They’re mostly covers as well, but the highlight among these is an original, “Lose Your Money (But Don’t Lose Your Mind)”. Soulful tracks like “Steal Your Heart Away” stay safely in that modified r&b style in which the band traded. The band cut a credible reading of a song first recorded a year earlier by Kai Winding and His Orchestra. That b-side, “Time is on My Side,” was of course a hit for another better-known British band (albeit eight months later).

By 1965, however, The Moody Blues singles released would consist only of original compositions, all from the Laine/Pinder writing team. These songs reflect a more mature songwriting style, one that seems to attempt to continue the r&b flavor of the group’s earlier material while moving past it in some ways. Production values increase, and while tunes like “Boulevard de la Madeleine” may have seemed a stylistic left-turn in January 1967, viewed in the context of the group’s later material, they make perfect sense. In fact, those songs suggest that had somehow the original lineup (or at least Denny Laine) continued as the Moody Blues, they might have made music not altogether unlike what the Hayward/Lodge-led group did. (A listen to the post-Moodies Denny Laine String Band provides further evidence supporting this idea.)

Meanwhile, the melancholy yet somehow goodtiming “This is My House (But Nobody Calls)” sounds very much like the kind of thing that would have scored on the charts in ’67 London. (It’s a bit reminiscent of The Beatles‘ “Another Girl” from their Help! soundtrack.) Alas, neither it nor the group’s three subsequent singles did much (“House” did scrape the bottom of US charts, briefly reaching #119 in 1967).

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Album Review: Stevie Ray Vaughan — The Fire Meets the Fury

Thursday, April 16th, 2015

To a lot of people in the 1980s, Stevie Ray Vaughan was the guitar hero they had been looking for. Seemingly bursting on the scene without warning, the Texas guitarist had in fact been paying his dues for some time, and he was quite well known locally and regionally. His pre-fame activities included a stint in a band called the Nightcrawlers, where he was lead guitarist but not lead singer; that task was ably filled by bassist (and later songwriting collaborator) Doyle Bramhall II. That band recorded an album that remains unreleased to this day.

Vaughan went on to more acclaim, eventually capturing the notice of David Bowie. Vaughan played lead guitar on the blockbuster album Let’s Dance, and was in rehearsals with Bowie and band to play on the subsequent tour (bootlegs of these rehearsals do exist). As one story goes, Bowie forbade band members – especially SRV – to do interviews about their own work while on the tour, and so Vaughan, having just finished recording his debut Texas Flood, quit the band days before the tour was to begin.

Vaughan’s albums were released to greater and greater acclaim (and sales), and he can rightly be credited for ushering in a new era of appreciation for hotshot guitarists. But as his fame grew, so did his problems with drugs and alcohol. By the time I first saw him in concert (November 7, 1985 at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre), he was in the depths of addiction, yet he showed signs of having turned a corner of sorts: throughout the show he was uncharacteristically loquacious, making repeated comments of a positive and uplifting nature. Mere months after this date, SRV returned to Atlanta, this time not for a concert but for a four-week rehab program at Peachford Hospital, mere blocks from my home (no, we never saw him around the neighborhood).

Newly clean and with a markedly improved attitude toward life, Vaughan’s playing only improved, and his stature grew further. By 1989 he was taking part in a co-headlining concert tour with Jeff Beck; the tur was billed as “The Fire Meets the Fury.” The shows consisted of a set by each of the acclaimed guitar slingers, and often ended with them appearing onstage together for an encore.

Near the end of the tour were dates in Albuquerque, New Mexico (November 28) and Denver (November 29); both were recorded for broadcast on the Westwood One radio network. Highlights from those two shows are collected on The Fire Meets the Fury, a new single-disc live concert set. (The error-filled liner notes erroneously refer to these dates as the tour’s final performances when in fact two more dates – Los Angeles and Oakland – followed.)

While none of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s onstage collaborations with Jeff Beck are featured on the set, The Fire Meets the Fury nonetheless represents an excellent live document of SRV’s playing near the end of his life (he’d perish in a tragic helicopter accident nine months after these dates). The compilers have wisely chosen not to duplicate songs from the shows, so the finished disc (six tracks from New Mexico followed by five from Colorado) approximates a full concert set.

Vaughan and band – which by this time included keyboardist Reese Wynans alongside mainstays Chris “Whipper” Layton on drums and bassist Tommy Shannon – are in fine form throughout, and the set list runs the gamut from the hits (a very brief opening run-through of “The House is Rockin’”) to the classic covers (“Superstition,” a song that Stevie Wonder had originally written for Jeff Beck; and Jimi Hendrix‘s “Voodoo Chile”). The Hendrix cover in particular is an extended affair, running in excess of eleven minutes. Another long cut is “Life Without You,” wherein SRV engages in a monologue about his journey to sobriety (the title of his then-current album In Step was a reference to his working through Alcoholics Anonymous’ twelve step program).

While there are other live albums in the man’s catalog (1986′s Live Alive and the 1983 Albert King collaboration In Session, to name two of the most well-known), the well-recorded The Fire Meets the Fury is the only officially released document of late-period Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Note #1: There also exists a promo-only CD issued by Epic and also titled The Fire Meets the Fury; compiling then-current and back-catalog studio tracks from both Vaughan and Jeff Beck, it was intended to promote the then-current tour and should not be confused with this release.

Note #2: This album was also released in the UK as a 2LP (vinyl) set with the same track listing, featuring tracks from the Albuquerque show on one record, and the Denver performance on the other. My review concerns the CD release.

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Album Review: Art Pepper — Neon Art, Vols. 1-3

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

Art Pepper was a white jazz saxophonist who specialized in a West Coast style of jazz popular in the 1950s and 60s. His catalog is vast and varied; his recorded career as bandleader began in the early 1950s on the Savoy label. His work as a sideman found him working with many of the jazz greats including Hoagy Carmichael, Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones, Freddie Hubbard and a host of others; in his early days he was part of the Stan Kenton Orchestra.

Pepper died in 1982, leaving behind not only that catalog of sixty-plus albums, but a treasure trove of finished yet unreleased material. His widow Laurie Pepper created an imprint of her own – waggishy dubbed Widow’s Taste Music – to release the best of this previously-unheard music, In 2012 three of these were released on vinyl by Omnivore Recordings as volumes of a series titled Neon Art. Now in 2015, these titles are out on CD. Drawing from live performances in 1981, Neon Art Vols. 1-3 are crystal-clear recordings of Pepper playing onstage with some very talented cats.

The first disc in the series features only two pieces – “Red Car” and “Blues for Blanche,” but both tunes time out at around 17 minutes. The thrilling performances feature Pepper on alto sax, joined by the stunningly expressive piano work of Milcho Leviev, and the rhythm section of bassist David Williams and Carl Burnett on drums. Built around blues figures, both tracks on Neon Art Vol. 1 come from a single performance at a small Seattle venue, Parnell’s.

The second and third volumes in the series feature cuts that are sometimes shorter, sometimes even longer than the ones on the first volume. Neon Art Vol. 3‘s “Make a List (Make a Wish)” clocks in at over 24 minutes. But never does the energy or excitement flag. Pepper’s band on the second and third discs – sourced from four November 1981 performances in Japan – again features drummer Burnett and bassist Williams, but the piano chair is ably filled by George Cables. (Vol. 1‘s liner notes chronicle the defection of Williams after the Seattle dates, but he did return for the tour of Japan.)

The Japan dates, though recorded in concert halls, retain the intimate you-are-there vibe of the Seattle sides. When pianist Cables doubles Pepper’s sax lines, it’s a thing of beauty; when the two diverge, one comping while the other solos, it’s inviting and intriguing. As is standard with jazz, each player takes his turn in the spotlight, the tunes winding and twisting before returning to the head to wrap up. While most of the tracks are quite melodic, Pepper and band are unafraid to set out on music explorations that embody the hard-bop style, sometimes even venturing into free jazz territory. But the bulk of the music on these three volumes stays in a very accessible bag.

The early 1980s was no classic era for jazz; the worst elements of “smooth jazz” had rendered much of what passed for jazz as musical wallpaper, late-night FM musical fodder of the most blandly inoffensive kind. But Pepper’s jazz of that era as represented on the three Neon Art albums is nothing of the sort. Folding in elements of soul jazz (especially on the Seattle dates) and hard bop, Art Pepper’s music is finely textured, subtle and exciting. Fans of classic jazz that leans in a melodic, non-avant garde direction would do well to pick up all three of these new Art Pepper titles.

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Book Review: How to Talk to Rockstars

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

Like most writers, I read a lot. But I rarely read fiction; I think the last work of fiction I read prior to last week was Stieg Larsson‘s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. But when I learned that Alli Marshall – Arts Editor at Asheville’s altweekly Mountain Xpress – had published a new novel with a music journalist as its central character, I was intrigued, and happy to make an exception.

I quickly discovered that How to Talk to Rockstars is not a work of autobiographical fiction; the book’s Bryn Thompson bears only the most superficial resemblance to Marshall. But the author has clearly drawn upon her considerable experience as a music writer/journalist in the development of this story.

There’s not a great deal of what one could term traditional dialogue in the pages of How to Talk to Rockstars. Much of the book is given over to a sort of inner monologue, in which Bryn agonizes over an upcoming major interview. And while there are certainly fundamental differences between the book’s central character and myself, I found myself identifying with many of Bryn’s innermost thoughts.

The story arc – which Marshall unfolds in nonlinear fashion – concerns Bryn’s upcoming interview with a sort of singer/songwriter/rockstar, one with whom’s work Bryn is deeply enamored. The tension rises from the question: How far should I go in connecting with him? But mercifully, How to Talk to Rockstars is not some romance potboiler. It’s about deeper issues than that. The character lists a number of so-called “rules” to which a music journalist should best adhere. These rules are sometimes mere realizations of facts on the ground: you will not become great pals with the rockstar. Don’t try to impress him/her with your knowledge. Ask a penetrating question, then shut up and let them answer. And Bryn/Alli notes a rule that it took me some time to learn: when the interviewee finishes answering the question, let some silence hang in the air. Give them a moment, and as often as not, they’ll pick right up again, giving a deeper, more heartfelt, more thoughtful, more revealing answer than before.

How to Talk to Rockstars subtly points out the added perils of being a female in the male-dominated worlds of music and music journalism. Suffice to say that women interviewers must contend with a whole range of issues when conducting an interview – especially if it’s an in-person one – that are simply not part of the male journalist’s experience. From an ethical point of view, that’s neither right nor wrong; it’s simply how things are. And Bryn’s character never complains about the situation; she merely struggles to find the best ways to deal with it.

All of the characters are the products of Marshall’s imagination, save one. (A vignette involving meeting and chatting with Brian Eno seems likely drawn from actual experience.) And while ever-so-occasionally Bryn seems to be reaching a bit to impress the reader with the eclectic nature of her musical interests (a series of long name-checking lists that include hipster favorites), those lists serve to place her in a context with which readers in their 20s and 30s can best identify.

How to Talk to Rockstars breezes by quickly, and it’s a very enjoyable read. For those who have ever wondered what it’s like to interview notable musicians (and you do wonder, don’t you? Please?), How to Talk to Rockstars provides an illuminating window into the sometimes frustrating, occasionally boring, sporadically exciting and always unpredictable work of the music journalist. More importantly, the book also shines light on the human inner dialogue – full of self-doubt, recrimination, trepidation and just-plain-fear – with which anyone breathing can identify.

The national release of How to Talk to Rockstars is June 1, but author Marshall will host a local launch on Friday, May 15 at Asheville’s venerated independent bookstore, Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe. That free event begins at 7pm, and will feature “treats, live music, a reading and Q&A session.”

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Book Review: Geek Rock

Monday, April 13th, 2015

Rock’n'roll and scholarship make strange bedfellows. At first blush, the idea of approaching the work of rock bands from a scholarly point of view is patently absurd; such juxtapositions give rise to the aphorism (of indeterminate origin) “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” But it can be done – and successfully – if the writer has his or her feet metaphorically balanced in the two camps of popular music and academia.

That’s the chosen formula for the intriguing new title, Geek Rock: An Exploration of Music and Subculture, edited by Alex DiBlasi and Victoria Willis. Across a wide swath of scholarly essays, the book endeavors to characterize, examine and dissect what the editors term “geek rock,” a subgenre of rock music that places an emphasis on, well, being self-consciously intelligent.

As such, there are no Geek Rock essays expounding upon the literary antecedents of Ramones lyrics. The artists explored within Geek Rock are, one might observe, many of the usual suspects: Frank Zappa, DEVO, They Might Be Giants. But the collected essays also dig deep into obscure corners of rock/pop subculture, exploring the, um, geekiness of artists whose names will be unfamiliar to even the most inveterate rock fans (Darko Rundek, anyone? Bueller?).

The bulk of the artists covered in the eleven scholarly essays fall into that nebulous “indie” category; neither fish nor fowl, neither rock giant nor obscuro. Discussions of the work of The Mountain Goats, mc chris, Man…or Astroman?, The Magnetic Fields, and even Crash Test Dummies (remember them?) make up the bulk of Geek Rock.

Apparently there’s a rather rigid format to which scholarly essays must adhere (hey, I went to business school, so my experience with such is mercifully limited). I do recall from my high school years the experience of the “five paragraph essay”; an admittedly useful template for creating a brief examination of any given topic. My English teachers drilled the template into my consciousness, and to this day I can crank out a five-paragraph essay on nearly anything. (Once in college, tasked with coming up with one on the spot, I crafted a five-graf essay explaining how to open a door. I got an A-plus).

And though that essay/thesis template may be a useful guide for the crafting of scholarly essays, to casual readers it can come off as more than a little stilted. Such essays fill the pages of Geek Rock, resulting in a sometimes mind-numbing sameness to very disparate subject matter. It’s often a case of, “Now I shall tell you about blank. Here I am telling you about blank. Allow me to summarize my observations about blank.” You get the idea.

But if one can get past that, the essays are illuminating and thought-provoking even at their worst (and/or densest), and provocatively insightful at their best. Happily, most of Geek Rock‘s essays lean toward the latter. Of particular note is DiBlasi’s “Frank Zappa: Godfather of Geek Rock.” DiBlasi is not only a keen observer of Zappa’s massive catalog, he’s an insightful one who understands (as opposed to merely shrugging about) Zappa’s so-called Project-object, the philosophy that all of his output – records, live performances, interviews – are truly components of one single, large, unified work. To those who remain on the fence about Zappa’s importance, DiBlasi’s essay is recommended in the strongest terms.

And Ian Steinberg‘s thoughtful comparison/contrasting dissection of the work of DEVO and that of the early 20th century Italian Futurist art movement makes for irresistibly fascinating reading, even if one doesn’t fully buy into the author’s analysis. (It helps, I should think, if one has viewed Futurist art; certainly no great art scholar myself, I happened upon a Futurist exhibit less than a year ago at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum. Absent that background, I would have had to refer to Google or Wikipedia to navigate my way through Steinberg’s essay with any sort of understanding.)

Sometimes, though, the topics wade far too deeply into the woods for the casual reader and/or non-scholar. Willis’ exploration of the Lacanian subtext of They Might Be Giants’ music is the sort of thing that won’t appeal to most readers, TMBG fans though they may be. The titles sometimes tell the story. If “’A Very Subtle Joke’: T.S. Eliot, J.D. Salinger, and the Puer Aeternus in God Shuffled His Feet” doesn’t scare you off by its title alone, then you’re a braver reader than I. (I did read it, but…wow.) Some of the essays bear the fingerprints of a too-earnest college student, shoehorning deep and arcane knowledge of their pet band into a scholarly box. The fit and finish aren’t always factory-smooth.

But what they always are is geeky, which, at the end of the day, in a delightfully meta sort of way, is the point.

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DVD Review: Freak Jazz, Movie Madness and Another Mothers

Thursday, April 9th, 2015

The back catalog of Frank Zappa is massive, and massively intimating. Never the most commercially-minded of artists, the virtuoso Zappa recorded and released more than fifty albums during his lifetime. (His estate has more than doubled his catalog, with all manner of posthumous releases; his so-called “100th album” is due out soon.) With albums that explored everything from doo-wop to fusion, from big band jazz to musique concrète – not to mention a lot of scatological lyrical content – Zappa’s oeurve could easily scare off (or even repel) the casual listener.

None of which seemed to bother him in the least. Zappa was a restless innovator, and what that often meant in practical terms is that he’d make what could seem (especially at the time) as one musical left-turn after another. Just when you’ve gotten used to the early Mothers records, exemplified by We’re Only in it For the Money, Zappa fires the entire band and makes a weird orchestral album (Lumpy Gravy) and then a blues/jazz LP (Hot Rats).

To make dealing with his vast catalog a bit easier, fans, critics and the like have attempted to divide Zappa’s work – his so-called “project/object” – into eras. There’s certainly overlap between some of those era – his work doesn’t lend itself to neat classification – but it’s a worthy endeavor to break Zappa’s music into more easily-digestible pieces.

And the piece that remains most controversial among his fans is what one might call the Flo and Eddie years. From around 1970 until 1971, Zappa’s band was fronted by a pair of vocalists who – for contractual reasons – called themselves The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie. Better known as Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, the duo had come to fame as the front men of The Turtles. The Turtles were always known for their sense of humor and lively stage personae, so on some level, they were a good fit for Zappa. Enlisting top-notch musicians who were able to play the increasingly complicated music that he was composing, Zappa brought Flo and Eddie on board to handle vocals, a task that was not among the strongest qualities of the original Mothers.

Taking a detailed and incisive look at this period requires backing up a bit to provide proper context. And that is why the new documentary Freak Jazz, Movie Madness and Another Mothers covers the period 1969-1973. Beginning with a quick history of the Mothers up to the start of that era, the lengthy (more than two hours) documentary seeks to put the work of the Flo and Eddie period into its proper historical perspective.

Another in the long series of music documentary DVDs from the Sexy Intellectual team, Freak Jazz relies on true experts to weave its narrative. Some of these are faces familiar to those who’ve screened other documentaries from the team: Zappa biographer Billy James and Mojo Magazine‘s Mark Paytress weigh in with their own informed perspectives. And a number of players and Zappa associates from that era provide their own accounts: Ian Underwood, Jeff Simmons, Aynsley Dunbar, and (most notably) the late George Duke all get a good amount of screen time to tell their stories.

Two hours and forty minutes might seem like a long time, but it breezes by when watching Freak Jazz. The knotty twists and turns that Zappa’s music, band and personal life took during this period require a good bit of explaining, and this DVD does just that in an exceedingly expert fashion. The filmmakers rightly hold Zappa’s work to a high standard, and the onscreen commenters are unafraid to criticize what they see as ill-advised (say, “Billy the Mountain”) or just plain lousy musical output.

A good amount of time is spent discussing the film 200 Motels, and while there are very few clips from the actual movie (likely due to licensing issues), some behind-the-scenes footage helps tell the story. And while Howard Kaylan isn’t involved in the documentary, Mark Volman provides the Flo and Eddie perspective. Rarely-seen photos and onstage footage make Freak Jazz essential for the hardcore Zappaphile, but the conversational tone of the DVD makes it recommended viewing for even the most casual Zappa fan.

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Album Review: The Mavericks — Mono

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015

There’s much talk these days about the sorry state of country music. The genre – commercially, more popular than ever – is overrun with what its detractors call “bro country.” Hopelessly (some might say defiantly) clichéd songs about yellow beer, Friday nights, pickup trucks, mean ol’/clueless big city types and whatnot are the coin of the realm, and they all sound like one another. “Even non-fans are starting to take notice,” wrote one recent commentator.

It all largely passes me by, as I’ve never been a fan of modern c&w. Though I did briefly find it inescapable late last summer: I live quite near our city’s baseball stadium, home one sweaty afternoon to a concert pairing Florida Georgia Line and rapper Nelly. To call it awful and lowbrow gives it too much credit. And it was louder than most rock concerts (and I’d know) making it even worse.

Those who appreciate things like musicianship and authenticity (of a sort) in their twang seem to prefer music that falls under the Americana label. And while nobody knows exactly what is and is not Americana, there’s general agreement that it’s the better stuff. And on that I’d agree.

One of the best things about Americana today is The Mavericks. They’re widely celebrated among Americana fans, though I’m not convinced that they are country. Their approach is too wide-encompassing for that – or perhaps any other – label. Founded in Miami at the beginning of the 1990s, the group has released eight albums, including two since their 2013 reunion. Mono, their latest, features two founding members – vocalist Raul Malo and drummer Paul Deakin – plus two more recently-added members, keyboardist Jerry Dale McFadden (with them since the mid 90s) and guitarist Eddie Perez (he joined in 2003). And the music on Mono might best be described – if we need a label – as norteAmericana.

There’s a strong Latin undercurrent to the songs on Mono, most notably the thrilling “All Night Long,” a musical cousin to Santana‘s “Smooth.” It’s a wholly successful hybrid of Latin rhythms, Cuban arrangement, and modern rock/pop. It has hit-single written all over it, though as of this writing it hasn’t in fact charted.

But “All Night Long” doesn’t sound all that much like the remaining eleven tracks on Mono. What it has in common, however, is quality: this is a strong album that’s enjoyable from start to finish. Rock fans – and those with little musical grounding in country (in other words, listeners like me) – will find many musical touchstones throughout the album. “Summertime (When I’m With You)” sounds a bit like Joe “King” Carrasco and the Crowns crossed with Louis Prima. “Pardon Me” is Mono‘s only real country tune; it sounds like classic c&w of the late 1960s and early 70s, with Malo’s yearning vocal a highlight. “What Am I Supposed to Do” is a romantic midtempo number with a great singalong chorus. “Stories We Could Tell” feels like early dance-oriented rock’n'roll a la Bill Haley and the Comets, with a Texas swing feel. “What You Do to Me” could almost be termed ska-country; the accordion works quite well, and some Mariachi-flavored horn charts and electric guitar add to the tune’s excitement.

The stylistic variation continues, though in The Mavericks’ hands, it’s all somehow musically unified. “Let it Rain” is a lovely, lump-in-the-throat ballad. “The Only Question Is” is fifties-styled blues; one could easily imagine Stevie Ray Vaughan joining in on the tune. But here we get a honking sax solo with just a bit of electric guitar answering it. “Out the Door” feels a lot like The Sir Douglas Quintet. “(Waiting for) The World to End” is a swinging party number that no doubt goes over great live (I’ve seen The Mavericks live, and they’re fantastic). The song’s outro repeats the title lyric over and over, though eventually Malo sings, “We’re all waiting for this song to end.”

A romantic weeper, “Fascinate Me” sounds like a late-night barroom closer, with Malo’s voice and rickety tack piano out front. Listed as a bonus track, “Nitty Gritty” is a wry midtempo tune with loads of wonderfully cheesy combo organ (sounds like a Farfisa) that will remind sixties garage fans of Augie Meyers, Doug Sahm, Sam “The Sham” Samudio and other greats. The dialogue between accordion and electric guitar is a delight.

The good-timing Mono is a strong contender for my Best of 2015 album list. If any band is poised to “save” modern country and western music, my money’s on The Mavericks.

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Festival Review: Big Ears Festival 2015, Part 1

Monday, April 6th, 2015

Typically, I don’t make a point of attending “kickoff events” at the start of music festivals. My thinking is that they’re generally an opportunity to spotlight the event sponsors and so forth. That’s all well and good, but it’s not, strictly speaking, entertainment. But since I had gone to Moogfest 2014‘s opening event and enjoyed it, I figured, why not do the same in Knoxville. Plus, I was there, and no other music events were scheduled until later.

Lucky me. True, the event did include some speeches, but even those were worthwhile. Festival organizer Ashley Capps (he of AC Entertainment, the outfit behind Bonnaroo and many other high-profile festivals) gave a heartfelt speech that helped attendees understand the answers to two reasonable questions: Why Big Ears? And why Knoxville?

But the real highlights of the opening event were four musical performances. First off, Kronos Quartet and pipa virtuoso Wu Man staged a “popup concert.” Rather than make use of the stage, they set up their stools and music stands on the floor in front of it – all of six feet from where I had situated myself – and played a brief, unamplified set. It was sublime, and held the audience (a near-packed room at the Knoxville Museum of Art’s Ann and Steve Bailey Hall) spellbound.

After that, we were treated to onstage performances from Hildur Guðnadóttir (futuristic-looking cello and vocals treated by sonic effects and looping), a sight-impaired teenage pianist Tate Garcia (an exceedingly clever mashup of his own arrangement of works by Scott Joplin, George Harrison and Chopin), and finally vocalist Breyon Ewing. In less than an hour’s time, the gathered audience had the essence of Big Ears Festival laid out in front of them. Things were off to a superb start.

Igor Stravinsky‘s “The Rite of Spring” is one of those classical pieces that you know, even if you don’t know you know it. A reading of the work formed the centerpiece of the 1940 Walt Disney film Fantasia, and the onscreen visuals that accompanied it (dinosaurs, not Mickey Mouse) seared it into the memory of those who witnessed it. The work remains popular, and received perhaps its most innovative and outré reading by The Bad Plus on their 2014 album The Rite of Spring. The group (pianist Ethan Iverson, upright bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer Dave King) is nominally a jazz trio. But they’re jazz musicians playing classical music, and playing it with a rock (or progressive rock) level of power.

Whole sections of the Bad Plus’ take on Stravinsky’s work might be unrecognizable to those familiar with the original work, but the trio’s reinvention of the piece was thrilling; one couldn’t turn away. The interplay between the three was remarkable; even though they were working from sheet music (as did nearly every Big Ears performer I saw, yet another thing that makes this festival unlike any other I’ve witnessed), there was a jazz musician’s mentality of unspoken communication at work.

The trio followed up Stravinsky’s work with a set of their own original material; avant garde rarely gets as accessible as The Bad Plus.

Later on Big Ears’ first night, I caught a set at The Square room featuring guitarist Steve Gunn and his band. Musically conventional – at least compared to most of the other acts on the bill – Gunn and band showcased the guitarist’s impressive fretwork. Gunn’s not a flashy guitarist, not at all. But his powerful music was the closest thing to rock music on the entire three-day schedule. It was also plenty loud, not that that’s a band thing. (No doubt Swans were much louder, but having witnessed part of their punishing set at 2013′s Bonnaroo Festival, I made the decision to avoid a repeat.)

After a visit to a local used record store (something I try to do in every city I visit, because every town has its own used-record character), my Saturday list of performances began with Kronos Quartet onstage at the massive and beautiful Tennessee Theatre. Joined by Americana artist Sam Amidon on vocals and banjo, the Quartet applied their multigenre-spanning expertise to folk songs. At this point I thought to myself, “I don’t think I’ve ever taken in so much live classical instrumentation at one time before.” But it was lovely, and I even sat still for music that included banjo (one of my least-favorite instruments).

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Book Review: Mavericks of Sound

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015


There’s something endlessly fascinating about the creative process. And of course it’s not merely one process; it’s wholly unique for each individual. And because that’s true, conversations with those engage in creative output are often illuminating. David Ensminger clearly agrees: he’s compiled a book’s worth of his own conversations into a volume called Mavericks of Sound: Conversations with the Artists Who Shaped Indie and Roots Music.

A few of these names will be familiar to casual music enthusiasts (Merle Haggard and perhaps Billy Joe Shaver), but mention of the bulk of the artists interviewed will elicit furrowed brows or blank stares from most people. That doesn’t make them any less important; it’s worth recalling how influential artists such as The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, and Big Star were in their days, and it’s helpful to recall that none sold very many records or broke into the mass culture consciousness in a meaningful way. So the fact that the names interviewed in Mavericks of Sound are not well known is no detriment.

And so it is that may of Ensminger’s interview subjects are “cult” or “underground” acts. But to a man (and, much less often, a woman), the acts spotlighted in Mavericks of Sound are about expressing their own product of the creative muse. And nearly all are what one might call critics’ darlings.

They’re also pretty much all excellent interview subjects. It helps immeasurably that in Ensminger they have an intelligent interviewer; in fact he’s often more of a peer (on some or another level) with those he interviews. Occasionally that can result in a somewhat insular conversation, one in which the reader may feel that he or she has wandered into a deep conversation already long in progress. When both of the parties in a conversation are discussing theoretical concepts, dialectics, philosophy and such, Mavericks of Sound threatens to get a bit too egg-headed for the casual reader (present company included). But my advice is to force your way through those heady chats, as even when the subject matter gets a big dense and/or academic, there’s value to be found.

Interviews with Michael Gira and Jarboe (Swans) and Deke Dickerson are among the most revelatory of the twenty-two major interviews, and even the shorter pieces (Richard Thompson, Rob Younger, Wayne Kramer) are well worth reading.

I do have two criticisms of the book. First off, and relevant to the points already made, the lack of contextualization hampers wider enjoyment of the interviews. I understand that nearly all of the material as presented in Mavericks of Sound has been published elsewhere (in ‘zines or other periodicals), and that by definition, readers of the pieces in their original publications would have understood who these artists are and what they’re about. But in a book such as this, containing interviews that have taken place over the last decade and a half or so, it would be helpful if Ensminger had penned a brief introduction for each, with at least a thumbnail biographical sketch.

Secondly, since the pieces are (again, for the most part) being re-published, it’s reasonable to hold the author to a high standard of fact-checking. With that in mind, I ask, who exactly is Brian Seltzer* (sic)? And who is this guitarist Link Ray** (sic)? There are other less egregious errors, but those two – the first of which is made multiple times – are the most wince-inducing.

Ensmigner clearly knows his subject, and much much more (a fact that he makes sure to put on full display), and he’s a keen interviewer who (it seems) allows his interviews to follow interesting paths, rather than hewing to a predetermined set of questions. And if one can look beyond the dismissive tone occasionally taken with regard to a handful of other artists who are not interviewed in its pages*, Mavericks of Sound is indeed a bright and wide-open window into the creative process, and is thus recommended.

* Brian Setzer
** Link Wray

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