Archive for July, 2011

EP Review: The Wicked Whispers – The Dark Delights of…

Friday, July 29th, 2011

Take the edge-of-macabre organ stylings of The Doors and apply it to a slowly swaying, retro-jangle with a British accent. Add some plaintive harmonies and a slightly modern sensibility a la House of Fire’s overlooked 2008 album, and what you end up with is Wicked Whispers. On their debut EP The Dark Delights of the Wicked Whispers, the group is careful not to offer up anything too new, and that will suit plenty of listeners just fine. They’re from Liverpool, but they don’t sound a whole lot like what they call “that other group” from their hometown.

There’s a dreamy, swirling ambience on all five tracks. A bit of sunshine pop creeps in, but the group’s sound remains solidly structured around the broken-chord Farfisa organ work of leader/songwriter Michael Murphy.

With a title like “Amanda Lavender” you’ll have some idea what to expect. The song gently ebbs and flows, and there are many elements here to hook the listener: the organ lick and the chorus harmonies are but two.

“House of Peppermint” kicks off sounding a bit too much like “Amanda Lavender, Part Two” with different lyrics. Same key, similar organ run. As the track unfolds, it goes some slightly different places, but one wonders if some more creative track sequencing should have been considered.

“Flying Round in Circles” changes key and time signature, thank goodness. The waltzing number has a vaguely folk-rocking edge (or, more precisely, lack of edge), not wholly unlike Fairport Convention…with a Farfisa.

On “Odyssey Mile” the band finally kicks into gear, employing a stomping beat (and even a brief bass solo line), but any potential heaviness is leavened by Murphy’s “riding on a unicorn” lyric (no, really). But befitting that other group’s legacy, the four songs on The Dark Delights of the Wicked Whispers are short and to the point. Time will tell if the band is able to expand on their approach and craft a full album’s worth of music. The style’s great and the execution is precise; it’s more variety that’s needed. Worth watching.

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Concord’s Jazzapalooza 2011, Part Two

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

Continued from Part One.

In June 2011 Concord Music Group added six more reissued jazz titles to their already vast catalog. Each features the original album (in 24-bit remastering) with the original artwork and liner notes. But each is appended with contemporary liner notes that help place the recordings in their proper historical and musical context. Lots of cool photos are included in the booklets, and all but one features at least one bonus track.

I’ve already covered the Cannonball Adderley / Bill Evans set Know What I Mean? in a separate review of its own. Another album featuring Evans is part of this latest crop of reissues. Bill Evans Trio’s 1961 album Explorations is one of the handful of studio recordings – the last, in fact — made by Evans’ first trio, the outfit featuring the transcendent work of drummer Paul Motian and Scott LaFaro. Rather than featuring original compositions, Explorations centers on giving the Trio’s reading of standards and works of their contemporaries, including Miles Davis’ “Nardis,” a personal favorite of Evans’. Four bonus tracks — two previously unreleased – up the ante.

A relatively modern recording, the 1986 album Easy Living from Ella Fitzgerald and acoustic guitarist Joe Pass also gets the Concord reissue treatment. A spare, intimate affair, Easy Living juxtaposes Pass’ gentle, precise fretwork with Ella’s expressive vocal. With nothing left to prove, both musicians are relaxed here. Still, with Fitzgerald’s intentionally varied volume, this is not background music; though it’s not a high-energy session, neither is it easily ignored. Perhaps more for fans of this particular style of laid-back (if expert) vocal jazz, Easy Living does include a pair of alternate-take bonus tracks.

The 1959 album Thelonious Alone in San Francisco is exactly as the title describes. Thelonoius Monk is seated at a piano in S.F.’s Fugazi Hall, where he runs through a set made up mostly of his own compositions. For anyone who’s ever been told that Monk’s not accessible, one listen to “Blue Monk” should set them straight. (It’s a safe bet that composer Mel Leven heard “Blue Monk” prior to writing the music for his 1961 “Cruella DeVil” from the Disney film 101 Dalmations.) Not all of the tracks are mellifluous: like many of the selections, “Ruby, My Dear” features some intentionally dissonant work from the master. But those dissonant runs are more often than not couched within melodious context; the overall effect is challenging, but worth the effort to follow. Monk can clearly be heard muttering to himself throughout the session; it’s an endearing quirk that only adds to the immediacy of the work.

Ornette Coleman’s Something Else!!!! from 1958 is a blowing, high energy session. Trumpeter Don Cherry is among Coleman’s cohorts on this nine-track reissue (with no bonus tracks, presumably because none exist). This is Coleman’s first-ever album, but clearly sounds like the work of a well-established artist. Though classified as free jazz, Something Else!!!! sounds less jarring to the ears now than it likely would have fifty-plus years ago. But the energy of a young, hungry artist comes through.

Awhile back Concord reissued a 1958 album called (Chet Baker Sings) It Could Happen to You. At that point unfamiliar with Chet Baker’s work, I approached it as primarily the work of a vocalist. Simply put, it wasn’t for me. I didn’t enjoy his (from my point of view) effeminate vocal styling, so I passed on reviewing it. Luckily for me, when Chet Baker in New York landed on my desk, I checked it out. Released the same year as It Could Happen to You, this album couldn’t be more different. In fact it swings, in places. Thanks in no small part to the ace drumming of Philly Joe Jones, the album – six longish tracks plus a bonus on this reissue – is a winner. In New York is arguably at its best when Baker is joined (on half the tracks) by tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin; the high point of these is “Hotel 49.” Paul Chambers’ sawing bass solo is jaw-dropping. On the remaining tracks, romantic mood jazz is more the order of business.

Jazz enthusiasts will want most or all of these Concord reissues for the stellar remastering, bonus tracks, and new liner notes. Those new to jazz would do well to choose any of them (based on one’s openness to a particular style of jazz) and explore from there. A newbie could do far worse than be schooled in modern jazz by keeping up with Concord.

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Concord’s Jazzapalooza 2011, Part One

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

They’re having a veritable jazzapalooza over at Concord Music Group, and we’re all invited. I try, but I can’t keep up with the amazing rush of quality reissues from the label that’s fast becoming the go-to source for thoughtful, well-put-together archival reissues.

In March 2011, Concord released four reissues; at the time I managed to review my favorite of the bunch, Sextet from Cal Tjader and Stan Getz. But another title from that bunch is equally amazing: Art Blakey’s Jazz MessengersUgetsu, recorded live at Birdland in June 1963.

When originally released, that record offered up six tracks of incendiary, as-it-happened jazz. The reissue adds four more tracks — nearly twenty more minutes of music – from the same performance. For that alone it’s worth adding to one’s collection. But even in its original form, the show itself is pretty amazing. You don’t need to be a jazz aficionado (good, because I’m not) to know by listening that the drummer was the leader of this six-piece outfit. Blakey is way out front in the swinging mix — crystal-clear as always, thanks to the redoubtable work of producer Orrin Keepnews – and that’s how it should be.

The other two March reissues are of no less historical import. Thelonious Monk’s 1957 release Monk’s Music features a septet that includes Blakey as well as tenor saxophonists John Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins. The brief opening “Abide With Me” sounds like nothing else on the album, but it’s a stunning piece of grace and beauty. After that, things get way into the swing. The compact brass section (Coltrane and Hawkins plus Ray Copeland on trumpet and Gigi Gryce on alto sax) blows in a big way, while Blakey and bassist Wilbur Ware hold down the rhythm. Everybody takes solos, of course — this is jazz — but it’s clearly Monk’s show. Occasional shouted cues only add to the excitement. Long tracks (two on the original album run around eleven minutes each) never fail to hold interest. Three bonus tracks add twenty-plus minutes of music that’s every bit the equal of the core tracks. Of those bonuses, in addition to a pair of alternate takes, there’s a thirteen-plus minute “Blues for Tomorrow” cut around the same time but not featuring Monk at all. It’s still cool.

The energy is of a decidedly different sort on Ella and Oscar, featuring Ella Fitzgerald on vocals and Oscar Peterson on piano (plus bassist Ray Brown on a few tracks. Peterson’s deft and expressive playing is delightful on its own; having the effortlessly perfect voice of Ella Fitzgerald makes it even better. Unlike the other discs mentioned, this one has four bonus tracks, none of which has seen previous release. On “Mean to Me” Peterson mines a ragtime/barrelhouse style, but that’s merely one of many tricks in his musical bag. The album is a veritable sampler of the range of both of these important artists. Norman Granz’s production is worthy of mention: turn it up on a decent stereo and close your eyes: Ella and Oscar are there with you.

But here’s what I mean about not being able to keep up: if those four March reissues weren’t enough, a mere ninety days later Concord rolled out six more. We’ll take a look at those next time.

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DVD Review: Brian Eno 1971-1977: The Man Who Fell to Earth

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

First, the bad news. The people who put out this new critical analysis/history DVD obviously spent no more than a few seconds thinking up a title. What they came up with – Brian Eno 1971-1977: The Man Who Fell to Earth – makes little sense, calls to mind a project Eno had nothing to do with, and betrays (at worst) indifference and (at best) laziness.

The good news, however, is that that’s all of the bad news. Another in the series of similarly-approached DVDs from the Sexy Intellectual people, Brian Eno 1971-1977 (yeah, that’s what we’ll call it) takes a thoughtful, thorough an intelligent look at the work of this innovative, singular and influential artist.

Eno was a major component of a number of important projects during the period discussed. The first two Roxy Music albums; a pair of records with Robert Fripp; collaborations with Cluster, Phil Manzanera’s 801, his work with David Bowie; his spearheading of the Obscure project; a one-off concert with Kevin Ayers, Nico and John Cale. Even the least worthy among these is essential.

Oh, yes: and his own albums during the period. Beginning with Here Come the Warm Jets (1973) and carrying forward with Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974), Another Green World (1975) and Before and After Science (1977), this self-described “non-musician” charted new musical territory, and produced works of lasting value. His Discreet Music (1975) was the most high-profile of the Obscure releases, and pointed the way toward his future work.

Happily, Brian Eno 1971-1977 addresses all of the above, from both a historical and critical/musicological point of view. Employing Sexy Intellectual’s now-standard approach, the DVD relies mostly upon musicians, theoreticians and critics, with the narrator moving the story along. There are even a few (well, two, if I recall) brief archical interview excerpts with the man himself.

There are copious visuals throughout the film, including that legendary Roxy Music clip from German TV; if you’ve seen it it once, you’ll remember it: Eno’s wearing a feathered jumpsuit whilst playing a Minimoog. Collaborators are also called upon to give their take on Eno; the most interesting of these is Brian Turrington, bassist for the Winkies, the group Eno enlisted for his abortive live tour to promote Here Come the Warm Jets. Percy Jones‘ reminiscences are fascinating as well; it’s a minor shame his Brand X bandmate Phil Collins couldn’t have weighed in on his experiences with Eno. One thing that comes through in all of the collaborators’ interviews: Eno is, by all accounts, a very pleasant guy to work with. How many significant artists can you say that about?

Among the more highbrow commentators, author Geeta Dayal is the most interesting and engaging (and the most down-to-earth, frankly). It’s easy to get all high-minded when it’s Eno’s work that one is speaking of, but as Brain Eno 1971-1977 makes clear, the man actually has a deeply humanistic streak, with plenty of humor to boot.

If you’ve forgotten how beautiful a work Another Green World is, the DVD will almost certainly send you scurrying back to the Eno section of your LP collection. If you’re not familiar with Eno’s work – or if you know him as that odd guy who worked with U2 and Talking Heads – this DVD is a great way to learn what exactly it was that those artists saw in him. Even with its long runtime – two and a half hours plus some brief and interesting 801-centric bonus materials – Brian Eno: 1971-1977 is highly recommended.

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EP Review: Mayer Hawthorne – Impressions

Monday, July 25th, 2011

What can I say? I’m old-school. It’s only an album if you can hear it and hold it in your hand. But modern technology being what it is, and the economics of the music industry being what they are, I do understand that there are times when a digital-only release makes economic sense for an artist. And when it’s as good as Impressions, the new EP from Mayer Hawthorne, it beats the hell out of nothing-at-all. (Hawthorne’s pretty damn old-school too, so there.)

This one’s a special treat, because it’s free. You can get it here, but if you’ll indulge me for a moment, I’ll tell you why it’s worthwhile. Then you can go get it. It will still be there; trust me.

The title of this six-song EP has nothing to do with Curtis Mayfield’s old group, though if it did, that would be pretty cool, too: Hawthorne could pull off a set of Mayfield covers just fine. But what we have instead are an eclectic clutch of covers. In the hands of Hawthorne and his band, The Isley Brothers’ “Work to Do” has Philly soul hints of Hall & Oates and the funkier end of (shudder!) The Doobie Brothers. (In concert, Hawthorne and The County actually cover “What a Fool Believes,” so the comparison is not an unfair one.)

Electronic duo Chromeo might not seem an act to turn to for a project of this sort, but Hawthorne makes “Don’t Turn the Lights On” into a slow jam: imagine Isaac Hayes’ slo-mo, extended arrangements married to a Curtis Mayfield-styled vocal, and the result is this track. It sounds a bit like early-mid 70s AM radio pop as well.

A fetching trumpet solo kicks off “You’ve got the Makings of a Lover” in style. This song sounds like a cover of one of those impossibly rare Northern Soul sides that somebody like Keb Darge might dig up. And as Hawthorne explains, it is, kind of. The Festivals were from Dallas, TX.

Another obscurity, “Fantasy Girl” finds Hawthorne employing his strong falsetto voice. The 1970s original was a demo, never properly released. Hawthorne’s arrangement owes a bit to – of all things – Steely Dan.

John Brion (the Grays) wrote “Little Person” for the film Synecdoche , NY.  (Yeah, me neither.) It’s a precious tune, and Hawthorne renders it with the right amount of subtlety. Some nice vibe work adds interest.

A one-take live-in-the-studio version of Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky” makes the point – if you hadn’t already sorted it out — that Hawthorne digs the 70s. A near note-for-note recreation of the original’s vocal part, the song features more straightforward instrumentation than the ELO original, but then you probably could have guessed that. Yes, there is some tasty Vocoder on Hawthorne’s version, and no, the original’s choir ending isn’t here.

OK, go get it. Impressions is free, and the download (along with a copy of A Strange Arrangement) should hold you over nicely until Hawthorne’s next full-length drops. Me, I’ll be seeing him at Moogfest in October.

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Album Review: Dino Valenti – Get Together

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about musical artists to whom the word mercurial applies. Rock’s history is filled with their names: Moby Grape‘s Skip Spence; Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett; Arthur Lee of Love; Brian Wilson; Phil Spector; Joe Meek; Sly Stone. The list goes on and on. What these very different artists share (or shared) was an inability on some level to reconcile their muse, their talent, with living in the day-to-day world.

I have known the name Dino Valenti for many years. His greatest claim to fame is as composer (but not most noted performer) of a song covered by many artists, most notably the Youngbloods featuring Jesse Colin Young. That song – “Get Together” was and remains a musical touchstone of the late sixties, an apt encapsulation of the good vibes ethos espoused at Woodstock (but not Altamont). Valenti also claimed to have written “Hey Joe,” which is a story in and of itself. (Short version: he didn’t write it.)

The second most notable thing about Valenti was his membership in Quicksilver Messenger Service. He either founded the band or didn’t, depending on which account you trust. During his time in QMS he wrote a number of the band’s most popular tunes, chief among them the anthemic “Fresh Air.” That song’s composition was credited to one Jesse Farrow, a factoid that leads to the third most notable thing about Valenti: his predilection toward aliases.

The man was born Chester Powers, and Mr. Powers wrote songs. So did Dino Valenti, Dino Valente and Jesse Farrow. He was also known to use the name Jackie Powers. As you might have guessed, he — whatever his name – did some time in stir. So while Valenti was talented, he was – here it is – mercurial, and his output showed that. He was a difficult artist with whom to work, by most accounts.

A well-researched biography of the man can be found in Richie Unterberger‘s essential book Urban Spacemen and Wayfaring Strangers, a tome chock full of stories not unlike Valenti’s. A folk rocker at his core, he recorded a fair amount of material over the years, but only released one proper solo abum, Dino Valente (note the spelling).

Well, as is happily so often the case, this artist had a cache of recordings that has only recently come to light. Collected on the (unimaginatively-titled) set Get Together, these recordings were made over the period 1964-1969. Sadly, there is little information as to who is backing Valenti on these assorted tracks. We know some of the people with whom we worked at various times: Wrecking Crew bassist Carol Kaye is one. But no one is sure who’s on these tracks.

Though the songs were recorded at various times in varied locations, they possess a consistency (funny word to use where Valenti’s concerned) uncharacteristic of his work as a whole. Most of the songs are built around simple arrangements that feature Valenti and his acoustic guitar; some are folk-based, and some lean more in a rock direction. Though they were never intended as such, these tracks do form a cohesive album.

It’s important not to over-hype Get Together. It’s good stuff, and would be historically relevant even if it wasn’t all that good. But when Valenti’s son Joli writes in the CD liner notes, “This selection of songs may someday be considered the greatest folk album ever recorded,” it’s time to call bullshit. Joli’s tale of the tape is an interesting one, to be sure, but the end product Get Together is not the Great Lost Folk Album.

At sixty-eight-plus minutes (not even including the bonus disc of nine more tracks), Get Together can get a little wearying. Consistency can easily veer into sameness, and on this disc it sometimes does. Valenti was not the most wide-ranging stylist when it came to songwriting or singing. But the tunes are sturdy and interesting, for the most part. A middling cover of The Allman Brothers‘ “Midnight Rider” dates from the tail-end of the period covered, since that song wasn’t even written until 1970. (The album’s subtitle is “The Lost Recordings: Pre-1970” [emphasis mine] but let’s not quibble, shall we?)

Judged for what it is, and not held to the unreasonable standard of being some sort of Holy Grail, Get Together will make a worthwhile listen for anyone interested in the folk-leaning end of the 1960s rock spectrum.

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Album Review: Night Beats

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

If your idea of a good time is tinny, fuzz-drenched garage rock in the vein of Sky Saxon and the Seeds, I’ve got a hell of a find for you. Sure, you’ll want to hold onto your old Electric Prunes LPs, but a new release – the self-titled album from Night Beats – can sit proudly alongside those garage psych nuggets of yesteryear. Hell, even the CD sleeve looks like an LP sleeve.

Hopelessly reverbed guitars are the order of the day here. Sneering vocals and a production aesthetic only a few notches above demo-quality are what you’ll find. The yelping, edge-of-dementia vocal on tracks like “Ain’t Dumbo” call to mind what Marc Bolan might have sounded like were he playing with bandmates in a garage in, say, Elgin, Illinois.

Night Beats have nailed the garage aesthetic: for all I know, they’re the tightest, most expert players on the globe. Yet somehow I doubt it. And frankly, if they were, the songs on this album would probably be less wonderful. There’s a white-guys-not-quite-getting-the-blues vibe on “Dial 666,” and it’s note-perfect: just like the Seeds tried to pull off on A Full Spoon of Seedy Blues. On “The Other Side,” they attempt what every self-respecting garage band tried in ’66: rewriting The Ventures‘ “Walk, Don’t Run.” They succeed as well as any of those guys born in 1950 did, that’s for sure. They do depart from the mid-sixties approach just a bit: the song runs seven minutes, heading into some deeply electrified proto-Blue Cheer territory toward the end. But a wailing harmonica keeps the garage vibe happening.

At its core, rock and roll is a derivative genre, so no points shall be deducted from Night Beats for conjuring up the ghosts of old. They do what they do with no discernible sense of irony, no in-it-for-the-laughs attitude. To paraphrase Mr. Lydon, they mean it, man.

There’s an ever-so-slight country stomp feel to “Useless Game,” but it’s country filtered through the garage mindset. The band careens through the song, threatening to fall apart at any moment. They never do crash, but the net effect suggests a delightfully 60s version of The Replacements. Some manic (and chaotic) lead guitar smacks (heh) of the Velvet Underground.

Talk about truth in labeling: with a title like “Dewayne’s Drone,” it’s got to be psych. And it is. Imagine a savant version of Ringo‘s drumming on “Tomorrow Never Knows” and you’ll have a sense of this song’s underpinning. The brief “Hallucinojenny” is aptly titled as well: squalls of distorted electric guitar are piled atop a boxy drum figure. It almost swings, the way that MC5 would swing. Maybe swagger is a better word.

“Ain’t a Ghost” is structured around the most elementary and insistent of drum patterns. It’s aggressive and noisy, which makes “Meet Mr. Fork” seem like a musical left turn. With its shimmering almost-in-tune jangly guitars and tambourine to propel it along, the song is the closest Night Beats come to pop a la The Byrds. There are even some (shudder!) vocal harmonies.

The opening lead guitar lick on “War Games” has a thick layer of hiss. Anywhere else this would be a problem. In the context of Night Beats, it works. The song has a vaguely “Paint It, Black” vibe. A lovely sub-raga solo and wailing, wordless vocal carries the second half of the track. The band slows things down on “High Noon Blues,” and the result is a sort of cross between 60s garage and Kerosene Hat-era Cracker.

The band is all-in for the closer “Little War in the Midwest.” Nothing musically new is on offer, but the track distills and restates the approach the preceding eleven songs have laid out. Screeches and wails, a vocal approach you’ll either love or have given up on by now; drumming that’s only slightly faster than a plod yet somehow aggressive; and impossibly atonal guitar sounds that suggest what Plastic Ono Band sounded like in Toronto after they left the stage. The second half of the track features combo organ, snare drum and backwards-masked vocal mutterings. Fun stuff.

Night Beats stay inside their particular bag for the whole of the record. If I overdubbed some surface noise and crackle, I could play you this disc and sell it to you as a lost nugget from forty-five years ago. In its own way, Night Beats is every bit as authentic a relic as (I thought) Spur of the Moments was. If you’re in the mood for some time travel, Night Beats can certainly take you there.

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R. Stevie Moore’s Hobbies Galore

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

Known primarily — when he’s known at all – as a studio rat, R. Stevie Moore has more than 400 albums to his credit. No, that’s not a typo: this underground sensation has recorded and released literally hundreds of albums – first on cassette, and then later on CDR — since 1966. Stevie takes issue with the term album, preferring to characterize his releases as “diaries of sound.” Nearly always working alone, Moore writes, records, plays and sings everything on his albums. Long before the term DIY was coined as an aesthetic for musicians, Moore crafted his endearingly oddball albums, releasing them through mail order (and later, via digital means as well). It’s no overstatement to call him the Father (or Grandfather) of DIY.

Working loosely in the pop idiom, Moore possesses a strong sense of melody; he knows how to insert hooks into his songs. But Stevie filters those songs through a skewed sensibility that ensures his sales figures won’t ever compete with those of Justin Bieber. He’s weird, but not inaccessible. No Jandek or Residents is he; at least not usually. A handful of his albums have seen mainstream release, including 1976’s Phonography, and a pair of best-of collections (2008’s Meet the R. Stevie Moore and 2009’s Me Too). But none of his songs has ever troubled the pop charts.

Moore recently left his home of thirty-plus years in New Jersey, and returned to his hometown of Nashville TN. Concurrent with – but unconnected to — that change, filmmaking student and friend Jon Demiglio approached Moore about making a documentary about the musician. One thing led to another, and New York-based Demiglio rounded up some friends and put a band together to back Moore on some live dates. Next thing they knew, they had mounted a tour, Moore’s first. “It just fell into place,” Moore says. “I didn’t seek it out.”

In 2010 Moore – via website and social media — invited fans and friends to record covers of songs from his vast catalog, planning to compile them onto a self-tribute album. The blog-based project blossomed into an eight-volume set titled Copy Me. The set includes RSM songs reinterpreted by some of his most ardent fans. That list includes Dave Gregory (XTC); Ariel Pink’s Haunted Grafitti; pop auteurs Jason Falkner and Eric Matthews; Jad Fair (Half Japanese); James Richardson (MGMT); and Penn Jillette (Penn & Teller), plus dozens of (far) lesser-known names.

“The irony is that my name has been bubbling under in the underground for decades,” Moore observes, “and now it’s shot through the roof.” In a recent New York Times interview, up-and-coming rapper/singer Theophilus London compared Moore to Brian Wilson, calling Stevie “one of my favorite writers…a genius.” For his part, London’s interviewer called Moore “this New Jersey low-fi cult musician.” They’re both right.

When Stevie landed back in Nashville, he got together with another friend and began work on (yet) another album, to be titled Advanced. Using the popular Kickstarter funding platform, Moore set out to cover the album’s recording and production costs.

Like Moore’s recording efforts, he stresses that the tour is “totally DIY. I have no booking agent, or management, or anything.” Moore met up with his new band in NYC in April, and the tour began in earnest. They’ve secured some festival shows and just lined up a tour of Europe. “The sky’s the limit,” gushes the 59-year-old Moore. Surprisingly for someone who’s made a career out of working by himself in a home studio, Moore admits that he “really like[s] living out of a suitcase.”

The band is a study in contrasts. While bassist Moore — the son of famed Nashville session bassist Bob Moore – is a longtime veteran musician proficient on all manner of instruments, he describes his three bandmates as “less than half my age.” But he insists their musical approach is “like any young band. I’m the band leader, but I’m very generous with spontaneity, whatever they feel like doing.”

“I’m a wild man onstage,” claims Moore, and there are ample YouTube clips online to prove him right. “I’m shredding my vocals more than I ever intended to, but that’s what comes out.” While the set does include a few ballads, Moore says the show “leans toward hard rock. Like my records, the show is as diverse as possible.” He adds that he often wears women’s clothes (“plus size,” he laughs) onstage. Following his winning album approach, Moore says that the show always includes “spoken word, absurdities, dada” between songs. Calling himself a “Master of Ceremonies,” Moore asserts that he wants to give “entertainment value. I don’t want to be some shoegaze band.”

But with such a massive back catalog, how does Moore pick those songs for an evening’s entertainment? “It’s all the hits,” he says, without a trace of irony.

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Album Review: Anathema – We’re Here Because We’re Here

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

I heard about this album a long time before I heard it. We’re Here Because We’re Here is the eighth studio album from UK sensation Anathema, and it was released in May 2010…in England. The disc didn’t see stateside release until a full year later. While the group’s earlier material is classified as death metal, the songs on We’re Here Because We’re Here couldn’t be farther from that style.

With a sound redolent of the more creative end of modern rock — think Porcupine Tree, The Pineapple Thief, Radiohead, Sigur Ros – crossed with the more adventurous end of (here’s that dread phrase) classic rock – think here of Pink Floyd – Anathema has crafted an enduring work that sustains itself across ten-plus songs.

Not unlike Radiohead’s OK Computer in the sense that the songs tumble into one another, creating an overall effect without always distinguishing themselves as individual tracks, We’re Here provides the sort of dramatic flourishes that will keep a first-time listener’s attention. Female harmony vocals add a warm ambience to the sweeping, amped-up-Coldplay “Summernight Horizon.”  Stuttering yet insistent drum and piano patterns anchor the tune while vocal harmonies soar above it.

“Dreaming Light” is a highly memorable song, full of drama and yearning. Vincent Cavanagh’s lovely lead vocal and an understated yet majestic melody conjures that waving-lighters-at-the-concert ambience. The track’s shimmering lead guitar is a thing of beauty, and the song begs for repeat listens.

That plaintive lead vocal and piano combination is a hallmark of We’re Here Because We’re Here, as is the female vocal harmony (courtesy of Lee Douglas). More than a mere collection of songs, the album defines a style and then delivers songs to fit it. “Everything” is only a notch less immediate a number than “Dreaming Light,” but again it blends the album’s trademark elements into something very appealing. There’s plenty of guitar here (and throughout the album), but the instrument is used more as an ambient element, providing texture more than the actual melody (piano and vocals take care of that).

The synthesizer pads, organ, ghostly guitar figures and spoken-word of “Presence” call to mind the ambience – if not the actual sound – of Wish You Were Here-era Pink Floyd. Some beautiful string work only enhances the tune, as Lee Douglas adds some spare lead vocals.

The melody of “A Simple Mistake” unfolds slowly, but once it does, it creates something quite appealing. Lee Douglas’ vocal countermelodies add a layer of subtle complexity to the song. A more progressive and harder-edged arrangement takes over for the song’s second half; somehow the transition to the chunkier delivery comes off as wholly natural.

“Get Off Get Out” stakes out a lyrical and arrangement style similar to Blackfield’s “Go to Hell,” but folds more melody into the mix. The song builds to spotlight some dramatic guitar work. “Universal” paints a sonic portrait of sadness and desolation; sweeping strings and soaring harmonies come together nicely. And like most of the tracks on We’re Here Because We’re Here, the song develops – goes somewhere – and takes the listener along.

The ambient sounds that kick off “Hindsight” again recall Pink Floyd, but not in a derivate manner. The song unfolds to reveal a soaring guitar solo of the sort one might expect from Steven Wilson or David Gilmour. It goes on and on, yet it never threatens to overstay its welcome. The song — the album’s closer – fades away, taking its weet time to do so.

Three bonus tracks are appended to the US release of We’re Here Because We’re Here. The demo mix of “Angels Walk Among Us” doesn’t sound at all unfinished, or less produced, than its official counterpart; it’s just different, and equally worthwhile. The same is true of the demo mix of “Presence.” Here the spoken word part is dialed back, and the static, Eno-esque melody is brought forward. (It’s also in a different key than the official version.) The demo mix of “A Simple Mistake” is inferior to the official version, and suggests a work in progress. It’s still nice to have, providing as it does a brief glimpse into the development of the album.

Reliably precise, warm and clear mixing from Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson no doubt makes the band-produced We’re Here Because We’re Here even better sonically that it would have otherwise been. Anyone who got on board twenty years ago when the Liverpool band debuted may well wonder what ever happened to that aggressive, angry band. The answer seems to be that they grew up. We’re Here Because We’re Here subtly incorporates some of the sensibility of Anathema’s hard-edged past into a highly melodic work that will remind older listeners of what was (and remains) so special about “album rock.”

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Album Review: Concord’s Latest “Definitive” Collections

Monday, July 18th, 2011

Concord is at it again, but this time with a bit of a twist. Drawing upon the increasingly deep catalogs under their control, the label has compiled several entries in the Definitive series. The work of artists for labels now associated with Concord have been collected to showcased with an aim toward providing comprehensive introductions and/or overviews to the work of Dave Brubeck, Albert King, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Sonny Rollins. Now in 2011, three more of these two-set compilations are being released.

The Riverside and Fantasy-era work of jazz pianist Bill Evans is a popular focus of Concord’s attention; several of his albums have been reissued with bonus track, including Waltz for Debby and his collaboration with Cannonball Adderley. The Definitive Bill Evans on Riverside and Fantasy takes a look at Evans’ work during the periods 1956-63 and 1973-77. (During the interim Evans recorded for Verve.)

Across twenty-five tracks, the genius of Evans’ influential style is on exhibit. Whether it’s an original composition such as the 1958 solo “Peace Piece” or an Evans reinterpretation of a standard (say, “Autumn Leaves” from 1959 with the acclaimed trio that included bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian), this is among the best that piano-centric jazz has on offer. Even on the pianist’s more abstract work, his ineffable sense of melody shines through.

Reliably informative liner notes from Doug Ramsey are enhanced by color reproductions of relevant album covers from Evans’ work, and track information is detailed (a hallmark of Concord reissues). For the Evans novitiate, The Definitive Bill Evans on Riverside and Fantasy is a solid entry point, one that will likely lead to further purchases. Luckily, the folks at Concord are ready to help the jazz consumer with that.

Miles Davis is a slightly tougher cat to pin down. The nature of his work changed wildly as he pushed forward and sideways in his musical explorations. The Definitive Miles Davis on Prestige centers on a relatively short timeframe: 1951-56. Davis was prolific during that five-year period, releasing more than a dozen album under his own name, not to mention working as sideman on a half dozen releases by other artists. So distilling a definitive collection down to two-plus hours of music across a pair of CDs is no easy task.

But again Concord does an admirable job. A giant in the jazz world, Davis’ stature is such that many of the selection here are obvious ones. A high proportion of the tracks on this set are taken form his Quartet and Quintet albums. As is the case on the Evans set discussed above, the Miles collection includes a sampling of both original works and interpretations of others’ music. Highlights are (of course) myriad, but two standouts among many are “’Round Midnight” from 1956 with the Modern Jazz Giants and “My Funny Valentine” from the Quintet. (Both tracks were cut in the studio on the same day – October 26, 1956 – but ended up on different LPs. The lineup differs only in the addition of tenor saxophonist Coltrane on the former.)

With a roster of players that includes Art Blakey, Coltrane, Milt Jackson, Philly Joe Jones, Monk, Max Roach and Sonny Rollins (among many others) this is a can’t-go-wrong collection. The sound is impeccable, the music is blowing, and Ashley Kahn’s liner notes provide enough details for the aficionado, balanced with enough overview for the listener less well-versed in Miles Davis.

Most of the Concord Definitive collections up to this point have focused on artists who did most of their (Concord-relevant) work in the 50s; the Albert King set of Stax material covered a later period, and part of the Brubeck set covered some 80s output. So here’s the aforementioned twist: with The Definitive Chick Corea on Stretch and Concord, the label – for the first time in its Definitive series – addresses the work of a more (chronologically) modern jazz artist.

While pianist Chick Corea had been recording from some years, he started his own label (Stretch) in 1980. The title track from his Stretch debut Tap Step is the earliest track here. It showcases one of Corea’s many talents: the ability to incorporate modern keyboard (electric pianos, clavinets and synthesizers) into modern jazz. That he does so without moving in the dreaded lite-jazz direction is a signpost of his talent. Built mostly around one chord, “Tap Steps” weaves an exciting series of melodies around that chord.

The list of players on the Corea collection is a who’s-who of modern jazz post 1980. A few names on hand include Micheal Brecker, Stanley Clarke, Béla Fleck, Steve Gadd, Airto Moreira and Pat Metheny. Nearly all of the tracks selected for the set are Corea original compositions, but some ace covers make the cut as well. A live solo version of “It Could Happen to You” shows that Corea doesn’t need electronics to make his musical points. A live piano duet with Hiromi, the Lennon/McCartney “Fool on the Hill” is nearly unrecognizable as a Beatles song for the full first of its seven minutes, but it’s an intriguing reinvention of the classic song nonetheless. Those less disposed to what detractors of some jazz might term “noodling” may be less inclined toward Corea’s acoustic piano work, finding his electronic exploration more compelling. But as with all of Concord’s Definitive sets, The Definitive Chick Corea on Stretch and Concord is a good introduction to the artist’s work.