Archive for May, 2011

Album Review: Dirty Water 2 – More Birth of Punk Attitude

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

It wasn’t very long ago at all that Year Zero released the excellent compilation Dirty Water: The Birth of Punk Attitude. Curated by Kris Needs, the set took a quite liberal approach to defining punk, and made a case for its unique point of view through careful (though seemingly random) sequencing and informative liner notes.

So here we are with Dirty Water 2: More Birth of Punk Attitude. Once again Kris Needs goes to the well and comes back with an assortment (and I do mean assortment) of goodies. A few of the selections will seem ever-so-slightly redundant to collectors of other essential compilations, what with inclusion of such tracks as the early Captain Beefheart gem “Zig Zag Wanderer” and the Misunderstood’s “Children of the Sun,” both found on the Nuggets compilations.

But for every (relatively) well-known track there are some really left-field choices, some obscurities. The recently-unearthed Death makes a return appearance, but then so does Dizzy Gillespie. On paper, putting his “Bebop” on a punk collection seems incongruous; the lightning jazz guitar runs have little in common with what most listeners would consider punk. But Kris Needs’ concept of punk has less to do with how a song sounds and more with its outsider qualities. If it’s groundbreaking, if it defies the rules, then it’s a candidate for the punk label.

Some usual suspects are here: Suicide, Velvet Underground, Bowie, Mott the Hoople, MC5. But there are also true outsiders who enjoyed lower profiles. The United States of America’s “Hard Coming Love” is here in all its oscillating glory. Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” influences many a punk band (not just the Clash) so its inclusion makes some sense. Woody Guthrie? The Silhouettes? Sure, if you accept Needs’ basic concept. Neither of those artists’ tracks on this set is musically outside the norm, but in these cases, it’s their lyrical content that merits their inclusion.

There’s some noise-rock here, some folk-punk, some proto-metal, some early powerpop (Big Star, Flamin Groovies). And there’s the Grand-Funk-meets-The Mothers of the Edgar Broughton Band’s “Out Demons Out.”  Taken as a whole this set isn’t quite the equal of the first volume – too many acts reappear, and do we really need Bowie’s “Suffragette City” on a compilation? – but it’s at once both a compelling and uncomfortable listen. And that’s precisely the point.

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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.

 

Album Review: The Paperhead

Monday, May 30th, 2011

Lots of artists have jumped on the retro-psych bandwagon over the years. And as many have jumped back off again. Still, the list of groups who effectively conjured the vibe of the Byrds, Moby Grape and the Beatles does include some interesting names. In the 80s, Rain Parade did a fine job of updating the sound for that era. And the Brian Jones Massacre has (among other things) made a career out of deconstructing and reconstructing the lysergic spin of Satanic Majesties-era Stones.

The Paperhead are three teenagers from Nashville. That’s not the first place (or age) you’d look for the latest spin through fuzzy, backwards guitars and cymbal crashes, but it’s where you should look. The trio’s self-titled album kicks off with “Let Me Know,” which truly does sound like laid-back, droning-yet-melodic track from psych’s golden era.  “Except From Simon’s 1” sounds like a demo from the A Saucerful of Secrets sessions.

“Evergreen Tangerine” mixes in some folk to the jangle, hitting a sweet spot reminiscent of the criminally-ignored Clouded Staircase from like-minded act Starling Electric. That it goes nowhere musically makes it not the slightest bit less wonderful. The fuzzy throb of “Back to Those Days” reminds one of the Black Angels at their most tuneful.

“Can’t Keep My Eyes Open” could be slipped onto one of the collector-curated U-SPACES sets, and no one would be the wiser. Flittering ring oscillators and whatnot give just the right spacey feel, and a Monkees-ish guitar riff fits nicely alongside a shimmering combo organ wash. Are we sure these kids did this themselves, or is this the Electric Prunes masquerading as teens?

“Easy Living” is (perhaps thankfully) not a Uriah Heep cover. It’s a track where nearly everything except the vocal runs in reverse. Best experienced in a darkened room lit only by a lava lamp, it would seem all but impossible to pull off onstage. “Do You Ever Think of Me?” sounds — likely by design – uncannily like a Syd Barrett solo track.

The short track “Except From Simon’s 2” will make listeners – at least the ones who’ve made it this far and dig this style – want to hear the entire piece (assuming it exists). It’s a one-chord psych jam, yet it’s full of texture. “Getting Older” – a very brief cut — evokes Mass in F Minor-era faux-Electric Prunes.

On “Come Again” Paperhead conjures up bad-trip “We Love You” era Stones. Based mostly around acoustic guitar and tambourine, electric instruments wash in and out of the mix, creating a pleasantly disorienting effect. The buzzing crosstalk of “Wisdom” sounds like a link track from a film, something on the order of Quadrophenia or The Wall. Spooky and portentous of something…but what?

The Paperhead wrap up their debut with the folky, woozy campfire jangle of “He’s Mirrored.” The band sounds weary by this point, but it’s a pleasant weariness, one that leaves this listener looking forward to the follow-up.

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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.

 

Album Review: Booker T & the MGs – McLemore Avenue

Friday, May 27th, 2011

Tribute albums are a common, generally unexciting fixture of the modern music scene. The formula is, well, formulaic: round up an allstar cast of current flashes in the proverbial pan, and have them cover (generally none-too-well) the songs of a given artist. Sometimes it works well, but it’s the exception that always proves the rule.

None of this was the case way back in 1969. Organist Booker T. Jones had and idea that was well outside the box: record a reinterpretation of (most of) The Beatles’ Abbey Road, an album that had just come out to great acclaim. His group, Booker T & the MGs were (and remain) the epitome of taste and the embodiment of Stax soul. (How could they not be the latter, having played on most of it.)

Still, attempting an album that was in every way a studio creation — the Beatles long since having given up public performance – was a challenge; not everything would work. So in creating McLemore Avenue, Jones picked and chose from the original album’s tracks. He dropped a few that didn’t make sense in his perceived re-imagining of the LP, including “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” Chances are, no one minded then. Tracks like “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” translate surprisingly well to the Stax idiom; the ones left off wouldn’t have.

Abbey Road is a lot of things – almost all of them indescribably great – but one thing it isn’t is funky. But you’d never know that listening to McLemore Avenue.  The band turns many of the songs on their head, wringing out a heretofore unheard soulfulness.

Of particular interest is a strange reinvention of George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun,” included on McLemore Avenue as part of a fifteen-minute medley. Gurgling synthesizer on a Booker T & the MGs album? Well, I never! Until now, that is. Jones doesn’t once ape the melodic line of any Moog parts from the original Abbey Road, but he adds some interesting flourishes of his own. Here, the song is a keyboard showcase, serving up heaping helpings of organ (in several different textures) and some delightfully MOR-styled (yes, I meant that) piano. At point, it even swings a la the showier end of Ray Charles.

The MGs play it surprisingly straight on the “Come Together’ section of the first medley; but it’s a revelation to hear Al Jackson play the tom fills on the song; he somehow manages the feat of (a) playing just like Ringo and (b) not sounding the least bit like Ringo.

Other than the standalone “Something,” the entirety of McLemore Avenue is arranged around medleys. Overall the record is almost a Jones solo album with Al Jackson, Duck Dunn, and Steve Cropper as backing musicians. But Cropper turns in some funky, fiery fretwork, especially on the second half of “Something.” And while Jones hammers out an insistent set of piano chords, Dunn thumps some fine, atypically adventurous bass. Clearly the guys were having fun on these sessions.

There are little gems throughout the disc, but I keep coming back to Booker T. His clavinet on “You Never Give Me Your Money” is accompanied by piano and organ; typical of all the tracks, there is a lot of keyboard on this record. His dreamy organ washes on  “Sun King” are understated, elegant and punctuated perfectly by Jackson’s tom-centric drum arrangement.

The original vinyl isn’t impossible to find, but it’s not nearly as common in used record bins as other Booker T & the MGs titles. McLemore Avenue has been issued on CD no less than seven times – 1990, 1991, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007 and now 2011. But the newest reissue ups the ante by including a half dozen bonus tracks, all covers of earlier Beatles material. To be fair, if you own Stax Does the Beatles, you have three of these already, but an alternate take (previously unreleased) of “You Can’t Do That” (originally on The Beatles’ Second Album – hey: I’m an American, so that’s where it is in my collection) is a true bonus no matter how you slice it.

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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.

 

Concert Review (sorta): Garage a Trois

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

First, the bad news. I was scheduled to attend a recent local show featuring Garage a Trois. The hard-to-describe band’s sound is a heady mix of jazz, punk, rock and avant-garde/progressive sounds. I was looking forward to the show, but in the end my schedule didn’t permit me to attend the performance.

The good news is that Garage a Trois falls into that category of what is known as “taper friendly bands.” As luck would have it, the show at Pisgah Brewing as recorded by a fan; that recording was done with professional equipment, and is what tapers call a “matrix recording.” What that means, simply put, is that the recording combines multiple sources to create a well-rounded finished product. In this case the matrix was made from a careful, post-show combination of a soundboard recording and an ambient live recording. The result is super-clear and perfectly mixed, yet free of the sterility that plain old soundboard recordings can sometimes provide.

Having a well-played copy of the band’s latest album Always Be Happy But Stay Evil, I had some idea of what to expect. But live, the band is more powerful, more multidimensional. Marco Benevento’s keyboards sometimes turn out relatively conventional organ sounds, but just as often he’s getting a sound that makes you look around, asking, “Where’s that guitar I hear?” There is none to be found.

Skerik’s tenor saxophone veers too, between melodic runs and bursts of free-jazz honking. Stanton Moore is credited on the CD sleeve with “drum pummeling,” and that description sums up what he does quite well. Moore slams the skins with finesse, precision and power; inventive stuff.

While all of those guys create something quite amazing, what – for me – pushes Garage a Trois over the top is Mike Dillon’s vibraphone work. Now, vibes are not an instrument in common use in the rock idiom. Dillon’s deft command of the instrument is rooted in some tradition, yes, but mostly he plays the hell out of it, quite often accompanied by thick sheets of distortion.

The Pisgah show was billed as a record release part for the new disc, and the two-hour show featured more than half of the tracks from Always Be Happy But Stay Evil. The remainder of the set was drawn from their three earlier albums. While the first two of those discs featured the angular fretwork of Charlie Hunter (no longer with the band, he was in fact onstage at Pisgah the night before this show), the current quartet ably handles the songs without him. They’re a trilling, descending solo line midway through the night’s live rendition of “Resentment Incubator” that sounds head-spinningly like a guitar; a few bars later Benevento is soloing with slightly tweaked tone color and attack, and at this point it sounds like more traditional overdriven B3.

There are hints of Zappa (especially the late 70s/early 80s version) in the group’s work, but in general they’re a bit more accessible and straightforward than that. And while Garage a Trois does attract herbulent, noodle-dancing fans of the jam band variety, in general their songs as performed live don’t go off on exploration/extrapolations; they don’t stray mindlessly from the studio arrangements. Though they do offer enough variation – building smartly on the basic arrangements — to make a live show well worth attending.

A few left-field covers were included in the Pisgah set, making it clear that Garage a Trois aren’t narrow-minded jazzbos. John Carpenter’s “Assault on Precinct 13” closes the album, but this night the band wheeled it out mid-set. A cover of the Stooges’ “1969” is a bit less expected; with all their sax skronk, one might have more expected something off Fun House. Ween’s “It’s Gonna Be a Long Night” serves as the rocking chair for this three-song mini-set of covers.

A Garage a Trois show serves up enough funk to keep the dancers happy, enough exploratory playing to amaze  the more serious musos, and enough energy to excite the rock crowd. In short, they offered up something for nearly everyone. Few bands make the case – simply by existing — for throwing genre classifications out the window as well as do Garage a Trois. Next time they’re in town, I won’t miss them.

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God’s Gift to the Ears: Fred Pallem

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

Imagine a big band like in the old days of Glenn Miller. Now imagine that group performing — with wit and style – a set of original songs they’ve scored for a variety of films. These films are evocative of a particular style – namely, 1970s pop culture fare – and they have evocative titles like Plurabella Strikes Again, Virus From Outer Space and L’Ocean.

The thing is, these films don’t exist. Well, perhaps they do exist, but only within the fertile mind of composer, bassist and bandleader Fred Pallem. His band Le Sacre du Tympan is responsible for this collection of music on the aptly-titled new release Soundtrax. Pallem and his group deserve to be much more well-known on this side of the Atlantic. I decided to do my small part to help, while in the process getting to speak to someone whose music I admire. Here’s our recent conversation.

Bill Kopp: First, the name.  I don’t speak French, so I looked it up. “Le Sacre du Tympan” seems to translate literally as “the rite (or sacrament) of the eardrum.” That sounds to me like an idiomatic equivalent of an English expression that goes like “God’s gift to…[fill in the blank],” in this case, the ears. Is that about right?

Fred Pallem: Yeah, absolutely. You know “Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinsky, well, it’s a mix between that and “Rite of the Ear.”

BK: Your music clearly draws from a number of styles. The new Soundtrax makes this explicit, but on all the albums there’s evidence of successful cross-fertilization from a several genres. And for a “big band” you seem uniquely unafraid to display a rock influence. It’s clever, inventive music that is engaging but not highbrow. It’s accessible.

FP: From the beginning of my small career, since I wrote my first songs, I liked to mix very complex music with pop music. I like it when I’ve got a simple song with weird arrangements, and strange music with a really simple melody. I like Burt Bacharach; his music sounds very simple but it’s really very complex. Aaron Copland [is that way] too.  I like it when the music comes very easy to you, and then the more you listen to it, the more you find strange things. Strange chords, strange notes…I like it this way.

BK: Your music is like those little Russian dolls: you take it apart and there’s another inside.

FP: Russian dolls…that’s a good image.

BK: There’s an element of humor in the music. I’ve always thought that it’s relatively easy to convey humor in music when you use lyrics: you simply put in something that listeners will think is clever or amusing. But with instrumental music, it’s much more subtle. It’s harder to do, and I think.

FP: I don’t think so. Musicians like Charles Ives use lots of humor. Charlie Mingus, Duke Ellington…they use lots of humor. But sometimes when you use humor you don’t sound like a serious composer. I like to use humor in a really serious way.

BK: Of course humor is only one angle. And Soundtrax explores several. How do you go about establishing a mood in a song?

FP: It depends. For this album, I wrote a few words; you can see them in the album booklet.

BK: Yes. I laughed out loud reading that.

FP: That’s good. Sometimes I wrote a few stories like these; an image came to my mind then, and I wrote music. That’s a technique that I use, especially for this album. But it’s not really new. Arnold Schoenberg used this sometimes; it’s a way of writing music. So it’s not really new.

Sometimes I would just write an ostinato or a melody, put it on paper and leave it on my desk. And then I go back two weeks later and work on it more.

BK: The arrangements are pretty intricate, and from the clips I’ve viewed [see below], at least some of the musicians are following charts. Do the arrangements spell out every note for the players, or are they given room to improvise within a framework?

FP: Both. The structures are sometimes a bit complex. So they need the sheet music. But the more we play, the less they need these. Me [bass guitar] and the drummer [Vinz Taeger], we don’t need the sheet music.

BK: I was on vacation in Montréal in summer of 2007, and I was perhaps the only person in town who did not know the city has a huge jazz festival at that time. I was lucky enough to see Le Sacre du Tympan on two successive nights. I had never seen or heard anything like that onstage. How rare was that North American performance?

FP: That was the only one. I would like to go back; I hope, next year.

BK: So that was the only time the band has played in North America?

FP: Absolutely.

BK: I hear all manner of influences in your music. One name that comes up whenever I read about you and your music (and sadly much of it is in French, and thus of no help to me) is André Popp. In the US he is not well known; if he’s known at all it’s as the composer of “Love is Blue.” Can you tell me a bit about him specifically what inspiration you draw from his music?

FP: André wrote a masterpiece in the fifties called “Piccolo Saxo et Cie.” It’s a story about the instruments of an orchestra speaking. And it’s a way for children to learn instruments. This album was in the house when I was a kid, and I always listened to it. A lot of people who like me are forty years old now [listened to this]. One day I decided to meet him. I liked his writing and his style of arrangement because (as I mentioned before) he liked to mix complex and easy melodies. He’s really influenced by Olivier Messiaen; he learned music with him. In a simple song like “Love is Blue” you can hear strange things [similar to the style of] Messiaen. So Popp is like my musical grandfather.

BK: To me the idea of Soundtrax is a logical progression for you. I think it’s brilliant the way you have created these nonexistent films and written music evocative of the styles of films. With the packaging and the booklet, it’s a perfectly realized and executed concept. But have you done any actual soundtrack work for any real films?

FP: In France, yes. And in Las Vegas there’s a show called Crazy Horse [at the MGM Grand]. It’s a famous show in Paris; it has nude girls.

BK: It sounds good so far. Go on…

FP: I wrote music for Crazy Horse in Paris. And some of my music is playing in Crazy Horse Las Vegas. If you go to Las Vegas, just think of it. Me, I don’t like Las Vegas. But I was happy to hear my music here.

BK: Your music is not easy to find in physical format here in the USA. On Amazon, for example, import copies of the first album (2002’s Le Sacre du Tympan) are available but they are quite expensive. The next three, including Soundtrax, are unavailable. Is this due to your concentrating on Europe as a market, or lack of finding a North American distributor interested in the band’s music?

FP: Of course not! I don’t focus on Europe. It’s not easy for a band like us. If I want my album in the United States, I need to [do] concerts there. If I want to [do] concerts in the United States, you need to find my album. It’s the same in Germany, Spain, Italy, all over the world. It’s really complex. It’s not so easy. So if you know someone who is interested, I’ll be glad to meet him.

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It Would Seem That The Times Are in Fact Changing

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

If you’re a regular – or even an occasional – reader of this blog, well thank you. And if you are — and/or if you follow me on Twitter or keep up with me on Facebook – then  you probably know that a major project of mine these last few months behind the scenes has been a feature on Brotherhood, the band formed in 1967 by three ex-members of Paul Revere and the Raiders. That feature will be in print this summer in Ugly Things magazine.

Though they enjoyed very limited success, Brotherhood was in many ways a more ambitious band than the Raiders, both in their lyrical subject matter and in their musical approach. Their first album was a stylistic grab-bag that included some Sgt. Pepper influenced baroque-style pop. Their second was an off-the-wall experiment that calls to mind Frank Zappa at his freakiest. Their third is a highly charged, stripped-down power trio record.

My friend Phil Volk – “Fang” to his Raiders-era fans – has remained busy ever since Brotherhood, fronting several bands including The Great Crowd, Friendship Train, and (lately) Fang & the Gang. As it happens, Phil’s latest project is a cover of a Bob Dylan song (Dylan turns seventy today, by the way). That track – a rocking rendition of “The Times They Are A-Changing’” owes a lot stylistically to the Brotherhood sound. Not surprising, since along with Drake Levin, Phil was the prime mover of that band.

In one of those odd coincidences that life sometimes hands us, the new track — recorded over the last few months – was released the same day that Osama Bin Laden was killed in his Pakistan compound. On the disc’s liner notes, Phil describes the track as “a song for a world in turmoil.” The timeless message of the song is also very much in keeping with the Brotherhood spirit. Check it out; available at the usual outlets: iTunes, CDBaby and Amazon.

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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.

 

The Tracy Nelson Interview

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

Tracy Nelson first came to prominence with a highly regarded debut album Deep Are the Roots in 1965. Even then this white teenager from Wisconsin was covering Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.  Her subsequent recordings with Mother Earth and her solo albums presaged the country-blues-Americana movement by several years. These days her style leans even more toward the blues. Her latest album Victim of the Blues almost didn’t come out. But it did, and I got a few moments to speak with Tracy about the making of that record.

Bill Kopp: On these songs I can almost smell the sawdust on the floor. The problem I have with a lot of contemporary blues albums is that they’re too often very sterile-sounding, as if it’s a front person backed by sessioners sight-reading charts. How did you get an organic feel on these songs?

Tracy Nelson: The people who played on it, and the words I sang on it. I had the primo slide guitar player in the world, Mike Henderson, on the album. And Jimmy Pugh — who plays with Robert Cray – is just amazing. He’s not imitating Otis Spann, but he plays like that. John Gardner on drums. And Byron House plays bass on most of it. They love that kind of music. They are major session guys, but actually they don’t play this kind of stuff very much. I’ve used them in one form or another on my last few records.

And I had Reba Russell, who’s one of the greatest singers on the earth, singing backup. I used the people who I knew would bring it. And they did.

BK: Was the record performed live in the studio or was it layered?

TN: No. It wasn’t layered; you can’t get what we’re talking about that way. We tracked in Nashville, and then did most of the vocal overdubbing out here. I don’t believe we did more than two takes on any song. This is blues; everybody in there knew exactly what they were going to play, and just did. You can’t really make a mistake.

BK: If you would, tell me the story of the fire and how it affected this record.

TN: There was an electrical fire in our hundred-year-old house. The computer in which all of the files for the record were was in the studio, which is the formal dining room of the house. The firemen were wonderful; they got the computer out, but there had been a lot of smoke and so forth. We really didn’t know whether it was going to be salvageable or not.

So we backed everything up again; it had been backed up already, but that was in the room with all the smoke too.  We had done some backups of mixes on discs, but mastering from that wouldn’t have been very satisfactory. So initially we didn’t know if we still had a record.

BK: I hear all sorts of subgenres on this record. “I Know it’s a Sin” has a gospel flavor, and there are dollops of honkytonk, Chicago electric blues, New Orleans styles, etc. Do you view each of these as their own styles, or does it all sort of blur together for you?

TN: It’s my take on all those styles, those songs. I didn’t try to match the originals in any way; if I could, I might! But really, there’s no point in that.

“It’s a Sin” I’ve always loved; it’s a Jimmy Reed tune, so we did it quite a bit more rushed than he did it.

BK: I don’t think I’ve ever heard a banjolin before…

TN: Me either!

BK: …you’ve got one on the title track. It has a peculiar sound, sort of plucky and totally lacking in sustain. Where did the idea come from to use that?

TN: When I listened to the original of [Ma Rainey’s] “Victim of the Blues,” it has banjo on it. So I called Mike Henderson before the session. I know he plays some bluegrass, so I assumed he’d have a banjo. So I asked him, and he said no. I thought, “Now, where am I gonna get a banjo?”

But he said, “But I have a banjolin,” which is a combination of a banjo and a mandolin. So I said, “Cool. Bring it.” I had never heard or seen anything like it.

BK: I have a few of your vinyl albums from way back: Come See About Me, and a pair of Mother Earth albums — Satisfied and the self-titled one. What’s remarkable to me is that even though those go back in some cases more than forty years, your voice doesn’t sound all that different. Do you practice to keep your vocal instrument in shape?

TN: [hearty laughter] When I listen to those old records, it sounds to me like it’s somebody else. I had a much purer, higher tone. But I’m not unhappy with the way I sound now; my voice has just matured. But those records, it sounds to me like some little girl. I like the way I sound now, but I hear a huge difference.

I’m very protective of my throat. Partly because I’m lazy: because I know I could hurt my voice, I don’t push it very hard. I don’t work clubs where I have to do two sets a night. When I’m singing, I know — from fifty years’ experience — what’s gonna hurt my throat. I’ve never had polyps or any of those problems. I do have to warm up now before I sing, but otherwise, no, I don’t practice.

Cyndi Lauper has been beating me up for months to get some vocal lessons so I could get the high notes back; I had told her I lost some of them. And she told me, “Of course you can get them back.” And she’s right. I should do some work to get back to where I’d like to be.

BK: All eleven songs are covers; some are quite old standards, some are contemporary. They’re written by a variety of people. But I hear a common thread throughout them. I imagine you do, too. Can you comment on that?

TN: When you asked that, I thought to myself, “Oh, what is it?”

The Earl Thomas song [“Lead a Horse to Water”] and the Joe Tex song [“The Love You Save (May Be Your Own)”] and “Without Love (There is Nothing)” [originally by Irma Thomas], those three are all in an early r&b feel. The rest of them, to me, are Chicago blues songs.

When I listen to what Jimmy Pugh did on the record, it’s like a different keyboard player on every song. There’s some B3, some piano, some Wurlitzer [EP200 electric piano].

BK: I love the texture of the Wurlitzer. It always reminds me of Ray Charles.

TN: “What I’d Say” is the first song I learned on piano. I mean, I’d studied classical piano, but it did me absolutely no good. But the first song I ever sat down and learned to play, in a rock’n’roll or blues style, was that. But it has to be on Wurlitzer.

BK: How did the arrangements for the song come together: did you get together and rehearse the songs or was everything charted up for everyone?

TN: I went in and played them the [original] tracks. They pretty much knew most of the songs anyway. I know that they will play the song and do something wonderful with it. I never try to arrange for them; occasionally I might have an idea – one little thing here or there – but for the most part, that’s how we always do it.

That’s how to do it: use the great engineer, the great producer, the great players. I just sit back and sing my songs.

BK: I very much like the fact that the liner notes on Victim of the Blues give context and explanation for each of the tracks. Do you think that that background adds to listeners’ understanding and appreciation of the music?

No.

BK: Really?

TN: I did that because I was asked to. I don’t know…maybe it does [add to it] but that’s not why I did it.

We did this whole project ourselves. We cut the tracks without the aegis of a label. We presented them with the final “everything.” Including the artwork. So Mindy [Giles], my manager, asked me to write blurbs on the songs. So I did. [laughs] I always do what I’m told.

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Firesign Theatre – Box of Danger

Friday, May 20th, 2011

Here’s one you might have missed. — bk

Firesign Theatre - Box of Danger The conventional wisdom about The Who back in the 1970s–and this line of thinking was explicitly reinforced by no less than Pete Townshend himself–was that while the studio LPs were splendid, they simply couldn’t capture the energy of The Who onstage. Whether one accepts this argument, there’s a valid point to be appreciated: what The Who did onstage was certainly different than the approach they took on record. The live shows were tours de force of high-energy rock, with all of its celebratory and angsty underpinnings. The studio albums were another affair. They were deep; the power was certainly there, but in a more controlled manner.

Onstage, The Who gave off the unmistakable vibe that they could go off the rails, out of control, at any moment. In fact they occasionally did: Pete and Roger might get into onstage fisticuffs, or Keith Moon might pass out onstage, leaving the group to solicit a replacement drummer from the audience (yeah, this really happened: November 20, 1973 at San Francisco’s Cow Palace).

The live shows were meant to be experienced then and there; the albums were designed for repeated listenings. (As a hardcore aficionado of bootlegs, I don’t completely subscribe to this approach, but bear with me while I try to connect the dots.)

Firesign Theatre put out an impressive canon of comedy albums (using that term quite loosely; their material transcends comedy) during the group’s ’68-’75 heyday. From their underrated debut Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him through In the Next World You’re On Your Own, they served up their unique brand of mischief, drawing from disparate elements that included James Joyce, W.C. Fields, commercial consumer culture and hippie/counterculture tropes. Their albums feature multilayered works that stood up to repeated spins (often, no doubt those took place in sweet-smelling, smoke-filled dorm rooms). Oftentimes a joke would start in the middle of an album, and then disappear up its own sleeve in mid-punchline, only to reappear halfway through a subsequent album, buried in the dense mix. Heady stuff. Firesign Theatre’s approach was in some ways akin to the Zuckers‘ early strategy in films like Airplane! and Kentucky Fried Movie: keep throwing jokes at the audience. If they don’t like this one, they’ll like the next one. The difference being that FST’s material wasn’t laugh-out-loud; it was more of the “hmmm…” or “wow, man” variety. It was cerebral, thought-provoking stuff that drew connections where you thought none existed.

Firesign Theatre
One of the most enduring characters the group created was Nick Danger. A parody of the hard-boiled private gumshoe of the radio era, Danger and his memorable cohorts and enemies (Lt. Bradshaw, Rocky Rococo and others) engaged in rapid-fire wordplay. Listen and you’ll catch one joke, then miss the next three while you’re chewing on it. Nick Danger first appeared on the group’s second outing, the classic How Can You Be in Two Places When You’re Nowhere At All (1969). He surfaced again as a highlight of a noisy, lesser work Not Insane or Anything You Want To (1972), but that was pretty much it for the detective during the Firesign Theatre’s peak period.

But part of these one-time hippies’ ethos is recycling, so the Nick Danger character — like the group itself — never really went away. He reappeared onstage and on some smaller-label projects throughout the 70s, into the 80s and beyond to present day. All of his performances have been lovingly collected in an impressive 4CD box set from Shout! Factory. The aptly-named Box of Danger (with ace cover art from Steve Vance) bills itself as “The Complete Nick Danger Casebook,” and, well, it is. This is highly entertaining stuff.

But back, finally, to the Who parallel. The studio pieces — most specifically, the debut and “The Case of the Missing Shoe” from the eponymous 1979 EP released on the then-fledgling Rhino label — are deeply textured pieces that take the piss out of most of our entertainment conventions. They hold up well under repeated listens. The live stuff, by contrast, has the electricity of as-it-happens interplay among the players; it benefits from the audience feedback of laughs and gasps. The borderline-improvisatory nature of the material adds to the excitement, but makes it hit-or-miss. And by definition, since it’s live, it lacks the depth of the studio material.

Luckily, quantities of live and studio tracks are well-balanced on Box of Danger. As are well-known and rare material: the lions’ share of content on this set is heretofore unreleased (or previously broadcast but once). So for fans of Rocky Rococo (“at your cervix!”) and Betty Jo Bialosky (whom “everyone knew…as Nancy”), there’s a treasure trove of material here. And you can pick your poison: depending on your mood, you can opt for a studio outing like Disc 3′s “Three Faces of Al,” or enjoy a more recent broadcast from 2002 or 2005.

So take a tip from a Kopp who does: buy it now, and tell ‘em necessity sent ya.

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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.

Brotherhood: The Story Behind the Story

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

In early 2010 I got a press release from a publicist with whom I often work. Collectors’ Choice Music (as of mid 2011, a defunct label) was putting together a 3cd compilation of all the A- and B-sides from Paul Revere and the Raiders. As a huge fan of them (and that sort of straight-ahead sixties pop/rock in general) I knew right away that I would want to review the set.

So I replied, And just for the heck of it – never expecting a positive response – I inquired whether Revere or lead singer Mark Lindsay would be available for interviews. An answer in the affirmative would be highly unusual: sixties artists are only very rarely involved in the reissue of their material. So I was quite surprised when the reply came back from the publicist: “Not sure. I’ll ask.”

What happened then exceeded my greatest hopes for the project. Revere wouldn’t be available – at least in the near-term – since he was attending to family medical issues. Mark Lindsay, however, was willing to do an interview. What’s more, the bassist from the band’s most popular era (1965-67), Phil “Fang” Volk, was also keen on speaking to me. And if that wasn’t enough, Roger Hart — the band’s manager during the sixties – was also available.

That was easy, I thought. So who else might be available? Well, drummer Michael “Smitty” Smith had passed away at the beginning of the last decade, and ace guitarist Drake Levin had lost his battle with cancer mere months before I started this project. But I did some checking on my own – not through publicists or agents – and easily located Jim “Harpo” Valley, guitarist from 1967, and Keith Allison. Still active in music (as are Valley and Volk), Allison had been a Raiders co-star on Dick Clark’s Where the Action Is and joined the Raiders in ’68, remaining for several years. Both agreed to interviews.

So now I had lined up a lot of conversations. At the time, my blog got a decent amount of exposure, but I felt that this developing story deserved a wider audience. I contacted the editors of Shindig!, a London-based magazine that focuses on sixties music and related forms. I had written several pieces for them before, including a short piece on Green Fuz, a long feature on ? and the Mysterians and a cover story on Barry and The Remains. This was arguably bigger, and they agreed. The feature would get the cover of an upcoming issue, and ranks among the most popular features ever to appear in the magazine.

The resulting feature was one of my most-read pieces ever, and the entire project was a most fulfilling one. True, I didn’t get to speak to later-period Raider Freddy Weller and a few others, but other than missing out on speaking with Revere, I felt that what I got allowed me to paint a balanced picture for my readers. And in a moment of fan-boyishness, I sent my prized LP sleeve of The Spirit of ’67 on a trip around the country, getting it autographed by Lindsay, Volk and Valley. (Now framed, it hangs proudly on my living room wall.)

As it turned out, I became online friends with Ron Foos, bassist (for more than thirty years!) with the current lineup of Paul Revere and the Raiders. He was kind enough to set me and my daughter up with guest passes to a show. Thing is, the Raiders’ 2010 residency was in Branson MO, some 750 miles away from me. So I organized a pilgrimage/vacation, and we made a trip to Branson by way of (relatively nearby) Memphis, taking in Stax, Sun, and other sights in the process.

In Branson I got to meet Ron in person, and had a nice conversation with Paul Revere himself. Though not an interview-proper, it was nonetheless a delightful experience. I even got my photo taken with Revere. And since at that time my autographed LP was still making its clockwise circle across the lower 48, he was kind enough to sign another copy of The Spirit of ’67.

In my research on the Raiders, I discovered that the group’s most celebrated lineup had splintered in mid 1967, with three of the key members (bassist Volk, drummer Smith and guitarist Levin) leaving to form their own group. Called Brotherhood, the group pretty much sank without a trace in the musical marketplace of the late sixties. Their three albums had long since gone out of print, and had never been reissued on CD. But what I learned about their original goals – most of this information coming from the only surviving member of that trio, Phil Volk – suggested that the music was worth tracking down.

I remember one of the final issues of the late, lamented Musician Magazine, circa the mid 90s. “Get Ready for MP3,” one of the articles was titled. Wow: little did I know how much those portable little files would change the game. Thanks to an intrepid archivist, the three records that Brotherhood cut for RCA – 1968’s Brotherhood, 1969’s cleverly-titled Brotherhood Brotherhood and an oddball ’69 release credited to Friend Sound titled Joyride – were all available for download. This guy had ripped good quality MP3s from clean vinyl LPs. Legal? Um, no. But music wants to be free (not in the monetary sense, rather in the being-heard sense) and I found it.

And it’s good stuff. The group’s story had never been told, and what has been written about them is based largely on third-hand reports and conjecture. So — with a referral from a friend and fellow writer whose work I admire — I decided to pitch the idea of an in-depth story on Brotherhood to Mike Stax of Ugly Things Magazine. To my surprise, he knew about Brotherhood. In fact he had played a gig with Phil Volk several years ago.

 

I got busy. By now Phil was a friend of mine — the guy can talk, let me tell ya – and so when I told him my plans he was very pleased. I got in touch with Drake’s widow Sandra, and she agreed to be interviewed as well. Drake had given a few interviews over the years, but he had rarely spoken about Brotherhood; I really wanted his perspective, so his wife of thirty-plus years was the logical go-to person. I also contacted a very nice woman who was Smitty’s wife in the 70s; she didn’t have much to offer but was willing to help any way she could. Eventually Sandra put me in touch with Drake’s first wife. In the end I conducted about ten hours’ worth of interviews specifically for this project.

I was also able to draw upon my 2010 interviews with Jim Valley, and with Roger Hart. So that left only Brotherhood keyboardist Ron Collins unrepresented. I stumbled across a comment on a YouTube video suggesting that someone knew someone who knew Collins. Long story short – and I do mean long story – I eventually heard from Collins in fall 2010. He doesn’t go by the same name he used in the 60s. He initially agreed to an interview, then thought the better of it. I persisted gently but eventually gave up.

Lee Michaels’ name came up in my interviews and research. He had a big hit in 1971 with “Do You Know What I Mean,” but left the music business a few years later, and lives in relative seclusion. I knew someone who knew the keyboardist, and reached out, but got nowhere. “He’s a very private person,” I was told.

Lots of other names came up, and although I had 8000 words to work with, the core story itself is sprawling, and a lot of those names didn’t make it into the final piece. For example, Brotherhood jammed with Jimi Hendrix. That kind of thing. Very interesting tidbits that didn’t have much meat on ‘em: (“Really? Did you record any of it? Any photos?” “No.”)

There’s a lot I wasn’t able to say about the songs themselves; I tried to let the band (well, Phil) speak for the music as much as possible. Right toward the end of the project, many months having elapsed, I decided to take one more shot at Ron Collins. I advised him of the mass of research and interviews I had completed, and suggested that this was pretty much the only chance to tell his version of the story. As fascinating as the Brotherhood saga is, nobody had bothered to try and chronicle it before now, and two of the four original members have already passed away. I sent the note and forgot about it.

Over a month later I got a reply. It wasn’t the sort that invited further discussion, but he did fill in some blanks in the story, and I am grateful for his perspective. I’m a big fan of the film Citizen Kane – everything about it – and at times during this project I’ve felt like the unseen reporter (played by Alan Ladd, as a matter of fact). Never clearly seen and not part of the story itself, he’s nonetheless the glue that brings the whole thing together.

I storyboarded out the feature, assigning rough (and flexible) word counts to each of the topics I planned to cover. And then I set about writing. Surprisingly, without actually referring to that storyboard, my first draft — completed in just over 48 hours – adhered very closely to it.

My deadline isn’t for several weeks yet. At this point I’ve set it aside, and will look at it again in several days, hopefully with fresh eyes. Meanwhile, I’ve managed to collect some good images for the story; I tracked down all three LPs, so I have cover art images. I have some good photos from the Raiders project, and Phil Volk has been kind enough to supply images from his personal archive as well.

The feature will be in Issue #32 of Ugly Things, out this summer.

Late breaking news: I think I might just have located Joe Pollard, the drummer who replaced Mike “Smitty” Smith for the group’s last record, Brotherhood Brotherhood. It’s very much a “power trio” album. I’ll be interviewing him shortly and will work his perspective into the feature.

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The Cheeksters: Golden Birds Take Flight

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

Mark Casson and Shannon Hines Casson – the husband-and-wife musical team leading The Cheeksters — clearly aren’t originally from around here. Mark’s British accent and Shannon’s Memphis lilt make it clear that the pair have, like others before and after them, made a conscious decision to settle in Asheville NC. And they’ve developed the trademark Cheeksters sound by combining influences from their places of origin into something original. Still, Mark Casson chuckles, “Some would say my influences are quite obvious.”

Mark and Shannon moved from Nashville TN to Asheville in 2000; by that point the pair had already released three albums as The Cheeksters; then as now the studio version of the group features Mark (vocals, guitars, keyboard and more) and Shannon (bass guitar, vocals etc.) plus producer/engineer/multi-instrumentalist Brent Little. All of the group’s albums since 1997 have been recorded at Little’s Cream Puff Recorders in Nashville. “We feel like a lot of magic happens there, says Casson. The group’s sixth and latest long player, The Golden Birds, got official release on Saturday May 7 2011, with a release party at Lexington Avenue Brewing.

The Cheeksters sound combines elements of Memphis soul and R&B with classic Britpop stylings; imagine the Small Faces fronted by a young David Bowie and Dusty Springfield. But the group avoids stuck-in-amber retro pandering, preferring instead to focus on songcraft and straightforward, catchy arrangements. Their 2005 song “The Neighbourhood Kids” enjoyed a high profile thanks in part to its use as a soundtrack for a heavy-rotation TV commercial for Asheville’s Ananda Hair Studio.

That sort of radio-friendly approach has served The Cheeksters well; last year the title song from their 2007 album Movers and Shakers was picked up for use on a series of NFL Network commercials. Casson describes The Golden Birds as “very much in keeping what we’ve done before, but it’s the next logical step forward for us.” He believes that over the years The Cheeksters “have improved as musicians, and have got better at making records.” And while Casson might sound old-school in his description of a collection of songs as a record, in fact there are tentative plans to release the album on vinyl later this year.

“The title The Golden Birds comes from a children’s book I read,” Mark says. “When the children in the story go into a dark wood, they would hear the song of the golden birds, and be changed forever. The fantastic imagery made an impression on me.” The songs on the record are in turns melancholy and upbeat; with its riffy dialogue between electric piano and electric 12-string, “Why Don’t You” could have fit nicely on the Help! soundtrack. “Mr. Witchall” has the feel of a sunny afternoon at Piccadilly Circus. The gurgling Hammond organ and air-raid siren that anchor “The Sleepers” provide a dreamy counterpoint to bouncy, anthemic cuts like “Thrill of a Lifetime.” And on “How Do You Feel Now” Casson and band channel a slinky, soulful Motown vibe.

“There’s a lot of variety on this record,” asserts Casson. That’s evidenced by the lounge-flavored sunshine pop of “Brand New Way” and Shannon’s lead vocal spotlight “Reach You,” with its musical arrangement reminiscent of Sticky Fingers era Rolling Stones.

“I actually got to play drums on a recording for the first time ever,” Casson grins. “And Shannon came a lot more into her own on this record, too. Her bass playing really drives a lot of the songs, and she’s also featured a bit more vocally than on previous records.” In fact The Golden Birds features more Mark/Shannon unison lead vocals than the group has done in the past.

The performing lineup of The Cheeksters includes Jay Moye (guitars and keyboards) and drummer Michael Baker; for the release party the group will add Je Widenhouse from the Firecracker Jazz Band on trumpet and harmony vocals. Widenhouse’s presence will bring The Cheeksters’ onstage live sound closer to their analog, live-in-the-studio ambience. “Quite a lot of the solos on The Golden Birds are trumpet solos,” says Casson. “One conscious decision I made when making this record was to stick some different instruments on there, instead of having guitar solos all over the place. I love the sounds of flugelhorn and trumpet, and they seemed to make sense with the songs I had written.”

Internet radio station Asheville FM (ashevillefm.org) provided a live audio stream of the May 7 show. In addition to being a release party for The Golden Birds, the event also served as the unofficial 20th Anniversary gala for The Cheeksters.

An edited version of this feature appeared in the May 4 issue of Mountain Xpress.

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