Archive for August, 2011

CD Review: Ben Craven – Great & Terrible Potions

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

The sound of a heavy door creaking open…deliberate footsteps across a wood floor…the sound of an antique clock being wound. Those form the opening to Ben Craven’s “Diabolique,” the opening salvo on his modern progressive rock album Great & Terrible Potions.

Now, when I write “modern,” I do so referring only to the date of release. There’s little that’s modern-sounding about this album. Thundering bass lines, athletic runs across the keyboard, string arrangements that swoop and dive…those are merely some of the sonic elements at work here.

For some readers, that in itself will be recommendation enough. But for everyone else, there’s much more on offer here. Craven’s one-man-band production is a prog opus for the 21st century. With a radio-ready voice and a knack for melodies, Craven has crafted a record that can sit proudly on a shelf alongside your favorite prog classics of the 1970s.

Intrepid listeners will pick up on all manner of sonic cues strewn across Great & Terrible Potions. A bit of Emerson, Lake and Palmer here (especially in some of the lightning organ runs), a dollop of Pink Floyd there (most notably in the very David Gilmour-like soaring lead guitar lines of title track). In fact, the Floyd connection is overt: Craven notes that the instrumental track “The Conjurer” is dedicated to the memory of Richard Wright. And it’s a fitting tribute, with echoes (heh) of “The Great Gig in the Sky” and “Marooned.”

Plenty of lovely acoustic guitar picking and subtle string-and glockenspiel arrangements adorn the record. Long passages are instrumental, but plenty of vocals are woven into the mix. And on that score — as well as many others – Craven is unapologetic about writing and singing lyrics like “Fox among the flocks of Gilead” and “Essence of pixie dust helps you soar ever so high.” As he notes on his Facebook page, “Potions is dense, complicated and unashamedly pretentious — everything a good prog rock album should be!” And so it is.

Three bonus tracks show that in addition to his skills as writer, performer and producer, Ben Craven is a knowing, judicious editor. Single edits of thee of the main album’s songs show that he can join separate parts and/or pare down long tracks to create radio-ready style tracks. The single edits distill all of the tracks’ best (and hookiest) elements into three-plus minutes, and do so without robbing them of the characteristics that make them interesting.

If there’s anything disappointing about Great & Terrible Potions, it’s the double-edged sword nature of its being the creation of a sole individual. On one hand, prog fans should be thrilled that a musician working in the 21st century can produce a work of grandeur such as this all on his lonesome (and, it should be noted, without the “assistance” of a major label). On the other hand, there’s a bit of sadness that comes with the realization that there isn’t a group of four or five stringy-haired men somewhere (Brisbane, Australia, as it happens) creating this stuff, with plans to embark on a tour of world musical domination.

The packaging merits mention. It takes some serious moxie to commission Roger Dean to create your album art; choosing the artist whose work is so closely associated with Yes is simply begging to have your music compared to that of the prog-rock legends. Looking like the petrified ribcage of a colossus marooned on the Martian landscape, Dean’s painting is successful at evoking the mystical, mythical and otherworldly ambience that any progster would wish for. Dean’s distinctive lettering work only adds to the album’s similarity to the packaging of a Yes album; in fact Great & Terrible Potions looks more like a Yes record than does Yes’ own latest, Fly From Here (also sporting Dean’s artistry). As a nice bonus — and a throwback to the days when we could wrap those gatefold artworks around our head while the record spun – the tray card unfolds to reveal a 9½”x14” of Dean’s cover art.

Great & Terrible Potions aims for a wide-screen style, and delivers on it. This is music designed to be a soundtrack for visions in the listener’s head, and the slyly reverbed guitar licks in “Nobody Dies Forever” are begging for the Broccoli franchise to get their act together, film that next Bond movie and use Craven’s song as the theme. And in case anyone doubts that’s Craven’s goal here (even if he means it in half-jest), the liner notes end with a riff on a familiar end-credits message: BEN CRAVEN WILL RETURN.” Here’s looking forward to it.

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CD Review: The Blasters – Live 1986

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

Over the years, rootsy rock has had its moments on the cultural landscape. Every so often, it seems – typically when rock or pop music veers more than usual toward vapidity and lack of substance – some musicians take a look backward for inspiration, coming up with something exciting and compelling in the process.

Of course, that’s not at all true: there are always artists mining the past for influences; it’s simply that on occasion the marketplace (or the powers-that-be) decide – if briefly — to take notice.

The Stray Cats were as good as any an example of this dynamic at work. The trio took a retro approach – both visually and sonically — and subtly updated it for modern audiences. They were rewarded with a string of hits, and they rode the crest of popularity until the wave smoothed back out.

The Blasters were less stylized, but drank from a similar well of inspiration. Their brand of rock was fueled by the harder-edged end of their historical antecedents, and instead of applying a rockabilly sheen, the Blasters leaned in the direction of country and western sounds. But they did so in a way that delivered a wallop. Paving the way for future bands trading loosely in that style, the Blasters influenced acts like The Long Ryders, BoDeans, and (later) Old 97s, to name just three of many.

In possession of a less-than-accurate picture ID, I tiptoed into Atlanta’s Agora Ballroom in the very early 1980s to witness a Blasters show.  I found them raw, powerful and aggressive: they delivered a countrified sound with all of the punch of punk groups. In those days the group wasn’t especially well-known in our part of the country; I vaguely recall that they might have even been someone else’s opening act. But they delivered.

A few years later – admittedly, after I had lost track of the band — the group released its fourth album, 1985’s Hard Line. As is the case with many groups at a certain point in their career, that record represented something of a rethinking of the group’s approach. Though their previous efforts had expanded the sonic core to include additional instrumentation, Hard Line was more akin to a Blasters version of The BeatlesGet Back project: stripped-down rock and roll. Though it charted respectably (peaking at #86 on Billboard’s charts), it would be the final release from the band’s original era.

Co-founders and brothers Phil and Dave Alvin played some of their final shows together under the Blasters banner on St. Valentine’s Day 1986 in San Juan Capistrano CA. Tapes were rolling, and now – more than a quarter-century later – one of that night’s performances has been released on Rockbeat. Though unimaginatively titled, Live 1986 documents the onstage power of The Blasters.

Sounding very much like a monitor mix, Live 1986 presents Phil Alvin’s growling vocals way out front in the mix. The sound is clean and clear, but lacks the live ambience one usually finds on good live albums. Production-wise the album sounds very much of its era. Perversely, a bit of feedback now and then adds to the recording’s authenticity. In total, Live 1986 sounds a lot like the sort of 1980s mixing board tapes that have long circulated among rock fiends.

The set list on this night leans more toward Dave Alvin’s original compositions (Dave wrote ‘em, and Phil sang ‘em, y’see), but listeners unfamiliar with the Blasters catalog will have a hard time spotting which songs are Blasters originals (often sounding themselves like rethought versions of classic old songs) and which are actually well-chosen nuggets from rock’s early days. The most well-known song on the set list is a fine reading of “Mystery Train.”

Packaging on the disc is minimal: a bit of Photoshopped stock images, a press kit photo of the ‘85/’86 lineup for a cover, and a seemingly hastily-written liner note. The same level of quality control applied to the tapes (produced for this release by the Alvin brothers and liner note-writer James Austin) was not applied to the packaging: the spine credits the album to The Blaster (sic). Skip the liner notes, ignore the typos and enjoy the music.

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

CD Review: The Residents – Meet the Residents

Monday, August 29th, 2011

How to discern between worthless noise, a Dada in-joke, a piss-take on avant garde noodlings and a landmark work of enduring value? When the subject is Meet the Residents, it’s not an easy task. Even nearly four decades after its original release, this 1974 album – newly reissued on MVD – continues to confound. File under: uneasy listening.

If The Residents ever let us see their faces, they would likely continue to confuse us, not unlike the climactic scene near the end of The Prisoner miniseries in which Number Six is unmasked. Since the group is officially anonymous and never (overtly) grants interviews, listeners are left to wonder whether these guys (and/or gals; we simply don’t know) are serious or merely mucking about.

Though the combined evidence of dozens of albums suggests the former, on their first outing, listeners (however few) could be forgiven for leaning toward the latter. Opening with a deeply twisted rendering of the Nancy Sinatra hit “These Boots Are Made for Walking” (here titled simply “Boots”), the Residents destroy the song and rebuild something much odder in its place.

On hearing this album in the 70s (or any time, for that matter) it would be easy to believe that the Residents barely had any idea what they were doing. But that belief would fly in the face (or eyeball) of the genius at work across Meet the Residents. Classical influences are combined with far-flung influences. Take “Breath and Length” as one example. In under two minutes, the song features distorted guitar and something that sounds like a sample from The Barking Dogs’ “Jingle Bells.” The sound of a piano’s innards being strummed scrapes along while some female vocals trill the lyrics in an Andrews Sisters style. The word bizarre was coined to describe this music.

“Rest Aria” is built around a slightly out-of-tune parlor piano melody, played with careful and intentional near-precision. (Though it’s quite likely that the Residents’ creative process folds in the products of mistake and happenstance, nothing happens by accident on a Residents album.) The song devolves as it unwinds: other instruments pick up the theme, each in turn rendering that theme with less and less prevision. It’s akin to a lo-fi, Dada rethinking of Brian Eno’s approach on side two of Discreet Music (recorded at nearly the same time as Meet the Residents) in which he deconstructs Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major.”

Much of Meet the Residents is designed to scare away the casual listener. Certainly that’s the effect that “Skaratz” elicits over its brief 1:18 run time, featuring a spoken refrain about dirty fingernails. “Spotted Pinto Bean” offers heavily mannered female and male choruses in a call-and-response refrain, but that 1920s vibe is quickly shattered by jagged shards of noise. Listening to the song feels a bit what it might be like to walk through a carnival funhouse populated with sinister and disturbing characters; this track – perhaps more than any other on Meet the Residents – sets the tone for much of the outfit’s subsequent work.

“Infant Tango” starts out with an almost funky vibe, but quickly devolves into something indescribably unnerving. Wah-wah guitars are juxtaposed against nasal vocals and imprecise horn charts. Like many of the tracks on the disc, it has the feeling of two (or more) distinct and wholly unrelated songs being performed simultaneously.

Kings of sampling ages before the term or concept were coined, The Residents inflict their brand of terror onto the Human Beinz’ hit single “Nobody But Me” in their own “N-Er-Gee (Crisis Blues).” The sounds of (a) a woman presumably reaching orgasm and (b) explosions are somehow worked into the mix. And that’s only in the first three minutes of this extended number, which might have made a fitting soundtrack for the puking-green scenes in The Exorcist.

No easier to take now than it was on original release, Meet the Residents all but defines the love-it-or-hate-it dichotomy. But if you don’t own this album and you’re up for something really adventurous, this is just the ticket. And you can always play “Seasoned Greetings” if your holiday guests overstay their welcome.

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Hot Tuna: Forty Years On, Still Going Steady (Part Two)

Friday, August 26th, 2011

Continued from Part One

The bridging of styles between rock, blues and country is something that Hot Tuna has been about since the very beginning. Nobody called it Americana in ‘70, but that’s what it was. Noting the popularity of Americana in the 21st century, Jack laughs when I suggest that maybe popular music has finally caught up with Hot Tuna. “You guys who write about this stuff, always put labels on the music.”

“Really,” bassist Jack Casady concedes, “there’s a certain truth to your saying that Hot Tuna has always brought that music out to our audience. In the beginning, people thought that we had written these Reverend Gary Davis songs. We had to educate people: ‘These are some of the artists we listen to, and we’re going to present them in a slightly different light.’”

But in the end, Jack insists that “it’s really not as complicated as people make it out to be.” He says that “it’s fifty years later, and we’re still digging these influences, and paying tribute to the great musicians — of the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s — that we listen to.” Reflecting on the timeless nature of that music, Jack notes “the material speaks for everybody, without pigeonholing it in a political timeframe. Because, in a certain sense, politics are all the same. The struggles that people have are all the same, no matter what generation – or century — you’re from.”

He characterizes Jorma Kaukonen and himself as “explorers of these different genres. We try to inspire ourselves, and try to present things that make us want to play. We pass it on to our listeners through the means that we have: I play bass. Jorma plays guitar and sings.”

As has often been the case onstage and on record Hot Tuna is more than just Jack and Jorma. For eight years and running, Barry Mitterhoff has played mandolin with the group. Jack says that Barry “lends his ability for melody and tremendous capacity to sort through different genres of music” to Hot Tuna. “His influences only expand our world as well,” Jack says.

“For this project,” Jack says, “it was a great pleasure for me as a bass player to work on the rhythmic foundations with [drummer] Skoota Warner and Larry Campbell.” That approach, says Jack, “allowed Jorma to really concentrate on his vocal and his guitar playing.”

The harmony vocals of Teresa Williams are a key ingredient to the sound on Steady As She Goes. “I’m so happy that Larry was able to bring Teresa in,” Jack says. “And I’m happy that Jorma worked so well with her.” He makes special note of “Smokerise Journey.”  On that song, Jack’s goal was to “show my rhythm & blues roots, but at the same time, my family’s from Wheeling, West Virginia; I have that dichotomy working within me.” He recalls thinking, “I don’t want it to fall too heavily on the r&b side,” and found that Teresa’s Appalachian vocals struck just the right tone. “She’s the real deal,” Jack says.” He marvels that a song that was originally only “a verse and a chorus” ended up showcasing what he sees as “the most fun and intriguing things about working in a studio.”

Jack is especially proud of the collaborative approach employed on this album “We were old enough and – finally — mature enough to let everybody’s ideas develop. He points out Skoota Warner’s contribution: “Every song has a unique rhythm; he’s never just ‘playing along.’”

Jack’s bass playing style on the Jefferson Airplane albums of the 60s and early 70s differs greatly from his work – acoustic or electric – with Hot Tuna. “As a bass player, I’m dealing with the material; the material will dictate the style. For me, it was really great: I was fortunate enough to be thrown into a situation where I started to have to develop my own material.” He contrasts that with “otherwise having always to hear somebody else’s ideas first before you get to develop your own.”

“When I got to the Airplane,” Jack recalls, “they had all these different players and writers from different backgrounds. Jorma and I had the most in common; we had played in a lot of rhythm & blues bands, and had worked on arrangements. So when I came to work on Paul [Kantner]’s songs, or Marty [Balin]’s songs, or Grace [Slick]’s songs, it really gave me a fertile field to experiment with the bass, and to do different things.”

“I remember working on Paul’s songs,” Jack says. “Most of his are written in an anthem-like fashion; it was a really tough not to crack, trying to make those songs swing. So I’d be furiously playing along, trying to put notes together, trying to get those songs up and running, to make them move.”

“Marty was little more pop-oriented,” Jack remembers. “I’d find more of a steady groove in a lot of his songs. Grace was really interesting; she’d write a lot of her songs on the piano, and she’d use very interesting voicings. So that opened up another area of my imagination. And of course Jorma and I, because of our appreciation for playing together, we found a very cohesive combination. And then later on we developed that with Hot Tuna.”

Though there have been a number of new and archival Hot Tuna live albums, Steady As She Goes is the band’s first studio record in more than twenty years. “I think the timing is finally right,” Jack says. “We’ve had different people play with us over the years, but – from my point of view – when Skoota started playing with us a couple of years ago, I felt like I could finally move to the next level, creating good rhythm tracks.”

There’s also the fact that Jack and Jorma have stayed very busy in the interim. “Jorma and I have been playing constantly for the last twenty years as Hot Tuna. That, together with our teaching at the Fur Peace Ranch, let us know that there was something better ahead.” They were patient, waiting until the time was right, rather than “jumping into a studio a few years ago.” He admits that “both of us were really holding off; we didn’t have anything really new to say. But after a period of development – of teaching, and taking the time to assemble the right cast of characters – the timing was right.”

Speaking of those archival live releases, in 2010 Collectors’ Choice put out a whole bunch of albums featuring Jack and Jorma. In addition to the four live Jefferson Airplane sets, the label released Live at New Orleans House, a set dating from the very beginning of the band’s history. “I have some different views about this,” Jack says. “Sometimes I listen to that, and I think, ‘Boy, if I played that now, I’d play a lot less.’ But, on the other hand, I can really hear how young and aggressive we were about working on something new for us.”

Jack notes that in 1969, “There certainly weren’t many other guitar-and-bass duos. And most guitarists played in a linear fashion. They’d either play a melody line, or rhythm. Jorma’s playing certainly freed up my approach on the bass. With the thumb keeping the rhythm, the bass line along with the guitar were kind of like the two hands on a piano.” That freed Jack up to “move the bass into a different world — move the melody line – without the wind falling out of the song.” He notes that, “as young as we were, we still kept our direction.”

“Though it didn’t bring on any great record sales,” Jack wryly observes about the early string of shows, “it did begin to work on our loyal fan base. And that has passed through generations.” That thought lead Jack to reminisce even farther back. “When I was a kid — twelve, thirteen, fourteen – my father belonged to the American Jazz Society. I used to listen to all these jazz players from 20s and 30s. And I always enjoyed those small combos’ close interplay. This was done twenty, thirty years before my time; it was the fifties when I was listening to this stuff. To me, it was perfectly normal to listen to that, and to wonder about that other world. I listened to Jelly Roll Morton songs about New Orleans’ Storyville.” Jack mentions other artists – Bix Beiderbecke, Eddie Condon – and recalls that their music “struck right through me. And at the same time, I could listen to rockabilly, rhythm and blues, all kinds of other stuff.”

All of that music, he says, “has profoundly affected me. In the back of my mind, it’s influenced where I always wanted to go with Jorma. Those early recordings sound to me like the beginning of the journey that I’m still on,” he says.

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Hot Tuna: Forty Years On, Still Going Steady (Part One)

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

When lifelong friends Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen founded Hot Tuna in 1969, it looked to many observers as if the band was a busman’s holiday, a way for the pair of musicians to exercise some musical muscles that perhaps weren’t getting a full workout within the context of their other band, the Jefferson Airplane.

Any skepticism was quickly put to rest, however. From the start, Jack and Jorma were fully committed to their new project. Forty-two years, dozens of albums and thousands of live shows later, Hot Tuna is still going strong. (Save for a 1989 reunion LP, Jefferson Airplane ceased operations in 1973.)

There have long been two sides to Hot Tuna. Different yet compatible, the two approaches mostly stood apart from one another. Picking up a Hot Tuna album or seeing them in concert could reveal one of two very distinct forms: the electric and the acoustic versions of the band.

On their first LP, 1970’s Hot Tuna, Jack and Jorma presented themselves as an acoustic outfit; their approach was the (slight) updating of country blues. This live set made the point – without, it should be noted, beating listeners over the head — that there was and remains a vital connection between backwater acoustic music of the early 20th century and modern sounds.

On their second album, 1971’s First Pull Up, Then Pull Down, Hot Tuna plugged in. the results showcased that same connection as did the acoustic set, but did so using the other end of the musical spectrum. Both approaches worked.

Over the course of their many subsequent lineups, recordings and shows, Hot Tuna has managed to have it both way, though generally not at the same time. But in 2011 the group released Steady As She Goes, a record that distills everything that has come before, and still manages to sound fresh and new. For fans of both the electric and acoustic incarnations of Hot Tuna, Steady As She Goes delivers in a big way.

“The songs pretty much dictate the direction you’re going to go,” says bassist Jack Casady. Citing two ballads on Steady As She Goes – “Things That Might Have Been” and “Second Chances,” Jack notes that those songs “have that ethereal approach that makes you not want to clutter them up.” He points out that those songs’ “delicate nature” is brought out by the lyrical content, and that in the studio, “your fingers kind of tell you what to do.”

Jack recalls the development of “Things That Might Have Been.” “Jorma showed me that one when we were up in Alaska two and a half years ago. I fleshed it out and wrote the chart for it, and made a little recording, just on my iPhone.” Around that time, Hot Tuna were busy looking for a record company to release what would eventually be Steady As She Goes. “So I didn’t touch the song for a couple years, and I’m not sure Jorma worked on it, either,” Jack says. “The next time we really worked on the song was when we were in the studio. That extended time away from the song worked in their creative favor, Jack believes. “You want to be ready to apply any new ideas, without preconceptions.”

A similar approach was applied to previously-unrecorded songs that had been part of Hot Tuna’s live set. “We had been playing ‘If This is Love’ for about a year live in person,” Jack says. “But we hadn’t really worked on a tight arrangement. So when we got in the studio with [producer] Larry Campbell, we said, ‘Listen, let’s change things up between the verse. Let’s put in these little licks.’ That kind of stuff.”

The goal was to “give the songs a little more substance, particularly in the form of a CD.” Jack observes that “the things you can get away with in a live concert don’t always work quite as well on a CD.” On a recording, Jack notes that the listener’s attention span is condensed. “I liken making an album to making a movie,” Jack says. “It’s very important how you flesh out the material, how you try to be as concise as possible. You don’t need four choruses and four verse to play a solo over.” On a Hot Tuna CD, Jack says that the goal is to make the ideas succinct. “That way,” he chuckles, “you’ll hopefully have material that will stand the test of repeated playing.”

“I enjoy that studio atmosphere,” Jack says, comparing the process to the editing a good writer applies to his work. A writer “really works on how the words flow, the punctuation,” and making sure the thought is conveyed succinctly. “A studio album is done the same way. And that’s the difference between a studio record and a live album.”

Steady As She Goes features a mix of original compositions and classic old country blues numbers. Yet the transitions are seamless; the record never has a jarring change between styles. Jack credits that seamless feel to two things: the band’s longevity, and careful track sequencing. Engineer Justin Guip “just put the song sequencing up the way he heard it” in his head, Jack says. “And then after we did the basic tracks, that’s how we listened to them going forward with the project. Eventually we said, ‘You can’t mess with this; it works really well.”

The sequencing process was organic and effortless, but Jack note that all his album experiences haven’t been like that. “Believe me, in the Jefferson Airplane we went through a lot more turmoil with regard to the sequencing. But this one seemed to flow properly. It worked, so why mess with it?”

In the arc of history that is rock’n’roll, notably few musical collaborations have lasted for many years. But Jack and Jorma have been friends since school. “I was in junior high school, and Jorma was in high school, “Jack remembers. “Jorma was originally fiends with my older brother Charles ‘Chick’ Casady. I was playing guitar, and I met Jorma through Chick. We stuck up a friendship, which was kind of unusual in high school because of the age difference.”

“I had my Telecaster, and he was playing a J-45 (Gibson acoustic) and singing. So we worked up a little band together in 1958,” Jack says. He believes that their friendship is built upon that foundation, since “it was the beginning of both of our musical awakening, something that was pretty unusual for two middle-class kids.” He notes that the Casadys were a “doctor-lawyer family,” and that Jorma’s father worked for the US State Department. “It was okay for us to listen to rock’n’roll, but I’m sure our parents didn’t think we were going to make a career out of it. But in those next few years, both Jorma and I found something in music that – as it turned out — would be more true to us as a profession than anything any of our classmates had in their various professions.”


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CD Review: Jean-Luc Ponty Experience – Open Strings

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

To fans whose interest in this violinist falls anywhere short of the label hardcore, Jean-Luc Ponty is best known as either (a) the guy who worked with Frank Zappa in the late 60s/early 70s or/and (b) the guy who created a successful series of jazz/rock/pop/fusion crossover albums in the 1970s. But before either of those activities, the French fiddler was more of a straight-ahead jazz player.

Between his first time with Zappa (he would soon return) and his stint with Mahavishniu Orchestra, Ponty released a straight (if free) jazz record. On his 1972 album Open Strings (credited to the Jean-Luc Ponty Experience) he plays some lovely, not-terribly challenging jazz figures on “Flipping, Part I.” But then things get a little weird: “on “Flipping, Part II,” Ponty kicks off the song sounding more like Larks Tongues in Aspic-era King Crimson. As the track unfolds, it’s closer to the sounds he brought to bear on Zappa’s 1969 album Hot Rats.

For the first five minutes of “Flipping, Part Two,” the instrumentation is mostly limited to piano, bass from Peter Warren, Oliver Johnson’s drums, and Ponty on violin. But around the five-minute mark Philip Catherine injects some bop electric guitar runs. This is followed by a contemplative solo piano section courtesy of Joachim Kühn. Then Ponty takes a soaring solo himself, while the other players work their way back into the piece under him. Parallel ascending figures from Ponty and Kühn end the piece on a sweeping note.

An overlapping dialogue (argument, really) between plucked violin and stinging, distorted guitar is the centerpiece of “Flipping, Part III.” Some free jazz riffing from Catherine is answered by some splashy drum work, and all that is followed by some out-there piano trilling. Little in the way of conventional melody is found for the next few minutes, but then that clearly wasn’t the goal.

The original vinyl (clearly mimicked in the 2011 packaging and design) ended there, with the three-track suite making up all of Side One. The second side is built around the nearly-fifteen-minute title track. While all of the players are given (or take) a turn at the spotlight, Ponty’s violin is the central element. A jazzier corollary to some of Zappa’s work, the long instrumental suggests what Zappa might have sounded like had he pursued jazz more intently.

The album closes with Kühn’s “Sad Ballad.” As the detailed liner notes explain, in concerts of the era, Ponty’s band played “Open Strings” and “Sad Ballad” as a set. In contrast to the preceding flights of free jazz, the first part of the piece represents the most melodic music on the set, but this track, too heads into unexpected areas.

Open Strings represents Ponty’s final album in the free jazz style; his next release was the breakthrough Upon the Wings of Music, a record that established his commercial and critically-successful fusion sound.

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


CD Review: Fall on Your Sword – Another Earth (OST)

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

When a filmmaker chooses a single artist to provide soundtrack music, he/she is taking a big risk. This approach stands in direct contrast to the tried-and-true method (popular in the 80s) of assembling a bunch of hits and potential hits by au courant pop stars, slapping a cover on it, and raking in the ancillary sales.

The advantage to working with one artist, however, is clear. The music is more often than not composed specifically for the film, so some sort of thematic linking occurs. There’s the unity of vision that comes with working with one writer/performer. But quite often the result of this approach is a collection of music that works well as the film’s literal soundtrack, but less so as music standing on its own.

Mike Cahill’s new film Another Earth is sci-fi/fantasy, but apparently it’s more character- and story-driven than it is built around some exotic imagined technology. He chose to work with the duo of Will Bates and Phil Mossman, collectively known as Fall On Your Sword. The duo is most well-known for their work on television commercials and similar projects; this album represents their first full-length release. The music FOYS has created is a sort of organic take on synthetic sounds.

Lots of blobbing analog synths bleat their way along across the CD titled Music From the Motion Picture Another Earth. Skittering, stuttering, pulsing…those are the sort of adjectives best used to convey the vibe found on these nineteen tracks. Primarily instrumental, the tracks fold in some lovely cello, violin and viola amidst the synthesizer washes.

Some of the pieces are static (as in, barely moving), and these – especially “Naked on the Ice” – call to mind some of Brian Eno’s work on his landmark Another Green World. Some lovely, wordlessly yearning vocalizing courtesy of Inna Barmash adds to the mood, especially when laid atop some choir samples and throbbing synth arpeggios.

There’s a contemplative, sorrowful ambience to several of these tracks, most notably the brief, piano-centric “The House Theme” and “Making Contact.” The vaguely worldbeat percussion feel of “I am Over There” creates a sort of a dialed-down house/rave feel; one can imagine a bunch of strobelight-entranced ravers, but instead of dancing, they’re lounging in oversized, cushy chairs.

As one might expect from these brief descriptions, the tracks on Another Earth float by, tumbling into one another. The feel of each track is (one imagines; I haven’t seen the film) suited to the concurrent onscreen scene, all of which suggests this is a sad and melancholy bit of filmmaking.

As a blending of classical drawing-room instrumentation and modern technology in an ambient setting, Another World is quite successful. As an aural background (for the film, or for whatever you might be doing while the CD spins) it’s also effective. As the focus of close, attentive listening, it’s perhaps something of a mixed bag, but on balance it’s reasonably rewarding on that score as well.

Update/clarification: additional music by other composers (see comments) is on the film’s (literal) soundtrack but not on this CD.

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CD Review: Putumayo Presents Jazz

Monday, August 22nd, 2011

To my way of thinking, CD releases on the Putumayo label occupy a specific market niche. Generally speaking, they are not designed as potential additions to the music collection of serious/hardcore music fans. That’s not to say they’re not without merit; not at all. It’s merely to point out that what a Putumayo release offers is something unique, something different from the mainstream.

In 2011 Putumayo offered a title called Putumayo Presents Jazz. Unlike some of the label’s other collections, this one casts an hopelessly wide net. Their rhythm & blues collection sought to bring together some of the biggest names currently working in the genre. Putumayo Presents Yoga offered music ostensibly well-paired for some time spent on the yoga mat. Another collection surveyed the current pop music of India, and yet another – Putumayo Presents Jazz Around the World – looked at the manner in which artists outside the USA approached this American art form. All were clear in their goals and (to varying degrees) successful in their execution.

But with Putumayo Presents Jazz, what can the listener expect? As Joel Dinerstein’s liner notes explain, “Many of the songs in this collection are gems from the ‘great American songbook.’” Well, fair enough. It’s perhaps not worth quibbling over, but a more descriptive title might have telegraphed that; unwary listeners might otherwise have expected Miles Davis or Sun Ra, for that matter.

Instead we have in front of us a set of twelve songs that – for the most part — put vocal performances front and center. As a quick and shallow survey of vocal jazz, this set succeeds. There are tracks from Nina Simone, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole’s trio, Chet Baker and Billie Holiday. If your thing is jazz with vocals, those will please you; their classic status is beyond question.

And if instrumental jazz is more to your liking, there’s Cannonball Adderley’s version of Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debby” (with Evans himself on piano). With the exception of that track, there’s little in the way of challenging music on Putumayo Presents Jazz. But then, to the extent that one would know what to expect from such a broad-brush title, “challenging” likely wouldn’t be one of those things.

As the backdrop to a nice dinner, or an evening of cocktails and conversation, this disc would fit the bill nicely. As a conversation starter, it might be a notch less successful. And as an excursion into the wide world of jazz, it’s less than compelling.

But ultimately Putumayo Presents Jazz should be viewed (and reviewed, and listened to) in the spirit intended. So notwithstanding my suggesting that a better title might have been Putumayo Presents Classic Mostly Vocal Pop-Jazz, this is an enjoyable set of music.

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CD Review: The New Mastersounds – Breaks From the Border

Friday, August 19th, 2011

There’s a tradition – maybe not a proud one, but a tradition nonetheless – of not messing with that which works. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” goes the old saw. Yet for artists who are serious about their art, pushing the boundaries is essential. To keep themselves alive creatively, change and growth are essential. And generally speaking, fans of the more compelling artists will be (or at least try to be) open to these changes, understanding the artist’s need to keep moving forward.

Since their inception, UK sensations The New Mastersounds have been an instrumental quartet. Eddie Roberts’ speedy/jazzy guitar work, coupled with Joe Tatton’s tasty keyboard work (mostly, but not exclusively on the Hammond organ) have been ably supported by the precise yet grooving and driving rhythm section of bassist Pete Shand and drummer/court jester Simon Allen. Onstage, one of the four might take an occasional vocal, but for the most part, The New Mastersounds kept their mouths shut.

Not so on Breaks from the Border. Branching out while maintaining all of the sonic elements that have made them so successful, the foursome serves up vocals on several of the album’s tracks. In fact, “all four boys sing,” like it used to say on the back of early Beatles albums. And they do so surprisingly well for a group that has established itself as an instrumental outfit.

Not that they didn’t get some help. Though she herself does not appear on the disc, Rhianna Kenny wrote the lyrics to the five songs that have words, and Kenny handled all of the vocal arrangements as well.

Musically, Breaks from the Border represents a continuation of the styles the band showcased on its earlier releases; it’s just that now, instead of featuring guest vocalists on selected tracks, The New Mastersounds are expanding their bag of tricks within their self-contained unit. There’s a chanting vibe to many of the vocals (see “On the Border” for evidence), and that approach will likely receive a warm welcome among the group’s jam-band fan base. While the New Mastersounds aren’t necessarily a jam band – their arrangements are tight yet airy – their loose-limbed aesthetic pleases that contingent (among others, thankfully).

“Free Man” is a different bag altogether. The song swings and moves in a George Benson-meets-Steely Dan at Stax kind of way. When Pete Shand (I think it’s him) calls, “Come on, take it lads,” he means it: this is fun stuff. That sounds like Si on “Passport,” and the vibe is delightful in any language.

The Booker T & the MGs vibe is still there, tempered as always with a jazzier outlook. The vocals simply add yet another dimension to this fun and fascinating foursome’s palette.

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CD Review: Johnnie Taylor – Taylored in Silk

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

Johnnie Taylor is best known for his 1968 Stax hit “Who’s Making Love,’ and nearly as well-remembered for his mid-70s disco hits, including the regrettably-named chart-topper Eargasm. But in between those, he made an album that bridged the styles. 1973’s Taylored in Silk found the versatile singer serving up eight tracks of, well, silky-smooth soul. The tracks aren’t the most original in their sonic delivery – the arrangements are quite similar to what one would have found on countless r&b albums of that era – but Taylor’s assured and earnestly emotional vocals render even the most pedestrian material a few notches higher in quality.

Thankfully, there’s little in the way of pedestrian songs on Taylored in Silk. “Starting All Over again” sounds like a hit, and it was…but for somebody else. The song had been cut in 1972 by Stax labelmates Mel & Tim, and it soared to #4 on the r&b charts. Taylor’s version is effective, and the sweeping strings are a lovely backdrop to his heartfelt delivery. “Cheaper to Keep Her” is a bit Vegas-y but fun nonetheless. The low-key, slow jam of “Talk to Me” would make a great background for a romantic scene in a film. “I Believe in You (You Believe in Me)” sounds like a hit as well, with strong echoes of The Staple Singers; perhaps the writers (and/or arrangers) of the Elton John/Kiki Dee hit “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” listened to this track.

There’s nothing as funky her as “Who’s Making Love,” but then that hit wasn’t representative of the style with which Taylor was most comfortable. But for smooth, radio-ready r&b/soul of the early 70s variety, Taylored in Silk is an exemplar. Neither the rarest nor most easily found of old Stax vinyl records, the album was ripe for remastering and reissue.

Thanks to Concord for doing so in 2011, and appending the relatively brief original running order with a half-dozen bonus tracks. These are the a- and b-sides of three Stax singles Taylor released in 1971-73. A-sides “Hijackin’ Love” and “Standin’ in for Jody” both charted on the Billboard Hot 100, and as best as I can tell, neither has been issued on CD until now.

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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.


Bill Dahl’s excellent liner notes are worthy of mention: Dahl wisely spends as much ink putting the singer’s work into larger context as he does addressing the album itself. And with Concord having access to Stax masters, this is no needle-drop reissue: the sound is predictably stellar.