Archive for January, 2011

Album Review: The Mixtures – Stompin’ at the Rainbow

Monday, January 31st, 2011

There’s long been a school of thought that pushed the notion that rock nearly died in the late fifties. The argument goes something like this: Buddy Holly died in the plane crash, Elvis went into the army, Little Richard found Jesus, Jerry Lee Lewis discredited himself with the whole child-bride episode, Chuck Berry got busted, and a bunch of the other guys went country. The musical landscape was soon repopulated with insipid, assembly-line pop idols put forth by a music industry that had (almost) lost control of the whole shebang when those early rockers exploded on the scene. Acts like Bobby Vinton and Frankie Avalon were the cigar-chewing bigwigs’ way of getting the market back under their thumb. Only the Beatles, this argument insists, saved rock and roll from total death.

It’s a compelling argument, and one not without some historical merit. Those pre-Beatles pop stars were pretty goddamn lame, most of ‘em. People like Pat Boone certainly did sand off the rough edges of rock and roll, making musical pabulum that was safe for middle America. But this argument conveniently sidesteps the existence of many fine R&B inflected groups working dances and clubs in those years. Some remarkable, exciting music got made, performed and (occasionally) recorded before John, Paul George and Ringo came to our shores to save us all in early 1964.

The Mixtures were one of the bands making this exciting music. The band chose a name that reflected the racial diversity of their lineup: the group was (as the liner notes point out) “at different times comprised of African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Caucasians and a Native American.”  Not to make too big a deal of it, but in 1960 this was a big deal. This was some years before the Rising Sons (with Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder) or Love (featuring Arthur Lee and Bryan MacLean. Notably, both those groups and The Mixtures plied their trade in the (relatively) socially progressive region of southern California.

But focusing on the racial makeup of the band is to give short shrift to the music they made. And the fact is that if The Mixtures were merely an integrated band, they would merit little more than a footnote. As it happens, the group released a live album in 1962. Stompin’ at the Rainbow is a preserved example of the six-piece’s live set from that era. It’s a varied set that shows the band’s party instincts as a major influence in crafting the set list. After Bob Eubanks (in those days a concert promoter; in later years he’d gain notoriety as host of The Newlywed Game) introduces the band, they launch into their high energy set.

Long on covers (“Peter Gunn” theme, the Mar-Keys’ “One Degree North”), the set is designed to extract maximum dancing from the crowd. And form the sound of things, it worked. While the band was adept at honking instrumental numbers, they were equally skilled at delivering the goods on vocal-led numbers. A rock’n’roll medley is the centerpiece of the carefully-sequenced live set; it’s essentially a Little Richard mini-tribute, complete will trilling piano and lockstep horn chart.

With Wally Heider – already an established force – running the recording equipment, the goods were smartly committed to tape. Equipped with multiple vocalists capable of taking the lead, The Mixtures could effectively cover any number of styles. The Rainbow set would be notable if only for documenting a good night onstage; it does that, but also serves as a showcase for a band that could travel from one to another style with ease. At the close of the instrumental “Surfers Stomp” the crowd responds with stomps of their own.

Despite the tight playing, there’s nonetheless a welcome looseness to the performances. On “Peppermint Twist” the banking vocalists occasionally get the words a bit wrong; this only adds to the charm. The band – clearly sensitive to pacing –calms the corwd down after a series of raucous and upbeat numbers, making time for a slow dance or three. They close the show to an emotional reading of “That’s All I Ask.” With a quick “thank you,” the record fades on crowd applause.

The new archival release of Stompin’ at the Rainbow includes a dozen bonus tracks; with the exception of a two-sided single release of  “The Rainbow Stomp,”  all of these songs have previously appeared only on 45rpm singles. They’re all studio recordings dating from 1962 through 1964, and like the live set consist mostly (but not exclusively) of instrumental party numbers. When the last of these – Linda Records #115, “The Last Minute” b/w “Sen-Sa-Shun” – was released, it had been less than five months since the conclusion of the Beatles’ three-consecutive-weeks run on The Ed Sullivan Show. Things really did change then, but party music in the wide-ranging, good-timing style of The Mixtures would enjoy a few more years of popularity in dancehalls.

One quick aside: Fans of the Pacific Northwest strain of early 60s rock (see also: Revere, Paul) will hear some sonic similarities to that style in the Mixtures’ arrangements. Where Revere used a piano (this was long before the Raiders’ Vox organ era), the Mixtures used the Wurlitzer Electric Piano, then a mainstay of R&B music, and largely popularized by Ray Charles. 

As a key exhibit against the argument outlined at this review’s start, Stompin’ at the Rainbow is a worthwhile piece of plastic. It also happens to be a pretty fine party record in that post-early rock / pre-Beatles style.

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

Album Review: King Crimson – Islands (40th Anniversary Edition)

Friday, January 28th, 2011

From the album’s opening strains of “featured player” Harry Miller’s string bass, it’s clear that Islands is going to be quite a different affair from its predecessors. Released in 1971, King Crimson’s fourth long player found the incredible self-destructing band reinventing itself once again.

The 1969 debut In the Court of the Crimson King was widely hailed at the time of its release and remains the band’s best-loved and highly-regarded work (though perhaps tied in both respects with 1974’s Red). The follow-up In the Wake of Poseidon is too often dismissed as a rethink of that album, but in reality it’s more of a Robert Fripp-centric work that displays its own charms, and found the band delving into more dissonant realms.

Lizard (with yet more lineup changes) headed in a jazz-folk-baroque direction while making few bows toward anything like accessibility, but it too provided rewards on close listening. But yet again the band imploded. So by the time of sessions for Islands, the lineup was Fripp on guitars and keyboards; Mel Collins on all manner of wind instruments; Ian Wallace on drums; lyricist Peter Sinfield and – here’s where things got a bit odd – Boz Burrell (later of Bad Company) on bass guitar and lead vocals.

You see, Boz didn’t know how to play the bass. The story goes that Fripp taught him what to play note by note; as with most stories, the truth is perhaps slightly different; one suspects Burrell possessed at least some rudimentary playing skills; he had previously sang lead in a band with future members of Deep Purple, so he had some understanding of musical theory. In fact Boz’s playing on Islands doesn’t lead the listener to question his chops; while he’s no John Wetton, neither is he, say, Sid Vicious.

But back to Islands itself. Mere seconds after the very classical-feeling string bass opening, Miller changes his style to include some very nasty scrapes on the strings. Then flues and assured glissando piano lines (the latter courtesy of Keith Tippet, another of five featured players on Islands). Burrell’s plaintive voice comes in next. After three minutes of all this, the more-or-less rock section of the track (“Formentera Lady”) kicks in. It’s actually an unusually simple song for King Crimson; built around a single note and chord, were it to lack the classical filigree, it wouldn’t be much of a tune. Nearly five minutes pass before Fripp plays the first note on his (acoustic) guitar. But what the band does with this simple tune is inventive, and skewed enough to identify it as King Crimson. Collins’ sax work – which sounds largely improvised – adds an off-kilter feel to Boz’s droning bass guitar figure. Some soprano vocalization (courtesy of featured player Paulina Lucas) comes as something of a surprise. In the end, ten-plus minutes of “Formentera Lady” feels a bit excessive.

The instrumental “Sailor’s Tale” finds King Crimson segueing into slightly more familiar footing. A bracing horn arrangement from Collins – supported by keening guitar lines from Fripp – are laid atop an insistent yet subtle bass guitar and drum foundation. Shireking saxes and progressive, almost jazzy playing from Burrell weave in and out of a mix that finds Fripp playing a solo that (on one hand) bears no sonic relation to Collins’ subsequent solo but (on the other) fits quite well. Some daring Echoplexed guitar from Fripp sounds like almost nothing else you’ve ever heard; it’s almost the guitar equivalent of scat singing. The Mellotron makes its first prominent appearance here; first, it provides a suitably doom-laden bed for Fripp’s six-string excursions. Then it develops into something altogether more doomy and malevolent, with a feel closer to the debut album than anything the aggregation had done since that time.

“The Letters” has a medieval vibe to it, at least in the beginning few moments. A showcase for one of Sinfield’s better (bitter!) sets of lyrics, the song unexpectedly switches gears into some deeply weird squawking saxes and paint-peeling guitar work. Then it’s back to a more subtle interlude, then back to the free jazz bit. Next, Boz tries his hand at a “21st Century Schizoid Man” style vocal delivery, but does so without all the effects (save a bit of reverb). The song ends as plaintively as it began, though with a bleak, gothic lyrical postscript.

“Ladies of the Road” is an oddity, even by the standards of a King Crimson catalogue full of oddities. A paean to groupies, the song is built around Sinfield’s borderline-misogynistic lyrics. It also features some intentionally (yet maddeningly) plodding bass work, and some skronky sax work that would have seemed otherworldy to most rock fans in 1971. The song’s playful vocal chorus is also unusual in the Crim catalog. Slashing, atonal and thickly distorted guitar lines are employed judiciously by Fripp. The song may or may not appeal to the casual King Crimson fan; it certainly bears little sonic similarity to anything the band did before or since.

The featured players take center stage on the lilting and beautiful “Prelude: Song of the Gulls.” It’s a tightly-arranged, forlorn feeling piece that does indeed evoke visions of the English seaside. Other than possibly Collins, there sounds to be no musical involvement form any of the main Crimson musicians on this one (Fripp wrote the piece, though).

The remaining twelve minutes of the album’s original release are given over to the title track. A mannered Boz vocal is joined by piano and flute, then a cornet solo by Marc Charig. That solo connects Islands sonically to Lizard; in fact large swaths of “Islands” would sound right at home on that album. The jazz aesthetic was at its apex in King Crimson on these two records. Musically the melody is pretty accessible stuff, albeit with jazz trimmings. Fripp’s Mellotron is put to subtle yet effective use here.

Nine and a half minutes in, it seems as if “Islands” is over. But tacked on after nearly a minute’s silence is the sound of Fripp speaking to the featured players while they tune up and prepare to play. Studio engineers and beeps are briefly heard. This snippet was a “hidden track” from the original vinyl release, but oddly not on original CD versions.

As part of the group’s ongoing 40th Anniversary Series, Fripp and Steven Wilson sourced the original session tapes to remix and brighten the album for reissue. In addition, they’ve provided a long list of extras. A short bit of the title track with a prominent oboe is one of these; an alternate take of “Formentera Lady” is another. An alternate mix of “Sailor’s Tale” is different yet every bit the equal to the original version; if anything it’s even more sinister. A track called “A Peacemaking Stint Unrolls” showcases some musical ideas that would later be more fully developed for “Lament” (on 1973’s Starless and Bible Black) and “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part I” from 1974. A short rehearsal of “The Letters” is (unsurprisingly) much more loose-limbed than the official version, but does serve to show off the band’s chops and musical interplay. The remix of “Ladies of the Road” goes for a heavier feel; whether such was needed is a decision best left to the individual listener. The backing vocals are also much louder, giving the piece an unfinished feel in this form.

Were all that not enough, the companion DVD of the 40th Anniversary Series release includes much more. In addition to the now-standard (for Fripp and Steven Wilson’s purposes, anyway) 5.1 DTS mix, 2010 stereo mix and original mix, the DVD includes an “alternate album” constructed primarily from heretofore-mentioned tracks, and two additional programs.

The first of these is entitled “Routes to Islands” and features nearly an hour of fascinating material. The Islands lineup (Fripp, Burrell, Collins, Wallace) is heard rehearsing “Pictures of a City” from In the Wake of Poseidon. It’s a ragged, rough performance, and Boz shows himself to be no Greg Lake (on bass or vocals), but it’s a treat to hear nonetheless. A rehearsal of “Sailor’s Tale” puts Collins’ flute front and center – and lacks the dissonant Frippery of the finished version — but the arrangement is tentative and a bit listless. A very brief fragment of “Islands” is a solo Mellotron performance from Fripp. A pair of rough mixes (“Formentera Lady” and “Sailor’s Tale” show that the source tapes contained plenty of worthwhile material, and that – as is often the case – mixing of a record can be vital component in that overall process that we call “songwriting.” A version of “Drop In” — a song never officially released by the band in the 60s or 70s but a staple of their early live repertoire – gets a rehearsal run-through by the Islands lineup. Live versions of “The Letters” and “Sailor’s Tale” are also included; both are sourced from previous releases on the King Crimson archival label KCCC.

The other program is called “Assorted Ladies” and features three alternate takes of “Formentera Lady” plus another “Ladies of the Road” and the latter’s Fripp/David Singleton mix from the bonus section of the audio CD. This material falls into to “hear it once and that’s probably enough” category.

The Islands lineup also released a live LP called Earthbound, but all concerned have long since disowned that album – due in large part to its perceived sonic deficiencies; it does in fact sound like a bootleg – but that disc is of historical interest.

Not the strongest of King Crimson albums (not by a long shot) Islands remains a worthwhile excursion in its original form, and the remixed, expanded 2010 reissue remains – like all others in the series to date – an essential purchase for the Crim aficionado.

Coming Attractions: February

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

There are quite a few things in the proverbial hopper here at Musoscribe World HQ. Here’s just a sampling of what’s to come.

New music from Robin Trower, Jakko M. Jakszyk, North Atlantic Oscillation, The Agony Aunts, Corinne Bailey Rae, Ivan Julian, The High Llamas, Cake, Blackfield, Mars Hollow, and The Sterling Loons. And others.

Reissues and/or previously-unreleased material from Jefferson Airplane, Miles Davis, Dee Dee Sharp, The Teardrop Explodes, The Mixtures, Julian Cope, The Strawbs, Thin Lizzy, Flying Burrito Brothers, and Frank Sinatra. And more besides.

DVDs related to Larry “Wild Man” Fischer, Pink Floyd, the 1980s L.A. punk scene. And that’s not all.

Interviews with Richard X. Heyman, Trey Gunn, Martin Newell’s Cleaners From Venus, John Schienfeld (director of Who is Harry Nilsson?) and R. Stevie Moore. Among others.

You can follow all these and more using Twitter, of course. Just sayin’.

Interview: Steven Wilson on Porcupine Tree Rarities

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

Porcupine Tree recently reissued the rare outtakes disc Recordings. I spoke with group leader Steven Wilson about that album and other currently-unavailable material from the band. We also discussed his thoughts on working with other artists, something he does a lot of. — bk

Bill Kopp: Over the last several years you’ve managed to make nearly all of the back catalog available in one for or another, generally upgraded and enhanced in some way. Until its recent reissue, one glaring gap was the Recordings compilation — used copies of which went for hundreds of dollars. And some of your very earliest material like Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape remains unavailable. Do you plan to make additional rarities available at any point?

Steven Wilson: Recordings is one of my favorite of my albums, actually. It was originally put together out of necessity, because we had to finance a tour. And we put that together from some tracks that were left over. Now, the funny thing is, certainly at that time in the band’s career, the tracks that went on the [Stupid Dream] album were not necessarily my favorite tracks. Because I think the band were trying at that time to at least put two or three songs on each album that could maybe get some radio play. You know the old story; every band does that. And some fantastic tracks got left off, and some mediocre tracks got put on the albums. So Recordings was an opportunity to put some of the tracks that I felt were among the best I had written – or the band had written — at that time. And consequently it has become one of our most popular records. It’s certainly one of my favorites.

Why was it out of print for so long? Because it was only intended to be a limited edition. But the band had become a lot more popular since then, and we realized we had to reissue it at some point. And it’s literally just been waiting for a gap in the release schedule! There’s just been [laughs] so much product coming out of the band the last few years. DVDs, new studio albums, live records. And Recordings kept getting shunted to the back of the pile. Finally, I’m happy to say that we found a slot for it. I’m very proud of that album.

As for the early stuff, the opposite is true: I don’t think it’s very good. You know, there’s always a dilemma with a musician. Sometimes they don’t think that certain parts of their back catalogue are very good. And most tracks on Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape were things from really early cassettes I was doing in the late 1980s and really early 90s. I don’t think they’re that good, but I understand that there’s always a demand for that form the hardcore fan. What I don’t want to do, is I don’t want to clog up the record store racks – inasmuch as there still are record stores [chuckles] – with what I call our peripheral, fan-only releases.

BK: Right. You want them to be able to find The Incident or Fear of a Blank Planet without having to wade through ten copies of Metanoia.

SW: Exactly. As far as I’m concerned, there’s already some stuff out there which I would consider to be very peripheral, which I would rather was not out. Metanoia is one, and there’s a live album from Poland that we put out on our own label that got reissued. It kind of upsets me in a way when I wander into a record store and I find Metanoia and this album called Warszawa. I thin that a casual fan – one who’s just heard “Blackest Eyes” or “Trains” – might pick one of those up at random, saying, “Oh, I’ll just check this out.” And they’ll wander out with totally the wrong idea of what we’re like. So it annoys me when I see those, particularly [laughs] when those are the only ones there!

BK: You wouldn’t want someone’s first exposure to the band to be Voyage 34, which I love…

SW: I wouldn’t consider it to be among the top ten Porcupine Tree records. But I do recognize there’s a demand. Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape, I guess at some point I will have to think about how to make it available again. Maybe as a download, maybe as a special mail-order-only release. But let’s just say there’s no plans for it right now.

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DVD Review: Insurgentes

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

Steven Wilson is a man with a lot on his mind. The peripatetic and almost impossibly prolific composer/musician has his hand in a myriad of musical projects: Porcupine Tree, solo work, Bass Communion, no-man, Blackfield. He produces other artists. He is deep into the remixing and remastering of the legendarily influential King Crimson back catalogue. And yet amidst all of this activity he — with near-constant visual collaborator Lasse Hoile – set about making a film called Insurgentes.

Insurgentes is really several films in one. One some level it’s a promotional reel for Wilson’s solo album of the same name; in fact the film includes a fair amount of music from that 2009 release. But on another level it’s a biographical film, if an intentionally disjointed, nonlinear and incomplete one. And it’s a mood piece as well.

The film is alternately talky and filled with what almost feels like silence. Of course in those latter instances it’s not truly silent; atmospheric musical pieces (from the Insurgentes CD as well as ambient pieces by Bass Communion) are the aural backdrop for evocative visuals. But evocative of what, exactly? That’s not clear. Wilson and Hoile favor grotesque imagery – dozens of defiled caskets stacked haphazardly in a field; a riverside shack decorated with filthy baby dolls; a group of bizarrely-dressed folks (in bird masks or gas masks) skulking about; and those peculiarly English fields with massive concrete structures of unknown purpose. “We like decay,” Wilson admits at one point, and the visuals back that up: scenes of disused industrial machinery, warped railroad tracks and rusted ironwork are scattered throughout the film. It’s all very effective at setting a mood that’s unsettling, a bit creepy, foreboding, and yet attractive and compelling at the same time.

The talky bits — and there are lots of them in Insurgentes – consist mostly of Wilson sharing his thoughts on various topics of interest. He has a lot to say about download culture, the aesthetics of music packaging, and growing up in the 1980s. And every bit of it is interesting – at least mildly so for a casual viewer, and essentially so for the Wilson fan. His viewpoints on these and other topics most definitely inform his musical approach. He makes no attempt to be inscrutable or oblique, and goes a fair bit in the direction of explaining why he does what he does, and why his music sounds the way it sounds. It’s perhaps not too great a flight of overstatement to compare the articulate Wilson to the Pete Townshend of the 1970s: always good for a pithy quote, yet clearly possessed of strongly-held, fully thought out and well-supported opinions on a myriad of subjects.

There’s a bit of humor in the film, as well: two particular sections illustrate the filmmakers’ sense of humor. One involves a discussion between Wilson and Opeth’s  Mikael Akerfeldt as the two peruse the latter’s vinyl collection; the other is a series of bits interspersed throughout Insurgentes in which Wilson devises newer and cleverer ways to dispatch an item that is (on some level) the bane of his existence.

Insurgentes is also poignant at times. This is true during the scenes of Wilson revisiting the school of his youth, and even more so when he explains the extent to which his parents (both of whom appear in the film) had an impact on his musical development. But perhaps the most moving scene is one in which Wilson reflects on the Victorian practice of photographing the dead. That subject segues into a brief rumination on the concept of loss, and finally Wilson expresses how the fear of loss makes him hesitant to have children. Immediately after this especially revealing statement, Wilson turns away from the camera.

If you enjoy any of the music with which Steven Wilson has been associated, spending 75 minutes watching Insurgentes is nothing short of essential.

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

Interview: Steven Wilson on Audience Taping

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

Not that this writer would ever admit to being a collector of unreleased live and studio recordings – perish that thought – the ethics and controversy surrounding the practice of taping shows is an interesting topic. I recently spoke with Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson about his band’s policy on that practice. We also discussed the group’s ever-evolving fan base. — bk

Bill Kopp: There used to be a pretty active set of fans who traded audience recordings of Porcupine Tree shows. And it seemed — whether it was accurate or not — that you took a relatively laissez-faire attitude toward the practice. but a couple of years ago that changed: the major torrent sites have all dropped Porcupine Tree from their lists (at behest of the band, I assume), and it’s made quite clear to people attending the shows that recording is not allowed. What precipitated the change? I know Robert Fripp is, shall we say — militant in his position on the subject; did his attitude at all influence yours?

Steven Wilson: This is a very complex question, and for one very simple reason: even within the band, we do not have consensus on the issue.  Personally, I don’t mind. I don’t mind it. I’m a fan myself, and I understand the appeal of live tapes. And I understand and accept that anyone that trades live tapes is also the kind of person that is going to want to own all of the official studio recordings anyway. So it’s not like it’s robbing us of any royalties.

And I think that the other guys in the band that do object, that’s not their objection. They object to the presumption that it’s okay for someone else to barter and trade our intellectual property. When you buy a concert ticket, you are not buying the rights to record the show and trade it. And I think there was almost a suggestion from some people that they had that right. That is what upset the band. Not that people were doing it; in fact, if people would have not been so irate about it [affects hooligan voice] “We’re doin’ the band a favor, y’know” – I think we would have turned a blind eye. But some people took such an attitude with it: “Other bands don’t mind us doing it; what the fuck makes Porcupine Tree any different?” That attitude [chuckles] really pissed us off. I think at that point we were like, “Right, well, actually you can just forget it.”

But I have to say, I don’t mind it. I do object when I see people sticking microphones up my nose, in the front row. If I see anyone doing that [laughs] I’m going to have security remove them. Because that’s just obnoxious. But I don’t mind if people come and discreetly at the back make a recording of it. And I know that it’s just for their own use, for the superfan.

Yet there are people in the band who don’t feel that way; they feel that we shouldn’t allow anything. So obviously in that situation we have to go with those people. I could talk about this all day, because it’s very complicated. But that’s a brief feel of where we’re coming from, I think.

BK: When I first interviewed you in 2007, it was in person here in Asheville right before you played at the Orange Peel. You played to a packed and appreciative audience. For all the right reasons, the band’s profile has increased quite a bit since then, and in 2010 you played a much bigger Asheville venue, the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. How have the audiences changed in the last few years, if at all?

SW: They have certainly gotten younger. Not completely, of course, but the percentage of young people has certainly gone up. Which is great. And the percentage of females has gone up, too. You know, I’m saying all this because obviously I recognize that in the early years our fan base was somewhat exclusively late twenties, thirties, early forties males. They weren’t teenagers, and they weren’t girls. So that’s changed, and I think that’s definitely a sign that the music has made more of an impact in the mainstream. We’re certainly by no means a mainstream band, but we have crossed over to a market that are less genre-specific.

In the early days our fan base came almost exclusively from people who liked psychedelic music, progressive music, space-rock, et cetera. Those kinds of subgenres of rock music. Now, I think [our fans include] a lot of people who just like rock music. We’ll see people with Radiohead t-shirts, Nine Inch Nails t-shirts, Muse t-shirts. Less of the kind of, you know, Pink Floyd and Hawkwind t-shirts. And I consider that to be a sort of a little victory. Because I never wanted to be a generic band; I never wanted to be tied to a genre. And it used to upset me when we were kind of dismissed or summed up as prog-rock or whatever. Because I thought, there’s lots of things which we do that transcend any genre classification. At least I hope they do.

If I’m going to have anything in my obituary when I die – god forbid, not yet, but when I do die – I hope people are going to say “There was something about his music, their music, that was completely unique.” And that’s hard to do these days, to find something that’s unique. Because so much ground has been covered in rock music in such a short period of time. When people say that something else sounds like Porcupine Tree, to me that’s the ultimate compliment. Even if they don’t like it! The fact that the fan base has expanded, that it no longer comes from one genre, is a compliment. I like that. 

Update November 2011 – While Porcupine Tree shows had already been prohibited on Dimeadozen’s torrent list, Blackfield and Steven Wilson solo shows had — pointedly — not. In fact Dime’s wiki cited the above article in its explanation allowing SW’s shows. Well, that’s changed now: at the behest of the artist or his management/label, no performances with SW involvement are allowed. Oh, well. — bk

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Interview: Steven Wilson on the King Crimson 40th Anniversary Reissue Project

Monday, January 24th, 2011

Steven Wilson – leader of Porcupine Tree – was chosen by King Crimson mainstay Robert Fripp to handle the work of remixing and remastering the King Crimson catalog in connection with that band’s 40th Anniversary reissue series. To date five of these albums have been released as part of this project; reviews of three of these can be found on this site: In the Court of the Crimson King (1969), Lizard (1970) and Red (1974). Late 2010 saw release of two more, the group’s second album In the Wake of Poseidon (1970) and Islands (1971). I spoke with Wilson about his work on those old tapes.– bk

Bill Kopp: With all the work you’ve been doing on the King Crimson catalog, what has been the biggest surprise for you? What have you discovered in those recordings that you perhaps didn’t know was there before?

Steven Wilson: How good 1970s recording engineers were. Because, I’ll tell you, there’s not a lot – in comparison with the way we make records now, which is with an almost unlimited amount of possibilities  – those guys were recording on eight tracks, sixteen tracks. They had a very limited amount of overdub possibilities there. You know, they couldn’t really go on an overdub fifteen guitars and make the music sound huge.

So what they did instead was they got great tones; they sounded great in isolation. And it’s almost a lost art; I’ve really learned so much about how [it’s done]. You know, some of Robert Fripp’s guitar sounds on those albums take your head off! And they’re just a single guitar. Now, these days most heavy metal bands, they multi-track their guitars four, five, six, eight, ten times to make them sound huge. But actually very often the end result is that the music gets less heavy, less powerful. Because it becomes more ‘mushy’ and kind of more congested. Those [King Crimson] albums have so much space, and yet they’re so…the contrast between beauty and brutality is phenomenal.

And it’s all about, I think, the economy of recording; a certain knowledge that I think has been lost over the last thirty years or so: of how to make great-sounding records. I’m in awe of some of the sounds on those tapes. I’m in awe of how they got those sounds, really.

BK: I was particularly fascinated to learn that for the new release of In the Court of the Crimson King you were able to go back and get the recording tracks before they were folded down. So you were able to essentially make a new finished recording from sixteen tracks, or however many it was.

SW: I think it was even more than that. The first two albums were recorded on eight-track machines. So what the band would do would be to go into the studio, and they would cut drums and basic backing tracks on one eight-track reel of tape. They would pick their favorite performance, and they would bounce that down to two tracks on a second eight-track. They would then fill up the remaining six tracks with Mellotrons and [other] keyboards. Then they would bounce that down a third time. And only then would they add the vocals, and the flutes and the saxophones. And then that would be mixed down to a stereo track. And then there’d be a fifth generation, because some of the tracks on that album are cross-faded, segued together. To do that, you have to bounce onto a fifth reel.

So the masters they’ve been using for the last forty years have been – in some cases, if you listen to the drums, the basses and the acoustic guitars – five generations [removed from the source tapes]. Everyone knows what it’s like – or at least they should do, if they’re as old as I am! – to bounce from a cassette to a cassette. Even once. Imagine doing that four, five times.

BK: And it still sounded pretty good…

SW: Yes, it still sounded pretty good because they were using great engineers and great technology. But still, when I loaded up those original session reels, and I compared, it was clear that we were going to be able to do something that had never been done before. Which was to compile a master tape for In the Court of the Crimson King using only first-generation, pristine tape recordings. And the difference, I think, is quite clear. I think that anyone can clearly hear it.

BK: Did you have similar material to work with for the In the Wake of Poseidon reissue?

SW: Some tracks, yes; some tracks, no. I think we were very lucky with the first album. The tapes had been fairly well looked after, because it’s such a classic legacy album. The same is not true [laughs] of some of the subsequent albums. For example, we couldn’t find the tapes at all for one of the tracks on Poseidon [“The Devil’s Triangle” – ed.]. But some of the tracks, like the title track, the difference is, as on the first album, phenomenal to my ears. So it’s a little bit more of a patchwork on that album, but certainly we’ve been able to create a new version of the album which hopefully kicks any previous version out of the path. It sounds fantastic.

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Richie Havens: On a Quest to Meet Everyone in the World

Friday, January 21st, 2011

Today is Richie Havens’ 70th birthday. In his honor I present my December 2008 interview with the man who may quite possibly be the nicest interview subject I’ve ever encountered. — bk

 Richie Havens. Photo © Jean Marc Lubrano
“Change” is the big buzzword this year. Singer/guitarist Richie Havens released his first major-label LP, Mixed Bag, in 1967. Now, more than forty years and two dozen albums later, he’s released his latest, Nobody Left to Crown. So how has he seen his own music develop? “I don’t see very many changes, really, because I’m sort of chronicling my life as I go,” he tells me. “So to me it’s more about keeping up with the changes that I see around me, the changes affecting everybody else as well.”

Though a fine songwriter, Havens is most well-known for his innovative reinterpretations of the work of others. His performance at Woodstock immortalized his version of the folk chestnut “Motherless Child” (most people now know his version as “Freedom”), and he enjoyed a chart hit with a soulful cover of The Beatles‘ “Here Comes the Sun,” rendered in his inimitable style. Havens observes that every time a good song is covered by another artist, “the door [to that song's meanings] is opened a little wider, so that each listener has the opportunity to get something from it.” He recalls that when he started out, the attitude among musicians was, “If it’s a good song — one that speaks to people — then everybody wants to play it.”

Richie Havens. Photo © Jean Marc Lubrano

Starting around 1961, Richie Havens woodshedded in NYC’s Greenwich Village for seven years, playing his acoustic guitar in that district’s coffeehouses. Then when things took off, he would average five or six road gigs a week, keeping that pace for the next seven or eight years. Today Havens says that he still plays at least “Every weekend, all year round — Friday through Sunday,” performing annually in the US and abroad. Even though Asheville is a relatively small market, Havens keeps the city on his tour itinerary. “I go where people ask me to go. In fact, I still play twelve or thirteen places — small, coffee house-sized places — scattered around the country, places that I played back when I started out.”

He reflects on some of the musicians he came up with, artists whom he counts as influences. “Fred Neil, the guy who wrote ‘Everybody’s Talkin”, a hit for Harry Nilsson. Dino Valenti, the composer of ‘Get Together.’ Phil Ochs.” One common thread among these names — beside the sad fact that all are deceased — is their cross-genre quality. They each worked in the nominal folk genre, but their work consistently transcended that label. The same is true for Richie Havens. “I have never had a problem with ‘genres,’” he says.

Richie Havens. Photo © Jean Marc Lubrano

Havens recounts a story from early in his career: “Here I am, setting out on the road for the first time, and I walk up to this placed I’m booked to play: Joey’s Jazz Joint, or something like that.” He chuckles at the memory. “I said to myself, ‘I don’t sing jazz! Holy smokes! They’re gonna kick me out of this place.’ So I get up to the window, and there’s a small handbill: ‘Richie Havens — folk/jazz singer.’ So I go, ‘What? Is that what I do?’ Then, the next day, another place — might as well have said ‘Johnny’s Blues Club.’ Again, up on the window: ‘Richie Havens — folk/blues singer.’” Recounting the story — probably told countless times before — still brings forth genuine, uproarious laughter from the 67-year old.

Havens points out that in the course of his close to five-decade career, he’s “been able to play every genre’s festival, and not have to change one song, one arrangement. Anywhere people are — I don’t care if it’s only twenty people — I’ll play.” What keeps him going? He shares a conversation he had with his mother back in Brooklyn many years ago. She asked him, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Even today he agrees with the answer he gave as a seven-year-old: “I want to meet everybody in the whole world!”

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Album Review: Ray Charles – Rare Genius: The Undiscovered Masters

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

During his lifetime, Ray Charles released something like sixty albums of original material; that doesn’t begin to include hundreds of compilations, posthumous releases, guest spots, reissues and the like. With a recording career that spanned from 1949 until his death in 2004, Charles masterfully traded in a variety of styles, creating a few of his own in the process. With all that work, it was inevitable that some good studio material remained in the can and unreleased.

Concord Music handles Charles’ catalog these days, and has been responsible for a passel of fine (and thoughtfully annotated) expanded reissues in recent year. Concord’s VP for A&R John Burk went through the archives at Charles’ old studio, R.P.M., and discovered masters dating back as far as the 1970s. Twelve of these tracks have been compiled on Rare Genius: The Undiscovered Masters.

“Love’s Gonna Bite You Back” dates from a 1980 session, and a disco shuffle vibe is evident in the drum accompaniment. But it’s an upbeat song, and the listener may be left wondering why it wasn’t deemed satisfactory for release thirty-odd years ago. “It Hurts to Be in Love” is another good one, in a more jazz-soul vein, and according to the liners, Charles knew it was worth releasing: not long before his death he had compiled it onto a tape for possible release. The horn charts are particularly tasty.

A 1972 session produced “Wheel of Fortune.” A fully developed string section and some amazing piano work from Charles – and yet more punchy horns, judiciously applied – keep things moving. “I’m Gonna Keep Singing” is less impressive, with an arrangement that feels too retro and too contemporary all at once; it’s vaguely reminiscent of some of Donald Fagen’s post-Steely Dan work, with a Charles vocal that comes off more as self-parody than anything else.

The quality standard is reestablished with the blues “There’ll Be Some Changes Made.” Jazzy guitar and some expressive B-3 work are just some of the track’s highlights. Even the dated synthesizer work is appealing in its own way. “Isn’t it Wonderful” is a soulful pop tune; its chord structure fails to break any new ground, but it’s a sturdy vehicle for typically fine vocal work from Ray.

“I Don’t Want No One But You” has the feel of a late-night set closer. Its gospel-inflected arrangement fits the song well. The horn charts lean a bit towards Las Vegas – you’ll possibly picture Ray in a tux on this one – but strong backing vocal parts make it a full-realized track.

Among Ray Charles’ myriad talents was his ability to synthesize different American musical forms into something uniquely, well, Ray Charles. He does it again Country-style on Hank Cochran’s “A Little Bitty Tear,” recorded in 1983. Like Sinatra and only a handful of others, he makes the tune his own. “She’s Gone” is a more straightforward pop-country number; it’s not bad by any measure, but it pales in comparison to the other tracks on Rare Genius.

The disc concludes with the track that has gotten the most press: a reading of Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me, Lord,” a 1981 duet with Johnny Cash. The Billy Sherrill production means that to some extent the tune would sound as it does regardless of who plays on it, but Cash’s lead vocal and Charles’ piano add some character back  into this by-the-numbers Nashville production piece.

A bit of sonic twiddling was applied to some of the tracks; the producers felt it necessary to “finish” tracks that had the basics but weren’t quite polished enough for as-is release. The list of sessioners included guitarist Keb’ Mo’ and nine or so others. With the noted exceptions, their presence is subtle and they don’t call attention to themselves, which is as it should be. If you didn’t know, you’d think these were all finished long ago. Thank goodness that Concord – thoughtful stewards of Ray Charles’ recorded legacy – located these gems and brought them to release.

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

Album Review: Agents of Mercy – Dramarama

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

Swedish quintet Agents of Mercy’s album Dramarama occupies that curious yet sweet spot between progressive rock and pop-rock. The group’s sonic approach draws on the usual suspects, but if they sound like any other group, it’s post-Peter Gabriel era Genesis before that group went (too far) in the pop direction.

That Nad Sylvan is a vocal ringer for Phil Collins certainly adds to the similarity. The group’s progressive compositional tendencies are kept tethered to the ground by an assertive yet straightahead rhythm section (Jonas Reingold on bass, and drummer Walle Wahlgren). Renowned guitarist Reine Stolt (of Flower Kings, Transalantic and who-knows-what-else) adds plenty of melodic yet head-spinning licks throughout.

A track like the album opener “The Duke of Sadness” moves through different sections; some parts are more pop than others, and bits evoke the style of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, but in the end the track is an exemplar of prog-leaning music that remains accessible to more mainstream tastes.

Majestic, expressive keyboard work courtesy of Lalle Larsson gives Dramarama much of its prog credentials. The liners list his arsenal — grand piano, B-3, Minimoog, Rhodes, Wurlitzer electric piano, synths – but a keen listener would have spotted most or all of those instruments in any event.

The melodies across the album’s dozen tracks are all memorable, and various bits will likely lodge themselves in the listener’s memory. Designed as a complete listening experience, Dramarama’s songs tumble into one another. But a few tracks do stand out. “Peace United” swaggers like Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” minus the world-music trappings, then it veers (quite pleasingly) into an And Then There Were Three-era Genesis vibe.

Some lengthy and tasty synth soloing – coupled with a soaring wah-wah guitar solo —  is a highlight of “Journey.” The anthemic “Gratitiude” sounds like Collins, Rutherford and Banks joined by a fretless bassist. With its Mellotron-ish tones, “Meet Johnnie Walker” may evoke mental images of – of all things – Klaatu and/or Electric Light Orchestra. It’s also a contender for best album track among a bunch of fine ones.

In general the lyrics on Dramarama – composed by Stolt, Sylvan or (occasionally) both – concern themselves with upbeat, positive themes. While not nudging the subject matter in quite the religious/philosophical direction of Transatlantic, it’s mostly about life as a quest and so forth. But here the pop emphasis keeps things nicely balanced; Dramarama safely avoids progressive rock’s tendencies toward (on one hand) lyrical self-importance and (on the other) treating the lyrics as an afterthought.

If you’re a prog fan who wants to draw a pop-oriented friend into the fold, Dramarama is a good entry point, as its charms will give you both plenty to like.

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