Archive for May, 2010

Crate-digging at the Dog Groomers

Monday, May 31st, 2010

It’s so long ago now that I can’t nail down a specific date – and even the year is something of a guess – when it took place. And my memory is completely blank as to how we found out about it. But it was a big deal nonetheless, one that set me on a path of sorts.

I think it must have been about 1982 or so. I had already returned from my brief, single semester excursion to the University of Florida. While memories of the three or four months I spent in Gainesville remain shrouded in a thick, college credit-free haze, I do remember a few highlights: seeing Frank Zappa onstage; regularly using my campus meal ticket dinner coupon to buy a soft pretzel and a pitcher of Schlitz Dark (“one glass, please”) and – most importantly – finding a used record store.

When I arrived on campus in August ’81, my record collection – which I brought with me – number around 200 LPs. By the time I left in December, it has blossomed to around three hundred. Gainesville had some good used record stores.

So once I was back in Atlanta (and enrolled at GSU, and owning a car, and employed) my mission to grow my collection had assumed a prominent space in my life. And as I say, I don’t recall how my friends and I found out about it, but through the grapevine we learned of a place that had tons — and I mean that quite literally – of records for sale at rock-bottom prices.

The place was in nearby Decatur. Once a small city, Decatur was now surrounded on all sides by the sprawl of Atlanta and its environs. Yet the place valiantly tried to maintain something of its own character. Sometimes it succeeded; other times, not so much: as is typical of metro Atlanta, developers set the pace for everything. In those days Metro Atlanta had a deserved reputation for lacking a sense of history; “old” buildings were routinely torn down to make room for new ones. And rezoning transformed bedroom communities into shopping districts.

So it was that we found ourselves at what had previously been a split-level home in the suburbs of Decatur. But now it was a dog grooming business. Well, a dog grooming business with a basement full of records.

This place didn’t have a sign out front; neither did it have a parking lot. You found a space in the single-car driveway, trundled up to the front door, knocked and were greeted by friendly Mr. or Mrs. Dog Groomer. They would lead you around and down to the basement, unlock the door and flip on the light switch.

What you’d see was a treasure trove of LP records. Easily twenty thousand of them. They were in boxes (or, as was popular in those days, fruit crates) situated on tables and on the floor. Everywhere you looked, more and more records.

They were not sorted.

In fact, they weren’t even all right-side-up or facing forward. But they were categorized in some way: at some point in recent time, somebody had divided the records into two groups, lined then up, and run a bead of spray paint along the spines. So every album had a small (and not really too defacing) color code on its spine. Red marks – like the one I found on the spine of the Moody BluesIn Search of the Lost Chord – meant the record was priced at $1.00. A green stripe – as found there on a gatefold copy of Three Dog Night’s It Ain’t Easy – meant the record would sell for a mere fifty cents.

My friends and I spent many, many hours crate-digging there. In fact the process took so long that we took breaks for lunch at a nearby fast food place, and even made two or three return visits over the next few weeks. We made a solemn vow not to share news of this place with anyone; it was strictly word-of-mouth, and no words would be forthcoming from our mouths. Not, at least, until we had cleared the place of anything and everything we wanted.

A few rarities and semi-rare titles surfaced, like copies of Badfinger’s Straight Up, but for the most part it was just really good mainstream 60s and 70s rock. Cream’s Disraeli Gears. The fourth Led Zeppelin album. The Sugarloaf album with “Green Eyed Lady” on it. In the waning days of vinyl, some of these weren’t all that easy to come by. And certainly not for a dollar or less.

I remember the check-out process. We’d lug our treasure out the door and back up around to the front door of the place. Sometimes it would take multiple trips. Mrs. Dog Groomer would look at the spines of the records and then total up the price. Cash only, of course. Occasionally she’d take a moment to look at what sorts of records we had picked out. I got a laugh when she stopped to look at one in my pile: Machine Head by Deep Purple. Making a sweet but feeble attempt at small talk, she offered, “Oh, ‘Deep Purple.’ I love that song.” She was referring to the 1963 hit single by Nino Temple & April Stevens, not the organ-heavy British heavy metal superstars. I just nodded and smiled.

About a year or so later I found myself in Decatur again, and so on a lark I decided to see if the dog groomers had anything worthwhile left. What I found was that both the groomers and the vinyl cache were gone, almost like they had never existed. The house was vacant and had a “for sale” sign out front. But of course the giant pile of records had existed, and my friends and I worked diligently to make that pile smaller. In that, we succeeded.

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The Steve Hackett Interview, Part Three

Friday, May 28th, 2010

Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth features the instrumental “Ghost in the Glass.” Hackett says that “I was influenced by working with my former keyboard colleague Nick Magnus.” There was a particular chord Magnus used “right around the time of Defector [1980]. I can’t tell you particularly technically what the name for it is, but if it was a B minor it would have a C# in it, for instance, and it’s one of those chords that jazzers like a lot, and its kind of mystical, doomy-sounding. I find it very full of promise.”

Steve Hackett photo ? Ben Fenner That track also features a string part laid atop the guitar, an approach influenced by some of the sounds Jeff Beck used on 1975′s Blow by Blow. Hackett says “we used real strings and Mellotron strings together. We used the real and the fake together; some slight distortion from the strings, makes it sound like the sort of strings that were being recorded in the 1950s in a way. There’s something about the quality of Mellotron strings. I use the actual tapes without them going through the Mellotron itself rather than going through the Mellotron [playback] head where you can’t actually control the individual notes that way. You play a clump of chords and you find some notes are going to be more edgy than others.”

Hackett explains how he manages to use Mellotron tapes without the machine itself. “Luckily enough, years ago I did some guitar work for the Mellotron people, and they gave me the DAT tape of the original Mellotron strings that had been recorded in a bedroom in 1953! It was three women in a bedroom in 1953,” he chuckles, “having as much fun as you could with violins!”

Onstage Hackett avoids the notoriously unreliable beast. “I prefer not to use a real Mellotron these days. Because having toured with Mellotrons for years, I’ve seen every keyboard player who ever used one having a nervous breakdown at some point or another. The technology just isn’t reliable. As soon as you get onstage, there comes a moment when the thing starts playing in a key all its own, and that’s if you can stabilize the electrical supply to it. And so I use a virtual…or Roger King uses a virtual version of the Mellotron, something infinitely more reliable.”

“But,” Hackett stresses, “the important thing is that we do use those original sounds. They are irreplaceable in a sense. They combine very well. They are more abrasive than real strings, and they will double guitar wonderfully, and they are a sound that will cut through any wall of sound because they’re so edgy.”

In spring 2010 Genesis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That institution — driven largely by the personal tastes of a handful of music industry figures — generally affords little respect to bands treading the progressive end of the musical landscape. Genesis’ selection likely had more to do with its commercial output, music created long after Hackett (and Peter Gabriel) had exited the group.

“Well, it’s funny, that,” Hackett muses, “because there are almost three different versions of Genesis. From the early years to what it became in the ’80s. In brief, all I know that I was asked to join a band that was presented to me as a songwriters’ collective. And when there were five of us, there were an awful lot of ideas flying around. I think that the stuff that musicians tend to mention is usually based on the early era, and normally the earlier the better, you know when Peter Gabriel was involved. Obviously I stayed for the making of two albums after he left, Trick of the Tail and Wind and Wuthering, both of which’ve got great moments on them.”

“And once I left,” he continues, “what happened was I think the video era kicked in very much around the same time. So I think as production techniques improved, and Phil [Collins] came into his own as a singer. And as a drummer with that sound, that famous [gated reverb-treated] sound, Phil influenced the production of so many records. That was a fabulous sound, and they created lots of room for that.”

“But,” Hackett observes, “then there’s another era of Genesis which is infinitely more detailed, where half the time instruments are fighting for supremacy. Particularly with the early mixes where it’s not necessarily clear what instrument is doing what. I feel the band had a kind of orchestral, sometimes demonic, often pastoral kind of sound to it. You couldn’t tell the difference between guitars and keyboards, and it really wasn’t at all obvious what was being played. And that,” he laughs, “was something that we milked, arguably to death. The idea of lots of 12-strings all playing together, which sounded almost like an orchestra of harpsichords. And we tended to use that kind of stuff a lot.”

Steve Hackett -  Out of the Tunnel's Mouth Hackett was pleased that presenter Trey Anastasio‘s Hall of Fame speech shone a light on the contributions of the early Genesis. “You know,” Hackett comments, “that was a very exciting time for me, and I was thrilled to work with the band at a time when we were more innovative, perhaps. I think that a band like Pink Floyd, for instance, stayed truer to their roots in terms of stressing atmosphere perhaps at the expense of accessibility and radio-friendliness, but Genesis went the other route. And it’s really up to the listener to determine which era they’re most drawn to. I think both are equally valid, but I like to think the outfit that I joined became a fusion band, a fusion of so many disparate styles, and gloriously pan-genre oriented.”

The official release date for Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth is June 8 2010. Early copies of the physical CD include a bonus disc including live tracks from Hackett’s touring band. Modern-day performances of some old Genesis favorites are included: “Blood on the Rooftops” from Wind and Wuthering (Hackett’s last album with Genesis), “Firth of Fifth” from the tour-de-force Selling England by the Pound and two songs from the 1974 opus The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Hackett’s tour of North America begins June 18; more dates may be added. For more details, the only official Steve Hackett web site is www.hackettsongs.com

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The Steve Hackett Interview, Part Two

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

Some songwriters claim that music comes to them fully formed; others craft the songs form the ground up, but by bit. Steve Hackett says that “I find that songs don’t come fully-formed, but some sections come fully-formed. Normally I’ve got a giant jigsaw with a thousand different disconnected bits that sometimes seem to belong together, and even things that don’t belong together are put together, often for the sake of contrast and dynamics.”

Steve Hackett photo ? Ben Fenner As an example, he cites the new track “Fire on the Moon,” with what he describes as “a small, bewildered childlike naïve verse, followed by the explosive primal scream in the chorus.” That song developed out of a very difficult and personal set of circumstances for Steve Hackett. “That particular tune,” he admits, “was really a kind of an attempt to convey the idea of a nervous breakdown — of all-out deep depression — but to convey it in song, rather than look at anybody else’s mythologies. It was time to examine what was going on inside me and how I felt at the time; I felt my world was crumbling after my divorce. And so I was just trying to cope with staying sane at that point. And I thought that the best thing to do was to convey all these feelings of anxiety. It sometimes used to manifest itself like a black cloud descending, or feeling like I was losing my grip, so I thought, ‘well, let’s not let that go to waste.’” Drawing from that authentic well of emotion is preferable to Hackett; he characterizes the alternative as “looking it up in a dictionary or in books, vicarious fulfillment in lyrics via other people’s stories.” In the end, the experience has had positive effects for him: “My own life was certainly becoming rich in experience at that point. The innocence was gone, but it did give me a very good basis for starting the tune.”

That organic feeling shines through all of the admittedly-precise technique on Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth. The first half of “Emerald And Ash” features precise vocal harmonies — all from Hackett himself — while the song’s second half adds in the voice of Amanda Lehmann, who’s also a member of Hackett’s touring band. “It’s very nice to work with a girl’s voice again,” Hackett admits. Lehmann is, he says, “full-on on tracks like ‘Sleepers’ and ‘Still Waters,’ for instance, and I’m very pleased with that combination of male and female voices.”

On the track “Still Waters” Hackett was aiming for a feel similar to “a gospel chorus. But I wanted slow blues and I wanted the guitar to be the voice, really.” He points out that “the lyrics on the verse were written by my partner Jo, who’s a girl, but she wrote it as though it was from a chauvinist man’s point of view. And so all of those allusions to ladies of the night out in Storyville actually came from her pen rather than mine! But the idea, of course, is that still waters run deep. So we have the verse that refers to all these show girls, and the whole bought-and-paid-for scene, and compared with somebody who’s more demure, but just as passionate of course, if not more so. And so I think the song strikes a blow for all the quiet ones.”

Steve Hackett photo ? Grzegorz Chorus “Still Waters” is also, Hackett admits, “an excuse to play blues guitar. I feel that within expectation of what progressive listeners prefer listening to, part of the time they find the 12-bar blues a little bit too basic for them. But it’s not the case of what’s being done, but how you’re doing it, I think.

The album wraps up with “Last Train to Istanbul,” a musical marriage of Eastern and Western styles. Hackett recalls that his interest in world music started decades ago. “I think it was probably in ’65 or ’66 with the Yardbirds. Jeff Beck was kicking in the feedback and the Moorish influences and the Arabian-sounding stuff. And really, I think George Harrison was picking up the sitar at around the same time. There’s something about that, the first time that we were hearing the idea of quarter-tones and the ideas of inflections that were coming so naturally to him at the time that paved the way for world music. Of course, world music, you have to lay it at Harrison’s door when it started.”

For “Last Train to Istanbul” Hackett says he “was influenced by some Turkish music that I heard in Sarajevo, and it struck me that Turkish music sounded as if it were a sitar solo given over to an orchestra to play, and then something improvised on top of that again. The idea of music flying in all directions sounded impossibly exotic. So there’s one phrase on ‘Last Train to Istanbul’ where we’re playing in opposite directions, and that was really when what I was looking for…I was looking for that moment. And with that thing you can’t tell what the hell’s being played, but it just sounds so marvelously exotic.

Steve Hackett photo ?Lulu Kyriacou Back in the Genesis days, many songs were credited as group efforts. But Hackett explains that “although everything that was written in Genesis was credited to everybody, not everything was written eyeball-to-eyeball. People were tending to bring in things in bits, and things were written face-to-face.” For Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth, Hackett composed alone and with Jo Lehmann, Roger King and a select few others. “I like both methods, really,” he says. “In the main I find most really great writing tends to go on in private, and then arranging things is the whole name of the game then.”

He elaborates on his understanding of the songwriting process. “I think that what has to happen is that the courageous start of a particular idea in the main has got to come from outside. And then you bring it in and turn an instrumental riff into a great song. Once you’ve got some idea of the rhythm, some idea of the chords, the atmosphere, it can set itself up for good writing. But I do try to get the best out of the people that I work with. For instance, today we — Jo Lehmann’s sister Amanda Lehmann and myself — and she was singing some stuff from a new tune of mine. We did about three tunes in one day. She’d sing harmony parts, and it was great just to see how it would shape up. Bit by bit, she covered all the harmonies that I did. And then she came up with some other ideas as well.”

Hackett says, “I’ve had a stunning day of recording today. You know, right at the end of this tune we were working on I was trying to get a note. I was trying to sing it myself and I couldn’t. I just knew that either I had to do it my androgynous best or maybe it would be a girl’s voice. And a girl singing that is just so joyful, to sing a note like that. You can’t do it all yourself, that’s what it comes down to. That’s what I’ve discovered.”

Born in 1950, Steve Hackett is a bit younger than the first wave of the British Invasion or beat group artists. “When I was growing up in the 60s,” he recalls, “the guys that were playing the great blues guitar were all five years older than me. But at the time when I was started listening to rock — I was buying my first records in about 1959, I think it was — I would’ve been buying Cliff Richard and the Shadows back in those days.”

Steve Hackett photo ? Mark Marriott He continues, “It was an interesting time, but it was really not until around 1964 or 1965, whenever the Stones started doing their first album and Brian Jones was playing bottleneck guitar. It was the first time I really heard a guitar riff was the solo on ‘I Wanna Be Your Man.’ It was the first time I heard a guitar absolutely sounding right for me. You know, I was fascinated by the sound of guitars in the early days…the overdrive and the scream aspect of that that was something that was unforgettable for me. It was really the aural equivalent of getting on a Harley-Davidson bike and doing 100 suddenly. Everything else was like a Morris Minor doing 30 miles an hour! And that was the difference for me. It was musical delinquency. And it was glorious.”

Hackett’s shredding guitar approach on the breakneck “Tubehead” calls to mind the style of a slightly younger player, Joe Satriani. On the track, Hackett doubles the guitar attack with keyboard. But they don’t sound like keyboards. “There are moments,” Hackett notes with pride, “where you simply can’t tell if it’s guitar or synth. We used a keyboard sound that was a sample of a Fender Rhodes piano put through distortion and it meant that Roger could bend the notes on that with a flywheel as well. We found that approach more engaging and a more interesting sound than doing a solo guitar part. So you’ve got guitars that sound like keyboards, and keyboards that sound like guitars, all on the same tune.” He pauses then mentions, “that the area where I was most interested with Genesis in the very early days. It wasn’t always possible to tell what was playing, and I must admit I do enjoy that area very much: when I’m not really sure what I’m hearing. That’s always a great thing, I find.”

In the final installment in this three-part Steve Hackett feature, we’ll discuss instruments, technology, old Genesis albums and that band’s recent induction in to the rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

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The Steve Hackett Interview, Part One

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

Guitarist Steve Hackett has charted a long and successful career as an innovative musician. He rose to fame as the guitarist in Genesis during that group’s most creatively fertile period. Joining in 1970 at the tender age of 20, Hackett remained with the band through 1977, at which time the group’s progressive period effectively ended. Hackett went on to record a long string of solo albums, and these releases found him pushing the limits of his chosen style into world music, near-classical, and more. In the mid 1980s he took a swing at the commercial end of the musical spectrum with the supergroup GTR – also featuring YesSteve Howe on guitar — but after that Hackett put his attention back toward solo-billed pursuits.Steve Hackett

Hackett’s latest release is Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth, a collection of songs that are true to all of his best qualities: progressive arrangements, powerful playing and healthy drawing from disparate world music styles. On the eve of the album’s release, I spoke at length with Steve about the new album, though eventually — in light of the recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction — our conversation turned to Genesis as well.

The single most remarkable thing about Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth is how deftly Hackett moves between styles and genres. The song “Nomads,” for example, starts out as an acoustic ballad with a strong melody, then it gallops into a Spanish flamenco guitar with what a Gypsy ambience. Then it explodes into a wide-screen rock solo. All of this takes place in a mere 4½ minutes. What’s more, that approach of variety persists throughout the album: every song goes some place.

“What I tend to like to do,” Hackett explains, “is to mix genres. For instance, on that tune you’ve got the flamenco introduction, then a tune, then use of nylon [string] guitars, then trying to create a picture of a gypsy world. Then, to get to the next level of energy I felt that I needed drums and electric guitars to kick in. Acoustic music — beautiful though it is, and I absolutely adore it — is limited in terms of the amount of energy that you can convey with it. And there’s just something about the electric guitar that has another level of energy and excitement, and so I set up one genre and then I supercede it with another. I think that’s why that particular tune works for me. It’s one of the best, and I think it has some of the best ‘drumscaping’ on it, if you know what I mean.

Steve Hackett photo ? Grzegorz Chorus Hackett elaborates on the term. “It’s not a real drummer; it’s two virtual drummers playing at the same time. My musical partner Roger King is very adept at recreating the best of what you’d expect from a drummer. He’s does virtuoso drum performances without actually touching a [drum] skin. He’s done it with compressors and selections of different dynamics.” Modern sonic innovations have come a long way from the brittle, synthesized/sampled drums of just a few years ago. And while Hackett remains fond of real instruments, the choice here was borne largely out of necessity. “I was recording at home and I didn’t have a facility to use a real drummer on this. And so we decided to go this route, to make it containable.

The entirety of Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth was recorded at Steve’s home. The reasons for not using a traditional studio were, he says, “partly economic, and partly a diplomatic solution, because I’d gotten to the point where I felt I could no longer work with my ex-wife and my ex-manager. Let’s put it diplomatically: it was impossible to work autonomously in the studio that we all shared together. So I felt the way to go was to work from home.” But Hackett’s quite at home — so to speak — in the creation of music on his own. “Autonomy in the workplace is sacrosanct for me. The idea of anyone impinging on that territory is something that anyone in any office shouldn’t tolerate.” So his approach for the new album was to “scale down, work at home, work in miniature, work quietly, and use smaller equipment to create big sounds.”

Another benefit of working in one’s home studio is freedom from time constraints: you can work when the muse strikes you. “I think that is the case, Hackett says. “And for me personally I’m less technically adept. I’m probably a technically-challenged person. But where my neurons seem to spark is in the realm of the imagination. I like to work on paper a lot.”

Steve Hackett photo ? Paul Baldwin The made-on-Apple aesthetic may have been key to the creation of Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth, but the feel of the album belies its computerized genesis. The track “Emerald and Ash” is the sort one could play for someone as evidence that the disc was created the old-fashioned studio way. Hackett believes that the drums “sound very natural and very roomy.” He notes that the song was informed by “a number of influences: Russian ballet. Beatles, really. And many bands like Led Zeppelin,” who Hackett refers to as “the heaviest band on the block.”

There are also hints — in the screaming guitar and stomping beats — of late period King Crimson. “It’s funny, that, isn’t it?” Hackett muses. “I was very keen on the early King Crimson, but I didn’t have King Crimson in mind at all for that section. Maybe it was the scale that was being used.”

While the album includes guest spots from some musical heavy hitters — Chris Squire, to name one — in many cases, those players recorded their parts digitally and sent them to Steve. “A number of people who worked on the album worked in their own living rooms,” Hackett reveals. “Sometimes we would do things in the studio together, but a number of people had total autonomy, and I was always thrilled with the results of what they sent me.” He notes this approach means that “musicians can send in the part that they’re proud of, as opposed to my idea of what they should be doing.” Still, Hackett is clear about keeping his options open: “I’m not saying in the future I won’t resort to a more traditional method of working face-to-face with people.”

Steve Hackett photo ? Ruben Perez Recording on a computer did present some sonic challenges, Hackett readily admits. “I was very keen that we didn’t try and fool ourselves with volume. Musicians, you know, we all become volume junkies. It sounds great in the studio when we first do it and you say, ‘wow, it sounds powerful.’ And then you listen to it back on a number of different systems and you go ‘mmm…lost something.’ So if you can manage to make it sound like big in miniature, it seems to me that that is the way to go. The hardest thing is to mix bass levels, in order to get a realistic bass level. You have to compromise in order to make a mix portable enough to survive the systems that people will insist on playing it back on. Not everybody has got professional speakers or equipment of a professional standard, of course. That’s a privilege of the few.”

Anthony Phillips — Hackett’s predecessor in the Genesis guitar chair — plays on two of the new album’s tracks. Surprisingly, the two had never worked together before. “I had been trying to get Anthony to work on one of my things for quite some time,” Hackett explains. “He showed up with a 12-string guitar and thought we were just going to do a rehearsal. But cunningly I had an engineer in place! Five minutes later he’d done this beautiful guitar part.” After a number of overdubs, the resulting “Emerald and Ash” had a lot of guitar: “There are two electrics, and two arpeggiating electrics, and two arpeggiating 12-string guitars playing together. And the combination is very much that gorgeous, early Genesis sound.” Hackett characterizes Phillips’ playing as “very courageous. He’s highly underrated; he’s a fabulous 12-string player.”

To be continued…

In Part Two of the Steve Hackett feature, we’ll discuss some of Hackett’s early influences, and we’ll take a closer look at more of the songs on Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth. And in Part Three we’ll discuss instruments, technology, old Genesis albums and that band’s recent induction in to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

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DVD Review: We Fun – Atlanta GA Inside Out

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

Most of us remember our high school years, right? One of the things we might remember — if we weren’t fortunate — was the class sociopath. You know they guy (and it was pretty much always a guy) who did malevolently mischievous things purely for his amusement, with zero regard for others. He might have set off a smoke bomb at the homecoming dance, or if he was less daring, maybe he just left an unwrapped tuna salad sandwich to rot in his locker. But he took perverse pleasure in the chaos he created.

Ever wonder what happened to that guy? Well, a viewing of the new music documentary We Fun: Atlanta GA Inside Out provides some evidence to suggest that he never grew up. You figured that part, of course, but you might like to know that he’s in a band called the Black Lips.

I kid, if only a little bit. And I’m already quite familiar with the Black Lips. I heard about them several years ago; the buzz about them was that they were a modern garage rock band. With apologies to the late Senator Lloyd Bentsen, I know garage rock. Garage rock is an obsession of mine. Boys, you’re no garage rock band.

Moreover, while their attitude and demeanor aims to emulate the Sex Pistols (or, more aptly, some teenage kids’ idea of what the Sex Pistols were like thirty-three years ago), their music is a pale, washed out approximation. Intentionally not tuning your guitars is not “punk.” Writing songs that lack hooks but pretending like they do is not “punk.” Intentionally destroying club owners’ equipment during your gig is` not “punk.”

Well, okay, maybe that last one is a little punk. But not if it’s done in such a self-conscious manner as is the Black Lips’ approach. I endured an entire show of theirs a couple years back, and came away completely unimpressed. Bratty behavior doesn’t compensate for uninteresting music; just ask Transvision Vamp. But I was prepared to give them a second chance and see how they came off in this film.

Filmmaker Matthew Robison has built an hour-long film around this overrated group of kids. Unwisely — because his effort suffers from comparison — using the far superior 1987 film Athens, GA: Inside/Out as an overt model, Robison attempts to weave a narrative of the current Atlanta music scene. He’s helped in this endeavor by interviews with a number of scenesters.

Said scenesters are often less than compelling, short of credible, and far less than interesting. Fans of such mass-marketed “individuality” sartorial affectations as ironic t-shirts, Fedoras, 70s porn actor-style mustaches and hey-we’re-the-Velvet-Underground indoor sunglass wearing will find plenty to like. And the hipster ethos is in full flower: lots of scenes show these musicians knocking back Miller and PBR. Call me a cynic — go ahead — but prominent display of such hip-downmarket brews suggests more about these shameless poseurs Making a Statement™ rather than it does about their actual interest in, y’know, what the stuff tastes like.

Describing the Atlanta scene, one of the Black Lips calls it “Athens minus the bullshit.” I don’t know about that: during the film’s runtime I felt as if I was exposed to copious amounts of bullshit. Proud stoner Bradford Cox (Deerhunter) does get it right when he admits that he “was never afraid of being a little bit boring.” Good for him, because if We Fun‘s depiction of him and his band is at all accurate, he is dull, dull, dull.

Some critics argue that in a narrative, the author (or in this case, filmmaker) has a responsibility to depict at least one character as likeable. Or, if not likable, then at least a character should resonate in some way with the viewer; there should be some commonality, some connection. Though it is well-shot, expertly edited and possesses good production values (less so for the concert footage, though), We Fun failed for me on that count.

The characters as portrayed in the film are largely uninteresting, annoying, and — fatally for a film of this type, I think — seemingly uninterested in music in and of itself. With few exceptions, the acts shown onscreen seem to care little if at all about creating interesting, compelling music. Forget about lasting or valuable; these characters seem like they just wanna have some fun, and if someone suggested a means to that end other than music, they’d likely toss their instruments and follow that person to the party.

Nearly everyone in the film manages to be stoned, drunk or both when called upon to provide insights. And in the end, they don’t have much to say. Well, I hear you offering hopefully, maybe the music does the talking. Not so, but nice try. A few worthwhile musical excepts are included: King Khan and the Shrines, the Selmanaires and a (very) few others. But mostly the viewer is presented with a bunch of kids who don’t seem to put much effort into, well, anything beyond getting a buzz.

Someone is to blame for this. Perhaps it’s the result of clever editing; there is a long list of supposed documentary films that have skewed reality through choices made in the editing suite. (Ondi Timoner‘s Dig — the documentary look at the Brian Jonestown Massacre and Dandy Warhols — is one of the more notorious examples.) But more likely the unflinching honesty of the subjects profiled results in the viewer seeing them just as they are (or wish to be seen). And it’s generally not flattering.

There are a couple of red herrings as well. While the band Mastodon appears in an interview clip, there’s no music footage of them. And just when you think you’ll get to see and hear something by one of the lesser-known (but fairly interesting) acts, you’re instead treated to some more out-of-tune shambolic Black Lips stuff.

We Fun does show some nice shots of local Atlanta clubs, and a car-shot scoping out the always-trendy Little Five Points district is nice enough. But when the film principals open their mouths or attack their instruments, it largely falls flat. The low point of the film (or the high point, if you tend to disagree with most of what I’ve said already) is onstage footage of Jessica Juggs shooting fire out of her…well, you can probably guess. Eww.

If that’s your idea of a good time, go grab some weed and a couple twelves of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and gather up your friends for a DVD viewing of We Fun. Ultimately, the hopeful part of me thinks that these acts have to be better than the film portays them, and the people in them are not as shallow and narcissistic as they seem onscreen. But We Fun doesn’t make me care enough to want to find out, and that is its greatest misdeed.

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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.

Album Review: Julie Slick

Monday, May 24th, 2010

These kids today, I tell ya. No, seriously. I find that I’m really not a fan of many of today’s popular musical movements. The disposable pop stuff is easily enough dismissed, but the whole whiny/screamo thing never moved me either. I appreciate songcraft, musicianship and the creative interplay that exists between players. The ability to create something that is, as the old saw goes, greater than the sum of the parts: that, to me, is a big part of what music is all about.

Bassist Julie Slick clearly understands this. The 24 year old musician has proved her chops in the presence of one of the most musically demanding bandleaders — Adrian Belew — and has now released her self-titled debut, featuring some Very Heavy Friends.

Back to Belew for a moment. Adrian is one of those most unique characters. He’s capable of sonic exploration — this is the guy who made guitars sound like charging rhinoceros way back in the 1980s, after all — and exquisite pop songcraft (the Bears). As a member of King Crimson (and with his parallel solo career, Bears albums and sideman gigs), Belew honed his own chops and moved in several creative directions at once. For some recent power trio gigs, he enlisted the aid of Julie Slick and her brother Eric on drums.

Not to take away even a bit from recognizing Slick’s creative wellspring, but it’s likely that her time with Belew has exerted influence upon her playing, and that influence has been quite positive. Across the fourteen tracks of Julie Slick, the music trades in decidedly progressive styles, but there’s plenty of pop song construction and funk arrangement in evidence as well.

The disc is completely instrumental, save for some found vocal sounds here and there. But the music betrays little need for words. Listeners will find many of the prog mainstays here, both in terms of instrumentation (Chapman stick, for example) and players. Pat Mastelotto (King Crimson et. al.), André Cholmondeley (Project Object) and Julie’s brother Eric show up on several cuts.

There are some keyboards on the album — most notably on “February” — but primarily this is an axefest. Julie Slick plays her Fender bass like a lead instrument; beefy lead lines weave in and out of the arrangements. One moment she’s holding down a thick bottom end while a treated guitar runs in circles; the next, the guitar plays rhythm (after a fashion) while Slick pops out a funk lead.

Musically, Julie Slick’s style is similar in approach to Tony Levin‘s work on mid-period King Crimson (Discipline, Beat, Three of a Perfect Pair) with some later-period Crimson (ThraK) thrown in for good, menacing measure. But these songs won’t be mistaken for Crimson outtakes; she’s very much her own composer. Except when she’s not: the master — Robert Fripp — is on board, albeit in a disembodied fashion of sorts: the track “Choke” is built in part upon the recording “Scanning II” from Fripp’s League of Crafty Guitarists project. This phoned-in frippery is applied to good effect on other tracks as well.

This is melodic, accessible progressive music with melodies that will stick in the listener’s head long after the disc play has ended. There’s plenty of muscular and inventive musical interplay to keep prog fans excited, as well. Julie Slick is that rarest of collections that balances those two worlds. Recommended.

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Feature: The Cheeksters

Friday, May 21st, 2010

Some years ago, recent college graduate Shannon Hines was traveling Europe on a EurailPass. She recounts what happened not long after the train left London: “I said to my girlfriend, ‘let’s go to the club car and get a beer.’ When we got there, it was like a different world. Everybody had colored glasses; it was like the ‘hippie train!’ There were no available seats. These two guys were sitting there in a booth, and I said, ‘Can we sit here?’”Fast forward a few years. One of those guys was Londoner Mark Casson. He and Shannon (a Memphis native) had started dating, making trips to each others’ home countries. Eventually they married and settled in the States.

One factor that drew the pair together was their love of music, especially 60s British rock and American soul from that same era. Both had musical backgrounds: Mark as a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and singer; Shannon as a pianist and singer. While they dated, Mark taught Shannon how to play bass guitar. After a few brief detours (Mark even did a few shows playing David Bowie in a tribute band), the duo formed The Cheeksters as a vehicle for Mark’s tuneful, classic-but-not-exactly-retro songwriting and the pair’s vocals.

The Cheeksters - Movers and Shakers The Cheeksters — at that point just Mark and Shannon — released their first album in 1992, following it up in 1994. Moving to Nashville TN, they connected with Brent Little, a musician and producer. Little’s creative techniques helped The Cheeksters develop recordings that captured a 60s vibe while avoiding overt nostalgia. The first album by the trio (the 1997 release Skating on the Cusp) raised the group’s profile and helped them become a sought-after live act.

The Cassons moved to Asheville in 2000. They continued their recording relationship with Little, heading back to Nashville to lay down tracks for subsequent albums (the aptly-named 1965 in 2005 and their current release, Movers and Shakers). In Asheville they put together a full performing version of The Cheeksters. The five-piece live group adds guitarists Jay Moye and Michael Hart, plus Mike Baker on drums. But onstage, The Cheeksters like to change it up, switching instruments frequently.

Mark’s British-accented lead vocals are coupled with the soul-influenced stylings of the band to produce pure, upbeat pop. Mark observes that Movers and Shakers has “a slightly happier vibe to it, a more carefree attitude.” And The Cheeksters have already begin writing and recording for the followup; Mark suggests that some songs may be released online as they’re completed, rather than holding them back for the next album. But for now, their primary focus is on performance. “We’ve done twenty or more live shows this year already,” Mark says. “That’s quite a lot for us, and we’re enjoying it.”

Check out the group online at www.cheeksters.com and myspace.com/thecheeksters.

The  Cheeksters

Bonus Feature: Bob Moog Foundation

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

Dr. Bob Moog would have been 76 this coming weekend. A few years ago I interviewed his daughter Michelle about the Bob Moog Foundation.


The  Bob Moog Foundation
“I’m a toolmaker; I’m not a musician.” With trademark modesty, so said Bob Moog, the man who–for all intents and purposes–invented the modern synthesizer. I sat down recently at an Asheville NC coffee shop with his daughter Michelle Moog-Koussa to discuss the work of the Bob Moog Foundation. As Louis Armstrong‘s “Wonderful World” played softly in the background, the Foundation’s Executive Director told me how the organization got its start not long before Bob Moog (rhymes with “vogue”) succumbed to brain cancer in 2005.

“The Foundation came about right before Dad passed away. My brother Matt had set up a [private] web page for him as a way to keep in touch with forty of his friends, to let them know how he was doing.” Someone leaked word of the site on a synthesizer chat group. She winces at the recollection. “My brother got very upset, and put up a password on the site. [But then] my dad said, ‘y’know what? Take the password down and let them come.’ I’m not sure I would have expected that, because he did really value his privacy.”

The day he died, there were 20,000 hits” on the site. “There were all these tributes to Dad, about how his instruments had affected their lives, how [Moog synthesizers] had given them a voice for their creativity.” Michelle regaled me with stories of her dad: people “were bowled over that they would ask him a question–they’d muster up their guts to approach him–and he’d whip out a pen and a napkin and draw them a schematic!”

“I mean, [as kids] we knew what Dad had done, [but] in a very simplistic sense. People would approach me: ‘Oh my god–Bob Moog’s your dad!’ But he always held his career at arms’ length; when we would ask him about it, there was a sense of his being uncomfortable about it.” In fact, “when he won the Grammy® in 2002, he wasn’t going to tell us!”

I have my own Bob Moog story. Summer 2000, not long after moving to Asheville, I was at a small neighborhood picnic. Across the lawn, I saw this man in his mid-sixties; I immediately recognized him as the synthesizer pioneer. I stood there, slack-jawed. A neighbor approached me with a wide grin: “I guess you know that’s Bob. Let me introduce you.” The approachable Moog and I then talked about Theremins for awhile.

The  Bob Moog Foundation

I recall a 2003 lecture in which Moog went to great pains to downplay his contributions to music, preferring instead to highlight the contributions of others. “At home,” Michelle said, “he just wanted to be Dad. There were friends of his here in Asheville who didn’t know anything [about his work]. Humility was the family religion at the Moog household.”

Bob believed–I’m paraphrasing here–that creativity exists in the ether, and that we are mere conduits, instruments if you will, to spread the fruits of that creativity. Michelle said that Bob “left a legacy, and Moog Music carries it on through their instruments. But there’s also this legacy of his creative warmth that has inspired people all over the world. And that deserves to be carried forth as a tribute to him. We want to continue the inspiration that was achieved through innovation and scientific curiosity.”

The Foundation’s stated goal is to “document, celebrate and teach innovative thinking and to support and honor” Moog’s legacy. The first–and right now, most critical–step is the documenting. Bob stored all manner of personal odds and ends in a non-climate controlled storage building. These included the last production Minimoog synthesizer, various schematics for as-yet-undeveloped devices, reel-to-reel audio masters, and (as Michelle showed me) a stack of daily notepads, listing who Bob spoke to, and what they spoke about.

Donate to The Bob Moog Foundation

The Foundation hopes eventually to build an interactive Bob Moog Museum in Asheville, but right now the focus is on preserving these archive items. Thankfully, some high-profile artists like Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan have offered their support, but it’s no substitute for greatly-needed donations from the general public.

Moog-Koussa told me that long-term goals for the Foundation include plans to offer three scholarships in ‘mechatronics’ at UNC Asheville, Cornell and Berklee; the museum; outreach programs to bring electronic music into schools; and live performances and competitions.

I asked Michelle how she would like Bob to be remembered. “First and foremost, that he was a humanist. Second, that he was a scientist.”

For more information on the work of the Bob Moog Foundation–including details on how you can help–visit moogfoundation.org.

Album Review: Protomen – Act II: The Father of Death

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

This is a decidedly strange one. If you’re the sort of music enthusiast who feels that rock music has lost its over-the-top, bombastic edge since the passing of the era of such epics as Meat Loaf‘s immortal Bat out of Hell, then I’ve got some good news for you. If you’re looking for dance music, keep moving: nothing to hear, here.

The new Protomen release is entitled Act II – The Father of Death. Even before you remove the shrinkwrap of the glossy digipak, you’ll know you’re in for something a bit, er, different. High contrast comic book (or, shall we say, graphic novel) artwork adorns the package. It’s clearly telegraphed that the music within will lean more toward the angsty, doomy direction of The Dark Knight rather than say, Archie and his pals.

The music itself is the sort that requires the listener’s attention. Engaged, involved attention. There’s a story here, and if you just let the music wash over you, you’ll miss it. The enclosed libretto — and I use that pretentious term advisedly — will help keep you on the right page, so to speak.

Melodramatic, sweeping string arrangements and Spanish guitar weave in and out of a mix that’s largely dominated by spaghetti-western guitars and horns, and atop it all is a grizzled narrator. There is a distinct air of self-importance, of near-humorlessness about this music. Comedy it ain’t. The Protomen are swinging for the fences in their attempt to conjure up an epic vibe, and to the extent that such a thing is possible, they’re reasonably successful. Jim Steinman would be proud.

I could go on about individual tracks, but doing so would be akin to discussing a chapter in a novel: the songs are designed — for the most part — to be taken in context. Still, a few standout tracks do hold up quite ably on their own. “The Hounds” is a stunner. The unequivocal highlight of the disc, the song brings together all of the best qualities of the Protomen — punchy horns, wailing lead guitar, propulsive beat, melodrama — while not falling victim to the exposition/link track curse. Think of it as a cousin of The Wall‘s “Run Like Hell.” While much of the rest of Act II – The Father of Death has more in common with Pink Floyd‘s “The Trial” in that it exists primarily to move a narrative, “The Hounds” simply kicks, and kicks hard. And the track “Breaking Out” weds showy rock-opera style with plain old rock.

Those two songs alone are worth the price of admission. But if you don’t dig the narrative-heavy approach of the rest of the disc, you may find Act II – The Father of Death rough going. If you want to listen, if you’re up for a story with epic ambitions, then set aside some time to spend with the new album from the Protomen. If you simply want to rock, Act II – The Father of Death provides you with select — if not ample — opportunities to do so.

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Album Review: Terry Knight and the Pack / Reflections

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

The standard critical rap on Terry Knight and the Pack is that they’re historically significant primarily for what their members did after the group broke up. Musically they’re not given a lot of respect — primarily, the story goes — because of Knight’s shortcomings as a vocalist.

There’s some truth to both assertions, but stopping there sells the group short. Leader and vocalist Terry Knight did go on to a tumultuous career as manager (and later, persistent legal adversary) of Grand Funk Railroad, a group that included former Pack members Mark Farner (guitar) and Don Brewer (drums). And Knight wasn’t the strongest vocalist; indeed he occasionally found himself out of his depth on some Pack tunes.

But Terry Knight and the Pack were an important part of that Midwest scene that gave rise to The Rationals, MC5, ? and the Mysterians, the Stooges, the Amboy Dukes and many others. What these Michiganders all had in common was aggression in their music. While they all traveled in different styles, the common thread was a heavier take on rock music than was found in most other regions.

The Pack’s material was a mix of covers and thinly-veiled rewrites. But some historians simply expect too much of them. Were they as heavy as the Litter? Perhaps not. Did their covers of the Yardbirds (“Mister You’re a Better Man Than I”) and Rolling Stones (“Satisfaction”) measure up to the originals? They did not. But then neither did the acts compiled on such collections as 2131 South Michigan Avenue or the Trash Box always produce immortal music. And y’know what? Taken on its own terms — as opposed to measured against the output of major acts with longer careers — the music on the two albums Terry Knight and the Pack produced is pretty fine.

From a historical vantage point, those interested in hearing this music have — until quite recently — been dealt a pretty poor hand. Terry Knight and the Pack were signed by Cameo-Parkway, the Philadelphia based label that would eventually fall under the control of Allen Klein‘s ABKCO. Klein — a figure familiar to students of Rolling Stones and/or Beatles history — persisted in caching all of the C-P material in the vaults, frustrating music enthusiasts across the land.

Alas, the vaults are now opening. In 2010 Collectors’ Choice released a single CD combining the group’s 1966 self-titled LP with 1967′s Reflections. Across these two dozen sides, listeners will find a group that’s several notches above the garden variety garage bands immortalized on countless comps. And despite Knight’s alleged limitations as a singer (this is rock’n'roll after all, people), both albums find him attempting a wide variety of styles, many of them fairly ambitious.

For a stab at earnest yet gentle Youngbloods-styled folk rock, “A Change on the Way” is a credible effort, written by Knight himself. The Yardbirds cover features some pretty fiery guitar work, and a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Lady Jane” strikes just the right baroque rock vibe. And for fans of the Stones’ “Play With Fire,” there’s Knight’s “original” composition “I’ve Been Told.” It’s hard to believe he didn’t get sued for that one. But as shameless ripoffs go, it’s quality stuff.

Knight’s original “What’s On Your Mind” has the honor of inclusion on one of the most celebrated bootleg compilations of all time, Michigan Nuggets. It’s also a catchy tune.

The first album features classy string arrangements and effective augmenting instrumentation. If you can get past the spoken intro to the cover of “I (Who Have Nothing)” the group turns in a suitably melodramatic rendering of the song.

Reflections kicks off somewhat ill-advisedly with “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show,” a number more of the sort one might expect from Kim Fowley. The second album takes an approach that’s both heavier and more refined at once. The waltz “Come With Me” is built around a piano figure punctuated with tambourine and acoustic guitar picking. The Barri-Sloan composition “This Precious Time” is immediately recognizable as that composing team’s sort of song. Though it is more than a bit reminiscent of We Five‘s “You Were On My Mind” — and while it may well have been hit-bound had it been instead recorded by (for example) the Turtles — in the Pack’s hands it’s still a pleasing performance.

Listeners with a fairly comprehensive knowledge of the era’s pop music can have a fun time playing spot-the-source on Knight’s rewrites — it’s easy from the title alone to guess who “Dimestore Debutante” rips off — but they shouldn’t let that get in the way of enjoying plain old good songs. “Dirty Lady” takes a scoop of Donovan and stirs in Spanish flamenco stylings, and Knight shows that while his voce isn’t world-beating, he had admirable vocal control.

And the highlight of the whole set — “Love Goddess of the Sunset Strip” — is a sexy slice of exploito-grooviness: “yeah yeah” indeed. The fake Theremin is a hoot. Reflections makes occasional use of horn charts on songs like “The Train,” but overall the second LP comes off more like a self-contained band effort. Even “Satisfaction” is given an ambitious Vanilla Fudge-meets-Motown arrangement.

The CCM reissue is sourced from the master tapes, but fidelity isn’t anything to get excited about. The fault (as such) lies almost certainly with the original production by Knight. It’s not distracting, but neither is it on a par with the sound quality turned out by the major studios of the day.

Anyone interested in Midwest rock of the 1960s should give Terry Knight and the Pack / Reflections a spin. Ultimately, it’s worthwhile for its historical importance (and rarity) alone, but it’s also some perfectly good second-string rock music from that classic era.

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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.