Archive for September, 2009

Album Review: Jim Duffy – Mood Lit

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

Jim Duffy - Mood LitPop-jazz. Jazz-pop. The labels are mere shorthand for a sort of music that’s tough to describe. The terms can often be applied in a pejorative sense, used to describe (and dismiss) disposable music. But that’s not at all what we have here. Mood Lit, the second album from Brooklyn pianist Jim Duffy, is a delight from start to finish.

The dozen tracks serve up sprightly melodies that swing. Duffy is aided and abetted by a small combo featuring The Smithereens‘ Dennis Diken on the trap kit, plus Paul Page on bass and Lance Doss on guitars (the latter two are also members of Ian Hunter‘s band). The lineup is the same as on Duffy’s first release, 2005′s Side One. On Mood Lit, Duffy drives strong, snappy compositions via acoustic piano or a Wurlitzer 200A.

There are some production flourishes — such as a vibes, horns and glockenspiel — but Mood Lit is an incredibly organic disc. The songs sound as if they’re being played right in your living room. The melodies are strong enough that vocals aren’t missed; on the contrary, the arrangements would suffer if anything else were added. Note-perfect arrangements throughout make Mood Lit that unique disc that’s perfect as a backdrop to cocktails and entertaining and highly engaging enough to reward careful listening. Musical touchstones lean in a jazz-for-all-the-people direction: hints of Brubeck, Bacharach and Guaraldi are there, and there’s even a subtle nod to the Ides of March‘s “Vehicle,” a 1970 Billboard pop hit. Another tune kicks off with an ambience that calls to mind Stevie Wonder‘s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” but heads immediately in another (equally pleasing) direction.

Sometimes instrumental albums suffer from repetition or a dearth of ideas. Mood Lit finishes as strong as it starts, and doesn’t sag in the middle either. Pointing out a highlight would only do disservice to the other eleven tracks. Highly recommended.

Album Review: The Smithereens Play Tommy

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

The Smithereens Play TommyThe Smithereens are well-known rock fans. Their unique, canny take on rock music is informed by everyone from the Four Freshmen (drummer Dennis Diken cites them as a large-looming influence) to Black Sabbath (guitarist Pat DiNizio wrote a tribute of sort to Iommi and Co. on the first ‘Reens LP). And their affection for rock giants like the Beatles and the Who was well-known long before they covered those groups on record. So after establishing a consistent and deep back catalogue, the group took a (forgive the Who pun) detour into cover-tribute territory in the 00′s.

There is in fact a proud tradition of established rock musicians covering the work of others. The Hollies and Byrds did Dylan. Wilco did it with the work of Woody Guthrie. And the pride of Carteret NJ, — The Smithereens — have established something of a cottage industry with three of their last six albums. After two Beatles-centered albums (Meet the Smithereens and B-Sides the Beatles) the quartet returned in 2009 with The Smithereens Play Tommy.

The Smithereens 2009 release reinterprets the classic album, and in fact improves on it in a number of ways. First, the ‘Reens strip away the album’s lesser tracks. Doing so doesn’t make for a jarring “story line,” seeing as the original wasn’t all that lucid a narrative to start with. Second, the Smithereens answer the question posed in Bill Crowley’s liner notes: “What if the Live at Leeds or Who’s Next [era] Who had recorded a proper, all-out rock studio version of Tommy‘s best songs?”

As Smithereens’ Pat DiNizio told the audience at the 2009 Charlotte Pop Fest, the idea for this project came mostly from guitarist Jim Babjak and drummer Dennis Diken. It’s mostly their project, he says, meaning that in the best possible sense.

Rolling Stone famously wrote that bassist John Entwistle had the misfortune to be a very good songwriter in a group with a great one. With respect to vocal duties, a similar argument can be made concerning both guitarist Jim Babjak and drummer Dennis Diken. Babjak’s voice, especially on “Amazing Journey”, is ideally suited to the material. Freed from the all-originals format, the Smithereens turn in a more vocally democratic performance: all three original members take multiple turns in the lead vocal spotlight, selecting the songs that best suit their ranges and styles.

The Smithereens “new” bassist Severio Jornacion (“The Thrilla” joined in 2006 after original bassist Mike Mesaros retired) ably channels the high-energy punch of Entwistle’s bass lines, yet there is enough subtle reworking of the songs — a turnaround where there wasn’t one before, a new percussion accent, some interesting chord shadings — to keep Tommy far out of Whomania territory. The band sinks their musical teeth into the material; Diken seems to relish the opportunity to crash into the songs with controlled abandon, and Babjak cuts loose, bringing forth the feeling of Townshend’s slashing windmill-filled playing without aping his style. And production by DiNizio, Diken, Babjak and Kurt Reil (The Grip Weeds) ably bests the original album’s thin tone, bringing out the oomph that was missing from the — it must be said — slightly effete two-LP set.

The band takes the most liberties with “Sparks”. One’s stereo needs to be cranked as loud as possible to fully enjoy the Smithereens on this track. And The Smithereens rescue “Sensation” from obscurity; that song — bearing the most in common with the high-energy work of the mid 60s’ Who — is delivered here with the deft mixing of punch and subtlety that informs Diken’s solo album of original (yet often Who-influenced) material. The Smithereens Play Tommy isn’t meant to replace your well-worn copy of the Who album, and it shouldn’t. But this loving and energetic tribute does serve as an enjoyable rethinking of that set. The Smithereens are well suited to the challenge of covering an iconic work without losing their own identity in the process.

The selection of William Stout to design the cover art is a nod to hardcore Who fanatics and bootleg collectors; those people will recognize Stout’s work from the Tales of the Who bootleg. The comic-book themed artwork makes for a cool cover, and throws a knowing wink in the direction of those hardcore fans, as if to remind them (us), “hey: we’re with ya.” and indeed the Smithereens — who remain every bit as vital in concert in 2009 as twenty-five years ago — are.

It Can’t Get Better Than This

Monday, September 28th, 2009

Bill Kopp and Dennis Diken backstage at the Charlotte Pop FestThe only thing better that spending an evening interviewing Dennis Diken of The Smithereens — discussing his new album Late Music (in stores tomorrow! review here) would be to interview him and then see the Smithereens in concert.

No, there’s something better than that: interviewing Dennis Diken and then seeing two Smithereens shows — one an in-store, and one a full concert.

That’s how I spent my weekend. It’ll take some time to gather my thoughts and review my notes. There’s lots to discuss.

The Bigelf Interview: Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Mellotron!

Friday, September 25th, 2009

The plan was not for the scheduled interview with Bigelf‘s leader Damon Fox to focus primarily on equipment. But to some extent, that’s how it worked out. As a keyboard player myself, I was especially fascinated with Fox’s use of the legendary Mellotron as his primary instrument onstage and on record. The Mellotron — a bizarre keyboard instrument invented in the 1960s anmellotron_mk_iid popularized (albeit briefly) by groups including the Beatles, the Moody Blues, King Crimson and Yes – has always been a controversial instrument. As the first in a line of precursors to what we now know as sampling technology, the mighty Mellotron occupies an important spot in rock music’s history. But for all intents and purposes, the ‘Tron fell out of popular use decades ago. Occasionally, retro-revivalists (like Matthew Sweet or Lenny Kravitz) will use it on a recording; more often — and quite ironically — the Mellotron’s distinctive tones are themselves sampled and used on popular recordings. But Fox and his prog-psych-glam band Bigelf have made the Mellotron — the real Mellotron — a centerpiece of their image and their sound, onstage and off.

Having seen Bigelf onstage this summer, I witnessed the road crew trundling out what looked like a Mellotron onto the stage. And it sounded like one when played. But due to the rarity and fragility of this 1960s beast, I have to ask Fox: is it the real thing? “It’s absolutely a real Mellotron; I wouldn’t have anything else,” he asserts. “On tour, people actually ask me, ‘Are you really playing a Hammond organ and a Mellotron, or are they just stage props?’ And I want to say, ‘I should cast you into oblivion for asking that! Of course they’re real!’” Fox’s touring Mellotron dates from around 1972. The instrument occupies a special place in his life and career; he notes that “I wouldn’t know [Bigelf drummer] Steve Frothingham if it weren’t for the Mellotron.” The two met during the process of Fox’s purchase of one of the keyboards (he now owns five).

The storied instrument — produced in several models but in limited numbers for about a decade beginning in the early 1960s — often comes with a back story; this writer had the opportunity to purchase a Model 400 in 1985 for (the now shockingly-low price of) $500. But owing to a lack of funds, the transaction never took place. So does Fox’s Mellotron come with any interesting stories? Fox says that the one used onstage doesn’t, “but all of the other Mellotrons and Chamberlins [a similar instrument that actually predates the Mellotron] that Bigelf has possessed certainly do have stories. I have a Mellotron Mk II Music Console — that’s the double one; it’s the last Mk II ever made. It’s actually a hybrid; there’s no other Mk II like it.” The Mk II had two keyboards with separate sounds for each. “It originally belonged to Martin Kitcat of [early 70s UK progressive group] Gracious. He used it on the This Is… album. Martin actually came over to see it in 1996. He hadn’t played it since 1972. We hung out, and I played him some Bigelf stuff. He coined the band ‘post-nuclear Beatles.’ I thought that was really hot.”

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Album Review: The D.I.’s – Rare Cuts!

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

Note: the album is included as a bonus CD in the deluxe package of The GearsRockin’ at Ground Zero (reviewed below), but it deserves its own review.

The D.I.'s - Rare Cuts!The 2009 Hep Cat release of Rockin’ at Ground Zero includes a bonus CD of cuts entitled, appropriately enough, Rare Cuts! After the demise of The Gears, vocalist Axxel G. Reese and guitarist drummer Dave Drive resurfaced quickly in The D.I.’s, There they employed a similar (yet slightly more refined) approach. Elements of rockabilly are brought more to the fore; “Taylor Yard Blues,” the kickoff track on Rare Cuts! sounds like Jason and the Scorchers, West Coast Edition. The production of nine of Rare Cuts! tracks is handled by the estimable Billy Zoom (X, The Blasters) who exhibits a keen understanding of the group’s musical direction. (He would. I mean, look at the guy.)

While elements of humor always lurked just below the surface in The Gears’ songs, tracks like “Your Dad’s a Cop” bring the smirking approach to the fore. The D.I.’s slow things down just a bit compared to The Gears, but in doing so they add a certain groove to the music. Except for the punkabilly vocal delivery, “Leave Love to Me” wouldn’t sound out of place on a Junior Brown album. As with The Gears, there’s a surprising and refreshing variety to the songs; the tracks on Rare Cuts! stay far away from the “let’s write the same song over and over” approach of many bands.

Rare Cuts! spans five separate sessions covering the period 1983 to 1990. The four tracks that comprise their 1984 Lock N’ Load EP (the group’s sole official release prior to this compilation) exhibit a buzzsaw guitar attack leavened with nimble lead fills throughout. “Shot Down” from the group’s 1985 sessions for A&M starts off sounding like a punked-up “Last Train to Clarkesville”, and that’s not a bad thing. Those sessions even include a touch of keyboards(!) courtesy of Benmont Tench (Tom Petty & the Herartbreakers) and tight harmony backing vocals. By far the most “professional” sounding tracks on the disc, the A&M session cuts keep the energy while bringing the sort of polish that (one would have hoped) could have brought the D.I. some hard-won commercial success. That was not to be, but this package puts 22 songs together for a fantastic listen. Don’t miss the D.I.’s cover of the Buffalo Springfield hit “Mr. Soul.”

The liner notes included with Rare Cuts! add some needed perspective and context to the music by this relatively-unknown combo. Despite their low profile, the D.I.’s were turning out music every bit as exciting as The Blasters and X, to name two. While the D.I.’s maintained the punk aesthetic, the songs on Rare Cuts! transcend that genre to produce some timeless rock and roll. Packaged together, The Gears’ Rockin’ at Ground Zero and The D.I.’s Rare Cuts are two hours of rock and roll’s true essence.

Album Review: The Gears – Rockin’ at Ground Zero

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

The Gears - Rockin' at Ground ZeroInitially I had reservations about even spinning my review copy of Rockin’ at Ground Zero. While I wasn’t familiar with The Gears, I do know enough about the L.A. punk scene of the late 70s and early 80s. And that era of punk doesn’t really do much for me. The L.A. variant seemed musically angrier and less melodic than stuff coming out of other locales (like NYC). Speed was king, and finesse mattered less. Eventually I popped the disc in, and was pleasantly surprised.

The first thing that struck me was the immediacy of the songs. The dry, almost effects-free production aesthetic presents The Gears in a manner that (I imagine) isn’t too far removed from their live set. Of course the needles aren’t all in the red, and the balance and mix are as they should be. But the energy’s all here.

“Baby Runaround” kicks off sound a bit like a slowed-down Ramones, but there’s — believe it or not — a subtlety to the playing. “Let’s Go to the Beach” updates surf music for the era, while providing a catchier take on that genre than, say, the Surf Punks. “Elks Lodge Blues” marries blues and punk in an effective method, turning in a performance that has as much in common with the tracks on Rhino’s Loud, Fast and Out of Control (an essential box set compilation of 50′s rock) as it does with, say, the Sex Pistols. Axxel G. Reese’s yelps are particularly effective, and the playing tighter than one might have a right to expect from L.A. punk scenesters.

Overall, the songs on Rockin’ at Ground Zero traffic in teenage rebellion and fun-at-the-beach themes rather than nihilistic, atavistic hardcore messages. And musically, the Gears manage the feat of providing variety while working solidly within the punk genre (something the Ramones decidedly did not do that same year: they recorded End of the Century with Phil Spector at the boards). The Gears weren’t adherents of the faster-is-better aesthetic so prevalent in L.A., and that’s ultimately to their credit. These tracks hold up well nearly thirty years later, and don’t really sound dated at all.

Well, except “Darlin’ Baby.” The song starts as a 50s throwback tune and then (ahem) shifts gears for the chorus into a pogo-worthy rocker. The presence of such dynamics throughout Rockin’ at Ground Zero makes listening to the album a rewarding experience; unlike some records of the era, the shifts in tone, style and delivery keep the listener on their toes, and sidestep the numbing attack of lesser punk acts. One guesses the Gears were an incendiary live act; hearing these songs, it’s impossible not to imagine a club full of pogoers. The Gears seemed to understand what was valuable about early rock and roll, and incorporated that into their then-modern songs. The spirits of Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent…and Sid Vicious are breathed back to life on Rockin’ at Ground Zero.

Bonus tracks include the original 45s of “Let’s Go to the Beach” and “Don’t Be Afraid to Pogo.” Both versions are (naturally) rawer than their album counterparts, in both performance and production. Five demos from 1979 (in surprisingly good fidelity) show that the Gears’ approach was pretty fully developed before they entered the studio. The exception is “Heartbeat Baby”, which underwent a radical reinvention that improved the song exponentially. In the end, most the self-produced demos don’t sound that different from the polished versions. And that’s to the credit of Rockin’ at Ground Zero producer Gary Hirstius and all involved in that album.

We’re #37

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

And now for something a little different, courtesy of Paul Hipp.

One From the Vaults: Green Fuz – Back From the Ashes

Sunday, September 20th, 2009

Green Fuz b/w There is a LandLate 1960s legends The Green Fuz are back!

But unless you’re an aficionado of garage compilations, an inveterate record crate digger, or a fanatical collector of hopelessly obscure 45s from forty years ago, this news probably strikes you as something less than earth-shaking. In fact, chances are quite good that you’ve never heard of The Green Fuz. In this, you are not alone.

This teenage garage group based in Bridgeport, Texas (near Fort Worth) released only one single — “Green Fuz” b/w “There is a Land” — on the tiny Wash-Tex label in 1968. And then they were never heard from again. But that in and of itself wouldn’t earn the Green Fuz their well-deserved (if small) place in rock history; informed estimates suggest that more than ten thousand garage rock groups existed in the mid- to late 1960s, and a surprising number of them managed to cut singles. A whole cottage industry has arisen to enshrine the efforts of these rockers. The wide array of compilations of the Pebbles / Nuggets / Back from the Grave variety chronicle the highs and lows of the craze that swept the USA in the wake of the British Invasion. The whole genre has been immortalized in popular culture through the modest success of films like Tom HanksThat Thing You Do!, the fictional story of an Erie, Pennsylvania based band’s brief and meteoric rise and fall. And while that story is invented, change a few particulars here and there, and it could be the story of any number of late 60s garage groups.

And so it was with The Green Fuz. These five guys were younger than most of their contemporaries (they were mostly about fourteen or fifteen when they recorded their eponymous single), and their brief moment came after the movement had waned (by 1968, mainstream rock had gotten heavier and was moving away from the garage aesthetic). But most significantly — and here’s where we get into what is for garage-rock fanatics the unique selling proposition of the Green Fuz — their single was crude. Really crude. Crude even when set against the “standards” of what passed for garage rock audio quality in the 60s. Cruder than The Seeds. So crude, in fact, that punk rockers The Cramps would discover, love and ultimately cover “Green Fuz” in 1981. According to Ira Padnos, impresario of the Ponderosa Stomp Festival (more on him forthwith), “Y’know, people talk about ‘lo-fi.’ There was no-fi on this one. This is the crudest record ever made.” And the song “The Green Fuz” is wonderful in large measure because of that fact.

“We were a cover band. We wrote a couple songs,” explains Randy Alvey, lead singer and primary lyricist for The Green Fuz. They played what the band calls the “Texas torture circuit” of dance halls and such in the Dallas and Ft. Worth region. “Actually, 77 miles [from home] is the farthest we went,” one band member admits. “Back in those days,” lead guitarist Les Dale offers, “all of the garage bands were pretty much all on the same circuit.” Guitarist Jim Mercer recalls seeing The American Blues at The Cellar in Ft. Worth, and then again shortly after that group changed its lineup, style and name: “The first time we saw ‘em as ZZ Top, it cost us a buck.” The Green Fuz repertoire included standard fare of the day. Bassist R.E. “Buck” Houchins recalls that they played “dance music. ‘Louie, Louie,’ ‘Hang On Sloopy,’ ‘Gloria.’ Stuff like that. ‘Midnight Hour.’ Stuff that everybody did; the kind of songs everybody expected you to do. But,” he laughs, “we played them badly.”

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DVD Review: Muddy Waters Live at ChicagoFest

Friday, September 18th, 2009

Muddy Waters Live at ChicagoFestMuddy Waters Live at ChicagoFest is a 1981 performance of the master bluesman onstage. The concert — filmed at Chicago’s famous Navy Pier — features Muddy with his band and some Very Special Guests. Chicago takes its blues very seriously, and the packed crowd at Navy Pier is no exception; Muddy enjoys an enthusiastic and well-earned reception. Muddy wastes no time getting right down to business; rather than saving it until excitement builds, he launches right into his trademark “Mannish Boy.”

The good news: well, it’s Muddy Waters. And that, in and of itself, is enough. And the appearance of guitar slinger Johnny Winter always adds value to the proceedings (that Woke Up and Found Myself Dead fiasco with Hendrix and Jim Morrison notwithstanding). But a conscientious review of this DVD cannot sidestep some criticisms.

First of all, the program has that peculiar look so common to locally-produced programs of the era. Shot on videotape, it — unlike the music performed — is inextricably tied to its era. While the camerawork is professional, gimmicky production tricks like switching to black-and-white detract from the show (or at least they do now; in 1981, perhaps not so much). All that’s missing is the dreaded laser posterization (you’d know it if you saw it).

Occasionally, the camerawork is off-base. On “Going Down Slow,” the camera lingers on close-ups of Muddy and Winter while an off-camera guitarist plays a fine lead guitar solo. This calls to mind those ham-handed TV moments of the 1960s when viewers would see an extreme close-up of, say, the bass player’s hands during a guitar solo.

The band is nothing special, and the liner notes tacitly acknowledge this. While it’s true — as the informative liner notes relate — that Muddy Waters put the band together in less than a week (the old band quit), this bunch of players is competent, and little more. Chugging along on Muddy’s mid-tempo blues, they play like journeymen: up to the task at hand, certainly not phoning it in, but unlikely to shine.

Muddy himself was getting on in years; here he’s nowhere nearly as animated as onstage at the Last Waltz concerts five years earlier. He remains mostly seated, and for all the talk about his guitar playing, there’s not all that much of it to see or hear on this disc. Muddy’s heartfelt yet primitive guitar runs — most notably on “She’s Nineteen Years Old” — are worth seeing, but not exactly the stuff legends are made of. And when Muddy’s not soloing (at least on this night) he’s actually doing quite little at all on the guitar.

Yet, by no means is Muddy Waters Live at ChicagoFest a dud. The guest vocalists on “Five Long Years” are a delight, especially when they improvise lyrics in front of an appreciative audience. And Winter’s guitar licks are as fiery as ever.

After 56 minutes — there are no bonus materials on this disc — it’s all over. But just before that, the brief concert wraps up with a energetic reading of “Got My Mojo Working,” featuring blistering harp work from (appropriately enough) Mojo Buford, the sole holdover from Muddy’s previous band.

Final verdict: entertaining but not essential addition to the collector’s shelf.

In the Warm Embrace of Ozric Tentacles

Monday, September 14th, 2009

One of the most memorable lines in John Landis‘ film The Blues Brothers takes place when the band arrives at a roadhouse. Elwood Blues (Dan Aykroyd) asks the proprietress, “What kind of music do you usually have here?” She comes right back with her reply: “Oh, we got both kinds. We got country and western.” The punch line is funny, of course, because “we” (the non-C&W fans) “know” that country and western is one thing, that there’s no difference between the two.

And so it is with other forms as well. To non-aficionados, progressive rock, jam-band music, psychedelic…they’re all the same thing, pretty much. But within that world, adherents see and hear sharp divides between the styles. If I might engage in a bit of stereotyping, prog fans are often (but of course not exclusively) middle-aged white males who follow the intricacies of the music closely and ponderously. You might see them pump their fists and/or clap effusively at a song’s end, but they’ll stand as if their feet are nailed to the floor.

Ozric Tentacles

Jam band fans, of course, are another kettle of fish, and a patchouli-scented one at that. They absorb the music into their very beings, and express their joy and communal oneness with the band by closing their eyes, tilting their head heavenward, and spinning into (or while in) oblivion. They engage in what the Polyphonic Spree‘s leader Tim DeLaughter told me he calls “noodle dancing.”

Rarely do the twain of prog fans and noodle dancers meet.

Doubtless this head-vs.-heart aesthetic is a simplification, but grains of truth remain. It takes a truly special sort of band to bridge the gap, to provide something musical and beyond that can satisfy, reach, speak to these disparate camps.

As I discovered a few days ago, Ozric Tentacles is such a band.

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