Archive for June, 2012

Reviews: The Grip Weeds – Speed of Live (CD) and Live Vibes (DVD)

Friday, June 29th, 2012

Here’s how it usually goes: when you hear that one of your favorite bands is releasing a live album – let’s say it’s called Speed of Live – and that at roughly the same time, they’re also putting out a DVD called Live Vibes, you make a couple of assumptions. One is that the two are connected. Possibly the audio and video are the same concert, provided in two formats.

Another assumption follows from that first one: you probably don’t need both. In fact, depending on the band, you might make the calculation – love them though you do – that live versions of their songs aren’t necessarily worth your shelling out your hard-earned cash. Sure, you’d go see them if they came to your town, but live versions of studio songs? Those can be an iffy proposition. Taking The Who as but one handy example, for every stunning 2LP Live at Leeds there’s an overblown and lifeless 3LP Join Together: Live Performances from the 1989 U.S. Tour.

But those presuppositions are worth setting aside when it’s The Grip Weeds we’re talking about. Yes indeed: Speed of Live is a wonderfully recorded, energetically played live document culled from (relatively rare, it should be said) onstage Grip Weeds shows. The fifteen cuts are sourced from four different dates between 2007 and 2010, and three of the strongest performances come from a date at The Court Tavern, adopted home of that tri-state area-based American treasure, The Smithereens.

The performances are intimate, club-like, befitting the, er, vibe of The Grip Weeds. As with the best live albums, there’s a certain immediacy to the live versions of songs like “Close to the Sun” and “Salad Days.” And “Love’s Lost on You” proves that the group’s finely-tuned, tight arrangements are no mere studio trickery. With the high-gloss sheen of the studio stripped away, the raw power of the songs shines even more brightly. True, the sonic depth is less evident, but it’s more than offset by the you-are-there feel of the recordings. And just to tie thing nicely back to our Live at Leeds citation, The Grip Weeds bash through “Shakin’ All Over.” (They also stomp their way through “(So You Want to Be A) Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” and nail both the vocal harmonies and the extended guitar solo.)

Live Vibes is an altogether different affair. Despite its name, this hour-long DVD is not an audiovisual document of the music on Speed of Live. No, it’s a rather more routine (yet equally pleasing) presentation that hearkens – in more ways than one – back to early days of MTV. The quartet is seen running through select songs from their catalog, set up in a room in their aptly-named home studio, the House of Vibes. With some tapestries hung on the wall, a strategically-placed lava lamp, and some blobby liquid projections a la Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, The Grip Weeds play live-in-the-studio (sans audience) versions of nine of their best songs. In between, viewers are treated to pearls of wisdom and reflections upon the creative process etc. by each of the four Grip Weeds.

The video production has a curiously dated feel: some of the post-production techniques all but scream “1985!” (I know: my band of that era used some of the same effects in our own hilariously self-important documentary that very year). The result, juxtaposed as it is against The Grip Weeds in their retro finery, is redolent of nothing so much as the Paisley Underground bands. Perhaps not quite the feel they were aiming for, but no harm is done.

The singing and playing is stellar – this is The Grip Weeds, after all – and of course the songs are top-notch. Special notice goes to “Telescope” and “We’re Not Getting Through.” In the interview parts, the band liken the setup to the Floyd’s UFO shows. That might be stretching things a bit; it looks more like the set of the “Wayne’s World” SNL skits. But for Grip Weeds fans, the DVD remains essential viewing, especially seeing as it includes four MTV-style music videos as bonus material. But because it’s not in fact a live/onstage extravaganza with all of the concomitant excitement, it’s perhaps not the sort of DVD that will enjoy multiple repeated viewings.

A quick but important aside: After an extended dry period with no new releases (2004′s Giant on the Beach was for many years their most recent offering), The Grip Weeds came roaring back at the tail-end of the new century’s first decade. In 2010 they released not only an album, but a double-album, Strange Change Machine. In 2011 they released a Christmas-themed album. And now in 2012 there’s this live album and DVD. It would seem that The Grip Weeds are making up for lost time.

But back to these new releases: Speed of Live (the CD) is a must-hear for Grip Weeds fans and anyone who enjoys the straight-ahead powerpop-with-oomph-and-finesse that characterizes the best music in the genre. Live Vibes (the DVD) is well worth viewing, but probably will find ardent admirers only among the most hardcore of Grip Weeds fans. Those hardcore fans will indeed need both. For most others, Speed of Live is the one to get.

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A Conversation with The Avengers’ Penelope Houston, Part 2

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

Continued from Part One

Houston has released fourteen albums, if one counts limited-edition sets, live albums and compilations. But she doesn’t approach her collections of new music with any sort of thematic concept in mind. “It really has more to do with, ‘Oh, it’s been a really long time since I put an album out. I’ve got a bunch of songs here; I just need to write a couple more so I have enough for an album!’” Houston says that she “writes very slowly, and only when I’m inspired.”

While Penelope Houston didn’t play an instrument onstage with The Avengers, she does in fact play an instrument: the autoharp. “I use it as a songwriting tool,” she explains. That instrument is a clear and distinctive part of the mix on albums like Cut You (1996) and 1998′s Tongue. But it’s nowhere to be found On Market Street. Houston did play the instrument on some basic tracks, but they were mixed out. The majority of the new disc’s songs have Hammond organ or Wurlitzer Electric Piano, and, as Houston explains, “the tone range of the autoharp and the tone range of the keyboards are similar, so the autoharp was essentially canceled out.” She argues that the autoharp is “a really interesting sound, but it really needs a lot of space. And we had already filled in that space.”

 

At present, Houston splits her time between promoting On Market Street (mostly – though not exclusively — via live dates in the San Francisco Bay area) and touring with a reformed Avengers (guitarist Ingraham is the other returning original member). The official release of The Pink Album is helping to renew interest in this oft-overlooked band.

Many people know of The Avengers only through having read Richie Unterberger‘s book Unknown Legends of Rock’n'roll, with its chapter on Houston and The Avengers. At the time of that book’s publication (1996) Avengers material was extremely hard to come by, even for those few who knew or cared. Choosing her words carefully, Houston explains that the record’s long unavailability was due to “questions concerning who had the rights to release it. It took a long, long time to resolve that. And all those issues are resolved now.” Her voice trails off as she playfully adds, “And…that is my official line, what I am legally able to say.” She giggles. Speaking on behalf of all the original members, Houston makes it clear they they’re very happy to have finally made The Avengers available.

To my ears, bits of Jackie DeShannon‘s influence can be heard on Houston’s solo work. And in various spots On Market Street calls to mind The Band (“You Reel Me In”), The Kinks, (“USSA”), and even Suzanne Vega (“Winter Coats”). “Scrap” sounds a bit like a cross between The Roches and The Violent Femmes. “When I was quite young, even before I was in The Avengers,” Houston recalls, “I listened to The Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention and Pentangle.” (“Aha!” replies this interviewer.)

“Then, after The Avengers, Tom Waits and – you’re right – The Violent Femmes were among my big influences.” She observes that in her change from punk to “folk, or folk-rock,” the Tom Waits approach of “using whatever instrument the song calls for” made a serious and lasting impression on her. And from the Violent Femmes she learned that “you could make the music quieter, but every bit as craggy and sharp-edged as anything in punk.” From The Band she took the approach of making music that is “big” sounding, yet not (or at least not always) aggressive. Across all of her solo work – though perhaps never before as seamlessly as with On Market Street — Houston has put these lessons to effective use.

Some artists include lyric sheets, and some don’t. On every one of Houston’s albums, however, there is a lyric sheet. Some of her songs start out seeming like they’re about one thing, or from a certain point of view or emotional vantage point. But then they lyrics reveal the song to be something else. “All the Way” is a good example: it initially feels like a love song, but reveals itself to be something more complicated, more nuanced. I point this out to Penelope, and she replies, “You definitely have something there. I think it’s because life is complicated. I don’t think any of the issues I write about in my songs are simple enough to just look at them from one point of view.” She agrees about the contrast between the music and lyrics, as well. “I think that sometimes when people listen to the music, they’re drawn in – ‘Oh, this is really nice’ – and then they listen to the lyrics, and they’re like ‘Ahh! Ouch!’”

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A Conversation with The Avengers’ Penelope Houston, Part 1

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

One of the most notorious and legendary Sex Pistols gigs was their final date of their US tour. Onstage at San Francisco’s Winterland, they ran through a typically shambolic set, and as guitar feedback howled at the tail end of a run-through of The Stooges‘ “No Fun,” Johnny Rotten (soon to revert to his given name John Lydon) smirked and asked the crowd, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

Those who attended that January 14, 1978 performance couldn’t have felt cheated: not only had they witnessed the Pistols onstage (something precious few Americans could claim to have done), but if they showed up early enough, they got to see the opening act, local heroes The Avengers.

 

Fronted by a then-nineteen-year-old Penelope Houston, The Avengers were an uncompromising punk act of the first order. In their own way, The Avengers were as political and provocative as the Pistols; their anthemic “We Are the One” is more clear about what “we” aren’t (Catholics, fascist pigs, Jesus Christ, etc.) yet somehow it remains a Statement. Greg Ingraham‘s buzzsaw guitars and the relentless speed-demon attack of rhythm section Danny Furious (drums) and Jimmy Wilsey (bass) provided an in-your-face sonic backdrop for Houston’s aggressive yet (somehow) youthfully innocent vocals.

The band never made an album-proper, though various studio, live and bootleg/live tracks were posthumously cobbled together to form a nonetheless great self-titled album (aka The Pink Album). The Avengers themselves lasted only eighteen months after the Winterland gig. Houston would go on to a solo career that took her music in what may have seemed at the time a surprising direction.

Drawing on the folk side of rock, Penelope Houston’s solo albums often had more in common with Nick Drake or Joni Mitchell than anything on The Pink Album. (As it would turn out, there were a few sonic clues to Houston’s more melody-oriented direction, but those tracks wouldn’t become widely available until much later. A 2012 2CD reissue of The Avengers includes the original album plus a “bonus” disc that’s longer and of arguably comparable music quality.

While varied in style and texture, Penelope Houston’s solo work is characterized in large part by its trademark juxtaposition of sweet, catchy (and/or hooky) melodies that back acerbic, wry lyrics. And there’s still plenty of rock’n'roll alongside the Americana-flavored singer/songwriter style tracks on Houston’s latest, On Market Street. I asked her what she sees as the unifying element that runs through her music. “The common thread is my attitude toward life,” Houston says. “My point-of-view. There has to be something in there that hopefully expresses the way I see the world, and,” she laughs heartily, “how the world can do better.” (“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” she adds, laughing again.)

“But I do have a bit of an attitude, and that comes through. Sometimes,” she observes, “It’s funny, and sometimes it’s bitter. It’s not like I’m only saying one thing all the time, but there’s definitely a critique, a darkness to a lot of my lyrics. But at the same time, I have a sense of humor about life. And I would hope that all of those things are visible and understandable in my lyrics.”

To be continued…

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Album Reviews: Concord’s “Very Best Of” Jazz Collections, Part 2

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

The Very Best of John Coltrane (The Prestige Era)
Concord puts a tight focus on John Coltrane‘s work for its The Very Best of John Coltrane, subtitling the set “The Prestige Era.” a 2010 double-CD set surveyed his work for that label plus his work on Riverside (Concord controls both catalogs), but this new set reprises a mere three cuts from the earlier collection. Jazz scholar Ashley Kahn rightly starts his liner note discussion by making note of Coltrane’s phrasing; said lyrical phrasing is on vivid display on the ten tracks on this CD. One of Trane’s strengths – there were many – was his ability to make a song his own, to indelibly stamp it with his personality. As such, of the ten tracks on The Very Best Of, only one (the lengthy workout of “Traneing In”) is a Coltrane original. The others are standards (“Lover Come Back to Me”), numbers written for his band (Fred Lacey‘s “Theme for Ernie”) or works by his esteemed associates (Monk‘s appropriately-titled “Nutty,” from Thelonous Monk with John Coltrane). Exuberant, upbeat and played with so much life it boggles the mind, this is music that must be heard. If you’re new to Coltrane’s work and this doesn’t lead you to want more, like the man said, Jack, you’re dead.

The Very Best of Sonny Rollins
Tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins is yet another jazz great who recorded for labels now under control of Concord Music Group. Their 2010 Definitive Sonny Rollins set drew upon albums recorded for Prestige, Riverside and Contemporary, spanning the period 1951-1958. The 2012 collection The Very Best of Sonny Rollins looks to that same period, and in fact six of the ten tracks on the latest set appeared on the 2CD Definitive collection. But let’s not hold that against Concord, especially in light of the fact that the target audience for the two sets is slightly different. Unlike the Coltrane, Miles and Montgomery sets, this collection doesn’t feature a set lineup of musicians; the personnel for nearly every track is unique. But with names like Max Roach, Oscar Pettiford and Barney Kessell, you can’t go wrong. Musically a bit more challenging than the sounds on the previously-mentioned collections, the Rollins numbers have a vibe that’s equal parts abstract and melodic. Neil Tesser‘s liner notes help Rollins neophytes (and everyone else, for that matter) understand what’s special about the sax player’s style, with just the right amount of technical description to make the point without wading too far into the weeds for non-musicians. Even though most of the ten tracks are high-energy the set’s highlight is a breathtaking yet melancholy reading of “In a Sentimental Mood” featuring the Modern Jazz Quartet.

The Very Best of Chet Baker
Concord also released The Very Best of Chet Baker, but I’ll pass on an in-depth review of that set. I actively dislike Chet Baker‘s vocals (featured on four of the set’s 14 tracks) but I appreciate his virtuosity as a player. As such my thoughts on the album would be of limited value to readers. Suffice to say that it looks to be a solid overview of Baker’s work 1952-1965, with a strong emphasis on the late 50s.

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Album Reviews: Concord’s “Very Best Of” Jazz Collections, Part 1

Monday, June 25th, 2012

The Very Best of Wes Montgomery
Among rock fans, the phrase “tasteful playing” approaches the realm of fighting words. But when one realizes, as liner notes essayist Neil Tesser suggests in his liner notes for The Very Best of Wes Montgomery, when you’ve influenced Jimi Hendrix and Pat Metheny, you’re worth another listen, regardless. And while Tesser is perhaps a bit too kind in his assessment of Wes Mongtomery‘s later work (leaning toward easy listening, that material is not included on this set), his essay does a wonderful job of arguing for Montgomery’s massive reputation. The Very Best Of covers a period of only forty-odd months (his time on Riverside), but for those interested in learning more about him (and make no mistake – it is neophytes for whom this set is designed), this is the music to hear. From the ear candy of “Canadian Sunset” to the subtle swing of “Besame Mucho” (with Mel Rhyne‘s gurgling B3 a likely influence on Brian Auger) to the exotic sounds of “Delilah” featuring thrilling vibes work from Milt Jackson, it’s clear that Montgomery was equal parts virtuoso and team player. When the song calls for Montgomery to solo, he brings his warm, soft tones forward; his playing is the antithesis of the stinging leads one finds in rock, yet somehow it possesses power equal to the most soaring rock solo work. And on “Four on Six” Montgomery takes off, leading the band for heights previously unexplored. A tidy distillation of the guitarist’s eight-album run on Riverside, The Very Best of Wes Montgomery will draw intrepid listeners into his musical world.

The Very Best of the Miles Davis Quintet
It was quite recently – 2011, in fact – that Concord released The Definitive Miles Davis on Prestige. That 2CD set covered Miles Davis‘ work during the period 1951-56, and drew from eight or nine albums, most of which were released under Davis’ name, or as releases from his Allstars or Quintet. The Very Best of the Miles Davis Quintet confines itself to an even narrower time frame, and picks from six records. Amazingly – or not amazingly, if you’re familiar with the breadth and depth of Davis’ 1950s work – there’s almost no overlap between the two collections. Yes, a couple of songs title appear on both sets (“Oleo,” “’Round Midnight”), but in a number of instances the versions are different. The take of “Four” on The Very Best Of is from Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, and runs in excess of seven minutes; the four-minute version on Definintive is from Blue Haze and dates from two years earlier. The Very Best Of aims to present as wide a sonic palette as possible of the Quintet’s work, so there’s something for all sorts of jazz fans within the disc’s ten cuts. In addition to plenty of top-flight trumpet soling from Miles (most notably on “Oleo”), listeners get to hear Davis hang back and allow his amazing bandmates (Red Garland on piano, bassist Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones on drums) take their moments in the spotlight. And John Coltrane guests on tenor sax in the outro of a stellar “My Funny Valentine.”

Also: reviews of two (or three) more Concord Very Best Of jazz collections.

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Todd Rundgren – Rocking Out to the Personal and the Universal

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

Todd Rundgren turns 64 today. Here’s a feature/interview of mine from four years ago. — bk.

When the character Forrest Gump compared life to a box of chocolates (“you never know what you’re gonna get”), he could have just as easily drawn a comparison to the music of Todd Rundgren. Throughout his career — beginning in 1967 with proto-powerpop quartet Nazz, through his solo work, albums with Utopia and extensive production duties for others — Rundgren has charted an idiosyncratic path.

To a casual observer, his stylistic changes might seem haphazard. Rundgren attributes his approach to restlessness: “I have never actually seen myself as a stylist, someone trying to develop a personal style and milk that until the public loses interest in it.” He says that his musical approach “is as much about entertaining myself as it is entertaining anyone else.”

His latest album — Arena, released September 30 on HiFi — is his 20th solo album of new material (depending on how you count). And it marks something of a return to form. His last studio release, 2004′s Liars, was a concept album (the songs all “fit into a thematic puzzle,” Todd says, “about dishonesty in modern life”). So, too, he says, is Arena. But is it a topical album specifically about current events? “If you want to talk about leadership by deception and cowardice,” Rundgren laughs, “then a certain 43rd president’s name might pop into your head. But that doesn’t mean that he thought these ideas up. This goes back to the frickin’ Roman Empire: Nero fiddling while Rome burned.” As is his hallmark, Rundgren’s lyrics try to bridge the personal and the universal, angling toward timeless rather than timely. He says that if these songs were “totally specific to one personality, I wouldn’t feel as inclined to write about them. Because ten years from now, people will forget about that person. Our loathing of George W. Bush will eventually dull into a kind of lingering disgust, because we won’t have to deal with him any more.”

Todd Rundgren. Photo (c) Lynn Goldmith Todd observes that the qualities of leadership and heroism “are things that come out of us; they become manifest in various personalities and situations.” Yet he says that he’s most interested in writing about “the part that’s inside us, pre-manifestation. This particular record,” Todd continues, “is about the concepts of courage and cowardice, and how they manifest from the small — like personal doubts, extremely internal things — to interpersonal reactions, and how those characteristics play out between people…all the way up to crises in leadership, to the political milieu that we find ourselves in.”

But as its title suggests, Arena rocks, too. While Rundgren has made significant forays into singer-songwriter territory (The Ballad of Todd Rundgren in 1971), prog-rock (much of Utopia’s early output), bossa nova (1997′s With a Twist…), Broadway (1991′s 2nd Wind) and even hip-hop (1992′s No World Order), Arena leans toward fist-pumping, anthemic rockers with hooks and catchy choruses. Concertgoers should expect a loud, raucous, rocking evening.

All of the songs on Arena were written early this year; when Todd played in Greenville SC a mere six months ago, he didn’t play any of the new songs. (“I hadn’t,” he admits, “even started on the new material then.”) The album was recorded at his home on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, with Todd playing all of the instruments. But on this tour, he performs the whole of Arena (plus other songs from the rockier end of his extensive catalog) with a top-notch band that includes longtime musical associates Prairie Prince (drums) Jesse Gress (guitar, vocals) and Todd’s former Utopia bandmate Kasim Sulton (keyboards, guitar, vocals). Rachel Haden — daughter of famed jazz bassist Charlie Haden — plays bass and sings. But it’s Todd the audience will see out front, singing lead and wailing on guitar. Rundgren’s date at the Orange Peel is his last before he’s off for a month of dates in Europe.

So what unusual direction might Rundgren — now 60 years old — pursue next? If he’s decided, he’s not telling. “I imagine there are a whole lot of things that I could explore. I’m not like Paul McCartney,” he observes, “longing to write my symphony.” Meanwhile, the baker’s dozen of new songs on Arena manage to have it both ways: they rock out in a melodic fashion, yet lyrically they convey what’s on Todd Rundgren’s mind these days. “I didn’t necessarily want to do something political or topical,” he explains. “I wanted to do something about people. Something that is…human.

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Album Review: The Sugarman 3 – What the World Needs Now

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

I first caught notice of the (for lack of a better term) boogaloo revival a scant few years ago when I first heard The New Mastersounds. That group’s instrumental attack drew upon what the British call Northern Soul, folding in healthy helpings of Memphis style r&b a la Booker T & the MG‘s. Once I got hip to (and interviewed) them, I followed the trail where it led; I learned about the venerated DJ Keb Darge,curator of a long list of deep-groove collections. I found an actual (and quite wonderful) Memphis group, The City Champs. And of course everyone knows about Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, and such modern practitioners of that classic soul r&b/soul sound as Fitz & the Tantrums and Mayer Hawthorne. The wave continues with bubbling-under acts like The Right Now. In short, these are good times for soul/funk/r&b revival styles.

It’s a given that the musicians who play this kind of music have a deep sense of history; it’s all but a prerequisite: if they lacked that depth, we’d detect the deficiency in the music and promptly call bullshit on them. So it’s perhaps not a surprise that both The City Champs’ guitarist Joe Restivo and The New Mastersounds’ Eddie Roberts both name-checked The Sugarman 3 as favorites and big influences; that NYC trio was pretty much first on the revival scene.

But the recording history of the group as such – namesake Neal Sugarman on sax, Adam Scone on organ, and drummer Rudy Albin – started in 1998 and ended four years later. They went on to back Sharon Jones, but as a recording unit, it seemed their days were over. Happily, this is not so.

2012 saw the release of What the World Needs Now, the first new release from The Sugarman 3 in a decade. And, as the saying goes, it’s like they never left. With the original lineup intact (or re-formed, depending on your point of view) and augmentation by familiar friends, What the World Needs Now is a return to form, so to speak.

Every bit as good as – and not very different from – their brief string of turn-of-the-century albums, the new set flies by quickly. In addition to the group originals (all of which deftly maintain that tight-yet-loose feel so essential to the style), The Sugarman 3 tackle a pair of noteworthy covers. The Standells‘ garage classic “Dirty Water” gets a boogaloo reinvention here, and Burt Bacharach‘s classic (the title track) gets covered as well. The choice of the latter is remarkable in its own way: Bacharach’s songs are quite complex structures, and are already heavily imbued wit a jazz sensibility (if not outright jazz itself). So adapting a number like “What the World Needs Now” into an irresistibly danceable style is tougher than it might seem; the primitive “Dirty Water” is a more logical (and easier-to-pull-off) choice. The thing is, in the expert hands of The Sugarman 3, both work, and well.

From the retro-styled cover art to the recording aesthetic (8-track analog, mixed to bright and glorious mono) to the arrangements, this is one album that engages in truth in packaging: it really is What the World Needs Now.

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Musoscribe at Three

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

It’s been just about three years since I started this blog. So on this occasion, I’m taking the opportunity to look back, and to look forward a bit as well.

The whole reason I got into the music journalism gig was to establish some level of “street cred.” Long ago – approaching two decades ago, actually – I formulated a concept for a book. Initially, it was little more than that: an idea. And at the time I was living in suburban Atlanta, and my various other commitments (work, family, etc.) were such that I never found myself in a position to devote serious thought to pursuing it.

But after I settled in Asheville NC in 2000, the details of my everyday life changed (though not as much as they would six years later), and my long-dormant project started to nag at me. But I knew that if I began approaching publishers, my pitch could be little more than, “Hey, I’m some guy you’ve never heard of, in a small city you might have heard of, and I have a book idea. Here’s my mailing address so you know where to send the advance.”

So when one of my clients (I’ve been self-employed since 1996, and my day job is web development/marketing consulting) mentioned that an online music magazine was looking for writers, I figured, here’s my chance. By this time I had already authored two lengthy and (then-) comprehensive career-spanning critical essays for Trouser Press, one on Todd Rundgren and another covering Pink Floyd. So I sent clips of those to the online mag, and got the gig.

Before long, I was contributing more content to the outlet. And at a certain point – a few months in — they asked me to contribute to the print edition. Of course I did so with enthusiasm. My first cover story was on Fall Out Boy (remember them?). I wasn’t a fan, but (a) they were nice enough guys, (b) it was a chance to exercise my journalistic skills, and (c) it was cover story. ‘Nuff said.

In summer 2006, I had scored a major coup in scheduling an in-person interview with The Flaming Lips, but the night before I was set to travel to Atlanta for the pre-concert interview, my spouse announced to me that she no longer wished to be married. As this came as a bit of a shock, I found myself unable to travel. (Some weeks later, I interviewed the band’s Steven Drozd via telephone, and explained why I was a no-show. His response: “You should have come! We would have cheered you up!” If you’ve ever seen the band live onstage, you understand what he meant.)

In any event, despite that personal setback, things progressed writing-wise. Within a year I became one of the mag’s two copy editors, then the sole copy editor, then the Editor in Chief. By the time the magazine imploded (under circumstances that were, viewed in retrospect, inevitable) I was waist-deep in writing about music, and managing a highly talented “freelance staff” of writers.

My music writing from that period (and earlier) is collected — along with more recent material — on my archive site.

I had been writing for other outlets as well, but the sum total of my output for them didn’t equal much more than a couple of pieces a month. Suddenly without a major outlet for my work, I was at something of a loss. A good friend and long-time business associate suggested I start my own blog, and support it via social media. At that point (summer 2009) I viewed both blogging and social media as virtually unknown entities. But my girlfriend at the time (one of the best people I’ve ever known, as well as a highly skilled writer/editor in her own right) encouraged me to pursue the idea, so I did. And I’ve never looked back.

Beginning in June 2009, I launched this blog, and quickly decided to establish a working pattern of publishing a new piece every business day. So from that point forward, every Monday through Friday, I published something of substance – a review, an essay, an interview, generally at least a few hundred words, usually more – without fail. (This is blog post #809; do the math.) As things ramped up, I occasionally wondered, “Will I run out of material?” The truth is that there has never been any danger of that happening. I go to more shows than at any other time in my life. I always have at least a few dozen CDs on my desk for potential review. And my backlog of ideas gets more and more vast.

I have been fortunate to interview many of my favorite musical artists – many of them in-person – and publish features based on (or transcripts of) those interviews. One of my favorite things about those interviews is getting the opportunity to thank them for the music. In the last year alone, some of my favorite (and highest-profile) interviews have included ones with The Rolling Stones Bill Wyman; ELP‘s Greg Lake; Van Dyke Parks; several members of King Crimson; Chris Squire of Yes; Jack Casady and (coming soon) Jorma Kaukonen of Hot Tuna; and Jason Brewer, leader of one of my favorite new groups, The Explorers Club. And my expansive, deeply-researched feature on Paul Revere and the Raiders spinoff group Brotherhood was published first by Ugly Things Magazine, then as a serialized feature on this blog.

Because I’m not beholden to any sort of commercial concerns, I write strictly about that which interests me. (No more Fall Out Boy features.) And the farther I get into this, the more I sense my tastes expanding in unanticipated directions. Time was, I didn’t actively listen to any jazz at all. Today my for-pleasure listening seems to be about 30-40% jazz, mostly hard bop from the 50s and 60s. I still cover a lot of progressive rock and powerpop, even though neither of those styles generally sets the charts on fire.

Earlier this year I took my first step into the world of public speaking, giving a “lightning talk” at an event called Ignite Asheville. My topic was entitled “Rock Songwriters on the Creative Process,” and it drew upon my favorite quotes from my interview archives. The video is here, if you’re interested.

(Oh, and about that book idea of mine from back in the 90s: I’ve pretty much set it aside for the time being. Instead I’m actively working on a bigger and better idea, and hope to shop my proposal to publishers – or what remains of the publishing world – later this year.)

Looking forward, I expect the focus of this blog will continue to expand, while reflecting my own particular (and I will admit, idiosyncratic) tastes. The list of upcoming interviews is long, and new opportunities seem to arise regularly. I’m grateful for that, and am proud to work closely with a number of highly professional publicists, the people who get the word out about new music and reissues. Later this year I plan to attend the Americana Music Festival and Conference in Nashville. My generally sleepy-eyed reaction to most fiddle-washboard-n-banjo music is no secret, but the AMA’s big-tent concept of what-is-Americana is broad enough to draw me in. I’m actually very excited about going.

Expect more concert reviews, more on-site reporting, more interviews, more analysis, and the casting of a wider musical net as the Musoscribe blog enters its fourth year. And as always, I am deeply grateful for the readership, the comments (public and private), the feedback, the re-tweeting, and so on.

In short, thanks for reading.

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That Time is Now: A Conversation with The dB’s Peter Holsapple (Part Two)

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: I’ve been a fan of the dB‘s for a very long time, but I have to tell you that I think this new album may be the best thing the band’s ever done. Maybe it’s because I’m older, and look for different things in music than I used to, but there’s something about the tone – slightly world-weary, certainly more adult and experienced – that really resonates with me.

Peter Holsapple: That was a very, very important thing for us to get across. If we were going to make a record thirty-one years later, it really shouldn’t sound like it was recorded in 1983. I mean both the technological aspects of the recording and the thematic, lyrical aspects. Y’know, lots has happened since we played in the band regularly with each other. And if the album didn’t reflect that, it would be grossly disingenuous.

 

BK: The label powerpop is often applied to the dB’s and your music. Other artists I’ve interviewed – Marshall Crenshaw, Tommy Keene, Richard X Heyman – each, to varying degrees, seems to want to put a little bit of distance between themselves and the label. This, even though I’d argue all of them are closer to the classic definition of power pop than the dB’s are! Are you comfortable with the label, or do you bristle at it as well?

PH: I don’t mind it at all. I like a lot of that stuff; I still listen to the Raspberries; I love Big Star. I love Blue Ash. But I would have to agree with your assessment that we may have pushed that envelope a little farther than some bands. And I think you could say that about Big Star, too. They weren’t strictly powerpop; they did some very lugubrious Velvet Underground-y things. And if you think Velvet Underground are powerpop, then you probably need a lobotomy. Or a couple replacement parts. But I think the definition has had to expand over the years, too. I’m trying to think if there’s a band out there that we’re sort of like at this point. I don’t even know who that would probably be. Fountains of Wayne or somebody, maybe.

BK: How did the experience of recording the new album differ from the sessions way back when? I’m not speaking here of technical stuff, though I’d be interested to hear about that, too. But as far as the interaction between the band members and that sort of thing.

 

PH: Back in those days, you would get your budget, book your studio time, and go in there and pound it out and put it out. It isn’t quite like that anymore; the digital realm has made things a lot easier. We did sessions with all four of us together, but then we would do all the re-doing and overdubbing usually by ourselves. We would try to get that done, just when we could. It’s tough. Will was living in Ohio – he’s since moved to North Carolina — Gene’s in New Jersey. So three of us live within about fifteen miles of each other, which is good.

But it’s changed because recording has changed. Technology has changed so much. Think of all the time you used to spend rewinding tape! That’s gone now; you don’t have to worry about that. Of course, that’s when a lot of the great ideas came out…

And as far as getting along with each other, it was marvelous. We’ve always been friends, even when the band split, when people left the band. We still stayed friends. That never changed.

BK: Your web site lists a handful of live dates, and you’ll be back in North Carolina for the Hopscotch Festival later this summer. Any chance of more dates being added between now and then?

PH: There’s always a chance. I’m not really sure. I’m sort of gainfully employed these days, so I have to sort of work around what schedule I have; I try to make myself as available as I possibly can. And Will’s out on the road with Steve Earle this summer, too. So we have to work around that. But we’ll try to make as many shows as we possibly can happen while this record is relatively fresh.

I would love to go on television, so that people could see us. People in far-flung places might have an easier time seeing us if we were on TV. I always think of when Big Star was on Late Night with David Letterman. It was so exciting: everybody stayed up to watch it! It was a big deal. And if we did it, it might not be a big deal, but it would certainly be a medium, medium-to-large deal.

BK: I know all of you have your families and lives and whatnot. So it’s not as if you’re all going to pile into a van and tour endlessly. But what plans if any do you have for the future regarding the dB’s?

PH: We’re just going to see how the cards fall now that the record’s released. If there’s a resounding thud then we won’t waste anybody’s time. But if it’s well-loved, and if people really want to hear it, we’ll make every effort to get to at least major market cities.

I don’t know. We just have to wait and see. We’ve been through this so many times. We’ve reached for the brass ring, and had it slip out of our hands. We try to be optimistic. Cautiously optimistic. We do feel like the songs are great. The record is great. But who knows? We might be up against a reunion of all the members of Styx that are alive. That might stop us completely. Not only are our lives different, but the world into which we’ve release Falling Off the Sky is considerably different. Kids don’t want to be in rock’n'oll bands anymore; they want to be video game designers or sports stars, and retire at twenty.

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That Time is Now: A Conversation with The dB’s Peter Holsapple (Part One)

Monday, June 18th, 2012

In early June 2012 The dB’s released Falling Off the Sky, the band’s first new studio album in a quarter century, and the first in thirty-plus years to feature the original lineup. I spoke with guitarist Peter Holsapple about the new album. Here’s our conversation. – bk

Bill Kopp: It seems like I first heard rumors about The dB’s getting back together around the time of the second record you did with Chris Stamey, 2009′s hERE aND nOW. And while the songs on Falling Off the Sky are certainly more rock-oriented, many of them seem of a piece with that record. In fact, some of them – perhaps this is more true of Chris’ numbers – would have worked quite well on that album or a followup, if arranged slightly differently. When you’ve been writing songs, would you think, “This one’s potentially a dB’s song,” and so on, or not?

Peter Holsapple: Well, I think we tend to think of ourselves as having something of an innate ability to sort [the songs] out between duo records and band records. But, you could say something like, “Well, what about ‘Santa Monica?” from hERE aND nOW, which has Gene [Holder, bass] and Will [Rigby, drums] on it. That was recorded as a dB’s session. But the feeling was, when we got through with it, we weren’t sure that it sounded like a dB’s record. So we put it on that record instead. But I think ordinarily we try to be pretty aware of what makes a dB’s song different from a Holsapple/Stamey thing. I think there’s a more aggressive aspect to dB’s songs. I’m not really sure what the qualities are, exactly, but it’s one of those things where you just know when it’s right. And I think we did pick good dB’s songs for this record, without a doubt.

BK: “World to Cry” was done back in 2005. That’s seven years ago! But somehow it sounds perfect on the new album, not at all like something that was laying around. Is it my imagination, or is the mix slightly different between the album version and the one that’s on the dB”s site since 2005?

PH: Yes, it is slightly different. We wanted to make sure that everything on Falling Off the Sky sounded like it fit together. “World to Cry” was one of the first things we recorded for this. I think we recorded it at the same time as “Send Me Something Real.” The wind-up for this pitch has been going on for several years! But as I like to point out, we’re still well under the Chinese Democracy age limits for an album. I think we’re within the statute of limitations.

BK: Hopefully, that’s the only similarity between the dB’s and Guns N’ Roses

PH: We can only hope.

BK: The songs on Falling Off the Sky – all of them – are sticking in my head. I’ve played my advance copy easily fifty times, if not more. Really strong hooks both musically and lyrically. Do you consciously try in your songwriting to put hooks in, or is that just the way the songs come out?

PH: Well, I can only speak for myself. I don’t know what Chris does, exactly. For me, when I’m writing a song, I just try to allow whatever muse sent me a vision, y’know? It’s like the Tom Petty idea that we’re just all receptors of the radio waves coming out. So I’m just a very fortunate guy in that I’ve had a lot of hooky things come from me. There are plenty of songs of mine, I’m sure, that you could say are completely devoid of anything memorable. But my batting average has been pretty high.

BK: Will Rigby‘s “Write Back” is a really strong tune, really endearing. So if you and Chris are Edmunds and Lowe, or Difford and Tilbrook, or Lennon and McCartney, then he’s George Harrison, right?

PH: I would say George Gershwin. I think he may actually be the best songwriter in the band. Paradoxaholic, the last record that he put out,…gosh, it’s good. Really, really excellent songwriting. He worked with some really good New York players, too. He did a single a couple of years ago called “Who Shot Luke the Drifter Jr.?” and that’s another really great song. He’s got the wordplay, he’s got the melodies, he’s a smart songwriter. And I’m really glad we were able to get a song of his on a dB’s record, because it fit in perfectly along with everybody else’s.

BK: When I interviewed you around the time of hERE aND nOW, we talked about the process of songwriting, and you made it clear than you and Chris don’t write songs together, but that you do collaborate on arrangements. I would argue that that’s the “glue” that sort of brings the songs – which are very different – together. Would you agree? Is that still the case on this latest album?

PH: Yeah, we certainly work together. And that’s basically how we’ve tried to do it over the years. Everybody sort of knows what’s best for their songs, and there’s often an overriding veto power. We fight for what we think is right for the songs. On a song like “She Won’t Drive in the Rain Anymore,” Chris and I went back and forth about the string arrangement which he had done. And I was very pleased with that, but I wanted to change it a little bit. We try not to be too possessive about the songs; we do try to go for what the best sound would be for every song. And I think we ended up with a good, cooperative arrangement that everybody was happy with.

We hear things differently, I think. Chris is a schooled, trained composer, and I’m just an itinerant garage rocker. And it’s not that either one is any better than the other; it’s just how it is, how our minds work. And we’re grateful for what the other one is able to see and hear. Because we would ordinarily miss it.

 continued

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