Archive for September, 2010

Album Review: Putumayo Presents Yoga

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

I don’t practice yoga. But through my work with clients in my parallel career, I have become very familiar with the aesthetic of this ancient practice. To criminally oversimplify, it’s a holistic mind/body/soul kinda thing.

Like many activities, the practice of yoga can be enhanced (or facilitated, or complemented) by the addition of music. To that end, the friendly folks at Putumayo are here to help. The label’s newest release bears the straightforward title Putumayo Presents Yoga. This title differs from the label’s last few releases (dealing with R&B, world-jazz and Indian music) in that it’s, shall we say, purpose-driven.

There’s a fairly narrow path to navigate in choosing music to pair with the practice of yoga. There are certainly some things you don’t want: heavy beats, insistent tempos, wild variance in arrangements, distracting lyrics. Let’s face it: yoga ain’t jazzercise. With that and much more in mind, this fourteen-track collection serves up some music that is in a way designed to be the aural equivalent of wallpaper: there to enhance a mood, not to create one.

The disc is largely successful in this endeavor. Helpfully, all of the tracks featuring vocals find the singers performing in languages other than English. So unless you’re polylinguistic, the voices (for the most part) won’t distract practitioners from their poses. The lion’s share of the disc features lovely, soothing female voices and new-agey instrumentation.

There are exceptions. A track titled “Offering Chant” by Lama Gyurme & Jean-Philippe Rykiel features a guttural male chant throughout. My own opinion is that the track is perhaps better suited for devotional use than anything else; it is a bit distracting. In fact that’s true for many (but not all) of the tracks here that include male vocals. Luckily the disc leans in favor of the female voice.

Because Putumayo Presents Yoga is not designed as an active listening experience, I won’t get into specific criticism of the tracks as music. But I will point out that most are quite effective at providing the backdrop for thoughtful, relaxing activity.

Or, non-activity. I lay down on my strategically-located (read: office) futon to absorb this CD, and I can testify that it neither unduly invaded my thoughts, nor grated upon me in any way. Nor did it bore me. Putumayo Presents Yoga provided a backdrop for a semiwaking hour of relaxation. Now, my doctor says I need thirty minutes of cardio a day or I’m gonna have a stroke or heart attack, and my rest/nap regimen doesn’t count toward that, but there’s rarely anything wrong with a little mind-clearing non-contemplation time. And this disc is a lovely accompaniment to said non-activity.

As always with Putumayo releases, this set is presented in an aesthetically pleasing digipack with attached booklet. In addition to brief but interesting artist bios, the booklet provides mini-essays on both yoga and its connection to music. Never ones to leave anything to chance, Putumayo includes a glossary in case listeners wonder what exactly a chakra, raga or vinyasa is.

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

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

Book Review: A Wizard, A True Star: Todd Rundgren in the Studio

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

Here’s the thing: I occasionally review books, but I certainly never sit down to write a review before I’ve actually finished reading that book. It only makes sense.

Rules are made to be broken. And Paul Myers’ A Wizard, A True Star: Todd Rundgren in the Studio is so friggin’ awesome that I simply couldn’t wait to gush over it. As of this writing I’ve just completed chapter 17 (of 23) and am finding it a bit difficult to stop and write. Frankly, I’d rather be reading.

I’ve written about Todd Rundgren fairly extensively myself. Back in the middle of this century’s first decade I penned a long-form critical essay for Trouser Press, a piece that reviewed all of Rundgren’s work (solo, with Nazz and Utopia) up to that point. And I’ve met and interviewed the man myself . Like many Toddheads, I’ve seen him many, many times in concert. Fellow Rundgren fan Billy James (of Ant-Bee should-have-fame) has written two books on Todd’s career, and I reviewed the most recent of those.

But none of those projects devote serious ink to an important, influential component of Rundgren’s life and career: his production work. Beginning in the late 1960s, Rundgren demonstrated an uncanny facility for bridging the gap between artistry and technology. A self-taught engineer, Todd watched and learned and quickly became a force to be reckoned in the recording studio control room.

His working methods have always been controversial in that artist-clients seem to come out of the experience as either huge fans, or full of invective for Rundgren. Sometimes, they manage both sentiments simultaneously.

Myers’ book is a chronological history of Todd’s career behind the boards, weaving in relevant information necessary to contextualize the studio-centric bent of the book. Beginning with Todd’s involvement in the recording of the late sixties Nazz albums, A Wizard, A True Star takes the reader all the way up to Todd Rundgren’s Johnson, an all Robert Johnson covers album that (at this writing) doesn’t even have a scheduled release date yet.

In between, the book deftly manages to hit every high and low point in Rudngren’s studio career. Benefiting immeasurably from unprecedented cooperation of Todd himself, the book also makes extensive use of Myers’ personal interviews with nearly every artist involved.

This means that readers are treated to balanced perspectives on such momentous projects as Meat Loaf‘s Bat out of Hell; the chapter on that projects draws upon direct quotes from Rundgren as well as composer Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf himself, as well as vocalist Ellen Foley, and session players (and Utopia members) Willie Wilcox, Roger Powell and Kasim Sulton. And more besides.

The same approach holds true when Myers covers the Psychedelic FursForever Now. For that chapter the author interviewed the Furs’ Butler brothers, drummer Vince Ely, Howard Kaylan (Turtles/Flo and Eddie) and Rundgren’s perennial right hand man, engineer Chris Andersen. Yet again the reader comes away with a detailed portrait of what went into the making of an album.

Myers is expert at balancing the responsibility of providing technical information with the need to tell what is always a human story. So in a given chapter the reader might learn about what mics were used on a given vocal session, but too may they learn of the emotional turmoil the vocalist may have experienced under the withering criticism of the session’s producer.

Time and again the book reinforces the aphorism that Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith Group guitarist and curator of the legendary Nuggets compilation) attributes to Rundgren’s production aesthetic: “If you know what you want, I’ll get it for you. If you don’t know what you want, I’ll do it for you.” While Rundgren’s sometimes prickly and control-freak tendencies in the studio are well documented, one never gets the sense that he horns in on the artist-clients in an unwelcome fashion. So while certain productions of his bear the indelible Rundgren sonic stamp (the Tubes’ 1979 Remote Control album chief among these), that seems to be due more to Rundgren’s remaining true to the previously-quoted aphorism.

It’s all here: the New York Dolls session, the XTC Skylarking album, you name it. And Todd’s solo and Utopia projects are covered as well, again weaving in enough contextual information about, for example, Utopia’s uneasy relationship with its record labels.

One need not be a Rundgren fan to enjoy this book, but being so adds to the pleasure. Though it’s chock full of technical information, an appreciation of A Wizard, A True Star does not require understanding of studio techniques. Myers’ style neither talks down to the reader nor assumes a level of previous familiarity with the subject. And like any good book of this type, it will likely send the reader back to re-evaluate some of the recordings discussed therein.

There are a few cases in which firsthand interviews weren’t possible. For Myers’ coverage of Rundgren’s Badfinger work, the author draws mostly upon interviews the members did years ago (at this writing only guitarist Joey Molland — no Todd fan he — survives from that group). Luckily Rundgren weighs in on the topic as well. And while some projects get only a passing mention (Shaun Cassidy‘s Wasp album, for one), a few unheard/aborted projects are discussed. Chief among the latter is Rundgren’s early work on what would eventually become Janis Joplin‘s last album, Pearl.

A fascinating read from start to finish (well, to page 230, but I see no reason to doubt my opinion will change over the course of the remaining 80-plus pages), A Wizard, A True Star: Todd Rundgren in the Studio is highly recommended addition to any serious rock fan’s bookshelf.

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

DISCLOSURE OF MATERIAL CONNECTION:
I have a material connection because I received a gift or sample of a product for consideration in preparing to write this content. I was/am not expected to return this item or gift after my review period.

The Buzztones’ Show of Excellence

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

Way back in 2002 I put together a band to play covers of some of my favorite music. Then as now I was especially into mid 60s garage, psych and proto-punk. In addition to that music’s vitality and immediacy, much of it had the handy benefit of also being relatively easy to play. I put out a “casting call” ad in our local altweekly and found a drummer, some guitarists and (more or less) a bassist.

While a fuller account of that band’s story is found elsewhere, one particular memory stands out from the rest. As it happens, it was the band’s first public performance. Once our lineup had settled (though it would mutate greatly over the few years we were together) it was time to pick a name. We dubbed ourselves the Buzztones, though we would soon surrender that name upon learning that a relatively well-known group was already using the moniker. Oddly, that group was (is?) a Christian rock group, so musically there was little or no overlap. The name would eventually have to go.

Buzztones
But for that first gig, Buzztones we would be. And so it happened that in our small city, the public school system ran an annual showcase of talent called The Show of Excellence. A talent show — not a competition — the annual event featured students K-12, teachers, faculty and other school system employees strutting their stuff onstage.The vibe was very much that of an old-fashioned variety show. You might actually see plate spinners, puppeteers, and the like. I recall one year a third-grader actually took the stage with a barstool and microphone, and did stand-up comedy for his three minutes of fame. And of course there were plenty of piano solos, ranging from “Three Blind Mice” to Rachmaninoff.

The show always packed ‘em into the auditorium. Each act got three of four minutes, tops, and the show runners did a yeoman job of keeping things moving: the time between acts rarely extended much beyond a minute. A full evening’s entertainment — and then some — was enjoyed by all.Buzztones

Or by most. Truth be told, most adults were there to see their own kids, plus a few others. Beyond that, the audience dug it when it was good, and politely endured it when it wasn’t. With thirty or more acts on the bill each year, it was inevitable that — no mater what your likes and dislikes — you’d witness plenty of both.

But back to the Buzztones. When we first got our little collective together, we found that we had too much of some things and not enough of others. I handled keyboards and vocals, and Mike held down the drum seat. But beyond that we initially found ourselves with four guitarists and no bass player. One of the guitarists quickly dropped out when it became clear we wouldn’t be covering the Doobie Brothers or Bachman-Turner Overdrive. But that still left us with three. One of them (Dave) was clearly a lead player, and another (Tommy) was a solid electric rhythm guitarist with a real affinity (if not knowledge) of the music, and he was willing to go home and woodshed each week to learn the songs.

The third guitarist was more of an acoustic player. I had invited him in primarily because he could sing. But at this stage in the band’s development, we needed a bass player. Never having actually done it before, he stepped up and said, essentially, “Well, it’s only got four strings compared to the six on my guitar. I guess I could do it.”

Now, musicians reading this have already sorted out where this is going. Bass guitar is not the same as guitar. It’s a completely different thing. It’s more different than the contrast between piano, organ and synthesizer in some ways (to use an analogy to which I can readily relate). But he gamely gave it a shot.

He didn’t own a bass guitar (nor did three of his eventual five replacements, but as I’ve said, that’s another story) but he was willing to use mine. In 1987 I had bought an early 70s Epipone Embassy bass in a pawnshop, so with a bit of resoldering it was pressed into service. He did spring for an awful bass amp, though. So that’s something.

The band had a rocky start. Not rocky in the rock’n'roll sense, but rocky in the not-so-smooth sense. The musical chemistry wasn’t quite right, and as I’ve said, it would change drastically before we would make any real headway. But we did manage to craft a few serviceable cover versions, enough for a gig.

Well, a short gig. A very short gig. An extremely short gig. One lasting, say, two songs. Now, to be fair, the span of time described in this little anecdote is all of a few weeks. A month at most. So it wasn’t like we were awful; we just didn’t have time to get very good.

What we did have time to do, however, was get that gig. The bassist, as it turns out, was at the time a teacher at my son’s elementary school. So on audition day the five of us trundled up to the auditorium, set up our instruments and cranked out a tune. To our great surprise, we got onto the bill.

Yes, we would be the only rock act on the program. There was a very cool dad-and-son drum duet on the bill, but that actually leaned more in a jazzy direction. But when it came to sheer rock and roll, we were it. For reason having more to do with logistics than quality, the Buzztones would be scheduled to appear last, to close the evening’s festivities.

Honestly, we had no idea how we’d go over. We figured that some of the parents would dig our style, and that the novelty of seeing one of their kids’ teachers up there rocking out would add to the enjoyment. But we really didn’t know what to expect.

Nor did the audience. After the other twenty-nine acts did their thing, it was time for the Buzztones to unleash their 60s rock’n'roll fury on this now-weary audience. As is typical with an event of this type, a certain number of people had already left, adhering to the I’ve-seen-my-kid-perform-so-let’s-go school of thought. But the room was still perhaps three-fourths full: several hundred people. And as is also typical for these kinds of things, lots of young kids — primary grades, mostly — were down in front.

Buzztones Have you even been to a school function involving the public address system? I’m not counting high school football games (games…games…games…). I’m talking instead about the indoor auditorium/gymnasium PA systems. I don’t know who makes those things, but they seem to exist in a world apart from the sort of equipment used, well, everywhere else. The equipment is not, shall we say, designed to project a rock vocalist over the roar of a Fender Mustang, Gibson ES-335 (copy), Epihone bass, (ersatz) Farfisa organ and 1965 Ludwig drum kit. So with that in mind it was decided that the Buzztones would really go garage and run my mic through one of our amplifiers.

Now, anyone who’s even been in a band, helped a band set up, or even just watched a band prepare for a gig knows that it takes some time to get things placed onstage. Even if nothing (other than vocals) is getting miked, there’s still the matter of dragging the amps onto the stage, getting the x-stand for the keyboard, and assembling the drums. Even if the drummer puts everything together offstage ahead of time (as Mike did), the band needs a good twenty minutes at a bare minimum to get things set up.

Thanks to the understanding and generosity of the show runners, the Buzztones were given double the normal amount of time to set up before the curtain was raised on us. Yes, we got two minutes to set up. Two minutes from the moment the previous act vacated the stage. Two minutes to get everything onto the stage, plugged in, turned on, tuned up and ready to go. Two minutes. I still laugh when I think about it.

We somehow did it. When the drapes pulled open, there we were, resplendent in our sartorial mishmash. The Buzztones had yet to establish a defined identity (or much else) but for this event we went the sorta-faux hipped route. Or at least some of us did. The second guitarist, drummer and bassist all sported love beads and loose-fitting dashiki-type affairs. The lead guitarist, clever iconoclast that he was, wore plaid pants, a Hawaiian print shirt, and black and white saddle shoes. Me, I decided to wear what is fondly (or otherwise) remembered as the Melted Creamsicle Outfit. I had taken a white t-shirt and white jeans (those were hard to find, I tell ya) and tie-dyed them using only orange, yellow and a bit of red. At the time (as now) my hair was halfway down my back. We were an odd sight for a school function, no doubt.

Being in a hurry to cobble something together for this three-minute gig, we chose to cover the Monkees hit “I’m a Believer.” It ain’t hard, and it has enough pop appeal that we figured it’d go over okay. What we didn’t realize was that the song was undergoing a huge revival at the time: the latest Shrek movie featured a cover of the song, performed by (I think) Smash Mouth. Okay, big deal, right? So maybe the kids will know the song too. Good, right?

Here’s where we got a surprise, and it’s one that people still talk about eight years later. Those kids down front screamed. I don’t mean little yelps. They screamed at the top of their lungs, and jumped up and down. For the first and likely only time in my life I got a very tiny idea of what it might have been like to attend a Beatles concert. The high-pitched screams were deafening, even over the noise blasting from the stage.

Buzztones
No, we weren’t all that phenomenally good. I told you. But these kids just plain loved hearing the song. It’s safe to say none of them had ever seen a real live rock band (even a mediocre, just-formed one) in their short little lives. So the thrill of hearing a song they liked, played pretty much as it was supposed to be played, and at considerable volume, brought shrieks of delight.

We got quite a kick out of it, too. Even though the lights were on me, I could still see well into the crowd. Beyond the squealing kids, I saw literally dozens of people making hastily for the exits. I suspect that had more to do with the volume of our performance than the relative quality of our playing. One, we were most certainly exponentially louder than anything else they had heard that night, especially since we were completely in control of our own volume. Two, this being a small city in the Appalachian Mountains, the preferred musical genre tends to involve fiddles, washboards and banjos, not fuzz pedals.

The band went on to bigger things. We played in front of more appropriate crowds, people who understood and appreciated our crate-digger’s approach to covers. We ditched the silly hippie getups and put together a more stable lineup. We recorded an album’s worth of songs, and even included an irate phone message left by my next door neighbor (“Can you turn your music down? It’s terrible. It’s really bad.”). But in many ways we never topped the excitement of the Show of Excellence.

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

Interview: Keb Darge

Monday, September 27th, 2010

Renowned DJ Keb Darge built a name for himself in music without playing an instrument, writing songs or singing. First as a dancer, he gained notoriety in the clubs. Then he gained fame as a DJ and champion of what the British call “northern soul,” a scene that hybridized the style of the UK mod movement with a strong affinity for Motown and similar genres.

Darge was also instrumental in launching the careers of The New Mastersounds, and served as executive producer on that group’s debut. Not a knob-twiddling producer in the traditional sense of the word, Darge’s function was more as spiritual advisor. As Mastersounds guitarist Eddie Roberts told me, that mostly meant Darge would “[sit] in the control booth and [say], ‘Yeah! Just like that, only faster!’”

Keb Darge As a record collector and music historian of note, Darge developed a reputation for unearthing some amazing and heretofore lost/obscure sides for his DJ gig. With Darge working the board, dancers could count not only on a great beat and continuity for their recreation, but freedom from hearing (as the Four Tops sang) the “same old song.”

It was fairly logical, then that Darge would segue into his current role as curator of compilation CDs for the London-base BBE (“Barely Breaking Even”) label. For BBE, Darge has put together a dizzying array of compilations; a random selection of titles tells the story: Funk Spectrum III, Soul Spectrum II, and one I reviewed months ago, Lost & Found: Real R’n'B and Soul.

I spoke with Darge recently about his latest project, a 20-track disc billed as “a collection of ultra rare Black rockers from the 50s and early 60s” entitled Keb Darge and Little Edith’s Legendary Rockin’ R&B. Owing to an unfortunate combination of (a) a very dodgy phone connection and (b) over-optimism on my part with regard to my ability to understand English delivered with a thick Scottish brogue, I only ended up with a handful of intelligible quotes. But our conversation did give me a window into Darge’s approach to this and his other projects.

Legendary Rockin’ R&B includes sides from mostly obscure and forgotten artists, many of whom wouldn’t record much if at all beyond the tracks compiled on this set. In fact, a search via the usually reliable Allmusic website often turned up no discographical information on artists such as Artie Wilson (the bandwagon-jumping yet delightful “Tarzan”), Frank De Rosa (“Irish Rock”) and the Egyptians (“Flipping Their Top”).

Keb Darge Some more well-known artists are represented, including Big Maybelle (“That’s a Pretty Good Love,” previously comped on Rhino’s excellent and essential jump blues volumes of their Blues Masters Series) and Johnny Guitar Watson, but for the most part the songs on Legendary Rockin’ R&B will be delightfully unfamiliar to all but the most hardcore music historians.

So how does Darge find these records? He laughs heartily and repeats a phrase I used in my question. “Field research! Ha!” While I had maintained visions of Darge trekking the USA through dusty record bins, he says that he uses that method of finding music less and less often these days. “Well, nowadays, it’s very, very easy,” Darge admits. “I sit with a cup of tea in front of my computer, and go on eBay like everyone else!”

Of course it helps if one knows what one is looking for, and here Darge’s extensive knowledge is essential. His old method involved visiting warehouses and private collectors, and obviously Darge finds this at-home method much easier. Unlike actual field research, it doesn’t — in Darge’s words — “cost a bloody fortune.”

Master tapes are often difficult or impossible to locate, so many of the tracks on this and other Darge-curated comps make use of “needle drops,” sourcing the records from, well, actual records. They’re digitally cleaned up as much as possible, but the rawness of the grooves comes through in, well, the grooves. And because the larger labels have the resources and interest in putting together their own compilations, Darge says that he focuses instead on the smaller labels. And while he allows that “if one of the major labels said, ‘come into our vaults and put together a compilation,’” he’d jump at the chance, he stresses that he “love[s] the obscure stuff.”

I observe that on some of the new comp’s tracks — as well as some on Lost and Found — I can clearly hear off-pitch harmonies, wrong notes, mistakes. Darge agrees that these qualities only add to the music’s charm. He explains that some of his favorite music is “hillbilly” music, and chuckles that “I love it when they sing out of tune. It’s so…pure.”

Since Darge compiles so many of these collections, one can assume there’s a formula for deciding what sort of music to put on each one. The truth is surprisingly simple and straightforward: “If I do a compilation this week, it’ll probably be a collection of records that I played in the club six months ago.” So while the music may often be old, there’s a certain freshness and immediacy to the collections.

Legendary Rockin' R&B It’s tempting to romanticize about the unknown artists whose sides make it onto Legendary Rockin’ R&B, to wonder about their lives. The truth is often a bit more mundane than one might hope. “I find it interesting,” concedes Darge, “but ninety percent of it, I wonder if [those artists] even did anything else.” Darge tells the story about getting in touch with some of the artists he’s comped, and says that some of the artists have an interesting reaction when they realize that a track that they cut in, say, 1957, is still being enjoyed in 2010. Sometimes, he says, “they cry.” He quotes a familiar sentiment that he hears: “I’m nothing in the States, but I’m a fucking hero here! I made that record fifty years ago, and we sold forty-seven copies!”

I ask Darge if at the end of the day he prefers the Stax or Motown sound. “Neither,” he cackles. “Both are, to me, too much about pop.” He concedes that there were “a few really great records on both labels, but if I want real soul, I’ll have to go to the smaller labels.”

Asked if he ever worries he might run out of rare and obscure material to unearth, Darge has a ready, candid answer. “I did, with the funk stuff,” he laughs. But his current obsessions — soul, r&b, rockabilly and jump blues — guarantee to keep him busy for sometime into the distant future. And while he has nothing good to say about current hip-hop or pop music, he does believe that there is still good music being made. And he agrees that that music will probably be rediscovered forty years on by some 2050 version of Keb Darge.

The final criterion for deciding if a given track makes it onto a Darge compilation is simple. “To be honest,” he sums up, “when I put a record on, if it makes me feel good, it makes me feel good.”

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

Single Review: Sky Parade/Grand Atlantic

Friday, September 24th, 2010

I don’t usually review singles (remember those?) but this one warrants attention. Sky Parade is a band fronted by Tommy Dietrick (ex-Brian Jonestown Massacre). The band’s song “I Should Be Coming Up (But I Keep Coming Down)” weds psych-pop with shoegaze and a discofied beat, resulting in a vibe not at all unlike Stone Roses. But the production aesthetic is more intimate, less stadium-oriented. Which is good.

The flip of this 7” is “Used to Be the Sensitive Type” from Grand Atlantic. I’m a sucker for any song with the moxie to use the immortal words “sha-la-la” as a chorus. (Tra-la-la – a la the Banana Splits — works equally well.) Hooks, handclaps, jangly Rickenbacker and a rubbery (almost synthy) bassline effectively renders this little disc a double a-side. Dig.

Available from Ripple Music.

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

 

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

Interview: Richard Barone – The Warm Glow of Creativity (part 2)

Friday, September 24th, 2010

continued from part one

Bill Kopp: The lead guitar on the title track has a very Robert Fripp feel to it. Is that the digital guitar and e-bow?

Richard Barone: All the guitars on that track are the Gibson digital guitar, except for the dual solo that’s played by myself and Steve Addabbo. I’m playing e-bow guitar, and he’s playing old jangly Gibson ES-335.

Bill Kopp: Yes. In the liner notes you even listed the year [1966] of the guitar! [laughs]

richard_barone05 Richard Barone: I work with Gibson, for one thing. And there are such differences in the different years. So on that one, we said, “Let’s put that particular year guitar with that particular sound.” But the thing about the digital guitar is, because the sound is so clear and clean, it makes the e-bow sound more “e-bow-y” than ever! [laughs]

Bill Kopp: I don’t know much about the digital guitar. Can you give me a thumbnail description of how it’s different?

Richard Barone: Sure. It’s very simple. As I said, I’ve been working with Gibson for quite some time, constructing parts. They send me parts to test and so forth. One of the guitars that they were working on was a prototype of a digital guitar. They’d been working on it for ten years; it’s a major, major development.

It’s quite expensive, and there are not too many of them. The guitar has a high-definition pickup. But the most important thing to me about it is that the signal is so pure. It’s not that it does anything weird; it doesn’t try to recreate other guitar sounds or anything like that. It’s not a modeling guitar. It has a pure digital output that comes out via an Ethernet cable. And there are six separate outputs: one for each string. And you don’t hear the other strings on each channel; there’s no “bleed.”

So on a song like “Glow” we can pan each string sound anywhere in the stereo image. We went to [George Lucas'] Skywalker Ranch to mix that. They have this big console, and 88-input Neve. Each guitar took six tracks. That’s a lot guitars…a lot of strings, I should say.

Bill Kopp: Oh my god. I’m gonna have to play the album again, but with headphones…

Richard Barone: It’s really nice with headphones. When I performed at Carnegie Hall last year, we used the SurroundSound system, so each string went through its own speaker in the hall.

So that’s why I use the digital. I love it. It’s also a beautiful Les Paul; Gibson uses the Les Paul Custom as the template for it. It’s a classic-looking instrument. And it also has normal humbucker pickups. So it plugs in as a regular Les Paul or a digital. I use both.

It’s a really special instrument. In the CD package — including the back photo from the Carnegie Hall show — you can see a Les Paul in every photo. And the blue one, that’s it.

Bill Kopp: You collaborate on “Silence is Our Song” with Paul Williams. How did you connect with him?

Richard Barone: I was performing in a tribute to him. Because, you know, he did so many amazing songs. And one of them was a song that I had been doing at my shows, a song called “Fill Your Heart.” It was on David Bowie‘s Hunky Dory album, and also on Tiny Tim‘s first album. I knew both of those, in different arrangements.

richard_barone06
So I was asked to perform at the Paul Williams tribute a few years ago. And he was there. I did the song in my arrangement, which was a combination of Bowie’s and Tiny Tim’s and my own. He really liked it, and after the show he came over to me and told me that I really should record that song.I said, “Yeah, I really would like that.” But then he said, “But why don’t we write something new for you, too?” And I said, “That would be fantastic.” So he invited me to co-write with him in Los Angeles, and it was very spontaneous. In fact it [happened] the first night that we had talked and met.

It was a great experience, because he’s a very detailed songwriter. Writing with him was a really good lesson in songwriting: the structure of the song, the kinds of words to use. It was an unforgettable experience. We’ve since become friends, and hope to write some more together.

Bill Kopp: I mean this in a respectful way, but I had sort of wondered what ever happened to him. When I was a kid, he seemed to be everywhere. Lots and lots of creative energy.

Richard Barone: He’s active in so many ways. He’s active in humanitarian causes. And also, he was the president of ASCAP. He’s very big in the music industry. He also works a lot with people struggling with drug addictions; he’s set up a foundation to help with that.

He constantly writes, but a lot of his songs show up more in the Nashville scene. And that’s sort of another world; it’s not the mainstream pop world. He’s very flexible in all styles. And he’s another great mentor for me.

richard_barone07 Bill Kopp: Listening to “Silence is Our Song” I immediately thought that it had a vibe similar to early Bowie, circa Space Oddity and The Man Who Sold the World. Maybe it’s the forceful attack on the acoustic guitar.

Richard Barone: Yeah! That’s probably right; I think you’re very perceptive. That music was a big influence on me. In fact I was just talking to someone last night (in an interview) about how I don’t really approach the acoustic guitar in a gentle folk way. I do attack it the way that Bowie did on that record.

Bill Kopp: I like the guitar crosstalk on “Candied Babes.” And all that guitar is you, right?

Richard Barone: Right. On the other songs, though, Tony and I would sit and play guitar. Like on “Gravity’s Pull,” for instance, that’s a real combination: that’s both of us. You can tell: you can tell the different styles. Tony has a much smoother style of rhythm playing that I do. I’m chunky, and definitely from the pop-punk sound of the Bongos, really. And together our guitars styles make a bed for the song.

And on a song like “Sanctified,” that’s both of us playing acoustics. Believe it or not, because they sound so heavy. There’s a certain sound you get when you play guitars together at the same time, as opposed to overdubbing. So whenever it was possible to get that sound, we both played together.

Bill Kopp: There’s something organic that happens in that situation, something that overdubbing can’t capture…

richard_barone08 Richard Barone: And each song was a challenge that Tony would give me. On “Candied Babes” Tony just gave me the drum track. He constructed this drum track for me, and if you listen to it it’s quite intricate. He had the idea for the rhythm, and he assembled it in that structure. And then he said, “Here. Write a song on top of this!”

And it ended up as a song about the 80s club scene that I was in. That’s why I put the audience sounds in at the beginning and end. In fact the beginning of the song has a little snippet from the Bongos’ Drums Along the Hudson.

Bill Kopp: So how did you end up working with Tony Visconti? We’ve talked about it already, but how did it all originally come about?

Richard Barone: It’s a long story, really. I started communicating with him when the Bongos were signed to RCA. I’m not sure…I think we called him, or he called us at that point. He was in London at the time. [pauses] I think he called us, because he had heard the T. Rex Electric Warrior song “Mambo Sun” that we had covered. We actually had a Billboard dance hit with that song. Tony had produced the original version, and liked our arrangement.

When we were getting signed to RCA, we wanted him to produce the album. Well, RCA wanted us to stay in New York. We were just kids; I was barely eighteen when we signed. So I don’t think RCA wanted us to go to England where they couldn’t keep a eye on us!

richard_barone10 RCA said, “You have to do it in New York; can he come here?” And he could not. So that didn’t work out schedule-wise. And location-wise. So we worked with Richard Gottehrer, and he was a great producer for us. And another great teacher.

But we did stay in touch with Tony. And when he moved back to New York in the 90s, I contacted him: “Let’s do something.” And I had to do a lot of different projects, a lot of different musicians. At the time I was working with a guitarist named Gary Lucas — liner notes readers will know his name from the Captain Beefheart band — and I thought it would be interesting to do a sort of progressive, prog-rock album with Tony. So [although that didn't happen] somehow that started our process of talking about writing and doing some stuff together. It evolved out of that; it was a very natural process.

We started writing songs together; none of those songs made it to this album, but the process eventually turned into this album. It was a long process, because both of us take on so much — and so many different kinds of — projects.

I produce a lot of artists, but for my own music, I like to have a producer.

Bill Kopp: It allows you to concentrate on different things…

Richard Barone: Exactly. You know, Tony started out in the 60s as a songwriter. He would record his demos, and his recordings were so good that the labels said, “Why don’t you get involved on the production side of it?” And that’s how he, at age nineteen, became a well-known producer.

Tony has been a part of my life for so long that I sometimes forget how long we’ve known each other…oh, another thing: we both performed at a T. Rex tribute concert. He asked me to sing on a song, and I asked him to play bass on a song. So we’ve collaborated in many different ways. And it all comes together now, on this record.

richard_barone_glow


Postscript: At this point — though sadly I didn’t know it at the time — the batteries on my recorder ran out. So I lost the last few moments of our conversation. During the lost part, Richard and I spoke about his teenage adventure of meeting (and producing an album by) Tiny Tim. A review of that project is here.

Interview: Richard Barone – The Warm Glow of Creativity (part 1)

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

In the 1980s, Richard Barone led the alterna-pop/new wave group The Bongos. Since that time he’s remained busy producing other artists, recording and performing as a solo artist, and even writing a book. On the eve of the release of his long-awaited album Glow, I spoke at length with him about the album’s genesis, some gearhead-type stuff, and how he came to work with some legendary collaborators on the new record.


richard_barone01

Bill Kopp: “Gravity’s Pull” is a shimmering pop song. Did it just sort of pop out of you, or to some extent did you say, “I need to write a song that has this feel, this vibe?”

Richard Barone: Like most of the songs on this record, I didn’t go into the studio with a song at all. I had the vibe and idea as I went into the studio. When I was working on this record with Tony Visconti, that was the sort of concept we had. Either one of us — because we cowrote a lot of these songs — would show up with the concept, but not the actual song. So we’d get to actually create it in the studio.So I came in that day, and I literally felt gravity’s pull that day on the way to the studio. It was a sensation that I hadn’t noticed before. So when Tony asked me how I was feeling, I said, “I’m fine. I’m feeling gravity’s pull, though.” And that’s how the song started; it was very natural. We started writing about it right then, right on the spot. And we recorded it that day.

And that’s kind of how we did this record. Almost every song that I did with Tony Visconti on the album, we had no song written before we started a session. I had always wanted to do that; I had heard that certain artists worked in that way. And I had never had that experience of sort of being on a tightrope, where you don’t know where it’s going to go.

You really have to trust your producer, and in this case I did, so I said, “Okay, let’s do it. We’re really going to be able to do it.”

Bill Kopp: There are real strings on this album. Certainly that adds to the complexity of recording, and to the expense. But there’s a quality you can’t get any other way. Did you have the concept of using a real string section to begin with, or was that something Visconti encouraged you to do?

richard_barone02 Richard Barone: We just knew right away that was how it had to be. Tony’s a great arranger, and I feel he’s the closest that we have to George Martin now. He’s musical in every sense of the word, as a producer. Not just the sound, not just the arrangement. Not just the composition, but the whole thing.

So as we were writing these songs, the arrangements developed as we were writing. We were using the recording program Apple Logic; that allowed us to arrange and change things around without any hassle. As we were working, we were arranging as we went along. As we came up with parts, we could do them right there. And luckily, between the two of us we know so many musicians. So we were able to call up and say, “Can you come play a cello?” or whatever. People would pop by and do their parts.

The idea of mixing Mellotron and [real] strings is something I started on Clouds Over Eden, the previous album I did. I had my Mellotron and combined it with cello and violin. And doing that was a suggestion from Van Dyke Parks to me. I had been talking to him about that part — about arranging the strings — and he lived in L.A. at the time. I was in New York, recording. And he made a lot of suggestion over the phone. And one of those was to use a small group of strings mixed with a Mellotron.

But Tony did it independently of that, so it was a natural thing for us to continue that process on this album. And we pushed it much farther than I did on the previous album.

Bill Kopp: It’s funny that you mention that. You’re the second person that I’ve spoken to recently who’s talked about that very approach. There’s a particular texture that you get when you mix real strings and Mellotron. There’s a kind of heavy retro band out of L.A. called Bigelf

Richard Barone: I know them, yeah.

Bill Kopp: …and their leader Damon Fox owns something like four Mellotrons. And he told me the same thing: there’s a certain nasty wobble that you get from a Mellotron, and when you put those together, what you get is great. If you’re somebody like me who loves that sound, it makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

richard_barone03 Richard Barone: It’s an amazing instrument. I worked with the producer Hugh Jones on Clouds Over Eden, and when he was young he worked for the Mellotron company [Streetly Electronics -- ed.]. He recorded many of the tapes that were in the machine. And of course they’re all actual performances. So what you get is the sound that’s been put through the process of automation, the process of mechanization, being played on a keyboard. But you still get the performances, and whatever emotion there is in those performances. And you can create chords that maybe string players might not play together. They’re parts you might not normally write for strings, but on the keyboard you do. So you create new textures that way.

Bill Kopp: I’m a liner notes reader, and so I see that on the track “Girl” you used both Mellotron and Chamberlin? That’s almost perverse!

Richard Barone: What we love about the Chamberlin — which came a bit later than the Mellotron — is the recordings [in it] are a little bit better. The cello, especially. (I’m a liner notes reader too, and we tried to include as much detail in the notes for Glow.) We used the Chamberlin cello on that song; the sound has a very precise sound, and we mixed that with the Mellotron strings.

Bill Kopp: Whenever I read that someone has used a Mellotron on their record, if I get the chance I ask: a real one or a sample? They usually mumble “um, a sample.” But you use the real machine. So are you a glutton for punishment?

Richard Barone: I bought my Mellotron in the 90s. It was a beautifully maintained white M400 that had hardly ever been played since 1973. I happened to find it in New York, and that’s the instrument we used on this album. At the Magic Shop [recording studio] they had another black 400, one of the later ones, and it had a different motor in it, and different sounds.

Bill Kopp: I had an opportunity to buy an M400 in 1985 for $500. But in those days I didn’t have $500!

richard_barone04 Richard Barone: It was always considered an expensive instrument, even when it first came out. Still is. It’s a handmade instrument, basically. You can see by the woodwork; it’s like a handmade vintage car…

Bill Kopp: An English car!

Richard Barone: A very English car. With the serial number hand-inscribed on each part. I love it.

Bill Kopp: I see Dennis Diken plays on “Gravity’s Pull.” Besides being one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, he’s — to me — the very embodiment of tasteful drumming.

Richard Barone: He is.

Bill Kopp: He never overplays, and he seems to have an innate sense of what a song needs. So on the tracks where you did bring in other players beside yourself and Tony, how much direction did you give on these songs? Did you chart it out very loosely, or did you say, “Play this?”

Richard Barone: Like I said, when we wrote the songs, we were arranging them in our head as we did them. So we had the part basically worked out for anybody who came in. But — and Tony and I are very similar in this way — we encouraged the musicians to bring their own style and flavor to what they play. So while we know what we want, within those parameters there’s a lot of freedom to play.

For instance, on “Gravity’s Pull” we were interested in having the kick drum do a certain thing. So that’s the kind of direction we might give, so the bass drum doesn’t have just the standard [makes "boom" sound]. It has a certain pattern to it. Usually what’s important for the drums for Tony and I — and it’s always been important on his records — is that the bass drum has its certain little part.

And that’s very important now, in 2010. So much of pop music now is based on the bass drum. People talk about “beats” on a pop record. And what they’re talking about is what the bass drum is doing. It’s not as straight-ahead as it would have been in the past. And one of the things that makes this record more competitive with contemporary sounds is that our bass drum patterns are more intricate than what might have happened ten years ago.

richard_barone11 Bill Kopp: I appreciate that you mention that. Because as I listen to the album, there’s a classicist vibe to a lot of the songs, but there’s something — and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it — sort of modern about it.

Richard Barone: Tony and I — and [producer] Steve Rosenthal also — would talk about how melodies are classic, and guitar sounds are classic. But what really changes in each era, each decade, are the beats. The rhythms. And I think what we’ve done on this record is to have classic melodies and song structures, but the beats are contemporary. The beats are written into the songs. On “Gravity’s Pull,” for example, the bass drum hits when certain words hit. The casual listener doesn’t have to notice all that. But we kind of wrote the songs form the bottom up.

Bill Kopp: That’s one of the cool things about good songs. You can sort of let them wash over you, and enjoy them for what they are. Or you can pick them apart and appreciate the components. And if a song holds up to that kind of listening, then you’ve got something.

Richard Barone: I should add something here. I’ve been fortunate to have around me some amazing mentors. Tony and my other producers, obviously. But also, Garth Hudson from The Band is a good friend of mine. And he’s someone like that — he notices parts of songs –and he’ll call me and say, “Let’s add a trombone part” to a particular song. He sort of finds what makes pop music interesting. And that gets my mind going. And it makes it interesting for all of us: for myself as well as the listener.

continued

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

Album Review: Gold Motel – Summer House

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

I’m pretty sure I’m no sexist, but for whatever reason, female vocalists have to jump a pretty high bar to give me any joy. There are certainly exceptions, artists whose work is exceptional regardless of gender: Aretha Franklin, Grace Slick, Sharon Jones, Nina Persson and many others quickly come to mind. But in the same way that some people don’t especially dig the violin, the female voice isn’t at the very top of my favorite instruments.

With that baggage in tow, I’m less likely than the average reviewer to have my interest piqued when hearing about a new pop group with a female singer. The images that immediately fill my imagination are ones of Patty Smyth (Scandal), Madonna and worse. Dreadful songs by dreadful pop tarts don’t much impress me.

I’m also rarely swayed by press releases, no matter how well-written. But something in the bio of a band called Gold Motel caught my eye. Maybe it was the phrase “power pop;” that term is rarely bandied about by anyone trying to, y’know, actually shift units, but it’s a longtime favorite genre of mine. And the name-checking of influences to include Elvis Costello and Diana Ross & the Supremes…well, that pushed things over into let’s-at-least-check-this-band-out territory for me.

Thank goodness it did, because Gold Motel’s debut album Summer House is now officially shortlisted for my Best of 2010 list, and it’s only September.

The musical approach of Gold Motel has characteristics that will be familiar to fans of late 70s/early 80s new wave acts like Blondie, but then, too, does the band echo the vibe of 60s girl-groups and modern rock. In short, they sound familiar and new at once. Skittering herky-jerk arrangements like the one on the album’s kickoff track “We’re On the Run” are similar in places to early XTC. Bursts of thickly-chorded guitar channel arena rock. But Greta Morgan‘s cool, soulful-yet-detached vocal delivery has more in common with music’s most assured vocalists; she sounds like she only breaks a sweat singing when she chooses to do so.

Morgan’s clear-as-a-bell voice would likely be the aural centerpiece of Gold Motel’s sound even if it weren’t mixed so much to the fore as it is on this disc. Her sparkling keyboards use a wide array of sounds, all of which work well.

In truth, there’s not a weak song on Summer House. “Safe in L.A.” is a standout among strong tunes; like many of the album’s ten cuts, it shows the band is not afraid to make use of pop traditions like tambourine and handclaps to push the happy vibe. And on that song’s choruses, Morgan sounds uncannily like another quality artist, KT Tunstall. But for the most part, the group has it both ways: they evoke the feel and emotion of classic groups while sounding not too much like any one of them. Gold Motel is not a band about which you’ll find yourself saying, “Yeah, they’re good, but they’re a bit too much like [fill in the blank].”

There’s plenty of texture on the album. “Stealing the Moonlight” has it all: acoustic guitar picking intro, strident power chords, male/female call/response vocal arrangement, clever vocal harmonies. And all those qualities reveal themselves within the first sixty seconds of the song.

The melodrama of “Fireworks After Midnight” would be at home on an A Camp album, but Gold Motel display more range than that one style; the following track “Don’t Send the Searchlights” adorns a romantic melody with a slashing, Clash-like rhythm guitar. And the ooh-and-aah backing vocals add the just right timeless feel.

There’s an impressive sense of dynamics throughout the disc. Nearly every song has a fast section, a breakdown, etc., but never do the elements seem there for their own sake, or simply to impress. The intro to “Make Me Stay” is vaguely reminiscent of Toto‘s “Hold the Line,” but the song makes subtle use of 60s combo-organ styled keys and — get this — highly catchy slide guitar. Here, think more America or George Harrison, not the Allman Brothers. Yet despite all those 70s touchstones, the track ends up with a decidedly modern rock feel. How’d that happen? Impressive.

“The Cruel One” takes a piano-centric page from the Jellyfish playbook, and the song sounds like it’s destined for the next iPod commercial.

Maybe it’s here just to show that Gold Motel doesn’t have to always rock-pop it out, but the brief “Who Will I Be Tonight” has a simple-yet-lush aesthetic built around electric piano and moaning, ghostly guitar figures. The net effect of the torchy song evokes Weimar Germany, or Brecht-Weill. Or something.

At ten tracks and thirty minutes Summer House will leave the listener hungry for more, but then that’s good marketing, isn’t it? The album closer is the title track, and the guitar that frames the song does have that undeniable summer feel. A strong beat and bouncy vibe alternate with a powerpop chug, and as the song unfolds, more ingredients are thrown into the mix, including some heavenly ooohs. (Can never get enough of those).

A near-perfect balance of pop sensibility and serious musicianship and songwriting, Gold Motel’s Summer House should be on the must-have list of any lover of modern or classic pop music.

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

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

Album Review: Claudette King – We’re Onto Something

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

Yes, I know, I know. Return visitors to this site may notice that quite a few of my album reviews begin with a brief (or not-so-brief) section in which I essentially say, “I had plenty of reasons not to dig this, but…”

And here we go again. When We’re Onto Something, a blues album by a singer named Claudette King found its way onto my desk, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I try not to judge an album by its cover, but the color chalk drawing of the artist outdoors (complete with what look like ducks or pigeons) gave me pause. And the basic-set typeface title emblazoned across it didn’t settle my concerns, either.

A quick look at the songwriting credits showed that more than half of the tracks were co-composed by one Alan Mirikitani, a name I recalled (I do read liner notes!) from another release on the Blues Express label, Looking for a Party by Long John Hunter. Come to think about it, I’ll bet the same artist drew the cover for that album, too.

Add to that the fact that both albums share the same producers, and that half of Claudette King’s tracks feature the Dawwg House Rhythm Section, the band that backs up Hunter on his set. A logical conclusion might be that this album is a low-budget affair.

But wait: let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, right? Time to pop the CD out of the case. Whoa, what’s this? Under the CD there’s a clear plastic tray. And the inset card shows a picture of the artist with a blues legend. It’s B.B. King; oh, that’s nice.

Wait a minute. B.B. King, Claudette King…any relation? Yup. B.B.’s her daddy.

But in the same way that low-budget small label does not necessarily equal mediocrity, neither does genetic commonality with a giant of American music connote quality. So I listen.

Turns out We’re Onto Something serves up eleven tracks that showcase reasonable variety, consistent quality and prominent, thoughtful placement of Claudette King’s talents. Whether it’s a walking blues like a cover of Robert Cray‘s “Playing With My Friends” or the gospel-flavored late-night vibe of “This Ain’t How I Planned It,” the album shows the range of styles to which King can apply her voice.

The extensive liner notes make reference to an earlier project King released an unspecified number of years ago (best guess: mid 90s). For this album, the instrumental tracks from four of those songs were brought back into the studio; there King recorded new vocal tracks. Honestly, there’s little sonic difference between the old and new tracks.

We’re Onto Something certainly isn’t all straight blues; there are elements of all sort of other styles woven in and out of the mix, for an overall feel not at all unlike the Fabulous Thunderbirds. For the most part, the instrumentation exists as a bed for King’s pipes, but occasionally a tasty solo crops up. The wah-wah guitar solo on “A Dog Like You” is a good if understated example.

The album’s only weak spot is the inclusion of a shamelessly derivative track, and it pilfers (consciously or otherwise; I review but do not judge) from a perhaps unlikely source. The one-chord “Boogie Some” — written by album coproducers Mirikitani and Dennis Walker — cops everything that’s not nailed down from the Pretenders’ 1980 hit “Brass in Pocket,” right down to the insistent lyrical device of gonna-this-gonna-that. It’s a disappointing distraction.

When it comes to horn sections, this reviewer finds that most fall into one of two camps. The first is the Mar-keys; the second, the SNL band. The first propels songs forward, and often takes the effective role of a backing vocal section. The latter reminds you to wake up — you dozed off during the last (reliably lousy) thirty minutes of Saturday Night Live, and now, with the credits rolling, it’s time to grab the remote and turn the TV off. While they play well, the horn guys on We’re Onto Something lean ever-so-slightly into the SNL camp.

But any question as to whether Claudette King herself can bring the goods is laid to rest on “Easier Alone.” While the arrangement has a cocktail lounge feel, Ms. King’s voice takes it somewhere special, somewhere it simply couldn’t go without her.

A surprising highlight of the disc is “Isn’t Peace the Least We Can Do,” a song in what can best be called a gospel shuffle style. Co-composer Jim Pugh‘s understated organ solo channels Billy Preston. A few more tracks like this (and a few less of the “Boogie Some” variety) and this album would be an unqualified success.

But when one gets right down to it, the enjoyment of an album such as this comes to this: does the listener enjoy blues-inflected vocals out in front of a precise yet emotive electric backing band? If the answer’s yes, there’s plenty of enjoyment to be found within the (virtual) grooves of We’re Onto Something.

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

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

Concert Review: Dungen – Asheville NC, Sep. 12 2010

Monday, September 20th, 2010

“Hello. We are The Pixies.”

That was the puckish greeting that Gustav Estjes — leader of Swedish folkrockpsych quartet Dungen proffered to the audience on a recent Saturday night at Asheville North Carolina’s Grey Eagle. This was either the third or fourth visit the group has made here; neither their tour manager nor I could decide which. But it’s clear that — as Estjes told me after the show — they “love Asheville.”

Good thing, that. Because as a direct result of an unfortunate confluence of events, Dungen’s Asheville show was — as Estjes so wryly intimated — scheduled opposite a Pixies concert at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, a scant mile away. So it was that Dungen played to a crowd of about sixty. For those in attendance, it was great, almost like a private show. And while one might think the band would be disappointed, they seemed to take it all in stride, getting down to the business of making music.

Dungen at Grey Eagle. Photo (c) Bill Kopp.
The stage at the Grey Eagle is little more than a foot above the audience floor, and the Dungen show was a standing show. So everyone in the crowd got a close-up look at the onstage activity. Estjes’ musical arsenal included a digital piano; an acoustic and ES-335-style hollow body electric guitar; a flute; and a tambourine. From song to song Estjes would switch between instruments, and several times he made multiple instrument changes during a single song. The piano was set up perpendicular to the stage, with enough room behind it for Estjes to wander — tambourine in hand — over to where guitarist Reine Fiske was set up.

Fiske is one of few players working today who effectively make onstage use of controlled feedback. With his well-worn Stratocaster, he spent large chunks of the set with his back to the audience. He did this not out of any shyness but rather to coax feedback from his amplifier, carefully stacked atop its road case to bring it in line with Fiske’s guitar. It’s one thing to simply produce feedback; there are digital pedals for that. But to create and control that unruly beast takes thought and concentration. At several points throughout the show, Reine Fiske produced squalls of feedback in his solos. Sometimes the goal was a lead part; other times the feedback served as an almost ambient bed for the other sounds being made onstage. Fiske spent little time trying to impress the most obvious way (i.e. playing fast); though doing so is clearly within his bag of tricks, he focused instead on sculpting a particular tone to suit each piece.

Dungen at Grey Eagle. Photo (c) Bill Kopp.
Drummer Johan Holmegard brings a strong jazz sensibility to Dungen. At the Grey Eagle his smallish drum kit was set up with a low profile (everything as low to the floor as possible), and his drum skins seemed tuned to their loosest tension. His creative fills punctuated a style that was forceful and subtle as each song demanded; few songs were set up for playing in one style all the way through. Holmegard maintained careful eye contact with his band mates, and that connection reaped dividends as the band occasionally went off on a brief musical exploratory excursion. The thread was never lost.

Bassist Mattias Gustavson maintained a low-key visual presence throughout the set, minding his musical business. But his thunderous bass lines often as not served the role of rhythm guitar or second lead guitar.

Dungen at Grey Eagle. Photo (c) Bill Kopp.
The band’s set concentrated primarily on material from their latest (Skit I Allt) and 2008′s 4, their fifth album (that confusion is explained here). The song selection presented all three major sides of the band: straightforward, highly melodic and hook laden almost-pop songs; long, atmospheric mood pieces that would sound right at home on an expanded reissue of Pink Floyd‘s A Saucerful of Secrets or Ummagumma; and wild guitar freakout/noisefests. In barely over an hour the group managed to display their expertise in all of these styles, and — perhaps most remarkably — they managed to make all these styles hang together as a cohesive whole.

Between songs, Estjes joked with the crowd, made a few references to his discovery of the beverage kombucha during his last visit to Asheville, and emanated good vibes. He and the rest of the band were clearly enjoying themselves.

Dungen at Grey Eagle. Photo (c) Bill Kopp.
When the band finished their set, the small crowd mustered all the noise it could manage to lure them back for an encore. Fiske needed some time to replace a broken guitar string, and while that was going on Estjes again exited the stage for a break. To keep the momentum going (and/or to amuse themselves) the Dungen rhythm section of Holmegard and Gustavson treated the audience to a playful bit of piano/drums jazz interplay. Not a song so much as a musical dialogue, it was an unexpected and slightly odd yet delightful interlude.

For the sake of the band, this writer does wish that a larger crowd had turned out for the Grey Eagle show. But strictly from the standpoint of a concertgoer on a specific night, a private audience with Dungen is among the best musical treats imaginable. Here’s hoping that the group’s love of this little mountain city will override any concerns of low turnout, and that the band will soon make its way back to Asheville.

Dungen at Grey Eagle. Photo (c) Bill Kopp.
Photos (and a bit of audio) from Dungen’s 2009 Asheville show are here.
My 2009 interview with Gustav Estjes is here.
My 2007 interview with Reine Fiske is here.

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