Archive for April, 2011

To the Lifeboats with Thomas Dolby, Part Two

Friday, April 29th, 2011

Continued from Part One…

The economics of touring the USA are – as for any musician based in the UK — daunting for Dolby. “I would love to tour in the late summer or the fall,” he says. “I’d have to figure out how to do it economically; I haven’t got a full-time band. Because of the range of music on this album, I don’t think it would be appropriate to do it solo with a rig of rack gear the way I did on my Sole Inhabitant tour. It needs real musicians. But the cost of rehearsing and then taking out four or five musicians is very high. And after a brief renaissance the last few years, the live touring business is definitely going through some hard times at the moment; it’s going through quite a recession.”

One option might be what Dolby describes as “ponying up with a similar act, doing a double bill and sharing some of the costs.” He laughs that “every week I get an offer to go off and do some eighties revival tour with ABC and A Flock of Seagulls. With all due respect, I wouldn’t touch something like that with a ten foot pole. It would be an admission of ‘All my glory days are behind me; if you want to get a few drinks in you and take a walk down Memory Lane, come to our show.’”

“All of my favorite artists transcend the era that they’re from,” Dolby observes. “You don’t really think of Kraftwerk or Van Morrison as really having a decade associated with them. I’d much rather be in that category, and I’m very proud of my new stuff. I’m not a twenty-three year old pinup these days, but I think artistically Oceanea is as good as anything I’ve ever done.”

While Dolby has been very busy with a lot of different things for the last decade — ringtone development in Silicon Valley, serving as Musical Director for the groundbreaking TED Conference – he hasn’t kept a high profile in the pop music world. His new online game The Floating City is (among its other virtues) part of a strategy to increase his profile. “It’s a creative enterprise in and of itself,” he says, “and I’ve really enjoyed building it. During those years when I was not making music, the internet came to be. And [online] groups came about on a daily basis, interpreting my lyrics, analyzing my chord sequences, and making tribute cover versions. Kind of like [I was] a dead guy who’d gone away,” he chuckles.

“It was all very amusing,” Dolby continues. “But one of the things that developed was a form of fan fiction. People would take on the names of characters from the songs. And they would write a sort of fantasy collaborative fiction, extending some of the mythology that was in the songs. I thought that was really interesting; there are a lot of cross references in the songs, and people tied together loose ends.”

“I’ve done four solo albums spread over thirty years, which is pretty sparse,” Dolby admits. “I was talking to Peter Gabriel the other day, and I told him, ‘I’m slow even by your standards!’ But there is a continuity that runs through the whole body of work. And the game that I’m building takes all of that – the characters, the place names, the mythology – and creates an alternative reality world around them. There’s a bit of a mystery, and there’s a back story that you have to discover collaboratively through exploration and problem-solving.” There’s a significant prize for the winning team. Dolby says, “I’ll do a private concert for them, at which I’ll perform the new album A Map of the Floating City in full.”

“So it’s an artistic endeavor that I take very seriously,” Dolby asserts. “On the flip side, it’s also designed as a marketing campaign. Among hardcore fans, they keep current and tend to snap up whatever I’ve done. But there’s a much larger group – maybe ten times that size – who have heard of me. Maybe they have an old record of mine in their collection, or have seen videos of mine on MTV. And the goal, really, is to convert the second group into the first group. I’m hoping that a lot of people who are not already committed fans will be attracted to the game, and that during the course of the game, they’ll fall in love with the music.”

That marketing model is akin to game-as-gateway-drug. “’Drug’ is an accurate word in some ways,” Dolby concedes. “Though some in the music industry fail to understand, I think we are drug dealers. Because until people fall in love with their music, there is no market there. There are very few people who buy stuff sight unseen. Instead, the earworm gets in their brain with a piece of music, and they’ve got to have it. That’s what a hit is, really. And that hasn’t really changed, regardless of changes in technology.”

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To the Lifeboats with Thomas Dolby, Part One

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

To many music fans, Thomas Dolby is best known as the guy with the popular early-80s MTV hit “She Blinded Me With Science.” But Dolby’s career has taken many other interesting twists and turns since then, including an extended hiatus from the music scene; that break actually found him busier than ever. He’s now at work on an ambitious new album, A Map of the Floating City, due out later this year. Related to that project are a pair of EPs and an online game.

One might consider the three-song EP Oceanea something of a teaser for Dolby’s upcoming full-length, but he argues that’s not the case: “It’s very much designed to stand on its own,” Dolby asserts. “The [upcoming] album has three continents, and each one of them has a very different flavor. So the Amerikana and Oceanea EPs are representative of those segments of the album. Hopefully the whole thing hangs together as a single piece, but there is very clearly a different atmosphere to each section.” 

The opening section of the EP’s title track employs vocal processing that is reminiscent of the popular Autotune effect. Dolby chose that texture because he believes it “makes the vocal very vulnerable. The emotional content of the lyrics is very powerful. So to hear the vocals contained like that seemed like a juxtaposition that was very interesting.”

For an artist whose early works are often pegged as electronic sounding, Dolby’s Oceanea is relatively non-electronic in its approach. “I think it’ll be seen that way,” Dolby muses. “It’s interesting, the tricks history plays.  I’ve had a few comments from people; somebody posted on my YouTube video today, ‘Thomas Dolby playing real instruments! What’s the world coming to?’ And I thought that was interesting for a number of reasons. Even going back to my first album [1982’s The Golden Age of Wireless], there were songs on there that were completely done with synths and drum machines. But there were also ballads like “Weightless,’ for example, which is a three-piece band with me on piano. Barely a synth in sight. And the whole The Flat Earth album is very organic; it’s got things like ‘I Scare Myself,’ which has got an almost lounge-y jazz feel. So I’ve always had this more atmospheric side, which I view as being very organic.”

“Like everybody else,” Dolby continues, “with a range of production techniques available to you, you try and use the best of all worlds. But to me the distinction is that music that gets the label ‘electronic’ likes machines to sound like machines. It has a fondness for the quirks of a machine playing music versus a human playing. And in most cases — even when I’m using electronics – I’ve always used them in an electronic way.”

“There are certainly exceptions,” he admits. “’She Blinded Me With Science’ is almost a lampoon of that sort of approach. But that was almost a one-off. In a lot of cases I don’t think I am very electronic. And I think that on Oceanea, you’d almost have a hard time picking out the electronics in there. The song ‘Simone’ has a Theremin, and things like that, but they’re fairly few and far between.” (Speaking of Theremins, the instrument used on “Simone” is a rare vintage RCA model belonging to Bruce Wooley; Dolby notes that it’s one of few with a built-in speaker.)

Dolby explains that the Latin musical flavor of “Simone” serves the song’s story, one of “a woman escaping her rather grim Ohio situation. And we assume a partner who is not sympathetic. It’s a bit like the film Shirley Valentine; a bored housewife leaves her husband and goes off. But in this case it turns out to be bittersweet: she gets there and has the drink with the umbrella in it, and the samba music’s playing, and the waves are crashing on the beach. Suddenly she says, ‘My god, what have I done?’”

“I love to use musical idioms like that to illustrate parts of a story,” Dolby says. “In ‘To the Lifeboats,’ you’ve got two acoustic guitars, and organ and some congas playing the verses. Then it gets to the end of the second verse — ‘There are no fuckin’ lifeboats’ – and suddenly a full-on grunge band comes in. The lyrics go, ‘There’s a freak storm blowing in,’ and there’s these massed Def Leppard-type backing vocals. Then it blows over; it’s like a squall at sea. You return to calm, but a sense of uncertainty and resignation remains.” He adds with a hearty laugh, “It would be very challenging in a live setting. You’d need a serious stomp-box. But we’ll figure out a way to do it, I expect.”

“To the Lifeboats” has a heartbreaking atmosphere, but Dolby says that the finished song developed over time. “When I came up with the verse, I didn’t have any lyrics for it. I sent a very rough version of it to Paddy McAloon [Prefab Sprout] because I was thinking about seeing if he wanted to co-write it with me. He wrote back to me, ‘I don’t know; nothing springs out at me. It doesn’t have a bridge, does it? It’s just the same melody going ‘round and round.’” Dolby chuckles good-naturedly. “I thought, ‘Screw you, Paddy!’”


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Coming Attractions: The New Mastersounds

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

I don’t ever want to miss an opportunity to encourage people to check out The New Mastersounds. Whatever you’re into — rock, jazz, instrumental, jam bands — this UK aggregation deserves a listen. Readers in or close to Asheville NC have an ideal opportunity to see the group live this coming Friday (April 29) at Pisgah Brewing in nearby Swannanoa. While you anticipate that sure-to-be-splendid show, check out my interview with the band. And below is a widget-thingie that’ll let you download a free track from the band. See you at the show.

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Album Review: Ian Moore and the Lossy Coils – El Sonido Nuevo

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

When a song kicks off sounding very much like Eddie Cochran’s “Somethin’ Else,” it gets my attention. And then when I discover that the song is instead an original — but one with the word “Secondhand” in its title — I’m amused and intrigued. Ian Moore and the Lossy Coils don’t milk that particular melody on “Secondhand Store.’” In fact the song features twin-lead vocals that feel more like Rockpile. And that rock-rootsy approach is what’s on order on El Sonido Nuevo, twelve tracks of straight-ahead, highly tuneful rock.

The slashing, martial beat of “Tap the Till” draws inspiration from the Kinks and the Clash; a subtle finger-snapping middle eight and some deft and delicate piano makes it something special. Guitarist Moore shares vocals with bassist Matt Harris; the tight yet full sound of this (occasionally augmented) trio is well-represented on the songs.

The songwriting is strong throughout the record; well-thought-out melodies feature subtle chord changes beneath the earnest and appealing vocal lines. The clean, clear aesthetic of the record gives it a feel similar to the first Marshall Crenshaw album (and one can’t do much better than that). “Belle, My Butterfly” has some jangling guitar figures (think of The Beatles’ “If I Needed Someone”) with a dramatic surf-guitar lick.

If Nick Lowe were from Texas and dialed back his wry sense of humor, he might sound like Ian Moore. At least on some songs; “”Silver Sunshine” has a stacked vocal harmony intro that’s closer (but not too close) to Brian Wilson. While melody is always out front on El Sonido Nuevo, Moore deftly mixes in home gutsy guitar work; a crunchy electric guitar riff is the basis of “Salt Mines.”  On “The Levees” Moore channels Van Morrison through a rock sensibility.

The production is intentionally very dry; there’s almost no reverb on this record. The result is an intimate feel, one more akin to having Ian Moore and the Lossy Coils in your living room than in the club down the street. That approach serves the trio well; theirs is an artifice-free, no-bullshit sonic approach. “Look Inside” incessantly fiddles around with the beat: it’s a great listen, but dancers are advised to avoid that track.

On some level it’s probably an in-joke, but Moore bookends El Sonido Nuevo with another musical cop. Having started off with a fifties rock riff, he closes the record with a track called “Sad Affair.” Both in melody and lyric, it’s, um, let’s say inspired by the heartbreakingly majestic “Holocaust” from Big Star’s Third. But as the saying goes, if you’re gonna steal, steal big.

That said, it’s a lovely song. And when a singer/writer/performer turns in an album filled with as many strong tracks as are found on El Sonido Nuevo, they deserve a pass if they nick from Eddie Cochran and Alex Chilton on a track or two.

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Album Review: The Bewitched Hands – Birds & Drums

Monday, April 25th, 2011

The idea of a songwriters’ collective has always fascinated me. Band dynamics being what they are, most groups have only one songwriter; the alternative is prone to the “too many cooks” scenario. Aggregations that have great potential (on paper at least) often flame out due to clashes of egos, or a general imbalance of creativity. The Grays are a good example of this.

Moreover, most groups would be happy to have even one decent songwriter (or singer, for that matter). Having more than one almost seems greedy. So when a group comes along that seems to make the songwriting collective concept work, I sit up and take notice.

The Bewitched Hands are a six-piece group from France. Their album Birds & Drums offers thirteen tracks that are varied in style and delivery, yet they hold together as a cohesive whole. “Happy With You” has a gauzy, dreamy jangling feel halfway between  Crowded House and The Polyphonic Spree. Earnest acoustic guitars give way to a Revolver-styled backwards guitar solo. And impressive dynamics keep the listener on the endge of their seat; rarely has a band done so much with what’s essentially a tow-chord song. It’s a brilliant album opener that sets the tone for what’s to come.

The title track is built atop a clip-clop rhythm; its call-and response vocal arrangement suggests a more accessible (and better-sung) rethinking of the Velvet Underground’s “After Hours.”

Heavily French-accented vocals reminiscent of (of all people) Feargal Sharkey are a centerpiece of “Underwear,” a song that weds a Kinksy “Sunny Afternoon” aesthetic to a thickly chorded powerpop vibe; like most of the songs on Birds & Drums, it features a surfeit of good musical ideas. “So Cool” (featuring the same singer; the liner notes don’t indicate who’s who, or who does what) straddles a poppy feel with a wide-eyed, manic, punky delivery.

“Cold” is a speedy tune that wouldn’t be completely out of place on a Hüsker Dü record; using an approach similar to that of Bob Mould, it yelps and pummels along yet bolts the whole affair onto a catchy pop melody. “Work” goes somewhere else entirely: its stuttering vocal line calls to mind Shelleyan Orphan or Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, and its minimalist, celestial instrumentation reinforces that effect. Yet it doesn’t sound dated.

The Bewitched Hands are all over the place musically:  “Out of Myself” sounds like a campfire version of The Police. Well, if the campfire had a Hammond organ. “Kings Crown” has a bouncy, insistent rhythm that could have worked well back when MTV showed music videos. But again, though there’s a vaguely early 80s vibe to may of the songs on Birds & Drums, the record is decidedly non-retro.

Though there’s a strong pop sensibility throughout the disc, the group rocks as often as not. “2 4 Get” is a prime example of The Bewitched Hands’ propensity toward rockiness. But “Staying Around” goes as far away from that approach as possible; its smoky and vulnerable vibe is a counterpoint to the harder-edged moments on the record. And that contrast is a big part of Birds & Drums’ effectiveness as a whole. “Sahara Dream” calls to mind a stripped-down (yet still melodramatic) Phil Spector arrangement.

For listeners who like their pop clever and with some teeth, and who welcome stylistic variety, Birds & Drums is a quality example of all of those attributes.

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Bootleg Bin: Teenage Fanclub – Live at the 13th Note w/Alex Chilton 04-08-93

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

Here’s a recipe for success. Take an American 70s cult icon, one notorious for erratic performances, and add a healthy dose of one Scottish revivalist pop band that mixes equal parts noise, distortion and ethereal harmonies. What do you get? Well, you could get a trainwreck. But in this case you get Alex Chilton, former frontman of 60s poppers The Box Tops, and (more importantly) leader of mega-influential-but-didn’t sell 70s legends Big Star, onstage this night with Teenage Fanclub. Recorded and broadcast for the Scottish BBC, this 1993 set is really a Chilton showcase. The Fannies know their Big Star, and run through great tracks like “September Gurls” and Chilton’s “Free Again” with relish. In doing so they make a good case for serving as the new Big Star, but in the end Chilton chose another group of 60s pop fanatics (The Posies) for that role.

Chilton (who sadly passed away in 2010) is at the peak of his powers this night, and actually seems to be enjoying himself (not a given when speaking of Chilton performances, it must be noted). Ad the guys in TFC seem about to bust for all the fun they’re having, freed for the evening from purveying their own ace tunes.

The set is all over the map stylewise — covering everything from the Joe Meek production “Telstar” to early Frank Zappa — and that’s a good thing. Meanwhile, as a neat bonus, “The Alex Chilton Trio” comes back onstage and plays a half-dozen cocktail-jazz and retropop numbers in the style of Chilton’s then-current release, Clichés. An eclectic set from an artist known far and wide for his eclecticism. All in all, a transcendent set. Note: there circulates a wonderful set of unreleased studio sessions with Alex and TFC that is well worthwhile, but it’s impossibly rare. This live set, however, can be found fairly easily if one knows where to look.

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DVD Review: Derailroaded – Inside the Mind of Larry “Wild Man” Fischer

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

I approached this one with great trepidation. In today’s world where postmodern irony is bought and sold like any other commodity – witness the plethora of so-called “ironic” T-shirts and fedoras at many concerts – I had some concerns that Derailroaded: Inside the Mind of Larry “Wild Man” Fischer might be an exploito-fest of this troubled soul.

Luckily, my worries would prove to be unfounded. Filmmakers Josh Rubin and Jeremy Lubin (“The Ubin Twinz”) have brought a sensitive and penetrating approach to their subject. Similar in more than a few ways to You’re Gonna Miss Me, the 2005 film about another outsider (Roky Erickson), Derailroaded presents a balanced portrait of an unbalanced individual, in this case Larry “Wild Man” Fischer.

Drawing upon interviews with those closest (or as close as one can safely get) to him, the film includes interviews with Barnes & Barnes (aka Robert Haimer and Lost in Space star Bill Mumy), Frank Zappa’s widow Gail, Barry Hansen (aka Doctor Demento), “Weird” Al Yankovic and a select few others. There’s also plenty of modern-day footage (you can’t exactly call them interviews) with Larry Fischer himself, plus some scenes featuring his elder brother, aunt and cousin. Those family scenes are ultimately sad for a variety of reasons that the filmmakers make clear, but they manage to do so in a subtle, understated way.

Fischer gained his fame (notoriety might be a better word) as a street performer in late-sixties Hollywood; he’d cajole passersby to let him sing them a song for a dime. Fischer would compose a song right on the spot. His delivery might strictly be termed a cappella, but “unaccompanied” might be a more accurate way to describe it. His yelping, declamatory style was (and is) of the sort that causes most people to cross the street so as to keep a safe distance.

As the film unfolds, a number of people (musicologists, psychiatrists, DEVO’s Mark Mothersbaugh, outsider music expert Irwin Chusid) all weigh in to assert that Fischer is a true — if deeply flawed — talent. The uninitiated viewer will scan those faces for a trace of a smirk, a wink or other tic that gives away the it’s-all-a-big-fucking-joke attitude. But they’ll find none of that.

The reason is simple: Fischer really is a talent. While his vocal style is unabashedly grating, he sings (mostly) in tune, and he understands meter better than plenty of so-called musicians. His is a natural, savant style, and his minimalist lyrics are slice-of-life. Not your life or my life (thank goodness), but his. To laugh at him is to be callous, and to miss his particular talent. The story related in Derailroaded (the title is a neologism coined by Fischer) is a sad one; in large part because Fischer rarely got the help he needed to address his myriad issues (manic depression, bipolar disorders, paranoid schizophrenia, an occasional propensity toward violence, etc.). But what’s sad in its own way is what happened when he (in 2006 or so) finally did get that sort of help. See the film to learn that and more, including the story of Fischer’s duet with Rosemary Clooney. No, really.

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


Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker Bring Classic Albums to “Santa Cruz with Banjos”

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

Celebrated yet decidedly underground, Camper Van Beethoven released five albums in the latter half of the 1980s. Quite unlike the prevailing styles of that era, Camper developed a wry, intelligent mélange of musical styles that drew from places both familiar and wholly unexpected. The group’s commercial height was 1988’s Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart (the title is a nod to Patti Hearst), but that album only reached the lower rungs of Billboard’s 200 chart.  Their finest effort was 1989’s Key Lime Pie; it included (as per the group’s standard approach) one left-field cover, in this case a reading of Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men.” Camper was always – and deservedly so — a critics’ darling; they were a cult favorite with a rabid if smallish fan base. Notwithstanding some regroupings (more on which forthwith) the band folded at the end of the 80s.

Bandleader/guitarist David Lowery then applied his musical vision to a slightly more commercial enterprise called Cracker. Musically more straightforward but lyrically every bit the equal of Camper, Cracker would enjoy more chart success. The group’s second album Kerosene Hat remains their most well-known release, though all of the group’s albums are held in high regard by most critics. Several songs of note appeared on Kerosene Hat: “Low” and “Get Off This” were charting singles, and the unlisted track “Eurotrash Girl” was a favorite of (what was then called) modern rock radio. Cracker never exactly broke up, but the spaces between album releases often extended to a few years.

Both groups have resurfaced — with personnel overlaps – in the 21st century, and in 2011 a tandem tour was announced. Following a popular modern-day tradition of performing entire albums start to finish (see also: Brian Wilson, Arthur Lee, Todd Rundgren, Cheap Trick, The Church, etc.). Camper Van Beethoven is performing Key Lime Pie, and Cracker is bringing the complete Kerosene Hat to the stage. Clearly the bands have a good amount of faith in the strength of each of these albums to mount such a production. “If it were 1988 or 1989 now,” Lowery observes, “people would be most familiar with ‘Low.’ But there’s a whole history with these bands now – and it’s been so many years since we had those hits – that most people who’ll come to the show are familiar with the whole albums. People who follow us are,” he chuckles, “way past the notion of hits.” Lowery says that “with these bands, it’s all about the album cuts. Not only did Kerosene Hat have hit singles, it sold over a million copies. And it continues to sell; it’s what the music business calls a catalog item.”

When Cracker performs Kerosene Hat live, the arrangements hew pretty closely to the studio versions. “Cracker, especially with that album, largely recorded live in the studio, Lowery explains. “So the way we recorded the songs is the way we’d play them live.” And that studio approach was largely free from the sort of sonic gimmicks and production tricks that might have made it date poorly. Lowery cedes some of the credit for the album’s timeless sound to Donald Smith, the studio engineer who recorded the sessions. Lowery says that Smith (who passed away in 2010) “had a very organic engineering style” that he brought to his work with Cracker and other clients including Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Add to that the fact that Cracker has “never tried to be on the cusp of what’s trendy or popular,” Lowery says. “We’re aware of the past, but not slavishly devoted to it.”

Part of the motivation for the current album-onstage tours is a desire to “shake it up for the bands,” Lowery says. “Between the two bands, we’ve been around for twenty-seven years. And this is a year in which there’s not a Camper Van Beethoven or Cracker album out. So we though we’d do something special.”

When I first heard Camper Van Beethoven — especially early records like 1986’s II & III – their approach reminded me of the late 60s experimental, groundbreaking Kaleidoscope, an overlooked group that included David Lindley and Chris Darrow. Lowery admits they were “absolutely” an influence. “They were from the same area in [Santa Cruz] California where Camper became popular,” he notes. “When Camper did our first album [1985’s Telephone Free Landslide Victory], I don’t think we were clearly aware of Kaleidoscope.” He says that it was SST Records’ promotions manager Ray Farrell who first pointed out the similarities. Both groups successful brought together disparate musical styles, drawing previously undiscovered connections between them. And both managed to do it in a way that is, in Lowery’s estimation, “not dilettantish.” He characterizes the approach as “drawing out subtexts and subcurrents that have always existed.”

Beyond this tour, Lowery hopes that there will be new studio albums from Camper Van Beethoven and/or Cracker in the near future. “It’s been a while since the bands have put their noses to the grindstone,” he muses. Lowery mentions his latest solo album The Palace Guard; that record is receiving very positive critical notices as well. “It got a five-star rating in the international version of Rolling Stone,” he laughs, “but not in the U.S. edition!”

Lowery admits to a “special relationship” with Asheville NC, one of the stops on the current tour. Cracker headlined the city’s popular Bele Chere Festival in 2009, and mere weeks ago Lowery did an acoustic in-store at Asheville’s Harvest Records. Lowery recalls the first time Cracker visited Asheville; on that visit bandmate Johnny Hickman remarked to him, “Oh, I get this place: Asheville is like Santa Cruz with banjos!”

“I do in-stores in lots of places, but you don’t usually have people flowing out the door, onto the streets,” Lowery enthuses. “Asheville’s a perfect storm of roots, Americana and indie-rock stuff. And that’s Camper/Cracker, right there.”

Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker will appear at Asheville NC’s popular concert venue The Orange Peel on Thursday, May 12 2011.

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Album Review: Material Issue – International Pop Overthrow (20th Anniversary)

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

What do Valerie, Diane, Renee and Christine have in common? They’ve each got a song written about ‘em on Material Issue’s 1991 International Pop Overthrow. And those songs have something else in common: each is a near-perfect slice of that particular brand of Midwestern powerpop.

The Chicago trio released several records, but this one is their best. While the band would come to a tragic end – leader Jim Ellison would take his own life in 1996 – they left behind some exuberant music. And the title of this album was recycled and used for a most apropos purpose: an annual music festival.

International Pop Overthrow has gotten the 20th anniversary reissue treatment from UMe. The expanded reissue adds a handful of related (and worthwhile) tracks, but the original album itself contains enough pleasures all on its own. Songs like the opening number “Valerie Loves Me” display a deft balance of crunch, bounce and melody. Ted Ansani’s thick, assured bass lines and Mike Zelenko’s powerful, precise drumming provide the thundering backbeat on songs like “Chance of a Lifetime.”  And while Material Issue’s sonic delivery bears some similarities to fellow Midwesterners Cheap Trick (Ansani’s even pictured on the album cover sporting an eight-string bass), Ellison’s playfully affected faux-British vocalizing gives the trio a distinctive sound all its own.

It’s not all punch and drive on IPO; the lyrics and arrangement on “A Very Good Idea” and “This Letter” show a sensitive, heartbreaking side to Ellison’s songwriting. (The latter sounds a lot like Cheap Trick’s “Voices,” by the way.) A lyrical turn like his achingly-delivered “Oh yes it’s me / I’m drivin’ past your house again” will likely strike a lump-in-the-throat chord with anyone who’s ever been a typical teenage male.

But the band balances the pathos of teenage heartbreak with arena-sized anthemic rockers like “Crazy” and “This Far Before.” Storytelling that aims for a Dylan/Springsteen style is on the menu in “Trouble,” and a jangling, countryish vibe is served up on “Very First Lie.”  The quality never flags on International Pop Overthrow, and the original album remains an essential part of any powerpop collection. They’d continue their girl-centric lyrical approach with “The Problem With Jill” (on the compilation Yellow Pills #3) and a cover of The Green Pajamas’ “Kim the Waitress,” but International Pop Overthrow is Material Issue at their apex.

The 20th anniversary reissue brings together some interesting bonus tracks. Among these is a note-for-note recreation of Thin Lizzy’s epic “Cowboy Song” (from the rare promo-only Eleven Supersonic Hit Explosions). At first bluish that might seem a stylistic left-turn, but Ellison’s occasional ambitious lyrical concerns mean that it’s actually a fitting choice. The band is firing on all cylinders, capturing all the power and nuance of the original, right down to the (overdubbed) guitar duel.

A cover of The Sweet’s “Blockbuster” suggests – in case you somehow missed it — that the early 70s were an influential musical period for the guys in Material Issue. They absolutely nail the over-the-top vocals on this one. “Echo Beach” (an original, not a cover of the Martha and the Muffins song) has a propulsive, jangling arrangement that feels like Katrina and the Waves wearing Shoes. If that sounds like bliss to you, well, you need this.)

What sounds initially like a live version of “Very First Lie” quickly turns into a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” given a decidedly Material Issue-styled reinvention. Material Issue’s “Sixteen Tambourines” (from a 1988 CMJ Sampler) shows that the band had fairly well nailed their sound years before the International Pop Overthrow album. Though the other bonus tracks are good, they sound like almost-worthy tracks recorded for — and ultimately pruned from — IPO.

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Concert Review: April Smith and the Great Picture Show

Monday, April 18th, 2011

If you’ve attended even a few live shows in your lifetime, you’re probably familiar with the particular plight of the opening act. Often added to the bill by the record company, this hapless aggregation suffers the ignominy of performing before a crowd who – let’s be honest — came to see somebody else. Back in the heyday of arena rock shows, I remember that it was something of a running joke: the biggest applause line of the opener’s set was always, “This is our last number.” Poor bastards. As often as not, they would play their set with all the house lights up, as disinterested concertgoers milled about, finding their seats.

Sometimes it’s better than all that. Sometimes some actual thought is put into the idea of what act should be paired with the headliner. While nobody wants to see a lesser version of the main attraction, if a complementary style can be presented, everybody wins.

Everybody won a few nights ago at Asheville NC’s Orange Peel. The headliner was the high-energy neo-soul/r&b group Fitz & the Tantrums, and they put on a stellar, ecstatically-received show. They, in fact, had been in town not long before as an opening act themselves, warming up an Orange Peel crowd before Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings took the stage.

But on this night — the second night of the pairing — the opener was April Smith and the Great Picture Show. Having read over their press material ahead of time – but, notably, not having had a chance to listen to any of the music –  I wasn’t at all sure what I’d be hearing. To be sure there were, from my standpoint, some red flags. The press kit made note of Smith’s love of Tom Waits and old-timey music. The photos showed Smith in a frilly skirt, and the band members in suits sans jackets, giving them a decidedly vaudevillian air. Even more troubling, pictured instruments included accordion and banjo.

I need not have worried. True, when the band took the stage, they looked very much like their press photos. But from the moment they counted in their first number, it was clear that their show was no gimmicky retro shtick. The most remarkable quality of the group – and there were many remarkable qualities – was Smith’s voice. Similar in texture and tone to KT Tunstall, April Smith has one incredible set of pipes. Her voice projects right through the amplified instrumentation, and she displays amazing control and energy. She can hold a high note at full volume for a pretty long time, and she writes songs that showcase that talent.

Yes, there was accordion, played alternately by various members of the group (including drummer Nick D’Agostino!). But there was also some rocking guitar (either a Fender Jazzmaster or Mustang; I was too far away to tell for certain) from Marty O’Kane. He also switched off on keyboards. Steve Purpuri alternated between electric and standup bass, and his doing so added some warm, varied tone coloring to the songs. While Smith’s songs definitely had a showy Americana vibe to them, they also rocked. The songs were in turn wry, torchy, swinging, playful, moving and rocking. The set list – drawing mostly on numbers from the group’s Songs for a Sinking Ship — displayed what one might call a varied consistency: every song had its own identity and feel, but all worked well in context and none seemed to blur into another. When the band inserted a bit of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” into the middle of another song, it actually worked.

All too often the crowd ignores the opening act. But April Smith and the Great Picture Show won this crowd over quickly; the band had the good fortune this night of a crowd that showed up early, so they played to a nearly-full room. The crowd loved it, giving each song an enthusiastic, cheering response. In the end, they will go down in my own personal history as one of the best opening acts I’ve witnessed.

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