Archive for August, 2010

DVD Review: John Lennon Rare and Unseen

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

The Rare and Unseen series from Formative Productions is a mixed bag. The Beatles edition has some interesting material but feels fleshed-out. The Rolling Stones volume is pretty good but not essential. But the latest edition covering John Lennon stands head and shoulders above those two.

First, the obligatory disclaimers: there’s no Beatles music here, save for a clip of “Some Other Guy” from Liverpool’s Cavern, but Lennon’s talking over that. And this is not an officially-sanctioned product. But those extremely minor points aside, John Lennon Rare and Unseen does what it sets out to do, and does it in a professional manner. Over the course of 75 minutes, the DVD weaves together some decidedly rare footage from a short list of sources into a relatively cohesive look at certain aspects of John Lennon. His on-the-record views on fame, money, the “bigger than Jesus” controversy, the war in Vietnam, the peace and youth movements and much more are explored. Lennon was always outspoken and candid, and the DVD captures those qualities through interviews with David Frost and others.

Beatles-era interview footage shows equally candid comments from McCartney, Harrison and Ringo Starr as well; even as a lifelong hardcore Beatles fanatic with a large library of unreleased footage, I had seen quite little of this. Some well-known snippets – specifically ones surrounding the notorious 1966 Memphis and Manila visits — are shown here in longer form, providing useful and illuminating context.

The cheese quotient is refreshingly low. There are brief moments of ersatz Beatles music used as background, but they’re mercifully unobtrusive. A few talking heads appear to provide weighty pronouncements, and while some – Phil Collins, in particular – add little and may cause the viewer to wonder “Why is he even here?” – others have some genuinely interesting things to say. In general, however, these guests are at their most useful when they relay anecdotes rather than attempt to provide analysis. (Leave that to me, says I.) Collins telling us that he “never met Lennon” but probably “wouldn’t have liked him” is not especially useful information. Having been a childhood extra on the set of A Hard Day’s Night does not qualify one as a Beatles/Lennon authority, no matter how much fame one may have earned in other ways.

The two programs from which the bulk of the DVD is drawn are Man of the Decade dating from late 1969 and an episode of Weekend World from roughly the same period. The DVD is well-edited, and the archival clips are of reasonably good quality. The audio on some of the earlier clips is a bit dodgy, but nothing is so bad as to be distracting.

For anyone interested in what John Lennon had to say about, well, much of anything, John Lennon Rare and Unseen is a treasure trove of material that deserves to be seen.

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

Album Review: Strange Games & Funky Things, Volume 5

Monday, August 30th, 2010

Sometimes it’s a bit of an adventure to wander into a compilation disc without having a clear idea of its thematic angle. I was familiar with earlier comps on the UK-based BBE label – including ones curated by Keb Darge – so I started out from a position of assuming the contents of this disc would at least be worth a spin, possibly much more.

Since it’s titled Strange Games & Funky Things, Volume 5, I was intrigued. The subtitle read “Smoking 70’s Soul and Rare Grooves,” so I was even more interested. Into the player it went.

The first cut was indeed an early 70s pop-soul number by one Ned Doheny, an American singer-songwriter of the “big in Japan” category. No, really. Good song, with more than a few hints of Alan Parsons Project’s “Breakdown” from I Robot (even though APP’s song came out four years after this track). So far, so good, I thought: this is a pretty well obscure song that does indeed have a groove, and it could have been a hit.

But three minutes in, something very odd happened. I started hearing a looped bass and drum figure, and some turntable scratching. “Sonic dissonance” doesn’t begin to describe what I felt. Grandmaster Flash and his contemporaries weren’t working in 1972; what was going on here?

By the time I formulated those thoughts, the disc had slipped into a romantic soul-funk number called “Sweet Stuff” by Sugarhill Records founder Sylvia. And then it hit me. I picked up the CD sleeve to read the name of the compiler/curators of this set. Yup, though I didn’t recognize the names, they were self-explanatory: DJ Spinna & BBE Soundsystem. Yes, this set is a compilation where the tracks are linked in the manner of a live DJ. Fascinating.

I don’t dance. Maybe I’m just too white and uptight, with neuroses outta sight. So the idea of a set that – in the words of this CD’s press kit – contains “dance floor fillers” doesn’t really move me (so to speak). My enjoyment of music has more to do with its sound than its feel. But this stuff sounds and feels good.

The tracks are generally of that early 70s just-before-disco-hit vintage, but there’s something especially inventive and exploratory about them. On a number like Richard Evans’ “Capricorn Rising,” you’ll hear an arrangement that is grasping for a new genre. There are hints of South American samba, scat vocal jazz, and more. And all these elements are laid atop a beat that moves, with sweeping string arrangements.

Deep cuts, yes. Other than two acts –War and Merry Clayton – all of the artists on this 21-track compilation were unknown to me. A set like Strange Games yet again beats the listener over the head (in a good way) with the inescapable fact that lots of worthwhile music has slipped by without notice. The curators of this and other sets are in their own way funk-soul Alan Lomaxes.

The disc is sequenced so that changes in tempo and feel are minimized; if you don’t listen closely, the cuts will tumble into one another without calling your attention to the changes. The seamless editing works quite well. In a live setting, DJs get one shot to make the transition: sometimes it works, sometimes less so. Here on disc, DJ Spinna has taken the time and care to get it oh-so-right.

There’s a world music bent to this collection. Japanese and South American artists are included. But even these are smoothly included into the mix. You’ll hear congas, vibes, horn sections…you name it, and you’ll like it.

With its jazzy flute and chunky-funky guitars, The Soul Searchers’ “Ashley’s Roachclip” sounds like the theme to a forgotten blaxploitation film. And DJ Spinna’s editing the song straight into Willie Hale’s “Groove On” is nearly seamless. And in one of the rare cases where the transition does show a seam, Spinna makes the best of it, inserting a treated vocal announcing his presence in the mix.

The disc will be packaged with “bonus” disc containing most of the tracks again, but in an unmixed format. I ask, why bother? If it’s always done this well, why not jus enjoy the mixing talents as applied to a good collection of songs? I’m hooked.

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

On Newsstands: “Day of the Remains”

Friday, August 27th, 2010

The September-October issue of London-based Shindig! Magazine is (theoretically) on newsstands now. In addition to worthy stories by other writers, the issue prominently features my story of the Remains. Based on a lengthy in-person conversation I had last summer with Remains founder Barry Tashian, the piece…well…let’s just look at the promo blurb from Shindig!

They built a fan base in Boston. They recorded an album. They toured with The Beatles. Then they broke up before the album came out. Years later they became legends as part of the Nuggets collection. Bill Kopp talks with Remains founder/leader Barry Tashian about all that and more, including Tashian’s later work with Gram Parsons, The Remains reunion and a new film about the band.  

Available for purchase here. You can also read an “outtake” of sorts from the feature (not included in the magazine) here.

Interview: The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ Kim Wilson (part two)

Friday, August 27th, 2010

Continued from Part One, of course…

Bill Kopp: How would you describe — what is it that you deliver with the Fabulous Thunderbirds that’s different than what you do with Kim Wilson’s Blues All-stars?

Kim Wilson: That’s easy. [The Fabulous Thunderbirds] is just a hybrid of a lot of different things. It’s Americana, it’s all of those musics put together.  Whereas the solo thing, that is straight Chicago stuff. We vary it a little with that thing, but this is really a lot of different musical genres.

It’s a concept that I’ve had since I was a kid. It was out of necessity at first, ‘cause I would have to play a lot of soul beats to get people up and dance. Then I could play some blues.

If you look at that first James Cotton record on Verve, that really kind of confirmed everything for me. He was really a huge inspiration in a lot of ways to me. Harmonica, of course. But he was a great singer. He was doing “Blues in My Sleep,” he was doing “Knock on Wood,” “Turn On Your Lovelight,” “Don’t Start Me Talkin’” by Sonny Boy Williamson. All these different musical things. So I said, “Yeah!”

[Our conversation turns to Stax artists; everybody’s talking at once.]

Kim Wilson: That’s when they were makin’ records. A lot of texture was comin’ out of these guys. And all they did, really, was turn on the tape recorder and play. Instead of something that’s “produced.” And that’s what I want to get back to with the new thing.  I’ve got this thing now that you have [a new CD of eleven songs, sold at shows – ed.] and it’s very close. But it’s gonna change. I may re-cut the whole thing on analog.

Bill Kopp: That was my next question. So is or isn’t this your new album?

Kim Wilson: It’s supposed to be, but we weren’t done with it. And we knew we weren’t. But since we paid for it…

Bill Kopp: Yeah, what the hell. In the meantime, something is better than nothing.

Kim Wilson: A good example [of a sound I like] is the Black Keys. They’re an interesting bunch, sonically. I saw ‘em on Leno the other night, and I really enjoyed them. I thought, “There’s some guys who’ve really picked up the essence of what music is.” I like the guy’s voice, and he was playing this way-cool Supro guitar. They’re another band that’s a hybrid: it’s not blues, but it has the essence of all those things. You’ve got to know blues – and a lot of other things – to be able to play the way that they play. There are very few people who can do that and get away with it commercially. That’s the kind of thing we’ve done in the past, and that’s what we’re really ready to do now. If this was 1985, we’d be in the Top 20. But there is no Top 20 any more.

Bill Kopp: I saw you guys – sort of like that drunk guy in the autograph line was saying to you – open for Double Trouble at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. It was the night before Stevie Ray went into rehab. He went into Peachford [Behavioral Health Systems].

Kim Wilson: Poor kid…

Bill Kopp: That was sort of the commercial apex for the band, but what you do now continues to be really interesting.

Kim Wilson: What we’re doing now really has progressed to a point where people really allow me to sing. Which has never really happened until now. I mean, here I am, 59 fuckin’ years old, and I’m just finally learnin’ how.

This kind of music is all about being a journeyman musician. It takes your whole life to do what you need to do. There are a lot of people who are young, who have a lot of potential. You can see it coming, coming, coming, and then: where did it go? I think it’s great to be at a certain age – like me – and get to the point where it’s like a rebirth. Where you can stand yourself, the things that you do.

You’re always experimenting with different techniques. You’re always listening to the old records, trying to pick up the essence of the things. I’ve been listening to some Ray Charles lately, and other singers. I enjoy that stuff, and I’m learning. Always learning. The object is, maybe at this stage of my life, maybe I’ve busted my head through the basement of that peer group that I want to be in. Guys that I’ve revered all my life and have played with. And if I had done that when I was, maybe, 25, I’d be done.

Bill Kopp: But you might not have appreciated it at that age like you would now…

Kim Wilson: You gotta realize, when I was 25, I was like someone who was sixteen. It was another time. That whole extension of how kids grow up fast these days, it extended into my twenties and thirties. And it worked out okay for me. I’m havin’ fun, I’m very excited about music, and I’m very excited about being good at it.

Bill Kopp: That comes through onstage.

Kim Wilson: No one can like you if you don’t like yourself. And the bandstand might be the only place where you do like yourself!

Bill Kopp: Looking at your tour itinerary, it seems like you have a varied lineup of festivals and types of venues. Do you tweak the set depending on the gig?

Kim Wilson: Yes. I don’t have a set list. I just call ‘em off.

Bill Kopp: You guys don’t go into a huddle between songs. That would be super-unprofessional: “Excuse us a moment while we discuss what our next song is going to be.”

Kim Wilson: I just holler ‘em out. But [chuckles] we’ve got a real problem with Johnny Moeller. I holler out the song to him, and he’s goin’, “What?!” And I’m thinking, “Can’t this guy read my fuckin’ lips?”

Bill Kopp: “Or my mind…”

Johnny Moeller: Everyone else does!

Kim Wilson: I’m doing all these signs to him [makes wild hand gestures]. And then he finally comes up to me, and I tell him.

Johnny Moeller: I think it pays to be as deaf as you are!

Kim Wilson [to the whole band]: Believe me: you’ll all be wearin’ fuckin’ hearing aids by the time you’re my age. I’ve got twenty years on the oldest of these bunch of guys. [laughs all around]

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Interview: The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ Kim Wilson (part one)

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

The Fabulous Thunderbirds are nominally a blues band, but in the thirty-plus years since their founding by Kim Wilson and Jimmie Vaughan (the latter left for a solo career in 1989) they’ve melded a lot of styles into their music. The group rose to commercial prominence with MTV and radio hits “Tuff Enuff” and “Wrap It Up,” (both 1986), but continue to be a popular concert draw.

After Vaughan left, Wilson led an oft-changing lineup (one that for a few years included ace guitarist Nick Curran, whose album Reform School Girls is reviewed here). The latest lineup has been together since 2008, and includes Wilson (vocals and harmonica), Johnny Moeller and Mike Keller on guitars, Randy Bermudes on bass, and Johnny’s brother Jay on drums.

I had planned to meet up with the band just before they took the stage at the 2010 Bele Chere Festival in Asheville NC, but schedules being what they are, the band didn’t have time before taking the stage. In the end, this worked to everyone’s advantage. After Wilson and his bandmates worked the autograph line, they invited me into their tour bus (good thing, since it was a hot and humid July night) and we sat down for a post-show conversation.

Bill Kopp: For me, your music has always sort of transcended genres. It’s not strictly blues: there’s plenty of R&B, soul and rock in it. And it’s changed over time. Do you think those changes are a function of the changing lineups, or do they have to do with the sorts of songs you write?

Kim Wilson: I’m kinda going places that I want to go. I might not have been able to go those places with other lineups. This lineup affords me to go a lot of different places, a lot of different kinds of music. More than I’ve ever been able to do. The singing has become a little more important…the singing is everything. It’s the whole thing. The harmonica is good, and you can create a lot of excitement with that, but without the songs and the singing…

It’s all about females appreciating it. So you’ve got to be able to sing ‘em up a little bit to get that. Otherwise [chuckles]…you’ve got problems.

Bill Kopp: Do you think you have been unfairly pigeonholed as a blues act?

Kim Wilson: Sometimes. When we try to do things now, you know, they put us right in that blues category. And they’re able to do that because the blues category is so nebulous. People are having a hard time figuring out what blues is, because they’ve been exposed to so much stuff that isn’t blues, [but] that’s called blues. There’s very few bands who are gonna be able to really play blues.

As much different stuff as we do, lots of times on blues festivals, we’re the only people playing any blues!

Bill Kopp: Lots of jam bands and stuff…

Kim Wilson: Jam bands – that’s okay. As long as they don’t call it blues. I think it’s time for just music festivals. There’s so few people playing blues now. What’s cool about these roots festivals is that you get people like Mavis Staples, Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, Robert Cray, Los Lobos, some jazz people, some soul people. You really get the cream of all musics, and you kind of cut the fat off. Ad you get an opportunity, a special day with [artists] who are kinda just starting out.

There’s a standard that you need to go by. You need to give the audience the top of what there is. And I’d like to think that we are one of those bands. But I think you’ve got to give people their money’s worth. I think that after five in the afternoon, you really can’t be messin’ around. You know what I mean? Up ‘til five, maybe.

Bill Kopp: “It’s been a long day. Impress me!”

Kim Wilson: Right. What do they say? Win or go home. I mean, it’s easy for me to talk like that now, because I just got finished playing in front of a great crowd. They were very receptive from the beginning. And that makes your job so easy. You just give ‘em all you got, and you can relax. There’s not ever a feeling of being frantic.

Bill Kopp: When they’re looking at their watch and crossing their arms, you’ve got problems.

Kim Wilson: And that happens sometimes. But this is a concert pretty much in a perfect world, as far as a crowd goes.

Bill Kopp: It helps that [laughs] we all get fairly liquored up earlier in the evening.

On some level I kind of see you as a more modern version of John Mayall.

Kim Wilson: The way I’ve got people comin’ in and out [of the band]?

Bill Kopp: Yes. You’ve got the vision. The way I see it, there’s enough “space” in your vision. It’s not like, ‘you guys are gonna come in, and you’re gonna play this note, and you’re gonna play it this way.” It’s not that. It’s wide open. And it’s not just that you’re the constant guy. It’s more than that. Do you think the Mayall comparison is a fair one?

Kim Wilson: Sure. But there’s a fair number of people you can say that about. Muddy Waters, for instance. There’s a few bandleaders who have played a lot of different kinds of music that have had people come in and out of their bands. People like Duke Ellington and Count Basie had some unbelievable people.

Mayall, he helped out a lot of people. He gave a lot of people jobs, and pushed them on their way. He did a great thing. And he made people aware of blues music. He comes from my era. That was back in the sixties when we were kids. I’ve gotten to know John over the years. He’s a great guy; he’s always been very gracious, very complimentary. I have a lot — a lot — of respect for John Mayall.

Bill Kopp: It’s hard to imagine: if we didn’t have him, what we would have missed on. Some really talented people that might not have gotten that hand up.

Four-fifths of the current lineup has been together since 2007, and Mike Keller has been with you for two years. With all the gigs you’ve done, I imagine that you all got that whole unspoken musical communication thing down pretty quick.

Kim Wilson: We’re finding some direction now. The whole Chicago blues thing with this band is not there; that’s not what it really is. You can get some tastes of it, but it’s more Bobby “Blue” Bland, Texas-type stuff, more guitar-oriented stuff. I’ll pick up the harmonica maybe three, four songs in a night. And good ones, y’know? But I think it’s really about all those different directions you can go, that you can show people.

I’ve actually thought about doing some more country…doing a country type of thing. I love George Jones, and I’ve thought about showing people what I can do as a country singer.

Bill Kopp: There are hints of that in your music. Country blues. It wouldn’t be a left turn for you.

Kim Wilson: You know that song, “Do You Know Who I Am.” That’s very country sounding.

Bill Kopp: If you tweak the arrangement a little bit, it would be totally George Jones.

Kim Wilson: [laughs] I’d love to hear him do it!

Bill Kopp: That would be nice. It would probably pay some bills, too, wouldn’t it?

In part two of our interview, Wilson talks about the origin on the concept of the band, where he wants to go with the new recordings, and who he’s listening to these days. Wilson also throws a few good-natured f-bombs.

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Big Announcement!

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

I am pleased to announce that I am writing a definitive history of Brotherhood, the band founded by ex-Paul Revere & the Raiders members Phil “Fang” Volk, Drake Levin and Michael Smith. The group released three albums in the late 1960s, and their story has never been fully documented until now. The long-form feature will be based on extensive interviews and research, and will appear in the summer 2011 issue of Ugly Things.

Album Review(s) – Concord’s “Definitive” Jazz Collections

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Concrd Definitive Jazz CollectionsI’ll be the first to admit that I know little about modern jazz. I’m no expert on its history, I can’t readily name well-known instrumental classics simply by hearing them, and I certainly can’t play the stuff on my keyboards. I’m a decidedly rock/pop guy, and generally like my music straightforward. So needless to say, if you’re looking for authoritative analyses of jazz recordings, this site should not be your first stop.

But like most avid listeners, I do know what I like, and I try to keep an open mind. It was with those two ideas in mind that I removed the shrinkwrap from three upcoming Concord releases. These three titles — each a 2cd set with extensive, authoritative liner notes (always important to me, those) — all use the word definitive in their titles. Surveying the works of three jazz giants — John Coltrane (tenor saxophone), Sonny Rollins (also tenor sax) and Thelonious Monk (piano) — as recorded for the Prestige and Riverside labels (and for Rollins, add Contemporary to that list), these sets are positioned as introductions of a sort to these musicians.

The Definitive John Coltrane on Prestige and Riverside collects twenty-one sides from the period 1955-1958. Several of these numbers weren’t released as Coltrane tracks; rather they showcase his work as an able and featured sideman with Miles Davis and Monk, and as part of a modern jazz supergroup.

The Definitive John Coltrane on Prestige and Riverside As with much jazz of this period, the arrangements aren’t strong on what rock and pop listeners think of as melody. The songs are workouts, showcases, for exploratory performances. Recorded with little if any overdubs, the songs capture the one-take excitement of a band blowing at their best. There’s just enough musical underpinning to hold things together; the players are intuitive enough to pay incredibly sympathetic attention to one another as they take their solo turns. The music never falls apart.

In the late 50s Coltrane was establishing his reputation as (among other things) an excellent interpreter of others’ work. In fact there’s but one original composition (“Straight Street”) on this set. But when Coltrane blows, he makes the songs his own. There are few five-and-a-half minute periods in jazz as exciting as the Tadd Dameron piece “Mating Call.” Like much of the music on this set, it’s accessible and demanding all at once.

There are a few standards here, and a handful of well-known tunes (“‘Round Midnight,” “Monk’s Mood”) but most of these songs will not be familiar to the casual jazz fan. Belying the fact that all the numbers were recorded in a 36-month period, there’s a dizzying display of versatility on these tracks. Overall, they’re of the sort that can be enjoyed on multiple levels: as a soundtrack for whatever else you’re up to (say, writing a review), as accompaniment to a thorough read through Ashley Kahn‘s liner notes, or for close, intense listening and appreciation. As an introduction to the early works of Coltrane, this set is wholly successful.

The Definitive Sonny Rollins on Prestige, Riverside and Contemporary Tenor Saxophonist Sonny Rollins gets similar treatment on The Definitive Sonny Rollins on Prestige, Riverside and Contemporary. As displayed here — and despite his reputation — Rollins’ approach is occasionally a few notches more toward pop accessibility than is Coltrane’s. But that’s not to take away at all from the genius of Rollins’ playing. From the brief but impossibly upbeat “Mambo Bounce” to “In a Sentimental Mood,” the disc manages to cover two distant stylistic poles. And both work brilliantly. Rollins gets plenty adventurous on these tracks, displaying a versatility (and, it would seem, a willingness) to engage in both the pop and arty sides of modern jazz. The opening of “Paradox” may even cause listeners to want to dance. (During Max Roach‘s crazy drum solo, not so much. But wow.) The list of artists included on these sides reads like a who’s-who of 50s jazz, and that’s not surprising: there was a great deal of interplay and cooperation among the top players of the era.

To the jazz novitiate, one of the most amazing characteristics of this music is the rhythm section. The (upright) bass, played on several tracks by Percy Heath, is a thing to behold. It carries its own melody, remaining just barely inside the framework of the song. Yet it fulfills the role that rock and pop enthusiasts expect of a bass. Exponentially busier than its rock corollary, the bass on these Rollins sides is nothing short of amazing.

As with the Coltrane tracks, the listener can pick the tracks apart and appreciate the components that went in to make them so memorable, innovative and influential. Or they can step back and let the awesomeness of the numbers wash over them. It all works. For the music enthusiast whose jazz collection is slim, this title makes a welcome addition, and a useful introduction into the 1950s work of Sonny Rollins. He’s still at it today.

The Definitive Thelonious Monk on Prestige and Riverside Ashley Kahn’s illuminating liner notes for The Definitive Thelonious Monk on Prestige and Riverside helped me know what to listen for to more fully appreciate what makes the pianist’s work so special. Kahn makes note of Monk’s “liberal use of hesitation,” and I found that a useful touchstone. It reminded me of something that Stu Cook — bassist for Creedence Clearwater Revival, an act most would assume to have little or nothing in common with Thelonious Monk — told me a few years ago: “The spaces between the notes may be more important, because they help focus where the notes are. And that’s the cool thing. If there’s just a steady stream of notes, everything is all one color. But when you start to mix it up, let it ‘breathe,’ that’s when the magic comes into it.”

The twenty-one tracks on this 2cd set span the period 1952-1960, and draw from an impressive succession of albums. Though Monk had already been recording (his first sides were cut in 1944), the Prestige and Riverside tracks find him fully hitting his stride.

Time has a way of softening the edges. I’m reminded of how alien the Sex Pistols (sorry — I’m a rock guy!) sounded when I first heard them in the 70s. Hearing those cuts now, of course they’re still full of power, but it’s difficult to appreciate how revolutionary they once sounded. And so it is with Monk. While the music is vibrant, exciting, unpredictable, it doesn’t feel as “difficult” and some might suggest. Monk’s music — as collected here — is actually quite warm and inviting.

Duke Ellington‘s classic “Caravan” is here, presented by a trio. And “‘Round Midnight” makes a well-deserved appearance. (There is a tiny bit of overlap in the content among the three two-disc sets covered here, but not enough to come anywhere close to rendering any one redundant.) The incredibly melodic “Blue Monk” is also served up by a trio including the aforementioned Percy Heath plus the inimitable Art Blakey. It’s worth noting that while I am not very familiar with Blakey’s work, after hearing his playing on these discs, I’m very interested to hear more of him.

Which, is the point. In all likelihood, listening to any or all of these Definitive series set will lead to one of two outcomes: you’ll decide the artist is not for you, or you’ll be hungry for more. And at its heart, that’s the goal of set like these. All three are thus highly recommended to anyone musically open-minded and unfamiliar with this music. There are hours and hours of joy to be found within these discs.

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

Album Review: Posies – Blood/Candy

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

Posies - Blood/CandyPerhaps it’s unfair to expect (or even demand) a known musical quantity from an artist, time and time again. You loved the first album, so understandably you may well want more of the same on the second. But what if the artist is the sort who grows, changes, evolves, mutates? The sound changes over time. For listeners who want a sure thing, that can be a recipe for disaster. For those listeners, we have (or had) — and regular readers know where I’m headed, so wait for it — Oasis.

Yes, Oasis’ first two albums — especially, from my standpoint, the second, 1995′s (What’s the Story) Morning Glory — were exemplars of a particular style, and time has not dulled the impact of that music a bit. But the half-dozen or so albums that would follow (at press time Oasis either has or has not broken up, but then you knew that) were partially successful attempts to recapture the vibe of those albums. Zero steps forward, one step back.

Some seven years before the debut of those immodest Mancunians, the Posies came on the scene. Their first release, 1988′s Failure, was initially available only in the Pacific Northwest (hard to imagine now, but this was pre-internet, kids). The album was crafted by the songwriting duo by Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, and critics who heard it likened the duo to the Hollies, but with a stronger rock undercurrent. At least one song on that disc (“I May Hate You Sometimes”) qualified for classic status, and the remainder was pretty fine as well.

Rather than standing still, the duo moved forward, expanding their sound in several logical directions. They added players to become a real group, and enlisted legendary knob-twiddler John Leckie to work the board for their major label debut Dear 23. Though Leckie’s credential might have led some to expect a paisley pop outing, Dear 23 was instead a lush album that rocked. There were some sonic connections to the paisley underground vibe (already left behind) but Dear 23 approached perfection.

The followup Frosting on the Beater moved in a harder rock direction, and the result was closer to what you might consider powerpop. That album — certainly influenced by fellow Northwesterners Nirvana, who were at their own commercial apex — still kept the sugary sweet harmonies and hooky melodies, but wedded them to a heavier rock delivery.

But while critics ate up these albums, the general public didn’t embrace them in great numbers. The group tried rocking even harder on Amazing Disgrace, and longtime fans were left a bit bewildered; sales flagged a bit, though the album was still a quality offering. Subsequently off the major label, the Posies essentially bookended their career where they started, releasing the self-referential Success (1998) on the same local label as their debut. And the album had a sound to match, though it was informed by the stlyistid excursions the group had made in the years between the two records.

With that, they threw in the towel. A live album and a career-spanning rarities set would follow, but no new Posies product would come for seven years. 2005 saw a low-key return in Every Kind of Light, and then…nothing for five more years.

So now in 2010 the Posies have returned with Blood/Candy. The news is met with a question: will they play stripped-down semi-acoustic songs? Will they go the deeply textured, baroque direction of Dear 23? Will they rock out like they did during the DGC Records era?

The answer is: Yes. But they also make some major stylistic detours, the sort of risk-taking that Oasis couldn’t even countenance. Sometimes these excursions work, sometimes not. But even when they don’t soar, the Posies get well-deserved points for trying.

The vocals on “Plastic Paperbacks” will sound familiar, but little else about the song will. The song features a guest appearance from the StranglersHugh Cornwell, and while his return is welcome, the dark vibe of the song is a musical left turn, not at all what you’d expect from a Posies album opener.

“The Glitter Prize” is indeed a prize, and it marks a return to form, to the sort of sound Posies fans have come to love. Transcendent harmonies, earnest acoustic guitars, and an insistent beat add up to something approximating “Solar Sister Part Two.” Former Letters to Cleo vocalist Kay Hanley guests, but if I didn’t tell you, you might not notice.

Three tracks in, listeners paying attention would be forgiven for wondering if Blood/Candy is setting up to be a duets album. “Licenses to Hide” features a prominent guest spot from Lisa Lobsinger of Broken Social Scene. But the song’s remarkable features have more to do with its ambitious arrangement. Hints of everything from baroque-period Beatles to Jellyfish, the Shangri-Las and A Camp abound. The rousing chorus is worth the price of admission.

And with that ends the featured guest appearances. Four songs in, the Posies settle into an aesthetic style. “So Caroline” is propulsive pop, another successful marriage of the sweet/heavy recipe that is the Posies’ signature. “Take Care of Yourself” rocks too, but the instrumentation concentrates on chords, leaving the vocals to carry the melody. It’s a winning approach, and the stuttering drum figure that anchors the verses is an interesting departure.

“Cleopatra Street” unfolds slowly, conjuring a feel a bit like Small Faces. Tightly wound, the song threatens to explode. (Eventually it does.) “For the Ashes” is a piano- and organ-centric ballad that reaches back to 1967 for at least some of its inspiration. “Accidental Architecture” is breathy art-pop that may conjure thoughts of an off-kilter take on The Left Banke.

“She’s Coming Down Again!” feels like Jon and Ken fronting the Wrecking Crew at Western Recorders. (If you follow, you’ll know that’s my subtle way of telling you this is the track to hear on Blood/Candy.) The vaguely sinister “Notion 99″ rocks hard, and is propelled by handclaps. “Holiday Hours” starts out with a campfire vibe, and instrumentation builds as the song progresses. The brief, oddly-named “Enewetak” (try saying it out loud) features analog-sounding synths, a sonic ingredient the Posies aren’t especially known for: a new attack, perhaps? The coda is not to be missed. “Enewetak” does restate all of the group’s strengths, summing up an album that is at once both among the Posies’ most stylistically varied and consistent albums.

Blood/Candy will be out September 28 on Rykodisc.

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

Bootleg Bin: Pastor John Rydgren – Silhouette Segments

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

There was a brief period — in the late 1960s and early 70s, natch — when mainstream religion tried to get hip. And I don’t mean that in a condescending way, though I myself am a post-dogmatic. Or a “recovering Catholic.” Or a Unitarian; take your pick of labels. But my point is that during that time of social upheaval, some people within the religious hierarchies believed that (a) they still had a valid message to convey and (b) speaking the language of young people was not only not blasphemous, it was necessary.

I remember a book that some of my more religious friends used to dig in the 70s. I believe it was called The Way. What it was, was a sort of modern rewrite of the Bible. Or at least the New Testament. If you update most of the Old Testament to be relevant to modern society, you end up with a blank sheet of paper. (Dr. Laura be damned, and I mean that in the nastiest sense possible.) Anyway, The Way might have seemed a little kitsch and forced to some, but if it got the lessons and themes across, then it did its job.

John Rydgren was a Lutheran priest in the late 1960s, working on L.A.’s Sunset Strip. The man was possessed of the Perfect Radio Voice, someone like Gary Owens or Cousin Brucie or perhaps even one of the late 60s underground deejays. His voice was the sort that could make the damn telephone book interesting. How he chose to use his, er, god-given gift is what made him remarkable, and what makes him relevant here.

In the period we’re discussing, Rydgren cut a number of what can best be described as “semi-authorized religious word jazz recordings.” What the hell is that, you may well ask. What Rydgren did was write a script based on something from that favorite book of his — say, the 23rd Psalm or the Genesis creation myth — but he’d write it using hip slang and delivery that would presumably connect with younger listeners. And while that approach might sound hopelessly kitsch as I’ve described it, the results were pretty, well, happening.

Silhouette Segments If that weren’t enough, Rydgren would deliver these monologues in a style that combined the best aspects of, say, Ken Nordine and Norman Vincent Peale. There was something very ecumenical and open about Rydgren’s approach; one might think of him as sort of a precursor to Robert Fulghum.

Rydgren added some sympathetic pre-existing musical backing and had these records pressed in very limited editions for distribution to radio stations. There, we can assume, Rydgren’s bits — usually (but not always) around a minute long — were broadcast between commercials and the latest hit from Spanky and Our Gang. Rydgren also hosted a radio program called Silhouettes, and it’s from either that program or the transcription discs (or both) that the cuts on Silhouette Segments are sourced.

Some of Rydren’s reinterpretations likely pushed the limits of what the religious establishment would have approved. To wit, take a look at the text for “Hippie Version of the 23rd Psalm.”

“The Lord is my happening / He’s where it’s all at.
He tricks me sweetly / He never bugs me.
He says, ‘Make it’ when the duds put me all down
I keep my cool, ’cause He straights with me.
Even though my head’s torn up
and the world’s a plastic mushroom
And I’m crawling on my face
Everything’s cool, ’cause He’s there digging me.
When everybody’s faking and stabbing, He’s super-cool.
And He’s with me, baby.
He craves my face when it’s ugly, man.
He lays abundance on me.
Baby, ain’t no way I can get hung up.
He’s my lifetime trip.”

There’s a reason that these tracks have not been totally forgotten: they’re good. They’re historically relevant, and they’re entertaining. But there’s also a reason they’re not for sale. Rydgren didn’t, it seems, gain clearance for the musical backing he included. So we get the good pastor telling us about how cool it is to watch the mini-skirted girls on the street (trust me on this) to the backing strains of (appropriately enough) the Bob Crewe Generation‘s “Music to Watch Girls By.” To the backing of Dave “Baby” Cortez‘s hit “Rinky Dink,” Rydgren raps about the dangers of wrong thinking. And of course the Electric PrunesMass in F Minor gets the Rydgren treatment, but then you saw that one coming. On other tracks Rydgren uses sound effects (machine gun fire, city traffic) and found sounds. The results are almost always compelling.

Though a preacher attached to a manstream christian denomination, Rydgren manages to avoid being preachy. His gentle (and gently-delivered) words of wisdom get his points across without beating listeners over the head. Anyone who finds value in either Les Crane‘s 1971 “Desiderata” or in any of Ken Nordine’s word-jazz LPs (or both!) would be well-advised to try and track down the unauthorized nineteen-track Silhouette Segments compilation of Rydgren’s hopelessly rare recordings. Bless you, my children; Bittorent is your friend.

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

Album Review: Isaac Hayes – Black Moses

Friday, August 20th, 2010

In honor of Isaac Hayes and his body of work, here’s a review of a 2009 reissue of one of his most important releases — bk

It’s difficult to say anything new about an album that was released to wide acclaim more than 37 years ago. Anyone who has heard Isaac Hayes’ groundbreaking 1971 album Black Moses knows that the sprawling opus was the career apex of this important artist. The sprawling album (originally a 2LP set) melded the best instincts of Hayes’ arrangement skills; it showcased his ability to reinterpret the work of others, breathing new life into older songs and offering an alternate vision of current hits. And Hayes provided some of the era’s best soundtracks for makin’ love. (Or so I have been led to understand; speaking for myself, I was eight years old when the album was released.)

A double LP set was (and remains) a suspect medium: too often it’s the sign of a contractual-obligation escape strategy, or evidence of an artist’s overblown ego. Or both. In the case of Black Moses, it’s neither. Here, Isaac Hayes’ long-form arrangements never make a song long for length’s sake. When a track runs in excess of nine minutes (as do three of the album’s fourteen pieces), it goes places: the songs develop and build.

Isaac Hayes - Black Moses In lesser hands, many of the musical devices used on Black Moses — sweeping strings, wah-wah guitar (in particular on “Man’s Temptation”) — will have aged poorly. Not here: the sounds are always in service to the song. The slow jams throughout the set all but beg the listener to cuddle up with a loved one. Even the raps work. And while Hayes was an excellent songwriter, his prowess at recasting other people’s songs — especially the work of composers like Bacharach/David and Kristofferson and others working outside the R&B genre — ranks among his most special of gifts.

The playing of The (Isaac Hayes) Movement on Black Moses is, as always, note-perfect. There’s an economy of style that results in the right notes, the right textures being applied to each song. Even the vamping under the four raps provides interesting backing. The playing straddles between the immediacy of live-in-the-studio performance with the precision of studio cats. And Hayes’ playing (on electric piano, vibes and more) is subtle and expressive.

Black Moses ranks among the most important albums — in any genre — of the 1970s, and deserves a place in the collection of any serious fan of modern pop music. Put another way, if you can only afford one Isaac Hayes album, this is the one to get. The 2005 compilation The Ultimate Isaac Hayes: Can You Dig It? (read Bill Kopp’s review here) is recommended to those wanting a career overview, and even Juicy Fruit (read Bill Kopp’s review here) has its charms.

Neither did Black Moses exhaust everything Hayes had to offer: his next release (mere months later) was the historic soundtrack to Shaft. While that set (also a double LP) offered less in the way of Hayes’ inimitable vocals, it served to highlight the man’s arranging skills as applied to a different project.

Special note should be made about the album packaging on this 2009 reissue. The digipak faithfully re-creates the original album packaging (writ small, of course) and the excellent liner notes serve to contextualize the work.

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DISCLOSURE OF MATERIAL CONNECTION:

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