Archive for March, 2011

Broadway the Hard Way: A Conversation with Richard X Heyman (part two)

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

continued from part one

Bill Kopp: There seems to be less reliance on samples and keyboard-sourcing of sounds on the new music; you’re employing real players for the cello, violin, trumpet etc.

Richard X Heyman: As much as possible, yeah. We had a budget, so we’d have people come in and play one thing at a time, and then try to make it sound like an orchestra. I definitely wanted it to sound almost like a Broadway pit orchestra, with a really organic feel. I grew up to listening to stuff like West Side Story; it’s in my soul. Not just rock’n’roll: jazz, blues, gospel.

BK: You call the paired albums a “popera.” Now, even on something like Tommy or Quadrophenia there are linking pieces, short compositions that serve to tie things together but that aren’t really designed to stand on their own. On these albums I don’t really hear much of that; every piece seems to move things along. Was that by design?

RXH: A lot of that was just to keep the length down. Because as it is, it’s already thirty songs. If it was ever staged as a pop opera, we could retool it. If we just put the songs end to end…you know, if you go to an opera, it’s just a group of songs one after the other. So they just segue from one to the other, and it becomes this whole long piece.

All that’s semantics. It’s a story told in music. Songs. So what do you call that? A pop opera.

BK: What are your plans in terms of performing this music? Will you just work some of the songs into a set? Or would it be more performing it as a unified, start-to-finish piece?

RXH: I haven’t even really been thinking about performing it. I’ve been so busy with the Doughboys. I have an idea that we’re going to do a record release presentation with modern dance and ballet. We’re going to rent a theatre out. But it’s going to be the actual record being played, with live dancing and film behind it. That’s something that we’re probably going to film for a DVD. We’ll do that here in New York. So we have the beginning stages of it, and we’re getting dancers together. The songs are so visual; as we were working on it, I kept seeing [in my mind] a ballet on certain songs. I’d say, “This one would be great with a visual image; maybe we could this or that friend to do a film for this.” I’m picturing a nice theatre with a big screen. And maybe even some play actors doing a pantomime or something like that.

We’re hoping to get it onstage this summer. We can’t make any promises, because we have to get all these people together.  

BK: Aside from all this, what else are you up to? What’s next for you?

RXH: I’ve already started the next album. What happened was, we recorded a lot more songs than were included. See, this was supposed to just be a single album. I was originally going to get it all on one album. Then I came up with the idea of the twofer. We didn’t want it to seem like a double album; I know when people see two discs in one package, they think of it as a double album. And listening to the whole thing at once is too overwhelming; that’s what I was trying to avoid. I want people to concentrate on the Tiers album, and that in and of itself is long: it’s over an hour of music.

But together, it’s too much. And people are compelled to review it as all-in-one. I was hoping that people would concentrate on Tiers as the main course, and then the other album could be reviewed separately. People are set in their ways: they see two discs in one package, and it’s a double album.

The two are connected. But And Other Stories picks up the story with me moving back east, and the songs aren’t in any sort of chronological order. It touches on various things I was interested in. there are songs about 9/11 on there, and there are songs about friends dying, contemplating the baby boom generation sort of slowly disappearing. Contemplating my own death, really.

BK: In connection with some of your more recent albums, you’ve made available a bonus disc for fans. Rightovers, for example.

RXH: Not that they’re lesser songs, but the tracks on the second album are sort of a bonus album. In hindsight, that’s what I should have done. Because based on the reaction I’m getting from people, they’re so overloaded. In today’s short attention span world, it’s asking a lot.

BK: I’ve always liked the clear, straightforward sonics of your albums. I think these new discs are even a couple notches above that.

RXH: I think I finally figured out where to keep it empty, to have those “holes.” And I think the lack of a layer of guitars opens up a whole spectrum of frequencies. So my vocal is in a different spot, sitting on top of piano and strings. And I really got into how you use a trombone: what role does a trombone play, an oboe play. I based it on listening to a lot of Broadway growing up, and classical.

BK: In rock’n’roll, to some extent you can almost hide behind an electric guitar when it’s bashing away. But when you have a bunch of instruments that each can only play one note at a time, the melody and the performance have got to carry the song.

RXH: Hopefully. The arrangements serve the song. When I started this album, I said, “I want to do an album like Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon or Blue. There’s virtually no drums on those; maybe a bit of hand percussion. So that’s the kind of album I really wanted to make. But being a drummer, I said, “I want to put drums on this.” So we rented studio time and I cut drum tracks like I normally would. But I did them last; on all my other albums I do the drums first.

I didn’t want to make a pop album. I wanted to make something a little more arty, I guess.

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Broadway the Hard Way: A Conversation with Richard X Heyman (part one)

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

Whether he likes it or not — and as you’ll read in a moment, he tends not to – Richard X Heyman is known as a powerpop artist. His string of albums began in the late 80s and continues to present day. Consistent hallmarks of his work include a refreshing DIY aesthetic (he plays nearly everything himself), an unerring ear for melody, and lyrics that are in turns witty, poignant and memorable. And while he’s often pigeonholed into a specific genre, Heyman’s music has always borne the fingerprints of a musical background immersed in many styles; prominent among his influences is a love of Broadway musicals.

And it’s that particular influence which Heyman brings to the fore on his 2011 paired albums Tiers / And Other Stories. Designed as two separate albums but packaged together, this new music is piano-based and quite different from what fans have come to expect. While in some ways the new music is wholly consistent with Heyman’s approach, it’s different enough to stir up confusion among fans and critics alike. And not surprisingly, confusion is not the reaction Heyman was aiming for. I gamely waded into the controversy in a recent conversation with Heyman. — bk


Bill Kopp: There’s a much wider sonic palette on these albums than you’ve ever displayed on record before. While you’ve always proudly worn your influences, in your previous work you seemed to filter all of those wide and sometimes disparate strains into one particular style. On these new paired records, you touch on all sorts of styles. “The Real Deal” is sort of soul-gospel. “Good to Go” is straight Nashville. Was there any sort of conscious effort with these albums to display a wide stylistic range, or was it more a function of the sonic demands for a particular song in the cycle, if you will?

Richard X Heyman: Well, the songs came very naturally, due to the fact that I bought this Yamaha electric piano. The instrument inspired me to write these songs. To simplify the whole thing, I would say this is basically my first “total piano” album. With a couple of exceptions. The piano is an instrument that…you know, you move a finger or two around and you start hitting things you just wouldn’t expect to do on guitar. So different types of songs, different types of chords can come out of the piano. So I think that is really the main ting you’re hearing as far as the style of music. The piano inspired me to write many of the songs. “Good to Go” was probably written on guitar; I can’t remember. Sometimes I’ll write a song on one instrument and then transfer it to another.

BK: Really? Because “Good to Go” has a real Floyd Cramer kind of thing happening…

RXH: I’m a big, huge Floyd Cramer fan. You’ll hear Floyd Cramer throughout all of my piano playing. I’m a combination of Floyd Cramer and Joni Mitchell. I really learned to play piano listening to Ladies of the Canyon. When that album came out, I just studied how she was playing, what the left hand was doing. I kind of based my whole style on that. And I got into Floyd Cramer, as well as Ramsey Lewis, Ray Charles. All that stuff, and the Left Banke, Paul McCartney. So it’s all in there.

BK: In terms of the lyrical content of these albums, I get the sense that you didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to take this project on. How long has this idea been knocking around in your head, and why now?

RXH: It didn’t really start out as any sort of concept. The songs were coming naturally from just sitting down at the piano. The very first song I wrote was the opening song on Tiers, “Hot on the Trail of Innocence.” And the next one was “Golden in This Town,” and then “Last Thought in My Mind.” And by that third song I realized: in a very abstract way, I’m recounting the story of how I met [my wife] Nancy [Leigh]. And at that point, it just sort of came out; I kept continuing the story: I left for L.A., and so forth. The whole story was writing itself, more or less. I wasn’t making a conscious effort to make a concept album. At a certain point, of course, I knew that that was what I was doing.

BK: So the songs came out of you in chronological order?

RXH: Yeah. If you look at the first album, it’s all written in that order. The only one that’s not in order – and it’s not even really supposed to be on the first album – is “Fire in the Country.” That one is a slightly political song, with a little social commentary. And it was supposed to be on the other album [And Other Stories]. But I felt I needed an up-tempo song, so I took “Hustler’s Last Stand,” which was supposed to be my first impression of L.A., and I switched the two. Just for musical reasons.

BK: In the spoken part of “Game Stays the Same” you recount sort of meeting Gene Clark

RXH: That really happened. The thing at the end of that song is a letter I had written. Nancy had sent me a pair of pajamas for my birthday. I had just gotten out there; I had been there less than a week at that point. I was just getting settled in, and I was already disillusioned. So I got this package in the mail from Nancy, and in it was a pair of blue and white striped pajamas. So if you read between the lines you can see that I’m already pining to get back.

And the thing with Gene Clark is almost like a metaphor: you’d better grab what you have today. Don’t take it for granted, because it might not be there tomorrow. That was what was going on for me at the time; I had the love of my life on the other side of the country, and I wasn’t taking advantage of it. And I never did get to meet Gene Clark again.

BK: Did you just plain dig out the old letter — which I assume Nancy had — and then read it, or did you contruct it from memory and use some artistic license?

RXH: It’s pretty much the letter. I may have changed a minor thing or two.

BK: I interviewed you some four years ago, when Actual Sighs came out. At that time you told me that the next project you had planned was a collection of piano-based pieces. So this is that, basically.

RXH: It probably started back then, yes. I’ve been doing the Doughboys project, as a drummer, and doing some other things. So it kind of got stretched out a bit.

BK: Your fan base is – if you don’t mind my saying so – a bit like that of a cult artist. By that I mean that they (we, I should say) sort of value you as the whole package. You can go off in different directions, like a Todd Rundgren or a Neil Young, and they’re open to it. In fact they embrace it. That approach is different from some artists who are more or less expected to turn in the same album again and again. Do you think that’s an accurate characterization?

RXH: I don’t know yet. There’s this genre that I’ve been placed into called powerpop. And I’m not sure what that means, exactly, or if that’s what I do. I always considered myself – as far as my solo work – a traditional singer/songwriter trying to express myself with a lot of different influences. I never considered myself a powerpop artist.

I’m just getting the sense that some people who expect me to have the jangly guitar powerpop sound may not quite “get” this album. I’m not sure. It’s so different. I hope to gain a new audience from this music. While I was making the album, I thought, “I may alienate some people who like the guitar pop.”

BK: There’s some of it on there…

RXH: I tried to keep it to a minimum. I could have done a whole other album, still telling that story, but in that style. I put one or two guitar songs in there. But there were many times where I left songs off, saying, “We’ll save that for when I do a real pop album.” On this album, instead of guitar, we put on strings. Or harpsichord, or orchestration. That was sort of the theme of the album: Let’s be a bit more bold.

BK: The down side of that, of course, is that it makes an artist what the industry likes to call “hard to market.” While your music is highly melodic, accessible and impeccably crafted — what I would call “commercial” in the strict and best sense of the word – the music on Tiers / And Other Stories is a little less immediate. The songs aren’t built around catchy guitar riffs and such.

RXH: I’m sort of outside that whole argument. To me – I can’t be objective, of course; I’ve been working on these songs hundreds of time – they’re very immediate. But I guess, for a first time listener…this is what I’m hearing. And it’s a surprise to me, because they were sort of what I dug, and put together. I thought they were very hooky and immediate. But I’m getting a lot of that, that people aren’t getting it on the first listen. Maybe on the third or fourth listen. Again, I can’t really be involved in that, because it’s the listener’s perspective. I’m a little disappointed that people feel that way, and yet I know that the songs are there. And if people are willing to put the time in, they’ll be more into these songs than to some of my other songs.

BK: Not to belabor that point, but I would argue that the albums that wear the best over the long term are the ones that do reveal their charms on repeated listening.

RXH: It’s a little disappointing to me, I have to say, that reviewers so far – mainly from the powerpop community — I really don’t feel like they listened to it more than once. And they’re making that same comment abut it not being as immediate. I feel that the songs they’re not getting on the first listen will surpass the more immediate ones as far as the impact.  On an emotional level, I really poured my heart and soul into the lyrics. I know it’s got that in there; it’s just a matter of whether it affects the listener or not.

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Album Review: Cal Tjader / Stan Getz – Sextet

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

As a very young child, I was already quite the precocious pop music consumer. Born mere days after JFK was tragically struck down in Dallas, by 1968-69 I was an intent and conscious fan of pop music. Many of my early memories are imbued with the soundtrack of the times. Whenever I’d go for a car ride with my mom or dad, the radio would be tuned to WSBR-AM in Boca Raton, FL. I’d hear the Top 40 hits of the day, and I dug them.

But I didn’t understand them. Even in those days on AM radio, the pop songs were about love, relationships, and other weighty subjects completely alien to a four-year-old. Looking back, it’s clear that the music moved me, even though I couldn’t quite make any real sense of it. Still, in a real sense, those experiences were my introduction to rock’n’roll.

This has all come rushing back to me of late thanks to a number of CDs I have received for potential review. Concord Music is on a mission these days to re-release classic jazz albums from the catalogs it now controls. Labels like Riverside, Fantasy and Prestige were, in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, home to some of the finest jazz artists of that era (or any other).

When I listen to Sextet (credited to Cal Tjader / Stan Getz but featuring others equally important), I get that late sixties feeling all over again: I don’t understand this, but I love it.

The Sextet album almost didn’t happen. In 1958 the featured players were signed to various labels, and in a situation not unlike Hollywood’s “studio system,” musicians would occasionally be lent out from one label to another in reciprocal arrangements. Luckily this one-off project from tenor saxophonist Stan Getz with Cal Tjader on vibes did come together, and the duo enlisted some soon-to-be-legendary backup (though the word “backup” sells everyone involved far too short). Vince Guaraldi (piano) and Scott LaFaro (upright bass) were not yet quite the household names they’d soon become (LaFaro’s promising career was cut short when tragically died in a 1961 auto accident.) With Eddie Duran on guitar and Billy Higgins on drums, the session was essentially a supergroup, though that rock-centric term wouldn’t come into use for another decade or so.

This aggregation had never played together before, and would never again. But on a single day – February 8, 1958; the date deserves highlighting on any jazz lover’s calendar – the sextet produced seven tunes of exhilarating beauty.

Even to a rock listener/musician’s ears, Sextet is a remarkable recording. The ad hoc group set up at Los Angeles’ Marines Memorial Auditorium and played the songs – following charts prepared by Guaraldi and Tjader – live to tape. The instruments breathe in a way that rock music simply does not, cannot. Essentially an acoustic performance – though vibes do have an electric motor – the music was captured by strategically positioned microphones. It’s a tired device to observe that the music “sounds like it’s being played right in the room,” but with Sextet, it’s simply true. The stereo separation captures the warm and friendly (yet note-perfect) tones of the group.

And then there’s the songs themselves. “Ginza Samba” positively radiates joy and carefree abandon, but it does so in a tightly constructed way. Each player gets his chance to shine, but the song is never — not for a moment – an excuse for solo spots. Every note works in service of propelling the song forward. Getz, Guaraldi, Duran and Tjader each deliver their own variation on the signature melodic line, and when it all comes together toward the end, the effect is jaw-dropping.

A gentle reading of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” features most prominently the expressive, subtle piano work of Vince Guaraldi, complemented by Tjader’s mellifluous, resonating vibes. An impossibly romantic sax solo from Getz is supported by sympathetic strumming from Duran. The equally subtle brush work of Billy Higgins anchors the song without actually providing its beat (LaFaro’s bass nicely does that.) When — near the track’s end – everyone but Tjader drops out for a few bars, the vibes send shivers down the listener’s spine.

“For All We Know” smartly picks up that vibe (so to speak). The sequencing is perfect; it’s as if no other song could better have followed the previous track. The first half of the number is a Tjader spotlight; most of the second half focuses on Getz’s sax. And of course in the final minute it – once again — all comes together, flawlessly.

The up-tempo “Crow’s Nest” is a workout for everyone involved. Right out of the gate, the rhythm section gets a chance to blow, freed of the restraint they’ve shown on the previous tracks. While there are only six players (and no overdubs: this was 1958 after all), “Crow’s Nest” sounds in places like the work of a much larger outfit. LaFaro’s assured bass work pushes the song ahead, ahead, ahead. Guaraldi turns in his first major solo of the set, finding a wholly different (but sympathetic) melody within the grooves of the song. So, too, does LaFaro take a winning solo turn, illustrating the power and subtlety of his bass playing.

The romantic “Liz-Anne” is a short and straightforward waltzing jazz piece focusing primarily on Getz’s lyrical sax work and busier-than-it-sounds guitar from Duran. On “Big Bear,” Getz and Duran kick things off in harmonic lockstep; though the tone colors of their respective instruments are quite different, at times it’s difficult to pick out who’s playing what. Tjader’s extended vibes solo is masterful, as it tumbles into a Getz solo. The song’s outro reprises the delightful Duran/Getz duet.

“My Buddy” closes the set. And a perfect closer it is. Again focusing primarily on the top-billed players, the number showcases a sexy solo from Getz; meanwhile the band pretty much swings. And then it’s over. The entire session – rehearsal and performance — lasted a mere three hours. No bonus tracks were available for the Concord 2011 reissue, but then it’s hard to imagine anything truly adding to this sublime album. As Doug Ramsey writes in his excellent liner notes for the Concord reissue, “If you had been the producer, which of these seven pieces would you have told Tjader, Getz and friends to do over?” Ramsey characterizes Sextet as “42 minutes and 47 seconds of perfection,” and that’s a tidy, wholly accurate summation.

Sextet is an apt title for a suite of composition in which each player takes his turn in the spotlight and shows his ability to integrate into the group as a whole. No one ever fights for primacy; it’s a perfectly balanced performance throughout. I don’t claim to understand this stuff, but it moves me. Hearing Sextet gives me that feeling – akin to discovering rock’n’roll — all over again.

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Album Review: Nektar – A Tab in the Ocean

Monday, March 28th, 2011

Having come of age in the 1970s, I was familiar with Nektar – the band name, not the music itself – by two means. First, three-inch-square reproductions of their back catalogue items were often reproduced on vinyl inner sleeves, in those “you may also enjoy” ads of the era. And the records themselves I saw on nearly every visit – and there were many – to local record shops. Nektar albums were in ample supply…in the cutout bins.

In those days I was never overly curious about them; the album art — to the extent that it made any impression upon me – telegraphed hey-we’re-a-prog-band in no uncertain terms. But the spelling of their name suggested they were, I dunno, foreign. German, maybe. I had heard Gong and found them deeply boring and repetitive. France is near Germany, and they also don’t speak English, I told myself. So instead I picked up a Nick Lowe LP, or maybe The Who By Numbers.

Fast forward to present day. The boutique/archival label It’s About Music is re-releasing Nektar albums and filling them to the brim with bonus tracks. So it’s time, finally, for a listen to Nektar. And by the way, they weren’t German, but they almost were: while Nektar was a quartet of English blokes, they were headquartered in Germany, and it was there that they enjoyed most of their success.

In keeping with those heady days of the early 70s, the band titled their second long player A Tab in the Ocean. Comprising but four tracks, the album is an exemplar of what we might call meat-n-potatoes prog. The long tracks wind through distinct movements; stabbing organ is omnipresent; the percussion features bits of syncopation, and there’s some sort of lyrical theme throughout. But A Tab in the Ocean isn’t terribly ambitious musically. Each of the tracks features a few – very few, in fact – musical ideas, and said ideas are stretched across the length of each one.

Throughout A Tab in the Ocean, this group of UK expats manages again and again to sound German; perhaps it’s the repetitive, relatively simple musical themes. Maybe it’s the aiming-for-dramatic arrangements. But to these ears they sound infinitely more like Grobschnitt than, say, Yes. The musicians are accomplished, but if they’re virtuosos, they’re shy about displaying their skills.

The tracks get progressively shorter as the disc unfolds. “Desolation Valley/ Waves” is built around a very Pink Floyd (circa 1971) sounding organ part. But where the Floyd visited multiple interesting places in their songs (see “Embryo” or a live bootleg version of “Cymbaline”), Nektar comes up with one or two cool ideas and settles for those.

On “Crying in the Dark” Nektar moves closer to straightforward second-tier heavy 70s rock, not unlike Foghat, Head East or Kansas. Subtle touches of the prog aesthetic appear briefly, but they’re not pursued. “King of Twilight” is the closest thing to what 70s progressive rock enthusiasts might be looking for. A martial drum part (by way of Gustav Holst’s “Mars, the Bringer of War” – how’s that for a well-worn/worn-out influence?) roots a song that does feature some interesting vocal harmonies.

In total, A Tab in the Ocean is worth a listen, but it doesn’t rank among the great undiscovered works of its era.

But here’s the thing: there’s this bonus disc. Subtitled “In the Beginning (The Boston Tapes),” it’s worth the price of admission all on its own. Recorded stateside in 1970 – notably, before sessions for their first album as Nektar – the set finds the band turning out a decidedly non-prog sound. Closer in many ways to Derek & the Dominoes or Beck, Bogert & Appice, songs like “Our Love Will Last Forever” are exemplars of sturdy, early 70s rock with a pop sensibility.

“Do You Believe in Magic” (not the Lovin’ Spoonful hit) sounds a bit like Marmalade and other acts from the ambitious end of the late-60s UK pop spectrum. “Candlelight” features Deep Purple-styled organ and fiery guitar work of the sort mysteriously absent from A Tab in the Ocean. The mid-section of “Gooday” suggests that the band might have been spinning Joe Cocker’s cover/reinvention of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends.” And the intertwining lead guitar on that track suggest an approach not wholly dissimilar to the Allman Brothers. But the disc’s highlight is the powerhouse “The Life I’ve Been Leading;” it hints at a direction the band might have pursued, one quite different from the path they actually chose.

There’s a sweeping, almost gospel feel to some of the songs. Even though the sessions were captured on a relatively primitive (8-track) recording console, they’re full of texture. The songs, the performances, the playing…they’re all superior in almost every way to the sorta-prog style Nektar would soon adopt.

Apparently the band thought so as well. After A Tab in the Ocean, their next effort (1973’s …Sounds Like This) resurrected three of the “Boston Tapes” songs in re-recorded versions. Thanks to inclusion of this bonus disc of previously unavailable material — which can lay some claim to the title “great lost album” —  A Tab in the Ocean is – somewhat surprisingly – recommended.

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DVD Review: What Ever Happened to Pink Floyd?

Friday, March 25th, 2011

When choosing a favorite era, fans of Pink Floyd have a lot from which to choose. Some insist the band did its best work in the early days before Syd Barrett drifted off into the ether; others point to the massive critical and commercial success of the mid-1970s, beginning with Dark Side of the Moon and continuing through Wish You Were Here and Animals. A smaller but equally passionate group of hardcore fans ( a group that includes this writer) chooses as its favorite the band’s peak as a live unit, roughly 1970-71, when they performed extended pieces such as “Embryo,” “Cymbaline” and “Fat Old Sun.”

Relatively few would name the period between The Wall (1979) and The Division Bell (1994) as the height of Pink Floyd’s work. The thing is, even at its worst (The Final Cut) the band was never less than fascinating. And while for most of its existence the Floyd were among the most anonymous of rock acts – rarely giving interviews, handing out few publicity photos – during the 1980s and 90s their profile as individuals increased.

Not always for the best, of course. The individuals — especially bassist/lyricist Roger Waters and guitarist/vocalist David Gilmour – gained most of their notoriety in those days from their quite public feud. That story — along with the music, and the intersection of those two narratives – is the subject of What Ever Happened to Pink Floyd?, a 2011 documentary.

On many levels it’s a sad story. After well more than a decade of collaboration, two immensely – yet quite differently — talented men have a falling out and refuse to work together. Legal skirmishes and on-the-record sniping within the pages of popular rock magazines gains more attention than the music.

And the music suffers, first at the hands of Waters. Driven to express his personal vision, Waters forced the band into becoming a vehicle for his narratives. On paper they might seem interesting, but in execution, they often came across as morose. In response, Gilmour more or less abdicated; the first result of this breakdown was still critically successful: Animals featured some fiery playing and singing from Gilmour. But by the time of The Wall, Pink Floyd was Waters’ show. Keyboardist Rick Wright – a more fragile soul – was summarily kicked out of the band, relegated to employee status for The Wall’s live dates.

By the time of The Final Cut, Wright was gone altogether. Gilmour was almost invisible, and drummer Nick Mason found session drummers doing most of his parts. The band collapsed, and everyone commenced (or continued) solo careers.

As most will know, Gilmour and Mason rebooted the group in 1987 with the unintentionally ironically-titled A Momentary Lapse of Reason. Waters was not amused. The reconstituted Pink Floyd went on to massive commercial success (critical praise was more muted) and the Waters-Gilmour estrangement continued.

What Ever Happened to Pink Floyd? takes a look at all of this from the viewpoint of music journalists, collaborators and musicologists. While there are very few interviews with the principals (this is one of those “unauthorized” docs), the DVD takes a thoughtful, incisive and thorough look at the story. And in a deft bit of structuring – -aided to no end by recent events – the creators of this documentary manage to end on a positive, hopeful note.

Paradoxically, even though Pink Floyd found the period 1979-1994 to be its highest profile era, that time remains the band’s least-explored. Fans of the group will find What Ever Happened to Pink Floyd? a useful reintroduction to this period of the group’s story.

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Book Review: John Borack – Life is What Happens

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

John Borack’s John Lennon: Life is What Happens is subtitled “Music, Memories & Memorabilia,” and that’s a tidy summing-up of what this book is all about. Part social commentary, part reminiscence, part criticism, part price guide, part coffee-table book, Life is What Happens occupies a useful spot as it touches on all of those areas.

Life is What Happens doesn’t set out to replace your copy of Richie Unterberger’s The Unreleased Beatles, but Borack does weave in a bit of information about unreleased material (including a passing mention of the 83-CD set A/B Road). The book doesn’t replace historical overviews such as Bob Spitz’s book (or Hunter Davies’, or any of the Mark Lewisohn books), but Borack knows his subject well enough – and is an economical enough writer – to deliver a concise version of the Lennon story. And while it won’t take the place of Goldmine’s authoritative record pricing data (Borack has freelanced for that magazine for over a quarter century) the book is delightfully chock full of high-quality photos of old Beatles records (and Yellow Submarine lunchboxes, and Beatles Flip Your Wig board games, and bobbleheads, and…) along with info on what those items have sold for.

The book works on several levels. As a (softcover) coffee table book, it looks great: the splashy color photographs, professional eye-pleasing layout and overall professional design will make it the sort of book your houseguests will pick up and actually look at. Quite a few of the photos will be new to even the most fanatical of Beatles fans (like me, to name one example). As a look at John Lennon, Life is What Happens deftly balances those different approaches — musical criticism, personal anecdotes (by the author as well as many well-known musicians) and straightforward chronology.

In 2011 it’s difficult to say or show much about John Lennon and/or the Beatles that hasn’t been covered many, many, many times before. And while Borack (author of 2008’s Shake Some Action: The Ultimate Power Pop Guide) is recounting that familiar story, his fresh perspective on the life of John Lennon is one of the more enjoyable (and again: nice to look at) examples of this now decades-old cottage industry. Beatles and Lennon fans will be proud to add John Lennon: Life is What Happens to their bookshelves (and/or or coffee tables).

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Album Review: Blackfield – Welcome to my DNA

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

It’s a common sentiment among music fans who’ve lived through the 60s, 70s or even 1980s: Music’s not as good as it used to be. They just don’t make it like they used to. While I understand that sentiment, I’m happy to report that nothing could be farther from the truth. There is some really good music being made in this second decade of the 21st century, and some of it even sounds a bit like the great music of old.

As a longtime fan of the work of Steven Wilson – I’ve interviewed him twice and have covered many of his projects – I greeted news of a new Blackfield album with some anticipation. Although Porcupine Tree is Wilson’s highest-profile project, the man seems to be able to apply sufficient attention to all of his endeavors to make them meet his goals. I must say that it’s quite fascinating to witness the work of a man who — at age 43 – is clearly at the top of his game creatively.

It may come as a surprise to those familiar with Porcupine Tree but new to Blackfield that this duo – Wilson plus Israeli musician Aviv Geffen – is actually more mainstream and tuneful that that more well-known project. Their third album (or fourth if you count the 2009 Live in NYC CD/DVD) is titled Welcome to my DNA, and it finds the duo creating music that’s even more timeless and compelling than their earlier offerings.

Certainly Blackfield will sound a bit familiar to Porcupine Tree fans; Wilson’s voice and guitar work are prominently featured throughout the album. But in many ways the Blackfield sound of 2011 is most reminiscent of – wait for it — Electric Light Orchestra. Blackfield’s sonic delivery and arrangements favor a melancholy take on Jeff Lynne’s band circa A New World Record (significantly, this is the period before ELO started sounding like a wind-up toy).

Like all ten songs on Welcome to my DNA, “Glass House” features a strong, memorable melody with a heartbreaking vocal; as the song opens, it sounds a bit like the start of “Even Less” from Porcupine Tree’s 1999 Stupid Dream, but the song heads in an even more tuneful direction. Two minutes in, it (briefly) sounds quite similar to Jason Falkner’s “Untitled” from his Presents Author Unknown. Yet the song is never truly derivative, and serves as a great kickoff to the disc.

“Go To Hell” is a provocative tune. With a lyric that features a mere eleven words, it’s guaranteed to get zero airplay. But an infectious midtempo melody and a soaring string arrangement will have listeners trilling along “Fuck you all / fuck you / I don’t care.” Wilson and Geffen have never been slouches in the lyric department, so the lyrical brevity of this (and one other track) is surely this way by design, not laziness.

“Rising of the Tide” brings us back to heartbreaking territory. Wilson has a facility with melody that continues to amaze, and his ability to structure a song so that it unfolds gradually is nothing short of amazing. Geffen trades vocals on the verses, and here his thick Israeli accent is less grating than it can sometimes be; in fact when the two harmonize as they do here, it’s a thing of beauty.

Wilson ups the ante on “Waving.” His acoustic guitar, a slicing string arrangement and high harmonies are the ingredients in this catchy tune; “la la la” lyrics fit perfectly. And Blackfield’s knack for dynamics is unerring: the song kicks into higher gear every minute or so. This one will likely be a highlight of Blackfield’s live shows.

Initially built around Geffen’s vocal and a solo piano, “Dissolving With the Night” is another melancholy number. Geffen’s voice cracks — certainly on purpose – and while that might be one way to get the aching-heart vibe across, it’s distracting. On the second verse Wilson takes the lead vocal, and a dark, moody string arrangement comes in. Then all the elements come together, highlighting the slightly off-kilter chord pattern. By the end, the track has unfolded into a thing of dark, brooding majesty.

“Blood” is the heaviest track on Welcome to my DNA, but even here Blackfield stays safely distant from metal. Some catchy riffage moves the track along. It’s a full 1:45 before the four-word lyric kicks in; what could have been an extremely effective instrumental number gets even better. “Blood” feels a bit like a rock opera linking piece, not dissimilar to “The Rock” from The Who’s Quadrophenia.

The heartbreak quotient is dialed up to eleven for “On the Plane.” Whether by design or not, Wilson and Geffen have beaten Roger Waters in the songs-about-daddy game. The darker-version-of-ELO vibe returns here. A brief but beautiful guitar solo is the icing on the cake.

Geffen is at his best for “Oxygen.” Here his vocal works perfectly. This song balances the trademark Blackfield melancholy with an uplifting vibe, creating a song that would (in a better world) race up the charts.

“Zigota” has that late-night, end-of-album ambience. One begins to wonder how Wilson manages to churn out these fully-realized compelling pop numbers again and again. Plenty of rock composers would kill to write even one song like the dreamy “Zigota.” Four-plus minute in, the song adds a brief coda that’s the perfect ending to a winning album.

But it’s not over. The lilting, initially acoustic “DNA” closes the album with a waltzing melody. Geffen and Wilson seem intent on overachieving throughout Welcome to my DNA. Whether it’s the lyrics, the playing, the melodies or the singing, this is a near-perfect example of impossibly tuneful midtempo rock, ranking among the best the genre has to offer in the 21st century.

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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.

 

Single Review: White Orange

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

The a-side of White Orange’s single “…And This is Why I Speak to You in Parables” unfolds with insistent sheets of gauzy, hazy, druggy guitar figures. A sludgy Sabbathy rhythm section joins in the fun after awhile, giving the track a doom/stoner vibe. Just when the listener has tuned in and turned on to a head-nodding groove, the whole thing drops out. When the instrumentation kicks back in, the vocals start. Musically, not a lot of ground is covered in the track’s thirteen minutes, but then adventurousness isn’t White Orange’s goal here. They establish their vibe and effectively stick to it.

There’s nothing particularly retro about White Orange’s approach; their sound is, in the end, closer to a slowed-down Nebula or The Sword, though whatever (admittedly minimal) arena-rock tendencies those artists might possess is absent in the more direct approach of White Orange. Ultimately, thirteen minutes of “Parables” is a bit much, at least without the accompaniment of pharmaceuticals.

The disc’s flip-side “Middle of the Riddle” stakes out a slightly heavier (and marginally quicker-paced) feel. It also features some more interesting guitar work beyond the foundational riffage. What’s more, it clocks in at a relatively restrained five minutes. While it does trade in some of the same arrangement gimmicks, it’s not “…Parables (Slight Return).”

The 12” vinyl disc is lavishly decorated; the vinyl itself features splashy, eye-popping full color graphics on both sides, and the disc itself is a thick slab that might call to mind 78rpm discs of old (ask your grandparents). The sleeve art is similarly striking.

If these two tracks are a representative sample of what we might expect from White Orange’s imminent long player, then further investigation is warranted for fans of the genre.

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One That Should’ve Got Away

Monday, March 21st, 2011

“You should’ve seen the one that got away!” Everyone knows the old fisherman’s joke about the impossibly large and hopelessly impressive fish that wriggled off the hook. It’s part of the good-natured lore of the sport to jokingly boast of a record-breaking catch that – conveniently – can’t be verified.

Music has its own variation on that. And sometimes it’s at odds with another proud tradition: audience taping. The latter is a subject near and dear to my own heart. As a young Beatles fan in the 1970s, my insatiable hunger for more-more-more Beatles music quickly led to my discovery of bootlegs. Session tapes, outtakes, live recordings, whatever: the sonic quality was less important than (a) the content and (b) the fact that it existed at all.

Some musicians have taken strong exception to the practice of audience taping of shows. (Porcupine Tree‘s Steven Wilson offered his own take on the subject in a recent interview with me.) Robert Fripp (King Crimson) ranks as the most vocal and articulate spokesperson putting forth the anti-taping argument. He set out his viewpoint decades ago in an op-ed piece for Musician magazine (ironically, that op-ed was reproduced on the back cover of a vinyl King Crimson bootleg, which is how I came to read it). At the risk of mangling his point by paraphrasing, Fripp argued that a live concert is a unique experience, a relationship, a contract if you will, between performer and audient (his somewhat arcane – if technically correct — use of the singular form of audience always struck me as idiosyncratic, but then, that’s Fripp for ya). He argued that the act of recording the performance – or of taking photographs, for that matter – would break the relationship. There are stories of his having stopped shows so that tapers and/or photographers could be, er, removed.

I saw Cat Power in concert a few years back; while I don’t especially “get” her music – it’s okay but something short of life-changing – the show was enjoyable enough. But apparently Ms. Chan Marshall has a thing about cameras; to that end, she dispatched goons out into the crowd to, shall we say, stop anyone from taking photos. Well, allrighty then.

Strictly speaking, both Fripp and Marshall are on solid ground: purchase of a concert ticket does not confer the right upon an audience member to make a recording of the show. But setting that legalistic argument aside, I do have a bit of sympathy for their point of view. There’s something to be said for enjoying the show and taking away only a memory of it.

Recent events have caused me to develop a bit more understanding of the performance-as-relationship argument. (Not enough that I’ll be setting my several hundred Pink Floyd audience recordings out by the curb, so don’t come looking for them.) When a band delivers a performance, all sorts of factors come together to create the thing-as-a-whole that is experienced by each member of the audience. The lighting (or lack thereof) in the venue. The room’s ambience (or, again, its lack). The visual interaction between the individual players, and between the players and the audience. The way the singer moves while he delivers a line. The way the bartender might chuckle silently to himself at a bit of the guitarist’s between-song banter, said chuckle caught only by the peripheral vision of someone in the crowd. All of these things – some of them subtle almost to the point of imperceptibility – factor into what an audience member processes as “the show.”

Add to that the varying amounts of attitude lubrication applied via alcohol, amorous attention directed at a fellow audience member (or, if we’re lucky, toward someone in the band), or perhaps even some illicit substances. Those factors play a part in one’s perception, in one’s personal how-was-the-show verdict.

Consider now the digital recording device set in the back of the room and pointed at the stage. It captures little if any of this. It’s a clinical, unforgiving device. It captures the notes and the spaces between the notes in 44100 Hz, 16-bit stereo. In short, it documents the facts of the performance, but fails to capture its truth.

When most bands play a gig, there are mistakes. Missed cues, forgotten lines, late delivery, fumbled fingers. Notes played and/or sung slightly off-key. Even for a band that’s well-rehearsed, bum notes are – for most acts – a fact of life. It’s true, too, that at times the mistakes of one player can throw another off of his or her game just enough to cause a musical train wreck. In rock’n'roll, there are a few bands legendary for their sloppy performances: The Rolling Stones, The Faces and The Replacements are among the most oft-named in this category. In their cases, some people loved them precisely because of their shambolic and unpredictable stage presence.

In general, of course, that’s not what people pay their money to see or hear; they want a good performance. Not a clinical playback of the studio versions (or original versions if we’re talking about a cover band), but something reasonably tight. And for most audience members (musicians significantly excepted), “tight” generally means that the band starts and finishes a song together. What happens in between is less of consequence.

It’s also true that when you’re on the stage, you hear and perceive things differently than you would as a (mere) audience member. If, say, you’re the drummer, and the bass player misses a note, you’ll note its absence. In most bands, the rhythm section must effectively act as one, so a “clam” (mistake) by one can throw the other off his/her game. But as much as some musicians might argue otherwise, the typical audience member is quite unaware of (and equally unconcerned about) all of this.

Speaking for myself – and I’m no more than a humble player of modest ability who plays solely in cover bands – over the years I’ve played in some dysfunctional bands. There have been some truly weird relationships, ones that would make 70s era Fleetwood Mac blush. There have been issues with certain members overindulging in drink, drugs or both. There has been mental instability, silent-treatment, even a fistfight onstage one time. (That last incident was in 1985, when a drummer invited both his wife and girlfriend to the gig. Bad idea.) But in the end, it’s about the music.

For the musician who values a good performance, there are things that can be learned from a careful listen to a show’s recording. But one has to be careful not to place too much stock in that cold, digital device: because so many of the elements that go into a show are ineffable, the recorder preserves – ultimately, for better and worse – only the facts, leaving the more important truth to the mists of memory.

Perhaps in the end it’s sometimes better to reminisce about the time the recorder’s batteries ran out, that time that the best show we ever played got away.

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The Fleshtones: America’s Garage Band

Friday, March 18th, 2011

Self-proclaimed living legends, Brooklyn’s Fleshtones are also affectionately known as America’s Garage Band. Their updated take on r&b and garage styles of rock’s greatest era has won them a cult of ardent and passionate fans the world over. Plying their trade since the late 1970s, the group has served up a consistent engaging catalog of albums. They had their brush with the big time in the early 80s while signed to IRS Records, and vocalist Peter Zaremba even hosted a show on MTV for a couple of seasons.

Yet in 2011 they’re still at it, producing the best music of their career. Their latest album Brooklyn Sound Solution (YepRoc) finds them collaborating with Lenny Kaye. The Fleshtones are currently mounting a small-scale tour to promote that record, and they’ll bring their “Super Rock” to Asheville NC’s The Admiral on March 24. I spoke by phone with Zaremba right before he headed to a show in Oklahoma City. — bk


Bill Kopp: On the earlier stuff, the sort of material collected on It’s Super Rock Time, The Fleshtones sound somehow straddled the mid-sixties and the early 80s. But the new material on Brooklyn Sound Solution has a vibe that bounces between pure 60s garage aesthetic and a cross between 60s and now. It seems to me that you guys have a bottomless well of inspiration and that you could keep doing this forever if you wanted to. Is that the plan?

Peter Zaremba: Well, we intend to. Yeah, we intend to keep doing this forever, because…once you understand where this music came from – y’know, what makes it click – you just keep dipping into that well. It’s not like being a purist, you know, where you have to always do the song the way it’s exactly supposed to be done. You run out of stuff that way. But if you’re inspired, then you’re doing a song from then and making it now. And I like that.

BK: As I’ve talked to people locally about the upcoming gig at The Admiral, some of them are puzzled at your choice of venues. One, they rarely have bands there at all. Two, the place holds, like, sixty people, and that’s only if you set all the tables and chairs outside. Yet, all that said, the aesthetic of the place seems completely consistent with the Fleshtones ambience. Can you tell me a little bit about the thinking that went into booking the show there instead of one of the several music venues here in town?

PZ: First of all, the band did not personally book the show. That said, we’ve never played in Asheville before. Not as far as I know. So, after thirty-five years, y’know, this might be the natural place to play. And if you think that sixty people is all that can fill it, then y’know what? Sixty people better show up! They’ll be the luckiest sixty people in town that night.

Like I always say, we play for the people that show up, not for the ones that didn’t show up. It’s like, we don’t go, “Ohhh, there could have been fifteen hundred people,” or something like that, and get all pissed off. First of all, we make sure that the people that do come have the best time they’ve ever had. Because we want to have the best time we’ve ever had. So, it starts with us. No one’s gonna get a walk-though. This might be a phone-in interview, but no one’s gonna get a phoned-in show from The Fleshtones.

BK: I watched the movie about you guys –  Geoffray Barbier’s 2009 film Pardon Us for Living But the Graveyard is Full – and that attitude comes through loud and clear.

See that? The Fleshtones: stars of film and…people write books about us, too.

BK: Lenny Kaye‘s on the new album. I am guessing that you guys knew him back when in NYC. How did he come to the project, and in what ways did his presence create something different on the record?

First of all, we’ve always been big admirers of his. Not just because of the Nuggets thing [legendary 2LP compilation of sixties garage/psych singles that Kaye put together in the early 70s – ed.].  But what he did with Patti Smith was so great. That changed things; that record [1974’s “Hey Joe” b/w “Piss Factory”] was so different from anything that was being done then. He also did this compilation of Eddie Cochran stuff [Legendary Masters from 1972] around that time. The first song that we did where we covered anybody else’s material was “Nervous Breakdown,” a song from that compilation.

A mutual friend of ours named Phast Phreddie Patterson [co-producer (with the band) of the new Brooklyn Sound Solution] – he’s a DJ, and a soul and funk expert – encouraged us to link up with Lenny. He said, “Lenny’s always been wanting to make a record with you guys.” When Lenny came in, he brought in some material; these were things that he could never, ever do with Patti’s group. Y’know what I’m sayin’? This was stuff that he wanted to do. And I have to say that Keith [Streng, Fleshtones guitarist] was really generous artistically. Because he said, “Okay, Lenny. You want to play these leads?” So Keith gave Lenny the opportunity to play all this lead guitar that he’s never played before, that Patti would never let him do. So that’s a major difference from anything we’ve ever done.

BK: I have Joe Bonomo’s book Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band. It’s huge, more than four hundred pages. You seem to attract creative people. You’ve had a book written about you, and the film. People love you guys. I have my own ideas about this, but I’d like to hear yours. What do you think it is about the Fleshtones that grabs people?

PZ: If I could compliment us — which I will – I think we’re kinda fresh; we’re very real, y’know? There’s an incredible amount of energy, and enjoyment of life and music. And we’re not studious about what we do. What we do is so natural. Almost anyone could do it, in a certain way. And that’s very different from what other bands do: they make one or two albums, and [by] then everyone hates each other. They all become heroin addicts or whatever. And then they quit, y’know? But after thirty-five years, we’re still very glad of our fame: it’s still gonna happen. We’re still on the frontier.

BK: With no disrespect to your earlier material, I think you guys are at the top of your game right now.

PZ: No disrespect is taken, because I agree with you one hundred percent. With a lot of the older stuff, a lot of the charm was its amateurishness. It had an almost a childlike simplicity, you might say. Now, we’re more confident in our playing, and we’re more confident in the studio. We don’t get bamboozled by fast-talking producers, fly-by-night production deals, and dazzling high technology. Blinking lights in the studio…most of that stuff doesn’t do anything, anyhow. And a lot of what it does do is negative, as far as creating live, fresh-sounding music. You can’t get dazzled by all those blinking lights and stuff; we know how to tame that stuff, y’know?

We’re already talking about doing a newer album. But we’ll let people digest this one first. [Brooklyn Sound Solution was released on March 15 2011 -- ed.]

BK: Throughout your recorded history, you’ve been one of the few bands to largely avoid trendy production tricks; even on the 80s albums, there’s no Phil Collins bullshit gated-reverb drums on Fleshtones records. Has it been a conscious effort to avoid those kinds of things?

PZ: It’s down to an approach that doesn’t consider it. Although, yes, we’ve often had to consciously avoid it. We’ve had our battles with producers and engineers, sometimes to the point of violence. But that stuff has never been a part of anything we’d like. We don’t want to be responsible for recordings that don’t sound the way we like.

Of course, everyone makes mistakes. We’ve had some, some experiments that didn’t quite gel. That happens. But the fact is, I’m pretty much proud of everything we’ve ever done. And I don’t think there’s many bands that can say that: “Oh, that’s from our New Romantic period,” or something like that. Y’know what I’m sayin’? We didn’t go through a New Romantic period.

BK: Thank god!

PZ: Believe me, we were under pressure to do so. The record company was definitely pressuring us to go that way.

BK: With the hair, and the…oh, god.

PZ: “Can you guys do something with your hair or something? Dye it blond, or white, or somethin’…” I dunno.

BK: Scary.

PZ: It is scary.

BK: I know the word is a cliché, but you guys are real survivors. Why do you think you’re bigger in Europe than here in the USA?

PZ: Okay. You know, this is an interesting question, and it does have to do with the attitudes of the public. In Europe, in a lot of the countries they don’t understand they lyrics. So they’re just going on feeling. Y’know, the feeling of the music. And if they get the emotion from the feeling of the songs, then they stick with it. If they like something, they tend to like it pretty much forever.

Now, in this country — and I think it’s a great thing about this country – this is the home of rock’n’roll, and we tend to churn this stuff out. And people always want somethin’ new, right? Now, at this point, we’ve been at it thirty-five years. And we did go through a phase of some popularity in the early 80s. Those people still like us, but it’s not like we’re gonna be the new thing.

But the paradox is, ninety-nine percent of the American listening public has not been exposed to The Fleshtones, so we still could be the next new thing. At this point, we could actually be the new thing.

BK: Look at all the bands bubbling under now that clearly draw from the same well of inspiration. You guys have influenced all kinds of bands.

PZ: We’ve positively influenced all sorts of bands. I don’t even want to embarrass myself by saying it. But they’re legion. There are many artists we’ve influenced. And for the good!

BK: What do you see as the differences between playing your music to audiences now as opposed to doing so thirty-odd years ago?

PZ: Remarkably, there’s very little [difference]. Thirty-five years ago, people really didn’t know what to expect. We still get the same thing. Like last night, we were playing and a couple of kids were goin’ crazy dancing and stuff. That kind of stuff, those are good things. And those cool things don’t change. The audience may be younger or older, but they still get down. And that’s a wonderful thing.

BK: I’ll see you next week at the show.

PZ: Yes, we’ll see you next week. And all the guys in the band said to say hello. And you’d better warn the people: if they don’t come, we’re not comin’ back. [laughs] This might be their golden opportunity. This is like buying stock in GE a hundred years ago. Go to this show.

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