Archive for August, 2012

Album Review: Donny Hathaway – Live + In Performance

Friday, August 31st, 2012

Take the crowd command of Isaac Hayes in his prime, the soulful melodicism of Steve Wonder at his peak, and the musical chops of, say, Billy Preston, and what do you get? Well, one thing you might get is the 1972 album Donny Hathaway Live. A mere eight songs, and originally on a single vinyl record, Live is a document of Hathaway’s live show in ’72. Compiled from dates at Los Angeles’  Troubadour and Bitter End, the set is long on solos – Hathaway himself plays all the keyboard save some organ by Richard Tee – but it never drags or meanders, not even for a moment. From its opening cover of Marvin Gaye‘s “What’s Goin’ On” through the end of the set, the band is in stellar form.

Donny Hathaway Live is amazingly recorded; it was produced for Arif Mardin, an excellent producer known more for his studio work. But the balance between the band and the audience is perfect; these are club dates, after all, and hearing the audience is an integral component of capturing the ambience of the shows.

Hathaway launches into keyboard solos at nearly every opportunity; there’s a jamming, rock sensibility about these songs that is nothing short of thrilling. “The Ghetto” starts out with some audience participation, and quickly becomes little more than a two-chord jam. But what a jam it is: Hathaway’s mean hammering on his electric piano often makes it sound like he’s got four hands.

In those capable hands, the work of others is reborn. Besides Gaye’s classic, Live includes stirring, deeply moving versions of Carole King‘s “You’ve got a Friend” and John Lennon‘s “Jealous Guy.” Listen to the crowd sing along on the former and you’ll feel like you’re there. Hathaway’s arrangement of the latter – a song that had only been out a few months – is nothing short of inspired.

Instead of waiting until late in his set to introduce the band, Hathaway introduces each player as he take his turn in the spotlight. The crowd responds enthusiastically. Special notice goes to the precise, up-front bass work of Willie Weeks, though Cornell Dupree‘s guitar solos on “We’re Still Friends” are pretty ace, too.

But Donny Hathaway Live didn’t exhaust the recordings from those two shows. After his tragic death in 1979, his label compiled another album’s worth of material form the same shows — with no overlap – and issued the resulting collection as In Performance. Production on these tracks is credited to Mardin and Jerry Wexler, another man who truly understands how this sort of music should be presented on disc. The songs are a notch – just a notch, mind you – less exciting than the ones compiled on Live, but the performances are (of course) every bit their equal.

In 2012 Shout!Factory wisely did the obvious and brought these two releases together into a single package, titled Live + In Performance. The trifold digipack reproduces both albums’ original artwork, adds a very good (if brief) essay by David Ritz. If you like 70s soul and amazingly tight playing, then Live + In Performance should be your next purchase. If you’re new to Hathaway’s catalog, this too is an excellent place to start. My own album collection includes countless live albums, but Live + In Performance is one of the best live sets I’ve ever heard. Essential.

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Album Review: The Electric Prunes – The Complete Reprise Singles

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

Rock historians have rightly made the point that one of the many ways in which The Beatles changed the music business was by ushering in the era of the self-contained group. Before them, as the story goes, most acts were a front person and a group of backing musicians often assigned (and controlled) by the label, or management. Once the Beatles came on the scene, they opened the door for bands to take a measure of control over their own output. Thanks to them, bands were allowed – and eventually expected – to write their own music, play their own songs.

While this narrative is pretty well accurate, the new rules didn’t apply to everyone. The history of 1960s rock is filled with bands who turned out some amazing music, even though they sometimes didn’t write it, and often didn’t actually play it. I hate to mention The Monkees here, since they are too often dismissed for these very reasons; they deserve better. So think instead (or also) of the Beach Boys‘ great music recorded by the Wrecking Crew (albeit under Brian Wilson‘s direction) while the band itself was on tour.

And then there are the more curious cases of bands such as The Chocolate Watchband and The Electric Prunes. Both bands turned out some excellent music – some of the best in the genre we now call garage/punk/psych or somesuch – but both bands saw a fair amount of music released under their name, music created largely without their consent or input. Some of it was excellent, some pretty good, some not so great. But the fact remains that their convoluted histories – due in large part to the dubious origin of some of their music – makes critical assessment of their catalogs-as-a-whole a difficult endeavor.

The whole issue is brought to a head thanks to a new Electric Prunes compilation from Real Gone Music entitled The Complete Reprise Singles. Twenty-four tracks spanning the era 1966-1969, the tracks are mostly what one would expect: the monaurally-mixed a- and b-sides of the group’s singles. But that definition only explains eighteen of the tracks. The remaining numbers are five promo (in other words, commercially unreleased) single tracks, and the group’s Vox Wah-wah Pedal commercial.

The first two cuts, “Ain’t it Hard” and “Little Olive,” won’t be familiar to most listeners; neither appeared on the group’s debut LP. Both betray more of a West coast jangle than the style most associated with the band. That sound, of course, is exemplified by the classic fuzz rocker “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night),” the title track off their first record. And the mono version – the one here – is the one to have; it’s the one that appeared on the impossibly influential Nuggets various artists compilation.

The group actually charted only twice: “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)” made it to #11 on the pop charts, and “Get Me to the World On Time” made it to #27. (Luckily the Electric Prunes made a number of TV appearances promoting the latter – some in color! – so we have some visual memento of the original lineup.)

But despite some excellent material – the latter’s flip side “Are You Lovin’ Me More (But Enjoying It Less)” may well have influenced Syd Barrett, as I explain here – the band would enjoy no further hits. “Wind-up Toys” sounds like a bizarre cross of The Doors, The Monkees and Donovan, all filtered through the Electric Prunes’ wobble-and-fuzz aesthetic. And “Everybody Knows (You’re Not in Love)” sounds like somebody was listening to – and took inspiration from – Jeff Beck‘s “Hi Ho Silver Lining,” released several months earlier. And “You’ve Never Had it Better” deserved better than the non-action it got on the charts: with its tough, memorable riff, it should have been the band’s bridge into the harder sounds of the very late sixties. It’s easy to imagine The Stooges playing the song.

By the time of their Mass in F Minor (generally considered weird, innovative, a disaster or some combination of the three), only two of the original lineup (vocalist James Lowe and bassist Mark Tulin) remained. Some single tracks from that project represent the promo singles on this collection. Lowe and Tulin were gone after that. Which means that tracks #16-23 on The Complete Reprise Singles are the work of, well, other people. They’re not awful, but neither are they memorable. They’re certainly nowhere near as good as the fake Chocolate Watchband tracks on that band’s No Way Out and The Inner Mystique. In some way tracks like “Hey Mr. President” are reminiscent of the music that other faceless entities turned out in those days (I’m thinking of some of the tracks on the Wild in the Streets soundtrack, but then a lot of that was really Davie Allan and the Arrows). There’s a sold rock sensibility, but not much in the way of inspiration in the writing or playing.

That said, The Complete Reprise Singles remains essential for fans of the real group (and of the era/genre in general) if only for the early tracks; the Mass in F Minor stuff isn’t wholly without appeal, and it’s nice to finally have a legit (i.e. non-bootleg) version of the fun Vox radio spot.

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Album Review: Joe Jackson – The Duke

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

Tribute albums are, quite often, dodgy things. Many are ill-conceived and/or put together with profit as the only motive. I know of one recent tribute album in particular that really perplexed me: admittedly, the artists being paid tribute did indeed have a number of hits and critically-lauded songs several decades ago. But the artists paying said tribute had little to do with that group’s music; they weren’t influenced by it in any obvious way. Moreover, a particular sonic characteristic of the subject-act was all but completely missing from any of the cover, er, tribute versions. And most importantly, the new versions – though they do feature some big names – don’t add anything to the discussion. If anything, they lead the listener to say, “Wow, this version is pretty weak. The original was a whole lot better. I think I’ll go dig out my old vinyl.” In the end, I’m left wondering: who are these albums for? Not for me, mostly.

All of which leads me to make an effort to describe a new album titled The Duke not as a tribute to Duke Ellington and his music, but instead merely the latest Joe Jackson album, full of songs that happened to have been written (in whole or part) by the legendary American bandleader. Strictly speaking, yes, it’s a tribute album. And yes, it’s the sort which features (shudder) all manner of guest artists from (shudder again) a wide range of genres.

Simply reading the list of guest artists on The Duke may intrigue you: Sharon Jones, violinist Regina Carter, and on many tracks, Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson from The Roots. And then things get a little weird: Steve Vai, Iggy Pop. The thing is, with the possible exception of Iggy, all of the artists seem well within their element, and their presence enhances an already good rendition of a classic Ellington tune.

Jackson’s not a slavish devotee to the original arrangements, though heaven knows it’s well within his abilities to be one. As far back as Jumpin’ Jive (1981) the pianist made clear his deep love and equally deep understanding of jazz (especially the swinging, pop end of it). His soundtrack work on Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988) showed that not only could Jackson faithfully recreate the styles of old, he could write original numbers that fit comfortably alongside them.

So it’s not a major leap for him to take a slightly different tack here, and reinvent (to varying degrees) Ellington’s music for the 21st century.

Sexy percussion, a lush synthesizer bed and Jackson’s distinctive piano tone provide the backing for some lovely guitar work from Steve Vai on “Isfahan.” The tune is updated in a way that calls out its most timeless qualities; there’s nothing old-fashioned about it.

“Caravan” is among Ellington’s most well-known numbers (and it’s among the most widely known tunes in all of jazz), so one might predict that Jackson would play it a bit safe here. But no: An aggressive bass guitar line plus lots and lots of percussion – along with a crack string section – transforms the classic into something highly dramatic; the piece has a vaguely Eastern feel to it, a quality that’s enhanced by vocals in Farsi. Jackson’s outside-the-box approach is astoundingly effective.

A medley of “I’m Beginning to See the Light” plus “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “Cotton Tail” marks the disc’s first vocal appearance by Jackson. The tune swings, and Jackson’s vocals fit like a glove. Carter’s warm violin engages in some tasty interplay with Jackson’s (judiciously-applied) piles and piles of keyboards.

The same lineup tackles “Mood Indigo,” which leans a bit closer to the classic bluesy arrangement. The instrumental “Rockin’ in Rhythm” has a lively New Orleans feel to it; every instrument is engaging in activity interesting enough on its own, but it all comes together nicely.

Sharon Jones’ vocal spotlight is a pairing of “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues” and “Do Nothin’ ‘Til You Hear From Me.” Jackson’s band does a fine job of backing Jones without aping the Dap-Kings; in Jackson’s hands the song’s arrangement takes the form of a sexy, smoky, soulful number. An instrumental midsection is wonderfully expressive.

Jackson slows “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” way down for a melancholy reading that puts his voice, the string section and the congas of longtime associate Sue Hadjopolous out front. Some lovely, understated harmonica is the finishing touch on the track. The band goes for a samba vibe on “Perdido / Satin Doll,” going so far as to have vocalist Lilian Vieira translate the lyrics into Portuguese. Arrangement-wise, this track is the point – the only point, actually – at which Jackson’s music sounds much like it did in the 80s. But there’s a left turn: a lengthy solo piano break is also the most traditionally-minded thing on all of The Duke.

Vai is back for a reading of “The Mooche” and “Black and Tan Fantasy.” Here, his multi-textured guitar overdubs display his mastery; those who think they wouldn’t like Steve Vai playing Duke Ellington should think again and give this slow-burning track a fair listen. The trad-minded breaks in the song serve as an effective counterpoint; Vai’s musical dialogue with Dorothy Lawson‘s sawing cello is fascinating.

The Duke closes on an odd note. “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” is a reasonably solid choice for a collection such as this, and Jackson’s arrangement is typically top-notch: both tasteful and exciting. But Iggy Pop’s semi-spoken vocal sparring with Joe doesn’t really work all that well. Joe scats in places, and Lilian Vieira adds some delightful doo-wahs, but Ig’s gravelly “absolutely” and “all right” don’t add much at all. Jackson’s vibraphone solo is nothing short of thrilling, though. And in the end, if you didn’t know to listen for Iggy, you’d hardly notice his exceedingly brief phoned-in bits. I’d estimate that the sum total of his presence on the track clocks in under ten seconds. Maybe five.

Despite a (quite minor) misstep of Iggy’s involvement (as a fan, I’ll note that his considerable talents lie elsewhere), Joe Jackson’s The Duke is one of the most compelling, fascinating releases of 2012. Tribute or no, it’s a winner.

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Off the Road Yet On the Road: A Talk with Alvin Lee, Part Two

Tuesday, August 28th, 2012

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: The title and cover art of your new album Still On the Road to Freedom overtly reference your 1973 collaboration with Mylon LeFevre. Beyond the text and visuals, what is the connection between the two records?

Alvin Lee: There’s not really a connection. The only connection is that in 1972 I wrote the words to “On the Road to Freedom,” and what I’m saying now is that I’m still on that road. I still haven’t got there. There’s only that one song that’s relevant [to the old record]. The rest of the album is new music, the sort of things that comes out as my music today. I’m not trying to do a sequel, a follow-up.

BK: If someone asked me to describe the music on Still On the Road to Freedom by applying a single genre label to it, I couldn’t do it. There’s country rock, blues, Bo Diddley style rock, quiet acoustic numbers, on and on. Do you think that – in an ironic way – that the end of the record industry as we used to know it has meant that artists are free to follow their muse where it takes them, rather than being expected (or required) to turn in twelve songs in a single style?

AL: It’s a nice thought, but actually no. To get that freedom – and I went for it in 1973 – I was giving up a lot. I was giving up the road to fame and fortune. The road to freedom was for my health, anyway.

But record companies today, if you sign with a big record company, they practically own the artist. They tell them where to go, what TV [shows] to do. It’s actually worse than it’s ever been. But of course there are more bands playing on a smaller level. They have record companies that will pretty much put something out if they like it. They’re not dealing in hits any more. And they’re not spending $200,000 on promotion.

So, yes and no. There is more freedom for bands to record; it’s something I’ve always fought for. The record company comes and says, “We want an album that’s the same as the last one,” and I say, “Tough. I’m gonna send you one that I like. And I hope you like it. If not, don’t release it.”

BK: When I was a kid, I often heard the label “fastest guitar in the west” applied to you. I don’t remember now where I heard that. But while you don’t always do so, you can play really fast, like on the new track “Back in ’69.” Back in the day, do you think that there was an expectation – when people came to see and hear you with Ten Years After – that you’d have to play like that? To show just that one side of your talent, the flash side?

AL: To a degree, that was a part of the freedom I was searching for, too. They used to call me Captain Speedfingers, too; I didn’t take all that seriously. There were and are many faster guitarists than me. People like John McLaughlin and Django Reinhardt: unbelievably nimble. But with me, I think it’s because of the way I play. Light and shade. I’ll play it cool, and then I’ll hit some rocket riffs. And that makes the rocket riffs sound more effective.

I’ve been to see some great guitarists – I won’t mention any names – who clearly must practice twelve hours a day. But after ten minutes, you’ve heard everything they’ve got.

BK: On Saguitar you played most of the instruments yourself. On this latest, you still do a lot of the work, but you have brought in players for most tracks. How do you think that changed the nature of the music?

AL: I think the new one has a more realistic feel. On Saguitar, I was “concocting” a real feel. I used computer drums and did play most of the instruments myself. I have always had a fascination with Les Paul, the way he used to overdub his guitar fifty times. So it was partly that: trying to see how real a sound I could get by myself, making it on the computer. And I think it was pretty good; I spent a lot of time and effort to get the right feel, to capture that interplay of the various instruments. On the new album I’ve got Pete Pritchard on the bass, and Richard Newman on drums. So it’s got more of a live feel to it.

BK: Are there any plans at all for some North American dates in support of Still On the Road to Freedom?

AL: None planned as of yet, but I’ll play anywhere someone wants me. It’s hard, though. You’ve got to get visas, air tickets. It’s a big deal. You can’t just pop over and do one gig. That’s what I do in Europe, though: I do a festival on a Saturday night – or any night, basically – and keep my hand in that way. But those tours of five or six nights a week, I’m not up for that any more. It kills off the fun of making music. Touring with a rock’n'roll band becomes boring, and then you’ve got a big problem on your hands. I never really wanted to be a rock star…

…Actually, I don’t want to lie. When I was really young, I wanted to be a big star and make lots of money. But it seems that the reality doesn’t ever quite match up to the dream. Once you get there, it’s not just about having fun. It’s a lot of responsibility, and a lot of pressure. That builds up on you, and sometimes you turn to drink and drugs. And those don’t make things any easier.

BK: Your discography notes that you “do not play with the band currently recording as Ten Years After.” Is this one of those situations where ownership of the band name is contested, or is it something else, something more cordial?

AL: Well, it could have been cordial. But I was really not happy with what they did. It was behind my back, and all very sneaky. But those guys spent as much time on the road all those years ago as I did, so they have some right to do it. I just wish they had called it something else, like Ten Years After II, or something like that.

BK: Maybe Forty Years After…

AL: I think that’s what it is now, isn’t it?!

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Off the Road Yet On the Road: A Talk with Alvin Lee, Part One

Monday, August 27th, 2012

Guitarist Alvin Lee first rose to international prominence with his band Ten Years After. The band’s performance of “I’m Going Home” is a highlight of both the Woodstock film and the accompanying soundtrack. The band enjoyed a number of hits – most notably 1971′s “I’d Love to Change the World.” In 1973 Lee stepped out for a solo album, On the Road to Freedom. He has remained active since leaving TYA, with a relatively consistent string of solo albums. His latest record bears echoes of his first solo release, and showcases his mastery of a wide array of styles. Recently, Alvin spoke with me from his home in Spain. – bk

Bill Kopp: The first thing I notice when listening to Still On the Road to Freedom is perhaps the most obvious, but it’s also remarkable: Your voice. Your singing voice as heard on this new album: it doesn’t sound a bit different from the way you sounded on “I’d Love to Change the World” or “I’m Going Home,” forty years ago. Do you do anything to keep your voice in shape?

Alvin Lee: No. I’m afraid I haven’t any secrets to divulge about that. That’s just the way it is; genetics, probably.

BK: Your music has – to me – always been rooted in a number of styles: as opposed to just, say, blues, there’s always been a strong early rock’n'roll/rockabilly sensibility to your original songs. “I’m a Lucky Man,” on the new record, for example, could easily be a cover from 1957.

AL: It almost could have been recorded in 1957. I tried to get the authentic sound on that one; I was quite pleased with it.

BK: On songs like that, do you set out to write in a particular style, or do you just write a song first and then apply a particular style to it?

AL: The style generally comes along with the song. That one has pretty much of a rock’n'roll, “Whole Lotta Shakin’” rhythm. So I get the rhythm going, and then I think, “What am I going to say in this one?”

BK: One of the trends that I notice among many artists who came to prominence in the 60s and 70s is a tendency to – how can I put it – stop rocking. One can go too far in one direction or another: you could get all acoustic and mellow, or you could rock out 100% of the time and come off a bit ridiculous.

AL: That’s always been the dilemma, hasn’t it? That’s why I did Still On the Road to Freedom, because I’m right in the middle, between the two.

BK: You balance the two extremes nicely on this record. You have contemplative, acoustic tracks like “Walk On, Walk Tall,” but they sit nicely alongside the rockers. Was that mix, that variety, by design?

AL: I’ve always been keen to not be obsessed, to not get stuck with styles. Because I like so many different styles of music. I like things by Chet Atkins, Scotty Moore, Chuck Berry, Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery. All those guys have been an influence.

BK: On 2009′s Saguitar, the cover art shows that iconic Gibson that’s become so closely associated with you. Do you still use the ES, and – besides acoustic guitars – what other guitars do you use?

AL: I don’t use that one, any more. Which is quite sad: unfortunately, it’s locked up in a vault. Ever since somebody offered me half a million dollars for it! I wrote in the song “Once There Was a Time” [on Ten Years After's 1971 LP A Space in Time] that I’d never sell my guitar. And I’ve kept to that one.

I’ve got several guitars. Gibson made an anniversary replica of the Woodstock guitar; they made a hundred hand-built ones, and then they put it into production. There’s quite a few kicking about. But I like to use off-the-shelf guitars; if anything happens to one, you can replace it easily.

Some of the bands I’ve seen, they take fifteen guitars on the road. A hundred thousand quid worth of guitars onstage; it’s madness. It’s all very well, but I prefer to play just one guitar, and try to make it do as many things as I can.

BK: What sort of gigs are you doing in support of the new album?

AL: I did a gig about a month ago in Holland, at a festival. It was really great; the Dutch people are really cool. The festival had a huge arts section, with paintings, dancers. A lot of stuff going on. Before that, I was busy finishing the album, so I hadn’t had a gig – and the band hadn’t played together – in eight months. And of course at a festival, there’s no sound check; there are bands playing all day. So went onstage cold, not having played for eight months, and then we actually played one of the best gigs in any of our lives!

I think that’s because, when you play every night, you can start to go into “auto.” The thing is to play as much as you can, but to still enjoy it. And of course in the 1970s, Woodstock having been a big deal, I was playing five, six, seven nights a week. You do that, and you can start becoming a traveling jukebox: stand us up, plug us in, and we’ll blast out the same old set.


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Album Review: Grateful Dead – Dick’s Picks #31

Friday, August 24th, 2012

I had a minor epiphany recently. After years of slagging The Grateful Dead and their fans, I found a live album that led me to say to myself, “Aha…so this is what they find so special about the Dead.” As I’ve mentioned more than a few times, I like the Grateful Dead’s studio work (I have more than a dozen of their LPs) but generally find their live work to be aimless and meandering.

But it’s not always so: I love my 3LP set of Europe ’72 (though I’d pass on that dozens-of-CDs set documenting the whole damn tour, thanks) and recently gave a very favorable review to a reissue of the vinyl History Vol 1 (Bear’s Choice). But still, whenever I see a track listing that looks like this:

Jam > Space > More Space > Jam

…I stay as far away as possible.

The Dick’s Picks series of releases, then wouldn’t be the first place I’d think to look for an exciting document of a Grateful Dead show. But Dick’s Picks #31 documents the equivalent of an entire concert, picking from the best (performancewise and fidelitywise) from three consecutive nights in August 1974. Two-track analog tapes from to nights in Philly followed by a show in nearby Jersey City provided the source material, presented on Dick’s Picks #31 without sweetening. It’s true that there’s not much you can do to nearly-forty-year-old two-track tapes other than bake, transfer and equalize them. The good news is that these tapes didn’t need anything done. The mix is crystalline, and it gives particular attention to Phil Lesh‘s bass work.

The Dead are in fine form here. Opening – as only they’d dare to do – with twenty-five minutes of “Playing in the Band,” they run through a set list that includes titles familiar to casual fans, not just Deadheads. Hell, they even do “Truckin’” on these nights! Some of the many highlights include a great rendition of “U.S. Blues” and a version of “One More Saturday Night” that’s a bit more restrained than the one on Skeletons in the Closet.

There’s only one “Space” wankfest here (thank goodness), and the duration of that track plus the two “Jam” ones that precede it total a mere 21 minutes. That’s not bad, considering Dick’s Picks #31 runs four discs. Yes, four. But across nearly five hours of music, The Grateful Dead showcase all of the things that make them the beloved institution they were and remain.

Musically, the group was near its peak in 1974. They were in that curious period in which they had but one drummer (Bill Kreutzmann), but that didn’t limit their ability to get their musical points across. As usual, the vocals – rarely a Dead strong suit – are iffy in places: less so when Bob Weir takes the lead, more so when Jerry Garcia does.

In fact the only serious criticism I can level at the performances captured on Dick’s Picks #31 is this: the presence of Donna Jean Godchaux. Her singing is, if you’ll forgive some obvious wordplay, god-awful. I’m not well-versed in the history of the band, but I can’t help but think that they would have chased her away were it not for the fact that her hubby Keith Godchaux was the latest in the long line of (ultimately doomed) keyboard players. Donna’s vocals add nothing good, stick out like a sore thumb, and threaten to ruin some otherwise excellent performances. Seeing as she didn’t play an instrument onstage, there would have been precious little for her to do other than sing, so it’s some small consolation that she is often silent on these tracks. When she’s not, you’ll know it, and chances are you won’t like it.

But that complaint notwithstanding, Dick’s Picks #31 comes highly recommended. And if you know my track record where the Dead are concerned (hint: theirs was the worst concert I ever attended) then you’ll know that it’s high praise indeed. I even recommended it over the four-disc Dick’s Pick’s #35 (from 1971 shows), which is pretty swell also. Chris Farinas‘ lengthy essay assumes the reader has a level of devotion to the band well beyond what I can claim, but it’s essential reading nonetheless.

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Tiki-lounging with Merrell Fankhauser

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

Merrell Fankhauser‘s name is not as well-known as some others from the rock era, but he’s been an important force in the development of both surf and psychedelia. Outside of record-collecting circles, Fankhauser’s name is recognized thanks to an excellent profile/interview in Richie Unterberger‘s 1998 book Unknown Legends of Rock’n'Roll. But thanks to a clutch of reissues and compilations, Fankhauser’s output is now readily available for modern-day audiences. In 2012, a two-volume set of episodes of his public-access-channel TV show Tiki Lounge was released on DVD, and concurrent with that release, a 2CD set entitled The Best of Merrell Fankhauser came out. That set surveys all of his work from 1963 to the present.

Fankhauser’s groups (The Exiles, Fapardokly, HMS Bounty and MU) and his solo career all showcased music that exemplified the particular styles they aimed for. It’s remarkable how often – and well – his music seems to capture the zeitgeist of the era in which it was recorded. The Exiles-to-Fapardokly era music centered around the Antelope Valley region, now known as the home of early music from Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. One of Merrell’s earliest musical cohorts was, he says, a “then-fourteen-year-old guitar player Jeff Cotton, who later became Antennae Jimmy Semens in Beefheart’s band, and later joined me again in MU.”

Fapardokly’s “Super Market” (a highlight of the bonus various-artists CD packaged with Unterberger’s first book) is easily in the same league as Love‘s similarly-flavored “Alone Again Or,” a light classic from the so-called Summer of Love. (“I never heard that [comparison],” claims Fankhauser.) Yet none of Fankhauser’s music really shifted big units, never caught on in a major commercial way, despite its quality and accessibility. The Exiles singles – released on the tiny Glen records – sold a bit, as the label put them out. In 1967, Glen collected an album’s worth of what Merrell calls “random songs from 1964 to 1967” and released them using the group’s then-current “psychedelic” name, Fapardokly. But Glen’s limited distribution kept the record from getting notice beyond the region.

Merrell tells the story of first learning the commercial value of that Fapardokly LP: It was “oh, ’78 or so when two Germans looked me up when I was living on Maui. They told me [affects a German accent], ‘Oh ya. We bought der open copy of der Fapardokly album at a record fair in Berlin for only $650!’ I said, ‘Say that again?’ That was total news to me.” Shortly thereafter, Fankhauser flew back to California and “tore apart my mom’s closet. Because I knew she had about six of ‘em.” He went on to sell one to a collector in Norway for nearly twice what the Germans had paid. “Oh, you don’t have to give me that much,” he told the collector. But the Norwegian insisted. Merrell sold all but one of those copies, and the remaining copy – still sealed – is framed and on his home studio’s wall. He believes that only 1200 copies of the original were ever pressed. Of those, about a hundred went to radio stations, and about 300 sold retail. Merrell remains “flabbergasted” at the enduring (if specialist) appeal that his music from that era has with fans around the world. Thomas Pynchon‘s 2009 novel Inherent Vice even makes mention of “Super Market.”

As an aside – and going backward briefly in our chronology – Merrell claims that his earliest surf-styled Exiles recordings for the Del-Fi label – including a track called “Wipe Out,” which he insists formed the basis for the Surfaris hit of the same name – sold “a million copies” but he’s never seen any appreciable income from those sides.

HMS Bounty’s “Things” did crack the Billboard Hot 100 around 1968. “We watched our songs going up the charts, and thought, ‘This is great.’ The album was selling, so we moved down to L.A., where we did big concerts opening for CTA [later Chicago], Canned Heat and The Electric Flag.” But then HMS Bounty’s label, Uni, put its promotional efforts elsewhere: “They signed Neil Diamond, who already had one little hit on the Bang label. As soon as they signed him,” Merrell recalls, “we watched the promotion pull away from us.” That spelled the end of that band. Merrell went on to do a few sessions backed by Jim Gordon, Al Casey, Carol Kaye, Larry Knechtel and other highly-regarded luminaries of the sixties music scene.

After his time with Uni was up, Fankhauser jammed with old friend Jeff Cotton (then still with Beefheart’s Magic Band), who took him aside one day and said, “I’d really like to get out of this crazy house and play with you instead.” So the pair – plus two former Exiles – formed MU.

As time went by, Fankhauser’s reputation grew in stature (if not size), and counted among his fans were some influential media types. Elliott Mintz and others suggested Merrell host his own television program. And Merrell had an untrained but natural affinity for the behind-the-scenes machinations of TV production: “I was always the guy in the studio who was asking the engineer about how he got this or that sound, and I felt the same way about TV.” He conducted some interviews with fellow musicians while he lived on Maui, and guested on some TV shows there. By 1990 these efforts led Fankhauser – by then back on the mainland – to create his own satellite TV show, California Music. After sponsorship was secured, Merrell started rounding up guests. “I put the word out to all my old friends. I got Dean Torrance and Mike Love and a whole bunch of other people. Everybody started coming out of the woodwork; even Sky Saxon!” He also got to interview (and play with, as documented on a Tiki Lounge DVD) legendary keyboardist-to-the-stars, Nicky Hopkins. In fact, Merrell’s later show Tiki Lounge often draws on vintage clips from the earlier program.

A seven-year musical project concerning what Merrell describes (with a straight face) as the Lost Continent of Mu kept him busy; the resulting record Return to MU has also recently been reissued. Gigging both in the USA and Hawaii with some heavy friends (including, oddly enough, a Stratocaster-slinging Willie Nelson!) Merrell eventually found himself “too busy for TV.” But fans within the business encouraged him to get back in the game, and so Tiki Lounge was born. “I’m up to almost ninety shows now,” says a justly-proud Fankhauser.

Having one of his songs (the 1967 Fapardokly track “Tomorrow’s Girl”) included on Rhino’s 2009 compilation Where the Action Is! L.A. Nuggets 1965-1968 certainly helped raise Fankhauser’s profile: “I think I made seven or eight record deals since that happened,” he says. “I was thinking, ‘Well, my recording career is kind of mellowing out now; maybe I’ll just fade into the sunset.’ But all of a sudden, this happens. And I’m very thankful.”

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Album Review: The Higher State – The Higher State

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012

It is with some amusement that I turn to the words of that 21st century philosopher: “There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, ‘fool me once, shame on…shame on you. Fool me…you can’t get fooled again.’” Back in 2010 I reviewed an album called Of the Moments, recorded by a group called Spur. At the time I remarked how authentically this new act captured the sound and feel of 1968. As I explained in a subsequent amendment to the review, Spur really was a group from 1968, a little detail that somehow initially escaped my attention.

It’s happened again, but in reverse this time. Kool Kat Musik is generally known for its fine catalog of present-day powerpop, but on occasion they release material outside that narrow scope. So when I received a CD copy of the self-titled album by The Higher State (along with a handwritten sticky-note letting me know that the release is “exclusive from Kool Kat Musik”), I figured that they had licensed a modern-day release of an obscure group from the first garage rock era.

Had I taken the time to look at the inner label, I might have noticed that the tracks were recorded between 2007 and 2012. But – as I explained in the Spur review/disclaimer – in general I try to listen without any more preconceived notions than necessary. And had the track sequence put the last track (“Know That You Know”) at the beginning of the disc, I might have realized what was up: that song was included on Shindig! Magazine’s first volume of their It’s Happening! compilations.

So not to belabor the point, The Higher State is in fact a very authentic recreation of the West Coast sound of the late 1960. With gauzy, just-lo-enough-fi production values, a general wash of reverb applied throughout, and copious helpings of Rickenbacker jangle, the album successfully evokes the wide-eyed spirit of that era.

The Higher State follow the popular practice among second- and third-tier rock bands of the mid-to-late sixties, and cover records by other artists they admire. In this case, it’s Love (“You I’ll Be Following” as well as studio and live versions of “7 and & Is”) and either Southwest F.O.B. or West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band (“Smell of Incense”). Either way, they give the songs their own stamp. Plenty of tight vocal harmonies and fuzz guitar are hallmarks of these and all the songs on The Higher State. Don’t get me wrong: their original songs are every bit as authentic, and often heavier on the (always welcome) hook-quotient.

Like any good bunch of actors, the group – personnel unlisted on the sleeve – stays in character the whole time. So when one of the radio promo tracks plays, there’s no hint that they’re a modern group. Yes, they’re clearly British (though when they sing, they sound closer to The Byrds), but mentions of AM radio stations and such offer not a single clue to the tender age of the band.

In retrospect, now knowing what I know, there is one characteristic of the band that might have tipped their hand as being a current group: the drumming. The heavy (but pleasing and effective) use of aggressive snare rolls suggests a drummer who’d be every bit as comfortable providing the backbeat for a band evoking the sound of Sugar or Hüsker Dü (the latter of whom, did, after all, cover The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High”).

Seventeen songs (including the three “ad” spots) and nary a stylistic step outside the sixties. So if you’ve exhausted your excursions through Nuggets, Pebbles and the like but want more in this style – and who in their right mind wouldn’t? – The Higher State should be your next stop. And remember what the sticky-note tells us: it’s available exclusively from your friends at Kool Kat Musik.

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20 Questions with Van Dyke Parks

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

In Fall 2011 I got the opportunity to see Van Dyke Parks in a rare concert tour date. The following morning, he and I met for coffee, during which we enjoyed a long and fascinating conversation. On the strength of that resulting piece – as well my previous features for them – Shindig! Magazine asked me to re-interview Parks in connection with the 2012 reissue of his first three albums. Song Cycle (1968), Discover America (1972) and Clang of the Yankee Reaper (1976) are now available on UK-based label Bella Union. I spoke with Van Dyke Parks about those records and more. That feature, under Shindig!‘s “20 Questions” banner – ran in their Issue #27. Here it is, appearing online for the first time. – bk

Bill Kopp: What led to your first three albums being reissued on CD through Bella Union?

Van Dyke Parks: It’s so much better for me to have my work in distribution during my lifetime. Now, what happens after I hit the grave is none of my business. But while I’m here, it would be most insulting to be condemned to the ignominy of a vault somewhere at Warner Brothers.

BK: You never toured behind those records. But now – some four decades later — you’re doing a concert at the London Theatre. Why, and why now?

VDP: I decided to do a tip of the hat to Bella Union for their courageous – and, I think, reasonable — support. I really think that this has been a great surprise, and I’m really happy. Because of what I’m doing today, for example. I’m working on [arrangements for] three french horns that appear in a song called “Palm Desert” from my first album [1967's Song Cycle]. So, I’m exploring – in great detail — the songs that I left behind.

BK: Is that process difficult?

VDP: To tell you the truth, I thought it was going to be onerous. In fact it’s a great joy. And I stand by it; it’s gonna be great. So that whole thing is part of the focus on these Bella Union re-releases.

BK: Would you consider yourself a a restless composer?

VDP: No! It’s very funny that you have that impression! I approach every measure of music like a trench on a battlefield. Every fuckin’ foxhole, every measure presents a challenge. Some days I’ll do sixteen measures, then come back the next day and wipe it all out.

BK: You were originally a session player and arranger. What led to your getting a record deal?

VDP: In those days, there wasn’t such a thing as rock journalism. I put out a single under a nom de guerre, George Washington Brown.

BK: Why the pseudonym?

VDP: I didn’t want to use my real name; I didn’t want to embarrass my family in any way. But the Lord had other plans for me. I came to embarrass them many times over, but I did it in a way that brought great joy to me. And I’d do it all over again, but in half the time.

Donovan called his song “Colours,” but I called it “Donovan’s Colours” because I wanted to celebrate Donovan. He was the loser in the race with Bob Dylan. Everybody was in a race with Dylan except me. I couldn’t keep up; he took too many uppers!

BK: “Donovan’s Colours” wasn’t exactly a hit, though, was it?

VDP: No. But for some reason the single got on a jukebox in a restaurant in Greenwich Village, and into that restaurant stepped Richard Goldstein. He put a nickel in the jukebox, and up popped “Donovan’s Colours.”

BK: So he’s your own version of Raymond Jones, the young man who wandered into Brian Epstein‘s NEMS looking for “My Bonnie.”

VDP: He made a lengthy article in the Village Voice, and it was a laudatory review. And all of a sudden, Warner Brothers thought I was famous! One thing led to another, and I can fairly say I was pressured into calling myself an artist under my own name.

BK: I have read that Song Cycle was an expensive album to make. True?

VDP: That is a bunch of horse shit! The record cost $32,500. The reason that Warner Brothers had got me over there was that I had worked on “Heroes and Villains” and other things for Brian Wilson. Warners knew that I had learned a great deal from Brian, so they hired me over there. I worked on “Good Vibrations,” too.

BK: And that was a famously expensive recording session…

VDP: It was a matter of public record at the time that Brian spent $62,000 on production of one song – “Good Vibrations” – but Warner Brothers still made their crocodile tears about how much I had cost them and how little they gained from me. I would say without hesitancy that the exact opposite is true. Warners got a vast amount of information from me in collateral areas of production. Warner Brothers lost money many times over with Song Cycle, but they also profited beyond explanation.

BK: You worked on the staff at Warner Brothers before you were a recording artist, though, right?

VDP: Right. I was working very hard there, in things like musical “shorts” to advertise singer/songwriters. I was doing other things as an office boy, on a secretarial salary. I was learning a lot right under the Chairman of the Board.

BK: So these albums – Song Cycle, 1972′s Discover America and Clang of the Yankee Reaper from 1975 – were all originally on Warner Brothers?

VDP: Yes, and one day I noticed that my records were out of distribution. You see, they had these things called cut-outs, when a record tanked. And mine all did! So I said to the head of the company, Mo Ostin, “This is not right.” Have you ever read Aesop’s fable “The Dog in the Manger?” The dog is sitting on the manger, and the cow is hungry. The dog doesn’t need the damn hay; the cow does. So I said, “Wouldn’t it be fair, if you cut out my records in my lifetime, that the equity should revert to me?” And he said, “That’s fine.”

BK: No contracts drawn up?

VDP: No. On the strength of that handshake, I got the right to have these records in my possession. Isn’t that something? The Warner attorneys had to witness the power of a handshake.

BK: You’re one of only a handful of artists I can think of who draws influences mostly from pre-rock’n'roll forms. In terms of influences – of music that informs your own sensibility — what modern music would you point to?

VDP: Well, all good music has an impact. But to me, the best kind of music to be shocked and awed by is music that is confirmational. You hear something, and you know damn well that you’re in the right place at the right time. That’s the music that I love, and I seek those epiphanies.

BK: And where do you find these?

VDP: They come to me, mostly, from worldbeat music. It’s not a genre; it’s a big, wide world. And I get that point of surprise and novelty and refreshment from worldbeat. And I always have. It’s not limited to Sun Records, or the Brill Building. Or Gilbert and Sullivan. Or Puccini or Bach. The fact is that it all informs.

BK: Both Discover America and Clang of the Yankee Reaper are musical excursions into calypso, into Caribbean music styles. So that would fall under your heading of worldbeat?

VDP: There’s an old expression that says, “Bloom where you’re planted.” So I should not have to feel ashamed that I’ve been places. I went from Song Cycle very gladly into Discover America; that’s when I got to really confess my worldbeat sensibility. I had put myself into my first record; on the second, I decided to put other people into it.

BK: Your arrangements are often pretty complex, wouldn’t you say?

VDP: That’s true by some standards. By some standards, they’re not complex at all. This is the problem of being at a door slightly ajar, between what they call chamber music and music that ain’t serious. I am very serious about music that isn’t serious. Arranging – if it’s done correctly – is almost to ensure durability in the fabric of the music itself.

BK: Bella Union uses the word “psychedelic” to describe your music. How does that strike you?

VDP: Psychedelic? You got the wrong guy! I had LSD given to me once involuntarily. I did not enjoy it. There’s nothing psychotropic about the things I do. In another generation, they called people beatniks. They wanted people to think that these free-thinkers – the Beat Generation – were commies. Nowadays – or since the sixties, and it’s getting really tedious – they use the word “psychedelic” to dismiss music that they couldn’t understand.

BK: Do you have an underlying philosophy to which you adhere when making records?

VDP: Ethical responsibility. Effort to do the right thing. Not to be noticed or to want to be noticed. But just to do the right thing. And that’s why I did those god-damned records!

BK: With the Bella Union reissues, your work is being exposed to a whole new audience. Is that gratifying?

VDP: Of course I’ve been tamed over the years. But in the extravagance of my youth, and in the innocence of my inquiry at the time of these three albums, I admitted to my madness and let it take me where it would. What can I tell you? I’m just delighted that it’s still out there.

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Album Review: Galahad – Battle Scars

Monday, August 20th, 2012

File Galahad under that growing list of accessible progressive rock acts that had (up to now) escaped my notice. Apparently they’ve been around for some years; their debut In a Moment of Complete Madness came out way back in 1993. Of course, had I heard them at the time, I might have dismissed them entirely: in those days they sounded very much like Rush, a band that – for all their admitted talents – I’ve never been able to endure.

But on 2012′s Battle Scars, Galahad sounds like a completely different band. Flourishes of symphonic prog adorn the opening title track. Lyrically the song is a bit repetitive, but the playing and arrangement are exciting enough to carry the tune. Assertive yet breezy vocal harmonies, some nice touches of Mellotron, and an angularly percussive midsection all add interest.

The guitar figure upon which “Reach for the Sun” is built recalls – of all things – The Easybeats‘ 1966 hit “Friday on My Mind.” The track is mostly instrumental save for the odd “na na” and two lines of lyric that serve to link it thematically with the title track (is Battle Scars a concept album?) but it’s a dramatic piece nonetheless.

Some modern sounds blend nicely with more classic string-synth textures on “Singularity,” a tune that suggest that the guys in Galahad have been listening to Porcupine Tree. Not really derivative of Steven Wilson‘s peerless group, the track does bring together the elements that bridge the gap between classic and 21st century progressive rock: a propulsive, accessible beat and plenty of thrilling sonic variety.

The Porcupine Tree vibe is even more pronounced on “Bitter and Twisted.” A throbbing synthesizer line recalls Richard Barbieri‘s work on Fear of a Blank Planet, but once again, Galahad isn’t ripping off anyone; a strong melody, some dramatic vocals from Stuart Nicholson and precise/complex drum work from Spencer Luckman show that Galahd have plenty of good musical idea of their own. Halfway through the track, the band takes off on a brief prog-metal excursion that’s both doomy and tuneful.

Dean Baker‘s washes of distorted organ kick off “Suspended Animation; that leads into some rubbery bass work from Neil Pepper; and that leads into some Roy Keyworth stacked guitar overdubs that recall Steve Hackett‘s work with Genesis. The tune itself has a sinister, smoky feel.

“Beyond the Barbed Wire” has all of the tasty elements of the other songs on Battle Scars, and adds the hookiest melody to the mix. It’s an effective mix of crunchy, rockin’ out sections and ethereal synth-and-vocal washes. The anthemic album closer “Seize the Day” features a kinetic synth arpeggio and another accessible melody.

A 2012 remake of the group’s 1995 track “Sleepers” is included as a bonus track; I haven’t heard the original, but the 2012 version is very much of a piece with the other tracks on Battle Scars, though it does allow the players a bit more space in which to stretch out and display their impressive chops and tight ensemble playing. In places “Sleepers 2012” is reminiscent of another fine modern prog group, Knight Area.

Virtually free of the qualities that sometimes put listeners off of progressive rock – pretentious themes, over-emotive vocals, showy playing that calls attention to itself – Galahad’s Battle Scars shows that this UK band has learned a thing or two in the past twenty years. Recommended.

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