Archive for the ‘review’ Category

Album Review: Yes — Progeny: Seven From Seventy-Two

Monday, July 6th, 2015

It was just a bit more than three years ago today that I got the opportunity to speak with Chris Squire of Yes. Though he was never put forth as the “leader” of the group – more than most any other group of the era, Yes never really seemed to have one out-front, in-charge member – he was easily the foundation of the group from its beginning to what may well be its end. On June 27, the bassist passed away after a short battle with a rather aggressive form of leukemia.

The group’s membership was a constantly-shifting lineup, but for most fans, the “classic” lineup featured Jon Anderson on vocals; Squire on bass, Steve Howe on guitar, Rick Wakeman on keyboards, and either Alan White or Bill Bruford on drums. It was during the transition between Bruford and White on the drum throne that the group recorded the music that would be put together as the sprawling 3LP live set, Yessongs.

Through 1972 and into ’73, Yes toured the UK and the USA, and selections from those shows were used to compile Yessongs; the film was not a straight duplicate of the album, as Yessongs-the-movie was the document of a single December ’72 performance in London. Though the playing on Yessongs was predictably impressive, the sound quality was not. Other live albums would follow, but Yessongs was pretty much all Yes fans had in the way of official live recordings of the classic lineup in their prime.

But just like the situation surrounding The Who‘s Live at Leeds, it turns out that other shows from the Yessongs era were recorded. As producer Brian Kehew explains in the liner notes for Progeny: Highlights from Seventy-Two, there were serious technical problems with those recordings. But thanks to modern technology, by 2015 there existed a way to correct those issues without changing the nature of the music as played and recorded.

The result of those efforts is the new, exhaustive 14CD set Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two. With a title that explains exactly what is contained, Progeny presents the complete documents of seven Yes shows. And while Yes didn’t offer much in the way of spontaneity when it came ot their set lists – every night features the same songs in the same order – their performances varied enough from night to night to make a massive set like this worth hearing.

Worth hearing for fans of Yes, that is. But if you’ve read this far, chances are good that describes you. With sound quality that is far superior to anything heard on Yessongs, Progeny captures the band once they had settled into having White as their drummer.

In the early 1970s, opening one’s concert with a taped playback of some classical piece was the thing to do. Elvis had “Also Sprach Zarathustra” played over the PA. Yes opted for a clip of Stravinsky‘s ‘Firebird Suite.” But unlike on Yessongs, the Progeny versions let us hear the band use the playback as a reference for tuning up their instruments. Squire’s bass and Wakeman’s by-its-very-nature-finicky Mellotron can clearly be heard.

The Progeny recordings present the concerts the way they were played, whereas Yessongs rejigged the song order. But what really matters is the music, and the high quality recordings thereof. Throughout these hours and hours of tapes, what one hears is a tightly focused yet “breathable” ensemble who could bend and sway with the song arrangement without breaking.

Anderson’s voice is crystal-clear on these recordings. And while everyone’s impressive, Wakeman’s keyboard and Squire’s bass guitar parts benefit the most from the imported sonic clarity. The throaty, trebly-but-not-trebly Rickenbacker bass work of Chris Squire positively thunders while acting as an additional “lead” instrument alongside Wakeman’s synth lines and Howe’s guitar runs.

The differences between the various shows – mostly recorded in the deep south of the USA – are sometimes subtle, but on the solo spots, the performances vary to a much greater degree. Besides the improved sonics, Howe’s “Clap”is remarkable for the ways in which the guitarist alters the song for each show. The same is true of Wakeman’s spotlight number, “Excerpts from The Six Wives of King Henry VIII.”

Unlike The Grateful Dead – another band who released a 1972 triple-live album (Europe ’72) and followed it decades later with a box set of more shows from the tour – Yes didn’t noodle onstage. The nature of their music was tightly structured pieces. Those pieces went places for sure, but the five band members went there together, not apart. And following along on their journey – especially now that there’s zero chance for that lineup to make music together again – is an experience that’s rich both in nostalgia and in just plain great listening.

For those disinclined toward the large investments in time and money required by Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two, the 2CD Highlights set presents a sampling from the set, and in doing so, provides an audio document that one could consider a sort of Yessongs 2.0. So hold onto your copy of Yessongs for the groovy triple-gatefold album art, and spin Progeny: Highlights from Seventy-Two to make yourself feel as if you are there.

Tomorrow, a look at yet another new live recording from Yes.

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Album Review: Todd Rundgren — Global

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

In one sense, the best artists are those who confound their fans. There’s certainly a place for the reliable musical act that releases pretty much the same album over and over again; entire careers have been built on doing just that, and it’s not without aesthetic value. “More of the same” is most assuredly not a bad thing in and of itself.

But the more intriguing creative artists are moving targets. They tire quickly of what they’ve just done, and are ceaselessly moving forward, trying new things. And that can make being a fan some pretty rough sledding. Perhaps no other currently-active musician better illustrates this situation than Todd Rundgren.

I won’t recapitulate his long and varied musical career-to-date here; for a tidy summary of his work from the late 1960s through 2004 – yeah, the essay needs updating – I’d direct you here. Suffice to say that Rundgren has made more stylistic detours than most anyone else you’d care to name. And the degree to which any of those tangential moves “works” will differ for each fan. When it comes to Todd Rundgren, the phrase your mileage may vary truly applies. For me, his Broadway-leaning material (1989′s Nearly Human and the related 1997 set Up Against It) is his least satisfying, though even those have some stellar moments. And I’m in the minority with my great admiration for the widely-maligned No World Order from 1992, a set in which Rundgren – temporarily rebranded as TR-i – takes on a sort of hip-hop-meets-Nine Inch Nails approach.

These days it’s fair to call the impossibly talented Rundgren a cult artist, though in a very real sense he’s always been one. His infallible sense of melody never fails him, no matter what musical context into which he places his music.

But cult artists don’t always have massive studio budgets, and that’s especially true of an artist who went bankrupt and sold off some of his recurring-revenue assets. Because of those realities – and, likely, owing to his actual desire to do things this way – his last several albums have been recorded on a computer, using the one-man-band approach that he (as much as anyone else) can be said to have invented.

After the stylistic missteps and dead end of Todd Rundgren’s Johnson (blooz retreads) and the truly wretched (re)Production (in which he essentially allowed other people to wreck his music), it was encouraging to hear Rundgren return to songcraft with 2013′s State. He did seem unnaturally interested in the latest trendy sounds and approaches, but he bent those forms to his own musical will.

And that’s pretty much what Todd Rundgren has done with Global. Continuing his 2004-and-onward practice of naming his releases with a single word (easier to remember than, say, The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect), on Global, Rundgren presents perhaps his best set of melodies since 1995′s The Individualist. In fact, some of these cuts (“Blind,” in particular) sound as if they could have been written around that time.

Rundgren has always been a thoughtful (as in full of thought) songwriter, and he’s long concerned himself with big ideas. As the title telegraphs, the songs on Global are no exception. But he does so with characteristic good humor: paraphrasing Albert Einstein‘s remark about God not playing dice with the universe, he throws in an aside: “Doesn’t take an Einstein” to figure that out.

Global has been described in some quarters as Todd’s EDM album. And I’ll admit, that description very nearly scared me off. I needn’t have worried. Many of the songs on Global do indeed have some very kinetic, dance-ready beats (for those so inclined); boing-boing synths; Cylon-sounding vocal treatments; and other “modern” trappings, but the songs themselves are very organic, and include more “real” instrumentation that we’ve heard on some of Rundgren’s other recent releases. Bobby Strickland’s sax work on “Blind” is nothing less than thrilling.

“Earth Mother” features guest spots by friends and associates including Rachel Haden (bassist extraordinaire from a fine lineage of musicians) Janet Kirker, Michele Rundgren (she was great with The Tubes back in the 80s), Jill Sobule, and Jeff Beck associate Tal Wilkenfeld. At first, Todd’s exhortations (“Can I get a shout from my sisters?”) feel a bit awkward, but it’s a groovy track. And old Utopia band mate Kasim Sulton shows up on “Skyscraper.”

Yes, it’s nearly all Todd all the time (save those guest spots) but if anyone can make that approach work – make it real, so to speak – it’s Todd Rundgren. Just when some might have counted him out – I nearly did after (re)ProductionGlobal shows that at 67 years of age, the man still has it. Whatever it is. Here’s hoping he keeps sharing it with his listeners.

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Album Review: The Fad — The Now Sound

Monday, June 29th, 2015

If you lived through the early 1980s in the United States – and were old enough to be at least somewhat plugged in to popular culture – you were aware of the proliferation of “new wave” groups. Many of these acts traded in a style of music that drew inspiration from the pre-“rock star” era, that is to say the time before the rise of the dinosaurs of rock. The wave might have been called new, but the streamlined sounds often recalled sixties garage, 50s rockabilly, and other styles that predated Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and all those kinda guys.

Something else you would have known about was the cassette. Designed as a smaller, more portable alternative to the LP record, the cassette had a few obvious advantages: not only was it small, but it was recordable. But it had one serious disadvantage: inferior sound quality. Say what you will; it was undeniably fun to stroll around with a Walkman (or, as in my case, a much cheaper JCPenney-branded alternative) with headphones blasting a life soundtrack of your choice directly into your skull, but the wow, flutter, and gauss could ruin the greatest music. That whooshing sound – sort of like a speaker being slowly dipped into a bucket of water, lifted out, and dunked again – is one that most any cassette owner has experienced.

Now, thanks to the intrepid archival efforts of the guys at Kool Kat Musik, you can experience not one but both of these early 80s treasures once again!

Philadelphia-based trio The Fad were not unlike hundreds – thousands? – of groups that sprang up in that era that gave birth to MTV. And like the better among that crop, The Fad rose to some prominence: regular small-venue gigs and the occasional opening spot on a bill supporting The Stray Cats, The Ramones, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers (hey, two out of three ain’t bad).

During their time, The Fad relocated to Huntington Beach, California; they’d eventually return home to Philly and break up. But while together, they recorded and released a six-song EP and a half-dozen other tunes. All twelve of these are collected on the CD The Now Sound.

The good news is that these tracks are a lot of fun. They’re tight, snappy tunes that straddle the line between new wave and, let’s say, nerd-rock. Unlike some of their self-consciously counterparts with clip-on safety pins and accoutrements of the punk identikit, The Fad were a smiling, go-go kinda trio. Their outfits made them look like relatives of the Robinson family, heroes of the kitschy 1960s TV classic Lost in Space. Their gear featured Rickenbacker basses and twelve-strings through Vox amps, all of which would have been viewed as resolutely retro choices in the 1980s.

And their music matched it. While they could play with the tight force of, say, The Jam, their slightly nasally vocal delivery made them sound closer to Gary Lewis and the Playboys. They had the good nature to write and record their own theme song (“Fad Theme”) and the equally good sense to have it clock in just under minute, as if for the intro of their own (nonexistent) TV show. Their ginchy vocal harmonies were the cherry on top of their compact pop tunes.

The songs have a good deal of subtlety for what’s essentially vocal-focused power pop. There’s a wide-eyed innocence that recalls the 60s garage bands who drew their inspiration not from those dirty Rolling Stones boys, but from relatively cheerful, clean cut young men like The Turtles. At times (“Where the Colors Are,” for example), The Fad sound a bit like Jan and Dean with ’65 version of The Who backing them up. Put another way, Keith Moon would have loved these guys. Another quickie, the 1:04 “Lark City” is a twister-riffic tune that Los Straitjackets would be proud to count among their repertoire. “Watch the Sky” is The Fad’s contemplative folk-rock moment; here they recall The Beau Brummels or The Association with fewer vocalists.

The six songs that make up the second half of The Now Sound widen the group’s stylistic lens a bit, but the elements that made the original EP so appealing are all relatively intact. The Phil Spector-ish intro to “Tomorrow She is Leaving” gives way to a wistful tune. “Genie” is a speedy number with some nicely chiming guitar and impressive, near-whispered vocals. “Broken Hearts” features ba-ba-ba harmony vocals, and the three-part harmonies coupled with guitar jangle suggest a cross between early Beach Boys and The Records.

The Fad clearly aimed for, well, fads: the instrumental “Fad Twist” encourages the listener to do just that while guitarist Frank Max plays one long (and very tasty) guitar solo. And the set ends with “The Swing’s the Thing,” a tune that would have worked perfectly in the movie That Thing You Do! if the story had included some serious rivals to The Wonders. It’s a delight, as is every track on The Now Sound. It’s no exaggeration to characterize this CD as a collection of rescued musical treasures.

And that’s the good news. But as I mentioned earlier, you also get a flashback to the dreadful sonic qualities inherent in the cassette. All of the tracks on The Now Sound were sourced from the best media available. But that media seems to have been some unknown-generation cassettes. The sound is very much like what you’d expect if a friend made you a cassette dub of his cassette dub of somebody else’s dub, with all tapes in that lineage being Type 1 cassettes. Probably at least one of ‘em was a three-for-a-buck Realistic cassette from Radio Shack. Put more succinctly, the sound is a notch or two above “suck.” (The story goes that some of the audio issues are the fault of the EP sessions’ producer, who is pointedly not credited anywhere on the CD release.)

The thing is, the music on The Fad’s The Now Sound is so damn good that I can still recommend it in the most glowing terms. Don’t worry about the whooshy sound on some tracks. Just turn it up and enjoy.

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Album Review: Little Richard — Directly From My Heart

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

For music lovers of a certain age range, the work of Richard Penniman is the sort of music that one might only rarely make an effort to hear. The name and image of Little Richard is a virtual shorthand for some of the best qualities music has to offer: excitement, bravado, melody, energy, skill, humor…on and on. And because of his larger-than-life persona – wildly in-your-face effeminate posturing and his (nearly but not quite outsized) estimation of his own importance) – he seems somehow to always be there, and the same is true for his music.

Thanks, too, to the fact that Little Richard exerted so much influence on those who would follow (no less a figure than Paul McCartney has long held as part of his own stock-in-trade a convincing Little Richard vocal imitation), generations who grew to age after Little Richard’s heyday still know his songs. Covered by an impossibly long list of artists, and used in everything from film soundtracks to television commercials, Little Richard’s classic music is deeply embedded into popular culture and our collective consciousness.

The downside of that ubiquity, however, is that listeners might forget to stop for a moment and appreciate just how superb – not to mention wildly innovative for its time – his music really is. To help us in our modern-day reconsideration of Little Richard’s early, best-loved material, Concord Music Group has compiled a 3CD set, Directly From My Heart: The Best of the Specialty and Vee-Jay Years.

Penniman’s musical recording career began more than three years before he’d enter a studio to cut a demo for Specialty Records in early 1955. By the time he began recording for Specialty, Richard had released two albums (one each on RCA and Peacock) and six singles, none of which charted. Once at Specialty, Little Richard recorded in various sessions over a period of just more than two years; that body of work is the primary foundation upon which his musical legacy rests.

Surprisingly – or at least surprisingly to those who know the man’s work on cuts like “Long Tall Sally (The Thing)” – Little Richard cut a number of tracks that don’t have that wild, manic vibe at all. The first few cuts on Directly From My Heart are r&b/blues numbers, with none of the reckless abandon that would characterize his hit singles. They’re good, albeit a tad ordinary. Their inclusion on this set does serve to place those crazy, uptempo singles in a context more representative of Little Richard’s musical output of that era.

But it’s through the first (and a good portion of the second) disc that Little Richard’s Specialty work is chronicled. All of the greats are here: “Tutti Frutti,” “Kansas City,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’ (Peepin’ and Hidin’),” “Long Tall Sally (The Thing),” “Miss Ann,” “Ready Teddy,” “Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey,” “Rip it Up,” “Lucille,” “Jenny Jenny,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “Keep A Knockin’,” “Ooh! My Soul,” and quite a few others.

Renouncing the sinful ways of rock’n'roll, Richard left Specialty in late 1957, going on to cut religious-themed sides for several labels. But when The Beatles exploded on the scene – and in light of their championing of him as an influence – Little Richard returned to Specialty, where he cut five songs, a few of which are featured on this set. The most notable of these is “Bama Lama Bama Loo,” but they’re all rocking numbers.

From there he went to Vee-Jay (coincidentally, the U.S. label that had released early Beatles tracks), remaining with them for a year. The third disc of Directly From My Heart focuses on this lesser-known era of Little Richard’s music, and is notable in part for the appearance of pre-fame Jimi Hendrix as guitarist for several cuts.

The entire 2015 compilation is housed in a duotone (black and pink!) box, and the accompanying liner note booklet features lots of photos and an essay from Little Richard superfan Billy Vera. The booklet handily provides matrix numbers for all sixty-three tracks, but the compilers deigned not to specify (recording and/or release) dates for the tracks. The booklet makes no mention of the mastering involved in bringing this compilation to market, but the sound throughout is superb.

Beware of imitations: notoriously, Little Richard re-recorded many of his hits in greatly inferior versions, and an unknown number among the vast array of available compilations draw tracks from those. The surest way to get a tidy collection of the man’s best work is to pick up Directly From My Heart.

A few related items, if I may…

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Album Reviews: Four from The Residents

Monday, June 22nd, 2015

Though they initially submitted demo recordings to major record labels (the bootleg The Warner Brothers Tapes documents the most notorious of these), the inscrutable collective that once jokingly billed themselves “North Louisiana’s Phenomenal Pop Combo” released most of their albums on their own Ralph Records label. That entity – though not The Residents themselves – ceased operations in 2010. Since that time, The Residents have set about reissuing large swaths of their massive back catalog via the MVD Audio label. MVD is also the licensed distributor for new and current Residents album releases. Here’s a look at two archival reissues and two new titles, all from the world’s most mysterious musical outfit.

The Residents – God in Three Persons

This conceptual work from 1988 often employs a favorite Residents musical device: taking the signature melodic line of a popular song – say, The Swinging Medallions‘ “Double Shot (of My Baby’s Love)” and reapplying it in a different musical context. Musically rich and deeply textured, God in Three Persons features that tune re-contextualized throughout the record. The opening track is a recitation of the work’s credits, and the album features unusually (for the Residents, that is) melodic vocals from Laurie Amat, and brass and woodwind arrangements from Richard Marriot. It’s on a par with The River of Crime in terms of its musicality. But lovers of the outré need not worry: the horrifying story line (involving siamese twins, rape and other fun subjects) and its execution are just as transgressive as hardcore Residents fans could want. The album art is unabashedly risqué, too. Randy’s sung/spoken delivery suits the project perfectly.

The Residents – Our Finest Flowers

When it comes to The Residents, one should expect the unexpected. When they released a greatest hits (sic) collection (1997′s Our Tired, Our Poor, Our Huddled Masses), the group put all the songs in reverse-chronological order. The liner notes of this collection from 1992 celebrate the group’s “twenty long years of painful regurgitation.” The sixteen tracks recombine elements from The Residents’ vast catalog, proving that their mutated approach to song construction can provide endless — and endlessly fascinating — variation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Our Finest Flowers‘ new pieces draw greatly upon material from Commercial Album, a disc full of intentionally underdeveloped musical ideas. All of these tunes feature the southern drawl vocal delivery of the Resident Known Only As Randy, with synthesizers (samplers, analog synths, drum machines) providing the musical accompaniment, textures and sound effects. By Residential standards, this is fairly accessible material overall, though much of the music is nightmarish in tone.

The Residents – Marching to the See!

Another commemorative project of sorts, March to the See! documents The Residents’ “The Wonder of Weird” 40th Anniversary Tour. Starring Residents Randy (“singer for The Residents”), Chuck (“he writes all of the music”) and Bob (guitar), the album is a recording of their May 20, 2013 performance in Amsterdam. Howling electric guitar – a musical element not often found on Residents albums – is a prominent part of the sonic landscape on this set. Chuck’s hypnotic synthesizer lines provide more musical texture, and our pal Randy works the crowd like some bizarro-world cross between rock star and carnival barker. The music –  Marching to the See! is mostly about music, not story lines and narratives – is sweeping and cinematic, and a bit less creepy than most Residents albums. Note: there’s a 2CD version, The Wonder of Weird, that documents the complete concert, rather than just the highlights found here.)

The Residents – Shadowland

Subtitled “Part 3 of the Residents’ Randy, Chuck and Bob Trilogy,” Shadowland is musically very much of a piece with Marching to the See! A document of the tour of the same name, the live Shadowland features the loops, synths, textures and avant-metal guitar sounds that characterize the current (mid-2010′s) Residents. The group’s recurring Timmy character makes an appearance in the Shadowland storyline, but listeners more attuned to the aural weirdness of The Residents can safely ignore what Randy’s singing/talking about and just revel in the spooky sound ambience. “Herman the Human Mole” could well be an outtake from 2006′s The River of Crime; with the Residents, you never know if something is new, old, recycled, or somehow all of the above. All you know is that it never sounds like anyone except The Residents. (At press time, a Shadowland performance was scheduled for midnight, August 7 in Katowice, Poland.)

Note: if you enjoy reading about The Residents, you may want to check out some or all of the following:

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Album Review: stephaniesĭd – Excavator

Friday, June 19th, 2015

It’s rare that I review the music of artists based in my adopted hometown of Asheville NC. My reason is simple: I gotta live in this town. I feel it my duty to pull no punches when reviewing music, so if I perceive flaws or shortcoming in someone’s music, I’ll say so in my review. But when those people are my neighbors, my general approach is to take a pass, or (as I do quite often) write a feature/interview that explores the artist’s creative process and such, and leave the reviewing to others in other venues.

stephaniesĭd are the exception to that unofficial policy of mine. Both onstage and on disc, their music is distinctive, arresting, and compelling. I enthusiastically reviewed Starfruit in late 2011, and that album has worn well these ensuing three and a half years.

Excavator is the group’s latest, and it represents a darker, more contemplative and melancholy ambience than its predecessor. Ten of the eleven tracks on Excavator are written or co-written by Stephanie Morgan, an intriguing vocalist of uncanny expressiveness and range. On this record, there’s a kittenish, just-awoken quality to Morgan’s voice, and the arrangements – led primarily by Chuck Lichtenberger – are often spare, often using silence – the spaces between the notes, as they say – as the backing for Morgan’s vocalizing.

A sense of melodrama pervades the songs on Excavator. There’s a feel of regret and resignation that hangs upon the tunes. Yet despite the often minimalistic approach to the music, at times Excavator sounds like the exact opposite: the wide-screen arrangements of Polyphonic Spree.

When the band moves away from the heartbreak and melancholy – as they do on the uptempo “Battery Room” – they end up sounding like a postmodern rethink of Astrud and Joao Gilberto-styled Brazilian jazz, crossed with The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner-era Ben Folds Five. On “Baseball Player,” they sound a good bit like 2015 America’s answer to Radiohead (Morgan is on record as a big fan of Thom Yorke‘s group) circa Kid A. Halfway through Excavator, “Baseball Player” is the first instance of electric guitar taking a prominent – albeit exceedingly textural – role in the music. The album’s instrumental lineup (beyond Morgan and Lichtenberger) features upright bass, trombone, saxophone, bass clarinet, violin and cello.

As such, it’s difficult (not to mention pointless) to classify Excavator as a rock album. It’s certainly not jazz, though the group’s inventive reading of “My Funny Valentine” has elements of jazz, especially in Lichtenberger’s nimble piano work. It’s also not at all what one could call an immediate record; one has to immerse oneself in the music, or more accurately, allow the music to envelop the listener. That’s a tall order for a musical act to place upon a potential listener, but with Excavator, stephaniesĭd provide a handsome reward for the investment. Simply put, Excavator is worth the effort required to get into the current musical world of stephaniesĭd.

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Album Review: Craig Fuller / Eric Kaz

Thursday, June 18th, 2015

There’s always a place for solid, midtempo, soft-rock. Or at least there was one before what passes for country music co-opted the style, watered it down and called it modern country (or, heaven forfend, bro country).

For a time in the mid to late 1970s, artists like Pure Prairie League, post-prog Ambrosia, Ace, Michael Martin Murphey, and even (dare I say this) The Eagles bridged the sonic gap between rock and singer-songwriter-oriented material, and for their trouble were often rewarded with chart success.

But not always: sometimes fine, solid albums sank without a trace. “Such,” writes Ed Osborne in his liner notes for the Real Gone Music expanded reissue of Craig Fuller / Eric Kaz, “are the vagaries of the music business.”

Their 1978 LP slipped right by the notice of this then-fourteen year old, but then I was into other things. Had I heard the record, I might have thought to myself, “this sounds a lot like Pure Prairie League.” And I would have been a very clever pubescent teen, because Craig Fuller was the lead singer on many of that group’s hits, 1972′s “Falling In and Out of Love” (though you may know it as “Amie”).

By the late 70s, Fuller had teamed up with fellow singer/songwriter Kaz for what would be a one-off collaboration. On Craig Fuller / Eric Kaz, the two take turns at the lead vocal spot, turning in borderline easy listening melodies, many of which fall into the sonic space where The Eagles’ “Desperado” lives.

All of Craig Fuller / Eric Kaz‘s ten tracks were written by one or the other singer, with the most commercially appealing cut (“Let the Fire Burn All Night”) the album’s sole co-write. Because of both musicians’ close connection to Columbia Records, they drew on a number of related artists to back them up on their eponymous disc. While the names Leland Sklar, Russ Kunkel, Michael McDonald, J.D. Souther and Leo Sayer don’t suggest anything remotely approaching straight-ahead rock’n'roll, all were near the top of their soft-rock game in the late 70s, and their presence gives Craig Fuller / Eric Kaz a familiar air. Listening to the “expanded edition” (one extra track, a single edit of the original LP closer “Annabella”), one might think, “Hey, I’ve heard these songs before, years ago. Were they hits?”

One would likely be wrong on both counts, but the feeling of familiarity remains. David Campbell‘s string arrangements – most notably on “’Til You Come Back” – sound like the kind of thing Paul Buckmaster did for Elton John a few years earlier.

Ultimately, Ed Osborne’s liner notes essay – drawing upon in-depth interviews with both musicians – is the most interesting thing about the reissue. In one of those bits of trivia that supports the theory that everything is connected, Osborne explores Kaz’s earlier involvement with the proto-Latin rock version of The Blues Magoos.

There’s not a thing wrong with Craig Fuller / Eric Kaz. Polished to a shine, the album presents these yearning, often melancholy songs in the best light possible. But in the late 1970s, there was simply so much of this kind of thing that it was easy to miss a few efforts, however fine they might’ve been. Musically, the album drifts by pleasantly enough, but it leaves little lingering impression. “That was nice,” you might say after “Annabella” fades out. “But now let’s listen to something with a little oomph in it.”

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Album Review: The Orange Peels — Begin the Begone

Wednesday, June 17th, 2015

On Begin the Begone, the sixth album from northern California pop group The Orange Peels, the group continues to redefine its stylistic parameters while still crafting that winning ear-candy pop with which it has built a solid reputation.

Begin the Begone rocks a bit harder than earlier albums like the near-perfect 2020, and while part of that is thanks to the guitar work of John Moremen (also of The Paul & John, Flotation Device and who-the-hell-knows how many other fine aggregations), but the increased heaviness is clearly a product of Allen Clapp‘s songwriting and arrangement ideas as well. The indie aesthetic meets a baroque pop sensibility (see also: Pet Sounds, The Polyphonic Spree) but wraps it in a heavier rock feel, anchored by bassist Jill Pries and drummer Gabriel Coan.

In some ways, Begin the Begone moves away from the immediacy and hookiness of earlier tunes like the sunshiny power pop of “We’re Gonna Make It,” weaving a gauzier textured musical tapestry that requires (and rewards) repeated listens. But the group’s uncanny knack for pop confection remains on full display with “Embers,” which sports not only a lovely Allen Clapp lead vocal but finds Moremen channeling early 1970s George Harrison.

The skewed pop-centric approach goes completely off the rails with the brief “Post & Beam,” basically a manic two-minute drum solo in which the sounds are treated with effects, and a bit of bloops (synthesizer or treated guitar) add interest. At first listen, “Post & Beam” seems wholly out of place on Begin the Begone, but once it gives way to the intro of “9,” everything makes some sort of contextual sense.

“9” starts off sounding very much like a sample-happy treat from Japan’s Pizzicato Five, but once it’s joined by Moremen’s chiming guitar, Pries’ rock solid bass, and Clapp’s vocal, it reveals itself as a swell (and slightly transcendent) pop tune. The song’s lyric reflecting amazement at being alive refers to a 2013 car accident that could well have killed both Clapp and wife Pries; happily and amazingly, they were both unhurt.

Clapp’s reverberating piano forms the centerpiece of “Satellite Song,” a soaring melody that seems to lift the band sonically, fading off into the ether (or perhaps the, um, aether tide). It would have served as a fine ending to Begin the Begone. But instead, an acoustic guitar intro (something not found elsewhere on the disc) leads into the real closing track, “Wintergreen.” Here The Orange Peels sound a bit like XTC in their Dukes of Stratosphear guise, yet without the 60s trappings.

For most of The Orange Peels’ career, they’ve allowed four years between album releases. But even though Mystery Lawn Music, the label that Clapp heads, has increased its overall output (and, one would think, Clapp’s workload), they turned out Begin the Begone a mere two years after Sun Moon. That they did so without sacrificing quality is a testament to the group’s deep well of talent, and it bodes well for the future. Now, if they’d just tour widely, all would be right in the world.

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Album Review: Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba — Ba Power

Tuesday, June 16th, 2015

Ask most informed music enthusiasts to cite an example of “world music” from Africa, and one of the first names offered up will likely be Malian guitarist/vocalist Ali Farka Touré. Thanks in large part to Talking Timbuktu, the 1994 album (Touré’s twelfth) released in collaboration with Ry Cooder, the music of the late Touré is the standard by which much world music is measured.

The term itself is more than a bit suspect: in most cases all it really means is music originating from somewhere outside North America and Europe. And that’s a pretty narrow way of looking at things, the same kind of mindset that leads some to refer to certain countries in Africa and elsewhere as “third world.”

The seeds of much that is called American music had their origin in Africa. And that may well be the reason that – labels aside – for Americans, there is often something familiar (on an almost molecular, unconscious level) in music that originates in what was once known as the dark continent.

In any event, when one approaches the music of Malian lute master Bassekou Kouyaté, the sonic touchstones are the preconceived idea of world music, and the international appeal of Ali Farka Touré. Adopting an approach similar to the one used on Talking Timbuktu, the latest album from Kouyaté aims to synthesize a current-day American style (rock) with a homegrown one. The ancient Malian lute known as the ngoni is the “lead” instrument on Ba Power, and Kouyaté’s backing musicians (known as Ngoni Ba) supply more ngoni textures (there are four ngonis played on the album, including one played by son Mamadou Kouyaté that has a bass frequency range) along with percussion, vocals and – on several tracks – drums (Dave Smith from Robert Plant‘s group) and trumpet (Jon Hassel).

In keeping with the rock-leaning aesthetic of Ba Power, the arrangements make use of wah-wah and distortion pedals, effects customarily applied to electric guitar. But they add fascinating textures to the ngoni, and help to root the music in a fashion more accessible to American ears. The bass ngoni – which often doubles the melodic lines of the upper-register instruments – helps lay down a propulsive, solid musical foundation.

When the vocals are present (Koyaté’s wife Amy Sacko), the scales and textures of the voice are clearly rooted in African tradition. Sacko sings [I think] in Bambara, the indigenous language of Mali. (French is the country’s official language, and Ba Power‘s gatefold LP sleeve features English and French lyric translations.) But during the instrumental-only passages, the music is decidedly rock-oriented, albeit interpreted on non-western instruments.

Many of Ba Power‘s nine tracks (all under six minutes) feature extended passages built around a single chord, giving the music a hypnotic effect. The dizzying percussion pushes the music forward constantly, and the guest musicians – most notably trumpeter Hassel and an electric organist – add to the texture without ever calling much attention to themselves.

There are bits of electric guitar on Ba Power, but they’re played by guest musicians and are subtly mixed. So it’s Bassekou Kouyaté’s ngoni-through-pedals that you’ll hear blasting out the opening licks of “Aye Sira Bla” (“Make Way”), which the liner notes explain is a reworking of a traditional praise song. With no Malian frame of reference, it sounds to these Western ears like a pretty hot riff-based tune.

And in the end, it’s that Western musical perspective that most listeners outside of Mali will bring to their enjoyment of Ba Power. It’s exotic, yes, but the album is rooted in just the right amount of rock aesthetic to be a genre-bridging exercise that’s fun to hear, and one suspects it’s not any kind of sellout that would betray the music’s indigenous character.

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Album Review: The Weeklings

Monday, June 15th, 2015

Beginning in the early 1980s out of their home base in Charlotte NC, The Spongetones offered up what was then a new and unique concept: new and original songs, written in the style of The Beatles. Though they’d later expand upon their sound and develop a style they could call their own, on early records (most notably the album Beat Music and the Torn Apart EP) The Spongetones cleverly wrote and performed songs that sounded like hidden gems from the Lennon/McCartney songwriting team.

These days The Spongetones gather for the occasional live gig, while their songwriting efforts are manifested in the steady output of two members, Jamie Hoover and Steve Stoeckel; they do business as Jamie & Steve.

So who remains to carry the banner taken up by The Spongetones (and, before them – and to varying degrees — The Bee Gees, Badfinger, Electric Light Orchestra, Klaatu, The Rutles, and for a moment, Utopia)? The answer seems to be The Weeklings.

Featuring (unsurprisingly enough) four guys who unashamedly describe their music as “Beatles-inspired power pop,” The Weeklings have released their twelve-track, self-titled debut. And while as a just-plain-listen it’s quite enjoyable, its contents deserve a bit of unpacking.

The disc kicks off with an original tune, “Little Tease,” that is packed to the breaking point with Beatleisms. Keen listeners will spot chord progressions from “I Saw Her Standing There,” as well as guitar licks and tambourine flourishes that call to mind specific moments in other Beatles tunes. But beyond that, “Little Tease” is a song worthy of the term Beatlesque. From the bop-shoo-wop baking vocals to the way that John “Rocky” Merjave slows down the tail-end of his guitar solo (a la George Harrison), it’s a true gem. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve spun this tune in the last few days. And while it’s not the equal of the infectious opener, “Leave Me With My Pride” is a solid number in the 1964-65 Beatles mold.

From here, things get really interesting. What, you might ask yourself, would it sound like if some songs that have previously existed only as Beatles demos (or versions tackled by other artists) were rendered in true Beatles style? The Weeklings are here to help answer that question. George Harrison’s early solo composition “You Know What to Do” is unique as one of the very few demos showcased on the Anthology series that had not leaked to rabid fans before release of the retrospective sets. Harrison’s solo performance of the tune is pleasant enough, but nothing special beyond its historical value. The Weeklings, however, give the song a full Beatles-style arrangement, and the results do indeed sound a lot like what the Beatles probably would have done with it.

“One and One is Two” was a lesser Lennon-McCartney original quickly written and given away to The Strangers with Mike Shannon. Most people will have never heard the song (nor anything by The Strangers, for that matter). The Weekings’ cover version re-imagines the tune with all the power and nuance of a Beatles version. What previously sounded like a throwaway now sounds like – if not a hit single – a very good album track circa The Beatles’ Second Album.

“I’m in Love” was a Lennon composition, though like everything from the Beatles days, it was credited to both him and Paul. The Fourmost did a decent enough version of it, and for their trouble were rewarded with a respectable #17 showing on the UK charts. (The Fourmosts’s first single, another Lennon/McCartney number called “Hello Little Girl,” reached #9 on the charts, but The Weeklings skipped that one, presumably because the fab four cut their own version at their ill-fated Decca audition.) Hardcore Beatles fans know “I’m in Love” from the poorly recorded informal Lennon demo version. (Aside: my own theory is that Lennon’s demo does not represent a 1963-4 recording; I am convinced that it’s a mid 1970s “self-cover” done as part of the work on the planned – but never completed – musical retrospective he was writing, a project called The Ballad of John & Yoko. But it’s just a theory.) The Weeklings’ version of “I’m in Love” does a good job of taking the tune to its logical proper end as a Beatles tune.

“It’s For You” was first cut by Cilla Black (UK #7, US #79), but it was also covered by Three Dog Night on their 1968 debut (and again on their 1969 Captured Live at the Forum LP). There’s only so much one could be expected to do with this slight number, and while The Weeklings’ version is more interesting than Black’s or Three Dog Night’s readings, it’s still no great shakes.

At this point in the proceedings (the beginning of the so-called “side two” of The Weeklings), the band shifts back to original compositions. “Mona Lisa” sounds like Beatles twice removed, or A Hard Day’s Night-era Beatles filtered through a Raspberries sensibility. In fact, if I told you that “Mona Lisa” was a Raspberries tune (it’s not), you might even believe me. “Come on come on” indeed. Bonus points for a guitar solo that reminds one of The Bobby Fuller Four‘s classic “I Fought the Law.”

“Breathing Underwater,” “If I Was in Love” and the slyly-titled “Oh! Darla” (get it?) showcase the softer, acoustic-leaning and more contemplative takes on The Weeklings’ Beatlesque songwriting. Taken together as a mini-suite, the tunes have the feel of a Spongetones tribute more than a Beatles pastiche.

The Weeklings wraps up with a pair of songs that The Beatles finished in the studio, but held back until Anthology. It’s fairly easy to understand why The Beatles didn’t see fit to release “If You’ve Got Trouble” and “That Means a Lot.” Neither is awful, but both suffer from some weaknesses, structurally and/or lyric-wise.

To their credit, The Weeklings do what they can with “If You’ve Got Trouble.” Taking note of Ringo Starr‘s frustrated plea in the Beatles’ version (“oh, rock on…anybody!”) The Weeklings try to up the ante musically. They achieve this by adding Revolver-era sonics: a bass line straight out of “Rain,” vocal treatments that recall “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and a fistful of cues from “Paperback Writer.” Moreover, they gamely rewrite the lyrics to dial back some of the original’s inanity. And while the overall result is an improvement, it all serves to highlight that, hey, “If You’ve Got Trouble” is basically some pretty weak stuff, Beatlewise.

Lifting the arrangement of “Till There Was You” straight off of Meet the Beatles, The Weeklings interpret “That Means a Lot” through that filter. And while stripping the semi-rock arrangement of The Beatles’ failed attempt is a good idea, we’re still left with one of the least-interesting tunes in the Beatles catalog.

It would be delightful to report that the clever endeavor that is The Weeklings ends on a strong note – something on the par with the exquisite “Little Tease,” or their reading of “One and One is Two” – but that’s not the case. As a project of originals in the style plus very well-thought-out re-imaginings of obscure Beatles material, The Weeklings is a modest success. One or two more cuts in the mold of “One and One is Two” and they might have had a near-classic. Instead it’s merely very good. Which – until the Spongetones decide to create new music, and that is unlikely – is well and good enough.

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