Archive for September, 2011

A Conversation with The Grip Weeds’ Kurt Reil

Friday, September 30th, 2011

Though they prefer to think of themselves as creators of a classic-style rock’n’roll, to most ears, The Grip Weeds are carriers of a powerpop tradition. And while that alone should be enough to bring them fame, the sheer quality of their music should earn them fortune. As it is, while they maintain a successful career, the four-piece is less than a household name.

Among those in the know, however, the arrival of a new Grip Weeds album is cause for celebration. Ever since their 1994 debut House of Vibes (expanded and reissued in 2007 as House of Vibes Revisited, making a great album even better), the appearance of a new long player has also been a rare occurrence: after that debut, only three albums followed in the ensuing decade.

So it was with some delighted surprise that fans greeted the news of the group’s 2011 album Strange Change Machine: it included twenty-four tracks spread across two CDs. I ask Kurt Reil (vocals, drums, guitars, keyboards) why the Grip Weeds released a double album, and why now.

“Because we took so long between putting out Giant on the Beach [2004] and Strange Change Machine,” he explains, “we wound up with a whole batch of songs.” He also points to the fact that the House of Vibes Revisited project took more time than expected, keeping them busy. “It’s not as if we have an archive crew that goes into the vaults and does all this stuff for us,” he laughs.

Finding themselves with an embarrassment of riches – the songs on Strange Change Machine are up to the Grip Weeds’ typically high standard – the band considered some options. “We got into the mindset of, ‘Yeah, we’ll give away half of the album on the internet,’” Kurt says. But more importantly, the double-album format freed the band up a bit. “We were free to go off in a few directions, and explore more long-form presentation.” Having some ideas, approaches and styles that simply wouldn’t fit comfortably on a single album, the band used the longer format to find a home for those songs.

The twin sonic hallmarks of Grip Weeds music are punchy instrumentation and carefully executed and fairly intricate harmonies. There are strong echoes of Todd Rundgren’s early group Nazz on the band’s vocal arrangements; the Grip Weeds don’t always take the most obvious path when crafting vocal harmonies. “Green Room Interlude” is a showcase of this, but it’s on display throughout the album. “More than anything,” Kurt observes, “it’s a case of trying to pull out of your head a sound that you hear in your head, and make it into reality.” Kurt arranged “Green Room Interlude,” but enlisted all four band members to add vocal parts. “Having all the different voices really makes it much more dimensional,” he observes.

While Kurt plays many instruments, in the band his primary role is holding the drum chair. His stick work is always very musical; it’s rarely a case of just thumping a rhythm along; the songs always end up with a very human, organic feel. “It’s always analog,” Kurt says. “I never go anywhere near an electronic drum kit, or even any samples.” While he pauses and adds, “Never say never,” it’s clear where he’s coming from. “I usually defeat electronic kits anyway, because I play too fast,” he chuckles.

But in the end, Kurt’s goal as a drummer is singular: “I’m always looking to serve the song, not overpower it.” Since he’s also a songwriter, he brings that sensibility to bear on all of his parts. “When a write a song, I hear a soundscape – a full band sound – in my head,” he says.

Kurt’s musical inspiration comes from some perhaps-unexpected places. “I was inspired by this band Dungen, from Sweden,” he reveals. “Dungen has never been tied to the three-minute song format,” he notes. “The Grip Weeds have always been a song band. Dungen is more of an ambient group; I think they’re really good for their tone, their sound.” On “Speed of Life,” Kurt’s out-front drum part was the basis for the song. “That doesn’t usually happen; it’s usually the other way around. I’m going to have to do more of that,” he muses.

The Strange Change Machine songs are very well-layered; they’re straightforward, but there’s a lot going on in them. Often – as on “Close to the Sun” – there are multiple keyboard parts. “Live, it’s a whole different thing,” Kurt says. Lacking a keyboard player onstage, the band inventively develops different arrangements for some songs, ones that play to other strengths that the melodies possess.

There’s an interesting pair of short tracks on the album called “Sun Ra Ga.” I tell Kurt that when listening to them, I hear the raga, but not so much the Sun Ra. He laughs and points to the pieces’ out-there, improvisational nature. “We were just jamming in the studio,” he says, “and I ran tape. Wherever it went, it went. It’s just very pure music.” There’s even an eleven-minute version of the song available for as a bonus download for purchasers of the HD version of the new album.

Powerpop – or whatever label you’d care to apply to the classicist approach the Grip Weeds use – has only rarely been a commercially successful formula. Clearly the Grip Weeds think there’s a market for the style: People like me, for example. In an age of market narrow-segmentation, online social media plays an important part in the band’s efforts to reach fans…and potential new fans. Kurt agrees that the internet makes it easier to connect with those people, but it’s a double-edged sword: “The internet wrecked the music industry. There’s no chance for fame or fortune anymore.”

As far as that powerpop tag — Kurt cites Pete Townshend’s “three-minute single on steroids” description – the Grip Weeds have always been about more than just that style. “On this album in particular, we really cover a really wide range.” The band strives to follow their own path, hoping that in being true to themselves, they’ll create something that resonates with listeners.

To that end, the Grip Weeds don’t record a lot of covers. That makes Strange Change Machine’s cover of Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me” even more notable. Close to a note-for-note creation, the song makes one important departure: Kristin Pinnell’s guitar takes the place of Something/Anything’s horn charts. “We were asked to cover the song by Pat DiNizio of the Smithereens,” Kurt explains. “He was doing a show about baseball for ESPN, called Seventh Inning Stretch.” Part of that program would feature Todd’s sons Rex and Randy, minor-league baseball players. DiNizio wanted the song for background ambience but the budget didn’t cover licensing fees. So the Grip Weeds re-recorded it. While the goal was to hew closely to the original, the session provided an opportunity to chance a few things they didn’t like. For example, Kurt says that he’s “not a big fan of the chick singers” on Todd’s version. He also could do without the sax and other jazzy elements. The resulting Grip Weeds track has it both ways: true to the original, yet with an indelible Grip Weeds stamp.

“What wound up happening,” Kurt notes, “is that the segment got cut from the show!” Again, the double-album format came to the rescue: this band that “didn’t do covers” could now reasonably include one on an album.

At the time of this writing, the Grip Weeds’ web site and Facebook page do not list any upcoming shows. “It costs a lot of money to go out and play out of town,” Kurt admits. “But it is really hard right now, with gas prices, and with the uncertainty of knowing how many people you’re going to draw.” He says that the band’s “days of sleeping on the floor, traveling around in a van and living on ramen noodles” are pretty well behind them. Still, he says, “If there’s a good opportunity, we’re there.”

At the moment the band is busy putting the finishing touches on two other projects. “We have a live record in the can right now,” Kurt says. That CD+DVD package is slated for release in early 2012. “This live album is designed to give people a taste of what we’re like live. And a Christmas-themed Grip Weeds album will be out in time for the holidays.  “We recorded a Christmas song in 2006, and we had good success with that,” Kurt says. “Every year it comes back. And we wanted to do more. Eventually realized we could do a whole album, between originals and covers.” That project will feature special guests including The Smithereens, former Paul Revere and the Raiders lead singer Mark Lindsay, and members of the Anderson Council.

“Once we’re done with [those projects], we’re going to start on our next new album,” Kurt says. “We had about half a dozen songs left over from Strange Change Machine, so we’ll pick up from there.” If past is any indication, expect that record – no release date set — to be another essential purchase.

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CD Review: The Modulators – Tomorrow’s Coming

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

There’s a particular sonic quality peculiar to the first half of the 1990s. If you were a local or regional band on a limited budget, and you went into a studio, there was a certain sound you got. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I know that sound well.

The band I played in 1984-86, we did mostly covers (the “letter” bands: XTC, REM, INXS, U2…you get the idea). But our guitarists wrote some pretty sturdy original tunes, and we went into a studio a couple times to cut those tracks. And it didn’t matter whether it was a big “name” studio – in our case, Axis Sound in Atlanta, where Sting cut his Brimstone and Treacle soundtrack numbers) – or a one-man operation way out in the exurbs. In both cases we got that sound. Maybe it was the heavy compression; maybe it was the way the drums were mic’d. But whatever it was, that ineffable quality imbued the tracks, and listening to them now, a reasonably informed listener would sit up straight and yell, “nineteen eighty-two!”

Which, finally, brings me to Kool Kat Musik’s reissue of a little-known record from 1984 called Tomorrow’s Coming by The Modulators. When I popped the CD into my player, I was instantly transported back to those days. The Modulators had a sound that recalls a bunch of bands I really liked at the time; some you’ll know, some you won’t: The Killer Whales, Uncle Green, The Surf, The Producers, The Raves.

As was the style of the time, The Modulators focused on writing actual songs. There was a level of quality control assumed on all tracks: there were, simply put, rules. You had to have a hook in every song; more than one hook was preferable. The vocals were mixed out front, and you sang in a way that people could understand the words (the influence of REM notwithstanding).

It must be said: a couple of lousy rules were in effect as well. Your drummer’s snare had to be run through some board effects that evoked Phil Collins’ solo work. Overall, reverb was pretty much a no-no, unless applied solely to the lead guitar; the goal was a dry, sorta-boxy aesthetic. Taking a small bit of influence from punk/new wave, in no case should your mix have a wide-open, expansive, arena-filling feel. And as mentioned earlier, the engineer had to compress the living daylights out of the finished product.

The Modulators wrote winning pop songs and played them earnestly. They were unashamed to draw upon the best straight-ahead influences of earlier decades: witness the extensive use of “ba ba ba” vocalizations on “If You Let Her Go.” But modern approaches were also employed: though an interesting drum figure is the basis of “Own Little World,” evoking warm memories of Revolver, the song still has that eighties vibe.

A trio of bonus tracks (all of which predate the original album by a couple/few years) are equally strong: though in parts it’s the millionth rewrite of The Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane,” the song “Kristine” sounds like it could/should have been a local hit.

Though not part of the Rickenbacker tribe – from available photos, The Modulators were Fender guys – there’s a pleasant jangle throughout Tomorrow’s Coming. If you were in – or went to see – local bands back in the early-mid eighties, a listen to Tomorrow’s Coming will take you back, and get you thinking that all the bands were this good (trust me: they weren’t).

Alas, tomorrow wasn’t coming for The Modulators; after failing to get a deal with A&M, they played around a bit more and then quietly faded away. But the members stayed in touch, and enough people had fond memories of just how good they were, so the New Jersey band reconstituted around 2009. They’ve since played the venerated International Pop Overthrow fest, a gig at Liverpool’s Cavern, and other gigs. As of this writing, they’ve got a few regional gigs lined up; details can be found on their website, which while perhaps not intentionally retro, certainly evokes memories of the mid 90s with its, well, laughable lack of aesthetics. But then you’re here (and there) for the music, right?

Tomorrow’s Coming is available from the fine folks at Kool Kat Musik, steadfast keepers of the powerpop flame.

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CD Review: CIRCA: – And So On

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

I’ve long been a fan of Pete Frame’s rock family trees. Frame has a way of untangling the knotty threads of who-played-with-whom and presenting the information in a distinctive visual format. But even the redoubtable Frame would have a tough time keeping up with the members of Yes (don’t even get me started on King Crimson). In 2011 alone, there are new albums from Yes themselves (the best-in-decades Fly From Here), Survival And Other Stories from Jon Anderson, Levin Torn White featuring Yes’ drummer of the last thirty-nine years), and a few I’m certain I’ve missed.

The band’s frequent lineup changes have also intertwined its history inextricably with Asia, King Crimson and other bands. It’s enough to give ol’ Pete a headache. But if one sets all (or some) of that aside and gets down to the music, there are some interesting things going on.

One of these is an outfit called CIRCA: (the colon is part of the name, but to avoid a headache of my own, I’ll not be using it throughout the remainder of this essay). Featuring Billy Sherwood on bass and vocals (though he played guitar and keys during his time with Yes) and original Yes keyboard player Tony Kaye, the group also includes guitarist Johnny Bruhns on guitar (he played on the Yes Union tour, but then so did about a bajillion other people) and a drummer noted on the packaging only as Ronnie (since, it seems, replaced by a Scott Connor).

Slightly faraway, disembodied vocals are a hallmark of several tracks on And So On. At its best, Sherwood’s voice sounds a bit like Gary Wright crossed with Peter Gabriel. Another consistent thread across the album is Sherwood’s very Chris Squire-ish bass playing. With song construction that’s a shade less “progressive” than what one might find on a Yes album – take the midtempo pop song “Notorious” as an example – that approach enlivens And So On.

Within the context of Yes, Kaye was always underrated as a keyboard player, overshadowed by Rick Wakeman’s much more aggressively showy style. On And So On, his style is matched more closely to the material. His organ runs fit nicely behind Aerosmith-style riffage on “Half Way Home.” Steve Howe’s acoustic spotlights on Yes albums have long been a highlight of those discs, and CIRCA’s version of that approach here is called “In My Sky.”

“True Progress” is a chunky rocker that places the focus on distorted organ runs and a dynamic arrangement; seven tracks in, it’s the strongest number on And So On. Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also the most progressive piece on the album, moving through several distinct, er, movements.

The dreamy “Cast Away” is built upon a bass line reminiscent of Alan Parsons Project’s “Breakdown.” None of the tracks stand out as stellar numbers along the lines of “The Man I Always Wanted to Be” on Yes’ Fly From Here, but neither are any of the tracks throwaways. Expecting something as distinctive as the sort of thing Yes or King Crimson creates is an impossibly high standard, so I won’t be unfair to CIRCA. Weighed on its own merits, And So On is meat-and-potatoes prog-inflected mainstream rock with tight, expert (and occasionally inventive) playing, marred only slightly by relatively anonymous vocals.

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CD Review: Frank Sinatra & Count Basie – The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

Hell, I don’t know how many Frank Sinatra albums there have been. Not counting compilations — and there have been scores of those – Sinatra’s voice graced something like sixty long players. His style developed, refined, improved (and then solidified toward the end of a long and illustrious career); highlights are many, and any given listener’s favorites might include his work on Capitol or Reprise; his Vegas era; his romantic ballads; his saloon songs; or his swaggering, swinging big band work.

It’s the last of those than I enjoy the most from Sinatra. Once he got his own label (Reprise), Sinatra began to focus on thematic (if not conceptual) albums, which made sense: the album only came into its own as a medium around that time.

In 1962 Frank Sinatra had few peers; though he worked (and would continue to work) with an amazingly talented string of arrangers and bandleaders (Billy May, Neal Hefti and Quincy Jones to name but three), none of these asked for (or received) equal billing. Though Sinatra was always generous with credit, making a point in concert to note whom was responsible for a song’s arrangement, his name was always at the top of the marquee.

A pair of notable and worthy exceptions to this rule was the two long players Sinatra recorded with pianist/bandleader Count Basie. The pair worked together on Sinatra-Basie: An Historic Musical First in 1962, and then again in 1964 on It Might As Well Be Swing. Basie’s piano work, his band and orchestra can’t really be said to be backing Sinatra on these recordings; the music is very much a pairing.

Combined on a single disc in 2011, together these two records are now titled The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings (so titled since they also did a live album, not included here).

A hallmark of Basie’s arrangements was his brief, understated solo piano intro. That technique is used extensively on Sinatra-Basie. Possessed with a keen understanding of band dynamics, Basie developed arrangements that started quietly and built to a crescendo. Against that backdrop, Sinatra employed a similar approach, starting quietly and following the best; as the songs unfolded he’d build the energy and loosen his vocal approach.

The song selection is weighted toward songs that benefit from the powerful, inventive Basie arrangements, yet the chairman’s voice is always front and center. Basie’s band and orchestra engage in what is best described as a musical dialogue; it’s never a competition. If there were a way to separate the vocal and instrumental channels on these songs, both would be equally thrilling. The combined effect is peerless.

Expert use of stereo is a hallmark of “(Love is) The Tender Trap.” Not among Sinatra’s most well-known songs, the song benefits from wide stereo back-and-forth between brass parts, with Sinatra’s voice squarely in the middle. An uptempo reading of the romantic “I Only Have Eyes for You” show a different side of the song than other versions. The brief “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” is the closest things to an all-instrumental number, and it points out that even though Sinatra was an unparalleled vocalist, he knew when not to sing.

On It Might As Well Be Swing, Sinatra and Basie crank out a spirited tribute of sorts to Louis Armstrong in “Hello, Dolly!” And Basie’s fine barrelhouse playing finally gets a bit of spotlight on “I Wanna Be Around.” But the highlight is that record’s opener, a spirited run-through of “Fly Me to the Moon.” It showcases both the power and subtlety of both men’s work.

Though ostensibly a big-band outing, It Might As Well Be Swing features a lovely string-centric arrangement on “I Wish You Love.” And while the film Mondo Cane isn’t especially memorable, the Sinatra/Basie reading its theme “More” is a showstopper. If a song ever cried out for key modulation, this one does (and it gets it, along with a Big Finish). A cover of “I Can’t Stop Living You” is taken here as a country-flavored nod to Ray Charles, and for once Sinatra’s vocal choices seem overly mannered: it’s a rare misstep.

The strings swing on “The Good Life,” another prime example of the musical dialogue, the equal give-and-take that’s found across the twenty tracks collected on The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings. The whole affair wraps up in style with “Wives and Lovers.”  Even with its horribly dated sexist lyrics, it’s a fun number in the hands of this pair of experts.

While this 2011 compilation doesn’t include bonus tracks, it does bring together an enjoyable and illuminating set of interviews and essays in its enclosed booklet. Stan Cornyn mercifully dials his hipster prose way back in a 1964 interview with Quincy Jones, and Bill Dahl’s 2011 essay places the pair of sessions in context for the modern listener. Dahl sums it up best with the last four words of his essay: “Let the swinging commence.” Indeed.

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CD Review: Trummor & Orgel – Out of Bounds

Monday, September 26th, 2011

The Hammond organ occupies an important place in music. Beyond its use in gospel music, the instrument has long been established as the centerpiece in soul, blues, jam band and rock music. Its exponents are legion: Jimmy Smith, Felix Cavaliere and Gregg Allman are but three very different yet important players closely linked with the Hammond. Capable of amazing expressiveness thanks to its tone wheels and rarely-duplicated “waterfall” keyboard action, the Hammond remains the sonic standard for many keyboard players, even if they don’t always use the actual instrument.

Modern soul/funk/boogaloo acts make those Hammond sounds a part of their music, too: The New Mastersounds (England) and The City Champs (Memphis) build their distinctive sounds upon the organ’s tone colorings. And now we have another innovative act using the Hammond: a pair of Swedish brothers with the surname Ljunggren, Trummor & Orgel bring the breathtaking sounds of the Hammond organ to the fore on their fourth long-player, Out of Bounds.

An instrumental disc, Out of Bounds trades in a wide variety of styles. “Worlds Collide” sounds like the ultra-groovy theme song to an action thriller; insistent jazzy drum work and a gurgling synth line lay out a bed that allows some impressive speed-soloing on the keys.

Organ-and-drums duos are — for good reason – something of a rarity. A typical keyboard player in a standard band lineup can focus on rhythm parts, occasional leads, and sonic filigree. And the drummer can lay down a steady beat. But when all there is onstage is the two of you, it’s a much different story: the organist has to handle all of the musical elements, including working in that integral bass part (often with the Hammond’s pedals). And the drummer can’t be content simply to keep time; much more expressive stickwork is required. Trummor & Orgel are up to that task, placing them in that rarefied air along with Lee Michaels and Frosty and select few others.

Possessed of a jazzy feel without actually playing jazz, Trummor & Orgel (translates as “drummer and organist,” I’m pretty sure) keep things interesting without the benefit of vocals or lyrics. The dynamics of the songs create their own mental landscapes in the listener’s head. And the specifics — like, “is that wobbly sound a Theremin, an analog synth or a piece of sheet metal on ‘Some Friendly Advice’?” – matter less than the overall feel. Plaintive, dreamy pieces like “The Wheel” set up a nice contrast with kinetic numbers like the title track (another stylish and cinematic number). In turns exciting, sexy and soothing, Out of Bounds is as thrilling an instrumental collection as you’re likely to find in 2011.

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Ray Charles = Genius. Michael Jackson ≠ Genius.

Friday, September 23rd, 2011

(Ray Charles would have turned 81 today. — ed.)

Ray Charles – Genius: The Ultimate Ray Charles Collection (Concord)
The word Genius is thrown around far too cavalierly. At this (June 2009) writing, Michael Jackson (the self-proclaimed King of Pop) has been dead only a few days, and tributes everywhere call the onetime child star a genius. Oh yeah? I recently sat through Martin Bashir‘s 2003 documentary Living With Michael Jackson (an icky title in light of subsequent events, it must be said), and to me, one scene is particularly telling: In Jackson’s studio, Bashir asks Jackson to demonstrate how he writes music. Seated at a grand piano, Jackson purrs that he’s too shy. Bashir presses him, and so Michael prepares to give in. So then he demonstrates how he “writes a song.” He stands up, presses “play” on a nearby machine, and out comes a backing loop from his 1982 hit single “Billie Jean.” Jackson then proceeds to dance, and moonwalk, and all that shit. That, my friends, is how the genius wrote songs, I guess.

Ray Charles was a musician. He actually played instruments (most notably and famously, the Wurlitzer Electric Piano and the organ). He wrote music. He wrote lyrics. He led a band as a musician. He managed a long, long list of accomplishments; it will be many years before his full contribution is realized. He was one of the first “crossover” artists, showing — especially with his Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music albums — that a great song is a great song. He broke through to white audiences at a time when few African Americans did so. He toured endlessly and released dozens upon dozens of albums, often several in a single year. All without grabbing his crotch onstage or engaging in extramusical shenanigans merely to gain press. The. Man. Was. A. Genius.

Jackson released eight solo albums. Two were arguably excellent, if you like that kind of thing. Six were good-to-fair. Jackson was, from 1979 to around 1990, a true pop phenomenon. But a phenom does not a genius make. Using the word to describe a commercial phenomenon cheapens its meaning. Yes, Fred Astaire was mightily impressed by Jackson’s dancing. Rudolf Nureyev was a pretty good dancer, too. But genius?

Concord Records now has control over all of Ray Charles’ recorded material. And as part of an ongoing reissue project, Concord released Genius: The Ultimate Ray Charles Collection in 2009. This single-disc release brings Charles’ biggest hits into the digital age (shockingly, many of these tracks have never been available on CD before now. Over 21 tracks, the disc makes the case — not that it needed making, you understand — that Ray Charles was one of the greatest musical acts of the 20th century and beyond. The sound on this disc is pristine (though mastering is a bit flawed; volume does jump a bit between songs, a bit like a quickly-made mixtape) and the track selection is peerless. Without a doubt listener favorites have been left off, but all the really big hits are here, alongside some lesser-known but equally worthy numbers.

It’s revelatory to hear Charles charging ahead on his Wurlitzer, while the band follows him. His gospel-inflected soloing is so natural, yet so precise, that it defies description. It is, after all, the embodiment of soul. As Charles’ career developed — and as his star rose — he went off in myriad directions (though he never recorded anything like Muddy Waters‘ ill-advised psych excursion Electric Mud), but he always remained grounded. Later records featured his voice more prominently, his keyboard playing less so. But his excellent taste in arrangers meant that even an average record — like the recently-reissued A Message From the People — is worthwhile.

The state of Georgia adopted his rendition of Hoagy Carmichael‘s “Georgia On My Mind” as the official state song in 1979. It stands as one of the greatest recordings in musical history; Charles’ singing is so pure, so heartfelt, that even a Yankee could be moved by it. Heavy on strings and other MOR trappings, it’s nonetheless an amazing piece of music. And it’s merely one of twenty-one tracks on Genius.

Whether interpreting standards (the Beatles‘ “Yesterday”) or performing his original compositions (like the uber-influential 1959 number “What’d I Say”), the unique genius of Ray Charles shone through. And this single-disc compilation is as best an introduction to the man’s music as could be hoped for. So to add another overused word, let’s call this one…essential.

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: Los Lonely Boys

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

I’m told that Los Lonely Boys had a Top 40 hit in 2004 with a song called “Heaven.” I listen to a lot of music, but Top 40 radio hasn’t been on my radar screen in some years. So I missed it; never heard the song, in fact, until recently. I had heard of the group, but hadn’t gotten around to checking them out until now. I’m glad I did.

Though their new album Rockpango augments their solid power trio format with keyboards and even classical instrumentation, onstage it’s just the three Garza brothers: Henry on guitar, JoJo on bass, and Ringo on – what else – drums. Powering out a sound that draws inspiration from both sides of the border, Los Loney Boys come off as some sort of updated 21st century synthesis of the best qualities of Santana, ZZ Top and Stevie Ray Vaughan. With – and this is critical — a bit of Freddy Fender and Doug Sahm folded into the mix.

Surprisingly, the lovely, subtle arrangement of songs like “Road to Nowhere” translates well to the stripped-down loud power trio format. Without the extra instruments, these softer songs are taken to their core onstage. Rockers like “16 Monkeys” got the crowd moving this night at Asheville’s Orange Peel, and even though the live version lacked the signature clavinet part, it wasn’t missed. Henry slyly slipped in a few “Low Rider” licks, too.

These guys aren’t afraid to nod to their influences: little pieces of classic songs – usually only a lick or two – playfully popped up in solos throughout the evneing. Rockpango’s title track has a feel very close to Jimi Hendrix‘s “Crosstown Traffic” (but with a Latin vibe), and Henry Garza has the guitar prowess to take on the similarity head-on.

Often, power trios have a problem onstage: the guitarist is covering both lead and rhythm parts (and sometimes singing as well). When it’s time for the big guitar solo, the middle sonic range evaporates, leaving a big hole in the middle of the sound. (Listen to live Cream albums for an example of this problem.) But Los Lonely Boys solved this challenge: JoJo Garza expertly wielded a six-string bass, allowing him to do some chording during Henry’s solos. The sound was never less than full during their set.

All three brothers sang; even Ringo Garza, while he was pounding away on the drum kit, executing subtly involved percussion parts while nailing a rock-steady beat. In this live setting, the band opened up some of the songs, taking longer solos and instrumental sections, occasionally involving the audience in a time-honored bit of call-and-response. Only briefly did the trio head into jam-band territory, and only then did the energy flag. In retrospect, even that worked: it gave the whipped-up audience a chance to calm down for a bit.

For the Big Finish, JoJo stood behind Henry, and played bass lines on the lower strings of Henry’s Stratocaster while Henry turned out fleet-fingered leads. The pyrotechnics were visually impressive, and it sounds great too.

A pleasing night of rock that was classic in feel yet never shamelessly retro, Los Lonely Boys put on a winning and well-received performance in Asheville. Judging by the crowd reaction – and the band’s reaction to them – I’d expect they’ll return.

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CD Review: Vegas With Randolph – Above the Blue

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

Comparisons to Fountains of Wayne are inevitable: strong melodies, well-thought-out vocal harmonies, middling tempos, clever lyrics, high-octane guitars. That’s the recipe on Above the Blue from Washington DC-based Vegas With Randolph. But VWR have their own distinct style; that the New Jersey band comes to mind when hearing their music says more about what passes for tuneful rock these days than anything else. I’d argue that we need more bands covering this musical territory.

In fact Vegas With Randolph does more than just deliver rock-and-wry on Above the Blue. While the title track starts out sounding like a plaintive son-of-Strawberry Fields, it quickly takes off into a high-velocity powerpop song. All the instruments are chugging along; each is doing its own thing, but it all comes together.

The liner notes by radio DJ Mike Lidskin assert that (a) the lyrics on this record are worth listening to, yet (b) you can ignore ‘em and simply rock out. He’s right on that score; the album is successful on any number of levels, suggesting that it will wear well on repeated listens. There’s variety of texture throughout the record: plenty of power chords are applied across the tracks, but splashes of various classic keyboard sounds add welcome dimension to the songs.

Some of the songs concern themselves with universal themes such as love (“Supergirl”), while others extoll the joys of family (“The Sippy Cup Song”). And while the latter could have ended up a bit cloying, in the hands of these guys, it does not: quick-shifting tempos keep the listener on their toes.

Even the production vibe varies to suit the song. “A Lesser Fool” starts out with an intimate, close-up feel in sync with its subject matter; as the song unfolds, the arrangement goes big and then fades out. While the band has the chops to deliver the songs with style, they’re unafraid to bring in auxiliary players to suit their ends. That means that a lovely female vocal part from Maxi Dunn adorns “A Lesser Fool.”

The band all but insists on Fountains of Wayne comparisons by crafting a love song to a well-known actress on “Marisa.” But the song’s too good to have left off just because it sounds like those other guys. “The Tree Song” heads in a different direction: plaintive, gentle vocals with acoustic guitars and real orchestration. The change of pace is effective if wholly unexpected.

An extended suite called “Double Play” takes up the final eleven minutes of the record. Featuring a number of songs clocking under two minutes each (plus a few longer ones), it’s similar in its goals to the second side of the BeatlesAbbey Road: the songlets tumble into one another, creating something greater in the process. It’s similar – though not overly so – to the approach Lannie Flowers uses on his Same Old Story LP. The “Double Play” suite dials back the powerpop in favor of something grander, soaring, majestic. Perhaps the strongest track on the whole record, “Light of Day” has one of those circular chord progressions that could go on for days without wearing out its welcome.

From a musical standpoint, Washington DC is often thought of mainly as the home of a particular brand of hardcore (see: Fugazi). But the city has a proud if under-appreciated powerpop pedigree, having started Tommy Keene on his musical path. Keepers of that flame, Vegas With Randolph is a band to watch.

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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: Rufus Thomas – Do the Funky Chicken

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

It’s easy to dismiss the work of Rufus Thomas (the world’s oldest teenager™) as the work of a novelty artist. Too easy, in fact. And it does a disservice to some great music. But Rufus didn’t exactly help matters by recording and releasing songs that all but forbade you to take him seriously. Anybody who shouts “I feel so…unnecessary!” in the middle of a song can’t expect much in the way of serious musical credibility. That’s especially true if the song in question is the title track on an album called Do the Funky Chicken.

But here’s the thing: though we don’t know the full roster of players on these songs, we do know that it’s some funky music. Playing with verve and wit, Michael Toles (called out by name repeatedly throughout the record’s eleven tracks) turns out some finger-lickin’ good guitar licks. And whoever the horn sections is — maybe the Memphis Horns, maybe not – they’ve got it going.

This is party music, plain and simple. Don’t look for deep philosophical intent on these tracks. Classic covers like “Sixty Minute Man” are sometimes treated in a bizarre manner; on that track Rufus spouts vocal gibberish over a slow funk riff; the effect is a sort of late-sixties take on Cab Calloway. But on “Lookin’ for a Love” he takes things a bit more straightforward. And even when Rufus is being goofy, the band and backing vocalists are turning in tight performances.

A recut of Thomas’ shameless Elvis ripoff (originally cut for Sun Records!) “Bear Cat” features an arrangement updated – both musically and lyrically — for the sixties, and it’s wholly effective. It’s a piece of fluff to be sure, but a delightful one; listen to it and try not to smile.

Even six-minutes-plus of “Old McDonald Had a Farm” works. Try to forget it’s a nursery rhyme; instead, enjoy the loose call-and-response vocals and electric clavinet work. The blues-meets-big-band “Soul Food” is a more literal Rufus-style rethink of “Memphis Soul Stew.” And “The Preacher and the Bear” weds Chuck Berry’s style to the Stax sound.

The 2011 Stax remaster adds eleven bonus tracks; for these, more personnel info is available. We know that Booker T & the MGs are on some tracks (no surprise there), as are the Memphis Horns, the Malaco Rhythm Section and the South Memphis Horns. And Steve Cropper produced a few; again, no surprise there. The highlight of these is a reading of Eddie Floyd’s “Funky Mississippi,” taken straighter and funkier that the more comedy/party-oriented tracks. “I Want to Hold You” leans in an Otis Redding direction. A pair of two-sided singles (“Itch and Scratch” and “Boogie Ain’t Nuttin But Gettin’ Down”) are tight James Brown-styled dance party grooves; like much of Rufus Thomas’ work, they’re about doing the latest (manufactured) dance craze.

And that’s enough, really. With no great aspirations toward great art, Do the Funky Chicken and its bonus tracks is a collection of fun music. (Rob Bowman’s contemporary liner notes impart plenty of information while striking just the right tone.) Look elsewhere for the serious stuff, but when it’s party time, Rufus Thomas can be counted on.

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CD Review: The Dramatics – Whatcha See is Whatcha Get

Monday, September 19th, 2011

Though Stax/Volt was (and will remain) closely linked with its hometown of Memphis, not everything that came out on the legendary label was Memphis-based. Some of it wasn’t even recorded on McLemore Avenue. Some artists worked out of Muscle Shoals AL, and some were from even farther afield. The Dramatics, for example, were from Detroit. This vocal group enjoyed an impressive string of hits in the early 70s. With something of a revolving-door lineup across that period, the Dramatics nonetheless created enduring and influential music.

In terms of quality, 1971’s Whatcha See is Whatcha Get ranks at or near the top of the group’s efforts. The record opens with the literally screaming intro of “Get Up and Get Down.”  The song quickly settles into a rubbery groove that features multiple vocal turns from each of the group’s five singers. Soaring strings, beefy brass and funky lead (and rhythm) guitar lines transform what (on paper) looks like a song that goes nowhere (technically speaking, it’s little more than a two-chord workout) into something majestic, something that’ll move you to do what the title says. As a single, the track made #79 on Billboard’s Hot 100, and it soared to #16 on the R&B charts; the Dramatics had crossover power.

The smoother sounds of “Thankful For Your Love” were a bit more standard, but Johnny Allen’s peerless arrangement does the same duty: though all of the songs on Whatcha See is Whatcha Get (written by producer Tony Hester) are sturdy compositions, the arrangements – instrumental and vocal – make them more than they would otherwise be. The slow jam “Hot Pants in the Summertime” certainly boasts a dated title and subject matter, but musically it stakes out territory between Sly & the Family Stone and the more traditional Four Tops-type sound.

It’s hard to imagine a more effective piece of music in this genre than the title track. With hints of everything from Latin/salsa to rock, to R&B, pop and funk, the song even presages disco. Musically dynamic but nailing down a steady groove, “Whatcha See is Whatcha Get” showcases the Dramatics’ vocal prowess, setting it against a primordial guitar riff. The song displays judicious use of horns; you’ll actually look forward to the recurring riffs coming back around so you can punch your fists into the air along with them. This monster hit made it to #9 on the mainstream chart and #4 R&B in 1971.

A study in contrasts, the title track is followed by “In the Rain.” Featuring the heavily echoplexed guitar work of legendary Detroit sessioner Dennis Coffey, “In the Rain” is a shimmering song of heartbreaking intensity. Three decades later, fellow Detroiter Mayer Hawthorne would revive this style – happily citing his influences — on his debut album A Strange Arrangement.

“Gimme Some (Good Soul Music)” is another entry in the popular “Let’s do a song about a song” subgenre, but it’s effective as an album track. “Fall in Love, Lady Love” is a relatively standard romantic sweet soul number, but again, it’s elevated by its arrangement. Some intriguing synthesizer work further enlivens the funky album closer “Mary Don’t Cha Wanna.”

On its most recent Stax/Concord reissue, Whatcha See is Whatcha Get is curiously appended with “bonus tracks” that more than double its length. What’s curious is that these bonus tracks are actually A Dramatic Experience, the group’s 1972 followup album, presented here in full. So what we really have here is a twofer, though oddly it’s not billed as such.

A Dramatic Experience represents an even more ambitious approach for the group. Calling the record a concept album might be overstating things, but no less than three tracks deal with the scourge of drugs in the inner city (the disc was originally to be called The Devil is Dope). Soul/R&B isn’t the first genre that comes to mind when thinking of concept albums, but A Dramatic Experience is up to the task. Featuring the same level of quality and attention to detail on instruments and vocals, the album is a consistently engaging listen. In fact it works a bit better as a whole.

It’s not all heavy messages, though: tracks like “You Could Become the Very Heart of Me” are catchy soul numbers. “Fell For You” – with its insistent horn figures contrasting with an almost cocktail-lounge arrangement — was a hit (#45 on the Hot 100, #12 R&B). But songs like “Jim, What’s Wrong With Him?” and “Beware the Man (With the Candy in His Hand)” lean more toward the sound Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes showcased (on their respective Superfly and Shaft soundtracks). “Hey You! Get Off of My Mountain” borrows its subject matter from a similarly-titled song by a five-member group from England, but it’s fun nonetheless.

A minor mystery is appended to the 2011 reissue. Previously issued as bonus tracks on the 1990 CD version of A Dramatic Experience, the song “Stand Up Clap Your Hands” sounds as much – if not more — like a mainstream hit as anything else on this CD.  The mystery is this: apparently nobody knows who wrote the song, and the publishing credit is also unknown. Sporting a more rocking arrangement, “Stand Up Clap Your Hands” sound like a lost Rare Earth song, but with the Dramatics taking the vocals. And “Hum a Song (From Your Heart)” sounds like Sly’s band again, but with a young Michael Jackson (crossed with Smokey Robinson) -sounding lead vocals.

The liner notes for the reissue are lifted from a pair of facing pages in Rob Bowman’s weighty and essential tome Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records, adding a couple of “for my money” phrases onto both ends to no great effect.

Anyone interested in the history of Stax/Volt needs this album. Anyone who enjoys Detroit soul of the 70s needs it as well.

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