Archive for January, 2012

EP Review: Third of Never – Life Saver

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

Life Saver is a various-artists EP. Then again, it’s not. The five tracks on this disc feature CJ Grogan on two tracks, two cuts from Kurt Reil of The Grip Weeds, and one by a group calling itself Third of Never, a collective including Reil, Grogan and Jon Dawson.

To complicate things a bit further, the two CJ Grogan numbers are teasers for an upcoming album called Cathedral, and the Third of Never cut is an advance release from an album titled Downrising. (The Kurt Reil tracks arer exclusive to this EP.) So as of this writing, the only place to get these songs is on this EP.

Potential listeners for whom Kurt Reil is the only familiar name, well, they have a good idea of what to expect. His busy-in-a-good-way drumming is a constant highlight of Grip Weeds albums, and his vocals suit the high-energy, anthemic power-rock style of that band. Third of Never is subtly different than Grip Weeds, but the two are sonically close enough that – if you’re a Grip Weeds fan – you’ll need “Life Saver.” The backing vocals – presumably from Grogan and Dawson – give the track a bit of a harder edge that’s not at all unwelcome.

Reil’s “Gonna Find My Way” starts off with a Bo Diddley beat applied to a folky, almost countrified arrangement. But the song’s breezy bridge and constantly shifting beats mean that it’s best labeled as ambitious pop.

CJ Grogan’s insistently upbeat “Tracer” sounds – most of all – like a Grip Weeds tune with a non-Grip Weed on lead vocals. Surprising, because Reil’s not credited as being on the track. That sure does sound like his style on the trap kit, though. Instead it’s Mike Polilli, Third of Never’s drummer (Reil used to be that group’s drummer, but is out front on vocals now.) Grogan’s backing on the track also includes Vince Grogan, who’s also – if you weren’t confused enough – a member of Third of Never.

Reil’s “Wake Up Time” is another catchy rocker, with support from the Grogans (but not Dawson or Polilli). The close vocal harmony on the chorus is the song’s highlight, though the brief lead guitar solo and high-neck bass figures are pretty happenin’ as well.

CJ Grogan’s “Margaret” closes the disc. Sadly it wouldn’t play on any of my machines. (An occasional peril of CDRs, one supposes.)

As a teaser, Life Saver does alert Grip Weeds fans and other like-minded souls that there’s more good music to come from the House of Vibes studio. Nothing remarkably different from The Grip Weeds, mind you, but quality stuff all the same.

Note: While you wait for Downrising, Third of Never’s 2007 Moodring is well-worth seeking out as well, especially for its hard-rocking cover of Pete Townshend‘s “Let My Love Open the Door.” And one of Dawson’s other projects is an outfit calling itself Taboo Stu (named after a brief Third of Never track); their Psychedelic Slosh is an off-kilter album full of songs with laugh-out-loud music in-joke titles. I won’t spoil it for you: go find it.


Do you “LIKE” the writing here on Musoscribe?
If you do, please consider nominating one or more of the reviews, essays or features on the 2012 BEST MUSIC WRITING ballot.

Ozric Tentacles’ Perpetual Groove

Monday, January 30th, 2012

I first discovered Ozric Tentacles in 2009. Their heady mix of modern and psychedelic styles is a popular draw on the live circuit, and their vast back catalog is full of groves that appeal to both the jam-band scene and more progressively-minded listeners. The band’s latest studio album Paper Monkeys continues to serve up the sort of sounds that have endeared them to their loyal fan base, while expanding their audience. I spoke with leader Ed Wynne about the band’s music.

Bill Kopp: Occasionally the music of Ozric Tentacles uses vocals, but as an instrument – for texture – rather than as a means to deliver lyrics. Since the songs don’t have lyrics, are the “about” anything? Put another way, beyond the music itself, when you’re putting sons together, do you do so with a theme or extra-musical idea as a basis?

Ed Wynne: When a song is starting, it’s often kicked off by the fact that I’ll wake up in the morning and switch the keyboard on: “Oh, it sounds like that today!” But the tracks don’t have much of a concept at that point; they’re bare-bones. Now, occasionally I’ll wake up with an idea, and run down there to put it down. But generally, things seem to develop on their own. The tracks come into focus.

BK: Have you ever been tempted to add lyrics to the music?

EW: I’ve never actually thought to do it. I’m not the greatest singer in the world [laughs]. In general, I have always preferred instrumental music, really. Because it doesn’t specify how [the listener] is supposed to feel. When there aren’t lyrics, people interpret it their own way. Lyrics tend to tie it down a little bit.

And also, for people who don’t speak English, they’d have to use one of those translating machines to see what we’re on about!

BK: While Ozric Tentacles’ music is certainly high-energy and often trance-inducing, the one act that often comes to mind when I listen to you is Jean-Luc Ponty, especially his early-to-mid 1970s work. Have you listened to that at all, and would you agree that there’s a bit of a similarity in the vibe?

EW: Yeah, yeah, yeah: very much so. I’ve always really loved what he does. I love his violin playing, but I also really love the way he can construct a tune. Pretty potent, really.

BK: How do the songs develop: out of studio/rehearsal jams, out of what happens onstage, or are they at least initially based on a groove, texture or musical idea?

EW: All of the above, really. Every song is a different story. There are three kinds of stories. One is – as I mentioned – where I wake up with an idea for an intro, something that’s in an ethereal Ozrics style. And then, other times, yes: we’ll be jamming and we’ll come roaring into a riff. And I’ll have the recorder on to capture it.

We have quite a nice studio at the moment. It has a drum door, so we can close it to keep from getting too loud. That means that we are free to jam. And the third way is to sit there and try to work something up.

BK: I saw the band back in summer of 2009 here in Asheville. When I was researching to write the post-show feature, I found that you’ve sold more than a million albums worldwide despite never having major label backing. I was amused when whomever edited the band’s Wikipedia entry cited me as the source for that info. At this late date I have no idea where I even got the information from! But it is true, right?

EW: I remember that show, at the Orange Peel. That was a good one; a lot of fun.

But yeah, it’s true. We’ve been doing this for quite a while now: twenty years or so. So that million wasn’t all in one go. They’ve been selling gradually more over the years. It’s nice to know.

BK: One of the observations I made in that feature was that – from my point of view, anyway, your music does something that very little music does. It bridges the often large gap between fans of jam-band and trance music with people who like progressive rock and even jazz. Do you think that’s a fair assessment? And if so, would you say that’s part of your musical goal, or is it more of just a byproduct of you doing what you do and having people dig it?

EW: It’s a compliment. Thank you. We try and bring things together. Also, there’s the techno crowd, y’know. The ravers. They quite enjoyed us there for awhile, because we have weird noises and do some stuff on the synth.

As many different people as can come together is a good thing. It’s quite amusing at a concert, sometimes. You’ve got the noodle dancers up front and the prog rockers at the back.

BK: Yes! And those of us in the back, we’re wearing black t-shirts and we’ve got our arms crossed. But we’re digging it.

EW: Right. Nodding slowly. [laughs]

BK: Including the early cassette releases, the band has roughly twenty-five albums. Do you think your music has changed over time? How would you compare and contrast your contemporary stuff with the approach of your earlier material?

EW: When I listen back to the older stuff, it seems a lot simpler. Some of that may be because I was working with four-track. Then I went to eight, then twenty-four, now…

So we were limited by the amount of overdubs we could do. But how it’s changed…hard for me to say, because I’m right in the middle of it. We’re more world-y, more ethnic now. It’s changed a bit, but not that much.

BK: The title track on Paper Monkeys rock really hard, and is more straightforward – less groove-orientated – than a lot of the band’s material. It reminds me a bit of Joe Satriani.

EW: That “Paper Monkeys” track was fun. I hadn’t done one of those heavy guitar-y ones in awhile. It was really fun to do, and it’s great to play that one live. Not easy, though: the beginning and the end are quite easy. But the middle is crazy. Pretty quick bass line there; Brandi [Wynne] has to work hard.

BK: I believe that the Asheville date in 2009 was unusual: to my knowledge you don’t come around this region all that much. Any chance we’ll see you back in Asheville? You went over really, really well last time.

EW: I think so. There’s a clutch of American dates, with more to be announced.


Do you “LIKE” the writing here on Musoscribe?
If you do, please consider nominating one or more of the reviews, essays or features on the 2012 BEST MUSIC WRITING ballot.

Album Revews: Various Artists – Catbone’s ‘Jukin with de Blues’ Series

Friday, January 27th, 2012

Catbone is a blues-centric imprint of MVD Audio, and is headed by one Ken Hatley, a blues aficionado and musician himself. A series of releases under the confusingly- and possibly-misleading banner of “Catbone Unreleased,” these five discs nonetheless offer up some fine and interesting music.

Various Artists – Saturday Night in Shankletown
This disc kicks off with Billy Boy Arnold‘s “I Wish You Would,” a song most familiar to rock fans through its cover by the Yardbirds. The Chicago blues harpist (repeatedly mis-credited on this disc as Billy Boyd Arnold) has cut the track several times during his illustrious career, and – sadly typical of this series – the liner notes make no mention of which version this is. His stomping “El Dorado” will be more familiar as “I Ain’t Got You,” also covered by the Yardbirds. The disc collects classic blues sides – both old and (more often) contemporary – by Muddy Waters and James Cotton. But it also mixes in some left-field selections: George Cummings (of Dr. Hook); a Commodores cover of the soul hit “I Know I’m Losing You” and some late 90s collaborations between Nanette Workman (a sensation in French-speaking Canada, I’m told) and Peter Frampton. The disc wraps with a slick number from label head Hatley himself; it answers the question, “What would Paul Shaffer‘s band sound like playing the blues?” In total, Saturday Night in Shankletown is a mishmash that has no discernible unifying theme; it’s a bit like listening to a non-commercial, free-form blues station (does such a thing exist?) at three in the morning.

Various Artists – Bar-B-Cue’n Blues
A theme – such as it is – is beginning to develop on the second volume. More Billy Boy Arnold, James Cotton and Muddy Waters. The lyrics to Arnold’s “Catfish” will ring familiar to anyone who’s ever listened to the Beatles‘ cover of “Matchbox.” (A quick bit of checking suggests most if not all Arnold tracks on this series are taken from an album he cut in the early 70s called Catfish, featuring the Groundhogs as his backing band. Who knows?*) This set’s left-field cut is “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got,” a soulful Little Richard hit from the mid-sixties. It’s a fine tune, well worth having. But its placement here makes neither sonic nor thematic sense. At least the series is consistent in its…inconsistency.

* Well, I do, now.  I have it on reliable authority that the tracks are instead from a 1972 Arnold LP called Checkin’ it Out.  Allmusic.com rates it at the bottom of Arnold’s works. As ever, your mileage may vary. — bk

Various Artists – Belly Full of Blues
Sixteen more seemingly random selections make up the third installment in the “Jukin wit de Blues” series from Catbone Unreleased. (As best as I can determine, not a single track on any of these discs is previously unreleased, giving rise to a hearty “WTF?” concerning the label ‘s name.) This time around, it’s more contemporary recordings from – you guessed it – James Cotton, Muddy Waters, and the much-loved Workman/Frampton collaboration. (Forgive my snark.) But it wouldn’t be a Catbone Unreleased, er, release without some unexpected numbers being tossed in at random. So here we have a number called “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” from west-coat jazz artist Jack Millman. Maddeningly, the CD back cover’s track listing bears no relation to the sequence of tracks on the disc itself. A pair of dire modern tracks from The Original Flares (who?) feature cliche’d playing, bad organ samples and click-track drumming. For good measure, a track from Tina Turner‘s 1972 country-and-western LP The Country of Tina Turner is also included. No, really, it is.

Various Artists – Mean Street
But wait: there’s more. Howlin’ Wolf and James Cotton, of course, and more Muddy Waters and Frampton/Workman. Some actually-probably-old recordings from Elmore James (“Dust My Broom,” for example) are pretty fine. Little Richard’s reading of “Hound Dog” will have to pass for this volume’s odd selection, unless you consider an Etta James cut (listed here as “It Brings a Tear,”) which is actually a live reading of “Drown in My Own Tears.”

Various Artists – Jukin
The fifth and (to date) final in the grab-bag collection of blues and r&b sides from Catbone Unreleased, Jukin‘ serves up seventeen more tracks from names you know. If by some fluke you didn’t know them before, you know them after four volumes of “Jukin wit de Blues.” Howlin Wolf, Elmore James, Little Richard, James Cotton. And our friends Nanette Workman and Peter Frampton. This volume keeps the odd selections to a minimum, making it the best in the series. The addition of some Mike Bloomfield is a plus.

Don’t get me wrong: as noted above, these discs include music from some important artists, and some of it is very good. But to find those, one must wade through re-recordings of songs (Little Richard), bizarre inclusion of unknown acts like The Original Flares, and just-plain-odd selections (Frampton/Workman) whose presence seems to have more to do with availability than quality or musical value. While some of these tracks are good, and a few are great, it’s tough to recommend any of these discs without including all of the warnings noted above.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Hundred-word Reviews: January 2012

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

Here’s another installment in my occasional series of capsule reviews. My self-imposed limit for this particular exercise is 100 words on each release.

 

The Valery Trails – Ghosts and Gravity
This American/Australian outfit manages to conjure a trance-y vibe with a minimum of keyboard textures. The hypnotic aura of numbers like “On the Perfume River” establishes a sonic recipe that washes over the listener. Elsewhere they sound a bit like the better end of the 80s college rock/new wave spectrum, with hints of Echo & the Bunnymen and Modern English. Imagine a more laid-back, less excitable Midnight Oil. Subtle hints of other disparate styles – Americana, shoegaze – add to the musical breath of this release. Chiming guitars and sturdy songwriting make Ghosts and Gravity well worth checking out.

 

Robert Goodman Band – Everything is Beautiful
No relation (thankfully!) to the Ray Stevens pop hit, Everything is Beautiful nonetheless does project a sunny vibe. Shimmering, wide-screen, orchestrated pop with a bit of rock edge, this release builds its arrangements around keyboard; there’s lots of piano glissandi here. Vague hints of everything from Hootie & the Blowfish to Bruce Hornsby will remind listeners of a time when “pop” music meant stuff that had a broad appeal – none of this niche-market stuff. Everything is Beautiful will appeal to (among others) those who used to rock out and now prefer something a bit calmer and more carefully-thought-out.

 

Grand & Noble – Grand & Noble
Here listeners will find songwriting and playing that’s true to pop conventions, in the best sense of that phrase. The slow-burn approach is highly effective, pulling the listener in. Combining skronky guitar textures with sparkling keyboard lines and sweeping strings might sound like a recipe for muddled music, but on Grand & Noble, the approach works. The disc’s ten songs are stylistically varied, from the contemplative, melancholy of “This Light” to the Elton John-meets-Tom Waits-meets-Queen barroom blues of “Paris (and Danielle).” On “Episcopal,” Jon Elling (the pseudonymous Grand & Noble) channels After the Gold Rush-era Neil Young.

 

Black Box Revelation – Shiver of Joy EP
This is a brief collection of dance-oriented rock that balances groove and beat with straightahead rock swagger. Decidedly modern, Black Box Revelation still manages to channel INXS and Aerosmith at once. The delightfully noisy guitar solos are mixed way-out-front on the title track (and elsewhere). With their twin emphasis on guitar and drums, one might expect Black Box Revelation to sound like The White Stripes, but they don’t: there’s more going on here, especially with the delightfully hyperactive drums. On “You Better Get in Touch With the Devil,” they suggest a more commercially-minded Iggy Pop, crossed with Smashing Pumpkins.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Album Review: River Guerguerian – Grooves for Odd Times

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

If you’ve ever witnessed or experienced it, you’ll remember. You’re in a church of some sort – or maybe it’s a community campfire gathering. Whatever: the musical accompaniment launches into something with a bit of folk or what they used to call “negro spiritual” in it. Something with a beat. People moved by the spirit (communal or extrasensory or chemical or whatever) decide to clap along. But the life history of these specific people contains little if any immersion in the rock and roll tradition, or in soul or r&b for that matter. So what happens?

They. Clap. On. The. Wrong. Beat. Instead of the two and four, they’re clapping on the one and three. It’s just so, so wrong, especially when they don’t even stay on their (wrong) beat.

The thing is, conventional wisdom holds that because many people don’t “get” rhythm, any music outside 4/4 or ¾ (or the occasional c&w clip-clop of 2/4) is inaccessible: don’t even bother creating music with polyrhythms, because in doing so, you’re working at something with which people won’t be able to relate.

That point of view is an oversimplification, of course. And there’s a very strong argument against that sort of thinking. The argument’s latest form is the new album Grooves for Odd Times by Asheville NC-based (but world-renowned) percussionist River Guerguerian. Sure, the numbers are in what many westerners would consider unusual time signatures – 32- and 17-beat cycles and so on – but there’s nothing inaccessible or intimidating about this music. The eleven pieces on the album are instead warm and inviting.

A look at the liner notes reveals that some of the tracks feature such traditional (to rock ears) instrumentation as electric guitar, electric bass, and “electronics” (sounds like analog synth to me). But with the exception of the electronics, none of those things is used in a traditional manner: these pieces are grooves more than songs. And that’s just fine: the modern instruments are employed as textural devices rather than delivery systems for melodies. In fact, when melodies do occur, they’re almost incidental: this is trance music.

And Guerguerian wants it that way. In those liners, he lists “compositional concepts” that include such phrases as “abstract tone arrangement,” “trance-inducing” and “heavy groove philosophy.” In the hands of some third-rate Mickey Hart wannabee, this would be so much pretentious stuff and nonsense. Not here: these tracks flow, throb and vibe with an organic quality. Even the vocalists – one of whom is highly regarded Asheville-based Kat Williams – are used as instruments. The singers aren’t “singing” in a traditional sense: they’re providing more of that (here’s that word again) texture.

“Overture Six” is the track that leans the most toward what one might call a rock sensibility: in places it sounds a bit like Obscured by Clouds era Pink Floyd. But only a bit, mind you. Like all of the tracks on Grooves for Odd Times, it’s wholly original. Even those on-the-one-and-three folks would dig this. Equally effective for use as background/mood “sonic wallpaper” (this it has in common with Brian Eno‘s ambient work) or as closely-followed intent-listening music, River Guerguerian’s latest album is, in a word, groovy.

You may also enjoy my 2009 feature on Free Planet Radio, one of Guerguerian’s many other projects.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

My Worst Gig Ever: Frank’s in Kennesaw

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

Back in, oh, it must have been 1985 or so, I played in a cover band called Remote Control. Based in metro Atlanta, we got a good bit of work. This was back in the day when venues and organizations would actually pay for, y’know, live music. I still have copies of many of the contracts, and more than twenty-seven years ago my band – a not-particularly-well-known one at that – routinely drew $800 for a night’s work. Even after paying the sound man (who tended to get something like a quarter of the total, seeing as he had control over the “suck knob”) we each still went home with more than $100 each. Not that I’m complaining, but in 2012 a cover band in my city is lucky to take home $100 total.

Anyway, even though we got lots of gigs, we were hungry: we simply loved to play. And being that we were relatively indestructible early-twenties types, some of us (decorum and various statues of limitations prohibit me from naming names) did it for what we’ll call the fringe benefits. The money wasn’t even the thing. We’d play anywhere, any time. So while a typical gig would be at a fraternity party on the campus of Georgia Tech, or maybe a week-long engagement at a suburban bar, we were pretty much open to any sort of gig.


The band circa 1985. Your mulleted host at center.

On at least one occasion, that level of earnestness got us into a bit of trouble. According to the story we were given, another band with whom we were all friendly had double-booked, and their booking agent (or, shall we say, “booking agent”) offered us the gig. The pay was supposed to be something like $500 for a 9pm to midnight gig; something like that. Not bad, we thought, and we said yes. The gig was only few days away, so we wouldn’t be able to promote it ourselves (kids, there was no internet in these days, and anybody who had email wasn’t the type to go see a rock’n'roll band on a Saturday night anyway). But that didn’t matter, since the venue had, we were assured, a loyal following.

Two pieces of information should have alerted us to potential trouble. One, the gig was in a town called Kennesaw, GA. While these days Kennesaw is part of the unchecked metropolitan Atlanta sprawl, in 1985 it was considered “out there.” It would eventually become (in)famous as the right-wing city that responded to the so-called Brady Bill by actually passing a law requiring its citizens to own a gun. No, really. But even back in ’85, you knew them folks was packin’.

Kennesaw was far out geographically. Not the suburbs, not the exurbs, but whatever one calls the land beyond those. So we might have asked ourselves how a band that played the college-rock hits of the day (Police, INXS, REM, etc.) would go over in Kennesaw. Me, I had a mullet (though the term hadn’t been coined yet, and comedian Jeff Foxworthy rocked one too) and wore parachute pants onstage. Trust me: it wasn’t as hilarious then as it seems in retrospect. At least I don’t think it was.

The second red flag was the name of the place: Frank’s Buckboard, Frank’s Wagonwheel, or something very much like that. That name should have answered the how-will-they-like-us question right up front. Alas, we didn’t pay much attention. We should have.

The day of the gig arrived, and we loaded up our gear into multiple vehicles, filled the gas tanks and headed out to Kennesaw. We actually used a map. We arrived and set up without incident. At one point I approached the establishment’s manager, introduced myself and did a quick rundown of the evening’s plan. Start at nine sharp, two quick fifteen-minute breaks, wrap up at midnight. He stared at me and said, “No, you play until 2am.”

Caught completely by surprise, I stammered, “No, that’s not what we agreed to. We’re supposed to play three sets.” He calmly – too calmly, I thought – replied that we would play until two. He added that should we not comply, he could not, in his words, guarantee our safe exit from Frank’s.

There were no cell phones in these days, so after I broke the news to the rest of the band, we raced to find a pay phone out of earshot of the manager. As luck would have it, the booking guy wasn’t answering his calls. I’m sure it was a coincidence. My fellow band members and I went into a huddle and made the decision that we’d go ahead and play the gig. We were pretty far from home, without any friends or other reinforcements, and we were in potentially hostile territory in a place where we could safely assume everyone had a gun. (We – nice boys all — however, had none, and wouldn’t have known how to use one anyway.) Even with the benefit of more than a quarter-century’s hindsight, I think we made the right call.

We took the stage, and launched into our standard set with as much gusto as a band slightly fearing for their well-being could manage. The place was pretty full, but they were not reacting positively to our song selections. Most of the men were in plaid work shirts; jeans and cowboy boots, and the women had big hair. They had one thing in common: they did not like us.

Pivoting, we tried some of our more country-oriented material. As a more or less new wave/classic rock covers band (with a number of originals in a similar style) there wasn’t a lot of c&w in our set. And by “not a lot” I mean: none. But we gamely attempted twanged-up versions of songs by Tom Petty and the Byrds, and thought they’d like REM‘s “So. Central Rain,” which is pretty countryish after all. They were decidedly unmoved. The sounds of smashing beer bottles could be heard with increasing frequency.

The band at a 2003 reunion. Your host at left.
The band at a 2003 reunion. Your host at left.

The Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi film The Blues Brothers had been released a few years earlier (1980). Its memorable scenes had been etched into the psyche of many viewers, especially musician types. We laughed at the improbable scenes. But here we were in a land not altogether removed from some of the movie’s settings: a place where people like “both kinds” of music: country and western. Memories of the famous chicken-wire gig scene filled my head, and I’m sure my bandmates thought of it as well. While no beer bottles actually made contact with us or our instruments, they were flying.

Since none of our material was going over, we made a tactical decision to play Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s “Free Bird.” In 1985 it was every bit the cliché it is today, but at this point we didn’t care. We figured they’d like it. We were wrong: they loved it. Men stood up and removed their cowboy hats as if we were playing the fucking national anthem of Dixie. Women danced. People whooped and hollered when we pandered by asking that musical question, “How ’bout chew?” We milked that long song, making it even longer. At this late date there’s no way to prove me wrong, so you’ll have to trust me when I say that we played it the rest of the evening, through all our breaks, right up until 2am on the dot.

And we made it out alive, never to return.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Album Review: Maggie and Terre Roche – Seductive Reasoning

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

Since my discovery of their music, The Roches have long been a sentimental favorite for me. Having grown up on a steady diet of pop and rock, I didn’t take notice of the three sisters (Maggie, Terre and Suzzy) when they got their recorded start as a trio. Like, I suspect, many rock fans who eventually got into their music, I first learned of them through their connection to King Crimson‘s Robert Fripp. During one of Fripp’s many hiatuses from King Crimson, he sought to work as an “intelligent mobile unit” (or some similar Frippism). He made a point of working with many artists outside the whole progressive rock milieu, and the Roches’ self-titled debut album was one of these. As the three sisters showed off a dazzling display of their vocal work, incisive lyrics and fine folk-style playing, Fripp’s thickly sustained electric guitar wove in and out of the mix. It was a strange pairing, but it worked.

After picking up that 1979 album, I was hooked. Even though subsequent albums didn’t feature Fripp, the sheer quality of The Roches’ songs – and their quirky delivery – endeared them to me. (That my toddling daughter used to dance around the living room to their album Another World helps a bit, too.) I got the chance to see them onstage a couple of times, and had the dubious honor of receiving a sort of cease-and-desist email from Suzzy Roche when she learned I was planning to write a piece for my “Bootleg Bin” column covering an unreleased live recording of the group. (Apparently they share Fripp’s famous disdain of fan recordings.)

One of the records I picked up back in the 80s was a pre-Roches album credited to Maggie and Terre Roche (Suzzy, as Roches fans will doubtless know, was away in Hammond, Louisiana during the period this album was cut). Every bit as good as the subsequent Roches albums with Suzzy, 1975′s Seductive Reasoning applied a slightly more commercial sheen to the sisters’ music. Though clearly a Maggie/Terre project, the album features the unmistakeable sonic imprints of the other parties involved. Namely, producer (of some but not all tracks) Paul Simon, and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Both make their presence felt in a sympathetic, not-overpowering manner.

The songs – like nearly all of the sisters’ subsequent work – deftly mix humor, pathos, tragedy, playfulness, and sexiness into a pleasing stew. Highlights abound, but the Carole King-ish “Underneath the Moon” is certainly near the top. The chugging “If You Empty Out All Your Pockets You Could Not Make The Change” is a hoot, and “Telephone Bill,” with Terre’s clear-as-a-bell upper register, is heartbreakingly stark. But for me Seductive Reasoning‘s finest moments are on “The Mountain People,” an autobiographical country-and-western pastiche that shows the sisters’ unerring, note-perfect feel for American musical forms. Bonus points for some very clever rhyming.

A 2012 Real Gone Music reissue of the Columbia album doesn’t add any bonus tracks, but it does include a contemporary essay from Maggie. It also features what they’re calling the “original” cover artwork. (I like the Columbia one a whole lot more.) While I’m a fan of all Roches work (at least up through 1992′s A Dove, after which things get spotty), thanks to its perfect balance of quirk and commercial sensibility, Seductive Reasoning has aged the best. Highly recommended.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Album Review: Jethro Tull – Aqualung 40th Anniversary Special Edition

Friday, January 20th, 2012

A few weeks ago, Jethro Tull‘s highly regarded 1971 album Aqualung was released in a special 40th Anniversary package. But let’s be honest for a moment: this isn’t 1989 (by which time the CD format had completely taken over from vinyl) or 1993 (the year I finally broke down and bought a CD player). So if you like Aqualung, you probably already have it on CD. And if you don’t care for it, well, no amount of repackaging will increase its appeal.

So why should the 2012 music consumer – one who enjoys Ian Anderson‘s vocals, songwriting and flute, and Martin Barre‘s guitar work – consider spending his or her hard-earned cash on a new Aqualung package? Here are a few answers. First of all, the new package (available in several formats, but I’m concerning myself here with the 2CD set) has been remixed from the original master tapes by Steven Wilson. The modern-day renaissance man has his finger in all sorts of musical pies, having done remix/remaster work on the King Crimson catalog (still rolling out) and Caravan‘s wonderful In the Land of Grey and Pink. So rest assured that the sound on the “new” Aqualung is as good as it can possibly be, and that it will reveal new depths of subtlety that the original hid away.

Secondly, there’s a nice in-depth/lengthy interview/essay courtesy of Dom Lawson. The piece goes into detail (and historical context) about Aqualung the album, the cover art, and the is-it-or-isn’t-it-a-concept-LP argument. (Spoiler: Anderson insists it’s not. Me, I’m still not so sure.)

But Reason #3 is the kicker, the most convincing argument in favor of a modern-day purchase of Aqualung: 40th Anniversary Special Edition. The package includes a second CD jammed full of Jethro Tull music from the period. And instead of taking the easiest path to fill a bonus CD (slapping on a live concert from the era, perhaps one of those King Biscuit affairs), the second disc compiles new/alternate mixes, b-sides and alternate takes. The result is an album-length collection that, frankly, holds together on its own nearly as well as the original Aqualung album. And that’s saying something.

A full third of the bonus disc is a (mostly-but-not-completely) remastered version of a 4-song EP from 1971. The tracks (“Life is a Long Song,” “Up the Pool,” “Dr. Bogenbroom,” “From Later” and “Nursie”) hang together well, sound very much of a piece (sonically if not thematically) with the Aqualung numbers on the first disc. The sounds-like-a-hit “Lick Your Fingers Clean” is here too, though it’s been part of various Aqualung bonus CD reissue tracks since 1996.

An early version of “My God” runs nearly ten minutes, and it’s every bit as melodramatic as the official version. The main album’s brief “Wond’ring Aloud” is now joined by one of the new set’s few never-ever-released-before tracks, the seven-minute “Wond’ring Aloud, Again.” A total of four tracks on the second disc have never appeared officially until now.

If your opinion lines up with that of the majority of rock reviewers – that Aqualung was the best and most fully-realized of all Jethro Tull albums – then a purchase of the 40th Anniversary set is necessary, seeing as disc two runs only slightly behind the original album in terms of quality. And for the truly hardcore Tull fan, there is another configuration of the set available: including two vinyl LPs plus CDs collecting all of the material on these two CDs, it features an additional 121 (yes! One hundred and twenty-one) tracks on DVD and Blu-Ray, many of them 5.1 Surround and Quad mixes, plus a hardbound book.

Commenting on this expansive reissue, Ian Anderson had this to say (from the press kit): “I hope you enjoy this splendid EMI release and, if there’s someone out there you really love, then why not treat them to the Collector’s Edition in all its glory. Or, come to think of it, if there’s someone out there you really dislike, then the same might apply. Each to his own. Me– I kinda like it…”

You may also enjoy my extensive, wide-ranging and lively 2008 interview with Ian Anderson.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Album Review: John Moremen’s Flotation Device

Thursday, January 19th, 2012

Not being any sort of sport fan, I generally don’t go in for sports metaphors in my writing. But occasionally, there’s no better way to make a point. So here goes:

Mystery Lawn Music throws a curveball!

I should explain, of course. I’ve written fairly extensively about releases on the Bay Area-based label. And while the acts I’ve covered feature a fair amount of overlap in terms of personnel, they generally have one thing in common: placing of high value on the idea of “ear candy.” Whether it’s The Orange Peels or William Cleere (or a bunch of others), the music has its own identity, yet remains steadfastly true to some basic ideas as to what pop music should sound like.

But here’s the thing: one of the players whose name shows up in the liner notes of many an MLM release – John Moremen – has a solo album of his own called John Moremen’s Flotation Device. And this one-man project – Moremen on guitar, bass and drums – sounds not a bit like any other MLM release. So much for thinking I know what to expect from Mystery Lawn.

Where other MLM artists draw inspiration from (among many other sources) 70s AM pop radio, on JMFD, Moremen channels his inner Duane Eddy. And perhaps a bit of his latent Daddy-O Grande; the fifteen rocking instrumental tunes on the disc owe more to the twangy Fender stylings of early 60s surf rock, with an updated, modern sensibility.

Instrumental rock of this stripe is a challenging genre. The artist who chooses that path limits the tools at his or her disposal. Keyboards are rare, as are any instruments beyond the guitar/bass/drums trio. There is no lead vocal line to move the melody along, nor to convey the song’s vibe. And since for the most part the rhythm section is there to hold down the bottom, it’s mostly down to the six-string fretwork to make whatever musical points need making. In short, in the hands of a less-than-highly skilled practitioner, the instro-rock path is fraught with peril, and the results are quite often uninspired at best, disastrously monotonous at worst.

But guess what: John Moremen’s Flotation Device deftly glides past all of those musical harbor mines, creating a textured, rocking and tuneful collection. There’s an intimate feel to the tracks that suggests the well-oiled machine of a rock trio cutting the tracks live-to-tape. Clearly that didn’t happen, what with Moremen playing everything.

Some of the tracks are truly thrilling: “Deep Fried” is one of these. With a busy (in a good way) rhythm section, it’s an exemplar of Flotation Device‘s strengths, and illustrates the point that instrumental trio rock need not limit itself to surf-rock styles. The fret-buzzing tracks have subtle flourishes of (shudder!) progressive rock, but with none of that genre’s look-ma pyrotechnics. With very few exceptions, the tracks on John Moremen’s Flotation Device whizz by: they stake out their riffage, entertain for a few minutes, and then it’s on to another winning cut. It’s all over too soon.

By the way: It will be interesting to see what Moremen’s other project will sound like. For months now I’ve been hearing rumors about a project of his called The John and Paul Paul and John, a collaboration with musician and noted music journalist (and supreme master of the clever Tweet) Paul Myers.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter
and get notified when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Album Review: Howlin’ Rain – The Russian Wilds

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

Remember the 1970s? It was a time when men strutted about the rock’n'roll stage as if they owned it. Mostly because they did. Hard-rocking vocalists forcefully staked their claim onstage, and the musicians behind ‘em assailed their instruments as if beating harder on them wrought forth truer music than would simply caressing them. Long (well, not too long) before Johnny Rotten sang, “We mean it, man,” these rock gods certainly seemed like they meant it.

The guys in Howlin’ Rain clearly remember the 70s too. And if they don’t, they’ve studied well, absorbing all of the right things and few if any of the wrong ones. I first noticed the group right around the time of their March 2008 release, Magnificent Fiend. At the time I was editor in chief for a national print magazine (to quote Rob Reiner‘s Marti DiBergi character in This is Spinal Tap, “Don’t look for it; it’s not there anymore”) and had planned to cover that album. But the magazine suddenly went belly up, and I was on to other pursuits. So when an advance of The Russian Wilds recently landed on my desk, I was keen to check it out.

I had really liked Magnificent Fiend; my only reservation was that the album hewed a bit to close to the whole early-70s Allman Brothers sound and feel. That’s certainly a fine point of reference, but a bit more variety would have made a very good album even better.

I’m pleased to report that the sought-after variety is delivered in large quantities on The Russian Wilds. Howlin’ Rain still aim squarely for that 1970s hard-rockin’ vibe, but they’ve widened their scope – and applied their considerable talents – to take in and serve up music that references everything from Led Zeppelin to Vince Guaraldi, from Black Sabbath to Steely Dan to Three Dog Night. And they manage all of this without sounding at all like any of those artists. Or like the Allman Brothers, for that matter.

From the Leslie’d guitar opening of “Self Made Man” to the hard-charging riff that underpins the song, it’s clear that Howlin’ Rain have come to rock you. But the band seems not content to merely dream up a riff and then construct a tune around it. Each of the eleven tracks on The Russian Wilds has at least two – often three, four or more – good musical ideas in it. And each one is good enough to hold the song up.

But no: the band is on mission to give you more. So every damn guitar solo – and there are lots of ‘em on this record – has its own unique tone. Thus the band asserts their own style, but rarely covers the same musical ground twice. The result is a varied yet consistent album that holds up to repeated plays. One moment they might remind you of Delaney and Bonnie; the next, Beck Bogert & Appice in one of their rare sensitive moments. And while sometimes “70s style rock” is shorthand for solo instrumental interludes that stay long past their welcome, on The Russian Wilds, you’ll want the solos to go on even longer than they do (which is, truth be told, pretty long). The twin- or triple-lead guitar approach so reminiscent of the Allmans (and subsequently beat to death by their lesser suthin’ rawk acolytes: Outlaws, Lynryd Skynrd, Molly friggin’ Hatchet, etc.) is still present on The Russian Wilds, but its use is dialed back to the point where it’s welcome when it does appear.

On “Phantom in the Valley” the band evokes thoughts of Blind Faith. The majestic and slowly unfolding “Strange Thunder” sounds uncannily like More-era Pink Floyd, reminiscent of that band’s pastoral mood pieces in which David Gilmour sang at the top of his register. But when the rocking part of the song kicks in, all traces of the summer of ’68 are blown away, revealing an insistent, Deep Purple-like approach. “Beneath Wild Wings” features some tasty (and tasteful) Rhodes work that would impress Stevie Wonder.

In this category, about the only thing I can imagine that would be better than The Russian Wilds is the chance to see Howlin’ Rain present this material – and some of their earlier music – live onstage. Luckily (for some, alas not for me) the band’s 2012 tour begins in February (mostly dates in the western part of the USA) and concludes with three dates in March at SXSW.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter
and get notified when new features, reviews and essays are published.