Archive for February, 2010

Busy Doin’ Nothing

Friday, February 26th, 2010

Well, not really. Not at all. I’m busy with a bunch of interviews, and with giving critical listens/watches to a stack of cool stuff. Each will be detailed and recommended in its turn, and soon. Here’s some of what’s coming in the next few days:

  • Beyond Reality, the latest album (out now) from Dutch progressive group Mangrove. In their music I hear hints of just-post-Gabriel-era Genesis (in other words, before Genesis got way-lame) and, um, echoes (ha!) of pre-Dark Side of the Moon Pink Floyd. Tuneful, interesting stuff.
  • The Complete Columbia Singles (out this week) is a long-overdue 3cd set from Paul Revere and the Raiders. I’ll have a lot to say about this, having in recent days interviewed Mark Lindsay, Phil “Fang” Volk and manager Roger Hart.
  • Jason and the Scorchers‘ latest, Halcyon Days, also out this week. All of the fire of the great stuff we remember Jason for, and he’s still at it with this consistently entertaining new album.
  • The Apples in StereoTravellers in Space and Time (out April 20) is sixteen tracks of vocoder-y, keyboardly goodness, and crammed full of winning, hooky, ear-candy melodies.
  • New Morning: The Tokyo Concert is a live DVD from Mick Taylor. Featuring Max Middleton on keys, it’s an excellent live document of this still-impressive axeman.

If you dig (or think you’ll dig) any of the above, this might be an excellent time to start following me on Twitter…

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Album Review: Various Artists – Looking Towards the Sky

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

Ember was a tiny, independent British label based in England. Primarily oriented toward singles, the label’s forays into album rock were limited. But during that incredibly fertile period of the late sixties and early 70s, Ember released some fascinating — and rarely-heard — music. A new compilation collects some of the best of that material. The title is long but sums up what’s contained therein: Looking Toward the Sky: Progressive, Psychedelic and Folk Rock from the Ember Vaults. Unlike some barrel-scraping compilations, this set is filled to the brim with fascinating, high quality music.

Inveterate, incurable cratediggers will recognize a (very) few of the artists spotlighted on Looking Towards the Sky, but that’s all. Hardcore psych collectors may be familiar with the internet discussion group U-SPACES (this writer subscribed back in the 90s and continues to this day). That group has made as part of its mission the collecting of “un-comped” tracks of the era, with a special focus on non-album tracks. To date, dozens of unofficial volumes have been compiled, and the quality level is surprisingly high, giving weight to the theory that there were well over ten thousand garage bands in the 60s, and that most of them had at least one very good original song in them.

But with Looking Towards the Sky, the compilers have limited themselves to the output of a single label. Has that resulted in a dip in quality? Not at all. This eclectic collection might not offer something for everyone, but it provides something — and lots of it — for fans of particular styles, and does so in astounding audio fidelity. (And that’s no mean feat: owing to the scarcity of master tapes, some of these tracks are sourced from vinyl.)

Surprisingly, Looking Towards the Sky features more than a few American acts. Apparently these bands couldn’t get a stateside deal. We’re lucky Ember ponied up.

The disc kicks off with the first of two 1972 cuts from an act called 9.30 Fly. “Life and Times” features a delivery that evokes Fairport Convention crossed with It’s a Beautiful Day. While the song’s arrangement could benefit from a bit of tightening, there are enough tasty licks and hooks to result in a memorable tune. Nimble yet forceful drumming is a hallmark of the track.

The Dorians‘ “Help for My Waiting” from 1969 is a highlight of the disc. No less than three distinct guitars (lead fuzz, trilling acoustic and kazoo-distorto lead fill) propel the song, and they’re only the beginning. Hooks abound, and simple-yet-tasty organ washes are sprinkled across the track. The Ontario band’s vocalist has an impressive range. Perhaps more than any other track on Looking Towards the Sky, “”Help for my Waiting” sounds like it could have been a hit.

Blonde on Blonde‘s “Heart Without a Home” from 1970 kicks off with a guitar imitating a jews harp. A drum pattern vaguely reminiscent of Norman Greenbaum‘s “Spirit in the Sky” pushes the song forward. Echo-chamber vocals and droning guitars give the track a slightly otherworldly feel, a vibe consistent with much of Blonde on Blonde’s other work (this is the one act with which this reviewer was previously familiar). A heavily psychedelic guitar solo is the cherry on top of this delight.

Blue Beard‘s “Losing You” channels Iron Butterfly, but those of you who are thinking of “In-a-gadda-da-vida,” forget it. What we have here is a speedy tune with intricate playing, more on the order of “Unconscious Power.” Vacuum tone lead guitar, dueling licks between bass and wah-wah guitar, stop-start drumming and an infectious hook all come together to make a great tune. Previously unreleased, “Losing You” was part of an aborted album project from 1971.

Rusty Harness‘ “Goodbye” dates from 1970, but listeners will be forgiven for placing its release closer to 1966. A garage rocker replete with insistent Farfisa licks, hand claps and shouted chorus, “Goodbye” is a lost garage classic worth of revival.

“Doin’ the Best I Can” is a high quality folk-rocking 1970 b-side from an Irish group called Paddy Maguire. Except for the vocals, this could be a lost track from Procol Harum, albeit with a more pronounced gospel feel similar to early works from The Band. The liner notes allege the involvement of one Steve Winwood, and that sure does sound like him on organ.

A group calling itself Knocker Jungle is featured next, with “I Don’t Know Why” from 1970. The liner notes compare the track to early (folk-era) Tyrannosaurus Rex, and the involvement of Fairport Convention’s rhythm section on the track makes it more than it would otherwise be. The single’s b-side “Reality” follows; the song sounds like a hippy’s idea of what you’d get if you crossed early Traffic with Muswell Hillbillies-era Kinks. Not bad.

Blonde on Blonde’s “Sad Song for an Easy Lady” starts out sounding like James Taylor, but quickly gives way to something delightfully unexpected. Aggressive harmonica, punchy bass and distorted fuzz guitar come together to answer the question “what would a psychedelic-progressive campfire singalong sound like?” Amazing, really. The bass sounds like a cello; perhaps it was played with a bow?

The opening salvo of “Mr 509″ from 9.30 Fly sounds like nothing so much as Love Sculpture, but — being progressive rock — makes a quick left turn into something more subtle and beautiful. A bass figure provides the song’s hook, and heavily Leslie’d guitar licks support the dreamy vocals. A bracing midsection sounds straight out of “Lay Down” from the Strawbs. (Note that “Lay Down” was released in 1972, the same year as this track.) The song is stuffed to the brim with ideas; in some ways it’s similar to The Who‘s “A Quick One (While He’s Away)” in its successful incorporation of several musical ideas. A tasty guitar solo rewards listeners who (as they should) hang on towards the end.

The Dorians’ lilting “Good Love” stakes out a vibe closer to West Coast rock, melding it with vocals reminiscent of the Association. It couldn’t be more different than “Help for My Waiting” (track #2 on this set) from a mere two years earlier).

Davey Payne and the Medium Wave give the set its title. The 1969 “Looking Toward the Sky” feature prominent horn charts, but rocks nonetheless. (A frequent argument on the U-SPACES list concerns the merits — or lack thereof — of “horn rock”.) A busy bass line and tasteful strings are successfully incorporated into the brief track.

1971′s “Disaster Area” from Milt Matthews Inc. cranks out the fuzz on a soul-inflected number evocative of the harder end of the Detroit sound (early Bob Seger, MC5, Mitch Ryder, etc.).

Blonde on Blonde is represented by a third cut on Looking Towards the Sky: “Circles” (not the Who song). With an eclectic vibe, the song sounds like “Paint It, Black” -era Stones, Love Sculpture (again) and the Open Mind all at once, but Blonde on Blonde manages to combine all those styles into something lighter and more progressive all at once. Imagine a technically precise Keith Moon and you’ll have some sense of what the drumming is like on this tune. An impossibly distorted guitar solo sends thing irretrievably (and wonderfully) into acid-rock territory. The song does go on a bit longer than perhaps it ought, but it doesn’t wear out its welcome.

“This Ain’t the Road” was a 1969 single from Back Street Band. Sounding quite a bit like Honeybus, the band turns in a well-produced song that sounds like it could work well as a pub singalong. It’s a fine tune to end the disc, and it’s vaguely reminiscent of Jefferson Airplane‘s “Volunteers” albeit with a fine string overdub.

For fans of the music of the late sixties, Looking Towards the Sky is a treasure trove. Only the most hardcore of aficionados will have heard of (much less actually heard) this music before. But that’s owing to the vagaries of distribution, coupled with the surfeit of good musical ideas in that long-gone era. Put another way, if you like this sort of stuff, this is an absolutely essential purchase. And apparently there’s more to come…

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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: The City Champs

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

Memphis soul trio The City Champs brought their southern-fried (mostly) instrumental sounds to Asheville NC’s Orange Peel on Saturday February 19. Opening for the North Mississippi Allstars, the City Champs turned out a half-hour plus of their subtly updated take on the stylings of Booker T & the MGs.

While the trio’s debut album The Safecracker (reviewed here) deals in an ever-so-slightly jazzified take on Memphis soul, that dimension of the City Champs’ musical personality was dialed back on this night. Perhaps that was owing to the audience: the Orange Peel was packed to the brim with late 20s and early 30s backward baseball cap-wearing males (the audience was easily a 5:1 male-to-female ratio). That said, this veritable sausagefest of noodle-dancing frat boys really dug the City Champs.

Owing to their status as an opening act, the trio was situated right at the front edge of the stage. This reviewer’s position right up front meant that the sound heard was of the instruments themselves rather than the house PA (though the Orange Peel’s techs are well known for producing a crystal-clear — if loud — mix). We heard every hit of George Sluppick‘s snare, every crash of his cymbals.

Sluppick’s Rodgers jazz kit was a sight to behold. An undersized kick drum (probably a 20″) and oddly oversized cymbals may have looked odd, but they helped him deliver the goods. His stickwork did that perfect tightrope walk of in-the-pocket and loose.

Keyboardist Al Gamble‘s setup was notable as well. The foundation of his setup was a gutted Wurlitzer electric piano — well, actually just the legs and bottom — with what one could only call a “modesty panel” (probably off an old scrapped organ) hiding what he was actually playing. This reviewer’s best guess is a Hammond XK, a modern digital instrument designed to reproduce the sounds of the mighty, legendary B3 without the backbreaking , roadie-requiring nightmares that vintage instrument entails. Gamble made ample and deft use of a real Leslie speaker throughout the set.

Guitarist Joe Restivo played a guitar of unknown make, but it was definitely of the Epiphone Casino / Gibson ES-335 style, a double cutaway hollowbody. With a minimum of effects, Restivo delivered peerless and joy-giving solos throughout the set.

Most songs followed a similar format: a guitar solo, a keyboard solo, repeat and then both join in for a swirl of sound. Oddly, during the 30 to 40-minute set, the City Champs played no more than three or four tracks from their album, opting instead for more rock-oriented (yet excellent) material.

Odder still — not bad in any way, just a surprise to anyone who’s heard the completely instrumental album — midway through the set Gamble maneuvered his mic to a comfortable position and…sang. A credible cover of “Get Out of My Life, Woman” (performed most notably in 1966 by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band on their peerless and groundbreaking East-West) ensued.

Throughout the set, the crowd afforded attention and applause well beyond what is customary for an opening act. Though the tightly structured numbers of the City Champs were all about soloing, they’re no jam band, so their success at the hands of the jam-band audience can only be assumed to be down to the basic quality of the group’s songs and performances.

But then came…the jam. Guitarist Luther Dickinson of headliners the North Mississippi Allstars had been waiting in the wings all set (well, not exactly the wings; his presence onstage through most of the City Champs’ set was actually a bit distracting: a number of fans persisted in snapping photos of him as he watched and waited), and for the trio’s final number they welcomed him onstage. At that point his scenery-chewing antics took over. Dickinson proceeded to crank out slide guitar licks and apply them atop the City Champs’ music. The crowd absolutely loved it. Me, I was there to see and hear the Champs, not an Allman Brothers tribute act.

Nonetheless, the City Champs acquitted themselves well, and showed themselves to be consummate young professionals. In a perfect world they’d be opening for an act better suited to their style — say, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings — but in the meantime, this will do.

Not being an especially ardent fan of Dickie Betts, this reviewer left the show halfway through the first of the North Missisippi Allstars’ generic blooz numbers.

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Interview: Johnny Winter

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

Happy Birthday to Johnny Winter. Here’s a feature I did on the legendary bluesman from a couple years back.

Blues/rock legend Johnny Winter is one to-the-point dude. His second guitarist (and manager) Paul Nelson–a fine guitarist in his own right–coached me in advance: “hit him hard, because he’s not…wordy.”

Nelson was right. The 63 66-year old Winter–famed for his fleet-fingered guitar work, his meteoric rise in the late 60s, his work with brother Edgar and with Muddy Waters, his (now behind him) drug problems and his albinism–tends to give terse answers to interviewers’ queries. Yet he’s not hiding anything: “ask me. I’ll tell you anything you want to know,” he says, and I believe him.

Winter and his ace band (a trio for all but the first and last few songs, on which Nelson joins on second fiery guitar) were, at the time of our interview, in the midst of a tour (question: “Johnny, what will you do when this tour’s done?” Answer: “Keep on touring”).

His playing has lost none of its fire; close your eyes and it’s still 1973. Always thin and frail, these days Johnny is guided out to the front of the stage, where he is seated in a chair. There he remains the entire show. Most of the gig finds his pencil-thin fingers burning up the fretboard of his headless Erlewine Lazer. True to his taciturn nature, he speaks little to the audience, but both acknowledges our presence and feeds off our energy.

Born to play guitar, he seems to be having the time of his life. The area in which I am most able to draw Johnny out concerns his connections with other legendary musical figures. He is glad to talk about them. “The first time I ever met Janis Joplin, we went to a movie together. We saw Myra Breckenridge,” he chuckles, recalling the X-rated film starring Raquel Welch and Mae West.

In the mid-70s Winter recorded a little-known John Lennon song, “Rock and Roll People.” He tells me, “I asked (John) for a song, and he sent me a tape of that one. I met him once, at the Hit Factory (recording studio) in New York. He came in there to get away from his fans.”

Stevie Ray Vaughan is one of the few white guitarists who worked musical territory similar to Winter’s. In fact for years Stevie Ray used members of Johnny’s original band. “We played together over at (bassist) Tommy Shannon‘s house one time.” Asked to compare their playing styles, Johnny admits that “mine’s a little bit rawer, I think.”

Johnny holds a special place in his heart for the late Muddy Waters (drummer Wayne June reminds the audience that “Muddy considered Johnny his son”). “I loved working with Muddy. Real easy to work with. A good guy…a lot of fun.” Their collaborations were natural, organic. “We used to do just about everything in one take.” In fact, as guitarist/collaborator/producer, Winter won three Grammy® awards for his work on Muddy’s albums. A collection of live and unreleased Waters/Winter material, Breakin’ it Up, Breakin’ it Down was released earlier this summer.

With more than three dozen legitimately-released albums (plus other unauthorized releases), Winter–like many artists–doesn’t have complete control over his catalogue. It does bother him that other people own his recorded work; reasserting control over the catalogue is one of his (and Nelson’s) priorities.

But the focus is always squarely on the music. His most current release is I’m a Bluesman, filled with interpretations of blues standards that are purely Winter in their execution. “We’re working on another album now. The working title is Roots.” A collection of acoustic- and electric-based tracks, Johnny says it will include “songs I learned from people who really influenced me.” His criteria for picking a song is simple: “it has to be something I wish I’d written myself.”

Winter often makes the songs sound as if he had written them. For the encore of this night’s show (including a typically incendiary version of Dylan‘s “Highway 61 Revisited”) Winter pulled out the guitar most closely associated with him, the Gibson Firebird. “I like the way it looks, and I like the way it sounds,” he tells me.

Reminded of the current effort to get Johnny into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he admits, “I’d like that a whole lot. I hope it happens.” In a moment of unabashed fandom, I tell Johnny that I think he’s one of the finest guitarists–blues or otherwise–that the world has ever known. I ask him how he’d like to be remembered. “That way,” he laughs. “That’d be perfect.”

Interview (1 of 2): Henry Rollins

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

NOTE: The original interview is HERE.

Henry Rollins is currently bringing his Frequent Flyer spoken word tour to audiences in the USA, with dates in Australia and South Africa to follow. I spoke with him recently about the tour, and just turned in a piece that will run in the March 3 edition of Mountain Xpress,  Asheville NC’s local altweekly. Rollins is endlessly quotable, and since the MtnX feature was limited to 750 words, a lot of great material ended up on the proverbial cutting-room floor. What got left out was as good as what was left in. Here’s the former. It’s perhaps a bit disjointed, but worthwhile nonetheless.

The early promoter of Henry Rollins’ spoken word gigs — this was in the early 1980s — started booking longer gigs, first featuring Rollins opening for poets and briefly, and later with poets opening for him (“which they didn’t like,” Rollins notes wryly).

Rollins always goes onstage “intellectually front-loaded,” because, “I don’t want you to wait for me to get it together. That’s not fair to you. Who wants to sit and listen to a guy figure it out?”

With characteristic candor, Rollins explains that he’s “afraid of [the] audience. I don’t want to let them down; I fear their wrath.” People have trusted him with their evening, and he “take[s] that confidence very seriously, and with a real fear. So I do not screw around. That’s why I’m not high, and it’s why I’m not goofing off before the show. By 5pm, I’m in the venue, focusing for that eight o’clock show.” He concedes that “it’s a long day, and it’s pretty extreme. But it’s the [only] way to do twenty-six shows in twenty-eight days.”

That high standard has always been a part of Rollins’ makeup. In Black Flag, the group Rollins fronted from 1981 to 1986, “there was a high degree of professionalism, believe it or not; I know we looked a little nuts. But we wanted to deliver. We would rehearse for weeks before a tour. Same thing with the Rollins Band.”

“Audiences can spot disingenuousness. They can tell when [you're] tired, dialing it in. There’s a collective instinct. You can shut an audience down, and it starts with just one guy going, ‘aww…’”

“The way I [prepare for] the spoken-word shows is — and this will sound silly — I walk on the streets of wherever I am, and I talk to myself.” He rattles off his recent trip’s itinerary: Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Brunei, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, China, Mali, Senegal. “I’d walk down the street fleshing out ideas about the first amendment, freedom of speech in other countries. And people look at you, a crazy mumbling white guy with a sunburn. Okay, fine: I’ve been laughed at by people since I was eight.”

“Thoughts are one thing. But if you’re gonna say things out loud for a living, this has turned out for me to be a very effective method of getting it together.” He reflects on the whole enterprise: “I don’t take many days off. I don’t want ‘em.” Admitting it’s “sort of an actor-y thing to say,” Rollins strives onstage to “stay in the moment” to avoid becoming “the thing with the string coming out of its chest. Otherwise, you’re just doing the act. And the act will falter with exhaustion and repetition.

After a gig, Rollins is “intellectually drained.” He likens the spoken word gigs to “pushing eighty gallons of water out through a pinhole. By the time I’m getting on the bus, I’m sometimes literally trembling with exhaustion.”

Rollins is cagey about his next musical project, to commence this summer, post-tour. But it involves “two other guys, maybe three” with whom he’s never recorded before. He admits that “the “marquee value of these three or four people looks good on paper. What’s going to happen? I don’t know. At worst, we roll tape, have a few laughs. At best, we get an EP out of it. Who knows?”

NOTE: The original interview is HERE.

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Musoscribe in Print

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

This just in from the editors at Shindig! Magazine: my feature on Barry Tashian and the Remains (referenced in a recent blog post) will run as a cover story in an upcoming issue.

Barry and the Remains

Bootleg Bin: Spirit – Texas International Pop Festival, Vol. 7

Friday, February 19th, 2010

Happy 62nd birthday to bassist Mark Andes. He was a founding member of Spirit, and later a member of Firefall and Heart. Here’s a review of a legendary performance of which he was an important part.

People just didn’t know what do with Spirit. Their jazz aspirations made them less accessible that they would have otherwise been, yet Randy California (his surname bestowed upon him by no less a figure than Jimi Hendrix) played hard-driving rock leads. They could — and did — write succinct radio-ready pop songs (“I Got a Line On You,” “1984″ and the 70s FM staple “Nature’s Way”), but live, their tendency to indulge in jamspectaculars was unleashed. So it was in September 1969 that the group found themselves onstage at the massive Texas International Pop Festival, playing a typical set of the era. The hits were there, including the tricky time signatures of “Fresh Garbage,” but there was plenty of jamming going on as well. California’s stepdad Ed Cassidy never fails to impress, even on the obligatory drum solo.

The group’s heyday would only last a few more years; after that time, California and Cassidy would hold together lesser lineups of the group while Jay Ferguson went on to much more mainstream solo success (remember “Thunder Island?”). And John Locke and Mark Andes eventually ended up in, of all places, Heart. But on this day in ’69, the stage belonged to Spirit. While a soundboard recording, this disc — as all of the volumes in the 13-disc set — is a bit on the shrill and tinny side. But the performances captured therein (including sets by Grand Funk, Incredible String Band, Sam & Dave, Herbie Mann, Canned Heat, Delaney & Bonnie, Tony Joe White, Sweetwater, Santana, Sly & the Family Stone, Ten Years After, Edgar and Johnny Winter, Janis Joplin, B.B. King, Led Zeppelin, Rotary Connection, Chicago and James Cotton) make it well worthwhile. File this under the “why hasn’t this been released officially?” category.

Difficulty to Locate: 5 out of 10
General Listenability: 7 out of 10

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.

Blast From the Past: Chirco – Visitation

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

There’s an obscure (as in, “didn’t sell”) album from 1972 called Visitation by a group called Chirco. The disc is classified by some as progressive rock, but this reviewer hears more of a hard-rock-meets-horn-rock style. Neither the best nor the worst of its style, the album remains an interesting curiosity.

And it has something of a connection to – of all things – garage rock of the 1960s. Allow me to explain.

Vernon Joynson’s Fuzz, Acid and Flowers, the indispensable guide (long available in html format)  to U.S. psychedelic and garage music contains two listings relating to Barry Tashian, leader of legendary rock group The Remains. (My full-length feature/interview on that group will appear in an upcoming issue of the excellent print magazine Shindig!)

One listing is for the Remains themselves. But the other one mentions these Chirco fellows: “Barry was also connected with Chirco who released one rather rare LP The Visitation [sic] on Crested Butte.” The link to the Chirco listing notes that Tashian “helped the band record” their lone album.

“No,” Tashian assures me; he did no such thing. “But I know the group, and can tell you about them. The group was named after the drummer, Tony Chirco, who was a very fine studio and jazz drummer in Fairfield County, Connecticut.”

Tashian recalls the group’s vocalist. “Bobby Lindsay was, to me, a legendary singer. He was previously part of a group, Dick Grass and the Hoppers. They had a regional hit when I was in junior high school (“Mr. John Law” b/w “Please Dear”). “Mr. John Law” had a siren and the sound of a car motor and everything. They would appear on local rock n’ roll shows that I would go to in Norwalk, Connecticut. They were heroes to me, because they were up there. I was in the 8th grade.”

“Bobby Lindsay,” Tashian says, “could sing anything really high. And he had a great voice. I used to go to a function hall in Norwalk, Connecticut on Wednesday nights and watch that big band rehearse, and I just dug it. You know, all of the saxes and trombones and trumpets.” This was in the period just after the Remains broke up, a time during which Tashian says he was doing “not much. Pretty much just hangin’ out. I was staying at my mother’s house. But I used to like going to watch these guys rehearse. Tony Chirco, the drummer, was great. Duke Ellington stuff. Count Basie, whatever. I got to know Tony, and this group was recording, and was looking for material. I had this song called ‘Mr. Sunshine’ and I gave it to him. And the next thing I know he sends me a copy of the album which they recorded in Colorado.”

“I listened to it,” Tashian  says, “and it’s nothing like what I would do, and to me it’s totally different than anything I would expect of Bobby Lindsay’s vocals.” He recalls something Lindsay told him at one of Chirco’s rehearsals: “I’m giving this one more try, and if this doesn’t work I’m just gonna sing for the Lord.” Chirco’s album didn’t sell in large quantities, and despite later overtures from impresario Don Law, Lindsay never recorded again. He passed away some years ago.

So, mystery solved. I’m sure that one kept you awake at night.

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Album Review: King Crimson – Lizard (40th Anniversary Series)

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

LizardAmong King Crimson fans, 1970′s album Lizard is a misunderstood release, and ranks among the least-popular of the group’s albums. That’s a shame, as Lizard is effective and groundbreaking in its own ways. King Crimson leader Robert Fripp was convinced by no less a fan than Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson that Lizard is deserving of serious reconsideration. To that end, Lizard is the third classic King Crimson album to receive careful remixing, remastering and re-release as part of that group’s 40th Anniversary Series.

Lizard occupies a transitional space in King Crimson’s history. After the celebrated debut In the Court of the Crimson King, nearly the whole group quit, and in its wake (heh) Fripp reconstituted the band and created In the Wake of Poseidon, an underrated album that is in many ways a rethinking of the first long-player.

On Lizard, Fripp enlisted the help of a group of conservatory jazz/classical players, chief among them pianist Keith Tippet. (Apparently, Fripp asked Tippet and his wife — the former Julie Driscoll, a major vocal talent — to join Crimson on a permanent basis. They declined.) Tippet had played on Poseidon as well, as had Mel Collins. Vocals were handled — for the most part — by returning bassist Gordon Haskell, and the nimble drumming of Andy McCulloch effectively recreated the unique vibe that Peter Giles had brought to the first two albums.

Fripp himself plays a lot more acoustic guitar than usual on Lizard. While there’s plenty of extremely lovely picking — and loads of crazed, dissonant electric guitar — Fripp’s slashing acoustic is a centerpiece of the album.

A cross between free jazz, heavy rock and classical styles, Lizard served up five tracks, none of which would ever see live performance.

“Cirkus” leads off the album, quickly establishing a musical feel familiar to listeners who enjoyed the first two albums. Gordon Haskell sings; he sang “Cadence and Cascade” on In the Wake of Poseidon, taking over for Greg Lake, who had departed mid-session to embark on his celebrated journey with Messrs. Emerson and Palmer. Here, Fripp and his band mates seem to be repeating the Poseidon approach of give-’em-more-first-album-sounds, but a few elements mark a sonic departure. The Mellotron horn lick — based mostly upon two notes — is especially ominous.

“Indoor Games” is built around Mel Collins’ saxes and flutes, plus horn parts from the jazz players who augment the lineup. McCulloch’s busy drums propel the tune forward. Fripp seems to be playing an entirely different song on his electric guitar, but it’s one that fits well alongside the primary melody. Haskell’s vocals — not held in especially high regard by longtime King Crimson fans — work well enough, but he does seem (on this track and others) to be straining to hit all the notes. The song’s instrumental interlude features demented guitar fills from Fripp, and Mel Collins shows himself (unsurprisingly) to be the creative equal of the departed Ian McDonald when it comes to devising and executing inventive parts. But things are ominous in a not-so-good way: where on “Cirkus” Peter Sinfield‘s lyrics fit, on “Indoor Games” the lyrics come off as forced, too cute by half. The British disdainfully call this style of lyric writing “twee.” The song ends with disturbing laughter from Haskell.

“Happy Family” crashes through the speakers with the sound of distorted organ (probably Farfisa), and a crazy jazz piano skittering of the sort that Mike Garson would make popular several years later on David Bowie‘s Aladdin Sane. Haskell’s double-tracked vocals (also matched in spots by Collins’ honking sax) sound like nothing so much as a frog. Heavy on the filigree, the song works musically, but Sinfield’s lyrics seem even more hackneyed, if that’s possible. To wit, so to speak: “Cheesecake, mousetrap, Grip-Pipe Thynne cried out, ‘We’re not Rin-Tin-Tin.’” Indeed. An instrumental remix would have been welcome.

The brief “Lady of the Dancing Water” more than redeems things. A lilting guitar part from Fripp sounds like a harpsichord. Collins’ lovely flute floats above a plaintive, effective vocal from Gordon Haskell. A near cousin to “Cadence and Cascade,” the song is a near high-water mark of Lizard.

The remaining tracks all fall under the heading of a suite called “Lizard,” and comprised side two of the original LP. “Prince Rupert Awakes” is an anomaly in the King Crimson catalog: it features lead vocals from Jon Anderson of Yes. Anderson’s gentle vocal begins the song, accompanied by little more than Keith Tippet’s piano. When the chorus arrives, Anderson sings in a more forceful manner, and the rest of the players join in. The chorus on “Prince Rupert Awakes” sounds very similar to Yes’ “Time and a Word” from roughly the same time. The straight-ahead, pop music style of the song will come as something of a shock to first-time listeners who think they know what to expect from a Crimson track. Never before (and never again) would a King Crimson song include “da da da da da”-type lyrics. All that said, it works. The end section of the song features a melodramatic lead Mellotron line from Fripp, and some McCulloch drumming reminiscent of Holst‘s Planets.

“Prince Rupert Awakes” segues seamlessly into “Bolero,” the high point of Lizard. Here King Crimson moves into the realm of classical-jazz-rock. With hints of a pop-classical approach, the main melodic line from “Rupert” is reprised, each time mutating into something jazzier. There’s a vaguely New Orleans jazz vibe a couple of minutes into the track, and it comes as quite a shock. For listeners wanting to rock, “Bolero” will come off as a disappointment at best, and self-conscious, preening noodling at worst. But accepted for what it is — an attempt to bridge the chasm between jazz, classical and rock forms — it’s successful at best, and a fascinating failure at worst. Take your pick. At least there aren’t many Sinfield lyrics (after one more King Crimson album he’d go on to write English-language lyrics for Italian proggers Premiata Forneria Marconi aka PFM).

There are some lyrics, though. Haskell sings Sinfield’s words on “The Battle of Glass Tears,” itself part of the “Bolero” part of “Lizard.” (Got that?) Fripp’s Mellotron takes its darkest turn yet with a string part that leads into a Collins spotlight — flutes and saxes — underpinned with more all-over-the-place percussion from McCulloch. Here, the classical elements fade away, and King Crimson produces jazz-rock vaguely in the style of Colloseum (but without that group’s blues elements). Dissonant and melodic at the same time, “The Battle of Glass Tears” represents a jazzier take on the instrumental passages from King Crimson’s first two long players.

A keening Fripp solo ends the “Lizard” suite; with its long and highly textured sustain, Fripp’s guitar on the track points the way toward his future work (including his fruitful collaborations with Brian Eno).

The short (under two minutes) “Big Top” ends the original album. Appropriately enough, the brief track is fully evocative (for once) of an actual open-air carnival. Its waltzing feel is playful, an adjective rarely apropos in any description of music from King Crimson.

In many ways Lizard represented a stylistic blind alley for King Crimson. The Lizard lineup never performed onstage, the Lizard songs never got played live by any Crimson lineup, and the jazz and classical directions explored (and/or hinted at) on Lizard were largely abandoned for something much more direct (albeit with some of the same players) on Islands, the group’s follow-up.

The 2010 expanded reissue of Lizard makes good on the promises of the format by including multiple audio formats of the album — on both CD and DVD — and adds the obligatory (yet worthwhile) bonus tracks that (we) punters expect.

An alternate take of “Lady of the Dancing Waters” features a more stripped-down arrangement, one consisting primarily of Haskell’s voice plus Tippet’s piano and Collins’ flutes. Tippet’s block chording is augmented with string Mellotron from Fripp. The alternate arrangement is more fully-developed than a demo, but it’s less than a fully-formed piece.

A different mix of “Bolero” — originally included on the Frame by Frame box set some years ago — is next. Perhaps a closer listen would reveal the ways in which this track differs from the Lizard version, but the differences don’t jump out clearly. For reasons not made clear here (perhaps they were discussed in Frame by Frame‘s liner notes?), Haskell’s bass lines have been augmented/overdubbed/replaced by post 70s Crimson bassist and Champman Stick virtuoso Tony Levin.

A studio run-through of “Cirkus” features Haskell’s guide vocal, and said guide vocal isn’t all that different from the final product. While Gordon Haskell is a fine enough singer, somehow the melodies written for him to sing seem to stretch the boundaries of his capabilities. By the time of Islands — King Crimson’s next album — vocal and bass duties would be given over to roadie Boz Burrell, later of Bad Company.

Fripp’s contribution to the liner notes is odd. In it the wordy Crimson mainstay waxes nostalgic and — dare it be said — sentimental about Lizard. It’s essential reading for anyone interested in King Crimson’s development. Sid Smith’s liner notes are quite illuminating as well, incorporating some quotes from Steven Wilson regarding the process of preparing Lizard for its expanded re-release.

Absent from all discussion is the story behind Jon Anderson’s contribution. What led up to this set of circumstances? What did/does Anderson think of it? We are left to wonder. It’s near impossible, for example, to imagine the track with a Haskell vocal.

Perhaps surprisingly, the two songs comprising a bizarre single released around the same time as Lizard are not included here*. True, the inclusions of “Cat Food” — with its demented and aggressive Greg Lake vocal — and “Groon” — basically a Giles, Giles and Fripp leftover — would represent a discographical conundrum: neither represents a lineup bearing much in common with the Lizard lineup. But sonically, the a-side and b-side represent King Crimson’s excursion into jazz-rock, and musically they would sit well alongside the Lizard tracks. Yey who are we to quibble? Fripp — ably assisted by remix-master Steven Wilson — is delivering the goods with every entry to date in the 40th Anniversary Series.

* Both songs would (rightly) appear on the late 2010 reissue of In the Wake of Poseidon. — bk

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Album Review: Nick Curran – Reform School Girl

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

Five seconds in, the listener will know that on Reform School Girl, Nick Curran means business. True, many artists have made careers out of reviving style of old — Brian Setzer immediately comes to mind — but Nick Curran is no dilettante. He means f**king business on Reform School Girls.

“Tough Lover” features distorted vocals, intentionally derivative (or, shall we say, historically referential) lyrics, gritty saxes, and a stomping beat. “Reel Rock Party” has that live in the studio aesthetic that has worked so well for artists like The Premiers (“Farmer John”) and many others. But the impossibly distorted vocals and loping (not swinging) beat evoke the smells of ashtrays and spilt bourbon. The is the real stuff, straight no chaser.

Nick Curran is clearly a revivalist. But his musical manner is so authentic — yet unaffected — that there’s no artifice to his delivery. He leaves little doubt that he means it, and unlike, say the Sex Pistols (“we mean it, man!”) he doesn’t have to say so. On the title track Curran revives the style of Shadow Morton and his work with the Shangri-Las. In its second verse, this role-reversal pastiche of Mary Weiss‘ group even features spot-on vocal accompaniment and sound effects guaranteed to make fans of a certain age smile broadly.

“Kill My Baby” combines the best of juke-joint 50s rock and roll with jump blues. Trust me: if you heard this on a mixtape of material from the era, you’d never suspect it was recorded any time after 1956, let alone in the 21st century. The ace electric guitar solo is the only sonic clue that it’s a contemporary track.

While Curran cans scream with the best of ‘em, he can croon when the need arises. On “Psycho” he has it both ways, turning in an r&b-inflected song that evokes the Pacific Northwest of the very early 60s (home of that other song called “Psycho,” by the Sonics).

“Sheena’s Back” is another cut that would be right at home on the jump blues entries from Rhino’s long-out-of-print Blues Masters series. This is music for dancing. Or knife fights; take your pick. Impossibly, “Baby You Crazy” ups the ante: this is probably the sort of energy that Little Richard and Jerry Lee weren’t even allowed to put across onstage for fear of inciting a riot.

The titles of the remaining songs tell the story: “Ain’t No Good” (with slap bass and squealing guitar, it’s Stray Cats in double-time). “The Lowlife” (“Johnny B. Goode” meets the Legendary Wailers). “Dream Girl,” in which Curran and his band The Lowlifes cut a “Harlem Nocturne” vibe, is the only track that breaks the four-minute mark.

On “Flyin’ Blind” Curran welcomes guest and kindred spirit Phil Alvin on guitar and vocals. A fine guitarist, Curran isn’t afraid to share the spotlight. “Filthy” is one of several sax-led numbers on the album, and it finds Curran weaving his amped-up rockabilly guitar into the mix at just the right points. Derek Bossanova‘s insistent, pounding 88′s completely eliminate the need for rhythm guitar on Reform School Girl. The album wraps up with the Ramones-meet-fifties “Rocker.” In a mere 1:28 Curran and his Lowlifes say all that needs to be said.

Curran won a W.C. Handy Award (now called the Blues Music Award) in 2004. After his first four albums, Curran took a detour from his solo career and joined Kim Wilson’s Fabulous Thunderbirds. Now back on his own, this disc finds him on the same righteous path. “All killer no filler” is a shopworn phrase, but it certainly applies to Reform School Girl. Across all fourteen tracks of this album, Nick Curran is baaaaad. Let’s hope he never reforms.

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