Archive for January, 2010

Album Review: Alice Cooper – Dada

Friday, January 29th, 2010

DadaFor 1982′s Dada, Alice Cooper brought producer Bob Ezrin back to run the console. Ezrin and Cooper had worked together on many of Cooper’s most commercially successful albums in the 70s, and by ’82 Ezrin himself was at something of a critical high water mark himself, owing in no small part to his work on Pink Floyd‘s opus The Wall.

What’s more, Cooper enlisted the aid of Ezrin on keyboards, and veteran rocker Dick Wagner (The Frost, Lou Reed, Ursa Major, most of Alice Cooper’s biggest hits…) on guitar throughout the album. Unlike the stylistic dabbling of 1981′s Special Forces, Dada adopted a more rocking and theatrical approach, one familiar to anyone who followed Cooper’s 1970s career. But in a radical departure, most of the album was created using the then-radically-new Fairlight CMI, a synthesizer/computer capable (people then believed) of doing almost anything.

Perhaps surprisingly, the results were impressive. Not widely known as a sonic innovator, Cooper created a compelling work on Dada. The creepy, foreboding opening track “Da” (penned by Ezrin) has a vibe not miles removed from Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The track sounds like the opening of a set-piece, and that’s exactly what it is. For much of the cut, Cooper’s barely present on the tune, but it’s the sonic equivalent of a show in which the band vamps before the star strolls onstage. When he does — in a spoken dialogue — he sounds eerily like actor James Woods.

“Enough’s Enough” does betray the sequenced-drums vibe (Cooper admits to as much in the original liner notes) but it’s a showstopper; like most of the songs on Dada, it sounds like it would have gone over well onstage. The song explores a dysfunctional father-son relationship, albeit with a trademark Cooper spin on the proceedings.

“Former Lee Warner” is another macabre Cooper narrative. While it doesn’t rock so much, that’s not its mission. Had Cooper’s star been in ascent in 1982, the song might have been ripe for treatment as an MTV-destined video. Sadly, it was not to be, and in fact to date none of Dada‘s tunes has ever been performed onstage by Cooper.

“No Man’s Land” rocks like 70s Cooper while still sounding contemporary enough for ’83. Cooper’s vocals are more expressive and less mannered than many other tracks from the era. “Dyslexia” is a nod in the direction of synthy new wave, but it’s a more effective bid than most of Cooper’s attempts in that direction. A distant musical cousin of M‘s “Pop Muzik,” the track is a tad sprightly for Cooper, but worthwhile nonetheless.

Alice Cooper shows his heavy metal side on “Scarlet and Sheba.” Synthesizers purvey a Middle Eastern vibe while guitars set on “stun” create something between Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath. The nonexistent chart action of Dada suggests that there was a limited market for this kind of thing in 1982, but that might be down more to Cooper’s lower profile (and the loss of a chunk of his audience in the wake of earlier missteps).

“I Love America” is another of Dada‘s spoken pieces: Cooper rabbits on about stuff he loves. Kindred souls The Tubes did it much better (and funnier) in 1976 with “Proud to Be An American” (no relation to the execrable Lee Greenwood jingoistic pap). The music’s pretty good, though.

“Fresh Blood” is a mixed bag. Musically it’s in Mr. Mister meets Steely Dan territory; lyrically it’s vintage Alice Cooper. But like most of Dada‘s tunes, it’s surprisingly organic for an album created on a computer (with all due respect to Todd Rundgren, listen to Utopia‘s POV or the Tubes’ Love Bomb for examples of how not to make an album using purely digital technology).

“Pass the Gun Around” shows that Cooper’s guns-and-ammo fixation hadn’t gone away. Musically it’s among the most involved and interesting tracks on Dada. Ezrin’s production skills and Wagner’s writing prowess help make the track a fitting end to the album. A long instrumental section is the song’s highlight.

Cooper was friendly with famed artist Salvador Dali; in 1973 the duo were immortalized in a hologram art installation. Dada’s album art (by Glen McKenzie) riffs on Dali’s Slave Market with the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire, working Cooper’s face into the image. Clever stuff.

After the creative success but commercial invisibility of Dada, Cooper took a few years off to dry out and combat his alcoholism. When he returned in 1986 with Constrictor, the results suggested he had learned from the past: that album built on the creativity of Dada while discarding the stylistic blind alleys of his earlier 80s releases.

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Album Review: The City Champs – The Safecracker

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

The City Champs - The SafecrackerThe gospel-flavored organ solo that opens the title cut on the City ChampsThe Safecracker is something of a red herring. Though the sonorous B3 tones suggest that listeners will be treated to something along the lines of Boz Scaggs‘ 1969 cover of Fenton Robinson‘s classic “Loan Me a Dime,” instead this Memphis trio launches into a Booker T & the MGs-styled number.

And that’s just fine. Across the landscape of seven tracks, this instrumental trio (organ/guitar/drums) hews fairly close to the soul-revivalist genre, but they do so with a looser, less studied approach than (the also excellent) Leeds, England group The New Mastersounds.

The title track’s lean, resounding lead guitar solo is no study in precision, and in fact the song is all the better for that looseness. Operating without a bass guitar, the group’s bottom end is held together through drums and nimble use of organ pedals. The lack of vocals and lyrics doesn’t dull the group’s expressive edge a bit; the virtual dialogue of clean lead lines — courtesy of Al Gamble‘s organ and Joe Restivo‘s guitar — speaks volumes.

It’s true that the riffs that make up tunes like “Takin’ State” sound an awful lot like Booker T outtakes, but the songs are imbued with such a feel-good vibe that there’s no point holding that against the group. While all three players are possessed of considerable talent, they rein in any showoff-y tendencies and concentrate on playing as a group.

The group has an innate feel for song delivery. When Restivo steps forward (figuratively, at least) for a tasty extended solo — like the one on “Love is a Losing Game” — drummer George Sluppick holds things together, and Al Gamble’s organ fades into the shadows. But — and this is key — Gamble’s work, even when it’s subtle and working as a backing part — is soulful, expressive and (if one listens closely enough) quite interesting. When it’s Gamble’s turn to shine, Restivo responds in turn.

The feel of the trio is amazingly organic, and the transition from one solo turn to another happens so smoothly, it’s almost imperceptible. As I’ve said about other acts (but only when it applies) these guys really do play in service to the songs. Each number is a well-developed song, not merely an excuse for some solo time.

A jazz-meets-Bar-Kays vibe takes hold on “Poppin’”, and Restivo’s guitar even displays hints of distortion. The explosive, jubilant tune finds all three letting loose; the song’s mid-album placement is a good strategy: build the energy level, as in a live show. The verse-ending descending phrases in “Comin’ Home Baby” evoke memories of Spencer Davis Group‘s “I’m a Man,” and the soulful connection is a most pleasant one.

The album’s production is spare and gimmick-free; of course, anything else would be a travesty. The analog warmth is palpable. The Safecracker sounds, one strongly suspects, quite similar to a live show by The City Champs. The group begins a whirlwind tour (opening for the North Mississippi Allstars) in support of The Safecracker at the tail-end of January, with dates across the USA. I’ll update in mid-February after I see them onstage in Asheville NC.

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Album Review: Alice Cooper – Zipper Catches Skin

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

Zipper Catches SKinBy 1981 Alice Cooper really had begun, thankfully, to flush the fashion (something he made an empty threat to do two years earlier). To the extent that Cooper had a formula, he was doing his best to move back toward it as the 1980s unfolded. After the creative disaster of 1981′s Special Forces, he co-produced the 1982 follow-up Zipper Catches Skin with his bass player Erik Scott. Cooper brought Flo and Eddie back to add their winning vocal harmonies, and Dick Wagner was present for some tasty lead guitar runs.

The synthesizer flourishes and spare arrangement approach of Special Forces wasn’t completely abandoned, but Zipper Catches Skin found Cooper aiming for a more open, wide-screen sonic palette, one that would hopefully appeal to his fans more than the previous couple of platters.

“Zorro’s Ascent” isn’t among the canon of classic Cooper, but it avoids most of the previous album’s mistakes. “Make that Money (Scrooge’s Song)” is a foot-stomping rocker in the proud Alice Cooper tradition. Dick Wagner’s contribution is unmistakable and welcome, and makes the early point that Zipper Catches Skin is a guitar album. In fact no fewer than four axemen lend their talents on the set, and synthesizers — while still present — are used to good effect.

“I Am the Future” from the classic film Class of ’84 (remember that? Me neither.) sounds like a Jim Steinman/Meat Loaf piece, and that’s great: what was Bat Out of Hell, after all, but an amalgam of Bruce Springsteen and Alice Cooper?

Most of the tracks on Alice Cooper’s Zipper Catches Skin were co-written with guitarists John Nitzinger or Dick Wagner (or both). Despite its awful title, “No Baloney Homosapiens” is a reasonably rocking tune. It’s not among Cooper’s best, but it’s a step in the right direction. Once again the big arrangement saves the day; apparently Cooper learned quickly that the trendy small-scale boxy sound wasn’t gonna get it for his music.

“Adaptable (Anything for You)” also doesn’t rank among Cooper’s best work, but it’s no misfire. And it’s consistent with the Zipper Catches Skin approach of short songs: fully half of the album’s ten tracks clock in under three minutes.

“I Like Girls” sounds like standard 80s-style arena rock — think of Loverboy. (Now stop. Please.) Judged against 70s Cooper, this would be a travesty. Viewed alongside the last couple of discs, it’s actually pretty good. It’s a bit disappointing that such a standard-issue song ends up being viewed as a return to form, but there it is. A sped-up end bit adds interest.

“Remarkably Insincere” and “Tag, You’re It” wed the big-guitar approach with the click-tracks 80s vibe. These tracks (and others alongside them on Zipper Catches Skin) suggest that Cooper was still searching for a new sound (as opposed to flailing for one on Special Forces).

The stop-start “I Better Be Good” has a catchy vocal hook, and probably worked well as a live number in the 80s.

Zipper Catches Skin closes with yet another long-winded and parenthetical title, “I’m Alive (That Was the Day My Dead Pet Returned to Save My Life)”. The talents of Wagner plus Flo and Eddie help a great deal.

Collectors’ Choice added the track “For Britain Only” onto the 2010 reissue. Nothing earth-shaking, the track does feature some tasty guitar work in the outro.

An interesting aside for liner-note aficionados: Collectors’ Choice isn’t always known for deluxe packaging of its reissues, but the label does what it can. In many cases original album art isn’t readily available, so a high-resolution scan of an old LP cover must suffice. That seems to be the case it Zipper Catches Skin, because a close reading of the back cover shows that the artwork from Zipper Catches Skin‘s Canadian release was used for this reissue.

Ultimately, Zipper Catches Skin was a step in the right direction for Cooper; he would make good on that album’s creative (but not commercial: it failed to chart) momentum a few months later with 1983′s Dada.

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Album Review: Album Review: Putumayo Presents Rhythm & Blues

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

Putumayo is, for many listeners, the first stop for various-artists world music collections. But the label has recently ventured into more mainstream genres. The latest exponent of this is Putumayo Presents Rhythm & Blues. A survey of classic and contemporary artists, the twelve-track disc provides a neat capsule survey of what the liner notes calls “first generation legends and rising starts of today’s retro R&B revival.”

Lavelle White‘s horn-led “I’ve Never Found a Man to Love” kicks of the disc and remains a highlight. James Hunter‘s “‘Til Your Fool Comes Home” sounds like a modern take on Ray Charles‘ stylings, with the welcome addition of a fleet-fingered guitar solo. “Sweet Feeling” by Cracked Ice slows things down for a smoky nightclub vibe that veers closer to blues than most of the other tracks. The female lead vocal plays call-and-response with a beefy horn section.

The Quantic Soul Orchestra featuring Kabir turns in a swinging number in “Who Knows.” The Emotions‘ Wurlitzer-centric “My Honey and Me” suggest what the Supremes might have sounded like had they loosened up and caught as bus to a studio in Memphis.

One near-misstep is the cover of Willie Dixon‘s immortal “Wang Dang Doodle,” covered here by a supergroup including Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave), Keb’ Mo’ and Angie Stone. There’s nothing actually wrong with the rendition; it just seems out of place on this collection: more blues than R&B. The vaguely updated arrangement seems too slick, too polished for either genre. Stick with any number of other semi-definitive versions (I prefer Savoy Brown‘s 1971 cover). Things get back on more solid footing with Catherine Russell‘s “Put Me Down Easy,” though it too is a bit slicker than the tracks front-loaded on the disc. A banjo-like guitar solo adds a bit to the stylistic confusion.

Ruthie Foster slows things waaay down for “‘Cuz I’m Here,” heading into Aretha Frankin ballad slow-jam territory: a winner. Snooks Eaglin brings the lead electric guitar to the fore in “A Mother’s Love.” The upbeat tune — which also features ample and delightful organ soloing — is another of the disc’s highlights, and marks a slight departure in that it highlights playing almost equally with singing. Most of the disc’s tracks focus squarely on the singer.

No collection of this type would be worth of serious consideration if it didn’t include at least one tune from the estimable Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. That act’s “100 Days, 100 Nights” will likely send owners of Putumayo Presents Rhythm & Blues to their corner record shop (or, yeah, iTunes) in search of more.

Nobody would choose to follow Sharon Jones. The people sequencing the disc must have know that: the next cut is a throwaway. Rockie Charles‘ “Before I Find the Right Girl for Me” sets a soul-stirring lead vocal atop a standard-issue late-night bar band melody. But two weak cuts out of twelve is still pretty great value for money.

All is redeemed on the Irma ThomasHenry Butler duet “River is Waiting.” The gospel arrangement strikes all the right notes, and ends the album in fine fashion.

One of the goals of a package like Putumayo Presents Rhythm & Blues is to distill a genre or style into the highlights, allowing new listeners to check out music they’d otherwise pass by. In that, the compilers have chosen wisely. Thorough liner notes (a Putumayo hallmark) give enough information to point interested listeners in the right direction to find more of this tasty stuff.

In sum, Putumayo Presents Rhythm & Blues is recommended for what it is: a sampler, an introduction to the genre. The compilers aspire for nothing more, and they do deliver on their stated promise.

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Album Review: Alice Cooper – Special Forces

Monday, January 25th, 2010

Alice Cooper - Special ForcesAs the 1970s ended, so did Alice Cooper‘s chart run. After an impressive string of hits beginning with 1971′s “I’m Eighteen (from the album Love it to Death) and more or less ending with Welcome to My Nightmare‘s ballad “Only Women Bleed” in 1975, the chart action pretty much dried up. There was the minor hit of “We’re All Clones” (#40 on the Billboard chart) from 1980′s Flush the Fashion, but that fluke probably had more to do with the song’s slight similarity to Gary Numan‘s “Cars” than any particular virtues of the song itself. In fact “We’re All Clones” had very little in common sonically with what fans of Alice Cooper had come to expect.

Cooper (born Vincent Furnier, but you knew that) may well have wondered: what happened? Yes, new wave was in full commercial swing by the early 80s, but other veteran acts — most notably The Tubes — were seeing some of the best sales figures of their career, and were keeping key elements of their considerable theatricality and bombast intact, even in the face of stripped-down music’s popularity.

By the time of 1981′s Special Forces, Cooper seemed to have lost his way. Gone was ace guitarist Dick Wagner, axeman on most of Cooper’s best post Alice Cooper Group work. Gone, too, was the consistency of Bob Ezrin‘s sympathetic and just-right over-the-top production skills. Ezrin’s production hand was an important component in Cooper’s success right up through 1976′s Alice Cooper Goes to Hell; a good argument can be made that Alice Cooper started to lose his way right around the time he started using other producers. After using Roy Thomas Baker (known for his work with bombast kings, uh, Queen) as producer for Flush the Fashion, when the time came for the next long player, Cooper again pivoted, settling on Richard Polodor.

Polodor was something of an odd choice. Though an expert hand with an impressive string of credits (including albums by Steppenwolf, Three Dog Night, and Black Oak Arkansas), by the time of Special Forces, Polodor had moved in the direction of clean, straightforward powerpop. He produced well-regarded albums by artists including Phil Seymour and 20/20. Neither of those acts had much in common with the style Cooper was known for turning out.

Perhaps that was the point. But if so, the music on Special Forces belied that approach. Ten tracks that concentrated on Cooper’s then-current obsessions (weapons and horror; sound familiar?), the lyrical content was full of the Cooper brand of bombast. And while the lean production aesthetic of Special Forces may have been in step with the sound of 1981, it didn’t mesh well with the songs themselves.

Guitar duties were ceded to Mike Pinera (known for his time in Iron Butterfly, who Polodor had also produced) and Duane Hitchings, a journeyman musician who helped Rod Stewart (uh-oh…) reach some chart heights. Polodor and Cooper’s approach eschewed much of the backing vocal overdubs (often from Flo and Eddie) that had been such an important part of the Cooper sound.

To the songs. “Who Do You Think We Are” kicks off with a cinematic synthesizer opening that suggests a slightly darker Moody Blues, and gives way to a straight-ahead rocker that owes more to Jerry Lee Lewis. Cooper’s gravelly vocals — never a strong suit, but often endearing in and of themselves — have a bit of menace, but there’s a creeping feeling that Cooper’s phoning it in here.

A cover of the Love classic “Seven and Seven Is” may have seemed like a good idea. In fact this was a case of Cooper being — for once — too far out in front. Love was criminally underappreciated in the sixties, and they wouldn’t begin to get their critical due for many years hence. Nice thought, though. Cooper’s version uses arpeggiated keyboards in place of the machine-gun drumming, and the odd, stuttering changes of the original are steamrollered by Cooper’s session team/band (they were actually called Special Forces). A misfire, but a noble one.

The first-person character narrative of “Prettiest Cop on the Block” sounds more like the Alice fans had come to know and love. In retrospect the mix doesn’t seem powerful enough — the guitars don’t roar — but for 1981 Polodor’s instincts weren’t too wide of the mark. The lyrical double entendres are pretty well beaten into the ground, but then subtlety was never an Alice Cooper forte.

“Don’t Talk Old to Me” is, for Cooper, a bit experimental. The strange beat only sort of works, but the keyboard-led sections with their vocal crosstalk are a highlight. The track offers a brief but tantalizing glimpse of classic Cooper.

“Generation Landslide ’81″ all but raises the white flag, admitting: hey, we’re out of ideas, so here’s a tune from 1973′s Billion Dollar Babies. The new version — billed as a live track — adds nothing to the original, mixes the instruments too low, and is clearly a studio cut with sloppily dubbed-on audience sounds. (Perhaps an homage to Peter Frampton‘s Frampton Comes Alive? Nah.) A swing and a big miss.

“Skeletons in the Closet,” on the other hand, is a successful melding of Cooper’s approach with the synthy, new-wave sound of the day. The spooky spoken/sung vocals work perfectly on the song. The Cooper energy is a bit lacking, but the vaguely macabre harpsichord-led arrangement helps. Still, with a different vocal, this song wouldn’t have been out of place on a Supertramp album of the era. And what’s up with that?

Synthesizers take the spotlight on “You Want It, You Got It.” Digital handclaps and other oh-so 1981 gimmicks are scattered all over the tune, and the lyrics consist of little more than a repeating of the title phrase, itself a tired one. This track ends up sounding like an unfinished demo; guitars are almost absent. Cooper may have literally phoned in his part on this number.

The axes return on “You Look Good in Rags.” In fact a catchy riff is the basis of the song, which is the top choice for return-to-form status on Special Forces. The sort-of a cappella break near the song’s end is an interesting approach: perhaps an early use of sampling?

“You’re a Movie” — the third track in a row on Special Forces to start with the word “you” — finds Alice in speaking-not-singing mode. The bloodless, robotic backing vocals suggest another bid for a piece of Gary Numan’s audience. Pandering to two camps — old fans and those into new wave sounds — resulted in disappointing both. On “You’re a Movie” Cooper tries to sound jaded and decadent, but instead he sounds tired and disinterested. Now that’ a real shock from the shockmeister.

The original album wraps up with “Vicious Rumours,” a case of too little too late. The track features chugging buzzsaw guitars and Alice kinda singing again, but if this is the reward for sitting through the half hour of near-ennui that is Special Forces, it’s nearly a booby prize.

The 2010 Collectors’ Choice reissue adds the “bonus” track “Look at You Over There, Ripping the Sawdust From My Teddybear.” Cooper actually sings on the song (and does so well), and the arrangement features electric piano (not synthesizers). Despite its unwieldy title, it’s a far, far better thing better than anything on the original Special Forces.

Luckily, Alice Cooper wasn’t the creatively spent force that Special Forces suggested. His next album Zipper Catches Skin (1982) found him on a creative upswing, righting several of Special Forces‘ wrongs. And the album after that (1983′s Dada) would be even better.

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Album review: Joe Meek – Meeky Meeky: Random Flakes Vol. 1

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

Meeky MeekyMuch has been written about Joe Meek. His production technique might be labeled savant-garde: doing everything “wrong” he sometimes — often, in fact — got it right. Now recognized as a vanguard of the independent producer movement, Meek’s work in the pre-Beatlemania era was nothing short of joyously exploratory. Freed from (or just plain ignoring) conventions regarding how to make a record, this father of DIY productions did it his way, often with remarkable results.

As far as the artists he worked with, things were hit or miss. He often employed high quality session musicians to play on his records: Jimmy Page (later of the Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin), future Jimi Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell, and Ritchie Blackmore (later with Deep Purple and Rainbow) were among the long list of sessioners who lent their talents to Meek productions. But the front-people on the recordings were often talents of, shall we say, a lesser stripe.

Recording in his home studio (itself a radical notion), Meek often had a very clear idea of what he wanted his productions to sound like; he “groomed” his artists and controlled sessions in a fashion not unlike his hero Phil Spector. But Meek couldn’t read music, lacked any ability to carry even a rudimentary tune, and couldn’t play a musical instrument.

So how could he communicate his ideas to the players, especially when the tunes were ones of his own composition? Bizarrely (or naturally, if you were Joe Meek), he would find a record that had a similar aesthetic to what he had in mind — a similar beat, tempo or arrangement — and then he’d make a one-off recording of himself “singing” his tune while that record played in the background. In the case of an instrumental tune — and Meek recorded dozens such items — he would sing the lead instrument’s melody.

Well, sort of. And the collectors’ recording Meeky Meeky: Random Flakes Vol. 1 includes several of these gems. With nary a whit of self-consciousness, the near-tuneless Meek warbles his melody lines and/or lyrics over the top of other recordings. This has to be heard to be believed; while in retrospect it might seem primitive, silly or even stupid, there’s no denying that the method did what it needed to do.

Sometimes Meek applied the method to his basic tracks. Atop instrumentation awash in echo, reverb and compression (the last, a technique that “squashes” the high and low frequencies on a recording to make it come across more forcefully, especially on old AM radio), Meek would warble the solo melody to tunes like his biggest hit “Telstar.” On Meeky Meeky, adventurous listeners can hear Meek’s embryonic ideas for that song’s classic clavioline melody. Is it weird? Absolutely.

Snippets of the French children’s ditty “On the Bridge of Avignon” are heard, showing Meek’s undeniable fixation on the work and style of Buddy Holly. On many of the tracks, Meek’s bizarre ideas are displayed in full flower: chirpy backing vocals, primitive means of producing sound effects.

Joe Meek worked in a number of genres. Most of his work would fall loosely into what might now be called pre-Beatles UK pop, but he recorded in freakbeat, mod and (arguably) proto-psychedelic styles in the early 1960s. He produced nearly 150 singles, and fully one-third of them charted, either despite or owing to his singular approach to the creative process.

Meeky Meeky includes twenty-odd (and I do mean odd) outtakes and work-tapes from Meek’s vaults; the specific origin of this material isn’t clear, which isn’t surprising for an unauthorized set. Though a number of legitimate Meek collections have surfaced in the last couple of decades, Meeky Meeky is by far the strangest. Not recommended for those new to Meek, the set is nonetheless required listening to anyone who has listened to (and appreciated) collections such as It’s Hard to Believe: The Amazing World of Joe Meek or Vampires, Cowboys, Spacemen and Spooks: The Very Best of Joe Meek’s Instrumentals. The fragmentary nature of the recordings means that a listen to Meeky Meeky won’t be a passive experience. At best, the listener will gain amusing insight into Meek’s process; at worst it will scare away, well, nearly everyone else.

No discussion of Meeky Meeky would be complete without a mention of the bizarre (even for Joe Meek) untitled track #27. A love poem to someone named Dave, the track finds Meek reciting heart-on-the-sleeve sentiments to the object of his affection. All the while, syrupy MOR orchestration a la Bert Kaempfert swells in the background. Even setting aside the fact that homosexuality was still illegal in the UK when this track was recorded, this is still among the most unusual items ever committed to tape.

There’s no track notation for Meeky Meeky: Random Flakes Vol. 1, though intrepid listeners will figure out enough of what’s what to enjoy the set. And yes, the foreboding phrase “Volume 1″ does in fact mean that a second disc of these clips does exist.

If your aesthetic barometer — your sensibility about such rigid concepts as “good” and “bad” — leans toward the conventional, then you’d do best not to make the effort to lay hands or ears on this set. And while it would be easy enough to enjoy Meeky Meek for its undeniable kitsch/unintended-comedy value, that sells it short. There’s value in this stuff, in its own skewed way. It’s a valuable historical document of likely interest to anyone who appreciates the recording studio as a sort of instrument unto itself.

Meek’s life ended in tragedy, but we won’t get into that here. Those interested in learning more are directed to three sources: good old Wikipedia for a quick overview, a chapter in Ritchie Unterberger‘s excellent book Unknown Legneds of Rock ‘n’ Roll; and an upcoming theatrical film about Meek starring Kevin Spacey in the lead role.

A repeat of an important caveat: hearing Meek trill away with tuneless la-la-las can be an unnerving experience: who let this guy anywhere near a studio, you might well ask. But his work now enjoys critical acclaim for its innovation; knowingly or not Meek was a groundbreaking pioneer in the history of music production. It’s not a criminal overstatement to mention his name alongside Les Paul, Sam Phillips, Brian Wilson and Phil Spector. While certainly his creativity didn’t approach the levels of all of those names, what Meek did in his time did make a difference in the way records would ultimately be created. Meeky Meeky is a glimpse — and yes, perhaps a more intimate one that many would wish — into the behind-the-scenes world of Joe Meek’s production style.

Disclosure of Material Connection:
I have not received any compensation for writing this content and I have no material connection to the brands, topics and/or products that are mentioned herein.

Album Review: The Orange Peels – 2020

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

“Happy listening.”

That was the message handwritten on a post-it from The Orange Peels‘ Allen Clapp. Owing to a slight mix-up in messaging, I ended up receiving a copy of the group’s new album 2020 directly from the band. In any event, Clapp’s sentiment couldn’t be more apt; in fact that two-word phrase is a near-perfect summation of the audio experience that is The Orange Peels’ 2020. As close to a perfect example of 21st century pop (in the best sense of that word), 2020 is a varied, charming effort that brings together some of the finest pop traditions.

And in doing so, 2020 sounds little like the work of an indie band from California. The five-piece is based in the aptly-named Sunnyvale — the perfect name of a town that hosts creators of such upbeat, fun and catchy music. (In fact, Sunnyvale is situated near the south end of San Francisco Bay.)

Possessing a good amount of that precious indie cred, The Orange Peels have released a few albums of their particular brand of pop (2020 is their fourth). But…don’t tell the kids it’s pop. Let them go right on thinking it’s indie rock. Because it is, really. The music of The Orange Peels’ 2020 draws unabashedly from some of the highest quality influences. Yet they pick and choose their touchstones, so one can’t easily peg The Orange Peels as slavish followers of a particular style or trend. Yes, you’ll hear Mellotron string parts, electric sitars, hand claps, those kinds of things. But you’ll also be treated to an early 80s alterna-vibe and guitars that in turn soar and crunch.

Charting a rockier path than labelmates Papas Fritas, The Orange Peels do in fact rock, but they sweeten the mix with impossibly catchy hooks — you older folks, think of the Raspberries as a group with a similar approach (but not a similar sound).

The disc opens with “We’re Gonna Make It.” The tune starts out something like the La’s transcendent “There She Goes” but quickly shifts gears into a Cars-like, stuttering, staccato arrangement and lead guitar figure. String synth and harmonies imbue the song with a sunny ambience. “Seaside Holiday” is bouncy and melodic like the best early 80s Britpop.

In “Shining Like Stars,” a loud and charmingly skewed guitar riff forms a central musical motif. Though built on a musical foundation reminiscent of Blondie‘s “One Way or Another,” the song — destined for hit status in a just world — is as wholly original as pop gets.

Despite an opening figure that may conjure memories of England Dan & John Ford Coley‘s 1976 MOR hit “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” the song “Birds of a Feather” primarily features that 1967 pop sound so loved by the makers of iPhone commercials. In fact, the gorgeous “Birds of a Feather” would fit perfectly on the ZombiesOdessey and Oracle (sic), a pop classic from, well, 1968.

But don’t start thinking that The Orange Peels are stuck on some sixties trip. On the lovely “Jane Lane” the band delivers a lush pop vibe familiar to fans of Prefab Sprout‘s 1985 classic “When Love Breaks Down.” Yet “Jane Lane” serves up an even stronger melody and a welcome harder edge than McAloon’s group.

The groups mixes it up as well. The midtempo dream-pop of “Emily Has Told Me Why” features a guitar riff straight out of Queen by way of Jellyfish. “Charmed Life” — featuring vocals by drummer/multi-instrumentalist Bob Vickers — has hints of skiffle and pub rock; in fact the tune wouldn’t be out of place on Nick Lowe‘s Jesus of Cool, a late 70s Kinks album or a late 80s Jazz Butcher album.

And that’s merely six of 2020‘s ten tunes. The remaining four are every bit as delightful. Throughout the album, The Orange Peels navigate the narrow path between sugary pop and hooky riff-rock. Despite its being released at the tail-end of December 2009, the album made this reviewer’s list of top albums of that year.

It’s clear to see that 2020 is the best of both pop and rock worlds. As Allen Clapp says, happy listening.

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Album Review: Eloy – Visionary

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

Eloy - VisionaryThe word derivative is too often used as a term of disdain, as a pejorative adjective to tar a musical act with supposed lack of originality. But even if one doesn’t buy the adage that it’s all been done before — that, as the early rock critic Qohelet put it some twenty-one centuries ago, there’s “nothing new under the sun,” there are still valid reasons for giving musical acts something of a pass when others accuse them of recycling the ideas of others.

There are legitimate exceptions. I recall attending a gig in 2005 or so by a group called American Minor. They were pretty good. My friend who attended with me was less than impressed. “I’ve already seen Humble Pie,” he sniffed. Well, I hadn’t. So while it was true that those young rockers from West Virginia weren’t offering up much new in the way of style, the substance was their own.

Charlotte NC’s Spongetones have made a career for some thirty years turning out original tunes with the unmistakable sonic imprint of pre-Sgt. Pepper Beatles. Why rag on them for turning to the fab four for inspiration? The Spongetones have created fine an memorable music of their own; so what if a lot of it sounds like songs left off Beatles VI owing only to lack of space.

Which brings me to Eloy. This German progressive rock group has been at it for 40 years(!), though Visionary, their newest, released January 2010, is the five-piece’s first release in a decade. They’re not groundbreaking, and don’t really set out to be so. But they’re not without considerable merit.

In line with much of the current 21st century crop of European prog bands, Eloy puts forth a friendly face; hell, in the booklet photos, they’re smiling. Trust me: pull out your CD or vinyl copies of albums from 70s giants King Crimson, Genesis, Yes, Van Der Graaf Generator, Pink Floyd. I challenge you to find more than a few grins. This stuff is generally pretty serious, folks. Eloy’s lighter tone carries over into the lyrics, which are of a sort of hopeful new-agey space-rock variety.

The press kit explains that Eloy Leader Martin Bornemann set out to recreate the “vintage sound of [the band's] most popular period.” Not being familiar with that music — my own knowledge of German prog has yet to, um, progress beyond Grobschnitt — I still hear clear echoes of the past in Visionary‘s grooves.

Notwithstanding the Teutonic accent present in all of the disc’s English-language lyrics, Visionary owes a major sonic debt to 1970s Pink Floyd. And, really, what’s so bad about that? Save the one-off July 2005 Live Earth reunion, the last time a band calling itself Pink Floyd took the stage was October 1994. That was a long time ago: people born after that concert are now driving automobiles.

The extended piece “Mystery (The Secret, Part 2)” bears the stylistic imprint of a track from the Alan Parsons Project‘s debut Tales of Mystery and Imagination: Edgar Allan Poe,” a number called “(The System Of) Doctor Tarr and Professor Feather.”

None of which is meant to suggest that Eloy are bereft of musical ideas. They successfully synthesize 70s prog and the more accessible mainstream rock. Midtempo songs like “Age of Insanity” feature more power chording than was ever David Gilmour‘s wont. Active, melodic bass lines add a subtle shade of complexity to four-on-the-floor rockers.

There’s a slightly modern sheen to the seven tracks on Visionary, one that will possess an air of familiarity to those well-versed in post-Roger Waters Pink Floyd. “The Challenge” features a female vocal arrangement that’s unnervingly similar to Gilmour-era songs. But it’s pretty cool, and the soaring guitar solo doesn’t ape Gilmour.

“Summernight Symphony” explores similar musical territory. Try this experiment: play the song, and sing along to it, but substitute the lyrics of “Comfortably Numb.” Parts of the arrangement sound like Yes’ “Machine Messiah” off Drama (true, I mention this semi-obscure album frequently; I’m a champion of this underrated anomaly in the Yes catalog). But again, how likely are you to hear new songs from Yes or Pink Floyd in 2010? Bands could do worse that create music imbibed in those styles, and fans of melodic midtempo prog-influenced rock could do much worse than picking up Eloy’s Visionary.

Eloy’s approach overall emphasizes ensemble playing over individual virtuosity. In addition to the standard band lineup, listeners will hear orchestration and flute, both well-integrated into the arrangements. While these are guitar and keyboard solos, Visionary is a lyric-centric album. The sixteen-page booklet is lovely, full of impressionistic graphics and (helpfully) all of those lyrics…and those smiling pics.

The disc makes use of the now largely abandoned “enhanced CD” technology to feature a “making of” film. Viewers who understand German will likely get a bit more out of it than did this reviewer, but it’s a nice artifact nonetheless. Most of the musical ideas transcend language, which may well be the point. The musicians are shown overdubbing tracks, and — most fascinatingly — laying down a keyboard part for the Mike Oldfield-like “Poseidon’s Creation” from Eloy’s 1977 album Ocean. The snippet reminds Eloy fans — and turns new listeners on to the fact — that Eloy has an expansive back catalog of more than twenty albums dating back to their 1971 debut. So as good as Visionary is, one of its chief virtues may lie in bringing the body of work of this interesting band to a new generation of listeners.

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: Let Freedom Sing — The Music of the Civil Rights Movement

Monday, January 18th, 2010

In honor of the Martin Luther King National Holiday — (as a close friend wrote to me last night, “Remember to honor Dr. King. What he did, he did for all.”) — here’s a review from a year ago.

Don’t be put off by the Time Life logo on the new box set Let Freedom Sing: The Music of the Civil Rights Movement. If you do, you’ll miss an excellent thematic compilation. The sepia-tinted 3CD package is a (more or less) chronological survey of music relevant to the civil rights struggles in the USA. The set spans the period 1939 to present-day (because, y’know, it’s not as if the civil rights movement has seen its goals accomplished; there’s been progress, but we’ve a distance yet to go).From the still-unsettling strains of Billie Holiday‘s “Strange Fruit” to five cuts dating to the current decade, Let Freedom Sing offers a useful soundtrack to any civil rights retrospective. Which is, in one sense, what it is: in observance of Black History Month 2009, a related PBS documentary will air. [that set on DVD is reviewed here -- ed.]

The excellent and detailed liner notes place each track in its sociological and musical context, and though the compilers are careful not to position the set as definitive, it’s pretty close. Or as close as you could get with three audio discs. While music consumers might expect a package with the Time Life imprint to be a haphazard, thrown-together affair, with selections determined primarily by what’s available for licensing, this set suggests that the label deserves a good bit more credit.

As a rock music aficionado–even one with a collection numbering in the several-thousands–I must admit that very little of this music was in my collection. This collection is a small step in the right direction. Some amazing and revelatory pieces are included, including Josh White‘s “Uncle Sam Says”, Gil Scot-Heron‘s classic “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (arguably the first rap song, unless you count The Monkees‘ “Zilch”–ha) and Oscar Brown Jr.’s “Forty Acres and a Mule”.

Only a few white artists make the set (The Weavers, Dylan, Phil Ochs), but their inclusion makes it clear that this is neither a folk-protest comp nor a survey of African American artists. The mix makes the overall set even stronger.

One subtext of the liner notes deserves special mention. The compilers don’t shy away from an important historical fact, one that’s been swept under the rug: many of the early supporters of civil rights for all Americans were…wait for it…communists. Yes, those people who were so categorically painted as enemies of the state in the McCarthy era were in fact among the most ardent, vocal and active supports of overthrowing the racial injustices of American society. Kudos to the compilers of Let Freedom Sing for including this fact in the liner notes.

It’s worth mentioning that this set makes just plain good listening, even if the listener isn’t up for a history lesson. Artists both celebrated and obscure are represented; big hits and unreleased tracks sit side by side. Nearly sixty tracks run the emotional gamut, from hysterically funny (Ray Scott‘s “The Prayer”) to chilling, from despairing to hopeful (Lee Dorsey‘s “Yes, We Can, Part 1″, the track that lent its phrase to the groundbreaking, inspiring and successful campaign of our new president). It’s genre-spanning, with gospel, blues (electric and acoustic), rock, funk, soul, jazz, folk, hip-hop and more. Listeners will find Aretha, James, Mahalia, Sly, Marvin, Otis, and more. Original or early versions of songs destined to be rock hits are here, including John Lee Hooker‘s “The Motor City is Burning” (later covered by the Motor City Five [aka MC5]) and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles‘ “Abraham, Martin and John.” And again: more. Lots more.

Let Freedom Sing: The Music of the Civil Rights Movement is recommended in the strongest terms.

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: Research Turtles (self titled)

Friday, January 15th, 2010

If Shoes fit, wear ‘em.

Despite the fact that Research Turtles are depicted on the cover of their self-titled, self-released CD as a sort of dirty-faced Knack for the 21st century, this Lake Charles Louisiana-based quartet has more in common with legendary powerpop band Shoes. “Let’s Get Carried Away” has the sound, feel and attitude of the pride of Zion IL, and the Norman brothers (bassist Jud and guitarist Joe) have voices that sound a good bit like Shoes’ John and Jeff Murphy. There really is something about sibling vocalists.

That said, Research Turtles do rock harder. The buzzing riff that kicks off “Let’s Get Carried Away” owes as much to grunge or 70s heavy rock. And there’s the thing: Research Turtles draw inspiration and influence from sources far and wide, with one unifying characteristic: quality.

It’s possible, really, to write an entire review that concentrates only on the opening track. It’s that good, and in many ways “Let’s Get Carried Away” is a distillation of the whole album. But the disc has ten other tracks, each of which has its charms.

“Damn” combines a lighter-waving riff with a lyrical sentiment that’s been voiced by every band from the Buddy Holly to the Partridge Family. “Mission” kicks off with a stumbling homage to the Ramones but quickly turns into something so poppy it would have fit on Green Day‘s Dookie. “Kiss Her Goodbye” is a 70s power ballad in three-quarter time.

“Cement Floor” starts out aping Led Zeppelin‘s “Communication Breakdown” but ends up as a cross between Interpol and Cheap Trick. (And they use the Beverly Hillbillies pronunciation of “cement,” by the way. Must be a Louisiana thing.) A snarkily-titled number called “The Riff Song” is just that, but it’s also more than that. Every song on Research Turtles is built on a dual foundation: a memorable riff and a catchy tune. Most powerpop bands get by — and successfully so — on one or the other. The songs on this disc are filled right to the brim with smart ideas, but the band is careful not to overfill them: none of the songs is overwrought.

“Tomorrow” is one of the least heavy numbers, though it too features some power chords in its reggae-inflected arrangement. But even the reggae angle is rendered with a light touch: those who (like this reviewer) have no use for reggae are still left with plenty to like in the song. The effective use of subtle flourishes (like vibro-slap) shows that the band puts a great deal of thought into placement of all sonic elements. “A Feeling” is a riff-centric number written (like all eleven tracks) by bassist Jud Norman. “925″ is the disc’s most “modern rock” sounding number, but even it is worthwhile; it’s something of a pop take on the Clash.

The disc officially ends with “Break My Fall,” a catchy and memorable number that offers plenty of dynamics and variation. A sped-up instrumental section in the middle is a high point of the disc. A charming and disarming hidden bonus track shows what Research Turtles can do with an acoustic number; even without the power chords, the group’s compositional strength shines through.

This album does not sound like a self-released project; it has all the hallmarks of a successful major-label release, except for, well, the support that being on a major label can sometimes offer. Recommended.

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