Archive for November, 2010

CD Review: T. Rex – The Slider

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

T. Rex - The Slider T. Rex was really two distinct groups in succession. The first — actually called Tyrannosaurus Rex — was Marc Bolan, ex John’s Children of The Legendary Orgasm Album infamy — plus Steve “Peregrine” Took on bongos and whatnot. Their hippy-dippy indulgences were sort of Donovan-on-heavier-drugs. But by 1971 Bolan had seen the light, and that light was more straight-ahead glam rock. Influenced by the UK scene spearheaded by David Bowie, Sweet and their ilk, Bolan maintained some of his former sound but polished it, moving in a rockier direction. In 1971 Electric Warrior gave the world the massive hit “Bang a Gong (Get it On)” and from there T. Rex’s new path was clear.

That album and 1972′s The Slider are arguably the apex of the group’s work, and of the genre in total. Fat Possum Records is the latest of many, many labels to license the album for reissue. So, here in 2010, we find another reissue of The Slider.

The arrangements are spare and no-nonsense, built around Bolan’s electric guitar plus the rhythm section of Steve Currie (bass) and Bill Legend (drums). Mickey Finn (responsible for the prime 60s psych raveup nugget “Garden of My Mind”)* provides congas and vocals, providing the link to the earlier Tyrannosaurus Rex sound. Flo and Eddie of the Turtles return to provide their own brand of vocal magic that worked so well on “Bang a Gong (Get it On)”. The string arrangements will feel warmly familiar to fans of the era: Tony Visconti handles production and arranging. Visconti’s presence gives the record a sound and feel quite similar to Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, another Visconti production released within months of The Slider. But T. Rex’s record doesn’t shoot for the epic storytelling and mythmaking for which Bowie aimed.

The lyrics are impressionistic, which a kind way of saying they don’t make a helluva lotta sense. It’s amusing to think that Bolan was taken relatively seriously when writing stuff like “Telegram Sam, you’re my main man / Golden Nose Slim, I know’s where you been” and “Buick Mackane will you be my girl” while meanwhile Sweet was being slagged by the critics for singing their ChinniChap lyrics like “Wig Wam Bam.” It’s all pretty damn silly, yet giddily wonderful. And it’s evocative of a genre that lashed back at the concurrent rise of navel-gazing singer/songwriters. Thank goodness.

Every song on The Slider sounds like it could have been a hit, but in fact “Telegram Sam” only hit #67 on the singles chart. For a lyrically lightweight record, it did quite well on the album charts, reaching #17 in the year of its release. “Baby Strange” would find new life many years later when Alex Chilton performed it with the re-formed Big Star (he had actually covered the song onstage with the original Big Star, but hardly anyone knew or cared in those days).

An excellent Mark Paytress essay helps put The Slider into context, and provides one of the prime reasons to purchase this package rather than earlier ones. (Unlike some earlier reissues, there are no bonus tracks, but the booklet and digipak are very nice.)

* Wrong. I assumed a connection where none existed. Drummer Mickey Finn was not a member of the group The Mickey Finn.

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DVD Review: Ginger Baker’s Airforce – Live 1970

Monday, November 29th, 2010

I must admit I was thrilled and filled with anticipation when I recently learned of this DVD’s existence. Ginger Baker — then late of Blind Faith, and before that Cream — put together a groundbreaking supergroup in the waning days of the 1960s. While Ginger Baker’s Airforce is most often thought of — when it’s thought of it at all — as some sort of one-off failed vanity project that quickly ended up in cut-out bins, the reality is quite different.

The group was never designed to have a set lineup of personnel. Players came and went. The first lineup included Steve Winwood, who had just finished playing with Baker in Blind Faith (another act that rarely gets its due). Ric Grech from Blind Faith had also briefly been a member, as had Chris Wood (previously and soon again Winwood’s bandmate in Traffic). Denny Laine (previously of the “Go Now” era Moody Blues, then his own tantalizingly brief String Band, and soon to join Wings) enlisted in the Airforce as well. Even former Move guitarist Trevor Burton passed through the ranks of Ginger Baker’s Airforce.

Okay, enough with a rundown of who is not on this new video. A few facts remain: one, the existence of any Airforce video is a rare and special treat. Since the group only did a handful of shows, there were precious few opportunities to capture them on film. Two, the lineup that appeared on the German TV program Beat Club was quite amazing in and of itself. Built around a core of Baker on drums plus his mentor Graham Bond on saxes (leading a brass section), the group also featured some fiery guitar work from Ken Craddock (who doubled on organ).

The original broadcast was, by necessity, edited for television: you always shoot more than you’ll need. This 51-minute DVD includes all extant tape from the session, including slate claps and a bit of between-song banter between the players and the studio crew. So viewers are treated to two versions of “Sunshine of Your Love.” But wait: you have never heard the song like this. Featuring the dual lead vocals of Aliki Ashman and Diane Stewart (Bond’s wife) plus a boundary-stretching horn section, the song as performed by the Airforce pushes the limits of what listeners could reasonably expect.

If Ginger Baker’s Airforce sounds like any other group, it’s got to be Colosseum. But that jazz-rock group never had African percussion worked into the mix. Ghanan percussionist Speedy Acquaye added a world-beat sensibility to the Airforce sound; a strong case can be made that Ginger Baker really spearheaded the world music movement. There’s no denying that he was ahead of his time in the integration of western and African musical styles. The Airforce experience had a profound effect on his own musical direction: he would soon move to Lagos, Nigeria. But that’s another story.

The performances on Live 1970 are amazing. The sound is superb, and the visual quality is stunning for a TV film from forty years ago, especially one most people didn’t know still existed. The songs go on and on — the opening number (three songs in succession, really) runs nearly 22 minutes — but they never get boring. Hypnotic, yes. A highlight of the set (one of many) is “12 Gates of the City” (from the second Airforce LP) featuring Bond on lead vocals. “Early in the Morning” is the only song performed that had appeared on the first album; there the lead vocal duties were Steve Winwood’s. Here it’s Ashman and Stewart, giving the song a wholly different flavor.

Don’t be misled when you see the cover art: it may lead you to think that Live 1970 is a video document of the first album, itself a live performance at London’s Albert Hall. It is not that: as I’ve pointed out, neither the song list nor the band lineup shares much with that show. But it’s still quite essential. Fans of any of Baker’s work will enjoy this: Baker is shown playing with what could almost be termed subtlety, even though he still bashes the hell out of the well-worn skins. Anyone curious about the earliest examples of musical genre cross-fertilization and hybridization will benefit from a viewing of Live 1970. Jazz fans who dig loose playing will enjoy this, too. In short, anyone with a musically open mind should give Ginger Baker’s Airforce – Live 1970 a look.


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Holiday Roundup 2010

Friday, November 26th, 2010

Every year around this time, various artists and labels take a shot at getting their piece of the holiday shopper’s dollar. Some efforts are more successful than others, and sometimes good collections fly under the radar. Today we’ll take a look at four titles aimed at the 2010 holiday season.

Christmas With the O'JaysLet It Snow: A Holiday Musical Collection
Christmas With the O’Jays is a contemporary recording. Though the O’Jays‘ commercial heyday began in 1972, the renowned Philly R&B vocal group has remained active ever since, with numerous chart-toppers to their credit. Two of the original vocalists — Eddie Levert and Walter Williams — remain in the group. The latest application to which their trademark smooth vocal delivery has been applied is this new holiday collection. The good news is that it’s long on traditional and well-known tunes: in fact it leans heavily on hymns and carols rather than songs from the pop end of the spectrum. Yes, “Jingle Bells” is here, but more representative of the set is a rendition of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

The not-quite-as-good news is that the arrangements are a bit stiff and humorless. True, when you’re singing about your god and whatnot, levity isn’t always the emotion that’s called for, but these songs are pretty serious as delivered by the O’Jays. The instrumental backing is keyboard-heavy but mostly avoids the band-in-a-box vibe. While you’d never mistake the music on most of these tracks for actual band performances, they’re reasonably appropriate and sympathetic. The frequent (an admittedly expert) vocal melismas don’t always mesh well with the drums machines and modern keyboards. Still, for fans of the O’Jays style, this ten-track CD will be enjoyable.

For the second time in as many years, the US Postal Service is promoting a holiday collection put together by Concord Music Group. Let It Snow: A Holiday Musical Collection brings together classics and newer material, mostly from well-known artists. Opening with Ella Fitzgerald‘s swinging rendition of “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” this set hits all the right notes. Thanks to Concord’s ever-widening stable of high-quality and legendary artists, the collection includes numbers from Frank Sinatra, Mel Tormé, Paul McCartney (guess which song) and Ray Charles. Modern-day recordings (sometimes licensed from other labels for this set) from Jason Mraz and Chris Isaak balance the set: this is one of those recordings one could play during the holiday gathering when multiple generations are present. Everybody loves Vince Guaraldi‘s “Linus and Lucy” from A Charlie Brown Christmas, and even the youngsters should be able to endure a little big-band music; the listeners who don’t dig Jason Mraz can hold on for his brief two-minute “Winter Wonderland.”

Available exclusively at Post Office branches across the USA, this collection is the fourth USPS exclusive from Concord. The marketing approach seems to be a successful one. With Concord’s deep catalog of some of the world’s greatest music from its best artists — coupled with a thoughtful approach to track selection — it’s hard to go wrong.

Mark Lamarr's Rhythm & Blues ChristmasA Kool Kat Kristmas
A more fascinating and unusual holiday compilation from UK label Fantastic Voyage is Mark Lamarr’s Rhythm & Blues Christmas. Spanning 25 tracks, this collection brings together holiday-themed tracks that lean toward the rare and obscure (or at least unjustly forgotten) end of the musical spectrum. There are some well-known names here, including The Moonglows, Lionel Hampton, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Jimmy Witherspoon, but for the most part these aren’t songs that have been played to death every December.

In fact for the most part the songs on Rhythm & Blues Christmas transcend the holidays. While the lyrical subject matter on a track like Joe Turner‘s “Christmas Date Boogie” is seasonal, the theme and delivery are timeless. So is the case throughout the disc. These are not sleigh-bell heavy arrangements; the songs are largely free of seasonal musical clichés. It’s merely a great collection of fantastic music from Mark Lamarr‘s personal stash.

The sound quality is a notch above what one often finds in collections such as these (audio masters aren’t always readily available, leading compilers to resort to careful needle-drops). For fans of 50s R&B — whether you dig holiday music at all, even a little bit — this one is essential. Be sure to dig Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Happy New Year.”

When the label Kool Kat Musik is involved, you know you’re going to be served up a healthy helping of powerpop. In the case of A Kool Kat Kristmas, the label collects eleven holiday-themed tracks from modern-day genre artists. No modern adaptations of holday classics here: all these cuts are original numbers.

The disc wisely kicks off with “Christmas Time in the City,” a winning track from Maple Mars — a group that can always be counted upon to deliver the goods. Powerpop lovers, don’t be surprised if you’re still pinning this song next summer. But Maple Mars have plenty of competition for best song on the disc: one can only assume that Kool Kat had a surfeit of great material from which to choose, because there are no duds on this set. For fast rockers there’s Keith LuBrant‘s “The Christmas Spirit.” For C&W-tinged flavor there’s the aptly-named “Chris Hillman Christmas” from the Britannicas. That song threatens to go religious with the lyric “I’d rather listen to Jesus than to Wilco,” but redeems itself with the resolving line, “I’d rather go to jail than see the Eagles re-form again.” Me too, guys. John Wicks (late of 80s shoulda-been-huge act The Records) gives a synth-heavy “Star of Bethlehem, and Frank Royster brings his brand of Merseybeat to bear on the catchy, infectious “Christmas is Fun.” It’s all good, and — like the R&B collection mentioned above — should hold up well for listens throughout the year.

A portion of the proceeds from A Kool Kat Kristmas go toward the Susan Giblin Foundation for Animal Wellness and Welfare. Giblin was (the liner notes tell us) “a Certified Veterinary Technician and noted animal advocate who passed away from leukemia at the age of 46.” The title is available exclusively from Kool Kat Musik.

Happy Holidays!

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Happy Thanksgiving

Thursday, November 25th, 2010

For my readers in the USA, today is the Thanksgiving Holiday. I’m taking the day off from the blog to spend time with my kids. Best wishes to you and yours. Here’s a clip representing something that is — for me — a Thanksgiving tradition right up there with overeating.

Album Review: The Goldenhour – Tonight Becomes Tomorrow

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

The Goldenhour - Tonight Becomes Tomorrow This internet thing, it’s interesting. Time was — when I was growing up, to take the most handy example — if you were a fan of a certain subgenre of musical called powerpop, you were largely on your own. Living in a big city in the 70s and 80s might have made it easier than it would have been if you, say, grew up in a one-stoplight town, but the fact remained that the music was decidedly unfashionable. With the odd exception, powerpop bubbled under on the charts and the radio. So if you found a connection with the music, it was a solitary experience.

Liking powerpop was not at all like being a member of the Kiss Army. You didn’t have a bunch of friends with whom you could share the anticipation of an upcoming release from The Records or Squeeze.

The internet changed all of that to a degree. Not to prattle on endlessly about social networking and whatnot — it’s a shopworn subject — but social media and its antecedents (Usenet etc.) offered a virtual means for like-minded people to form affinity groups. Not wholly dissimilar to fan clubs of the 60s, these affinity groups provided an opportunity for those with similar interests and concerns to connect with one another. And that sort of thing — even for, no, especially for someone like this writer who isn’t an especially social animal — helps provide the reinforcement needed to keep those interests alive.

It’s admittedly easier to sustain one’s interest in an esoteric subject when other people tell you, essentially, “Yeah, you’re on the right track; you’ve got something there.” Even better, these affinity groups allow this sort of message to be shared: “You like that? Well, I bet you’ll dig this too. Check it out.”

Speaking for myself, through Facebook (yeah, Facebook) I too have managed to fall in with a group of like-minded souls who really dig the powerpop stuff. Good thing, too: there simply are not that many people with whom I come into regular contact who have any sort of interest in powerpop. Through this interaction, I’ve stumbled on to music I would have otherwise missed. And I’m discovering that one reliable source for the stuff is a label called Kool Kat Musik.

Throughout the years, a few small labels have championed this oft-maligned and/or –dismissed genre of powerpop. Jordan Oakes‘ legendary Yellow Pills series kept the flame alive in the 1990s, collecting otherwise-unheard cuts from a wide variety of artists. Bruce Brodeen‘s Not Lame! Label did the same until very recently (word has it that the label won’t be releasing further product). Even in the face of the download culture, a few labels are managing to keep things going. Kool Kat is one of these.

One of the latest offerings from the label is an odds-and-sods compilation from The Goldenhour. This Glaswegian quintet has been releasing its brand of high-energy rock on a variety of labels since 1998. Like their countrymen Teenage Fanclub, the Goldenhour draw inspiration form the rave-up end of the 60s rock spectrum, with healthy elements of post-60s influences thrown in.

A swirling organ figures its way subtly but powerfully into many Goldenhour tracks, giving the group a sound a bit like Inspiral Carpets. Packing plenty of Who-like punch in their songs as well, the Goldenhour can swagger like the Stone Roses one moment, and kick it out like the Small Faces the next.

But despite all the benefits of social networking, the Goldenhour toil in relative obscurity. With two albums to their credit (2003′s Beyond the Beyond and the 2005 long-player Always in the Now) the band has jumped from label to label. Now Kool Kat Musik has collected fifteen tracks — some dating back nearly fifteen years — on Tonight Becomes Tomorrow: The Early Years 1996 to 2000.

The tracks on Tonight Becomes Tomorrow consist primarily of`previously unreleased material, with a handful of compilation-only cuts, alternate takes and radio broadcasts. But one should not assume that this material is somehow of a lesser sonic quality than a proper release. Those unfamiliar with the Goldenhour’s catalog — in other words, damn near everybody — won’t discern anything on this set that marks it as anything other than a fine collection of songs.

The musical highlights on Tonight Becomes Tomorrow are so plentiful that singling out a few songs for praise does injustice to the remaining tracks. But here goes: even though Neil Sturgeon‘s raspy vocals add a delightful texture to the group’s songs, the amazing instrumental workout “The Network” is an exciting in-you-face raver. “I Happen to Love You” is one of only two covers on the set, but this Goffin/King number — best known as an Electric Prunes track — jumps out of the speakers, full of texture and thrills.

But there’s nary a weak track on the disc. For powerpop fans, just throwing the label out there — if the thrower has credibility, of course — is generally enough to pique interest in further investigation. So I’m throwing out The Goldenhour’s Tonight Becomes Tomorrow. Catch it and you won’t be disappointed.

This title is available exclusively from Kool Kat Musik.

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Album Review: Stereolab – Not Music

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

Stereolab - Not Music

Call it deceptive — or at least misleading — labeling. With a title like Not Music, the uninitiated might be led to believe that this latest collection from Stereolab is some sort of atonal excursion in to the world of analog synthesizer. Not that would be a bad thing, you understand. But Not Music is as far from that as imaginable.

The band announced its indefinite hiatus in 2009, so the appearance of an album — any album at all — is something of a surprise. But then Stereolab has always leaned in the direction of unpredictability. As the press kit for this new disc explains, Not Music is “part of Tim Gane‘s 2007 science experiment involving improvised chord sequences played on piano or vibraphone…” That too may conjure visions of less-than-hooky compositions.

But again that image would be inaccurate. The tracks on Not Music are impossibly catchy. The disc is full of ear-catching melodies, infectious beats, lovely arrangements. “Supah Jalanto” sounds like postmodern Bacharach/David. If Pizzicato Five sang in standard English and dispensed with the sampling, they’d sound a bit like Stereolab on Not Music. Or, if Ivy rocked harder (though Sterolab doesn’t exactly rock, mind you).

The seemingly more-head-than-heart approach to composition actually created some emotionally heartfelt-feeling music. Sonically in the same ballpark as Brian Eno‘s commercial pop trilogy of the 70s, Not Music is nowhere as weird (or, it must be said, groundbreaking) as Another Green World. But the group does manage to create memorable music.

The (real) brass charts on “So is Cardboard Clouds” are fairly beefy for a band so immersed in keyboard culture. But for fans of said keyboard culture, there are plenty of great sounds, courtesy of such familiar brands as Moog, Farfisa and the legendary VCS3 (immortalized on Pink Floyd‘s Dark Side of the Moon). Latetia Sadier‘s icy yet emotive vocals float above the melodies. Except on the instrumental numbers of course. There are several of those here.

If dancing is your thing, “Silver Sands” might belong on your playlist. Here Sadier evokes the original ice queen Nico while an insistent, floor-shaking beat (with tasty Moog bass) pushes things forward. And if I didn’t warn you, you would not expect the drum solo. And there’s some welcome guitar jangle (and off-kilter beats) on the wonderful “Sun Demon.” The disc wraps up with “Neon Beanbag,” a one-chord trance freakout remix courtesy of Atlas Sound. Fans of Apples in Stereo and Air (and of course fans of Stereolab’s dozen previous records) are sure to enjoy some well-spent time with Not Music. Influences are pulled from many places — most of them non-rock — yet they coalesce into something that is clearly the work of a band with a vision.

In spite of what could be a limiting formula for creating songs, there’s a pleasant (dizzying, actually) amount of variety across the thirteen tracks on Not Music. Good thing, that. Because Stereolab’s hiatus is a real thing: the press kit makes it clear that “there will be no touring in the foreseeable future” from the group. But in the absence of live dates, Stereolab has delivered a lovely bouquet of melodies that should satisfy fans of their particular brand of pop music.

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DVD Review: Uriah Heep – Easy Livin’: The Early Years Live

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

Uriah Heep - Easy Livin': The Early Years Live Look, you’re gonna love this one or you’re gonna hate it. And honestly you don’t need to read a review it to know which (but thank you anyway!). Uriah Heep is one of those bands that some love to hate. Me, I love ‘em.

In the early 1980s Spinal Tap deftly skewered the whole heavy metal (in its original form) scene. But it’s worth noting that one cannot successful parody something if not possessed of a clear and full understanding of it. If you have anything less that a deep appreciation for a thing, attempts to parody it will come off as mean-spirited.

Essentially, if you’ve seen the live footage of Spinal Tap, you’ve seen most everything Uriah Heep will show you in Easy Livin’: the Early Years Live, a brief compilation of two made-for-TV concert bits. Every heavy rock trope of the 70s is present: close-up mugging for the camera, mic stand twirling, flashy jackets, drumstick twiddling, rock star poses, laying-of-hands upon front-row concertgoers. You name it, it’s here in spades. But if you actually like Uriah Heep, well then all that’s part and parcel of what you came for.

The band is in fine form in these clips. By ’74 Uriah Heep were on the latter end of their commercial and creative apex, but still firing on all cylinders. The band’s revolving-door lineup still delivered the goods. (Clichés? Yes. Somehow I thought it appropriate under the circumstances.) “Stealin’” from the band’s 1973 LP Sweet Freedom gets heard and seen twice, as does the immortal “Easy Livin’”. And both are enjoyable. But perhaps the highlight of the DVD is “Return to Fantasy” with its over-the-top Moog riff (are there other kinds? Not in the mid 70s, there weren’t). Distorted Hammond was always a centerpiece of the Heep sound, and it’s in full flower here. David Byron emotes in his inimitable Byronic-hero way, even indulging in a spoken-word midsection.

Harmonies are tight throughout; no mean feat when you’re busy playing heavy riffs and wagging your tongue at the camera. Say what you will, but the band is working hard for their money. The falsetto harmonies on “Easy Livin’” are not easy to pull off live (I know this firsthand, which says all you need to know about where I stand Heepwise) but they do well in both performances; the slight edge goes to the second, filmed in the USA.

That said, performance aside, this package couldn’t offer less if it tried. There are no liner notes; the only way to know that these two performances are from Shepperton Studios (1974) and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert (1975) is to watch the 40-minute DVD (or read this review). No credits, no bonus material, no nuthn’ beyond the grainy dubs of these two performances. A bit of post-production seems to have been applied: those slo-mo shots employed repeatedly through the disc suggest some early 80s fiddling. But then there’s the late-60s posterization technique applied (naturally) during an organ solo. Those are just for nostalgia, one guesses. And inexplicably, the cover photo looks to be the current band. Some old guys. Thankfully the DVD itself is the real deal from the band’s heyday. And of course there’s the issue of the title, which also betrays the compilers’ ignorance about the band: The Early Years? I think not: Uriah Heep’s debut LP hit the shelves in 1970, and their peak record (1972′s Demons and Wizards) came out in 1972.

So how’s the quality of the DVD itself, you might ask. Audio wise it’s fine; there seems to be a little bit of stereo separation, but not much. The performances are pro-shot, but the DVD is most definitely not sourced from master tapes. It’s of that nth-generation variety so familiar to collectors. Watchable, yes. Sharp and clear, um, no.

Look, it’s cheap. And it’s Heep. Together those are reasons enough to either despise it or run right out and purchase it. Like some other great things in life, it’s loads of fun and over too soon. So whether you consider it a simple pleasure or a guilty pleasure, it’s fun enough to warrant 40 minutes out of your life. Because it’s rare: as David Byron might have put it, “This is a thing you’ve never seen before, and it’s Easy Livin.’” So go ahead and let this DVD take its place in your heart.

P.S. Bonus points to you if you recognize the bass player working for a paycheck in the 1975 clips. He could play those riffs with one hand tied behind his back, I’ll bet.

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Bootleg Bin: The Fabulous Poodles – Live 1979

Friday, November 19th, 2010

Fabulous Poodles “Well, fame at last! Shave my beard and call me normal!” exclaimed Tony de Meur, in 2005 upon learning of the existence of these two radio broadcast recordings of The Fabulous Poodles.

The Fabulous Poodles were never what one would classify as “normal.” Coming on full-throttle in those heady days of new wave, they combined the best elements of pub rock, cleverness and a Kinks fixation. The British foursome sounded a good bit like the Kinks, in fact, but only if you could re-imagine Dave Davies playing violin and mandolin instead of guitar. Leader Tony de Meur was in fact a vocal doppelganger for Ray Davies, and the lyrical witticisms seemed to further the connection. Had they held on into 1980, MTV could have broken them into the majors.

Obsessive rock archivists have preserved these two shows, from consecutive nights in 1979. Both nights found the band facing pressures that would have made lesser musicians fold: a few nights earlier in Boston, the group’s equipment and clothing was stolen. These nights they performed on borrowed, unfamiliar equipment.

It may have frustrated the band (as between-song comments by de Meur indicate) but it didn’t affect the music. If anything the band charged forth with a renewed ferocity as they tore through “Suicide Bridge,” “Tit Photographer Blues” and the hit “Mirror Star.” For added value, the group acceded to requests for the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” and even an a cappella rendition of Vera Lynn‘s 1942 hit “Well Meet Again”.

By the early 80s the legit Fabulous Poodles albums were out of print, and a spotty 1995 CD compilation of selected tracks remains difficult to locate. [Luckily, two of their stateside LPs were issued on CD in 2009; they're reviewed here.] But the two New York shows from the group’s brief heyday remain, a testament to the power and wittiness of cult sensation The Fabulous Poodles.

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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: Jefferson Airplane- Grace’s Debut

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

Jefferson Airplane - Grace's DebutGrace Slick made her onstage debut with the Jefferson Airplane on October 16, 1966; the band played two shows the night before with Grace’s predecessor Signe Anderson. Long a mainstay of the underground collectors’ scene, this historic recording now receives official release.

Right out of the gate the band seems intent on showing the Fillmore audience that things have changed. The set list includes several songs not played the previous night. Fred Neil‘s “The Other Side of This Life” is taken at midtempo to emphasize the heaviosity of the arrangement. (HP Lovecraft — a band that took more than a few pages from the Airplane’s stylistic book — also covered the song, but their version leaned more in a bouncy pop direction.) Since instrumental interplay was always a centerpiece of the Airplane’s attack, there’s plenty of guitar soloing on, around, under and over the triple vocal lines of Marty Balin, Grace Slick and Paul Kantner.

Speaking of oft-covered songs, Dino Danelli‘s Get Together” gets the Airplane treatment in a rendition that predates many of the more well-known versions. Grace’s lead vocal parts show her unafraid to take the spotlight: while Anderson may (or may not) have been close to her equal in terms of vocal ability, Grace has that certain something — gravitas might be a good word — that demands attention in a way than Anderson did not.

“Let Me In” shows the Airplane’s pop song side, but even here they manage to plug in a high-flying and exciting guitar solo. On “Don’t Let Me Down” the band moves into blues territory, one of their less-fortunate directions. While they’re competent enough on blues-inflected numbers — such pieces do offer ample lead guitar opportunities — they’re a notch or two less exciting than the other styles the band employs. And Marty Balin often seems to be trying just a bit too hard on those blues cuts.

With its Kantner-Slick dual lead vocal, “Run Around” (originally on the group’s studio debut) foreshadows the vocal approach of Jefferson Starship. That’s not as gruesome as it might read in print: arguably, Grace’s voice blended every bit as successfully with Paul’s as it did with Marty’s. The early set closes with a straight-ahead, all-in reading of “It’s No Secret.” Everybody knows how they feel, indeed.

When the Airplane returns for their late-night set, they’ve got jamming on their minds: where the earlier set spotlighted shorter tracks, here they stretch out. Grace ably tackles her vocal parts on “Tobacco Road,” soaring above the guys, intent on making her presence known. With due respect to her predecessor, it’s not hard to imagine audience members this night playfully asking each other, “Signe who?”

A deeply strange choice of cover tunes follows. The Leiber/Stoller classic “Kansas City” is reinterpreted here as a turgid blues redeemed only by the fretwork of Jorma Kaukonen. Sure, structurally the song works as a blues, but why? It’s famously been posited that the Grateful Dead were the worst interpreters of Chuck Berry ever; a similar case could be made for Jefferson Airplane as a blues band (offshoot project Hot Tuna notwithstanding). Even as an avid Airplane fan I rate this one a snooze.

Things improve vastly with “Bringing Me Down.” Even though the song was on the group’s first album, its arrangement points the way toward later Airplane excursions. Again Grace forcefully lets us know she’s arrived.

“And I Like It” is one of the few songs reprised from the previous evening’s sets. More blues. It’s followed by “High Flyin’ Bird” (also performed the night before with Signe). Grace’s soaring harmonies complement a more assertive, impassioned performance than the band had turned in the night before. Here the Airplane proves it really is, as the song says, “the only way to fly.”

“This next thing is called ‘Thing,’” Marty Balin helpfully explains. A ten-minute exploratory piece, it’s one of the more worthwhile examples of its kind. Largely a one-chord jam, it’s nonetheless exciting. All the instruments compete for superiority throughout. The liner notes explain that the band included the number so that Grace could listen to it and figure out how she could add to it in the future. Warning to the uninitiated: there is a bass solo in the song. It’s good, but it’s…a bass solo.

The Airplane roars to the set’s conclusion with “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds,” neatly bookending the pair of concerts; they had opened with this the night before (well, after “Jam” anyway). With the band taking the track a bit slower than they did the previous night, the song caps off Grace’s introduction as the new vocal-focal point of the band. After a single evening, Grace Slick is fully integrated into Jefferson Airplane. The best was yet to come.

As with the previous night’s set featuring Signe’s farewell, the tapes for this show have been a popular collectors’ item. But the sonic quality on these versions far surpasses the unofficial ones. Unlike, say The Who‘s BBC Sessions set (which compares unfavorably to the unofficial Maximum BBC bootleg), these discs render the bootlegs irrelevant. For Airplane fans — or anyone interested in the west coast sound of the sixties — these are the ones to have.

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Feature/Interview: Black Mountain

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

Wilderness Heart

“It’s always been in our nature to be somewhat contrary,” chuckles Joshua Wells, drummer for Vancouver-based Black Mountain. The band has always had an interest in “taking things in a different direction. I don’t think there’s any point in making the same record twice, right?”

The quintet’s self-titled debut came out in 2005, followed by the hit (#13 on Billboard‘s Top Indie Albums chart) In the Future in 2008. Their newest album, Wilderness Heart, was released a few weeks ago. The group’s sound is a synthesis of modern and traditional; the band has often been compared to Black Sabbath, but Led Zeppelin‘s fourth (Untitled) album — especially “The Battle of Evermore” — is perhaps a more apt touchstone.

Wells explains one of the keys to getting the album to sound how it does: “It was recorded just like you’d record an album in 1972: on tape, in a nice old studio with old gear.” But unlike 2008′s In the Future, with its epic-length (16:37) track “Bright Lights,” Wilderness Heart is a collection of ten songs, only two of which break the five-minute mark. “The songs essentially dictate the direction a record’s going to go,” Wells observes. “This time, we tried to focus the arrangements and tighten the songs up in a way that made them briefer, more concise statements.” Wells concedes that Wilderness Heart is perhaps a bit less “murky and introverted” than its predecessor.

The well-known lick from Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” makes an appearance in Black Mountain’s “The Hair Song.” And some of the band’s sounds would fit in well on an album by Uriah Heep or Deep Purple. “There are nods to some of those sounds that have always turned us on,” Wells concedes, “because those are the things we like about rock’n'roll. But we work pretty hard to make a record sonically interesting so that it bears repeated listening.”

In the studio, Black Mountain turns to vintage instruments to sculpt their recordings. Wells says that old amps, pedals and things like “real Hammond organs and old drums” are a key ingredient in the band’s trademark swirl of sound. But onstage, sometimes that’s not practical. For example, “We’re not at the level where we could — or should — be traveling with a Mellotron,” Wells admits, “so we use a digital version of one.”

Black Mountain. Photo credit: Ryan Walter Wagner

The dual male/female lead vocal approach has a long and proud tradition within the psychedelic and heavier end of the rock spectrum. Bands like Jefferson Airplane, It’s a Beautiful Day and HP Lovecraft all made effective and distinctive use of the unique sound of that vocal blend. Black Mountain’s StephenMcBean and Amber Webber follow that tradition, but neither claims much influence from those artists. “Amber has been compared to Grace Slick a lot,” Wells says, “but she’s not really a fan. So I don’t know where that comes from. She finds it flattering, though.”

The band’s harmonies don’t always go in the most obvious direction (Wells describes it as “non-typical vocal interplay”). On a track like “Buried by the Blues” Webber’s vocal weaves in and out of the main melody, drawing and intriguing line atop the band’s instrumentation. “Steve writes the melody and the lyrics, for the most part,” Wells explains. “And then Amber takes that home and works her ass off to come up with her own unique vocal parts.”

There’s plenty of heavy rock — and plenty of folk-rock, really — on Wilderness Heart. But the band takes a stylistic detour on “Let Spirits Ride.” The song has more in common with the Dead Boys‘ 1977 punk single “Sonic Reducer” than anything from Black Sabbath. Wells says that the song’s riff “came up in jamming” but that the song developed over time. He laughs and recalls that at some point one of the band observed, “We don’t have any fast songs!” They tried “Let Spirits Ride” that way, and it worked. “We quite like it,” he says. “It’s fun to play live.”

Black Mountain is part of a proud 21st century tradition of bands unafraid to look backwards for some of their stylistic cues. Wolfmother and Bigelf — to say nothing of the current soul revival — draw inspiration from genres once thought moribund. But Wells agrees that there’s still a lot left to say via those idioms. “We naturally gravitate toward these sounds,” Wells says, “but we really try to avoid falling into the homage, cliché thing. Just as repugnant as making ‘modern rock’ is creating some sort of cartoon of 70s rock.”

“We’re not pretending that we’re living in the 70s,” Wells says. “We’re well aware that we’re making modern music, but using the ‘palette’ of some other era. And the reason we’re doing that, mind you, is that I don’t believe that the rock’n'roll palette ever got much better than that.”

An edited version of this feature appeared in the November 3, 2010 print edition of Mountain Xpress.