Archive for August, 2009

Interview: The Machine (Pink Floyd Tribute Band)

Monday, August 31st, 2009

The Machine are a four-piece band based in New York and dedicated to bringing the music of Pink Floyd to concert audiences. Since the last Pink Floyd concert (not counting the brief Live 8 reunion gig) was in October 1994, bands like The Machine are one of only a precious few ways to get a fix for a live Floyd jones. And the group — founded in 1988 by guitarist/vocalist Joe Pascarell and drummer Todd Cohen — are very, very good at what they do. The group performs dozens of shows annually across the USA and Europe. The Machine live onstage One afternoon in 2009 I sat down with the group (Pascarell and Cohen plus bassist Ryan Ball and keyboardist Scott Chasolen) right before the sound check for that evening’s concert. Joe Pascarell explained how the band got its start: “When we started, it wasn’t our intention to have a Pink Floyd tribute band. We just got frustrated with all the crappy bands playing crappy music. We said, ‘let’s just form a band that plays the music that we like. I don’t care who’s gonna come…whatever.’ And we like Pink Floyd! So that was a lot of what we did. And you’ve got to remember, this was twenty years ago; not like now when there’s a tribute band for every band in the world. It was a unique thing.

“And,” Pascarell continued, “people would say, ‘Wow; you never hear a band play that music. Nobody else does that.’ So we learned some more. And some more. Eventually our set was like half Pink Floyd and half other stuff…and then this guy heard about us, and he said, ‘Learn more Floyd, and I’ll try and get you gigs as a Pink Floyd band.’ So that’s how it started; it wasn’t a conscious decision from the outset to do it. It grew out of the fact that we absolutely love this music.”

I asked the group if their initial Pink Floyd pieces were the more mainstream material, or if they launched their project by performing live versions of “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast.” Pascarell punted. “Nobody’s ever asked us that. I have to think about it for a moment.” So Todd Cohen fielded the question. “The more mainstream songs. I don’t think we started doing the weird stuff until we were in a few years.” That jogged Pascarell’s memory: “Yeah. The catalog is so large, I think it was natural to start with the more well-known songs.”

Lots more. Click here to read the rest…

Interview: Marshall Crenshaw – Travels in Jaggedland

Friday, August 28th, 2009

Marshall Crenshaw - JaggedlandThe songs on Marshall Crenshaw‘s new Jaggedland (released in June 2009 on 429 Records) work as a cohesive whole; while Crenshaw can always be counted on to turn in a quality set of songs, there’s a unity about this group of twelve compositions. “I knew that I was crafting an album, you know what I mean? Of course I gave great attention to detail on each individual song, but I had an agenda: there was this group of songs that hang together and complement one another.” This approach has served him well over the course of his thirty-plus year career. Prior to his first album (1982′s Marshall Crenshaw), he says that he “just had a bunch of songs. So I grabbed some from that group, the ones that would fit nicely into an album. But ever since then, I’ve pretty much thought in terms of albums.” There’s an old axiom that a new artist has his whole life up to that point to compose material for a first album and then a mere months to create material for the follow-up. In Crenshaw’s case, “I guess I did and I didn’t. I wrote all those songs (for 1983′s Field Day) and maybe ten more in a really short period of time. But the two or three years leading up to that time, I had been traveling all around the country…seeing it up close, and seeing a lot of it. I was gathering up of all these impressions of different places, soaking up whatever I was soaking up.” Crenshaw believes that it was during that period that he truly became a songwriter.

In our previous (2007) interview, Crenshaw characterized his solo gigs as “kind of the singer/songwriter circuit, the ‘NPR circuit.’” He’s less willing to pigeonhole the music on Jaggedland: “I just think anybody who would hear it might like it, you know?” When comparing the new album to his past efforts, Crenshaw insists that “this record is on another level; it’s really outstanding.” Yet he does his best to keep commercial considerations — the success of the album in the marketplace — out of mind. “There are so many trains of thought you can get lost on if you start thinking about ‘the marketplace.’ When I’m creating songs, I don’t want anything to cloud my thinking.” He believes that a songwriter’s goal should be to “keep your focus where it belongs: on the thing that you’re crafting, the thing you’re creating, the thing that you’re trying to express.” Crenshaw admits that mundane outside concerns “do intervene, but I was lucky to find enough of those moments to create. I was able to stay on the righteous path and think clearly about what I was doing. I tried to keep all the extraneous b.s. out.”

Marshall Crenshaw produced the tracks that make up Jaggedland with co-producers Jerry Boys (Buena Vista Social Club, Richard Thomson, Vashti Bunyan) and Stewart Lerman (the Roches, Dar Williams, Jules Shear), and went for a “live” ambience. When an artist opts for a live-in-the-studio approach, motivation can often be traced to specific place: economic concerns (as in, get it done quickly to save money). But in Crenshaw’s case — this time at least — “mostly it was an artistic call. It’s just more musical this way. I’ve done the ‘solitary genius’ thing a lot,” he laughs. “But I’d much rather be in a room with a bunch of great musicians, where we can get that communication happening.” He says that when he does go the solo recording route, “I just play. I’m not one to cut and paste. But on this album it was just incredible to be sitting in a circle with Jim Keltner, Greg Leisz and all those guys. It was amazing to get kind of a vote of confidence on the songs, and on the direction I had in mind for them.”

Renowned session drummer Jim Keltner (John Lennon, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Carly Simon, Ry Cooder) is the embodiment of taste; he instinctively knows what to do, what not to do. “The thing that I like about him,” Crenshaw observes, “is that there’s an eccentricity there. Somebody once said of one of his drum fills that it sounded like he thought of it after he played it! He comes up with brilliant, off-the-wall stuff. That’s what really appeals to me, the way he’ll leap out at you sometimes with this crazy gesture, and it will really create a lot of interest within the song.” Crenshaw cites the spontaneously created back-end of the album’s opener (“Right on Time”): “The song fades out, and then it fades back in. Jim just goes bananas and does this Jackson Pollock thing, and we just sort of join in with him for that moment of madness. When I heard that, I said, ‘that’s gotta be on the record!’”

On Jaggedland, Crenshaw ceded backing and harmony vocals to Mike Viola of the Candy Butchers. Viola is perhaps best known for his lead vocal on the title song from the film That Thing You Do! “There was a time when Mike was managed by Danny Bennett, Tony Bennett’s son. I got on their mailing list — I don’t know how — and I would get Mike Viola records and Tony Bennett records in the mail. That was nice while it lasted!” He recalls how he met Viola: “We met at the Power Station recording studio in New York. We were both working on Freedy Johnston’s version of ‘You’re My Favorite Waste of Time’ [originally a Marshall Crenshaw b-side from 1982] for a movie soundtrack. The producer was John Flansburgh from They Might Be Giants. I didn’t really see Mike for a while after that, but then I attended the premiere party for Walk Hard.” [Crenshaw's song for that film was nominated for an Golden Globe Award.] The two got friendly again then, and that led to Viola’s participation in the sessions for Jaggedland.

Marshall Crenshaw

The way Mike Viola’s vocals are mixed, his voice blends seamlessly with Crenshaw’s. The net effect isn’t all that different from how it might have sounded had Crenshaw overdubbed his own voice, albeit with more of a “live” feel. “The idea was to do the background vocals as fast as possible, because we were just banging this thing out,” Crenshaw admits. “And it felt good. Everybody who was in the studio was there to play. We weren’t there to let grass grow under our feet, so to speak. We got everything accomplished quickly. We came up with the vocal arrangements right on the spur of the moment — although I did have certain ideas going in — and we cranked out all the backing vocals for the whole album in about two, three hours. When I do overdub all my vocals, believe me: it takes me a lotlonger than that! I really torture myself. But it really transforms things when you have another person there to do backing vocals. For some reason, my instincts really sharpen with other people around in the studio.”

Jaggedland‘s instrumental title track sounds unlike most of what’s in Crenshaw’s catalog. But that kind of atmospheric, evocative composition may point a direction for some of his future work. “I love writing instrumental music,” he says. “It’s kind of a pure form of expression for me. I feel like I have a lot more facility with music than I do with rhetoric, poetry, storytelling or whatever. I’m more of a ‘muso’ than I am a word guy. The way I come at songwriting, I come at it as a musician first. The first thing for me when I’m writing is to get a piece of music that I can play, that I wantto play. So all of my songs start out as instrumentals. Ninety percent of the time I know I’m going to write words for them, but quite often I’ll write a piece of music and then just set it aside, sometimes for several months. Sometimes for years, literally. And then sometimes the piece of music itself is better just left alone. So that’s what I do; I just let it speak for itself.”

So it’s a choice, not a lack of the lyrical part of the inspiration equation, Crenshaw explains: “Not so much anymore, but there have been times when I just couldn’t find it within myself to write words to songs. I’d have a piece of music, and I’d think, ‘okay, at this point, it could be anything. It could say so many different things standing on its own. So if I tie it down to one story line, I’m kind of limiting it.’ I kind of got hung up that way for awhile.”

“I was writing a lot of instrumental music during a period a few years ago. I did the music for a PBS documentary about Yogi Berra [Déjà Vu All Over Again]. And then a little while after that, I got asked to write some stuff for Sex in the City, which I did. So during that time, I sort of got into it.” Crenshaw reveals that “when I first wrote the piece that’s now called ‘Jaggedland‘, it was a fast piece of music. For a chase scene, or that sort of thing. But then I got the idea to slow it way down, and it took on a whole ‘nother quality; slowing it down changed the whole message of it, the whole shape of it.”

On Crenshaw’s 2007 solo dates, his sonic approach had a definite jazz feel to it. A track on Jaggedland, “Someone Told Me” is reminiscent of his guitar style on those dates, but in fact it didn’t grow out of that period at all; it dates from a year or more earlier. “I wrote a handful of tunes after I got back from playing a three-day gig at a casino in Wisconsin. I took Graham Maby on bass and Diego Voglino on drums — he plays on “Someone Told Me,” in fact — and it was great fun. It took me back to earlier times with bar bands, reminded me of casinos in Nevada where I used to play.”

He continues on this related tangent: “For a little while I was on this circuit through the West — not with my band, but with a Top 40 country band that I played with for a little while — and we played these casino lounges in places like Elko, Nevada and Wendover Utah…all these backwater joints. It was a really cool time in my life.” [Note: there's more on this period in Crenshaw's career in my 2007 interview.]

Marshall Crenshaw

“But anyway,” he continues, returning to the genesis of some of the new songs. “I came home from Wisconsin and thought, ‘we’ve got to get some good rock’n'roll tunes that this band can play.’ So I wrote the music for ‘Someone Told Me’ and ‘Never Coming Down’ and ‘Right on Time.’ All within about two weeks’ time. All the while I was thinking about this trio I had just played with.” The songs are imbued with a strong sense of dynamics: “On ‘Someone Told Me,’ the verses sort of hang back, and then the choruses explode.” The inspiration for that song came from a truly unlikely place: “I was listening to a CD of Benny Goodman concert [from 1938] at Carnegie Hall. And at the beginning of one song, Gene Krupa is just keeping time on his bass drum or his hi-hat…and then by the end of the tune, he’s really bangin’ it out.”

The lyrics for that “Someone Told Me” came later. Crenshaw wrote it against the backdrop of being in “the throes of, let’s say, the last eight years politically, you know? So there’s a lot of angst in there over things that bothered me, things that were going on in the world.”

“Well, I know a man who can’t own up to the things he’s done /
He’s got no sense of honor and never did have one /
Where would he be without a wall to hide behind /
I’m glad I’m not the one living in his mind.”

Crenshaw has a number of concert dates planned to promote Jaggedland, beginning in September. “So far, they’re about half and half,” he says, divided between solo acoustic dates and full-band gigs. The latter will feature David Mansfield (Bob Dylan, Sting) on steel guitar: “I discovered that steel guitar is the perfect ‘fourth instrument’ for my band,” Crenshaw says. “Most of my records have slide guitar or steel guitar, and I don’t play it myself. But I really love that sound; I’ve always been drawn to it.” The rest of his onstage companions have interesting pedigrees as well. “I did a gig in Philadelphia a little while ago with the rhythm section from Ollabelle: Byron Isaacs on bass — I’ve worked with him a bunch — and Tony Leone on drums. They’ve both played with Levon Helm’s band. So, some of the time I’m with them — two or three of them — and sometimes I’m by myself.”

Crenshaw has no illusions that promoting the album will be an easy, passive endeavor. “I knew going into this exercise that it was going to be a long slog, a gradual process. But, you know, fingers crossed. Show business is very mercurial. But I believe one hundred percent in this stuff, in this music. And I’m pretty optimistic.”

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DVD Review: The Beatles – Rare and Unseen

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

The Beatles 2CD retrospective Anthology 3 was released in 1996, some 17 years after the Beatles broke up. It’s been another 13 years now — a span of time longer than the group was together, in fact a span of time roughly equal to the period between the Beatles appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show (early’ 64) and John Lennon‘s tragic death (December ’80). In other words, a long time; time enough for a lot to change. Time enough for the market, certainly, to change.Beatles - Rare and Unseen DVD

We now know that work began on the Anthology project (then under its working title The Long and Winding Road) as early as 1970. The Beatles and their associates made studious efforts to collect and compile the worthwhile audio and video relevant to the group’s history. Their result was successful, as evidenced by the six CDs of outtakes and ephemera that made up the Anthology audio series; the ten hours of video that make up the Anthology film series (not counting the unreleased-but-circulate-among-collectors “Director’s Cut” versions); and the impressive companion coffee table book.

Yet — yet — since Anthology represents the Beatles’ history from their own viewpoint, holes remain. Other pieces of the puzzle do exist, as does a market for them. When it comes to audio, quite a bit is still out there. Noted Beatles expert (and general rock music authority) Richie Unterberger published a book in 2006 called The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film, in which he surveyed the landscape of unreleased material. It’s a thick book, well-researched and as exhaustive as could be. And Unterberger knew enough to hedge his bets: he included references to items widely believed to exist, but as yet (or as of 2006) unverified. Even since that time, a couple of items have dribbled out into collectors’ circles (if not into legitimate release). These include audio of a Beatles concert in Montréal Canada; undoctored audio of their legendary Shea Stadium gig; a 1966 show from Memphis TN (the “cherry bomb incident” show) and — most recently — the full eleven-minute-plus version of “Revolution #1″ (that’s Take 20 RM 1 for those of you who track such things).

And there are still a number of us waiting for 1967′s “Carnival of Light”, even though it will probably sound like the “Think for Yourself” vocal overdub session tape crossed with John and Yoko‘s Two Virgins. We want it anyway, along with the 23-minute “Helter Skelter” and Ringo’s “Anything.”

Points being, (a) stuff is still being discovered relating to a group that last set foot in a studio together over four decades ago and (b) people still give a damn.

Which brings us to the new DVD The Beatles: Rare and Unseen. This 90 minute DVD purports to include more of that cool stuff. Does it deliver? Well, very strictly speaking, yes. But the brief items included therein most definitely fall into the category of ephemera, and the material is presented in a manner that will doubtless frustrate hardcore Beatle fanatics (and then, for whom else would such a DVD be intended?).

First up is the earliest known footage of the Beatles onstage. Dating from Liverpool in 1962, the color footage is fascinating, and in pretty good quality. But — and this is important — there’s no audio. The clip is very short, and while it’s looped a number of times, it’s presented on the DVD with voiceover narration and commentary, and there’s an audio overlay of that ersatz Merseybeat music. You know the stuff: when you’re doing a piece on the Beatles and you want Beatles music but the budget simply doesn’t allow it, you get some generic “original compositions” that have just the right sonic elements, and you play that instead. It’s understandable, really, and it’s not that bad. But it would have been nicer if the disc’s compilers had included (perhaps as bonus material) the unedited, undubbed, un-voiceovered clip in its entirety. Had they done that, I guarantee some enterprising collector would have synched up some bootleg audio to the clip to create a more-or-less complete document. (Don’t believe me? Then track down and view the unofficial Pink Floyd DVD called 8MM. Case closed.)

Other clips included have the same appeal — while hardcore Beatleologists might know that these clips existed, they likely haven’t seen them before. But all are marred in some fundamental way, and none is presented in its raw, unaltered format. The home movie clips on the sets of Help! and Magical Mystery Tour are fragmentary, but it’s fascinating to see them nonetheless. There’s something about the way the Beatles’ demeanors are captured on these reels that does give the viewer a sense that they’re seeing a previously hidden side of these characters.

The interview clips of John Lennon from the 1970s are interesting — any interview with Lennon is interesting — but the full interview would have been much more so. The true highlight of the DVD is the footage of the Beatles onstage at the Paris Olympia. No, still no audio, but the brief clips show the group at a critical juncture: they had made it way-big in England, hadn’t yet traveled to America, and were onstage in Paris where they got a good-but-not-ecstatic reception. And here the commentary is more than interesting; it’s truly engaging and fascinating. On the bill with the Beatles for the Olympia run were two other acts: Sylvie Vartan and Trini Lopez. The Bulgaria-born Vartan (who was quite the hottie in those days, and scored a number of pop hits on the French charts) reminisces briefly about the shows. As ever, more would have been nice. But Lopez’s drummer — one Mickey Jones — has a lot to say. Jones — now an ubiquitous character actor whose countenance and frame will be familiar to most viewers — filmed the Beatles onstage for posterity, and spent a fair amount of time with the foursome, getting to know them pretty well. His recollections alone make the DVD worth viewing.

Other commentators are included. Some of them — even if they had no direct contact with the Beatles — have something to offer in the way of insight (former Cockney Rebel Steve Harley) and some (even if they do bear a tangential connection) do not (I’m looking at you, Phil Collins). And in at least one instance, the commentary is laughably misguided and factually incorrect. What’s ironic is that the error comes from someone billed as an Official Expert on pop culture.

In sum, The Beatles: Rare and Unseen has its flaws: it was certainly done on the cheap, and if all of the rare gems were strung end to end, you’d have a five-minute film. But those nuggets (and a small but significant portion of the commentary) make this title a must-see (once) for hardcore Beatles fans. Most others, including those with a passing interest in pop music, will still find the DVD interesting if not terribly memorable.

Interview: Gustav Estjes of Dungen

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

Swedish multi-instrumentalist, composer and band leader Gustav Estjes describes the music of his band Dungen as “heavy, but soft as well.” While Dungen is unabashedly heavy, there remains great subtlety in the songs, conveyed through extensive use of flute, violin and keyboards. Dungen’s sound is a swirling mix, informed by psychedelic rock and European folk. Echoes of Axis: Bold As Love-era Hendrix can be heard in their compositions, as can the complexities of Miles DavisBitches Brew. Over the course of four (or five) albums, the group has refined its sound further, adding stronger elements of jazz, at the same time constructing more concise pop songs.Gustav Estjes of Dungen Formed in 1999, Dungen was originally Estjes as a one-man studio band. These days — especially since the release of 2007′s breakthrough Tio Bitar — Dungen (pronounced DOON-yen) is viewed more as a proper band. But it’s still unmistakably Estjes’ show.

“It’s a little bit complicated,” he says. “It’s my songs. I have been arranging, recording, producing the songs together with friends and musicians. And they have a huge impact on how the records sound. But at least in the recording process, I am…” he pauses, “a little bit of a control freak. I have a lot of finished ideas of how a song should sound, even before I start recording. So it’s no band in the traditional sense that we arrange the songs together. In the end,” Estjes says, “it’s my stuff.” There is certainly a strong precedent for this approach. Brian Wilson famously produced the Beach Boys‘ finest studio works (Pet Sounds, the unreleased SMiLE) in a studio using the Wrecking Crew sessioners, while the “real” Beach Boys toured without Wilson. And Trent Reznor created Nine Inch Nails albums working alone, only later assembling a touring band to perform the songs live. Estjes’ band members aren’t his puppets, though: “The songs have improvised parts that we rearrange for the live shows. That makes it interesting for us, and in those moments, we are definitely a band.”

Dungen’s latest album, 2008′s 4, is their most accessible yet. But don’t look for pearls of wisdom in the lyrics: As with all of Dungen’s music, the songs on 4 are sung in Swedish. “For me, the lyrics are personal. I work a lot on them,” Estjes says. “But it’s not that important that other people understand them. That’s the beautiful thing about music: Even if you don’t understand the words, you get a certain feeling anyway.”

When asked what is on his current personal playlist, Estjes names ’70s rocker J.D. Blackfoot and Chile’s Aguaturbia, the latter familiar only to psych-rock fetishists. Then he mentions his love for Italian opera. But he also reveals that there are many times when he finds himself “only listening to hip-hop.” His interest in those seemingly disparate corners of the musical landscape is as complex as Dungen album titles. The latest — and first easily pronounceable one (4) — is actually the fifth long player of Dungen music. “I just did that to piss you off,” Estjes laughs. He then explains that the compilation of early material titled 1999-2001 isn’t really considered part of the band’s “official” catalog.

Estjes gets as much fulfillment — though of a different sort — from live performance as he does in the recording studio. “When I make music in the studio, I’m really picky about sounds. It’s like a painting; the colors have to be exact. But live, you’ve got just one chance, one ‘take.’ There’s so much going on there. The audience is part of what’s happening as well.”

Aug. 18 marks Dungen’s third Asheville performance; Estjes considers the band’s 2006 Grey Eagle gig “one of the best shows.” He recounts an Asheville story: “There was a period where I bought one wood tambourine a week, because I smashed them onstage; they always break. In Asheville, I had a new tambourine. And I have played that tambourine since then, until last week when it finally broke. A girl in Asheville, her number was actually written on the tambourine. I had plans to call that number this trip, but now the tambourine is gone. If she comes to the show, she needs to sign my new tambourine!”

This feature originally appeared in Mountain Xpress Magazine.

Photos from Dungen @ Grey Eagle

Monday, August 24th, 2009

…and a little bit of the actual audio from the show as well.

My (sort-of) Cocktail with Howard (Kaylan)

Monday, August 24th, 2009

Howard Kaylan is best known as the lead singer of 60s pop group the Turtles. That group chalked up an impressive string of hit singles including “Happy Together,” She’d Rather Be With Me” and “Elenore.” And they released several albums, including at least one absolute classic, the acerbic parody-concept LP The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands. The group folded at the end of the decade, with Kaylan and co-lead vocalist Mark Volman going on to a high-profile stint with Frank Zappa, then on their own fronting their own band. They also developed a highly successful career as backing vocalists for a wide variety of artists (Bruce Springsteen, T. Rex, Psychedelic Furs, etc.), and hosted an off-the-wall syndicated radio show. These days they tour as The Turtles Featuring Flo and Eddie, performing the hits at shows across the country. They are also part of the traveling “Hippiefest” concert package, featuring other immortal 60s acts including Mountain and the Rascals’ Felix Cavaliere.

Amidst all that activity, Kaylan wrote and developed a screenplay based on a momentous event in his lifetime: his chance meeting with Jimi Hendrix. The two spent a fascinating evening together right on the eve of Hendrix’s commercial explosion. That dinner with Jimi took place mere weeks before Hendrix’s major American debut at the Monterey Pop Festival.

The film My Dinner With Jimi had its (extremely limited) theatrical premiere in 2003, and the film has finally been released to DVD this summer. Recently I spoke at great length (over 10,000 words, if you’re counting) with Howard Kaylan about the film; in our conversation we discussed the difference between the public personas and actual characters of some very famous people; we mused on the price and perils of sudden fame, and we talked about the challenges of getting an independent film made on a shoestring budget.

Click for full interview.

New Porcupine Tree Video from Upcoming Album

Monday, August 24th, 2009

Porcupine Tree posted a new video from their forthcoming album The Incident today. On first impression, the visuals evoked a strong sense of what I guess I’d call Englishness, and the sepia tones and occasional barbed wire in the Lasse Hoile-directed video brought to mind Storm Thorgerson‘s visuals for Pink Floyd‘s 1977 Animals LP.

So then I read the comments on the page, and several people think the song (“Time Flies”) sounds like “Sheep”, from, you guessed it, Animals. You decide.

Good either way, though it didn’t grab me by the lapels the way that did tracks like “Even Less” or “Arriving Somewhere (But Never Here)”. It’s probably a grower. But my anticipation for The Incident (out September 14) dims not one bit.

Album Review: 801 – 801 Live Collectors Edition

Monday, August 24th, 2009

In 1976, taking a break from his duties in Roxy Music while that art-rock group went on hiatus, guitarist Phil Manzanera assembled a group for a one-off (well, three-off, but you get the idea) concert. Drawing in some very heavy friends, Manzanera dubbed the group 801, after a lyric from a song by the group’s vocalist, one Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno. Yeah, that guy: the synthesist and self-described “non-musician” subsequently responsible for some of music’s most critically-lauded productions (see: U2, Talking Heads, Laurie Anderson, DEVO).801 Live Collectors' Edition

While the 801 lineup was virtuosic, the arrangements were at once quirky and muscular. The dozen songs performed at their few concerts were a mixture of solo material from Manzanera’s and Eno’s catalogues, plus some really out-there covers in really out-there versions. The tracks most often mentioned when discussing the 801 Live album include the Beatles‘ “Tomorrow Never Knows” (here dubbed simply “T.N.K.”) and a cover of the Kinks‘ “You Really Got Me” that presaged in some ways the Flying Lizards‘ take on “Money (That’s What I Want)” a few years later.

The instrumental interplay is exciting, and there’s something for all lovers of slightly off-kilter art-pop here. Francis Monkman‘s keyboards add a lot to the songs, and the powerful, nimble, precise drumming Simon Phillips set the stage for the rest of the drummer’s career.

In 2009 the 801 Live album was reissued (in excellent sonic quality, but then the original was an exemplar of the best live recording techniques of the 70s) as 801 Live Collectors Edition, with a bonus disc. In researching for the album, producers located a recording of a rehearsal from a week or so before the gig. While the sound quality is only good (note that this recording was never originally intended for distribution), the performances are exquisite. Following almost exactly the set list for the show, the bonus disc is worthwhile. While my review copy was in a cardboard slipcase, if you by it, you’ll get a deluxe package.

Postscript: a few years later Manzanera put together another lineup of 801 and recorded a studio album. That set — while harder to locate — is also highly recommended, but interested parties should note that it sounds almost nothing like the live 801 lineup. Instead it bears a sound closer to Supertramp or mid-period Genesis.

Album Review: Big Star – #1 Record / Radio City (reissue)

Friday, August 21st, 2009

It’s difficult to review a reissue of this disc’s stature. Big Star‘s #1 Record (1972) and Radio City (1973) rank among this reviewer’s desert island discs (I own original vinyl copies bought decades ago), and the critical acclaim these albums received is immeasurable. But of course they didn’t sell a whole lot back in the day. Hurt irreparably by the untimely demise of parent label Stax, the Ardent label release quickly went out of print.Big Star - #1 Record / Radio City

Led by the mercurial Alex Chilton (and on the first album, Chris Bell), Big Star served up Anglophilic (and Anglophonic) rock at a time when to do so was decidedly unfashionable. But Big Star’s take on what came to be known as power pop folded in some Memphis soul stew to create something richer.

Nobody involved with these albums would ever top (or, really even equal) the contents of these albums. As the old saw goes, everybody who bought these albums went on to form their own band. And a lot of those fans became well known in their own rights (the dB’s, REM, etc.)

The sound on the disc is stellar, and slightly louder than the last time the package was reissued. In fact, this reissue is identical to the 1992 reissue, right down to the cover art and track listing. A cursory bit of Photoshopping was necessary to allow the notation of a couple added tracks (yes!), the single mix of “In the Street” (known to general audiences as the theme to That 70s Show) and a single mix of “O My Soul”. Both of these hard-to-find tracks previously turned up mostly on fan-compiled CDRs of Big Star material.

Essential inclusions in the collection of any self-respecting rock fan, #1 Record and Radio City are full of everything that made (and continue to make) rock vital and interesting. If you don’t have these, this new comp is the one to buy (thanks to the mastering and the bonus tracks). Get it, absorb it, and then do us a favor and go start a band.

Album Review: Various Artists – “Boy Meets Girl” Classic Soul Duets

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

Imagine you’re driving a lonely strip of highway late at night. You’re behind the wheel, and for whatever reason — maybe it’s a rental car, I dunno — you don’t have a CD player or an MP3 dock. So you turn on the radio. And what you discover is the coolest soul station on the FM dial. All it plays are songs that seem oddly familiar and friendly, even though you’ve heard very few of the tunes before. The DJ — who has the power to choose the songs (look, this is a fantasy, ok?) and the taste to shut up and let the music play — has a theme for this late night: duets. The songs roll on, one after the other, and every one’s a winner.Boy Meets Girl - Classic Soul Duets

Now come back to reality. But while reality might not look like this dream, it can sound the same. Just pop in the (sort of) new Stax compilation Boy Meets Girl. Eighteen classic soul duets from the Stax vaults — some rare, some well-known, all excellent — populate this disc. The roster is a veritable who’s who of Stax artists: the male vocalists include William Bell, Eddie Floyd, Johnnie Taylor; the females are represented by no less than Mavis Staples and Carla Thomas.

At least three songs will be familiar to rock fans, but not in these versions. William Bell and Mavis Staples crank out the funk-soul on “I Thank You” and rescue the song from its inferior ZZ Top cover version. Eddie Floyd and Mavis Staples turn in a straightforward (and romantic) reading of “Piece of My Heart,” made famous by Janis Joplin. And Eddie Floyd with Cleotha Staples reinvent Chuck Willis‘ “It’s Too Late” (covered by Derek & the Dominos) into a lovely, heartfelt duet.

The arrangements are superior throughout. While it’s not explicitly stated, the subtle yet commanding hand of Isaac Hayes is almost certainly at work on some of the arrangements (he is credited as co-producer on the Johnnie Taylor – Carla Thomas version of “My Life”). Much of the production work is handled by the estimable Steve Cropper or Booker T. Jones. The subtle and very tasty horns on “Ain’t That Good” featuring Eddie Floyd and Mavis Staples virtually drag the listener onto the dance floor. William Bell and Carla Thomas hold forth on a deeply romantic reinterpretation of the Everly Brothers‘ “All I Have to Do is Dream.”

A couple of unusual choices round out the disc: “My Baby Specializes” is a rare example of blue-eyed vocal soul from Stax, featuring the talents of Delaney & Bonnie. How could you go wrong with them, especially if you add help from Booker T & the MGs, Isaac Hayes (the song’s composer) and William Bell? “It’s Unbelievable (How You Control My Soul)” — led by Pervis Staples and Carla Thomas — has a vibe halfway between Dusty Springfield and Aretha Franklin. And speaking of Dusty, the disc includes a bonus track (from the 80s, but you’d know that if you heard it) featuring Ms. Springfield in a duet with Spencer Davis, covering “Private Number.” It suffers fatally in comparison to the William Bell – Judy Clay version that kicks off the disc, but it’s a nice artifact.

Boy Meets Girl was originally released by Stax as part of an effort to rush-release as much material as they could, but the album bears not a whiff of cash-in (and apparently, it was released to market indifference). While Concord/Stax stays busy in the 21st century putting together new compilations, the decision to release this (expanded) reissue is welcome.

This disc is a gem, and it’s easy to sink into its vibe. But keep your eyes on the road.