Archive for February, 2011

Album Review: Blackmore’s Night – Autumn Sky

Monday, February 28th, 2011

It may come as a great shock to discover that Ritchie Blackmore — the man responsible for one of rock’s most immortal and primordial riffs (the centerpiece of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” but then you knew that) turned away from that style rock more than a decade ago. Blackmore’s current focus is on an act he cleverly calls Blackmore’s Night. The project features the axeman on (mostly acoustic) guitar, mandolins and all manner of Renaissance-period instruments. And his lady, vocalist Candice Night (get it now?) handles the vocals and a wide array of medieval breath instruments (pennywhistle, rauschpfeife, etc.).

With a sound and image that falls into the center part of a Venn diagram of Stevie Nicks, Renaissance festival music and, well, Deep Purple’s poppier moments, Autumn Sky (the act’s eighth studio release) is remarkably effective at what it sets out to do. Night’s voice is clear and reasonably strong (though she’s no Annie Haslam), and Blackmore does slip the odd electric guitar lead into the songs. But there’s a mannered, regal approach to the arrangements: Blackmore’s Night takes what are essentially straightforward pop tunes and imbues them with a ren-fest vibe. More often than not, it works.

This isn’t prog rock; not by a long shot. Not one of Autumn Sky’s fifteen tracks breaks the six-minute mark. The arrangements are clear, not fussy, and Night’s vocals are always front and center. At times the music approaches new-age, but Blackmore’s guitar picking (he’s a surprisingly effective acoustic player) keeps the proceedings firmly rooted in more popular styles.

The liner notes list personnel this way: “Touring band consists of…” That suggests that the Autumn Sky lineup is in fact simply Mr. and Mrs. Blackmore (they wed in 2008 after nineteen years together). Blackmore is proficient on plenty of instruments, though some of the percussion sounds canned and mechanical. At its worst, Autumn Sky suggests Stevie Nicks backed by Mannheim Steamroller(!) but at its best – which is, thankfully, much more often – the album is a pleasing excursion in a relatively unique and singular musical direction.

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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.


Ken Brown: “Some Other Guy” is Gone

Friday, February 25th, 2011

I just learned that Ken Brown died last June. Ken was briefly a member of the Quarrymen with George Harrison, Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Ken and I corresponded a lot back in the 90s. He had written a very rough manuscript; it was the story of his time with the group that would become The Beatles.

Photo © David James

In October 1997 Ken posted a message on the Usenet discussion group; in it he announced a web page he had created to promote his manuscript-in-progress, then titled “My Life.” I took a look at the page; it had been created in Microsoft Front Page Express (a bit like using a screwdriver handle to hammer in a nail) and had a number of display errors. I sent him an email with instructions on how he could fix the problems. Thus began an on-and-off dialogue that would extend across eleven years.

After the introductory bit of technical troubleshooting, I suggested a couple of ideas he might consider regarding the shopping of his manuscript. On October 27 he replied, “I’ve tried the conventional method, i.e. sending introductory letters and synosis [sic], however, it takes each publisher around 2 months or so to reply. Could take a lifetime!”

In successive emails, we discussed any number of things, and I tried to fill in some gaps in my own knowldge. I queried him, “Also, I have to ask…Philip Norman, in his book Shout! spells your name ‘Browne;’ did he interview you, and how come he got it wrong?” He  told me that no, Norman had never interviewed him. Nor, at that stage, had anyone else; at least not since 1964.

Ken mentioned a George Tremlett:

“That’s the guy who done an interview with me back in ’64 I think it was. This was for Rave magazine. I still have a copy and it’s mentioned in my book. Annoyed with this guy, I was told I would be paid a fee for the article, and receive a kind of royalty linked to sales. I got the fee…not a penny in royalties though! I have since learned that the article appeared in an American teeny magazine around the same time, this was virtually the same, but with a few subtle changes. Never got a penny for that either. think the mag was called 16 or something like that!”

In an early message to me Ken tossed in this throwaway line: “Yes I was featured playing with John, Paul and George in the Beatles Anthology.” When I replied that I knew of no recordings featuring him (I’m a fairly serious student of unreleased Beatles material) he clarified he had meant only that there was a photo of him with the group.

Artwork from Ken Brown’s web site circa 1998. © Estate of Ken Brown

I offered a suggestion. “Are you wedded to the title My Life or might you consider something a bit snappier and descriptive? Just a thought.” He replied that it was only a working title and that he was open to suggestions. He admitted that his other ideas — Them, Me and Us; Yesterday; and Those Were The Days My Friend — were “all pretty naff.” I suggested Some Other Guy for its multiple Beatles-related meanings. The group had recorded the song; a version was included on the Live at the BBC set, and it was a staple of their Cavern-era set. And of course with all the publicity surrounding the Beatles in the 90s, Ken really was “some other guy.” He liked the idea. The other title I suggested — merely in jest — was I Was a Teenage Quarryman.

At this stage I hadn’t seen the manuscript, but I was curious how long it was. Ken told me that “the word count is around 37,700.” He claimed some experience as a writer, having “produc[ed] a local community based magazine. I did this as a freebee, advertising was used to cover costs.” That went bust after a few years, but the experience helped him learn to type, he told me.

In his own amateurish way, Ken would shop the manuscript around a bit, but he got no bites. This was around the time of the Anthology sets, and whatever interest there might have been was at its peak. But it went nowhere.

In successive emails — there would be literally hundreds — Ken told me a few things about himself and his life. He had owned a number of synthesizers and other musical instruments, but lost those when the newsletter venture went bust. He lived in Essex, on the English coast east of London. There he had no television, and, in his words, “I haven’t got a record collection, to be precise, I have just five CD’s: three of Pete Best’s band, one Oldies R’n'R and the Abbey Road album.” He had been married and divorced three times and in 1997 (age 57) lived with his dog and an Amazon Blue Fronted parrot. His work in those days was limited to working behind the bar at an amusement arcade/bingo hall type establishment. He had three children: two living in Barbados, the other’s whereabouts unknown to him. He also had two grown stepchildren with whom he got along fine, in his words.

Beginning quite early in our correspondence, a troubling (in retrospect) pattern emerged.  If I didn’t reply promptly to an email from Ken, I’d get a followup saying “Don’t know if you’ve received my last e-mail yet or not?” It was clear to me that Ken was lonely and had a lot of time on his hands. When I’d reply that I was indeed quite busy with work, he’d come back with “Didn’t mean to be a pest!” but the cycle repeated itself literally dozens of times. Sometimes he’d reply to one of my notes with this sort of thing: “You didn’t say how your day was going?”

After a good bit of back and forth related to getting Ken’s web site updated, I asked him if he had considered including an excerpt from the manuscript on the site. He was quite wary of doing so:

“Have thought about this– but don’t want some smart **** ripping me off–if you know what I mean. Already had some pointed questions coming in by e-mail. Job to know what to put without giving anything away.”

Around this time I offered to do some editing work on the (as yet unseen) manuscript. As I would eventually learn, Ken’s manuscript as it existed was unpublishable. While Ken was a sweet guy, he was no sort of a writer. His initial response was quite guarded:

More artwork from Ken Brown’s web site circa 1998. © Estate of Ken Brown

“As regards involvement in the book– let me try and explain: The only persons other than myself– to have read the full transcript is: firstly– my life long mate *Pete Best* and one major publisher *Transworld Publishers Ltd* — they have since returned the manuscript to me (with a NO sorry letter). Obviously, anyone at Transworld could if they wish ‘lift’ all or part of the book– not that I think they would, their reputation is at stake after all. Like the music industry– you never know what might happen! The question doesn’t even arrise [sic] as far as Pete is concerned!!

 “The book itself although split into chapters– is not so much in chapters as events or happenings– if you get my drift. It’s not a book full of facts and figures– there have been many of them published in the past. My book differs in as much as it is– a series of personal events and recollection as they happened– an insite [sic] into what took place over a particular period–all those years ago. It’s probably not particularly grammatically correct—I just sat down and started typing my memories– what came out– came out–warts and all. As I wrote– the memories came flooding back– in such detail sometimes– that I could even remember conversations that took place. I am amazed that I ever completed it– I just found that once I started I couldn’t stop. It is NOT a writers work of art– but as Pete said– it was a nice easy read– which captured the events, moods, and excitement– just as it happened. He should know– he was there as well.”

If, he offered, we could find a way for him to get the manuscript to me by “secure means” he would indeed consider letting me see it. I told him that email was reasonably secure, and after thinking about it a bit he replied in the affirmative. But he added this (emphasis original):

“WE MUST BOTH ENSURE that– anyone AND everyone– understands that I own *COPYRIGHT– WORLDWIDE* !!!! Under NO circumstances do I do EXCLUSIVES– and any interviews whatsoever will be CONSIDERED– but not necessarily given. ANY infringement of the above conditions would render the offender liable to a LAW SUITE [sic]. Furthermore– NO PART OR WHOLE OF THE BOOK– MAY BE COPIED IN ANY WAY WHATSOEVER!! Failure to comply– will render the offender liable!”

Ken Brown’s original cover art for the unpublished book. © Estate of Ken Brown

Ken viewed the book as his “ticket” and was very protective of it. A thread from the Usenet group illustrates this well. A woman named Susan asked, “How long were you a Quarryman? How did you join the group? How did you leave the group?” Ken’s reply: “Love to– but if I do this the book will never be published!” I tried to get him to loosen up a bit, writing, “We don’t want you to appear unaccommodating; remember that many Beatles fans feel a sort of ‘ownership’ of their heroes, and might (subconsciously) feel you are ‘unfairly’ holding out on them. I trust you understand what I mean here. This is a fine line you’ll have to walk.”

I also asked him about the existence of photos, perhaps of the Casbah, the club run by Pete’s mother Mona Best. It seemed that the late Mrs. Best had shared the same attitude as would Ken. Brown wrote this to me: “In my book I make mention that– I saw a video taken at the Casbah– in that video were shots of dear Mo Best whom you can hear saying the words ‘Peter–Peter– that chap has a camera– no photos please– we don’t allow photos.’ That position has never changed Bill. The whole reasoning behind this is to protect the material– should they ever want to do anything themselves.”

Indeed, the Casbah would reopen in the 21st century as a tourist attraction; Ken did say that Pete had agreed to allow a photo of the front of the house(!) to be included in Ken’s planned book.

Over the next couple of years I did odd bits of work for him; I crafted a handful of press releases, edited the manuscript as best I could, and designed a new version of his web site. After our correspondence ended in December 2001 — I could only take so many “Did you get my last email? I’m concerned something might be wrong over there” emails — Ken got another friend to redesign the site. He eventually relented to the point of including a few hundred words of the manuscript on the site, accompanied by a stern copyright warning. That site remains online now, more than a year after his death. (NOTE: As of mid-2012 it’s no longer online.)

In the early part of the 21st century Ken appeared briefly in a documentary film Best of the Beatles about his lifelong friend Pete Best. Other than that, he kept a low, near-nonexistent profile.

The book never did get published. After I started this blog, I decided to reach out to Ken in hopes I could get an update, do an interview and maybe goose some interest in the book project again. Our last correspondence was actually July 2008. In reply to my request for an interview, he wrote:

“I’m afraid I have to decline your offer as work on the book has come to a halt for the foreseeable future. I appreciate your comments regarding this and I do work on it from time to time, but not with any intensity or urgency. Please don’t take my decision personally Bill, as I have also refused other approaches to be interviewed.”

Less than two years after that email, according to a brief story on the June 16 2010 Liverpool Post, Ken Brown died after a long illness. From the news item: “Former Quarrymen guitarist Ken Brown was discovered at his home in Essex on Monday after a concerned relative had raised the alarm. Police smashed down his front door and found the 70-year-old, who suffered from emphysema, lying on the living room floor. It is thought Mr. Brown may have died five days earlier.”

Any hopes of the Some Other Guy manuscript ever seeing the light of day died with him. That’s a shame; while the book would likely not have been the literary success for which Ken had hoped, and while Ken’s insights were in fact few, a handful of anecdotes in the manuscript have never appeared in print anywhere else.

Postscript: in my research for this piece, I found a recording Ken and I made. It’s a brief thank-you from him; site visitors who completed a survey got to hear this “personal message” from Ken. When the site was redone circa 2001 or so, the audio wasn’t kept. This is my copy.

( Play a short MP3 of Ken Brown's greeting )

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A Conversation with The Church’s Steve Kilbey (part two)

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

Continued from the previous post, here’s part two of my conversation with The Church’s Steve Kilbey. All photos © Bill Kopp. — bk

Bill Kopp: Your band The Church has gone in a number of different directions over the years; in addition to acoustic renderings of your songs, album-long improvisations like “Bastard Universe,” the covers album A Box of Birds. In all of these cases I get the sense that the band heads down these paths not to pander to any sort of fan demand, but rather because you simply find it interesting to do so. Is that an accurate observation?

Steve Kilbey: Absolutely. We’re a rock band; we’re a curious band. We love the past: we love the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Dylan and David Bowie and Marc Bolan and all the rest of ‘em. But we also love to jam, we love short songs, we love Pink Floyd, we love some electronic music. We love folk music, we love the Byrds. So we love everything, and everything’s in there. Peter is a huge Jimi Hendrix fan. He loves the blues, and he loves classic pop songs and the chord progressions in them. Marty loves prog rock! He loves Yes, Genesis and all that stuff. He [laughs] likes songs that are forty minutes long in 9/8 time. And then there’s Tim [Powles]; he’s a drummer, so he’s weird again. He looks at things from the point of view of time. But he’s also a producer, so he likes interesting, unusual qualities in his music that no one would ever think of. And then you’ve got me and all the things I like.

So you throw all of us in together, and we still have a huge enthusiasm for rock music and all that came after The Beatles. And we’ve got an endless recipe for doing odd things. Totally commercial three-minute things to long, rolling, messy epics. Covering other people’s songs, and having people cover our songs. Everything we can possibly do within this format, we will want to do.

BK: On a personal note, I’ve got between eight and nine thousand albums…

SK: Wow. A maniac! You’re an obsessive man. Oh, my god. Why didn’t they warn me?

BK: …and over the years there have only been two or three albums that I have bought on vinyl and cassette and compact disc. Gold Afternoon Fix is one of those.

SK: Oh, my god. That’s the album that I…this is interesting. Now, you’re not going to take offense to this, because you’re an intelligent man. That is my least favorite Church album of all Church albums.

BK: Really?! Why is that?

SK: I think it’s a classic case. We had made this album Starfish, and it was a big success. We had been struggling up to that point, and our struggle had brought cohesion to the band. We had incredible cohesion between us because we were struggling against failure. Suddenly we were successful. We were like that wrestler who’s got his opponent down on the mat; the opponent’s just lying there. Some of the crowd are cheering, and some are jeering. So he stands up and he walks around showing off his muscles and stuff. Suddenly when he turns ‘round to deliver the killer blow, the opponent has stood up and turned into grunge rock! And completely wiped him out. That’s what happened with us.

That album…to suddenly be quite successful, we very temporarily lost our mojo, I reckon. I mean, other members of the band will say, “Oh, no; that’s a great album. I don’t know why he doesn’t like it; some great fucking songs on there.” But to me, at the very best it was treading water.

I mean, this is the thing: The Church are a great band, and I am a great lyricist. Even on a very mediocre day, we will do something pretty good. We never sink below a certain standard. And Gold Afternoon Fix is an example of that: it did not sink below a certain standard. There are some good songs on there, there are some tricky chord progressions, there are some interesting guitar flourishes and neat lyrics. Some good effects. But overall, it’s a disappointment. It should have been our killer blow; we should have turned around and fucking nailed the world, nailed America with the absolute epitome of all that we were good at. And instead we just kind of came out with that. We needed to drum up something extraordinary, and we drummed up something that was kind of, “yeah, alright.” There are people who really do love it. There are people for whom that was exactly what they wanted. I don’t deny them that, and I’m really happy that people like anything I do. But certainly – to me – it’s our most disappointing album.

BK: From a fan’s standpoint, sometimes it has to do with when the music hits them in their particular lives.

SK: That’s right.

BK: Perhaps coincidentally, and perhaps not, there’s song on the album called “Disappointment.”  

SK: Yes, there is. Strangely enough, a lot of Americans would find it hard to understand when I would say this, but my specialty is writing songs about disappointment and disillusionment. Not depressive subjects; not the sorts of things that make you go cut your veins open. Not stuff about the devil, and killing your mother and father. More about that idea John Lennon flirted with, that feeling of – how I’ve often felt – being slightly estranged from this world, of suddenly finding myself alone somewhere. And it’s not entirely unpleasant.

I’m walking along the beach on my own, my woman’s left me and things are looking bad. It’s a grey afternoon and it’s just starting to rain. But I also find some incredible comfort in it. It’s very hard to put your finger on it, but that’s the songs that I write. That’s where I connect with the world, trying to describe these mixed emotions. I don’t write songs about being righteously happy; I don’t write songs about being furiously angry, and I don’t write songs about being manically depressed. I write songs about very, very subtle things.

That is one thing about Gold Afternoon Fix; it did have some subtle emotions on there. A song like “City,” when it’s over, it’s like, was the guy happy about all that or was he kind of detached? Like John Lennon in “Strawberry Fields Forever.”  At the end of the whole song, you get this feeling of incredible, weary detachment.

BK: Yes.

SK: And nobody up to then — as far as I knew — wrote songs about weary detachment. That wasn’t the sort of something that anybody had tried to consider. And in the spirit of that, each Church song describes some sort of subtle feeling. And Gold Afternoon Fix is very much like that; it’s a very subtle album. It’s hard to say what mood you’ll be left in when it’s over. So in that way, you could revisit it a lot, and listen to it; you’re never quite sure. When I think about it, the albums that I love always leave me feeling not-quite-sure. “I think I’ll have to listen to that again!” And some albums, I’ve been doing that for forty years. Sticking it on again just to try and find exactly what’s going on.

BK: Those records continue to reveal their charms on repeated listening. The best work that The Church has done is especially effective at setting a mood, of being especially evocative of a particular feel, whatever that feel happens to be. Even though the songs are varied in lyrical content, arrangement and whatnot, on each album they all seem to hang together in a cohesive way, rather than being merely a collection of the last dozen songs you guys wrote. Is that sort of hanging-together concept something that’s important and worked at, or is it simply a happy coincidence?

SK: It’s a happy coincidence. What happens is this: imagine you’ve got four craftsmen. They’re going to make a box with ten pieces in it. Their raw material arrives, and they have twenty or thirty pieces; they keep working and working and working. Eventually they have ten pieces. And because they’re such good craftsmen — they’ve been around for more than thirty years, so they know what they’re doing – eventually they polish these ten pieces, and chuck them in the box in some fairly random order. But when the customer arrives and opens the box, he’s quite delighted. Because by that stage the pieces will make some kind of sense. That’s the nature of it, and it’s also the kind of ambiguity that’s sort of built into the whole thing.

There is no — and there never has been a – guiding master plan, a vision for the whole thing on an album. It’s always been, take out a sketch pad, scribble scribble scribble, and eventually the outline of a horse starts to appear. And eventually you go, “Okay, I’ll go with that.” And you start working on a horse. That’s what The Church has always done, in musical terms.

BK: For the dates on this tour, you’ve announced ahead of time exactly what the set list will be: first, Untitled #23, then Priest = Aura, then Starfish

SK: Wait, you’re coming to see the acoustic show, in Greenville?

BK: Yes…

SK: The acoustic show is not the “three albums” show. I hope people realize that. For some reason – some economic reason – we couldn’t bring the three-album show to Greenville. We don’t have time to reinterpret — we couldn’t possibly – all those songs. So what we’re actually playing – and gee, I hope I’m not going to put anybody off – we’re doing our “An Intimate Space” show. It’s a show we’re doing in America and Australia this year. We’re working backwards from our latest album, one song off each album through to our very first album, which is where we’re going to stop. That one’s a tried-and-true success; everybody likes that show. There was some problem with Greenville, getting the equipment there, or from that show to the next, or something like that. I’m not sure what it was, but there was some reason we couldn’t do the electric show. But somebody said “We could do the acoustic show.” So we’ll go forward through the past to our first album.

BK: On these other dates, when you do the three album set, does that sort of take the mystery out of things, making the evening somehow predictable? Or will you somehow work some surprises into the mix?

SK: I am going to be struggling so hard to play all these songs, it will be a mystery if I can get through it or not! And the surprise will be if I actually do. I’ve got to deal with being able to do it, first. I reckon the songs will provide plenty of surprises. I can feel it happening at rehearsal.

BK: The band has been together for more than thirty years.  The string of albums The Church has released over the last decade — whether reinterpreting older material or serving up new songs — they’ve gotten strongly positive reviews. After this tour, what’s next for the band?

SK: We’re doing the Sydney Opera House with a symphony orchestra. We’ll film and record it for possible release; it’s going to be a documentary. But after that, I don’t know. Because there’s not really much you can do after something like that, except maybe landing on the moon!

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A Conversation with The Church’s Steve Kilbey (part one)

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

Australian foursome The Church are something of an institution in their native country, and throughout their thirty-plus years together they have enjoyed worldwide success as well. Their commercial apex was undoubtedly the hit single “Under the Milky Way” from the 1988 album Starfish, but every one of their twenty-three albums has its high points. A perennial critics’ darling, the band has mounted tours both acoustic and electric. Their early 2011 US tour took them to the southeast, and I spoke with Steve Kilbey (bass, vocals, lyrics) about the current tour, the band’s longevity and much more. Here’s part one of our conversation. All photos except the press-kit one are © Bill Kopp.– bk

Bill Kopp: After nearly two dozen studio albums with The Church, how would you say your music has changed?

Steve Kilbey: I’d say we had a certain artistic goal when we started, and I think that goal has remained. But I think the way that we sort of achieve that goal – or attempt to achieve that goal – has kind of changed a bit, though not completely. So I think there’s a real continuity going right back to the first album. Our goal is to have interesting lyrics and interesting guitar parts that weren’t just one guy playing chords and the other guy playing the lead solo. We like interweaving guitar parts. And we want to have songs that are about unusual things, and that – within the parameters of rock music – do unusual things and conjure up different kinds of feelings. We’re still pretty much the same band, just with a lot more experience. We’ve got a lot more tricks under our belt.

BK: The Greenville SC date is the only one on the current tour slated as an acoustic show. Does reinterpreting the songs from your albums as live acoustic numbers present any particular challenges?

SK: Oh, yeah. We’ve stripped away all that noise. You can make a lot of noise on an electric guitar, and a pounding drum kit can cover up a lot of errors. So this is exposing the songs for what they really are. It’s a bit like taking a film back to being a play. You’re taking all of the electric and electronic effects out of the picture, and presenting the bare bones of what the music and the dialogue is. And I think that there are a lot of electric songs that wouldn’t stand up to this treatment. Though the songs that we reinterpret are the ones that have got a pretty sound musical skeleton, you know what I mean?

BK: Yes. Because some of them are built — at least in part — around riffs. Do those riffs translate in the acoustic idiom, or do you give new arrangements to the songs, emphasizing other elements?

SK: Well, that’s something I’m always interested in: How do riffs sound played on the acoustic guitar? And the answer is, half the time it sounds bloody awful. And the other half of the time – if you can get a kind of new thing into it – it can sound really good. So with these songs that we’re reinterpreting, some of them do actually indeed keep the electric riff, which becomes an acoustic riff. Or in some cases it changes onto another instrument. We do the song “Reptile,” but the riff is now played on a jazzy piano instead of a frenetic electric guitar with a lot of echo. Sometimes the riff is the very cornerstone of the song, and it reappears. Other times we find that the riff is disposable; we’ll do a song that has a famous riff, but the riff’s no longer there.

BK: I imagine there are a few “deep album cuts” that you’ve either never done live, or at least haven’t done in years. Does digging out some of these older songs bring back memories for you? Is there any feeling for you of sort of rediscovering some of your earlier work?

SK: Absolutely. After thirty years of playing these songs, I’m still rediscovering things I put into the lyrics. I’m standing there singing the song thirty years later, thinking, “God; I thought this was a random song I wrote. Now it’s coming true!” Which is one of the lines in one of the songs (“Mistress”) we’ll be playing: “Everything is going wrong / All my songs are coming true.” It must be terrible being Bob Dylan lying down at 2am. He can’t get to sleep, all those fucking songs…all those songs all biting him on the arse. All those words coming into his head. Because that sure happens to me. All my songs — all the words — are sort of re-presenting themselves, and going, “This is what you really meant.” We’ll be playing onstage somewhere like Greenville, and I’ll go, “Jesus Christ! I’ve been playing this song for years, and now finally I know what it means!”

Sometimes I marvel, and sometimes I’m disappointed by how simplistic we used to be. And sometimes I marvel at how on one particular day we created a piece of music that I know we couldn’t have done at any other time. We might have used a certain chord progression that I think is quite clever. I really do like going back and looking at our old songs. You know, we’ve never written rubbishy, throwaway songs; every song has at least one redeeming quality about it. Some have more than two. So it’s fun to go back, get some old ones out, have a look at them and kind of reorganize them.

BK: You mentioned your lyrics. Some critics have observed that your lyrics are — the word they sometimes use is impressionistic. Whether one accepts that or not, I am guessing that one of two things is at work here. Either (a) the lyrics have a specific meaning to you, and it’s merely oblique to some listeners, or (b) you craft your lyrics in such a way that leaves it up to listener to sort of take what they will from them. How would you characterize it?

SK: Okay, what I would say is that my lyrics are impressionistic, and that “b” is definitely the answer. The lyrics are written for me and for the listener to be able to create a world. It’s kind of like I’m writing a book, but I’m only giving you very vague hints of the story in the background. Because of the music — and because of my voice and everything else that comes with the record — when you hear the song, if you close your eyes and think about it, you will find yourself involved in an adventure.

I used to have a terrible job during school holidays, and I’d go home and put my favorite T. Rex album on, close my bedroom door, lie down on the bed. And as soon as that record started up, its world would open up to me. It’s like now when kids come home and get on their computer, and they’re in some world. Running ‘round shooting people or whatever they’re doing. In my world, Marc Bolan did that. It was like one of those films where you can choose the ending. So I found that this was the absolute best form of entertainment: to have music that sets up the situation for you. The song is vague enough for you to sort of flesh it out in the way you want, but it’s specific enough to keep directing you. So that’s definitely what my lyrics are supposed to do.

BK: As opposed to leading the listener around by the nose. Or the ear, as it were.

There’s no leading the listener around by the nose. Most of what’s in there is a springboard for you to jump into a swimming pool of your own design and populate it with your life, your characters. Or you can take mine. Or you can mix them all up. It’s like a dream.

BK: I bought your solo album Earthed some twenty years ago. Your solo albums are — to my ears — complimentary to your work with The Church, yet different. When you compose songs, do you often start with a specific destination in mind, as in, “This one’s for the band, that one’s for a solo release” or does it develop differently?

SK: Usually when The Church write a song we’re all together. We’re there, we pick up our instruments, we jam around. Usually I’ll go, “Yeah, I like this, I like that.” We work on a piece of music, and then when the piece is finished, I’ll put lyrics on it. It never happens that people come along and say, “Here’s my song, and the Church should play it.” That’s kind of been banished. We overhauled our constitution and we realized that was a point of potential revolution. So that scenario was excluded. So now in our amended constitution, all songs must be written by the band. No individual may contribute individual songs to the band. Otherwise, if we didn’t have that clause, I would come along and say, “This is this great fucking song I’ve written,” and they’d go, “Oh, we don’t like that.” And I’d go, “You don’t like this song? Fuck you! I’m leaving!” Or someone else would do that. So we’ve nipped that in the bud.

We’d seen it happen. Because the band constitution had been that I was the dictator. I’d say, “Here is my song. You will play it.” And lo, they played it. But halfway through, the early democracy snuck in where I asked, “What would it be like if we all wrote songs?” And verily, it was good. We all did like writing songs together. Still the old way remained; “Under the Milky Way” was one of the last ones ever, strangely enough. This was much to the frustration of Arista; they kept saying, “Write another ‘Under the Milky Way,’” and I’d say, “Under our new constitution, all songs now have to be written by the band.”

You have to think of these things if you want a band to last thirty years. You have to figure out ways you can do things. For example, me and Marty [Willson-Piper], if we have a really nasty argument, one of us will drop a nuclear bomb on the other, which will mean there will be no more band. So Marty and I, to a certain extent, have learned not to have really nasty arguments. If we feel one coming on, we both sort of go, “Ahem…” and we walk away. Whereas me and Peter [Koppes], we — like two countries — can have a really nasty argument, and then at the end we go, “Oh well,” and walk away. And we’re okay. You’ve got to figure all the ins and outs of how your band works as time goes on, so you don’t push people in the wrong direction.

And it also works to protect me. In the constitution, one of the other guys could turn up with a hopeless fucking song that nobody wants to play. And we can say, “Sorry. It’s not a band song.” So it’s a very good way to run a band, I think.

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Album Review: Thin Lizzy – Jailbreak Deluxe Edition (disc 2)

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

In 2011 Universal released a Deluxe Edition of Thin Lizzy’s legendary Jailbreak album, filling a second disc with related and relevant goodies.

For the most part, the remixes of “The Boys Are Back in Town” and “Jailbreak” offer up minor differences; the production aesthetic is slightly, ineffably, more modern-sounding. A few guitar flourishes are added, and their presence brings up an interesting point. On first listen, my assumption was that these were guitar parts laid down by Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson but mixed out of the final version. Were that the case, I’d argue that the band and producer John Alcock made the right decision: the mixing approach throughout Jailbreak is one of scraping everything to the bone: there’s not a single bit of overplaying in evidence, and the silences between the notes are every bit as important and valuable as the notes. But in reality, that scenario is not the case here: instead, some modern-day revisionism has taken place, with re-recording of parts.

Remixed, “The Boys Are Back in Town” is exciting, but doesn’t add a great deal to the band’s history. It’s a curiosity and little more. The “Jailbreak” remix also offers more guitars – lots more, in fact, and they too are exciting – and while it benefits from brighter production, the extra guitar fiddling borders on gratuitous. Its ever-so-slightly alternate vocal take is mildly interesting.

An “alternate vocal remix version” of  “The Boys Are Back in Town” illustrates that Phil Lynott had a surfeit of lyrics for this wordiest of songs. And while the unused lyrics aren’t quite up to the par of the finished words, they’re not bad. The remix of “Emerald” serves mainly to make the song sound slightly more contemporary.

A live performance of “Jailbreak” is far more interesting and of historical import. While the arrangement is kept quite close to the studio version, the band sings and plays the song in A, a half-step higher than the official version. Whether the song slowed-down for the released version isn’t clear, but the pitch change renders the song with a very different feeling.

A BBC performance of “Emerald” is the only one of four John Peel session cuts on the set not previously released (the other three are on the Peel Session CD). Its’ a boxier-sounding rendition, but benefits from being an actual live-in-the-studio performance, illustrating the band’s ability to play with power and nuance. Lynott’s bass is more prominent in this version as well. The live takes of “Cowboy Song” and “Warriors” showcase the dynamics inherent in those songs.

The disc wraps up with some rarities (or almost-rarities). An extended rough mix of “Fight or Fall” places the acoustic guitar more prominently in the mix, and adds a good bit of Allman Brothers-style slide guitar. The guitar work is nice enough (if not too tightly played) but it’s needless filigree; the decision to leave the slide guitar noodling off the finished versions was the right one. Lynott’s alternate vocal take sounds a bit weary, almost like a “scratch” (reference) vocal performance. The extra minute-plus is mostly the repeated phrase “Brother, brother” atop a two-chord vamp.

The previously-unreleased “Blues Boy” is a standard blues with a slight lyric; while it comes from the Jailbreak sessions (hence its inclusion here), chances are it was never under serious consideration for a place on the original Jailbreak record. Four and a half minutes is about three too many.

While it’s not much of a rarity now (it was included on Thin Lizzy’s UK Tour ’75 album), “Derby Blues” belongs on this disc. It’s a live prototype of “Cowboy Song.” The lyrics are unfinished (though the central theme is well established), but the song’s musical motifs are already carved into stone. The performance is arguably the most exciting thing on the bonus disc.

Taken as a whole, the Jailbreak Deluxe Edition bonus disc is good, solid music. It rarely approaches the brilliance of the original album, but as a supplement it’s a worthwhile item. In terms of pure listening quality, it’s better than your average bonus disc.

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Album Review: Thin Lizzy – Jailbreak Deluxe Edition (disc 1)

Monday, February 21st, 2011

There’s an old axiom that sets forth this idea: nearly every band has at least one good song in them, but few have more than that. If one accepts that assertion, the odds of a band coming up with a great song are a mere fraction of that total. Now, extrapolate that out to the album format: how many groups have a great album in them? The answer is: not many. Thin Lizzy was one, and Jailbreak was that album.

Thin Lizzy formed in Dublin in March 1970. Phil Lynott (bass, vocals, songwriting) and childhood mate Brian Downey (drums) briefly enlisted ex-Them guitarist Eric Bell. They signed with Decca in November of that year and promptly moved to London. They enjoyed a modest UK hit with their first single, “Whiskey in the Jar” in late 1972, but no further hits would be forthcoming (for awhile, at least).

Even on that early single, Lynott’s raspy, impassioned vocal delivery was the central focal point of the band’s sound. And while ‘Whiskey in the Jar” wasn’t an original composition (it was a folk-rock reworking of a traditional Irish ballad) it fit in with the storytelling approach favored by Lynott.

Moreover, the song employed lots of clear, sinewy lead guitar. Even on that early track, the band employed overdubbing to showcase a twin harmonizing lead guitar approach. So the components of what would eventually develop as the signature approach of the band were in place right from the get-go. What remained to develop was the depth of Lynott’s songwriting, the quality of studio production, and a stable band lineup. The band endured those challenges while cranking out a few serviceable albums, none of which charted in the UK or USA.

1976 was the year that Thin Lizzy finally broke through commercially and critically, and they did so in a big way. For Jailbreak, Lynott crafted a suite of songs that had a vague thematic linking. Clear antecedents to his verbose (and grandiose) compositional style include Bruce Springsteen. Like the Boss, Lynott set out to create songs of power and grandeur. In doing so he and his bandmates (Downey plus dual lead guitarists Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson) made one of the most influential hard rock albums of the decade. Besides the more obvious list of acts who took a page from the Thin Lizzy stylebook (Def Leppard, to name one), the group’s lyrical and arrangement style bore a strong influence upon the work of Lynott’s fellow Irishman Bob Geldof. Lynott’s influence is evident in much of the latter’s work with the Boomtown Rats, most notably on cuts like “Rat Trap” and “When the Night Comes.”

The album was (and remains) an aesthetic success on many levels. First, the playing is tight and economical: there’s not a wasted note anywhere on the record. It’s forceful and direct, and producer John Alcock did a superb job showcasing the band’s lean-and-mean sonic attack. (Somewhat surprisingly, Alcock had few other high-profile production credits. He produced Jailbreak’s followup Johnny the Fox [also 1976] and did some work for the Runaways and John Entwistle, but not much else of note.)

But the highlight of Jailbreak is Lynott’s songwriting. He anchored relatively simple melodies with industrial-strength hooks, and wrote the best set of lyrics of his life. The concept of mythologizing musicians as outlaws enjoyed some popularity in the 70s; Paul McCartney and Wings’ own Band on the Run (another possible – albeit minor – influence on Lynott) was released in November 1973 to great acclaim. The comic-book bombast of Jailbreak’s storyline (such as it is) concerns four heroes in the not-too-distant future, and their exploits breaking out of unjust political imprisonment to battle the Overlord. (Those who would criticize Jim Fitzpatrick’s album cover art as cheap or cheesy are simply missing the point.)

While the Springsteen influence is oft-cited, it’s quite likely that Lynott took inspiration (if not unconscious direction) from Pete Townshend. In the decade prior to Thin Lizzy’s Jailbreak, The Who had made a career out of pushing the conceptual boundaries of rock music, and doing so in a forceful, non-effete manner. “A Quick One (While He’s Away),” Tommy, the aborted Lifehouse project that mutated into Who’s Next, Quadrophenia… all of these balanced rock power with a level of ambition that attempted to create narrative, storytelling works. Jailbreak is in many ways Lynott’s response to the unspoken challenge that Townshend’s works set out.

Jailbreak is some seriously macho, masculine music: who needs nonsense like Robert Bly’s Iron John when you’ve got Thin Lizzy’s Jailbreak? Built around the central theme of camaraderie and male bonding, the songs promote an us-against-the-world approach that still holds power some thirty-five years after its creation.

The record all but explodes out of the gate with the crashing opening chord of “Jailbreak;” it’s a hard rock opening vaguely reminiscent of the kickoff of the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night.” From there the song settles into a menacing groove, atop which Lynott spits his lyrics. The song makes it clear: don’t mess with us; we’re on a mission, “Bustin’ out, dead or alive.” The verses are built around a repetitive, three-chord pattern, and the chorus — full of vocal harmonies that subtly reinforce the “we’re in this together” aesthetic – ups the ante. Downey’s drums punctuate the sections perfectly, and the guitarists add brief, effective flourishes of wah-wah guitar. After Lynott screams the command to his compatriots (“break out!”) the song heads into almost progressive-rock territory, with a jazzy(!) time signature, wailing sirens and dueling guitars headed to a crescendo. The song’s macho cred is unassailable: even while staging a prison break, the protagonists stop to accost a lovely lady: “Hey you, good lookin’ female: Come here.” If Lynott weren’t delivering the line with such unironic swagger, the line might come off as a joke. Here it sounds like he means it.

“Angel From the Coast” is a lesser song, but how could it not be? The band pummels along, providing plenty of dynamics, but the song is primarily a vehicle for Lynott’s lyric; moreso than Jailbreak’s other tracks. The now-patented twin guitar assault is the song’s real highlight, and Downey’s fills tie it all together. It’s Jailbreak’s shortest song.

In terms of instrumentation, Jailbreak’s sonic approach is fairly basic and no-frills: guitar, guitar, more guitar, bass and drums. But on Lynott’s “Running Back,” the song is built upon a foundation of (session overdubbed) electric piano, and adorned with sax lines redolent of Springsteen or fellow Irishman Van Morrison. Percussion accoutrements even include handclaps(!), making “Running Back” the most pop-oriented number on the record. Lynott’s na-na-na and tra-la-la vocalizations are a clear nod to Morrison.

The record heads back into Cinemascope storytelling mode with “Romeo and the Lonely Girl.” Propulsive instrumentation gives the song a fist-pumping, driving-fast feel, and the chorus’ vocal harmonies are a highlight. A soaring, searing guitar break extends over the returning chorus.

“Warriors” opens with a chugging, sinister riff, underpinned by Lynott’s underrated bass work. Thin Lizzy rocks hard throughout most of Jailbreak, but “Warriors” may be the hardest rocking track on the record. The simple chord structure allows some wailing solo guitar work, but again a set of melodically interesting (and surprising) breaks elevate the song towards something like proto-prog-metal. And it stops on a dime.

Side two of the original vinyl was kicked off with what became the band’s signature track: “The Boys Are Back in Town.” The monster hit broke the band in the USA. Lynott’s wordy set of lyrics isn’t afraid to sacrifice variety in the interest of making its points: the verses employ an AAA rhyme scheme. Here his writing style is most reminiscent of Springsteen, yet it’s quintessentially Thin Lizzy at its best. Lynott inserts his now-famous bass fill between the guitars’ power chording on the turnarounds, but when the verses kick in, Robertson and Gorham play lots and lots and lots of chords. Few hit songs possess more dynamic tension than “The Boys are Back in Town,” even though the track includes six verses in four and a half minutes. At around the 3:20 mark the band brings it way down, setting the stage for one of rock’s classic dual guitar breaks; here Gorham and Robertson channel the Hunter-Wagner aesthetic used so effectively on Alice Cooper and Lou Reed sessions. All the while, Lynott and Downey lay down a rock-solid beat. The tight harmonies of the lead guitar sing the song out.

“Fight or Fall” takes a breather, dialing back the energy but keeping the melody strong. The track is built around acoustic guitar, with some clever start-and-stop action to add texture. Slide guitar and Lynott’s wide-panned stereo vocals (tellin’ myself / tellin’ myself…) set a memorable vibe. Again here, Lynott uses the AAA rhyme scheme; it adds a subtle insistence to the lyrics, and has the (perhaps unintended) effect of making the sentiments expressed seem less sophisticated than they actually are. Finally, the album’s underlying theme is explicitly voiced in the song’s outro: “Brother, brother.”

It’s all-in for “Cowboy Song.” Warbling campfire-style harmonica accompanies Lynott as he spins his tale of bustin’ broncs for the rodeo. Here the bassist aims to create a song of epic and mythical proportions. His expansive first-person lyrics are aided in no small measure by a strong melody, and some of the record’s most melodramatic guitar work. Vocal harmonies on the chorus (“Roll me over and turn me around…”) match up effectively with the similar approach the of dueling guitarists. When Gorham and Robertson duel, everybody wins: three minutes in, they drop back to give space for Lynott’s vocal, and then they come back in with some more lean licks. Then — as is their wont — they explode for an instrumental verse and chorus.

A martial, heavy metal arrangement serves “Emerald” well. The album closer is constructed around a dual-guitar riff that runs up and down the scale. Bands like Metallica built entire careers around the sort of approach used on “Emerald.” And while in print it might sound like it’s an overused technique on Jailbreak, a harmony lead guitar line followed by an epic guitar battle (in stereo!) provides the rock equivalent of hand-to-hand combat on the windswept plain.

And then it’s over. At a shade over thirty-six minutes, Jailbreak is a concise statement of the best that Thin Lizzy – and, for that matter, rock in the mid 1970s — had to offer. The band went on to make other enjoyable albums (perhaps most notably the 1978 double LP Live and Dangerous. But Jailbreak stands as the band’s finest hour, and a crowning achievement of 1970s hard rock.

A look at the bonus disc included with the Jailbreak 2011 reissue is here.

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Yoko Ono is Not a Witch.

Friday, February 18th, 2011

Today is Yoko Ono’s 78th birthday. Here’s a feature/interview of mine from four years ago, around the time Yes, I’m a Witch was released.– bk

No, she’s not a witch. Not at all. In fact, this writer found Yoko Ono to be a most diplomatic, self-deprecating interview subject. She made a genuine effort to use my name when speaking to me (a sign of respect one rarely finds in understandably busy and weary performers) and offered thoughtful, considered answers to my wide-ranging questions. Though her publicist granted me a mere fifteen minutes, we covered a lot of ground. Even when she deflected a question, she did so in such a gracious way, I didn’t notice until it was too late.Yoko’s new album is a collaboration of sorts. The publicity info for Yes, I’m a Witch states, “each artist was given her catalog to listen to, and upon seleYoko Onocting a cut, was provided with the vocals and whatever other instrumental elements attracted them from that cut. Almost all the artists chose just the vocals.” I probed the “almost” part of that quote, and Yoko explained that, in fact, none of the instrumental tracks were used. It seems they were gently encouraged not to use them.

In the book The Art and Music of John Lennon author John Robertson makes the assertion that John Lennon did some of his fiercest, most innovative guitar playing on Yoko’s albums. The idea is that to some degree he felt freed from the responsibilities of being the “front man” and relished the idea of concentrating on his instrument. Yoko agreed that this assessment was on the mark but disappointed this Lennon fan by admitting that none of the artists used any of John’s guitar playing on the album.

A second, thematically similar volume of vintage-Yoko-meets-today tracks is slated for release this fall. I asked for details on that, and Yoko replied diplomatically that she does “not comment on future projects.” The Yes, I’m a Witch project is quite similar in concept and execution to Todd Rundgren‘s Reconstructed album, but Yoko’s project is much more successful. In part this may have to do with the selection of artists involved in the project; the list reads like a who’s-who of 21st century cutting-edge music: Peaches, The Flaming Lips, DJ Spooky, Porcupine Tree, The Polyphonic Spree, The Apples In Stereo and Cat Power…and that’s less than half of the artists involved.

In a famous quote, John Lennon asserted that “‘Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking for a Hand in the Snow)’ is one of the best fuckin’ rock n’ roll records ever made!” Now, nearly 40 years later, I asked her what she thought of that quote. Though fiercely proud of John, she seemed a bit embarrassed to admit that she thought he was right.

So why didn’t anyone cover it for this album? In fact, most of the songs selected for Yes, I’m a Witch date from Yoko’s post-Apple days. The songs selected arguably draw upon her more–dare I say it–accessible and conventional work, bypassing the more avant-garde offerings of the early 70s. I asked Yoko if perhaps her earlier work remains too difficult for artists to get a handle on. She chuckled at the “accessible and conventional” reference–those aren’t words often used to describe Yoko’s music–but didn’t express an opinion as to why those Apple-era works weren’t given the treatment. The possibility does remain that we’ll get to hear some of those on the next volume; Yoko wouldn’t comment.

I was able to coax some enticing thoughts on the future from Ms. Ono, however. John’s Anthology box–lovingly compiled by Yoko–came out almost a decade ago. But there are hours and hours of quality unreleased material remaining unreleased. So I asked: are there plans to continue archival releases, or will fans be forced to chase after bootlegs? Yoko talked first about the effort and expense in putting together such a collection, and then made the case that Anthology was a good, representative collection of John’s unreleased work.Yoko Ono But finally she allowed that we might see something “for the professionals” (diplomatic Yoko-speak for fanatic Beatles bootleg collectors like this writer) in time for the 30th anniversary of John’s death, in 2010.

Since Yoko is a visual and conceptual artist in addition to her musical work, one might’ve expected a visual companion piece to Yes, I’m a Witch. Yoko chose not to do one, the idea being that the focus should remain squarely on what the new artists are bringing musically to the table.

Trying to hit a few tangential loose ends, I asked Yoko if she foresees a time when her experimental films (Fly, Apotheosis, Erection, etc.) will be commercially available on DVD. She seemed genuinely shocked that anyone even remembered these films from the 60s and 70s, and both flattered and amused that anyone would want to view them now. I got no definitive answer, and was left with the sense that Yoko hadn’t given the issue much prior thought. She did take a moment to express her approval of a more current film, 2006′s The US vs. John Lennon. That movie portrayed her and John in a very evenhanded way, subtly–and convincingly–making the case that the couple was prescient and wise beyond description in many of their political efforts.

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Album Review: Agony Aunts – Greater Miranda

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

Some pop auteurs are almost too clever for their own good. There are those rare students of the pop form who seem to completely understand it on a molecular level. Some of them are music critics (ha!) and a smaller number actually practice the form.

Even more rarely, a bunch of these pointy-headed lovers of jawdroppingly-crafted pop music congregate in groups and produce music. That’s exactly what has happened here. Imagine a musical collective that takes the best of The Mamas and the Papas and weds it to the smart pop of groups like The Orange Peels. The result would be what is described (without a bit of overstatement) as “Bay area psych-pop supergroup” Agony Aunts. Featuring Allen Clapp of aforementioned Orange Peels and likeminded souls, the album Greater Miranda sounds like a lost-lost sunshine pop record from 1968 filtered through a 21st century sensibility.

You’ll find no grunge in these grooves. What you will find are a dozen tracks of melodic transcendence. Perfectly blended vocals and subtle (very, very subtle) compositional flourishes characterize the songs on Greater Miranda.

What’s sort of weird is the way the lyrics often take turns toward darker territory. What else to make of songs with titles like “Night Circling Sharks”? But many listeners won’t even notice; instead they’ll trill along with the impossibly bubblegum-catchy songs. While not an excursion in nostalgia, the Agony Aunts have created a record that nonetheless looks forward and backward at once, not unlike Redd Kross’ underrated Third Eye album.

It’s a high-wire act, producing songs that feel simple and straightforward but are in fact complex little compositions. “Reap the Plains Sewn” is just such a tune, with interweaving melodic lines that overlap. “Linus’ Fists of Death” is the Agony Aunts at their most Orange Peels-sounding, but even then there’s the demented Cowsills-on-acid chorus of “Death death death! / Yeah yeah yeah!” It’s brilliantly, wonderfully twisted stuff.

Even when they’re not getting all smartypants, the Agony Aunts turn in lovely music. With its subtle Rickenbacker jangle, “Leland Manor” finds them toning down the too-clever-by-half approach (which — don’t get me wrong — I love) to craft a slightly more serious work. As with all of their songs, the little details are well-attended to. The listener can dig deep and appreciate those details, or let the beauty of the songs wash over them. Or both.

The group gets silly on “Adam’s Rib,” a song evocative of nothing so much as Donny and Marie Osmond’s “A Little Bit Country / A Little Bit Rock and Roll.” Again, the details are just right, from the spoken verse to the Floyd Cramer-styled piano.

Things take a turn toward the deeply bizarre with a song called “RB & YM” which sounds uncannily like the theme song for a nonexistent show on CNBC. Who else but the Agony Aunts would craft a song with a chorus wholly constructed of “ba-ba-ba”?

If that weren’t enough — and it most assuredly isn’t: more please! – the tour de force of Greater Miranda is “Not Penny’s Boat,” an ambitious song that sets out to condense six seasons of Lost into a three-minute pop song. And it rocks, too, sounding a little bit like very early Split Enz.

Call it art-pop. Call it whatever you like. But don’t miss Agony Aunts’ Greater Miranda, an album with not a single weak moment. It’s pure pop perfection.

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Album Review: Dreaming in Stereo – 2

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

They’re not afraid to list their influences: Todd Rundgren, Jellyfish, Yes, King Crimson. Put another way, the members of Miami, Florida-based Dreaming in Stereo dig precisely-crafted yet challenging music. They like ear candy that hold up to careful listening. Better yet, they craft music that aims for – and largely meets – those lofty standards.

The group’s second long player is called 2, and it features mid-tempo songs that are carefully (but not fussily) arranged. The songs put Fernando Perdomo’s clear, expressive voice right out front. In addition to the standard rock combo lineup of instruments, Dreaming in Stereo makes effective use of strings in many of their arrangements.

Song construction employs plenty of dynamics, but never to the point of calling attention to the craft. Rather than pointing out similarities to the Grays, it’s perhaps more useful to observe that Dreaming in Stereo seem to draw upon the same wellspring of inspiration that informed the music of Jon Brion and Jason Falkner.

Lovers of the three-minute pop idiom, Dreaming in Stereo largely confine their songs to that framework; only four of 2’s thirteen tracks extend much beyond 180 seconds. And the three-minute limit is a double-edged sword: you’ve got to make your point quickly enough to get it across, but you can’t overstuff the song. One or two good ideas is about the limit.

Dreaming in Stereo delivers those ideas to listeners. A track like “Gonna Sleep Until Tomorrow” (which, as it happens, is one of the longer tracks) unfolds with a lovely, soaring instrumental section. But rather than being some prog side-excursion, it’s just a well-executed restatement of the vocal part of the song. Like many of the songs on 2, the hook is restated until it burrows into the listeners’ consciousness. But it never overstays its visit.

The songs never quite get into harder rocking territory a la Cheap Trick. There’s a more baroque and refined sensibility to the album’s songs. The brief instrumental “Goodwill” is a prime example of this: its aesthetic is closer to The Left Banke than The Who.

The vaguely spooky (and lyrically spartan) “Open the Door” sounds like a late 70s John Lennon demo overdubbed by Teenage Fanclub with Emitt Rhodes producing. A seeming hallmark of the band’s writing style is to keep lyrics to a minimum. They’re not Ramones or (god forbid) Silver Convention, but neither are they Bob Dylan. Most songs have a fairly short set of lyrics.

Perdomo cedes lead vocal duties to honey-voiced Marisol Garcia on the acoustic “Without You” (an original song, not a Badfinger cover) and the melodramatic “Saturday Song.” The wonderfully wistful and anthemic “Standing Still (While the World Goes Around)” sports an arrangement that — especially thanks to the drumming style and the violin overdubs – is highly reminiscent of Electric Light Orchestra and Klaatu.

They’re all good-to-very-good songs. But the real gem among gems is “Music All Around Me (Dudley Moore’s Last Words).” With a guitar lick straight out of the George Harrison playbook, the majestic ballad unfolds slowly. Its bittersweet lyric is wedded to a arrangement worthy of Jeff Lynne.

In the end, it’s as simple as this: listeners who nod approvingly at any of the artists (except Silver Convention!) name-checked on the preceding 400-plus words would do well to check out Dreaming in Stereo’s 2.

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Album Review: Cake – Showroom of Compassion

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

When Cake hit the scene more than a decade and a half ago, I was firmly in the not-impressed camp. John McCrea’s deadpan, atonal vocals left me cold, and the horns felt like a gimmick. They kept at it, though, and gained some critical notice. Like many bands that refused to cater to whatever the flavor-of-the-month style was, they eventually faded from high profile. But in 2011 the group returned with Showroom of Compassion, their sixth studio album.

And it’s not bad. McCrea hasn’t really grown as a singer – he does what he does, basically – but his delivery seems somehow warmer and more assured than in the early days. The band’s understated playing moves the songs along without truly calling attention to the instrumentation. Midtempo grooves like “Long Time” are appealing, and while that damn trumpet is still in the mix, it too is less grating than it once was. (Maybe I’m mellowing with age, but I doubt it.)

Cake still engages in a stylist grab-bag, throwing their genre influences into a musical blender and hitting the frappe button. Trip-hop and hip-hop beats propel the songs, and sampled (or sampled-sounding) instrumentation drifts in and out of the mix. Production is typically dry, giving Showroom of Compassion a recorded-in-the-living-room vibe.

“What’s Now is Now” is a hooky offering, full of the same world-weary yet smart-alecky sort of lyrics that Cake has always delivered. Some subtle analog synth – we’re talking dialed-back Greg Hawkes rather than Rick Wakeman here – adds some needed melodic interest to the sparely-arranged songs.

“Mustache Man (Wasted)” offers up a fuzzy lead guitar riff and a 70s feel that recalls ZZ Top or “Cisco Kid” era War. And some vocal harmonies leaven the surfeit of McCrea vocals (which, it must be said, begin to grate halfway into the disc…if not sooner). But again with the trumpet!

“Teenage Pregnancy” starts off with a half minute of living-room piano recital styled piano, soon joined by keyboards from the Casio school of sonic approaches. The instrumental is pretty well a keyboard (and trumpet, of course) showcase.

Seven tracks in, the band delivers what might be a Cake-take on the Rolling Stones, with a guitar riff, um, “inspired” by the Beatles’ “Day Tripper.” With horns, and not the ones from “Got to Get You Into My Life.” If McCrea considered skipping the spoken vocal delivery technique on Showroom of Compassion (here’s betting he didn’t), here’s where he gave in.

Oddly, the album improves as it modestly chugs along. The songs get better, the arrangements improve, and the thing actually (almost) rocks. It’s hard to know if the country pastiche “Bound Away” is a piss-take or a heartfelt homage to the style. And in fact that uncertainty is a central source of perplexity when it comes to Cake: are they laughing at – or with – the listener? Either way, for those who dig the singular approach of the band, there’s plenty to like on Showroom of Compassion. Unless, of course, you hate trumpets.

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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.