Archive for November, 2009

Album Review: The Twilight Hours – Stereo Night

Monday, November 30th, 2009

The Twilight Hours - Stereo NightThings could have gone so differently.

In the early 90s, rock music found itself at the latest in a long series of crossroads. There wasn’t much of lasting value happening in high-profile rock music, but as is often the case, a couple of interesting strains were bubbling under. At the time I was living in Atlanta; not the most rock-oriented of cities, but a major market nonetheless. A new station (99X) had sprung up to capitalize on these interesting subgenres; they called it “new rock”, which is of course meaningless, but we knew that it sounded different. The two strains (though, sure, there were others, and many acts wouldn’t fit nearly into these pigenonholes) were grunge and a sort of melodic rock. The former included Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots and Live, and was course led by Nirvana. The latter was populated by a far more interesting set of acts, including Jellyfish, Michael Penn, Gin Blossoms, Greenberry Woods…and Semisonic.

By this point in our little story, even if you didn’t follow radio rock in those days you’ll know how this story unfolded. Put simply, the former camp “won” the battle. While some of the acts in that latter list enjoyed the occasional hit, the market leaned in the direction of the harder (less melodic, less subtle, less complex, less nuanced) stuff. The commercial fortunes of the groups were tied to that development, and many of them found themselves without a label.

Semisonic was itself an outgrowth of an earlier Minneapolis band, Trip Shakespeare. Trip Shakespeare never achieved much more than a bit of success, and that was a real shame. Their heavenly harmonies proved yet again that there’s something about the blending of genetically-related voices; see The Beach Boys, Oasis, The Kinks, The Everly Brothers, The Honeys and a select list of others for proof. Brothers Matt and Dan Wilson were both possessed of beautiful, evocative voices that could convincingly convey hurt, regret, petulance, anger, joy and bliss. They wrote great, lush pop songs, adding in plenty of muscle when the songs called for it. They were joined by bassist/vocalist John Munson, who often made skillful use of fretless electric bass (one of relatively few players to do so in the rock idiom) and drummer Elaine Harris, who played standing up.

Long story short, Trip Shakespeare got dropped. Dan Wilson and Munson hooked up with a drummer (Jacob Schlichter) who also played keyboards (sometimes simultaneously) and formed Semisonic. But other than their hit “Closing Time” that group didn’t make much commercial headway either, and the members again went their separate ways.

Eventually the other Wilson (Matt) teamed up with Munson in a group wryly named The Flops. That group eventually became The Twilight Hours, which — finally — brings us to present day.

The Twilight Hours are much, much closer in sound and feel to Trip Shakespeare than Semisonic. Yes, it’s all rock, but the duo isn’t afraid to dial things down when that’s what the tune needs. The delightful and vulnerable vocals of a tune like “Goodbye Good Life” call for acoustic guitar and drums played with brushes not sticks, so that’s how they deliver it. Munson and Wilson continue the distinctive Trip approach of vocal countermelodies and apply it to sturdy pop songs. The songs on Stereo Night have a warm, familiar vibe; listeners might feel that they’re being let in on the most personal emotions of these musicians. Perhaps they are.

But it’s not an overly precious album. Yes, it does sound in many ways like it could have been recorded in 1990 or so, but this listener chooses to view that more as timeless than out-of-time. Munson’s bass playing is more melodic and a part of the songs than is typical of mainstream rock, and even though there’s plenty of electric guitar, one supposes that these songs wouldn’t sound radically different if delivered up in an Unplugged style. “Alone” is something of a cousin to “Snow Days” from Across the Universe; “My Return” — a contender for the most delightful song on the record — starts out pastoral and then builds to the soaring harmonies that made Trip Shakespeare a special band. “Queen of Tomorrow” leans a bit more in a direction that will be familiar to Semisonic fans, and shows that the storytelling prowess of these guys (see Trip Shakespeare’s “Bachelorette” or “The Slacks” for further examples) is still very much in full flower. It’s also the disc’s most commercial track. Though on that score the final cut, “Never Mine to Lose” gives it strong competition. “Never Mine to Lose” is a romantic song with a brief, soaring and emotion-filled electric guitar solo; the song’s arrangement show that the Twilight Hours know how to use dynamics in a pop song. In a just world, this would be played on a new rock radio station — if such things existed — near you.

Subtle flourishes of pedal steel guitar, acoustic piano, autoharp and something that sounds like a pennywhistle all add to the album’s texture, and are always always — as I like to say whenever it applies — in service of the song. Stereo Night is yet another in that list of excellent albums that will wear well and bring happiness to listeners, yet it’s likely not destined for major high-profile commercial fortunes. With that reality in mind, the Twilight Hours has made Stereo Night available in a number of formats: low-res MP3 (for free, though a donation is accepted and is only fair), better-resolution MP3, good-old CD and better-older translucent red vinyl. At press time a handful of live dates were scheduled; this writer fervently hopes that The Twilight Hours will enjoy enough success to make a more extensive tour a possibility.

Postscript: those who enjoy clever and amusing writing (and this writer would like to think that has at least something to do with your presence on this page, gentle reader) would do well to visit The Twilight Hours’ web site (www.thetwilighthours.com).

DISCLOSURE OF MATERIAL CONNECTION:
I have a material connection because I received a sample or review copy, or an item of nominal value that I can keep for consideration in preparing to write this content. I was/am expected to return this item after my review.

Album Review: Pugwash – Giddy

Friday, November 27th, 2009

Pugwash - GiddyIt’s a bit like being a kid again, coming into the living room on Christmas morning. That’s as apt as any a metaphor for the initial listen to Giddy, a best-of compilation by the best Irish group since The Boomtown Rats.

By most accounts, Thomas Walsh simply hates the term Beatlesque. And ELO-esque or XTC-esque are terms that simply don’t roll off the tongue. So let’s just say that Pugwash – which is a nom de pop for Walsh (plus, sometimes, other guys) — is part of that proud tradition of incredibly catchy, finely wrought music that isn’t afraid to have itself labeled pop. Plenty of artists these days (any day, in fact) are too hip to write a song as winsome as “It’s Nice to Be Nice”. But not Walsh, not Pugwash. Thank goodness.

Pugwash has released four albums since 1999, but all are impossibly rare, especially Stateside. Andy Partridge (formerly of XTC) has signed the group to his Ape House label, and the first fruit of this new union is Giddy, an overview of those earlier albums.

Walsh likes his Mellotron and his Chamberlin, but his use of those instruments has more in common with, say, Michael Penn than, say, King Crimson. Walsh is unafraid of the powerpop label; his choice of guest stars says as much about his musical affinities as anything: in addition to Andy Partridge, heavyweights including Dave Gregory (XTC), Jason Falkner, and the aforementioned Michael Penn all help out at various points. Stylistically, Pugwash straddles modern and retro; the vibe of the old stuff is clearly evident, but looping and other more modern touches sit nicely alongside Walsh’s more traditionally-minded approach. This is music that deserves a wide hearing.

The songs on Giddy have that particular vibe unique to the British Isles: sunny, but with a spot of cloudiness. The mid-tempo songs rock enough to incite head nodding, but the hooks and melodies keep the tunes firmly in pop territory. Walsh employs a wider stylistic palette than labelmates the Milk & Honey Band (who released an underrated compilation of their own a few years back). If you can imagine mid-period ELO (A New World Record through Out of the Blue) with a bit less bombast and without the wind-up drums, that is a reasonable touchstone for Pugwash’s sound. “Mid-period”, in fact, is a good descriptor for a lot of Pugwash’s songs on Giddy. Clear antecedents include mid-period XTC (Mummer through Nonsuch) and mid-period Beatles (oops, we’ll let that one pass by so as not to rile the Dubliner).

Picking favorites from Giddy is a pointless exercise; this reviewer has developed a particular affinity for “My Genius” and “Anchor” but every pop-centric listener will find something to love. Incidentally, while both of those two cuts were co-written with Partridge, one should not infer that Walsh’s solo-written songs are of a lesser sort.

A mere thirteen Pugwash songs on the disc will inevitably leave the listener unsatisfied: “Give me more, and now!” Three of Giddy‘s tracks are taken from the group’s 2008 release Eleven Modern Antiquities; that album is scheduled for a re-release on Ape House in 2010.

DISCLOSURE OF MATERIAL CONNECTION:
I have a material connection because I received a sample or review copy, or an item of nominal value that I can keep for consideration in preparing to write this content. I was/am expected to return this item after my review.

DVD Review: John Lennon & the Plastic Ono Band Live in Toronto ‘69

Thursday, November 26th, 2009

Plastic Ono Band LiveIn 1988 the D.A. Pennebaker-directed Sweet Toronto concert film was released. Its appearance at that late date — the concert had taken place nearly twenty years earlier — was itself somewhat odd. The market being what it is, many opportunities to release the film to significant publicity had come and gone. John Lennon, the primary musician featured in the film, had been dead nearly eight years. Still, any concert film from Pennebaker (renowned for his work on Monterey Pop as well as many other works) is worthwhile.

The film showed Lennon’s concert debut without the Beatles. While the Beatles were still technically a group, John was bristling to get out on his own. A request from promoter Ritchie Yorke (who pens a reminiscence of the event in the DVD’s liner notes) was the excuse Lennon needed. He put together an ad hoc band including Eric Clapton (Cream, Blind Faith), old friend Klaus Voormann (former bassist for Manfred Mann) and Alan White (future drummer for Yes) and, of course, Yoko.

The group rehearsed some oldies on the flight over from England, and arrived in Toronto to take the stage following short sets by a number of giants from rock’s early days (Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis).

Sweet Toronto never went into wide distribution; it showed up as an occasional midnight movie, screened on cable a few times, and was released on video. The cinema verite quality of the film made for an exciting experience, and the rare sight of Lennon onstage without the Beatles took on a greater significance after his death.

Pennebaker’s team clearly shot a lot of film. And so in 2009 those outtakes are finding release in various forms. Berry’s and Lewis’ sets came out as free-standing films. Most recently, Little Richard’s stunning set came out on DVD. Now we have an edited version of Sweet Toronto retitled John Lennon & the Plastic Ono Band Live in Toronto ’69. The film is largely the Sweet Toronto movie — with its six songs by Lennon and band, plus two avant-garde numbers featuring Yoko on vocals — with a few tweaks. The original film’s Chuck Berry number (“Johnny B. Goode”) was cut. And some atmospheric scenes of the crowd were trimmed. Sweet Toronto ran 70 minutes, and the new DVD runs a mere fifty.

The disc does include a brief interview with Yoko Ono from 1988. While it has precious little to do with the accompanying concert film, Yoko is always an interesting interview subject.

As the concert film starts, the original Sweet Toronto titles remain. The camerawork is peerless (this is true of anything with Pennebaker’s name attached to it) and the sound is surprisingly good for an outdoor festival in 1969. The legendary Plastic Ono Band performance (itself released in audio on on Apple vinyl in the early 70s, and set for re-release on Shout! Factory CD) is fascinating; while they stick mostly to the oldies they know, the songs are given unique readings.

The band kicks in with Carl Perkins‘ “Blue Suede Shoes,” and while it’s sloppy, it’s pure rock and roll. “Money” is taken at a turgid pace more akin to how Black Sabbath might have performed it, yet it works. On “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” Lennon forgets the lyrics (a frequent problem of his; he often forgot the words to his own songs) but charges on in what ends up being the disc’s highlight. The band turns in a heavy reading of the Beatles’ tune “Yer Blues”; Lennon had performed this song a year earlier in the (then-unreleased) Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus film, featuring Clapton plus Mitch Mitchell on drums and Keith Richards on bass. At this point in the concert, Yoko’s mic is turned up, and her odd trademark warbling becomes an integral (inescapable?) part of the proceedings. A harrowing version of Lennon’s debut single “Cold Turkey” follows, with Yoko adding her unique vocalizations. And the band wraps up with a rock version of “Give Peace a Chance” (again, John loses some of the words). Yoko then takes center stage for two odd, feedback-drenched numbers. Those have actually worn fairly well, and can now been seen as influential works.

Throughout, John looks both nervous and thrilled to be onstage. The concert was his first significant appearance in three years, and there wouldn’t be all that many in the remaining eleven years of his life. Clapton is in fine form, though he’s his usual not-that-exciting-to-watch self. Voormann and White hold things down in a workmanlike manner. Lennon does betray a bit of annoyance with the crowd; at the tail-end of the petering-out “Cold Turkey,” he mumbles in disgust to the crowd, “Come, on, wake up.”

Setting aside the question of why this set has been edited and re-titled (something to do with licensing and Chuck Berry, perhaps?), it’s worthwhile for general rock fans and essential viewing for fans of John Lennon. With the video that is actually titled Sweet Toronto out of print, this is the one to get.

Disclosure of Material Connection:
I have a material connection because I received a sample or review copy, or an item of nominal value that I can keep for consideration in preparing to write this content. I was/am expected to return this item after my review.

Concert Review: thenewno2 at The Fillmore, Charlotte NC 11/03/2009

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

As the old cliché goes, sometimes the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. In 2007 Dhani Harrison debuted his new band (originally to be called beatson ), thenewno2. While the group took their name from the villain in Patrick McGoohan‘s groundbreaking late-sixties TV miniseries The Prisoner, there’s not much else backward-looking about thenewno2. The group writes pop songs with classic influences, but delivers them in a completely modern fashion.

The group — initially Harrison on guitars and allsorts, plus Oli Hecks on percussion and more allsorts — released a four-song EP titled EP001 way back in 2006. they followed that up in 2008 with the (digital-only) singles “Choose What You’re Watching” and “Another John Doe”. When they released their debut long player You Are Here in 2008, they resisted the temptation to fill it with the already-recorded tracks. When the album finally saw physical release in 2009, a few extra tracks were appended.

thenewno2. Photo courtesy Belinda Butar Butar
thenewno2. Photo courtesy Belinda Butar Butar
From their start, thenewno2 have sought to maintain creative and business control of their output. First credited with artwork on some of George Harrison‘s last projects, thenewno2 handled most or all aspect of their own album packaging and design.

The group finally embarked on a tour in late 2009, third-billed to Wolfmother and the Heartless Bastards. I saw their six-song set onstage in Charlotte NC at the Fillmore in early November.

The group — Harrison on vocals, guitar and myriad stomp-boxes, plus four other guys — opened with “So Vain” from You Are Here. The group’s live sound highlighted an ultra-heavy rhythm section with hyperactive drumming, and kinetic use of samples and loops. Yet the music remained primarily guitar- and keyboard-based. The midtempo “So Vain” ended with an edited sample of the famous opening-credits dialogue of The Prisoner (“Who are you?” “The new Number Two.” “I am not a number; I am a free man!”). That wasn’t included on the album, probably due to licensing issues.

The Wurlitzer-sample based “Give You Love” was up next. The song highlighted Harrison’s vocal similarity to his late father. Even more hyperkinetic drumming and liquid analog bleeps were the central features of the song, and Harrison re-created the studio version’s squawking chorus vocal by using a bullhorn. The slow-on-top-of-fast dynamic was a highlight of the propulsive-yet-dreamy number.

thenewno2. Photo courtesy Belinda Butar Butar
thenewno2. Photo courtesy Belinda Butar Butar
“Out of Mind” from EP001 was next. Turning out a heavier, almost Cream-like arrangement than the group’s other songs, “Out of Mind” depended the least on keyboard textures. A wash of white noise served as underpinning for the riff-heavy number. E-bows figured prominently on “Shelter” as all three guitarists used the note-sustaining device. The dreamy, evocative number highlighted the fact that while thenewno2 are certainly modern, Harrison has learned a thing or two about pop songwriting.

The stomping “Yomp” — perhaps the group’s best known song — again featured the e-bows. Harrison took the opportunity to open up a bit on lead guitar. The show closed with “Choose What You’re Watching.” Galloping drum figure gave a slightly Western-epic feel to the song, and the other musicians took the opportunity to let loose and make the song a bit of a noise-fest. In the song’s middle section, Harrison briefly soloed on stomp boxes over a ska beat. For the song’s final two minutes, the group pounded out an insistent riff that paved the way sonically for the heavy rock acts to follow.

thenewno2 logoThe crowd — most of whom, presumably, were in attendance to see and hear the early 70s stylings of Wolfmother — seemed to dig thenewno2. Being third-billed onstage is often a thankless task; often the biggest applause comes when the group announces “this will be our last song.” Not true for thenewno2 in Charlotte. While a longer set would have been welcome, it’s perhaps worth noting that Harrison’s band played for 28 minutes, almost exactly the length of most of his dad’s band’s concerts from 1962-1965. The group’s set list provided a quick an overview of their first few years in existence, and delivered it up with energy and style.

Read a review of You Are Here — the debut album from thenewno2 — here.

Album Review: Lost & Found: Real R’n’B & Soul

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

Lost & FoundThank goodness for crate-diggers. Were it not for the efforts of hardcore music fans — and ones possessing some considerable influence — many examples of wonderful and under-the-radar music would have been lost to the mists of time. In a manner not at all far-removed from that of legendary folklorist/ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax — he of the groundbreaking Library of Congress field recordings — modern archivists continue to rescue lost music from undeserved obscurity.

In some ways the modern trend began with Lenny Kaye‘s mega-influential Nuggets 2LP set in the early 1970s. In those grooves, Kaye turned a whole new generation on to artists and songs that had gone relatively unheralded at the time of their originals release. It may be that modern listeners might not even know of some of those tunes were it not for the original Nuggets.

Of course that compilation spawned imitators and influenced other compilers. The Pebbles series; the expanded Nuggets 4CD set and its own spawn; Fading Yellow; and may others dug deeper and deeper, unearthing treasures untold.

But the push to unearth you-shoulda-heard-this music is in no way limited to garage and psychedelia. Soul and R&B have been explored in Rhino’s excellent Blues Masters series (the Jump Blues editions, with their focus on Louis Jordan et. al, will be of particular interest to rock fans). And while it’s now hopelessly rare itself, that label’s Beg Scream and Shout 6CD box is an excellent overview of hits and undeserved misses.

Rhino and Shout! Factory are the highest profile labels leading the way in these areas, and people like Andrew Sandoval and the late Greg Shaw kept the hunt alive. But there are other collector/archivists and labels doing important work, and the fruits of their labors are not just important and artistically valid, they make for damn fine listening.

London-based BBE (“Barely Breaking Even”) Records has made a mission of compiling lost tunes. And their work concentrates on genres that haven’t seen a level of crate-digging interest on a par with garage/psych. Acclaimed Scottish dancer/DJ Keb Darge has curated a series of these with titles like Funk Spectrum III and Legendary Deep Funk Vol. 3. According to BBE, Darge’s comps have sold more than 200,000 units for the small label. His knowledge, understanding and affinity for the music of 1940 through the 70s is highly regarded.

Paul Weller is no stranger to the crate-digging scene. As a high-profile UK musician — first with the Jam, then the Style Council, and then as a solo artist, Weller has established himself as a force to be reckoned with. He has always worn his musical influences on his sleeve, and his love for soul and R&B is well known; listen to the Jam’s “Town Called Malice” single for early evidence if such is needed.

Now Darge and Weller team up, and dive into their respective collections to compile Lost & Found — Real R’n'B & Soul. The pair have hand-selected twenty-eight gems, most of which will be unfamiliar to all but the most rabid of R&B fans. Darge’s choices make up the first fifteen tracks, and Weller’s selections round out the disc.

Over the course of 28 cuts, Lost & Found surveys a wide array of R&B styles. The running order is quite idiosyncratic: one minute you’re listening to a jump-bluesy Big Mama Thornton side from the fifties. Then The Brothers of Soul let loose with a funk tune from twenty years later.

Most of these songs have shown up on other compilations, but having a collection chosen by Darge and Weller means that the listener gets an all-killer-no-filler set. Or, as Weller said of Darge’s DJing selections one night, “Not a duff tune in sight.”

It’s a safe bet that the strong hooks and licks on these original tracks have been mined by another variety of crate-digger: samplers. The opening hook on The Tempos‘ “(Countdown) Here I Come” sound uncannily like the sort of thing you’d hear on a Pizzicato Five record. And if P5 didn’t use it, they missed a great one.

Here’s the thing: those three tracks I’ve mentioned? Those are but the first three out of twenty-eight. The whole of Lost & Found — actually the second in this particular series — is every bit as good. The unearthed artists include little-known acts like Elsie Wheat, Velma Cross & Her High Steppers and Emmitt Long aside better-known artists like Slim Harpo, Bobby Bland and Tammi Terrell. And the fact that many of the acts aren’t well-known bears little or no relation to the quality of the songs. The endearingly out-of-tune horns on the propulsive “Don’t Forget to Remember” by The Great Experience actually add to the gritty authenticity of the tune. And the lower-than-low foghorn sax honks on Billy Fair & Orchestra‘s “I’ll Be True to You” foreshadow the subsonic bass lines of hip-hop.

For devotees of the Northern soul movement — an approach that eschews the mainstream stuff in favor of less-celebrated cuts — this is as essential set. But casual R&B, soul and funk fans would do well to pick this disc up as well; these songs probably aren’t in your collection, and you’ll likely discover a number of new musical directions to explore. That this high-energy dance-oriented set is but one of an ongoing series makes it even better: if you like this, there’s more from whence this came.

CD release date is January 10, 2010.

DISCLOSURE OF MATERIAL CONNECTION:
I have a material connection because I received a sample or review copy, or an item of nominal value that I can keep for consideration in preparing to write this content. I was/am expected to return this item after my review.

Album Review: Putumayo Presents Jazz Around the World

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Jazz Around the WorldPutumayo’s top-selling India surveyed pop styles of that country. This, their other high-profile release of 2009, is Jazz Around the World. The sleeve describes it as “original songs and standards performed by musicians from Cuba to Cameroon.”

Chantal Chamberland starts things off in slightly familiar territory: the French Canadian chanteuse sings “La Mer” accompanied by a tasteful jazz quartet. The melody is better known to Americans as Bobby Darin‘s “Beyond the Sea” but the liner notes (always a Putumayo strong suit) tell us that these lyrics are the original, and are radically different.

The sounds put forth on Jazz Around the World are vaguely reminiscent of Burt Bacharach, Sergio Mendes and similar lite-pop of the 60s and 70s. There’s nothing here that will knock listeners on the head, and that inoffensiveness is certainly part of the disc’s goal.

Jazz Around the World is best used as background music to a candlelit dinner, though this writer can report that it’s a fine accompaniment to morning coffee. The songs are interesting enough to bear closer scrutiny, and as always, Putumayo packages the disc with enough information to facilitate that. For the listener whose musical experiences haven’t expanded much outside the Western mainstream, Jazz Around the World is as good a starting place as any into the musical world of…world music.

Jazz Around the World makes the unspoken case that music truly is the universal language; there are clear sonic connections between the music of artists from New Zealand, Mali and Cuba. Every note of every song is impeccably played, and even though the styles vary, the song selection and sequencing guarantees that no jarring shifts will upset the listener.

DISCLOSURE OF MATERIAL CONNECTION:
I have a material connection because I received a sample or review copy, or an item of nominal value that I can keep for consideration in preparing to write this content. I was/am expected to return this item after my review.

Interview: Gentle Giant on Barrett, bootlegs, Badfinger, Back catalog and the biz

Friday, November 20th, 2009

The career of Gentle Giant spanned the whole of the 1970s, and their modest commercial fortunes closely paralleled that of their chosen (or assigned) genre. Beginning with their self-titled debut album in 1970 and running through their eleventh studio album (1980′s Civilian) the group charted a singular musical path. While they went their separate ways not long after the final album, their influence is still felt in a number of groundbreaking modern acts (Porcupine Tree, Dream Theater, and Izz to name but three).

gentle_giant_1978
In 2009 the members of Gentle Giant prepared digital versions of seven of their albums for release through the usual outlets (iTunes etc.) and granted a limited number of interviews in connection with that rollout. I spoke at some length with John Waters (drums, vocals) and Derek Shulman (bass, vocals) about the new digital releases and other topics.It’s fair to wonder if the warm analog ambience of the original Gentle Giant LPs will translate to the “lossy” compressed format of mp3. Derek Shulman concedes that “If I’m talking as an audiophile, of course I’d find fault with mp3 files, because they literally make those sound waves square. And therefore some of the nuances — and some of the transients and different frequencies of the pure note — will be lost.” Yet, having listened carefully to the remastered versions, his verdict is that they are “quite close to what it we wanted it to sound like back in the day.”

For audiophiles and/or vinyl fetishists, there’s some more good news. Shulman reveals that we’ll soon have new vinyl versions of many classic Gentle Giant albums. And those, he says, will be mastered “straight from the 24-track to the quarter-inch masters.”

Speaking of those masters, John Weathers adds some additional background. “We know a guy from Sweden who’s a huge fan called Dan Bornemark. He has his own studio. The master tapes that we had, most of them were retained by [keyboardist/vocalist] Kerry Minnear in the loft of his house. And he was approached by Dan who said ‘I want to digitize these, because by now the tape will be degrading. And I want to get it all before the tape “goes west.”‘ And so we let him. And that was the source of the [1998] Under Construction album. We gave him all of the master tapes; everything he wanted we gave to him. So he digitized the masters from the analog tape. So I think Raymond [Shulman - guitar, bass, vocals] actually digitally remastered them for these releases.”

The band’s earliest releases are not part of the current reissue project. “EMI still retains the rights on the first four albums,” explains John Weathers. “The rest were either owned by the band or have come back to the band.” Derek Shulman adds that “we’re currently in the process of speaking with them about getting all of the stuff back into our grubby little mittens. I think we are in the process of talking with both EMI and Universal and the other company that had the band signed, but there are some issues.”

Story continued after the jump…

Album Review: Jets Overhead – No Nations

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

Jets Overhead - No NationsJets Overhead‘s No Nations answers the rhetorical question: what would Coldplay sound like with an additional female vocalist and a rock sensibility?

That’s an oversimplification, of course. Hypnotic beats and a heavier bottom end are key components of the Jets Overhead sound. Classic keyboards of the 1970s are used extensively on the album: Rhodes, Wurlitzer and the extremely rare ARP Solina all feature prominently in the song arrangements.

“Heading for Nowhere” evokes the more tuneful and creative end of 80s pop; the blending of male and female vocals makes the tune more than it would otherwise be; the backing vocals provide a solid hook. Like most of the songs on No Nations, it’s midtempo rock-pop.

The simple melody of “Weathervanes (In the Way)” carries the album’s greatest hit potential. It’s also the song most likely to be mistaken for Coldplay. But let’s not hold that against the band: they’re not consciously aping Chris Martin and company. This sparsely-arranged tune is a delicate thing of beauty, worthy of consideration on its own merits.

The moody, minor-key “No Nations” may remind listeners (of a certain age) of Echo and the Bunnymen, The Cure, and maybe even the Psychedelic Furs. The electronic handclaps are a nod to that era, but the electric piano adds a timeless element, and the stirring chorus effectively builds the song’s dramatic approach.

Most of the songs on No Nations are of the four-minutes-and-out variety. The band has a good sense of how to make its musical points: quickly, assertively, and then move on.

The dreamy “Time Will Remember” avoids being just another plaintive meditation through use of distortion; the overdriven instruments evoke the Velvet Underground, of all things.

“Fully Shed” takes a more direct approach, and comes the closest to rocking out; it’s a head-nodding track. And its final two minutes head in the direction of a jam; this song sounds like it would do well as a live encore number.

The quintet from Victoria, British Columbia makes good use of their vocal landscape on “Always a First Time.” Female vocals take high harmonies, and occasionally go a full octave about the male lead vocal. The technique is a hallmark of the group’s sound, but it’s employed judiciously.

Droning Indian instruments lead into a synthesizer wash and a gritty bass figure on the album’s closer, “Tired of the Comfort.” One use of a final album track is to point the way to the musical future. There’s no way to know if that’s what’s being done here, but the slowly unfolding track develops into a song that makes effective use of all of Jets Overhead’s strengths: moody atmospherics, deft and subtle arrangement, unexpected chord shift, repeating hooks. It also, finally, really rocks. Too sprawling to lead off an album, “Tied of the Comfort” instead neatly sums it up.

While interested listeners wait for that follow-up to hear where Jets Overhead go next, the group’s first album (one that used the “give it away online and let people pay what they like” method more than a year before Radiohead‘s In Rainbows) and a couple of EPs are also available.

DISCLOSURE OF MATERIAL CONNECTION:
I have a material connection because I received a sample or review copy, or an item of nominal value that I can keep for consideration in preparing to write this content. I was/am expected to return this item after my review.

What do you get when you cross the Yardbirds with German prog?

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

In or around 1980 I went into my friendly local record shop and purchased a new, shrink-wrapped 2LP set called Shapes of Things. It was a compilation of Yardbirds radio broadcasts and whatnot, on the Canada-based Bomb label. One of those semi-legit releases, I think.

I got home and played it, and it was fine. But where side 4 was supposed to have five songs, the banding clearly showed that there were only two. I played it, and it was this weird music, sung in sort-of English, with an unfamiliar accent. The music was a weird mix of folk and progressive rock. At that time — I was only sixteen, and the charts were ruled by Boston and KISS – I wasn’t familiar with progressive rock beyond Yes and a bit of Emerson, Lake and Palmer. I had certainly never heard anything like this.

I took the record back to the shop and explained it to the owner, who was pretty well-versed in music. We put the record on his turntable and played it. He had no idea who it was. A pressing error, of course, but no clue as to the identity of the artist. He offered to refund my money or let me get another copy of the record, but I decided I liked the music enough to keep it.

Flash forward to around 2000 — some twenty years later. I recounted the story on one of the online discussion groups I frequented. I provided a sound clip, and to my delight, within hours a fellow list member identified the music: side 2 of Grobschnitt‘s Rockpommel’s Land. Grobschnitt, I learned, was a prog/psych rock group from Germany, and the lead singer (“Willi Wildschwein” or something like that) did indeed sometimes sing in some Teutonic-English pidgin. The by-now familiar prog tropes (loud/quiet, fast/slow, hard/soft) are all in full display on the two songs. It’s a delightful bit of progressive whimsy, sort of a cross between British psychedelia and something like Gentle Giant. But with certain elements (even beyond the vocals) that somehow marked it (to that teenager in 1980, anyway) as foreign.

The album in question — the group’s fifth long-player — had been released in 1977. How half of it ended up on side 4 of a Yardbirds comp is something of a minor mystery; having a record slipped erroneously into the wrong sleeve is one thing, but pressing one side of one album and the other of another, well, that’s pretty rare. As best I can tell, the tiny Bomb label never had any connection with Brain Records, Grobschnitt’s label. In fact I can’t even verify that Rockpommel’s Land was ever pressed on vinyl in North America.

I still have the vinyl. And I have still never, ever seen a vinyl copy of any Grobschnitt LP here in the USA. I got a bit of a laugh when I finally saw the cover art for Rockpommel’s Land: Roger Dean‘s lawyer is on line one.

There’s a great clip of Grobschnitt (which translates as “rough cut,” by the way) performing “Anywhere”, one of the two songs on my LP, on Youtube. Embedding is disabled, but here’s a link.

Postscript: Grobschnitt has re-formed (with some new members, some old) and now tours Europe to great success. And on October 24 2009, in a place called Hückeswagen Germany, the group performed Rockpommel’s Land in its entirety onstage for the first time in 31 years. I vander if there’s a bootleg of that ;-) .

Yardbirds and Grobschnitt

Album Review: Jason Yates (self titled)

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

Jason YatesThe first three notes on Jason Yates‘ new self-titled album sound like the opening of Squeeze‘s “Black Coffee in Bed”. But that’s not at all the direction in which Yates goes. On this keyboard-led album Jason Yates covers territory that will be pleasantly familiar to fans of The Band, Randy Newman, Van Morrison and other iconic artists.

Yates is note-perfect in his use of timeless keyboard instruments. Acoustic piano, tack piano, Wurlitzer, Rhodes, Hammond; he plays them all and exhibits a keen understanding of the nuances of each instrument; they’re more than punched-up samples; they’re different instruments, each designed to be played in its own manner. Though he’s clearly an excellent musician, he resists the temptation to overplay — no Lee Michaels is he — and his songs are all the better for it.

“Nobody’so Far” puts Yates’ whisky-and-ciggies styled voice atop a familiar chord progression; sympathetic guitar figures and a gospel-tinged organ add interest to the repetitive-by-design tune.

“Comin’ On Back” kicks off sounding a lot like Neil Young and Crazy Horse; stuttering distorted guitar and a plodding beat make the song sound like an outtake from Tonight’s the Night. But where Crazy Horse would have kicked things into a long solo, Yates ends the tune and moves on.

The countrified “Paper Tents” is an upbeat number in the style of The Band, with hints of Jackson Browne. “To Reason” puts a Wurlitzer electric piano out front of a shuffling tune; Yates’ nimble playing on the vintage keyboard makes the tune an album highlight; the understated solo is a delight.

In fact, “To Reason” displays a neat trick that Yates manages throughout the album: he’s able to layer multiple keyboard instruments (in this instance, Wurlitzer, acoustic piano and organ) while somehow avoiding the feeling of a keyboard-dominated record. He’s sure enough of his songwriting and arrangement skills that — apparently — he doesn’t feel the need to hit listeners over the head with keyboards.

“To Chance” builds a track atop a gospel piano and organ arrangement that will please fans of, say, Billy Preston. The presence of a female vocal chorus only furthers the effect.

As it turns out, Yates has quite a reputation as a player’s player. A member of Ben Harper‘s band, he’s played on sessions for Macy Gray, Taj Mahal, Toots & the Maytals and many others. On this, his second solo album, he stakes out musical territory and claims it as his own.

If there’s any element of Yates’ album that’s unsatisfying, it’s the disc’s brevity. Nine songs — none of them long — and it’s over. But as a working example of the leave-’em-wanting-more philosophy, Jason Yates is nothing short of a success.

DISCLOSURE OF MATERIAL CONNECTION:
I have a material connection because I received a sample or review copy, or an item of nominal value that I can keep for consideration in preparing to write this content. I was/am expected to return this item after my review.