Archive for July, 2010

Album Review: Frank Royster – Innocence is Bliss

Friday, July 30th, 2010

Since we’re such close friends, dear reader, I’ll reveal something about myself. I always get a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye when I watch Tom Hanks‘ 1996 film That Thing You Do! There’s something transcendent about pop music — the creation of it, the performing of it, the listening to it, and the sharing of it — and the fictitious account of everyband The Wonders captures that essence perfectly. So damn it, I actually cry when I watch the film. There. I’ve said it. That the music is note-perfect in capturing both that essence and the sounds of the era only adds to the brilliance of the movie.

I’ve only met Frank Royster once — I saw his cover band (a bills-paying side project that’s quite effective at what it does) onstage in his hometown of Charleston SC — but I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb in guessing that the film elicits a similar reaction from him. There’s a joyousness, an innocence conveyed in the characters and their approach to playing rock and roll. They may only have one hit in ‘em — maybe less than that — but they’ll give it their all nonetheless. Not for fame and fortune, though that would certainly be welcome, but Just Because.

Frank Royster’s new album is called Innocence is Bliss. [It's available here from Kool Kat Musik.] And while the songs don’t necessarily convey innocence — he’s a middle-aged rocker with a kid, bills to pay, etc. — the knowing appreciation of that wide-eyed approach to the world is never far from the surface.

There’s an oft-used device in pop music, and it’s popular for good reason. Since many people connect with a song’s hook and melody before they dig into the lyrics, clever and effective pop composers sometimes employ a sly trick: they’ll write a super-catchy melody, and load it with a killer hook. And they’ll even craft a lyric that — on first blush — is upbeat to match. In doing so, they’ve got the hook securely into you. Then, as you’re being reeled in, you start to notice that the lyrics aren’t quite what you thought they were: the subject matter is a little bit deeper, a tad melancholy, imbued with longing, regret or one of the other more complicated emotions. Gotcha! The song rewards you for tuning in.

So it is with the leadoff number on Innocence is Bliss, “Mr. Wonderful.” Filled with timeless vibe (handclaps help in this, for sure), the song bounces along, full of jangle and vocal harmony, and once the listener is drawn in, the realization that all is not perfect sets in. And you just go with it. You’re trilling along to this song that’s not as ebullient as it first seemed.

And “Mr. Wonderful” does sound a tiny bit like a song known only to aficionados of Hanks’ film, a track called “She Knows It.” Royster’s song’s video is a delightful throwback to the gimmick-free approach used back in the 80s: high production values, an appealing pantomime visual that loosely follows the lyrics, and a couple odd shots of the band playing.

Royster’s choice of producer for Innocence is Bliss is solid enough to give it a cautious powerpop seal of approval even before the shrinkwrap is off. Jamie Hoover (of the Spongetones and Jamie & Steve) worked the boards and added instrumental support throughout. A purveyor of music in Royster’s style could not wish for a more kindred spirit to help craft a polished product.

Frank Royster’s voice is a bit unconventional for this sort of music. If he sounds like anyone, it’s Richie Havens with less bottom-end (and much more top-end) in his range. That might sound like it wouldn’t work, but it really does.

Overall the album mines a sonic style partly based on what Americans of a certain age remember as Beatles VI. The record is not stuck in amber, though: modern flourishes abound. “She’s Not Alone” features slide guitar licks of the sort George Harrison wouldn’t develop until the late 60s. A classic country (Carl Perkins division) feel is subtly present throughout the midtempo numbers. “Can’t you Make Me Smile?” is a particularly effective melding of breezy pop and a Nashville influence. Its dual lead vocal leans it back toward Merseybeat.

Royster’s a fan of the Beatles‘ bassist: I hear he named his kid McCartney, for goodness’ sake. So it should come as little surprise that there’s a song that echoes one of Macca’s lesser-known tunes. Built around an insistent piano riff, “Brena You!” is reminiscent in places of a 1972 Paul McCartney b-side, “Little Woman Love.”

“Thank You Jenny” features some particularly effective chording in the chorus, and a memorable bridge and solo straight out of mid-70s classic rock. “Oh! Mary” is filled with chiming Rickenbackers (are there any other kind!?), clever percussive punctuation and shiver-inducing vocal arrangement. “My Girl” (an original, not a cover) is the most modern-sounding track on the album, with a feel not far removed from Flashcubes, 20/20 or similar unheralded powerpop artists. (You can bet Royster knows who those bands are.)

The ballad “I’m Gonna Take It” is the place where Royster sounds the most like Havens, if Havens was fronting Red Rose Speedway-era Wings. And speaking (again) of Liverpool-based artists, Royster’s cover of the Beatles’ “Every Little Thing” fits in seamlessly on the album. It’s a testament to producer Jamie Hoover’s taste, skill and restraint that the resulting track sounds like neither the Beatles nor the Spongetones.

The infectious “Beautiful Child” is — I think — a heartbreaking tribute to someone who has passed. A careful listen will elicit a strange reaction: you’ll tap your foot, nod your head, and choke up a little bit. The song is brilliantly effective, and shamelessly manipulative of the listener’s emotions…in the best possible way.

The album has only a couple of minor deviations from Royster’s winning approach. “Life’s a Bore” aims to wed a hammering, punky style to Royster’s stacked-harmony melody, and the result is less sturdy than the other songs on the record. A brief, odd track called “Looking for Twinkle” feels tacked on. Its style doesn’t fit with the rest of the album. The song probably has great personal meaning to Royster, but sonically it doesn’t really belong on the album; “Beautiful Child” — with its hard-rocking coda — would have made a flawless album closer.

For those who enjoy modern, intelligent pop of a timeless variety, the sort of music that is informed by the best of straightforward Merseybeat and powerpop, Innocence is Bliss is highly recommended.

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

Concert Review: Paul McCartney – July 28 2010, Charlotte NC

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

Though I did my best not to, as the July 2010 Paul McCartney concert in Charlotte kicked off, I already had in my head a couple of ideas I thought I’d use in my post-show summary. But besides putting on a great show, McCartney managed to be something I hadn’t expected: just slightly unpredictable. Paul McCartney in concert. Photo � Bill Kopp

Sure, I had a pretty good idea of what songs to expect, and in what order. And I knew that we’d be treated to an evening’s full of by-the-book McCartneyisms: the well-rehearsed off-the-cuff anecdotes, the homespun snippet of some ditty of supposed relevance to the town he’s playing in, the everybody-say-woo bit, the connecting with a specific audience member (in this case a guy woman waving a “MCCARTNY” [sic] auto license tag), and repeated observations of what a great time we’re all having.

Buying a ticket to a Paul McCartney concert is not about witnessing spontaneity. But it is about a bunch of other things, all good. The man is in his late sixties now, and remains one of the planet’s richest performers. In 2010 Paul McCartney hasn’t got anything to prove to the audience. He could get up there and phone it in, and plenty of people would be satisfied, and would likely queue up for tickets to the next tour.

More than most performers, McCartney has always been one who truly wants to make his fans happy. You hear plenty of songwriters say things like “I write songs to please myself” and such, and thank goodness they do, because that’s what makes it real. And there’s ample evidence to suggest that the same is true of Macca. But onstage it’s a different matter altogether. He’s there to put on a show. He knows it, we know it.

Even to someone who has grown up with the Beatles, Wings and solo McCartney catalog (including tangential projects like The Fireman, the Liverpool Oratorio and Standing Stone, and even the Percy “Thrills” Thrillington album), a McCartney concert can still provide some mild surprises.

One surprise was how much Paul relinquished bass playing duties to Brian Ray. When McCartney did play bass, he used his trademark Hofner, but for a good half of the show, Ray played a Gibson SG bass while McCartney displayed (with some subtlety) what an accomplished musician he actually is. And that’s not an insignificant point: while his skills as a composer, singer and performer in general are well established, all-around-crack-musician isn’t always the first phrase that comes to mind when thinking of McCartney. Of course that’s wrong: this is a man who played all of the instruments on his first solo album, and did so before it was practical or relatively common (see: Todd Rundgren, Mike Oldfield, Stevie Wonder, etc.) But on this tour Paul plays lead guitar, acoustic guitar, mandolin, ukulele and piano.

The pacing of the show was flawless. With a catalog as vast as his, McCartney has material that covers a wide range of styles and emotions. Putting together a set list is a high-wire act, especially for someone so focused on crowd-pleasing. There are the demands of the casual fans: they want to hear the mega-hits, and they want them played Just Like the Record. For those people, McCartney served up ditties like “Let ‘Em In” and the mini-suite “Band on the Run.” Some punters are hardcore: they want to witness Paul reach deep into his songbook and pull out some deep album cuts. For them (well, us, really) McCartney and band pulled out “Mrs Vandebilt,” “Letting Go” and the Beatles’ “I’ve Got a Feeling.” And to keep things a bit contemporary, the band cranked out the two most accessible tracks from the Fireman project.

One of my original premises, one of the things I was expecting to comment on at some length, was the critical role that keyboardist Paul “Wix” Wickens occupies in the band. Wix has been part of McCartney’s touring lineup for twenty years: it’s perhaps worth pointing out that his time with McCartney has vastly outlasted such musical collaborations as those with John Lennon (spanning 1957-1969) or Denny Laine (1971-1980). Only Paul’s wife Linda, who succumbed to cancer, could claim a longer musical association with Paul.

Paul McCartney in concert. Photo � Bill Kopp
And beginning with McCartney’s 1989-90 world tour (the first time I saw him onstage, as it happens), Wickens was indeed a central component of the sound that came from the stage. By the late-late 1980s, keyboard technology had finally advanced to the point where it was possible to recreate the complex and distinctive sounds of the Beatles’ Baroque and Mannerist period works (Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, Abbey Road) in an authentic fashion. So it was left — in those days — to Wix to play the horn charts from “Magical Mystery Tour,” the orchestra in “A Day in the Life,” and so on. Fans delighted to these carefully faithful live renditions of Beatles and Wings hits of yore.

Wickens — the band’s onstage musical director — remains in that role. But in 2010 his delivery is much more subtle. The current band (him and McCartney plus guitarists Rusty Anderson and Brian Ray, and drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. — a stable lineup going on nine years now) is focused less on providing audio carbon copies of classic songs. They’re careful not to mess with the arrangements too much –  don’t nobody better mess with our Beatles — but on the 2010 tour, the audience is as likely as not to hear what used to be a horn chart part played instead by Rusty Anderson on slide guitar. Not only does this work, but this approach gives the band a more rock-oriented edge. It also provides a less “plastic” feeling, and I say this as a keyboard player myself.

Paul McCartney in concert. Photo � Bill Kopp This go-round there were no tunes from Magical Mystery Tour, only two from Sgt. Pepper, and only one from Abbey Road (unless you count a George Harrison song). Also notably absent were any of the early Beatles rockers. But overall the set was well balanced, with perhaps a bit more Wings material (about ten songs) than casual fans might have expected.

The nearly three-hour setlist was carefully sequenced. The segues were smooth. Thoughtful pieces — like an amazing “Eleanor Rigby” featuring Paul on acoustic guitar, Wix on virtual (and note-perfect) string octet plus Anderson and Laboriel on vocal harmonies — led seamlessly into other styles. Particularly effective was the ukulele-led George Harrison tribute of “Something.” It led into a powerful like-the-Beatles version for its second half, effectively bridging a mini-set of mellower numbers back into rock and roll without jarring the audience.

Hardcore fans will always find something to carp about, and in this reviewer’s case it was the lack of getting to hear “Two of Us.” But instead we got to hear “I’ve Just Seen a Face.” Nice, but McCartney did that one on the Wings Over America tour, and he’d never done “Two of Us” until this tour. But at three hours, nobody could realistically claim that McCartney didn’t offer value for money.

Like Paul sings in “Venus and Mars / Rock Show,” the experience of seeing him onstage in 2010 is “like a relic from a different age.” But it’s a welcome and unforgettable experience. Few performers have earned the stature of Paul McCartney, and fewer still consistently deliver onstage. Over the course of thirty-seven numbers, his energy didn’t visibly flag once, and he never lost the audience, not for as much as a second. You could learn a lot about performing by studying a McCartney concert. But it’s also fun to just go and enjoy the evening. I did both.

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Album Review: Los Lobos – Tin Can Trust

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

Chances are, if you only know one thing about Los Lobos, it’s that they’re a band of Mexican American heritage. If that’s all you know, 2010 is a great time to correct that situation. The band’s latest album Tin Can Trust is a consistently engaging listen. The record — their 14th studio effort — has less of a Latino vibe than you may have been led to believe or expect. While there are some hints here and there of the musicians’ ethnicity, in general Los Lobos manages to create a record that in many ways helps expand and redefine what exactly “Americana” is.

That said, Tin Can Trust is not for the most part folky, acoustic-based music. It’s a rock record with plenty of variety. Take a song like the opener “Burn it Down.” For the first four minutes it’s a straightforward heartland rocker not miles away from the style of John Mellencamp or some of Springsteen‘s less overwrought material. But then the guitar solo kicks in and it’s a full-throttle rocker. Harmony vocals from Susan Tedeschi add an unexpected and pleasing dimension.

That’s just the sort of texture you’ll find throughout the eleven tracks on Tin Can Trust. “On Main Street” actually swings, and evokes mental pictures of a scenic ride through Los Angeles neighborhoods, viewed from the inside of a 70s model domestic. Heavily tremoloed guitar and very subtle organ propel the song forward, and a low-mixed lead guitar snakes through most of the song.

The band pays homage to its roots — which, truth be told, are never far from the surface anyway — in “Yo Canto.” The song manages the tricky feat of delivering an authentic Mexican vibe (sing in Español) while still rocking. And it rocks in two ways: rock-and-roll rock, and rock back-n-forth.

The album’s title track is a subtle affair that unfolds slowly. Loosely defined, it’s a blues, but arrangementwise it’s closer in feel to something John Hiatt or late-period Nick Lowe might produce. “Jupiter on the Moon” — a serious contender for best song on the album — has an amazingly intimate feel; in the first thirty seconds a close listen reveals what sounds like a door opening during the recording session. Rather than being a distraction, the little “defect” adds a degree of authenticity to the song. Not that it’s needed: Los Lobos is rarely anything but authentic. Like 60s legends Thee Midniters, the band has an ethnic identity. And while they never run from it or try to downplay it, that identity is merely one part of who they are and what they’re about. Pegging Los Lobos as a Mexican-American band makes as much sense as it would to note that all members of a band are right-handed. They are, great, and it affects how they play, but don’t make too much of it.

Then there’s the matter of “Do the Murray.” The song channels Freddie King‘s blues standard “The Stumble” by way of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. The song rocks out like mad: it swings, it struts, it tears up the place. Its inclusion is almost jarring, as it’s so different from the rest of the album. But it’s such an amazing, tuneful, exciting exercise — not to mention a way of hammering home the stylistic versatility of Los Lobos — that it’s worth any momentary cognitive dissonance the listener might experience.

And the quality never flags. “All My Bridges Burning” is an emotive midtempo number that conjures faint echoes of Dire Straits, with some lovely Hammond work. A soaring lead guitar solo is so tasty, you’ll be frustrated when it ends too soon. Luckily there’s a second solo. Here’s betting that Los Lobos stretches this one out to excellent effect onstage.

In a gutsy move, the band next tackles a cover. Their choice is nothing if not unusual: Los Lobos reaches into the Garcia/Hunter songbook and comes out with late-late-late period song from 1987′s In the Dark. The Grateful Dead‘s “West L.A. Fadeaway” doesn’t rank among that group’s finest works, but in Los Lobos’ capable hands, two amazing and unexpected things happen. One, the song is played straight, not as some excuse to engage in endless, pointless noodlesome jamwankery. That itself would be enough. But the band manages a further feat: they make the song Not Suck. Impressive; they find the melody and the groove in the song.

From its title one can tell that “The Lady and the Rose” is a story-song. But it’s quite a succinct one; Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and Louie Pérez are adept at working a narrative into the space of a four-minute pop song. That the a melody is vaguely reminiscent of Neil Young‘s “Ohio” may serve as a message to the listener’s subconscious to pay attention to the lyrics. All that said, it’s a love song.

“Mujer Ingrata” is the second Spanish language track on Tin Can Trust, and here Los Lobos plays it straight and traditional. For anyone who remembers and enjoyed their 1988 outing La Pistola y el Corazón, this will be a welcome track. Few bands could successfully maneuver a genre left-turn like this on an album, but Los Lobos’ credibility is such that they can do so.

The album wraps up with “27 Spanishes” a song that is a distant lyrical cousin to Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer.” But what starts out as a forebodingly serious song develops into something quite humorous in its denouement. And the bluesy thump of the arrangement is a fitting bookend to a near-perfect album. Los Lobos’ Tin Can Trust is a serious contender for this reviewer’s best of 2010.

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Album Review: Various Artists – Soul Revival

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

Soul RevivalFor the reviewer, multi-artist compilations are a curious beast. How to measure them? What factors to consider, and how to weight them? Sometimes comps are a cash-in on a flavor-of-the-month sound or style.

Shout! Factory recently launched an ongoing series of releases that are essentially genre exercises. The latest of these is Soul Revival, a quick survey of contemporary artists plying their trade in a classic soul style. The vibe set forth by the included artists is squarely focused on invoking the sound and feel of 1960s and 1970s American soul music. With a resurgence of interest in the style, a number of artists (Sharon Jones, to name just one) have gained well-deserved high profile.

The selection of artists is pretty well beyond question. Any comp that includes (as this one does) quality cuts from Chaka Khan, Thelma Houston, Steve Cropper and Felix Cavaliere, Bettye Lavette and the aforementioned Sharon Jones establishes itself in can’t-miss territory. While staying within the established genre, Soul Revival does an admirable job of surveying the aural landscape. There’s material that leans in a funk direction (“Disrepectful” by Khan with Mary J. Blige), and other smoother styles.

While Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings‘ cover of “100 Days, 100 Nights” is a fine tune (and a good exemplar for the novitiate), the track has been over-comped. Jones and her band have many other fine songs that would have fit equally well. Which brings us back to the issue of how to review a comp such as this. Measured in terms of adventurousness in track selection, Soul Revival rates low. But assuredly that’s not the intent of the disc. In essence the purpose of the disc is to turn on more casual listeners who have heard of Jones et. al. and wonder what all the buzz is about. They’d like to dip their toe in the water before diving in. For them, Soul Revival is a fine way to do that. And at thirteen tracks, the disc offers good value for money.

So for anyone with more than a passing interest in modern-day soul sounds, Soul Revival would be a dilettante purchase, a superfluous addition. But as a party disc or a door into the genre, it’s recommended.

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Reconsider, Baby: Split Enz – See Ya ‘Round (1984)

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

Split Enz - See Ya 'Round Note: “Reconsider, Baby” is my title for a series of occasional essays in which I’ll take a look at albums that were unjustly panned or ignored on their original release.

A connection between two seemingly totally dissimilar albums recently occurred to me. By 1972 Creedence Clearwater Revival had an impressive catalog of work behind them. They had a string of superb albums coupled with a reputation as a solid live act, and they were already recognized as a singles machine. But things began to splinter when brothers John and Tom Fogerty had a falling out, resulting in Tom’s leaving the band. They soldiered on as a trio, and — for reason covered in detail in Hank Bordowitz‘s book Bad Moon Rising — Fogerty insisted that their 1972 record be a “democratic” release. So (as Bordowitz explains it, and CCR bassist Stu Cook reiterated this in a 2007 interview I did with him) Stu Cook and Doug “Cosmo” Clifford — one of music’s greatest rhythm sections — were both tasked with coming up with original songs, whether they wanted to or not. The resulting Mardi Gras LP was a poor seller, the three have all but disowned it, and it suffered at the hands of merciless critics. That said, it’s actually not nearly as bad as critics would have you believe. Mardi Gras ended up being the group’s final release.

Bear with me for a bit of a jump.

In the mid 1970s, New Zealander Tim Finn formed an art rock band called Split Enz. Originally a rather Dada outfit with a bent stylistic debt to Skyhooks, Sparks and Roxy Music, the group produced several albums of weirdly wonderful, skewed pop. Eventually Finn’s younger brother joined the band, and whether it was his influence (that’s debatable) or a general consensus, the band turned in a much more pop oriented direction. They also began to enjoy some success outside the southern hemisphere. Their True Colours LP — one of the first laser-etched LPs, along with the execrable Paradise Theatre by Styx — included the hit “I Got You,” sung by the newcomer, guitarist Neil Finn.

Eventually the Enz split (sorry!), and Neil Finn went on to massive worldwide success (well, everywhere except the USA, where success was more muted) with his band Crowded House, then with a solo career, and then again (and still) with Crowded House.

But back in 1984, the Enz released their final effort, the aptly-named See Ya ‘Round. Tim Finn had left the band for a solo career, and the resulting record featured songwriting and performance spotlights from each of the band members. Unlike CCR’s Mardi Gras, See Ya ‘Round wasn’t panned so much as just plain roundly ignored. The band’s USA label A&M didn’t even bother to release the record in the states. And while the making of See Ya ‘Round didn’t feature the dissension that Creedence endured in ’72, it had a similar feel.

Side One included a composition from each of the five members. Keyboardist Eddie Rayner had always been an important part of the Enz sound, giving the band deep texture that set it apart form other groups of the era. His sparkling keyboard and synth washes were complex and offered a link back to the group’s prog/art days. But Rayner didn’t sing, so his compositions were always instrumentals. He was a fairly prolific composer, and his tunes cropped upon earlier Enz albums as well, so the inclusion of “The Lost Cat” wasn’t unusual in and of itself. But as an album opener, its placement was curious. Then as now, albums usually open with the strongest (or at least most commercially-destined) track. Not so here.

Bassist Nigel Griggs was a fine, solid bassist, and sang occasional backup with the group. But here we find his song “Adz.” There’s not much to say about it other than that it’s not memorable. In fact it sounds like a slightly more straightforward, tuneful version of what Noel Crombie might do. (More on him in a moment.)

Drummer Paul Hester would develop later as a composer, and in fact with Crowded House he’d get a number of songs on albums. And he’d sing them too. The jaunty, suggestive “This is Massive,” in fact, sounds the most like Crowded House. It’s also the first commercially-viable track in the album sequence. So now we’re getting somewhere, right?

Well, sort of. Finally a Neil Finn song shows up. But “Kia Kaha” isn’t one of Finn’s strongest numbers, and its chorus doesn’t exactly drive listeners (at least northern hemisphere ones) to sing along. Still, some Neil Finn is always, always better than none.

Noel Crombie occupied an unusual position in Split Enz. As a longtime member (with the longest tenure in the band, actually), Crombie’s role was usually to serve as something of an auxiliary percussionist. Indeed, the band added drummer Mal Green to give the band a more precise rhythm section. Onstage, Crombie added percussive allsorts, and a highlight of the Split Enz live show was his spoons solo. His compositions, however, tended to be of a gimmicky sort, with spoken or yelped vocalizing. “Ninnie Knees Up” is no exception. Sounding like a deep album cut, it’s placed at the end of side one. We’re halfway through the records, and where’s the single? One begins to understand why A&M hedged their bets.

At this point listeners could be forgiven for putting the record back in its sleeve and moving on to something else. The five songs that make up Side One aren’t awful, but neither do they stick in the listeners’ head the way that earlier Split Enz songs had. Surely, longtime fans were missing Tim Finn’s input by this point. And they might be left wondering why the band took such a diffuse approach to songwriting duties.

But giving up on See Ya ‘Round would be a major mistake. Side Two is composed completely by Neil, and his songwriting is strong, full of promise, and — best of all — filled with hooks.

“Breakin’ My Back” is a catchy number that wouldn’t have been out of place on Conflicting Emotions (1983) or Time + Tide (1982). But it’s the next track where things really take off. “I Walk Away” is a great song, and Finn knew it, because when it failed to take off, he kept it in his back pocket, re-recording it with his new band Crowded House (originally the Mullanes) in a similar but less orchestrated version. The Enz version has that anthemic vibe that Finn often catches, and Eddie Rayner’s string parts add a sweeping, majestic feel to the song. The band made an amusing video for the number featuring larger-than-life masks (courtesy of Crombie, who was deservedly and capably in charge of the band’s visuals), but even in those MTV days it didn’t get a lot of showings.

“Doctor Love” (thankfully an original rather than a KISS cover) is not one of Finn’s stronger numbers, but the next track, “One Mouth is Fed” shows a growing depth in Neil Finn’s songwriting abilities. Finn evidenced an early ability to move beyond the standard love song for his lyrical themes, and this melancholy number with heart-rending lyrics is a prime early example of the sort of thing listeners would get more of (especially in 1988 on the second Crowded House album, the perfect Temple of Low Men).

“Years Go By” continues the high level of quality. The yearning Finn vocal reeks of regret and sadness, yet it’s somehow upbeat. The song was a staple of the group’s live set in those days, as found on their The Living Enz double live CD (1985) documenting the Enz With a Bang tour (Finn was nothing if not direct in his titling of projects.)

As a farewell number, a band couldn’t do much better than “Voices.” The track has the feel of a credits roll, full of mixed emotion. The lyrics obliquely suggest there will be more to come, and indeed there would be.

In subsequent years, See Ya ‘Round was subjected to a simple tweak, one that changed the whole nature of how the album would be perceived: beginning with its 1997 CD reissue (again, not in North America) and continuing with other non-U.S. reissues, the sides were flipped. This configuration front-loads the album with Neil Finn’s admittedly stronger songs. The thing is, since original copies of the vinyl are relatively scarce, most contemporary reviewers have made the (mistaken) assumption that the track sequence was ever thus. Now, to be fair, this reordering does make for a more engaging road into the album (one that falls off a cliff musically with Side Two), but if you’re going to rethink an album’s tracklisting, why not go all the way?

A 2006 reissue added a track from (roughly) the See Ya ‘Round era, the excellent non-album cut “Next Exit,” a song previously available on the various artists compilation Maiden Australia. The fact that this is a Tim Finn-led Split Enz number doesn’t seem to have dissuaded the compilers from adding it.

So that was the end. Spilt Enz broke up shortly after the album’s release, and though they continue to reunite every five years or so for some live shows, the members went on to other things. Rare on vinyl and nearly as rare on CD, See Ya ‘Round is an overlooked album in the Split Enz canon. Admittedly flawed and poorly sequenced, it’s one of their least commercial releases, and can be seen as a disappointment. But Side Two nearly makes up for all the sins of Side One, and the album deserves a hearing by anyone remotely interested in Split Enz or Crowded House. Like CCR’s Mardi Gras, it deserves more notice and respect than it has gotten. So reconsider, baby.

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Album Review: The Stone Foxes – Bears & Bulls

Monday, July 26th, 2010

Among those who view the mid 1960s as something of a Golden Age for rock music, consideration of the period 1976-1989 is sometimes greeted with a grimace and a shrug. But quite a lot of interesting music was produced during that time, and once you dig past the commercial stuff, you’ll get grudging agreement from those guys. And by “those guys” of course I mean “me.”

The Stone Foxes have clearly listened to a lot of music from that era. Their album Bears & Bulls is impressively eclectic; the stylistic breadth makes the disc come off almost like a mixtape. The opener “Stomp” is probably the most “modern” track on the album, and it’s probably the weakest. To be honest, I was busy doing something else when I gave the disc its first spin. As such, I wasn’t able to hit the skip button, but I did find myself thinking, “not bad, but not my thing.” The acoustic slide wedded to a, well, stomping, clapping beat made me think of a front porch version of the Black Crowes. To which I’d reply, “nice, but no thanks.”

But damn enough if things don’t quickly kick into high gear with “Patience” (an ironic title, since it rewards the listener’s possession of a bit that very quality). Swaggering, riffy rock that will appeal to fans of mid 70s rockers like Aerosmith, “Patience” even has a bass guitar solo. And it works! So at this point in the disc, the attentive first-time listener is thinking that The Stone Foxes are a slightly less-stylistically hidebound American version of Wolfmother. Right?

Wrong. On “I Killed Robert Johnson” the band strikes a pose (though I hesitate to call it a pose, since the seem to come by their approach honestly) a bit like Neil Young and Crazy Horse, with elements of Lynyrd Skynyrd thrown in for good (but not overbearingly southern-fried) measure. Lyrically it’s a knife-wielding roadhouse blues, and musically the song goes places. Unlike some songs, to hear the whole song, you have to listen to the whole song. You know what I mean. What’s more, they’ve got a wah-wah pedal and they’re gonna use it. There’s an irresistible shout-along vibe to the track.

Next the band heads in a country-rock direction that’s a bit reminiscent of Bon Jovi (except that it doesn’t at all suck). A pedal steel pretty well solos throughout the whole of the track (“Passenger Train”), which is yet another number that will find the listener singing along with the chorus. And again the arrangement is textured enough that the song reveals its pleasures as it unfolds.

And so it goes. “Young Man” is a heavy riff rocker that will appeal to fist-pumping fans of bands from Mountain to Black Mountain, from Black Sabbath to the Black Keys. “Easy” slows it down for a country honk not all that far removed from what the Rolling Stones did a bit of in the early 70s. And the Stone Foxes have a knack for memorable lyric lines that are repeated enough to stick, but not enough to be overdone.

“Reno” rocks out as a modern (and more intimate) take on the Allman Brothers‘ “Whippin’ Post.” It’s more than a mere rewrite of that classic song, but the vibe is unmissable. And yet again (again) the arrangement makes a left-run mid-song to keep the listener’s attention. These guys earn that attention, and not once on Bears & Bulls do they take it for granted, not even for a second. The songs are economical, full of ideas, but with all the fat trimmed off. “Through the Fire” shows the band can write a rock ballad that’s neither wimpy nor overwrought. Like all of the songs on Bears & Bulls, it conjures the feel of the sort of music that used to blast out of speakers in a t-top Camaro, yet the band never sounds like they’re aping the rockers of old (though they come close on “Reno”).

Ever wonder what “Little Red Rooster” would sound like if Johnny Winter recorded it? Your answer is on this disc, and while the playing isn’t quite up to Winter’s standard (an unreasonable expectation) the feel is there. Far from being a tired, phoned-in blues cover designed to pad out a short clutch of originals, the track finds the band living in the grooves, singing and playing it like they mean it.

Vocal cord shredding is on order on “Hyde & Pine.” A catchy, repetitive riff and Stonesy rhythm make the song chug along. On “Mr. Hangman” the band reaches waaaaay back for their aesthetic. Blues harp overdriven through a Green Bullet? Check. Vocals processed the same way? Check. Stomping, jackbooted rhythm? Certainly. And the disc wraps up with a song that nails that here-comes-the-end-of-the LP vibe. They throw in a little bit of every element that has come before on the disc. It’s a subdued number but it wraps up the record and effectively restates the musical and lyrical themes.

If you’re one of those people who think there’s not enough music that captures the rocking, swaggering yet comparatively carefree feel of the late 70s, but you don’t want to shell out bucks for a phonograph player*, you’d do well to score a copy of The Stone Foxes’ Bears & Bulls. Over twelve tracks the band manages to look backwards and forwards all at once.

*As it turns out, Bears & Bulls will be available on vinyl as well.

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DVD Review: Paul McCartney Really Is Dead – The Last Testament of George Harrison

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

To the Irish author Brendan Behan goes the attribution of a quote which reads in part, “There is no such thing as bad publicity…” In light of the possible status of this line as some sort of universal truth, I have serious misgivings about reviewing such a piece of irredeemable exploito-garbage as the new DVD Paul McCartney is Dead: the Last Testament of George Harrison.

If you’re a Beatles fan of any depth, you’re at least familiar with the broad-brush outlines of the premise. Because I’m walking a fine line here, trying to review product but not wishing to further a single one of the ludicrous assertions set forth within the film, I won’t even get into it other than to set the basic scene. In 1969 a Drake University student (a Des Moines IA institute of higher learning with the official motto “Veritas,” or, in English, “Truth”) penned an article in the school paper called “Is Paul McCartney Dead?” Times being what they were, and disc jockeys being desperate enough for ratings to perpetuate a manufactured story, the story caught fire and spread.

Subsequently, in between puffs on their joints, countless college students the world over scoured the Beatles LP covers and inner sleeves for the “clues” that the surviving Beatles left for them. People played their records backwards in hope of finding “backwards masked” messages from John, George and Ringo. While all this effort supposedly resulted in mounting evidence that Paul really was dead, the only real results were sales of (a) a lot of magazines on the subject and (b) replacement phonograph needles.

“Celebrated” attorney F. Lee Bailey even got in on the act, hosting a program that purported to examine and weigh the so-called evidence. (Here’s a shocker: The results were “inconclusive.”) And that was pretty much the end of the story. The next big Beatles-related hoax was centered around the 1976 album debut by a Canadian band called Klaatu. They were purported to be the Beatles in disguise. (They weren’t, but they did produce some worthwhile music. That’s another story.)

Fast forward to the 21st century, the era of fan fiction. Because that, in the end, is all Paul McCartney Really is Dead amounts to: some slapdash, shoddy fanfic that anyone with a working knowledge of the Beatles’ history could easily cobble together. The video was created by the production team at something calling itself called Highway 61 Entertainment. Run by a guy who fronts a Bob Dylan tribute band — I don’t wish to lend a shred of dignity to him by repeating his name — the production company’s facility exterior is shown briefly in the film, but what viewers see looks suspiciously like stock photo with a big logo Photoshopped across it. Which would make sense: why a big building for a team of roughly six to eight people, total? (Yes, I watched all the way through to the final credits-roll, and this product is the fruit of the labor of a minivan-full of people.)

The director of this film (who, natch, also wrote it) has a spotty track record already, with a barrel-scraping series of Dylan biopics, and some right-wing propaganda films that made him a darling of the Conservative Political Action Conference. CPAC, of course, are the folks who give a platform to such luminaries of rationality as Pat Buchanan (Nazi apologist), Newt Gingrich (serial adulterer), Sarah Palin (failed half-term governor and teabaggers’ stalking horse), Ron Paul (darling of the I’ve-got-mine-screw-you crowd), and Glenn Beck (dangerously insane TV/radio personality) to greater prominence. The cynicism necessary to espouse a worldview compatible with that sort of rogues’ gallery is, one supposes, a prerequisite for embarking on a project such as this. Said director and his crew have (pardon the expression) exhumed this long-dead fake controversy and added so many “new clues” that anyone who subjects themselves to the hour and a half viewing will end up with eyes sore from constant rolling.

Put quite bluntly, this film is a piece of shit. I could go on and cite specific examples where basic facts (upon which myriad laughable assertions are built) are misstated, fabricated or just plain wrong. But that sort of thoughtful treatment of the film, its creators and its subject would bestow undeserved credibility. This 95-minute sleazefest is beneath contempt. Not merely a crass, opportunistic cash-in, the DVD betrays undisguised contempt for all of the Beatles and people in their orbit. To call it disrespectful to the memories of John and George doesn’t begin to get to the heart of the matter. And it should go without saying that the voice on tape purported to be George Harrison…well, it ain’t.

Note: You may notice that I’ve obscured the director’s name in the DVD packaging image. He deserves such treatment. And I did notice something interesting: the “official” cover art from which I sourced the image has added a question mark (“?”) after George Harrison’s name. My copy has no such punctuation. Perhaps the lawyers weighed in.

Paul McCartney Really is Dead is to be avoided with extreme prejudice. I feel dirty even having viewed it. Totally without merit on any level, this DVD is in shockingly bad taste, is amateurishly produced, and represents cynicism of the lowest order.

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Album Review: Deer Tick – The Black Dirt Sessions

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

The Black Dirt Sessions virtually defines the terms moody and atmospheric. With hints of everything from Americana (of the [Canadian] Band variety, as it so happens) to a dialed-back Roky Erickson (13th Floor Elevators) to gospel hymns, Deer Tick has created something spookily inviting.

There’s a strong melodic sensibility to all of the album’s eleven tracks. The arrangements are straightforward yet complex: at first the songs seem to have only a few things going on musically, but the layers reveal themselves to display great depth. “Choir of Angels” (appropriately enough, one of the more gospel-feeling tunes) is built atop of wheezing organ. “Twenty Miles” is held together by a thumping, jaunty bass line, but its bridge is dreamy and elegiac.

These are wordy songs, no doubt. The handwritten lyric sheet included with the album will cause listeners of a certain age to whip out the drug store readers, but doing so will reap rewards; the songs move far beyond moon-june territory while maintaining a bit of a classic approach (i.e. rhyme scheme).

Vocalist John McCauley wrote all of the songs, and delivers them in his idiosyncratic and inimitable voice. Sometimes he sounds like a Tom Waits with a more mainstream pop sensibility. But on “Goodbye, Dear Friend” there are hints of — wait for it — Jackson Browne. Well maybe the Pretender after smoking some unfiltered cigs and gargling with whisky. That track’s solo piano accompaniment imbues the song with a melancholy, end-of-album feel, even though it’s only the third track.

The Black Dirt Sessions is filled with more texture and variation than one might expect. If the album has an antecedent, it might be something like Plastic Ono Band. As on that 1970 John Lennon album, the songs put the vocals out front; the melodies are strong and memorable, but they exist to deliver the lyrics, not the other way ’round. Even a song with a “ba ba ba” pop element, “Piece By Piece and Frame By Frame,” conveys emotions like dread, regret and loneliness in both the words and music.

The stripped-down arrangement of “The Sad Sun” sports only McCauley on voice and acoustic guitar plus Elizabeth Rodgers Isenberg. Though the band lineup credits five members (“with the help of” Rodgers Isenberg), the generally spare presentation up to this point suggests something more akin to a solo excursion with occasional instrumental adornment.

Fully halfway into the album, “Mange” is the first track to be built upon a relatively standard rock foundation. The rhythm section — with a subtle but pleasingly busy drum part wedded to a hypnotic and simple bass line — sets out the feel, while a bit of electric guitar picking fills in the holes. As the song progresses, it expands, eventually revealing a sprightly barrelhouse piano solo that leads onto a full-throttle guitar solo. The band kicks into high gear and starts playing like they’re The Outlaws. This mid-song development is totally unexpected and totally welcome; for a brief moment, Deer Tick rocks out like mad.

But again it’s McCauley’s wizened vocals that are placed front and center. McCauley’s vocal style all but guarantees he’ll never reside in the top 40, but clearly that’s not his goal. His raspy yet clearly heartfelt delivery may wear on some, but his voice fits his songs like a worn glove.

“When She Comes Home” continues in a midtempo southern rock vibe. The song serves up hints of Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Oddly, credits and lyrics for this song don’t appear on the sleeve. “Hand in My Hand” finds the band settling into a stylistic groove; revealing that — Rust Never Sleeps style — the album is front-loaded with the more sparely-arranged tunes. Whatever the reason, the track sequencing is inspired, and rewards those who hang on all the way through.

“I Will Not Be Myself” seems at first to head in one direction musically, but a soaring-yet-spooky chorus takes the song somewhere else. And when it’s repeated, the chorus widens the song’s scope. The track takes time to develop, the aural equivalent of a movie camera in tight closeup on an object — something in the lonely desert, perhaps; you’ll conjure your own imagery — slowly pulling back to reveal the whole wide-angle scene.

“Blood Moon” is music-noir a bit reminiscent of some of Steve Wynn‘s solo work. A distorted organ solo sounds like background music from a Vincent Price film. The album ends — only slightly predictably — with a return to the spare arrangement aesthetic. “Christ Jesus” is built around McCauley’s voice and a piano that has that unmistakable wobbly church-basement quality. Subtle strings add just the right amount of somber tones. Toward the end of the song, McCauley goes for broke and sets about tearing his vocal cords to shreds.

I could easily produce a list of reason why I shouldn’t like The Black Dirt Sessions. The idiosyncratic vocals. The fact that it doesn’t rock all the way through. The lonely vibe. But to hell with all that: to my great surprise, Deer Tick’s third album may well end up on my 2010 best-of list. Recommended.

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Bootleg Bin: John Fogerty – Hoodoo

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

The year was 1976, not a banner year for mainstream rock music. The charts were populated with the likes of England Dan & John Ford Coley, Firefall and The Eagles; soft-centered mid-tempo artists all. A few groups turned out rock albums of merit (Wings, Ted Nugent, The Tubes) but other than Boston and Frampton Comes Alive, MOR and disco ruled the charts.

The sort of rootsy-straight-ahead brand of rock produced by late 60s groups like Creedence Clearwater Revival had fallen out of favor in the marketplace. And punk–despite its eventual influence–wasn’t shifting units at all. So it was against this backdrop that former CCR leader John Fogerty began work on his third solo album, Hoodoo. The first two had met with little success: Blue Ridge Rangers is something of a cult favorite, and 1975′s John Fogerty fared only slightly better.

For reasons that have never been clear, Fogerty chose to put together an album that fused his CCR style (he did write, arrange and produce most all of CCR’s material, after all) with that of the prevailing style: disco. If that reads in print like a terrible idea, it was.

Even at the time, according to Hank Bordowitz‘s Bad Moon Rising: The Unauthorized History of Creedence Clearwater Revival, the honchos at Elektra sensed it was a dog, and ultimately refused to release it.

According to most accounts, Fogerty was experiencing a writer’s block, due in part to the financial hassles related to CCR’s breakup. This uneven collection of songs was, it seems, all he could come up with. In fact he continued to fiddle with the tapes for years, with an eye toward eventual release. Luckily for him, the block subsided and he returned with the classic Centerfield, but that wasn’t until 1985: nine years later.

Fogerty has always been very guarded about his master tapes, hence the existence of few CCR or solo studio bootlegs. Poor-to-fair copies of Hoodoo have escaped the vaults; it’s likely that these are copies of an early cassette master.

The album is not without its charms, though its sound is hopelessly pinned to 1976. There are flashes of Fogerty’s songwriting prowess on tracks like “You Got the Magic” (which was released as a single) and “Between the Lines,” but most tracks are marred by wrongheaded production flourishes. “Hoodoo Man” is another strong number, and would in fact have been worthy of revival, so to speak. But nothing explains inclusion of the instrumental “Marching to Blarney,” which serves only to pad this short album…and to annoy.

That track notwithstanding, there isn’t much here that couldn’t have been fixed by removing the dated trappings (talk box, fuzz bass, sax solo). And for Fogerty fans, it’s worth hearing as an interesting failure, and a partial answer to the question “what was Fogerty up to between 1975 and 1985?” This odd album is worth seeking out, as it will likely never see legitimate release. Ignore the clumsy keyboard bass parts, the cheesy synth strings and wah-wah and try to listen to the tunes. Then dig out Centerfield.

Difficulty to Locate: 8 out of 10
General Listenability: 6 out of 10

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Bootleg Bin: Moby Grape – Monterey Pop Festival, June 17, 1967

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

In the summer of 2007 I spoke at length with rock impresario Lou Adler, in connection with the 40th anniversary of the Monterey Pop Festival. During our talk, I brought up a question he had heard many times before: What ever happened to the film of Moby Grape‘s set?

The San Francisco-based Moby Grape was a pop-psych supergroup of the highest order. Their perfect 1967 debut Moby Grape is on a par with The BeatlesSgt. Pepper’s, Love‘s Forever Changes and a select few others. But the three-pronged attack of bad management, naughty behavior and plain old bad luck derailed the band, and they never truly followed up with a similar-quality release.

They did play some shows, and among the highest-profile gigs was their Saturday slot at Monterey. Scheduled as the opening act for the evening session, the group was introduced by Tommy Smothers: “The first group tonight is kind of like in a more difficult position than another group, because everybody’s getting settled; someone has to start the show. And this next group, I think we’re very happy that they decided to [go on first], because nobody else wanted to go first. It’s a difficult position. So let’s have a warm hand–really, let’s make it extra-warm–for Columbia recording artists Moby Grape!”

The quintet took the stage and performed four songs. They kicked off with a pounding rendition of guitarist Skip Spence’s “Indifference,” highlighting some of the group’s many assets: they all sang, they all wrote, and they had three guitarists who could play lead. The band was in top form, and clearly glad to be at Monterey. “Welcome, majestic crowd! You can’t believe what it’s like up here, seeing all of this,” Bassist Bob Moseley exclaimed, before launching into his brief “Mr. Blues.” They followed that with guitarist Peter Lewis‘ plaintive, mid-tempo “Sitting by the Window.” The final song was the stunning, rocking Skip Spence song, “Omaha,” again showing off complex harmonies, intertwining lead guitar runs, and stop-start drumming.

And that was it. Twelve and a half minutes, and history was made. A couple dozen live bootlegged performances of the Grape do exist, but only a few are from their classic period. This recording is a soundboard, and was either taken from audio reels or…perhaps…from the sound track of DA Pennebaker‘s 16mm movie cameras. So: what about the film? Moby Grape’s set didn’t make it onto the Monterey Pop film, or onto the albums, or even onto the bonus outtake reel included with the recent DVD reissue.

Lou Adler: “I ran into [guitarist] Jerry Miller the other night. I said hello to him, we talked for a minute, then I walked away. Then I walked back, and I told him–because it’s true–in all the interviews that I’ve done [about the Monterey Pop Festival], everyone talks about Moby Grape. And I feel bad about it, because evidently–and I knew it was a really good performance–it’s a standout performance in the minds of a lot of people. I promised him that I’d go back and look for that footage, and see what we could do about it.”

At press time, it hasn’t turned up, but the rumors do persist. Meanwhile we have this excellent, all-too-brief audio document. These guys never could catch a break. The group’s albums were reissued on Sundazed, but in keeping with their star-crossed history, their (“allegedly,” suggests our legal department) evil former manager Matthew Katz seems to have intervened: the release was pulled from shelves in November 2008.

Postscript 2010: The brief Monterey performance is now legitimately available on the 2010 release Historic Live Moby Grape Performances 1966-1969. Go buy that, not the bootleg; these guys have had no end of getting screwed by record companies and management.

Difficulty to Locate: 5 out of 10 (but buy the legit one instead!)
General Listenability: 10 out of 10

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