Archive for December, 2011

Dirty Little Secrets of the Record Business: Why So Much Music You Hear Sucks

Friday, December 30th, 2011

This is a reprint of a feature/interview I wrote in 2007 for a now-defunct magazine. But Hank Bordowitz’s book remains relevant, and it’s a great read besides. — bk

“A lot of the popular music you hear out there, especially on the radio, is just crap,” says Hank Bordowitz, author of the provocatively-titled Dirty Little Secrets of the Record Business: Why So Much Music You Hear Sucks, “but there is probably more good music available than ever before. It’s just much harder to find.” The industry serves up lowest-common-denominator pap, but quality music survives.

That’s a succinct summation of the book’s thesis, and of Bordowitz’s belief. The eminently readable book is a pleasing mix of anecdote and facts-and-figures, part investigative journalism, part love letter to good music. Industry veteran Bordowitz (he’s a former recording artist, a music industry consultant, an author with several books to his credit, and now a professor at Western Illinois University) lays out exactly what’s wrong with the record business, but he doesn’t stop there. Ultimately the book strikes a hopeful tone about the future of popular music. I spoke with him as he packed, preparing to move with his family to Macomb, Illinois.

Market segmentation — the idea of marketing your product or your art to a narrower group of potential fans — is a central part of Bordowitz’s hopeful vision of the future for musicians. The new paradigm will mean success can be attainable without having to sell in the millions. “The way I see it,” Hank says, “is that the industry is going to downsize. It’s got to. It’s never going to be what it was ten years ago; I just don’t see it.” He believes that musicians — good ones, anyway — will be able to make a living playing in their respective specific geographic areas. And with digital delivery more of a practical reality every day, the cost of creating a product and putting it into the hands and ears of consumers is arguably less expensive than ever. “What we’re witnessing now is a sort of Back to the Future effect where singles rule, and you’ve got artists making a decent living playing locally.”

A number of developments that line up with the book’s predictions began to unfold as the book went to print. Obviously the internet is a way to level the playing field for artists wanting to reach new listeners; as Bordowitz says, “as long as the web stays neutral, then everyone has an equal chance. Of course, money makes things a lot easier, but it takes a lot less money to do things on the web than it does without the web.” Creativity can, in a sense, take an artist farther than it did in the past. “YouTube, and a lot of the web 2.0 stuff…are the sort of things I saw happening when I was writing the book,” says Hank. “A lot of that stuff bodes really well for musicians trying to find their audience.” He also thinks these new tools might be an answer of sorts for those in the shaky business of music marketing: “Musicians can’t do everything. They need people to market them. That used to be — and maybe still is — what the record companies did reasonably well.”

And what of the record labels? Is there room for them in the new marketplace, or are they slow-witted dinosaurs doomed to extinction? “You’ve got an artist like (jazz composer) Maria Schneider who wins a Grammy® award for a record that was never released to the stores.” He also mentions Todd Rundgren‘s approach (a direct-to-the fans arrangement called Patronet) as “the most intelligent way.” Overall, this migration, this sea change away from the labels “is still happening. It’s happening now.”

I asked Bordowitz what he thought the record business would look like a decade from now. He concedes it’s a good — and relevant — question. “I’m actually in the process of giving that question very serious thought. I’m putting together a music business program for students who are going to be in the music business. They’re going to want to know.”

It’s Bordowitz’s considered opinion that the music business — as opposed to the record business — is in pretty good shape. “The record companies are in deep, deep shit,” he says, mentioning the industry lawsuits against file sharers (“what kind of business sues its biggest fans?” he ask rhetorically). “But the music business — in terms of publishing, in terms of live performance — has rarely been healthier. Dirty Little Secrets of the Record Business is published by Chicago Review Press and is available online and wherever else fine books are sold.

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Musoscribe’s 2012 Preview

Thursday, December 29th, 2011

Lots of interesting material going into 2012. Here’s a quick preview of just some of what’s on deck for coverage in the Musoscribe blog in early 2012:

 

Album Reviews

  • Jethro Tull‘s Aqualung 2cd 40th Anniversary Edition
  • Morgan Agren/Henry Kaiser/Trey GunnInvisible Rays
  • The Boddie Recording Group box set form the Numero Group label
  • Cave‘s Neverendless
  • Making It by Stew and the Negro Problem
  • An expanded reissuue of Gentle Giant‘s Octopus
  • Fantastic Voyage comps from Roy Brown and Wynonie Harris
  • Allen Clapp & His Orchestra‘s Mixed Greens
  • Michael Mazzarella‘s 5cd Songwriter set
  • Super Happy Fun Times Friends from Regurgitator
  • Fred Wesley & the JBsWatermelon Man
  • The first two ? And the Mysterians LPs finally reissued…on vinyl!

 

Interviews

  • Ozric Tentacles
  • Akron/Family
  • Gordon Anderson of Real Gone Music
  • Famed recording engineer Eirik Wangberg

 

…and so much more. 2012′s gonna be a great year for music; I can already tell.

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Album Review: Thelonius Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

In my occasional Blast from the Past blog entries, I take a quick look at notable reissues from notable recording artists — some you’ll recognize; some you probably missed. All are worth a closer look.

thelonious_monk_john_coltrane_carnegie_hall Jazz fans know that one of the most legendary collaborations in the genre was the string of live 1956-’57 Monk Quartet dates in which they were joined by saxophonist John Coltrane. Their gigs at the Five Spot Café have gained near-mythic status. Some of Coltrane’s studio work with the Quartet was released at the time, and the remainder of the sessions were compiled in the 90s on the expansive, 150-plus track Complete Riverside Recordings. All amazing, certainly. But what of live performances? Until recently, they remained a legend, a remarkable memory only for those select few who witnessed them.

But in 2005, Larry Applebaum at the Library of Congress was cataloging some old Voice of America radio broadcasts. “I noticed several tapes labeled ‘Carnegie Hall Jazz 1957,’” he recalled. “One of the tape boxes had a handwritten note on the back that said ‘T. Monk’ with song titles…my heart started racing.”

Not only is this two-disc set historically important and flawlessly recorded, but it’s some amazing music. Even to someone (like me, I must confess) who isn’t schooled in the genre, this set represents one of the high points in music. Essential.

 

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Album Review: Yes – In the Present: Live in Lyon

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

In some ways, Yes can be said to have ushered in the live album era of the 1970s. At the height of their fame, the group released Yessongs, a lavish 3LP set documenting their impressive and varied stage show. Excessive? Perhaps, a bit. But then this is progressive rock we’re talking about, so conventional notions about the limits of good taste do not necessarily apply. And in fact Yessongs – released in 1973 – was and is a pretty fantastic live album: the sound quality was good by early 70s standards. Moreover, if you weren’t lucky enough to see the group onstage, Yessongs served as a reasonable facsimile in those pre-VHS days (and in fact the film version of Yessongs – released in 1975 – would become a staple of midnight-moviegoing). Even if you did see Yes live, Yessongs made a pretty fine post-show souvenir.

To be sure, there have been subsequent live album from Yes in the ensuing decades. And few of them equaled the grandeur of Yessongs. The live 1980s Yesshows has its moments, but was mostly a cash-in by the label attempting to recapture the group’s confused fans, many of whom had gone a bit wayward when Drama came out. (Me, I love Drama. More on that forthwith.)

9012Live, though, was a real stinker. This 1984 LP too was sort of a tour souvenir – documenting the commercial juggernaut live tour supporting 90125 (natch). But it was short on actual songs, and the sound was a bit thin. The Keys to Ascension albums (1996 and 1997) offered up a mix of live and studio material a la Pink Floyd‘s Ummagumma, and while these albums have their ardent defenders, the fan base for the group itself was nearing its lowest point ever.

What all of those albums did have, however, was Jon Anderson. The Yes vocalist had come and (most notably during the Drama days) gone, but when it came to live releases, Anderson was always on board. As was bassist Chris Squire, Yes’ sole member to have appeared on every record, played at every show.

Fast (or slow) forward to 2011 and the release of In the Present: Live in Lyon. The lineup for Yes is both familiar and new: Squire on bass, Alan White on drums, Steve Howe with his distinctive guitar style. On keyboards we have not Tony Kaye, not Rick Wakeman, but instead Oliver Wakeman (son of the Caped One). And taking the place of Jon Anderson is Canadian vocalist Benoit David, formerly lead singer in – of all things – a Yes tribute band.

I’m not the least bit interested in the whole is-it-or-isn’t-it-Yes debate. But even those who do prattle on tirelessly about such matters should concede that if Squire’s there, it’s Yes. A more important question is: how does this sound?

For the most part, with some important caveats, In the Present is pretty fine. Squire’s thunderous, throaty bass lines carry the day, White is as precise as ever, and Howe manages the tricky feat of playing the same way every time and keeping it interesting (exciting, even). Oliver doesn’t show off quite as much as Dad did/does, and Benoit sounds like a cross between Anderson and the only other singer to front yes, Trevor Horn. Which is to say, Benoit hits most of Jon’s high notes, and is possessed of a bit more presence than Anderson when working lower registers.

The set list on this 2CD package does a fairly good job of surveying the various eras (and styles, and lineups) of this band. As expected, The Yes Album, Fragile and Close to the Edge (the 1971-72 era) are all covered reasonably well. Late-70s Yes gets less attention, but to be fair, those years were a rough patch for many a progster. (“Onward” from Tormato gets a brief reading.) A few surprises are tossed in: “Astral Traveler” dates from Time and a Word (1970).

Where things get unusual is in the inclusion of not one but two songs from Drama, the sole (until 2011′s studio album Fly From Here) Yes album to not feature Anderson on vocals. But before you get too excited, I must warn you: “Tempus Fugit” doesn’t fugit all that much. The band takes the tune at a pace several notches slower than the original. The playing is precise and the song still (sorta) rocks, but the slower pace gives the track a somewhat turgid feel. Listening to it, I can’t help thinking, “C’mon, guys…pick up the pace.”

And not to call it a disgrace, but the slowness continues on “Yours is No Disgrace.” I’m not at all sure the reasons for the change: I’ve heard White’s work on other releases – most notably his 2011 album with Tony Levin and David Torn – and he’s still got the chops and the fire. While many older rock acts drop the keys of their old song to account for the inevitable lengthening of vocal cords, this downshifting in tempo is a bit harder to fathom.

In a nod to the breath of life that the 90125 era gave to the Yes brand, the group trots out “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” But its inclusion is among the show’s weirder moments when it’s thought of in context: of the five men on stage, only two – Squire and White – were involved in the original. Steve Howe’s guitar work – excellent in nearly every context imaginable – somehow doesn’t fit in a song that originally featured the shredding 80s style of Trevor Rabin. And even in the able hands of Oliver Wakeman, Trevor Horn’s orchestra-hit samples sound, well, silly.

Despite those criticisms, highlights abound. “And You and I” gets some subtle, interesting arrangement tweaks. And Howe gets his usual – and well-deserved – solo acoustic spotlight; here it’s “Corkscrew,” a number that points out the Spanish influence in his style. The showstopper, however, is a reading of another Drama cut, “Machine Messiah.” Initially something of a self-parody, the track tossed all of the prog tropes into the blender. But hearing the song extended and onstage, it works as a sort of (relatively) modern prog epic. David and Squire harmonize beautifully, while Squire’s bass delightfully stomps on everything. White’s drumming is at its most nimble, Howe gets a real workout on guitar, and Wakeman gets a chance to provide some – to coin a phrase – dramatic – parts. True, it’s slowed down a half-notch from the studio version of some three-plus decades ago, but it remains an exciting eleven-plus minutes.

“Heart of the Sunrise” finds the band firing on all cylinders. We’re halfway through the second disc, and the band finally seems to have found its footing. The earlier numbers were all okay – not a thing wrong with ‘em other than the few quibbles mentioned — but somehow things seem just, well, better now. “Roundabout” – the group’s most well-known song save “Owner of a Lonely Heart” – sounds every bit the equal of the Yessongs version. Wakeman’s keyboard runs are filled with power and beauty. The show ends with a note-perfect “Starship Trooper.”

This group held together after this 2009 show and tour, heading into the studio to cut Fly From Here with producer Trevor Horn (Jon Anderson fans take note: Nobody ever truly leaves Yes, it seems). Oliver Wakeman either quit or was fired; another Yes alumni, Geoff Downes, took his place, reprising his role from the Drama days and reuniting with his Buggles partner Horn. The resulting Fly From Here was Yes’ best studio effort in decades.

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Best of 2011: Interviews

Monday, December 26th, 2011

Jack Casady – It’s funny how this one came about: in summer 2011 I saw that Jorma Kaukonen would be playing a November show at Asheville’s Grey Eagle, so I reached out to his publicist about an interview. “Great! Let’s set it up when the date gets closer,” she said. But in the meantime, did I want to interview Jorma’s Hot Tuna bandmate Jack Casady? Absolutely. One of my favorite interviews ever, as it turns out. (I never was able to schedule an interview with Jorma.)

Bill Wyman – I never expected this interview to materialize, but it did. Wyman was patient with me and willing to spend forty-five minutes talking about the new box set of his Rhythm Kings works. I planned to focus on that as opposed to peppering him with endless Rolling Stones questions. But he served up lots of Stones history nonetheless.

Ray Manzarek, Johnny Winter, Bootsy Collins, Ann Wilson, Carmine Appice – All of these artists were involved to some degree or another with the latest so-called “comeback” album from Sly Stone. I felt a bit like an investigative reporter on this project: Sly himself was nowhere to be found, always one step ahead. One of the strangest projects I’ve ever worked on, but a lot of fun.

Martin Newell – I champion Newell every chance I get. In a just world, the Cleaners From Venus pop singer/songwriter wold be hugely famous. But one gets the feeling Newell likes things the way they are just fine, thank you. A lively interview subject, he’s among the pithiest, wittiest interview subjects I’ve ever encountered.

Van Dyke Parks – No, this interview didn’t in fact have any connection to the late 2011 release of the mythical SMiLE box set. Parks doesn’t like to talk about that. But (a) he had lots of other interesting stuff to say during our in-person sit-down interview and (b) I coaxed him to speak briefly about SMiLE after all.

That wraps up my look at 2011.  Thanks – as always – for reading.

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Best of 2011: New Music

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

This was easily the most difficult category for me. So many amazing albums came out that it’s pure folly to limit myself to only five. So I haven’t (but six was still tough).

DC Fontana – La Contessa — For me, this group had the hands-down best album of 2011. The near-perfect La Contessa brings together elements of highly charged Northern Soul, and fronts it with the lovely and lively Karla Milton, a worthy successor to Julie Driscoll‘s late-sixties work. To call this music thrilling is no overstatement. If this doesn’t make you move, like the man said, Jack, you’re dead.

Agony Aunts – Greater Miranda – They might or might not even appreciate the nod, since Agony Aunts is but one of many side-projects from the Bay Areas pop cottage industry operating under the Mystery Lawn Music banner. But this effort — with members of the Corner Laughers and The Orange Peels – is consistently endearing and entertaining. And if you dig it, most everything else from this crowd is nearly as splendid.

Dennis Coffey – Dennis Coffey – One of the legendary Funk Brothers, Coffey’s distinctive guitar lines graced many a 70s funk, soul and rock album out of Detroit. After a number of years’ low profile, Coffey roars back with this incendiary set. Dennis Coffey is that rarest of creatures: an album where the guest spots actually make sense.

The Penguin Party – Sex Furniture Warehouse – In film, comedy is much tougher to pull off than drama: while most agree what’s dramatic, opinions differ widely as to what’s humorous. Which isn’t to say that The Penguin Party’s latest is a comedy album: more properly it’s described as as and honest musical look at middle-aged life that happens to be funny as hell.

Blackfield – Welcome to My DNA – That this one made my list surprises even me. While I’m a huge Steven Wilson fan, Wilson’s involvement with this album (he’s a busy guy) is well below the 50% mark. And in general I’m no huge fan of Aviv Geffen‘s highly Israeli-accented voice. And — in contrast to earlier Blackfield releases — this is much more a Geffen project than a Wilson one. But the songwriting and playing on Welcome to My DNA are so uniformly amazing that I had to include it. It’s more accessible, in the end, than Wilson’s own 2011 solo release, the also-excellent Grace for Drowning.

Special Bonus Mention: Ben Craven – Great and Terrible Potions – This one falls into the “classic prog” genre. With production, songwriting, playing and arrangement that recall the heydays of progressive rock, Ben Craven’s one-man release is a tour de force.

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Best of 2011: Reissues and Compilations

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

I tend to gravitate toward reissues and compilations. It’s not that I want to hear the same material over and over again – I don’t – but I do enjoy the recontextualizing and re-evaluation that reissues invite. And the bonus tracks are often fun. Here are my five top reissues for 2011. Note that many other narrowly missed making the list, and that the Beach Boys‘ landmark SMiLE wasn’t reviewed here (though I have and treasure it).

The Long Ryders – Native Sons – Many artists have attempted to combine country & western with rock, and while a few have pulled it off amazingly well (The Byrds), for every one of those, there are a dozen Eagles (meh). In the 1980s nobody did it better than these guys.

Ray Charles – Singular Genius – Worth having if only for the previously-unreleased-on-CD tracks and Billy Vera‘s essay, this 5CD set is ultimately much more than that. It’s a history of a side of Charles’ music that hasn’t been presented in such a manner before.

Material Issue – International Pop Overthrow – Sadly, pop music’s history is littered with tales of fragile souls who created wonderful music but who (for one reason or another) couldn’t cope with daily life. Material Issue’s Jim Ellison was one of these. But on this album he and his bandmates made some of the best music of their lives, and of the 1990s.

Thin Lizzy – Jailbreak – This is the album that best combines hard rock with troubadour/storytelling imagery. Tough as nails yet deeply emotional, it’s one of the best albums of the entire 1970s. The bonus tracks on this reissue only add to the album’s quality.

Various Artists - Dirty Water – Esteemed British DJ/authorty/collector Kris Needs presents the first volume of his skewed and highly idiosyncratic compendiums. What he considers punk likely won’t match your own definition, but he makes a compelling case for his POV, and backs it up with some fantastic music. Some of it’s quite rare, as well. There’s since been a second volume as well.

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Best of 2011: Concerts

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

As usual, I attended quite a few live shows this year. Picking the best was difficult, and in all likelihood it’s a mood-based decision: no doubt if I make this list again a week from now, it will be different. But here goes.

The Church – Despite what I wrote above, this one would remain on any revised list. A semi-acoustic and toned-down musical travelogue backwards through the group’s vast catalog, this was a show that was both intimate and exciting. That I interviewed Steve Kilbey in advance of the show no doubt helped enhance my enjoyment.

Paul Revere and the Raiders – Technically, this was 2010, but I didn’t pen an essay covering it – as well as a number of related pieces – until 2011. Say what you will about the kitsch and whatnot; well into his 70s Revere still knows how to put on a show.

Two of a Perfect Trio (Stick Men and The Adrian Belew Power Trio) – I saw this show at the start of their tour, and interviewed Adrian, Pat Mastelotto and Tony Levin for a big feature designed to run in advance of the tour-ending Moogfest date. The trios’ original material was great, and their double-trio “covering” of King Crimson was a thing to behold.

The Fleshtones – Dubbed “America’s Garage Band,” the Fleshtones carry on the spirit of rock’n'roll with their own brand of “super rock.” I interviewed Peter Zaremba and then got to see them perform in a tiny (I mean tiny) venue that held no more than fifty-sixty people. They dedicated a cover of The Guess Who‘s “It’s My Pride” to me(!) and let me play Peter’s Farfisa on one song. In that light, how could this not make the list?

Moogfest 2011 – I attended no less than twenty shows over the Asheville festival’s three-day run. Prog, ambient, rock, soul, electronica…you name it. In general I avoid crowds, but this was worth the trouble. It certainly helped that the venues are all within two miles of my home.

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Best of 2011: Books

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

Honestly, when I got into this reviewing gig I had no real plans to review music-related books. I sort of fell into it, and I’m glad I did. A number of titles that might have otherwise gone unnoticed instead landed on my desk. And I jumped at the chance to tell my readers about them.

I only just reviewed Joe Bonomo‘s Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found earlier this month. I can’t say enough good things about it. The short version of my rave would be that he’s brought a fresh perspective to an oft-covered subject, managing to be both personal and universal in appeal at once.

Little Willie John is one of those musical artists whose work is in danger of being lost in the mists of time. But former Creem writer Susan Whitall‘s Fever: Little Willie John makes sure that doesn’t happen. Her fascinating and well-researched book is co-authored with John’s son.

I Slept With Joey RamoneThere have been several books about The Ramones, but Mickey Leigh‘s is by far the best. As the brother of Joey Ramone, he saw things up close and personal, but with enough distance to allow useful perspective. Legs McNeil‘s contribution probably helps a lot in making this a must-read.

In The Resurrection of Johnny Cash, Graeme Thomson takes a detailed look at the later part of the Man in Black’s career, contextualizing it and offering up a critical asseesment of the hwole thing. He also makes a couple new points that are so obvious you’ll wonder why you didn’t think of them yourself. But then you didn’t, did you? Me neither.

One of my favorite music journalists, Richie Unterberger has most recently turned his attention toward the early 1970s output of The Who. Though Won’t Get Fooled Again could probably do with a revision in light of the months-later release of the “director’s cut” version of Quadrophenia, Unterberger’s history and analysis are – as always – essential reading.

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Best of 2011: DVDs

Monday, December 19th, 2011

From my standpoint, this past year has been a good one for music-related DVDs. I reviewed several here, but the most noteworthy among them are these:

Ballad of Mott the Hoople – This loving documentary takes an in-depth look at the ups-and-downs that characterized the band. Featuring the cooperation of all surviving ex-members, it’s great for serious fans as well as those who don’t know much about them beyond “All the Young Dudes” and perhaps “All the Way From Memphis.”

Frank Sinatra Around the World – Even in the late sixties and beyond, Ol’ Blue Eyes still – most nights – had the goods. This three-concert set chronicles shows that are each unique in their own way. Even when the song selection overlaps (as it does a bit) the style, performance and delivery is unique to each show. Well worth watching, if only to prove that performers should not wish to — as Pete Townshend wrote — “die before [they] get old.”

Brian Eno: The Man Who Fell to Earth – I had the opportunity to see Brian Eno give an “Illustrated Talk” this year, and this documentary – covering his creative output in the 1970s – made a good warmup for that. Casual fans may think they know about Eno, but as this fascinating – long but never boring – DVD makes clear, there’s a lot more to know.

Steven Wilson – Insurgentes –  Returning readers to this blog probably know that I’m a serious fan of Steven Wilson. Porcupine Tree, his remix/remaster work on popular 70s albums, on and on. His first solo album under his own name also gave rise to this closely-related film (which is not a long-form music video). It’s sort of a meditation on, well, all the things rattling around in Wilson’s mind. Which is to say, some interesting and provocative subject matter. Poignant, unsettling and humorous, occasionally all at once.

Derailroaded - As (bad) luck would have it, Larry “Wild Man” Fischer passed away within a few weeks of my screening and reviewing this modern-day look at his life and, um, career. If you know about Fischer and think of him as a one-dimensional joke that’s not especially funny, this film might change your mind.

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