Archive for June, 2010

Album Review: Various – Through a Faraway Window – A Tribute to Jimmy Silva

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

Tribute albums are a curious beast, the sort of enterprise that can conjure up the cynical suspicion of reviewers. Oftentimes tribute compilations are populated by hipsters or au courant acts, and the subject of said tribute is an artist who’s back on the radar screen for one or another reason. In short, more often than not tribute discs are cash-in projects that fail to offer much in the way of interest, relevance or — most critical of all — musical enjoyment.

There does exist the odd exception. And I’m happy to report that Through a Faraway Window: A Tribute to Jimmy Silva is such an exception. Now, chances are — unless you’re a hardcore aficionado of Northwest powerpop acts — Silva’s name is unfamiliar to you. If you’re a liner notes reader with excellent taste and a photographic memory, you might recall Silva’s name as composer of the song “Hand of Glory,” covered by The Smithereens on their 1986 LP Especially for You.

But as it turns out, Jimmy Silva had more going for him than merely placing a song on a ‘Reens album. And most of the artists that appear on Through a Faraway Window have a connection to Silva; they’re fans, but not merely fans of his work. Jimmy Silva played and recorded back in the 70s and 80s with — variously — Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows), Dennis Diken (Smithereens) and Sal Valentino (Beau Brummels). These artists and many others all contribute to this album, and it’s a labor of love. The excellent liner notes by DJ Jud Cost give a good overview of Silva’s life and career, and help put him and his work in a context that will introduce him well to fans of the other (more well-known) artists on the album. Cost is adept and successful at painting a word picture of Silva as a talented, gentle soul who was ill at ease onstage.

The acts on Through a Faraway Window cover Silva’s music — he released several albums himself and as such had a fairly deep catalog — in their own inimitable styles, yet there’s a sonic thread running throughout the album’s nearly thirty tracks. Cost nails it when he writes, “[Silva] sounds like a red-blooded (or melancholy) combination of the Byrds, the Beau Brummels and R.E.M. with, of course, enough of something uniquely his own to make it all work. That spells folk-rock in my book.”

And indeed it does. “I’ve Got Time” by the Flywheels (featuring Silva’s friend and former bandmate Kim Wonderley) strikes a vibe halfway between the Bangles and Brummels. John Wesley Harding‘s emotive reading of “Need I Know” sounds like a slightly less baroque Left Banke. And on it goes: each artist manages the challenging feat of interpreting Silva’s song in their own way, remaining true to the original musical idea while maintaining their own musical personality in the process.

A few off-the-cuff audio vérité snippets of Silva himself are included, and while they’re amusing and homespun, they don’t show Silva to great effect. But that’s not their point.

The album certainly rocks hard in places. Roy Loney (Phantom Movers, Flamin Groovies) tears it up on Silva’s “Big House,” a song that shows that Silva was — like most of his friends — a fiendish Kinks fan. (The song is a close sonic relative of the Kinks’ “Hard Way” from their 1975 LP The Kinks Present Schoolboys in Disgrace.) But that rocking is starkly contrasted by the clip-clop country stylings of Christy McWilson‘s “Man of the Cloth.” And Chris Eckman‘s “Doesn’t Matter at All” sounds a lot like moody, atmospheric Kerosene Man-era Steve Wynn. Freddie Steady Krc‘s “Tin Whistle and a Wooden Drum” nails the 90s jangle-powerpop revival aesthetic to lovely effect. The point of mentioning these tracks is to get across the idea that Silva’s writing talents covered a lot of territory. And from the quotes in the liner notes and the care that went into the tribute tracks, it’s clear he was loved and is missed.

Silva contracted chicken pox — thought of as a childhood malady but often fatal to adults — and died in 1994. Through a Faraway Window is a fitting tribute, one that may well send listeners searching for his original material, found on four albums released between the mid 80s and shortly after his untimely passing at age 42.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

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

Album Review: Various Artists – Remember Me Baby

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

Cameo Parkway was a Philadelphia-based record label with a heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. While the label enjoyed some success in the album era with artists like Chubby Checker and ? and the Mysterians, Cameo Parkway is more often thought of as a singles label. And C-P released a great deal of what can best be termed R&B vocal (“doo-wop” is a too-limiting and ever-so-slightly pejorative term for the genre).

Precious few Cameo Parkway sides have made it into the digital age; label owner Allen Klein resolutely refused to put out any of the music (for reasons never made clear), and as such the C-P material commanded exorbitant prices on the collectors’market.

Thing is, sometimes collectors push up the market value of old records for extramusical reasons. Let’s face it: some things are rare because nobody was interested the first time around. But that is clearly not the case here. With cooperation from ABKCO (the late Klein’s company), Collectors’ Choice is handling the rollout of Cameo Parkway vault material. The promisingly-titled Remember Me Baby: Cameo Parkway Vocal Groups Vol. 1 collects two dozen songs in shockingly high fidelity onto a single disc.

True, a lot of the material included does fall under what many would call doo-wop tag, but stylistically the music covers an admirably wide musical landscape. Vocals (of the tightly-arranged sort) are always the primary focus, but there’s plenty of playing. You’ll even hear the occasional sax solo (“I Don’t Want Your Love” by Rick and the Masters) and groovy combo organ (the Dovells‘ raucous, clap-happy “Short on Bread”).

Only the most dedicated vocal R&B aficionado will recognize most of the artists included on Remember Me Baby, and the same goes (to a slightly lesser extent) for the songs. But the tracks (which span 1958-65) are of fairly high quality. The overall vibe is decidedly upbeat. And these tracks, while semi-obscure, clearly enjoyed influence beyond Philly. The Gleems‘ “Sandra Baby” sounds like a prototype for Frank Zappa‘s Cruising With Ruben and the Jets album.

There’s the occasional bit of subsonic rumble or odd sound leakage, but in general the digital transfers (from the original masters) are nothing short of amazing. Even vinyl purists will be forced to admit the undeniable sonic brilliance of this set. This reviewer hasn’t heard the original vinyls of most of these songs, but it’s a safe bet that you’ll hear things on the new set you could merely imagine on the vinyl. It’s that good.

The liner notes pack a dizzying amount of information into a limited space, and as such they’re a bit difficult to wade through: there’s just too much information to read as such. But listeners should be grateful for the amount of research that went into the project. Best to think of the liner notes more as a reference than an accompanying essay.

Anyone with an interest in R&B and in possession of an open mind is advised to check out Remember Me Baby. For this album’s hearing to be limited to doo-wop aficionados would be a tragedy and a waste. Here’s looking forward to many more volumes in the series.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

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

Album Review: The Milk and Honey Band – Dog Eared Moonlight

Monday, June 28th, 2010

Dog Eared MoonlightIt would be a mistake to get overly caught up in the packaging of Dog Eared Moonlight, the most recent release from the Milk and Honey Band. But it’s difficult (if not impossible) to come away unimpressed by the obvious care and effort that went into the design of the album. The gatefold digipak (no plastic) reproduces the look and feel of a pre-LP-era record album (so named because they were an “album” of several records). It feels like a book as well. The weathered, worn and stained look of the album makes it feel like it’s been in your collection for years.

And it has a sound to match. According to Andy Partridge (XTC), leader Robert White has a voice “not too dissimilar to Justin Hayward. Two streets away from him,” Partridge quips. He goes on to describe the band’s sound as “a bit like The Who with acoustic guitar. Or, almost like the Moody Blues, but with more fire.”

And how can all that that not be a good thing? Well, if White and his bandmates produced pedestrian songs, it wouldn’t matter. The tracks are firmly rooted in a pop tradition, but they’re ambitious and varied as well. Soaring harmonies sit comfortably atop aggressive, syncopated arrangement of “Incredible Visions.” And the prominent use of acoustic guitar as the rhythmic element keeps the song (and the album) from slipping into too-rocky territory.

There’s that pastoral English wonderment that one can find on XTC albums. And while The Milk and Honey Band sound not a bit like Swindon’s finest, Andy Partridge’s Ape label is responsible for signing the group and releasing their albums. “People send me stuff, and then 99.9% of it goes back ’round the charity shop,” Partridge told me in 2007. “And then occasionally you put something on and you go, ‘Wow! This is so good! These people aren’t signed? It’s a crime!’ It’s a selfish thing: If it gives me goosebumps, I’m interested.”

“Waste of Time” induces the aforementioned cutis anserina. It covers all the bases: lilting verses, soaring power-chording choruses. And a sharp hook. “Maryfaith Autumn” sports an ambitious melody that relies on a longish string of notes, yet it’s accessible and endearing.

And “Absolutely Wrong” is absolutely right in its breezy use of na-na-na vocals. “No World at All” weds sessioner B.J. Cole‘s pedal steel to a waltzing melody, resulting in a feel not far removed from George Harrison‘s All Things Must Pass crossed with, say, Poco. And thoughtful, pensive lyrics like “no grand epiphanies / no big surprise” make the album worthy of a closer listen. And things really cut loose on “What You really Need.” There’s even a tasteful wah-wah guitar solo (in this case that phrase isn’t an oxymoron) on the album closer, “Flowers.” White has professed a fondness for the variety found on albums like the Beatles‘ white album, and he’s certainly brought that sensibility to the songs on Dog Eared Moonlight.

It’s been several years since the group’s excellent The Secret Life of the Milk and Honey Band was released, but thankfully White reports that the next full-length In Colour (from the same sessions that yielded Dog Eared Moonlight) won’t be so long in coming.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

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.

A Conversation with Felix Cavaliere and Steve Cropper (part two)

Friday, June 25th, 2010

(Continued from Part One)

Bill Kopp / Musoscribe: There’s a lick on the title track that sounds a lot like the break on Sam & Dave‘s “Soul Man.” Was that a subtle nod to Steve’s past, or am I just hearing things?

Felix Cavaliere: [laughs heartily] You’ll have to ask Steve about that! It’s kinda like, “whoops — you can’t miss that one, can you?” But at least he did it. It’s really interesting working with another artist. It’s like walking between towers: you have to walk gently.

Steve Cropper: It was intentional; you’re right about that. It was meant to remind people. Even though that song is played on the radio twenty times every day, it’s been a looong time since that song was out. So it’s just bringing people’s attention to the fact that that’s what I’m known for, that’s what I do. So why not do it now.

Bill: Both of you have long, illustrious and critically-acclaimed careers. How – if at all — does having that behind you affect this project? What I mean is, do you perceive any pressure to create something extra special because people know they can expect taste and quality from you? Or do those sorts of outside concerns not really factor in?

Felix: I welcome the pressure. Because it kind of gives you a quality level to try and achieve. As a matter of fact, I don’t feel like I really achieved that level on the first album. Everything you do goes into your legacy. And it’s easy to make junk. Anybody can do that. It’s the difference between a sketch and a painting. We worked really hard; I spent a lot of hours on this album, and enjoyed every moment of it. We both feel like we’re really lucky, really fortunate to be able to make music at this time in our lives.

Steve: It’s always on my mind. We don’t want to put out a bunch of junk. There’s two thought-waves on this. First, obviously you don’t want to get egg on your face for doing something that’s less than par. But it’s also in the back of our minds that, hey, age is what it is, but we still have a youthful attitude toward music. We both perform with energy; we’re not a couple guys sitting up there in chairs, y’know. If you listen to this record, Felix still sounds like he’s coming out of his teens!

Bill: Felix, you’re 65. But your vocals sound every bit as strong as ever. Seriously, I don’t hear that sort of darkening of tone that vocals often take on after fifty at all in your voice. Do you do any sort of “working out” (so to speak) for your vocals, or do the live dates do enough to keep you in form?

Felix: The live dates really do make a difference. You can’t stop, and then try to start again. That’s the thing; that’s when time takes over. And there’s also a tremendous amount of good luck involved; I’ll be honest with you. You’ve got to take care of it, nurture it.

Bill: Steve, you left the original Stax back in 1970, I believe. Now with Concord’s ownership of the Stax catalog, that body of work – including you, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes and many others — seems to be getting handled in a pretty thoughtful, respectful and market-oriented manner. And you’re back on Stax. So are you pleased with Concord’s handling of the older Stax material? How involved are you in any of those reissues – things like Stax Does the Beatles and such?

Steve: Concord was already viable, and they did the best thing that they could, which was to buy the Stax catalog. They bought it from Fantasy, who had bought it from Atlantic and kept it alive for years and years and years. For Concord to pick it up was a good thing. When they called me up and said, “Concord wants to reactivate the Stax label” – meaning that instead of just releasing old catalog stuff, they wanted to bring in new artists, and do production, and put out new albums – I said “If they go about it with the same integrity that we did, about quality, and try to get the music to the listening ear, regardless of the age of the fan base, they might be successful at it.” They’ve still got to prove it, but it’s got a chance.

The problem today is airplay: How are you going to get this stuff played? We get hours and hours of airplay every day on the Stax catalog. But in that genre of oldies-but-goodies — we’re on the Weather Channel; you name it, we’re on it – they don’t play the new stuff. Several years back, Booker T & the MGs did our last record that was on Columbia (1994’s That’s the Way It Should Be), and we found it at Tower Records in the oldies-but-goodies section! I said, “Guys, we’re not winnin’ anything here. We’re supposed to be on a billboard out front that says ‘Hear the latest from Booker T & the MGs, the guys with hits like “Green Onions”’ and stuff like that. And instead they put us in the back of the room, in the oldies section!” We didn’t win.

Bill: There’s less up-front Hammond organ on this album that people might expect — at least people who are familiar with you guys primarily through the Rascals or Booker T & the MGs. Was it a conscious decision to craft a sound that wasn’t overly reminiscent of your 60s-era groups, or is the vibe of the album sort of organically a product of where you are musically these days?

Felix: When you play a keyboard today — as opposed to when you played a keyboard back in the 60s – there’s a tremendous difference in what’s available to you. The electronics today are magic. In the old days, for example, just to bend a note was impossible. You could not bend a note, unless you did some sort of electronic tape manipulation. Nowadays you can bend notes, you can go in between the tones to fatten up your sound. It’s incredible. So with all due respect to the Hammond Organ company — which is owned by a Japanese company now anyway – I’ve kind of moved on.

Bill: So when you play live, that’s not a B3?

Felix: Onstage I use a B3 and a modern Korg to produce other sounds. The Hammond has a basis in a pad: it blends very well with vocals, with horns. And it has sort of a rhythmic aspect to it with the Leslie spinning. But it’s limited as to other things it can do. I’d much rather play a synthesizer in a studio, and then a Hammond live.

Bill:
I’ve never played any keyboard that got the “waterfall” action right like on a Hammond. You try and do a glissando, you’ll cut your hand on anything else.

Felix:  No question. The action on a Hammond is magic. But you know, that company had no clue what they had. They came out of Chicago, and they had no idea this thing was going to be one of the most soulful instruments in the world. And then this other company – Leslie – came along. And without a Leslie, a Hammond sounds horrible! But the Hammond people initially objected to the Leslie. Hammond would take the franchise license away from dealers who sold the Leslie. Eventually they bought Leslie. But I’d say to the Hammond people, “Okay, you made a great instrument, but you had no idea what you were doing.” And of course they stopped making them in 1972. Talk about an oldie-but-goodie! If you don’t find one that’s in good shape, they can be pretty bad.

But I never really felt like Hammond did anything for me beyond giving me an instrument to play. A lot of guitar companies, for example, really nurture their contacts, their players. So I don’t really have any love lost with the Hammond company. I love the instrument, but y’know what? I have a better relationship with Korg. They’ve helped me out over the years; they’ve let me try new stuff. So I’m really an exponent of the more modern stuff, with due respect to all the organ aficionados out there.

Bill: The impression I get is that Midnight Flyer was a relaxed, nothing-to-prove project for you guys. There’s plenty of spotlight given to backing vocalists, the bass parts, sax, etc. What I mean is that you guys aren’t all over the record with your own solos and stuff. Again, was that by design?

Steve: We didn’t approach it as “Let’s show ‘em what we can do,” or “This is an education in music.” We were just having a good time. Lyrically and hookwise, I think there’s more to this album than there was with the last one.

Bill: The album closer “Do It Like This” really rips it up, pulls out all the stops. For me, it could have gone on a lot longer. You seem to sort of know that people would want that, and the clip of Felix saying “that’s it” at the end is almost a playful sticking-your-tongue out  at the listeners, sort of like ending a concert on a high note so that people will really want to come back and see you next time.

Felix: You remember the record “Watusi?” It had talking behind it. That was my intent. But that song had a really weird creation. It started off as a vocal number. Jon Tiven was involved – in fact that’s the only song he was involved in – they put a vocal on it, and I hated it. So I said, “Let’s turn this thing into an instrumental.” Because it’s a cool instrumental. It has so much life to it. And the song wasn’t really a planned thing. It was more of a last-minute thing.

Steve: The original edit was a lot longer. Felix got in there with Tom Hambridge and edited it down, and I said fine. It’s sort of like the old days when songs weren’t over three minutes long. And I’ll tell you something – it ain’t a secret – in the old days if anyone got onto us that the song was too long, we’d just erase the time and put “2:59” on the label. Then we never had a problem getting played.

In the sixties, I was around radio. That’s all I did in my waking hours. And I noticed that disc jockeys always talked over a record until the singer started singing. And I decided, “I’m gonna try my damnedest to do something about that.” So I started making intros as powerful – more powerful — than the first verse. Like “In the Midnight Hour,” “Soul Man.” You can’t talk over it! It’s louder than you are! The disc jockeys would come to me and say, “Man, that intro of yours, it’s almost as good as the song.” I didn’t tell them that they were my inspiration! Those intros usually had nothing to do with the rest of the song. They were music outside of music.

Bill: So should we look forward to more Steve Cropper / Felix Cavaliere collaborative albums?

Felix: When Concord asked us to do a second album, I was absolutely thrilled. For somebody that wants to make music in 2010, it’s such an honor. So I would certainly welcome it. There are so many people in Nashville, and across the country, and around the world that would be thrilled to know that somebody actually wants to hear their music.

Steve: I took it very personally that Concord felt after the last one that they wanted another one. I got excited about it. And we’ll probably do another one anyway; we won’t wait for any kind of demand or anything. We just enjoy working together.

Bill: Steve, Felix has contrasted the subject matter of many songwriters with the more upbeat material the two of you wrote for these albums.

Steve:  A lot of deep songwriters – obviously they’re very good – in their lyrics, they’re projecting what’s going on with them. Local events, or things in their lives. I’ve been through that so many times, working with artists that just broke up with their girlfriend or their wife. They’re down and out, and they just want to write these sad things. And it’s like, “Oh, my lord. These are some pitiful songs!” And I have to sit through that. I want to say, “Man, can you write something that will get everybody up and dancing?” They’re just not in the mood for that, and I understand that. If you’re not feeling good, it’s kinda hard to throw that aside and pretend that everything else is great.

But I don’t think Felix and I have a problem like that. We look at each other, and we smile, and we just go for it. When somebody starts a groove, we just sort of contribute to it, rather than saying, “I don’t like that. I don’t feel like that groove today.” If that’s what the groove is, we just try to write something around it. Making everybody feel good is what it’s all about. The first album did that, and I hope the new one does that as well. The music makes us feel good, and we hope it makes other people feel good.


Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

A Conversation with Felix Cavaliere and Steve Cropper (Part One)

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

Felix Cavaliere and Steve Cropper are among the most highly respected names in pop music. As guitarist and producer for the legendary Stax house band Booker T & the MGs, Cropper appeared on hundreds of essential soul and R&B tracks. Cropper played with Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Albert King, Eddie Floyd, the Blues Brothers…the list goes on and on. His signature licks are among the most iconic and recognizable in all of music. Felix Cavaliere founded the (Young) Rascals in 1964, and throughout that decade that group gave the British Invasion a run for its money with an impressive string of hits featuring Cavaliere’s soulful voice and distinctive Hammond B3 organ work.

If these musicians had chosen to retire in, say, the 1970s, their reputations would be secure for all time.  But fortunately, both artists have continued to record and tour. Cropper remains a frequent contributor to others’ albums, and continues to work with Booker T & the MGs. And Cavaliere fronts his band (called Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals) for dates across the country. In 2008 these two men decided to record an album together, and that Grammy-nominated success of that album led to 2010’s Midnight Flyer. On the even of the new album’s release, I took the opportunity to speak at length with both of them.


Bill Kopp / Musoscribe: You both come from soul backgrounds. How aware were you of each other’s work back in the 1960s? Did you ever share a bill, or did your paths otherwise cross at all back then?

Felix Cavaliere:  The Atlantic group was like a big family. Quite different from the other record companies in existence at that time, it was closer, more akin to the Motown family. Steve would come to New York quite frequently. If you look at the recording history, you’ll see that Booker T & the MGs did “Groovin’” and had a hit with it as well. Some of the other songs we had done in our live show, they had taken those songs and done instrumentals. So there’s been a relationship – more on a business than on a personal level – between Steve and myself and those guys for at least forty years.

Steve Cropper: Being exposed to radio, being a radio nut, my whole career was not based on trying to impress people with music; it was based on trying to get hit records. The whole indoctrination of Stax records was to get the next chart hit record. Whether it’d be on the R&B charts, the pop charts, whatever. Stax was a singles label to some degree, and so too was Atlantic in those days. Even though they released tons and tons of albums, they really wanted those hit singles from their artists. That’s how we came to work with Wilson Pickett. Because of the connection with Atlantic – -with them being Stax’s distributor – I got to be really good friends with [producer] Tom Dowd. Tom had produced everybody — from the Drifters to Ray Charles to you-name-it. And he really made me aware of these guys The Rascals.

We were all aware that blue-eyed soul in those days just didn’t sell all that much, y’know? But there seemed to be some taste for it, and these guys out of New Jersey and New York just had a way with that kind of music. It worked for ‘em. But it didn’t work down South so much. We had a few one-hit wonders — Roy Head and people like that – but most of ‘em never made it past their one hit. I’ve always had a respect for Felix. Our connection came through the Northwest Allstar Band. We did that and realized how much fun we had working together. And we discovered how close the audiences are – people that like his music and like our music.

Bill: How did you come to work with each other? I know you both live in Nashville, but I’m guessing that there’s more to it than that.

Felix: Nashville is a Mecca for people who write songs. It’s like a daily thing here that people get together and come up with new ideas, new songs. Then of course we have all of the studios for people to demo the songs. Jon Tiven had just moved to town, and he said, “why don’t you guys get together and do an album” We said, “We’re on two different labels, but we’d love to write together.” So basically we got together as a writing entity. We started writing, started having a blast. We starting recording it and it started sounding pretty good.

These recordings were demos for songwriters, primarily. Time went by, due to the fact that we’re both working musicians on the road. So it took a little longer. At the end of the day, we had about ten songs that Jon Tiven heard, and he said, “We gotta sell this stuff! We gotta get it out there!”

Steve: Jon Tiven said, “Maybe you should put this stuff out yourselves, instead of trying to shop it to other artists.”

Felix: Neither of us really had any aspirations of it doing anything [commercially], especially in today’s musical climate. But, why not?! And sure enough, it happened.

Steve: I said to Jon, “We don’t have a record deal. And I’ve pretty much had it with all that. The MGs can’t get one, the Rascals can’t get one. How are we gonna get one?” He said, “Let me get to work on it.” So he went out and got us a deal with Concord.

Felix: With the first one (Nudge it Up a Notch) we got great reviews, and we got a Grammy nomination. So when they asked us to do a second one, it was just a tremendous lift, you know?

Bill: You’re both inextricably associated with soul music. How would you describe the difference between Steve’s Memphis style and Felix’s New York sound? Or is there an appreciable difference?

Felix:  There’s a definite difference. Steve’s roots are Southern, blues-based, and that wonderful vernacular that they have down south lyrically. Mine comes from a classical and jazz root; that’s basically the difference. It’s really the big difference between the east coast and the south. And when it joins together, there’s a certain quaintness about it that you can’t quite put your finger on. For example, when we come up with a title, the things that Steve comes up with are so different, because they’re kind of southern-based words. And that’s been kind of a cool centerpiece for music since rock’n’roll started.

Steve: At the root of the music, I don’t think there is a lot of difference. It’s rhythm-based music, and the overall projection of it is good music. Even if it’s a medium-tempo ballad, it’s about feeling good. It’s not tear-jerkin’ stuff. We had “Dock of the Bay,” which is medium-tempo, and he had “Groovin.’” And both of those songs have that soulful quality that makes you feel good inside. People relate to it, and it makes you feel better as you go through your daily routine. And of course the Rascals did a version of “In the Midnight Hour,” which is a nice connection. So I think Felix and I just automatically read each other’s minds. Without saying so, we have the same sort of direction.

Bill: How – if in any way – do you think that Midnight Flyer differs from Nudge it Up a Notch? I see that both David Z and Tom Hambridge are involved again…

Steve: I think this album has a little more serious direction musically. The last one was more simple. These songs are more thought out. And I think this record has more keyboard influence in it than the last record did. Felix’s voice is still there, of course. I’m not saying he’s playing more on this album; it’s that there’s more keyboard influence in the root of the writing of the songs. The last album was based more on the guitar chugging along. On the last one, I was in on the writing of every song. On this one I wasn’t on every single one. And I think that’s kind of a good thing. It opened it up. It was kind of fun for me to come in and lay down guitar on something I hadn’t heard before.

Bill: About your approach to writing these songs. Did you each bring pieces of songs to the project and then finish them together, or did you write in the studio, or what?

Felix: One of the things that we’ve done with this album that is kind of different for us, is that we’ve used Apple Logic loops. We went into a studio that Steve used to own, and we wrote in the studio. Basically, we had an invisible drummer that came in from the computer, and we had a keyboard and a guitar. And then Tom Hambridge — who’s a great writer as well as a great musician – co-wrote with the two of us on almost all of the songs. So we literally wrote the songs on the spot. We’d come in with some ideas, and what I did was bring mine in on the computer. So instead of it being merely a verbal idea, it was something I could present.

And it’s really a lot of fun like that. In the old, old days, you used to have the luxury of writing in the studio. Unless you have your own studio nowadays, that’s impossible. But if you do have [access to a studio], you can do that. And it’s a whole lot of fun. First of all, it sounds a lot better as you’re doing it. And you get this kind of “excitement of the hunt.”

Bill: I hadn’t thought about that. In a way, modern technology allows musicians to go back to the tried-and-true method of writing in the studio.

Felix: As you get older, people can’t afford the time to sit around jamming like they used to do. So we have a drummer that doesn’t need to take a break, ‘cause he’s in the computer! That’s really where this technology can come into successful use. And the plethora of ideas that come from those loops – where do they even come from? Even the title Midnight Flyer: that came from one of the Apple loops. The ideas came from guitar, harmonica, drum loops. I can tell you, if I hadn’t heard some of those loops, I would have never written a song like that. Loops totally inspired the whole thing. In the old days, you would experience the idea by traveling to New Orleans; nowadays you can basically do that on the computer! Not as much fun as going to New Orleans, but…[laughs].

The software that I’ve purchased for this is just magnificent. There’s a program called Sonisphere by a company called Spectrasonics. They have expended so much time creating sounds that you would never even have heard of. For example, they took pianos, and recorded the sound of them burning! So you hear strings snapping. What they’ve done in the music field, is that they’ve taken these sounds that sound eerie, and they’ve made it so that we can play them. So there are some really weird sounds in there. I just love it. But of course we can’t get too modern. If we get too modern, we’ll get panned. We’re two oldies-but-goodies guys who are keeping our roots as much as we can, while using modern technology.

Bill: Yeah, you don’t want to make something that gets dated, where in five years people will say, “Oh, that’s so 2010.”

Felix: Yeah, whatever that means. I don’t know if we’ll still be making music in five years!

Bill: Have there been – or will there be – any live dates, any performances of these songs? If not, did sort of knowing that you wouldn’t be playing these live have any effect on your songwriting and/or arrangement?

Felix: We haven’t to date. But I certainly do hope we do something live. It would certainly take some organization, because we are two separate entities. To bring those together is certainly possible; we just need an excuse. Something like a showcase, or an event where people would like to have us play. We could work it together really quickly.

Steve: If we get forced into it, holy shit. It’s scarin’ my pants off. Because, at my age, having to learn a whole new routine…but it can be done. It’s not a problem. What I’ve done with bands in the past – Jimmy Buffett, Neil Young, Dave Edmunds, you name it – I have to learn their catalog of songs. And even in the old days it took some work. Music fans think — since you wrote it, and you played on the recording, and you’re the artist who did it — that you know it like the back of your hand. And it’s not necessarily true, especially in the old days at Stax. I’d say, “You know what? We’ve cut a hundred and fifty songs since we cut that one.” So I know it, but I’d need to re-learn it, just like anybody else.

But it would be a fun challenge to put something together. And I’ve always envisioned that if Felix and I ever did go out together, he could do Felix and the Rascals stuff, and I could do Booker T stuff, and Blues Brothers stuff. And then he and I could present, “How would you guys like to hear a couple things we’ve collaborated on.” We wouldn’t promote the show as just the new record; it would be deeper than that. I think people that would come to see us would want to hear our hits as well. That’s just me. There would never be a dull moment, that’s for sure.

In Part Two Steve Cropper owns up to lifting a lick from a popular song, Felix Cavaliere reveals that he’s not all that crazy about Hammond B3s, and the two consider what a potential Cropper/Cavaliere gig might be like.

The Jason Falkner Interview: Part Three

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

(continued from Part Two)

Jason Falkner: The Early Years
And the fun of making records is a theme to which Jason Falkner often returns. Like many artists who have their own singular identifiable talent, he’s a big music fan. Falkner is a major student of pop music. Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than on his collection of covers From the cover songs of the second disc of Everyone Says It’s On (2001). His cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” in particular, is brilliant. And its inclusion suggests that young Falkner’s musical education was rather broad.

“I had a very eclectic, interesting upbringing,” he admits. “First of all, when I was very, very young — three, four, five years old — I had a tiny turntable. And my dad, who’s an artist, thankfully had some very interesting albums. He had Piper At the Gates Of Dawn and he had a couple of Love records. He had Crosby Stills Nash & Young‘s Déjà Vu, he had some mid-period Procol Harum, and he also had records by people like Taj Mahal and experimental people like Steve Reich and Terry Riley, so I grew up with that. Those were my first impressions. I was a little tiny kid listening to Syd Barrett!”

“And that,” he says, “is quite a powerful thing to unleash on a completely malleable mind. A little bookmobile came to school when I was a little kid, and I went ‘I want Beach Boys.’ I had heard the Beach Boys on the radio, and it was such an immediate kinship with that music. So I got Endless Summer (1974), the double LP retrospective, at the bookmobile! And that was when I was six years old.”

But listening was only part of the equation. Falkner’s formal musical training began early as well. “I started classical piano lessons when I was five — because I guess I showed a real proclivity to piano — and so I was in some pretty intense classical piano training from about age seven until I quit when around 15 or 16. So that is an influence that can’t be ignored, really.”

Not,” he laughs, “that I’m doing baroque pop music or anything like that. But it’s an undertone that will always be there. And it also has to do with the way that I arrange, and the way I hear countermelody and all that stuff. I was just indebted to all of that classical music that I was just choking on. You know, I had to practice every single day for nine years.”

So take equal parts early pop music fandom, classical piano studies, and…FM rock. Falkner mentions “Heart, of course Led Zeppelin, and even early Van Halen. I mean, the first Boston record, I love that one…I love that one…I had it on 8-track, and then my sister — who’s a couple of years older — had a boyfriend who actually turned me on to a lot of stuff. He had a friggin’ 8-track that you could record compilation 8-tracks.”

But there was yet another piece of the puzzle, provided by that guy with the 8-track machine. “He had this mysterious device, and he compilation tapes for my sister. And he gave her one that was just basically a ‘New Wave happening’. Elvis Costello, Squeeze, Joe Jackson, Blondie, the B-52s. And oh, I hated that when I first heard it. Because it just didn’t have the big, fat sort of guitars that I had liked. I knew it was the antithesis of the whole kind of arena-rock kind of vibe, definitely.  But one day my sister was just playing the tape, and Elvis Costello came on. I said, ‘Holy shit! That’s speaking to me way more than any of this hard rock.’ I just totally totally got it one day. Then I got into my odyssey of very obscure English art new wave, or what I call ‘expelled hard-rock.’ Essential Logic, the Monochrome Set, the Fall.”

Songs by some of those artists crop up on Falkner’s Everyone Says It’s On, a highlight of which is “Song From Under the Floorboards,” originally by Magazine. Falkner says that “Magazine just ripped my head off. And Howard Devoto, what an anti-singer. Magazine is like a Martian soundtrack, and yet it rocks and is totally jagged and angular.”

Falkner’s musical likes seem driven not by when they came out, or how popular they were (or weren’t), but rather simply by quality. “You know, it’s weird,” he observes. “I discovered punk and new wave, and then went back and really got into ’60′s garage and then ’70′s garage, and then got really into the obscure 70′s rock bands like Sky, and things like that. I never really trusted what was put in front of me by ‘the machine.’ Because I know The Machine and I know the people who run the machine. Idiots!”

Falkner has developed his own theory about influential musical artists. “You’ve got to dig really deep to find the stuff that’s influencing the stuff that’s widespread. Behind most musical trends and scenes, there are the pioneers who are influencing the pioneers of that scene. Often for every band that became influential, there was another band they saw and they said, ‘We wanna be like them!’ They’d be a collective of people who would be bold enough to say ‘I’m gonna rip them off!’ And they’d also have the personality type that is going to ensure that they’re successful. They’re gonna do anything it takes by any means necessary to beat everyone. It’s competitiveness that I think most people who are ‘innovators’ actually possess. Real innovators are too busy innovating. They’re too busy with their head in the clouds creating the magic.”

Working with Sir Paul
Speaking of magic, in 2005 producer Nigel Godrich called Falkner to ask him if he’d be interested in doing some session work. Falkner and Godrich had worked together before – Godrich produced Can You Still Feel? — so they were very familiar with each other’s abilities and work habits. Falkner picks up the story. “Nigel called and said, ‘I’m producing Paul McCartney, and I would love it if you could come down and be around the whole time and play guitar. I’m thinking about tracking with just a trio, you and Paul and Jim Gadson (Beck, Bill Withers).’ He’s a bad-ass. So that was the trio.”

Falkner’s most recent album at the time was his Bedtime With the Beatles (2001). He recalls, “A girl who worked at Sony was at a party in New York, and she overheard Stella McCartney talking about Bedtime With the Beatles. This girl told Stella that she worked at Sony. Stella said, ‘yeah, I love that Bedtime With the Beatles.’  She said, ‘I’m going to send it to my Dad.’ So a few years later when we were in the studio, I was thinking ‘maybe there’s a chance Paul knows that, and would recognize that that’s me.’ But he didn’t know about it.”

Falkner continues the story. “After the second day I had the CD in my pocket, and I was waiting for the moment when I would feel comfortable enough around him that I would say, ‘hey, check out what I did!’ And I also thought, ‘I want to give this to him with enough time so that if he does listen to it I can get his reaction.’ I didn’t want to give it to him on the last day. What — he’s gonna call me? So I gave it to him and he said ‘Ah, yes!’  And I said, ‘Yeah, man, I did it in the same studio where we are right now. I played every instrument, mixed it, produced it myself and all that stuff. What you think?’ I told him that I know there’s so many of those posthumous Beatle things, and that this is not one of those. This was done with a different attitude.”

“And he freaked out!” Falkner gushes. “I didn’t see him for about five days, and I came back into the studio and he was just ‘Bedtime With the Beatles, then. Nice one!’ And then he would not stop talking about it. He’d say to people, ‘You oughtta hear this guy!’ He told me to my face that he was flattered that I made this record and he said, ‘You probably know our stuff better than we did.’ It was amazing.”

“Then I saw him a couple of months later, at a listening party for the record. Just me, Paul, James Gadson, and the president of Capitol Records. And we’re listening to the record, and the president of Capitol Records starts brown-nosing — you know, ‘Best thing since Ram’  and all this stuff. Then Paul said, ‘I was in New York with Heather, in a friend’s boutique. Bedtime With the Beatles came on the speakers and I ran up to my friend and I said “I know him!”’ And the president of Capitol looks at me and says, ‘Holy shit!’ And I’m like, ‘I know! He’s excited to know that he knows me?’  You know, and it’s outrageous. It’s unforgettable. It’s life-changing. Paul sent me a really sweet note that I still have hung up on my wall. And it said ‘I’m enjoying Bedtime With the Beatles between naps.’ It’s just amazing. So I had a real cool kind of connection with good ‘ol McCartney.”

Other Collaborations
Inveterate readers of liner notes will see Jason Falkner’s name on a lot of other people’s albums. Like Air, Beck, Dennis Diken and Pugwash, to name but four recent projects. “I don’t really pursue any kind of session stuff,” Falkner admits, saying his studio session work is almost always with or through friends. “The McCartney stuff, that was through a friend. And I had known Beck for a long time; we’re friends, and I’ve worked on four of his records, pretty extensively. And I worked on Charlotte Gainsbourg‘s new record. Beck was producing that.”

“I don’t really put myself out there in that regard,” he says. “It’s not something that I love doing, though I like doing it, and I’m fortunate enough to be able to do it. I’m able to go in and just do what I do, and everybody’s very happy. Nobody’s saying, ‘hey play more like…’ whatever. So I’ve got a little kind of collective of people that I work with pretty regularly, and they call me all the time to come and do stuff.”

Live Dates
Sometimes Falkner calls on other people himself, putting together a band for live dates, but there hasn’t been a Tour of North America sort of thing in a long while. “It’s not for a lack of want,” he explains. “But I plan to do that this year. I’m gonna try and book some West Coast stuff. And I really want to get to the East Coast, because I haven’t played there in ages. I don’t know about a full-blown band tour all across the country, but certainly the two coasts. And maybe I’ll go to England.”

Like the old joke goes, Jason Falkner is big in Japan. “I’ve been going to Japan every year for three years, and that’s been miraculous. I don’t end up making a lot of money, but I don’t spend any money.  It’s all paid for by the label, because that’s how they do it there. Theoretically I should be coming back with $10,000, but I end up coming back with 500 bucks!  They make a lot of money off of me when I go there, because they book two places that hold more than 400 or 500 people, in each city, 2 nights, and tickets are like 75 bucks there! So do the math. I think,” he laughs, “that there’s a lot of cash being made, and I really don’t get any of it. But they pay for all of the flights, and they put us up in our own rooms and drive us around and all that stuff, so it’s a great experience. And next time I go I’ll get paid, goddammit!” He laughs heartily.

All Quiet on the Noise Floor
Falkner’s album I’m OK, You’re OK came out in Japan in 2007, and finally got domestic release two years later. That album’s followup is All Quiet on the Noise Floor, released in 2009 in Japan, but still not out in the USA. “The whole early Japanese thing is going to end with this record,” Falkner promises. “From now on it’s gonna be a simultaneous release.” So when can North American fans expect this fourth album of new material from Jason Falkner? “Sometime here in the late summer,” he says.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

The Jason Falkner Interview, Part Two

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

(continued from Part One)

“Dad-rock”
Not surprisingly, Jason Falkner concedes that “I’m just trying to entertain myself. I just want to hear a song that really gets me off, so there are some elements that I put in there that are nostalgic for me.” He thinks back to influences he absorbed early in his childhood. “I’ve got some things that I remember on the radio, and whatever weird shit that my dad took me to go see, like a freaky painter guy. I saw some experimental people when I was younger. So there is some of that weird kind of 70′s kind of stuff going on.”

“I love classic rock ‘n roll,” Falkner admits. “It goes in and out of being a real dirty word. I was in a record shop the other day.  Behind the counter was a girl with a tattooed chest, neck, and part of her face. She said to me, ‘ahh, you might like this band or that band. It’s “dad-rock.”’ I said, ‘You mean rock n’ roll? You mean like good music? I guess the Rolling Stones might be grandpa rock!’ Man, it’s really frightening.”

So Falkner actually likes this “dad-rock” stuff, and always has. “If when I was in my early 20′s I did something, and somebody said ‘Yeah, that sounded like Jimmy Page,’ that was the highest compliment I could be given. For me, if I do anything that reminds me of Jimmy Page, that’s the coolest thing in the world, right?”

Falkner waxes philosophical, but with a practical goal: “At the end of the day, every chord has been used millions of times. Every chord progression has been used a million times, and every melody has been written in some fashion or another. So the only thing that is original in all  this is your interpretation of all this. And mine, I think, is unique because I’m very insular, very in my own mind and almost in a bubble. And I have no problem with that. I preserve that. I think it’s like an innocence in that it’s important as it not only keeps me from being overtly trendy, because it would be very easy for me to make a record that follows some sort of trend. But that’s just not where I’m at, not at all. That’s kind of jaded. I’d rather just speak to people’s emotions with something that is nostalgic and also forward-thinking. And,” he adds with great emphasis, “that rocks. I want to rock!”

One word to describe Falkner’s musical approach on I’m OK, You’re OK is consistent. Put another way, if you like Jason Falkner’s albums on Elektra – Presents Author Unknown (1996) and Can You Still Feel? (1999) – then you’ll like this. Now, Falkner is no Oasis: he’s not giving us the same material over and over again in ten different ways. But his records do all have their own aesthetic. Ultimately, that’s true for good or bad: if those albums he did back in the ’90′s didn’t do something for a particular listener, then there’s not anything here that’s going to win that person over, either. So while Jason Falkner’s music is inviting and accessible, it’s also uncompromising.

And Falkner agrees with that assessment. “You know, it’s easy [for an artist] to say ‘take me as I am, or don’t,’ and a lot of people say that. But as you look through their output you sometimes see that it’s bullshit. If you look at my output, that’s exactly the thread: I’m very uncompromising. I mean, I don’t even have a manager. I don’t trust anybody. I don’t have anybody working for me because sometimes I can’t tolerate a suggestion. Let’s be honest here: I’m creating this music because I really don’t have any other choice!”

Fear of the Business
He expands on how that attitude has affected his output. “What took I’m OK, You’re OK so long to get out in America was basically my fear of the music business. Not a fear of music, but a fear of the music business. I’ve been told so many times that I’m the Second Coming of something. And yet it never happened. I never parted any sea!  And so I’m a little bit gun-shy.”

At this point,” Falkner explains, “it’s difficult. Because [people] call me and they want to work with me and help in the capacity of management, or agents and all that stuff. And I’m like ‘yeah yeah yeah yeah…okay,’ and then I just don’t want to talk about it. I just had this weird kind of phobia develop over the years. So many great things have happened to me, yet I’ve had quite a bit of setbacks as far as gaining any commercial success. So at this point I am solely doing it for the love of it. And anything else that happens as a result is great.”

That long-touted commercial breakthrough is, in Falkner’s words, “something I’m not expecting. I think to be quite honest, I’d like to be in the large-theater kind of level, the 1000 to 3000-seaters every night. Unfortunately I’m still in the mid- to large-club level, and even small clubs in places. And even living rooms in places. You know, that’s kind of disenchanting. I appreciate what I have and I appreciate the fans I have for sure.” But he does wish for more success for having “integrity, and with an almost defiant connection and allegiance to my own way of doing things.”

A hallmark of Falkner’s early collaborations was a failure to tap into the guitarist’s potential. The (sort-of) supergroup the Grays is a case in point. Musically it was brilliant, but the will to hold things together wasn’t there. And going back a bit farther, in Jellyfish, Falkner’s creative talents were all but ignored.

Jellyfish
“That’s very accurate,” says Falkner. “I was very underappreciated, very underutilized. Basically that’s why I quit. And I almost quit during the making of Bellybutton (1990). I know for a fact that Andy Stuermer did really like what I did as far as a writer. When I was asked to join that band I was basically lied to. Andy and Roger Manning were kind of fans of mine; Roger had answered an ad I had in the paper before Jellyfish started. His was the only call I got. I put an ad in the paper saying ‘I’m looking to meet like-minded people who are into Bowie,’ and I think I even mentioned the Blue Nile. And nobody else ever answered that ad!”

“So,” Falkner continues, “fast-forward to about a year later, and Roger and Andy come down to L.A. So basically they needed a band and I played them some of my songs. Roger was already a fan of my stuff because when we had gotten together a year earlier he freaked out over my songwriting. And so they said, ‘yeah, yeah, we want this to be like a real trio –  everyone’s equal’ and all this stuff. But that just never materialized. Not at all. I wrote some stuff on that record, but I wasn’t credited and I wasn’t paid.”

Falkner left Jellyfish vowing never again to join a band. But then came the Grays, a project full of talent but doomed to fail from the beginning. Falkner reverals that “none of us really cared about the fate of that band. It wasn’t really a band.”

The Grays
“It was a collective,” he says. “We all got together and created this bullshit philosophy. It seemed like a good idea at the time. It’s the kind of philosophy where it’s a band of four equals. The idea was, ‘We all sing on the songs, and we all sing on the record, and when it’s not your song you’re the best sideman you can be, and when it’s your song you have veto power over all decisions.’ It was going to be ‘four generals and no soldiers’ and all this crap.”

Falkner laughs and says, “It was a great idea to kind of idea to draw up at a bar where we’d just got signed, but it’s completely flawed in concept. In every band there has to be a leader, maybe two. Two at most. Three is a nightmare. Certainly not four leaders in a band! But I became the leader of that band. And one of the things that happened is that [producer] Jack Puig declared very loudly that he liked my songs the most.”

“So,” he observes, “there goes the thing. And maybe the other guys resented the fact: ‘Wait a second! We’re total equals here!’  You know, I was dying to record a solo album for myself. I’d just come out from under the thumb of Jellyfish. So I was raring to go. And this little philosophy we had was actually holding me back.”

Nonetheless, some great music resulted from the project. Most notable is one of Falkner’s contributions, the shimmering, anthemic “Very Best Years.”  He says that the album Ro Sham Bo (1994) is “the sound of me going crazy, in a good way. I play the majority of the music on that record. And Jon Brion – if he’s ever honest about that – would have to agree.” Falkner isn’t totally pleased with what he views as a too-slick approach on the record, but allows that “there were some really good musicians in that band.” He admits that “there were some hallucinogens involved, and it was just a very fun, a very free record, but it kind of sounds a little bit choked. We were just not harmonious when we were making it. I didn’t care enough. I didn’t even know any of those guys. I had only met them months before we were signed.”

So how did a band full of virtual strangers ever come together at all? “We literally got together in a room to jam because Jon Brion called me one day: ‘I got some friends down here. Why don’t you come down and play some Kinks songs and goof around?’ I thought, ‘That sounds fun.’ Then literally that first time I came down there, there was this guy who was hanging around in the studio –  I didn’t even notice him. He got on a pay phone and called the guy that was running Capitol at the time, and said, ‘Hey, guess who’s in the room right here? Jason Falkner, Jon Brion, Dan McCarroll, Buddy Judge. And they’re all in a band!’  Listen, hold the phone up, that kind of thing.”

That straight-out-of-Hollywood scene (which, as it happens, took place in Hollywood) led to a record contract. Falkner recalls, “Literally that night I got a message on my machine — as did Jon — from this guy who ran Capitol saying, ‘I’ll sign this right now…I don’t need to see it. I’m such a fan of both of you guys. If you’re doing a band together I’ll sign this right now.’ And we were like, “What?!” The next day we’re asking each other, ‘Did you get a fucking message from Capitol?’ ‘Yeah! Me too!’”

So despite major reservations, Falkner found himself in a band. Again. “Yeah, it was such a unique situation. I’d just got out from under the merciless thumb of another band, and now we’re being offered a quarter-million dollars to make a record. That was a shock. But everyone sort of washed their hands of it as soon as it was over.” Falkner laughs, “It was like ‘well, you know, that was interesting!’ Nobody was committed enough to the band’s survival to even kind of make it fun. We didn’t have that much fun.” Again Falkner pauses and adds, “The record, though, was fun to make.”

In Part Three, Jason Falkner discusses his discovery of music at a young age, and the wide array of influences that informed his musical approach. He talks about working on other people’s albums (including one by a former Beatle), and discusses live dates and his next album due out later this year.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

The Jason Falkner Interview, Part One

Monday, June 21st, 2010

For more than twenty years, fans of a particular few strains of rock have known about Jason Falkner. Tagged early and often as something of a pop wunderkind, Falkner is one of that fairly short list of artists who can (and does) do it all. He plays guitar, drums, keyboards and bass. He sings lead and harmony. He writes. He arranges. He produces and engineers. That alone puts him in a category with Todd Rundgren, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder.

Through his career, Falkner has – his longtime fans (like this writer) would argue – never gotten his commercial due. The critics and tastemakers who know about his music are near unanimous in their praise (the odd early review in Trouser Press that claimed Falkner’s work with the Grays “sounds exactly like” Jellyfish notwithstanding). But the record industry being what it is, someone who resolutely follows his own musical path – someone who refuses to “play the game,” as it were – is perhaps not destined for high-profile success.

Luckily for those in the know, Falkner is still at it. In addition to the creativity he brings as a sideman – he’s worked in recent years with Air, Paul McCartney, Dennis Diken and a select list of other high-quality artists – Falkner maintains his solo career. His (sort of) latest album is the US release of I’m OK, You’re OK. I recently sat down for a wide-ranging conversation with Falkner. Subjects ranged from musings on the relative commercial indifference to his work to the challenges and successes he’s faced in his previous bands. His refreshing candor and willingness to field my sometimes pointedly direct questions made for a fascinating conversation.

Commercial-sounding yet Not Commercial
There’s nothing weird, off-kilter, avant-garde or otherwise fitting the classic definition of uncommercial on I’m OK, You’re OK. (“It’s not the sound of an air-conditioner hum, nor is it black metal,” Falkner helpfully points out.) Yet the album originally saw release only in Japan, and it took two years for Falkner to secure domestic release for the disc. Falkner agrees that tuneful, intelligent pop has a hard time getting a foothold in the musical marketplace. But why is that so? “That,” he laughs, “is the question that keeps me up on a nightly basis! I have several theories about this. I really believe that the general population  doesn’t really want to be engaged. They don’t want anything to shake them out of their thought process.”

But Jason Falkner’s music is accessible. It’s not at all like, say, the Residents. “Or R. Stevie Moore,” he adds. “It’s certainly modern, but it also has a lot of classic elements to it. But I feel that it does kind of require your attention.” Attempting to define his sound – always a dangerous and difficult thing for any artist – Falkner characterizes it as “not like the big immediate, giant, modern sound that a lot of people are accustomed to. Nor is it a tinkering, lo-fi indie/rock/pop thing either. It’s right in the middle of those two things.” He believes that his music is “engaging, yet in ways it’s not as immediate as some people need things to be in this day and age.” He sums up by observing that his songs are “designed for people who have committed to sitting down and listening to [them].”

Falkner offers further observations that illustrate (a) a refreshing self-awareness and (b) the fact that he’s given this matter a lifetime’s worth of consideration. “I feel like music can really stand out when it has quality and some honesty to it…some heart and soul.” He notes that media and entertainment provide “so many things punching you in the face, trying to get your attention. And the only way to get anybody’s attention anymore is by literally grabbing you by the throat,” but that with this approach “a lot of heart is missing.”

Thankfully, Falkner is certain he won’t ever go in that direction. He tries to keep those forces from entering his creative space when he works. “I don’t listen to anything else while I’m working. I certainly don’t pay attention to what’s on the television or the Internet when I’m writing songs or recording an album. I’m kind of in my own little fantasy of my perfect world.”

The Solo Route
Speaking of that perfect world, it’s not as if Falkner can’t or won’t play well with others. Besides his roles in three high-profile bands (more on that presently), he’s toured with Air and other groups. Yet on his albums, he nearly always does everything himself. I wondered how much of that is because he can, and how much because he wants to.

“It’s all because I want to,” he asserts. “None of it is to be showy in a ‘hey, make sure you read the credits’ kind of way.” The solo approach is an outgrowth of the manner in which Falkner gets inspiration. “I get so inspired. I’ll plug in an electric guitar into a cool, weird tube amp, and then I can’t imagine letting somebody else play it.” He refers to his late ’60′s Premier drum set. “Why would I let anybody play that? I mean, I can play it. So I can, and therefore I do.”

This approach has been a central theme of Falkner’s musical methodology from the very beginning. “I grew up playing in bands and frustrating everybody in my band. Because while I wasn’t your normal lead singer who wrote songs, I also could play the drums better than the drummer. I can play bass better than other bass players, and guitar, and so on and so on.”

But that attitude (based clearly in fact, so there) could make for an uncomfortable situation. “I kind of took a back seat, and kind of diminished my talent in front of others just so I could fit in,” Falkner recalls. “It’s not like I think I’m the best musician on the planet, or anything like that. I’m not walking around like that. I think I have interesting things to say on all of the instruments, and that’s why I play them.”

It’s not always a function of technical expertise, then. “One of the reasons why I really like my drumming,” he muses, “is because I’m not really a drummer. I’m a pianist / guitar player who is playing the drums. Some of my favorite drummers – Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney — are like that.”

Recording is Songwriting
Falkner’s manner of songwriting fits his solo approach. “It’s also often easier for me to play everything than to sit and work out parts with other people. There are many people I know who — if I could afford them — I would have them come over and we would work out songs together. And there’s yet another reason: the people who are good enough to know what to do with my stuff on their instrument are very expensive people. Even friends. They’re like, ‘hey, I love playing with you. But you know, I get five grand a week doing this.’” He chuckles that his solo approach is “very sensible, actually. Now that I think about it. That’s one aspect of my life I’m sensible about.”

While Jason’s music is modern — timeless might be a better descriptor — there all sorts of what we might call classic elements in the songs. Little things like the way the instruments, and/or subtle countermelody lines are added into a song as the song progresses. There’s a clear emphasis on making sure that every song has a hook, a memorable melodic line. Or, sometimes several in a single song. It’s clear that Falkner puts a great lot of effort into the craft of songwriting as much as the art of it.

“I think,” Falkner reflects, “the way I write songs is kind of unorthodox. I don’t really ever write a song and complete a song on any given instrument like a guitar, or a piano, or whatever. I just start recording. And so recording is actually part of my songwriting process.”

He elaborates. “I don’t know how a song is going to begin or end. I just start recording as soon as I have a little more than half of a song done. I usually start with drums. And then I will just allocate something off the top of my head, a pattern or something on the bridge;  maybe I’ll just screw around with something as an intro. And then maybe I’ll just stick some music on top of it and kind of write the bridge…sometimes not even a chorus is done. I just kind of see what happens.”

Not unlike Brian Eno’s modus operandi employed on his mid 70s rock trilogy — Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Another Green World, and Before and After Science – the concept of chance plays into Falkner’s  creative progress. “There might be an accident. Maybe I put in a chord but I hit the wrong chord because I hit the Apple space bar on my computer and I spin around and play the chord. And I might hit the wrong chord but I might like that better but than what I had in mind. Or maybe I didn’t have anything in mind. Then I’ll listen back and go, ‘how cool!’  So recording is part of the songwriting.”

Which supports his notion of doing it all himself. “I think part of this process accounts for the fact that [although] I was playing all of the instruments on my record, it doesn’t necessarily sound like that. It doesn’t sound like one brain.” He pauses for a moment and adds, “I mean, I hope it doesn’t.”

In Part Two Jason Falkner explains the term “dad-rock” and talks about his experiences as a member of Jellyfish, and then as part of the Grays.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Bootleg Bin: Jason Falkner – “Can You Still Feel?” Demos

Friday, June 18th, 2010

Note: Next week I’ll publish my extensive three-part interview with Jason Falkner. The multi-instrumentalist is a former member of the Three O’Clock, Jellyfish and the Grays, and has recorded with artists including Air, Dennis Diken, Beck, Charlotte Gainsbourg and many others. As a teaser/preview of that piece, here’s a review of a bootleg um, unauthorized collectors-only collection from awhile back.

Powerpop wunderkind Jason Falkner, fresh from stints with Jellyfish and The Grays, recorded his peerless sophomore solo disc Can You Still Feel in 1997 with Nigel Godrich (producer for Radiohead, and Paul McCartney‘s Chaos and Creation in the Backyard) behind the boards. The album was polished to a sonic sheen that presented Falkner’s carefully-crafted pop meisterworks to their best advantage. With that in mind, why would one wish to hear the demos for those sessions?

The answer lies in the fact that these particular demos represent something of an alternate realization of the finished product. Quite accomplished on a wide array of instruments, and no slouch at the recording console himself, Falkner’s demos for Can You Still Feel reveal different — yet not at all unfinished — arrangements for a number of the songs. The difference is most apparent on “The Invitation.” In its place as the legit album’s leadoff track, “The Invitation” is a brief intro styled after the first thirty seconds of The Beatles‘ “Honey Pie.” But on the demo disc, it’s a full-length pop song in a more traditional arrangement. Contrasts between the demos and the released album continue throughout the disc. Even the track sequencing makes for a different, well, “feel.”

A handful of these demo tracks may have subsequently appeared on either of Falkner’s two legitimate demo collections, but there’s still plenty here for the committed fan (or the willing-to-be-converted).

Difficulty to Locate: 8 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.

 Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Coming Attractions

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

There are quite a few projects in the pipeline here at Musoscribe World HQ. Here’s just a sampling.

CD Reviews

  • Various Artists – Remember Me Baby: Cameo Parkway Vocal Groups Vol. 1
  • Los Lobos – Tin Can Trust
  • The Orlons – The Wah-Watusi and South Street (reissue)
  • Burton Cummings – Above the Ground (includes a DVD)
  • The Milk & Honey Band – Dog Eared Moonlight
  • Various Artists – Through a Faraway Window: A Tribute to Jimmy Silva
  • Eight Allan Sherman albums from the 1960s

DVD Reviews

  • Rolling Stones 1969-1974: The Mick Taylor Years
  • Porcupine Tree’s concert DVD Anesthetize
  • John Lennon – Rare and Unseen
  • The long-lost cult film GOLD: Before Woodstock. Beyond Reality
  • The exploito-video Paul McCartney Really Is Dead: The Last Testament Of George Harrison

Interviews and Features

  • The Pineapple Thief’s Bruce Soord
  • Felix Cavaliere (Rascals) and Steve Cropper (Booker T & the MGs)
  • Prolific DIY cult artist R. Stevie Moore
  • Barry Tashian of Boston’s legendary Remains
  • Jason Falkner (coming June 21st!)
  • Tommy James
  • Paul Revere & the Raiders (available in print now, and online here July 4th)
  • Steve Wynn, discussing his old band the Dream Syndicate

Follow me on Twitter for the latest updates.