Archive for September, 2012

Two Obscure Albums You Need to Hear

Friday, September 28th, 2012

The illustrious (and print-only) London-based Shindig! Magazine ought to be as famous as Mojo and Uncut. It’s not; not yet. As it happens, I write occasionally for Shindig! Several years ago the mag ran a short version of my long piece on legendary no-hit wonders Green Fuz. In 2010 my full-length feature on The Remains (the Boston-based rock/r&b band that toured the USA with the Beatles) ran in the magazine. Also in 2010 I got my first cover story in the mag, a story about Paul Revere and the Raiders. And earlier this year, my second interview with Van Dyke Parks ran in Shindig!

Recently the editors reached out to a number of their favorite contributors, asking for help in compiling a list of what they called “50 U.S. Psych Albums You Need to Hear.” I encourage you to lay your hands on the print issue #28 (full of other great features as well, by the way), because it describes a number of albums you probably haven’t heard (but should.)

My contributions were brief essays on a pair of off-the-wall releases. Here they are. Both of these records are in my vinyl collection.

The Nat Adderley Sextet – Cannonball Adderley Presents Soul Zodiac
This curious album – originally a double LP in a gatefold sleeve – came out in 1972, but you could have easily guessed that. When else could a major label (Capitol/EMI) have released such a left-field combination of soul, jazz, funk, screaming rock guitar and spoken word(!) upon an unsuspecting world? Radio DJ/personality Rick Holmes writes and narrates this exploration of the twelve signs of the zodiac, components of what he endearingly (and insistently) calls the “so-lahr sys-tem.” Behind him, the Nat Adderley SextetErnie Watts on sax and flute, bassist Walter Booker, Roy McCurdy on drums, Wrecking Crew mainstay Mike Deasy on lead guitar, George Duke on Fender Rhodes, and Nat on cornet – turns in some genre-expanding music that, in the end, is more accessible (and a helluva lot more fun) than Bitches Brew. Cannonball Adderley (sax on two tracks) and David Axelrod provide top-notch production.

Timothy Leary – You Can Be Anyone This Time Around
“Hey, Jimi, it’s me….Tim. I hear you, Stephen Stills, Buddy Miles and John Sebastian jammed last night. Any chance that you could send me some tape from that session? I’m sure you recorded it. Y’see, I have this rap I wanna do about how cool LSD is, and I need some musical backing for it.” That’s probably how it went when Leary put together this three-track LP. “Live and Let Live” does indeed feature the famous – if slightly noodly and meandering – musical summit (Stills on bass), and the other two tracks are interesting as well. The title track proto-samples liberally from Beatles and Stones records (plus a curious citation of The Grateful Dead that sounds instead like Pink Floyd‘s “Pow R Toc H”), and “What Do You Turn On When You Turn On” features hippie-exploito-film style music, but it’s all in good fun. Right?

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Album Review: Vince Guaraldi – The Very Best of Vince Guaraldi

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

The music of Vince Guaraldi could well be described as “jazz for people who don’t like jazz.” And even knowing what little I do about Guaraldi the man, I strongly suspect that he’d be pleased with that description. He was a hipster-looking pianist who created arguably the most accessible body of work in the jazz idiom. Guaraldi is the composer and performer of music that a generation knows, though they may not know it was he who created it.

Among music fans, Guaraldi’s most well-known and immortal work is “Cast your Fate to the Wind” from the album Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus, itself a groundbreaking work and major commercial success. It’s my contention – not provable, mind you – that the main melodic line of “Cast your Fate to the Wind” provided the riff for a song by another artist who’d many years later be on Fantasy Records (as leader of Creedence Clearwater Revival) John Fogerty. Listen to his post-CCR solo hit “Centerfield” and decide for yourself. And Todd Rundgren‘s “Breathless” from Something/Anything? owes a similar debt to Guaraldi’s “Treat Street.” Clearly, Guaraldi’s influence and reach clearly extended well beyond jazz and jazz fans.

Because among the public at large, Guaraldi is the man who wrote and performed the Peanuts theme, “Linus and Lucy.” The warm, friendly and – here’s that word again – accessible approach of Guaraldi’s work expressed a carefree joy without the use of words. And Guaraldi’s subsequent work for the animation franchise included more music in that vein, especially his work for the Peanuts Christmas specials.

The best of that work plus nearly a dozen more tunes make up the new one-disc collection from Concord/Fantasy, The Very Best of Vince Guaraldi. Part of Concord’s plan to release boiled-down introductory collections for those interested yet new to jazz artists, The Best of Vince Guaraldi shows the pianist in a jazz trio. With a string quintet; delving in to the then-hot samba scene; and much more. Guitarists Eddie Duran and Bola Sete (one or the other is featured on the majority of these tracks) add even more tasty appeal to the songs. Across all the tracks – live and studio – Guaraldi’s approach is always aimed squarely at drawing in the widest swath of listeners, and he does it without ever “selling out” or diluting his music. Guaraldi comes by his commercial appeal honestly; it’s simply who we was as a musician.

Guaraldi biographer Derrick Bang‘s lyrical (there’s no better word) liner notes offer a short course in Guaraldi’s appeal, and – like the music – will lead listeners to delve deeper into his catalog. If I might recommend a second and third destination: the aforementioned Jazz Impressions and one I don’t have (yet), a 2CD release from 2009 titled The Definitive Vince Guaraldi.

Postscript: I discovered the “Treat Street” / “Breathless” connection on my own; Derrick Bang (a much more learned scholar than myself) was hipped to the connection by another reviewer a few short weeks ago.

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Album Review: Booker T & the MG’s – Green Onions

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

Author Rob Bowman knows his stuff. More specifically, he knows his Stax. As one of a very short list of scholars on the subject of the legendary influential (and troubled) Memphis-based record label, Bowman wrote what may be the definitive work on Stax, Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records, first published in 1997. It’s nearly four hundred pages in small type, and dense with facts and anecdotes, but it’s essential reading.

And it’s Bowman’s liner notes that grace the 2012 reissue of a classic Stax LP, Green Onions by the Stax house band, Booker T & the MG’s. Released in 1962, Green Onions is a classic of the genre: instrumental southern soul. The band played on 95% of all Stax releases through 1969, Bowman reminds us. And their own catalog included 23 singles and eleven albums, including the fascinating Beatles tribute, McLemore Avenue.

But on their first album, the band was just coming together. Having recorded a pair of excellent songs (one of which was the immortal single that gave the LP its name), they did what pretty well all bands did in the pre-Beatles era: they went back into the studio and cut ten more songs – all but one a cover, and the remaining track a sequel-of-sorts called “Mo’ Onions” – so that they could capitalize on their fame and tap into the burgeoning long-player market.

“Green Onions” is a perfectly compact tune: with Booker T. Jones‘ spare and assured Hammond M3 (not, as many have surmised, the much larger B3) lines trading licks with Steve Cropper‘s country-influenced yet devastatingly rocking riffage, the song doesn’t just walk, it stomps. Al Jackson Jr.‘s straight-ahead and precise drumming syncs up perfectly with Lewie Steinberg‘s bass work. (Bowman’s concise liners provide helpfully boiled-down biographies for each member of the quartet, showing their pedigrees and helping to explain why their style was all-killer-no-filler.)

A number of the covers will be familiar to fans of early 60s pop: “Rinky Dink”; a version of “Twist and Shout” that predates The Beatles’ recording by four months; Ray Charles‘ “I Got a Woman”; and so on. The MG’s versions stake out a territory that is true to the melodic intent of the originals, yet full of the band’s soon-to-be-recognized signature style.

Booker T & the MG’s would be important even if they hadn’t cut “Green Onions.” They were one of the first racially mixed bands, in a time and place when one put such aggregations together at one’s own peril. As the house band at Stax, they lent assured backing to a stellar list of artists (Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas and many more) that allowed those artists to concentrate on what they had to do; you never needed to worry about the band when Booker T & the MG’s were there. Green Onions is an important piece of history, and of the puzzle that helps explains the group and Stax as a whole. And it’s a lot of fun as well.

The 2012 Concord/Stax reissue appends two tracks: live versions from the 1965 various-artists showcase Funky Broadway: Stax Revue Live at the 5/4 Ballroom. The live run-throughs of “Green Onions” and “Can’t Sit Down” are both taken at a faster pace than their studio counterparts, and feature bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, who had recently replaced Steinberg. Dunn would remain with the band to the end and when it re-formed; he passed away earlier this year. Jackson died tragically in 1975. But, as they say, the music lives on.

Postscript: On a related topic, mere days ago I returned from Nashville TN, where I took part in this year’s Americana Music Association Conference and Festival. A highlight of that was Booker T. Jones’ acceptance of a Lifetime Achievement Award. He also joined the event’s house band onstage at the Ryman Auditorium for a few numbers (including, of course, “Green Onions”) and added his organ (this time a B3) stylings to live performances by Alabama Shakes. But perhaps the best Booker T-related event was his interview at the Country Music Hall of Fame (conducted by Robert Gordon, another of those short-list Memphis experts). I was fortunate enough to score a front-row seat for the 80-minute conversation. And if that weren’t enough, I got to ask Jones a question about the band’s 1970 McLemore Avenue. The entire interview is worth your time; my (nearly off-mic but condensed and restated by Gordon) question comes at the 41:13 mark.

Update: Here’s a transcript of our exchange, for those who can’t view videos online:

Bill Kopp: You mentioned British rock’n'roll. I know that the MG’s – and Stax artists in general – covered The Beatles a number of times. What was the inspiration – other than the album itself – for McLemore Avenue?

 Booker T. Jones: I just went and picked up that album [Abbey Road] and realized the history…inspiration is the true word. Feeling that I had the capacity to make a tribute, and feeling that a tribute was due. Because of the courage they had as a group, and the fact that they stuck with it long enough to come up with completely new, inconceivable music. The best music of the time, I thought.

It was kind of like when I worked with Willie [Nelson] and we did the Stardust album. We went to the record company with this inconceivable idea. They went, “What?! What? Are you sure?” That was the way McLemore Avenue was: “What?! The Beatles?” But I thought their work was just stellar, and I just wanted to pay tribute to them.

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Album Review: Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe – Live at the NEC

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

There’s an old joke – admittedly not a rip-roaringly hilarious one – about band names sounding like law firms: Crosby, Stills, Nash and (sometimes) Young was the first to be the butt of comments about too many egos for one band (or band name). The tortuously convoluted history of Yes resulted in a late 80s aggregation with an even more unwieldy moniker: Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe. “It’s a mouthful…and how,” went one of the jokes. (Tip your server and try the veal.)

Because estranged bassist Chris Squire somehow ended up with they keys to the logo and brand, four members of arguably the most-revered lineup of Yes enlisted the talents of Tony Levin, bassist extraordinaire of King Crimson and veteran of more than 500 sessions. They didn’t give him top billing, but he didn’t seem to mind: “I don’t care about the billing at all,” he told me in September 2011. “My mind was occupied on that tour by trying to fill the shoes of Chris Squire, without sounding like a guy who’s just copying Chris Squire.” An additional keyboardist (Julian Colbeck) and guitarist (Milton McDonald) were added to the lineup for the inevitable world tour.

While the studio album that ABWH released was a welcome return to the classic Yes sound (the “official” band busying itself sounding like 80s bands) and features predictably pyrotechnic playing, it was a bit short on memorable tunes. An official tour document album finally came out in 1993, by which time Yes had resolved their differences (for awhile, at least) and recorded the all-in Union, a relatively weak affair. The ABWH live album was titled after the tour: An Evening of Yes Music Plus. It was…okay. Not as dreadful as 90125: The Solos, it still included long stretches of solo spotlights, and ended up short on energy. You had to be there.

Oddly enough, some nineteen years later, the involved parties have seen fit to release another live album from the same tour. Featuring almost exactly the same set list (albeit in a slightly different sequence), Live at the NEC Oct. 24th 1989 is – if you’re keeping score – the thrd album (and fourth through sixth discs) of the recorded output of Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe.

I’ll set aside that redundancy, because unless you’re an ABWH completist (do such exist?) you don’t need An Evening of Yes Music Plus and this new release. Viewed strictly on its own merits, Live at the NEC does have its charms. The opening number, a medley of very old and then-very-new (“Time and a Word,” “Owner of a Lonely Heart” and ABWH’s “Teakbois”) is pretty effective, though the Art of Noise orchestra hits sound a bit out of place on this more acoustically-oriented arrangement. The solo spots that make up a good chunk of the first disc will be familiar to anyone who owns the 1973 triple-LP Yessongs: Steve Howe‘s acoustic “Clap,” some selections from Rick Wakeman‘s The Six Wives of King Henry VIII and so on. Moving back to classic Yes songs, the disc wraps up with a trio of early 70s classic numbers, among their best-known work.

The arrangements are fine, workmanlike, occasionally impressive. What they are not, however, is any sort of artistic competitor to the Yessongs versions from 30 years earlier. Wakeman’s keyboard textures in particular scream late-80s, which is a shame for such an accomplished player. Bill Bruford – one of the most fascinating and boundary-pushing percussionists in music – is playing an electronic set. It was cutting-edge at the time, but the sounds haven’t worn well. And while Levin remains one of the best and most innovative bassists in the business, somehow he doesn’t sound particularly effective here. The throaty Rickenbacker tones of Chris Squire are conspicuous in their absence.

So, too, are Squire’s vocals. There are vocal harmonies on Live at the NEC, but it’s not clear where they’re coming from. Jon Anderson is (to put it mildly) a distinctive vocalist, but the Yes sound requires more than he alone can give.

The second disc offers up more solo spots, a bit more ABWH material, and more early 70s Yes. Again the energy seems a bit lacking, and it’s not the fault of the playing per se; it’s more the arrangements: the parts they band has given itself to play.

A third disc includes a short amateur-quality behind-the-scenes video, worth a viewing for fans. The whole affair is somewhat confusingly packaged in a DVD-style case, making it appear that buyers are in fact getting a video document of the ABWH tour. That might have been more exciting. The booklet is impressive but confusing in its own way: it’s a reduced-size full color facsimile of the 1989 tour program (complete with ads and endorsements) but there’s no note explaining to purchasers that that’s what it is.

Note that portions of this concert (58 minutes’ worth) were broadcast on a BBC radio program called In Concert not long after the actual show took place. Final verdict: worth a listen for Yes fans, but only those who don’t already own An Evening of Yes Music Plus or any number of bootleg recordings from the tour.

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Album Review: Jefferson Starship – Tales From the Mothership

Monday, September 24th, 2012

Where to start with this one? There’s so much I could say about the sprawling 4CD set Tales From the Mothership. But let’s start with a bit of history to contextualize things.

Tales From the Mothership is credited to Jefferson Starship. Note that’s not Jefferson Airplane, the group that gave us the hit versions of “White Rabbit” and “Sombody to Love” as well as “Volunteers” and “Wooden Ships.” But all four of those songs do appear in one form or another on this set. No, this is the Starship, the group that grew out of the ashes of the Airplane upon its early 70s demise. But it doesn’t sound a bit like – nor does it feature most of the musicians from the era – the 70s pop group that scored hits with “Play on Love,” Miracles” and other AOR tunes.

Right: no Grace Slick (she’s long since completely retired from music), and no Mickey Thomas (if you’re not confused yet, he has or had a group called Starship Featuring Mickey Thomas). But lest I use up my allotment of zeroes and ones telling you what this isn’t, here’s what it is: Jefferson Starship circa 2009 (the time of this live recording, made in Roswell, New Mexico at an annual UFO festival – no, really) is a group led by Paul Kantner, original member and primary songwriter in both Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship. This particular aggregation is, both musically and conceptually, a continuation of the kind of thing Kantner did on the very first Jefferson Starship album, 1971′s Blows Against the Empire. On that record, Kanter (and Grace Slick) put together a loose aggregation of like-minded musicians (including members of The Grateful Dead) to perform their science-fiction-themed songs.

That’s the kind of thing that is – to a certain extent – on order here, and in fact a suite of tunes from that LP are included on the third of these four discs (more on what’s where, forthwith). So the sci-fi angle means that it’s something of a good fit to have the band appear at a festival saluting Area 51. Or, I guess it is.

The set is designed to appeal to adherents and fans of taper culture: while the actual performance fills the second and third discs (divided into a nominally acoustic and a fully electric set), the 4CD package also features an entire CD’s worth of rehearsals (in low fidelity, even) and a fourth disc of dodgy soundcheck performances. One hopes that the band knows its core audience better than I do: it’s hard to imagine who would want to listen to the first and fourth discs more than once. Truth be told, one listen is tough enough going.

But more on those in a moment; let’s concentrate on the performance discs. The show opens with a short set by Tom Constanten, perhaps most famously known as The Grateful Dead Keyboardist Who Lived. He turns in some thematically relevant but otherwise odd song choices: The Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band‘s “I’m the Urban Spaceman” (mis-titled in the packaging as “Urban Space”) and the novelty smash “The Eggplant That Ate Chicago.” But he also does an early Dead tune, “Mountains of the Moon.” Truth be told, he’s a good enough musician, but there’s nothing especially distinctive about any of these performances.

Next up is Jack Traylor, a folk musician who – we’re told – was a big influence on Kantner. Well, assuming that the arrangements of some of his songs are true to his original versions, I get it: the familiar chord figure upon which “Volunteers” and “We Can Be Together” (and, it seems, perhaps a few too many other Airplane/Starship tunes) are built does crop up in his songs. He’s an earnest foklie in the Burl Ives mold; your liking for that sort of thing will be a good indicator of your likelihood of enjoying Traylor’s set.

A set of Airplane numbers given a more acoustic-leaning (as opposed to actually acoustic) arrangements comes next. What’s oddest about these is the participation of two vocalists, Cathy Richardson and Darby Gould. They both sound like tied-for-first-place winners in a Grace Slick sound-alike contest. Slick’s hallmark approach – strident vocals with a ton of controlled yet liberally-applied vibrato – is on full display here. The thing is, after awhile they come off as almost a parody: even Grace didn’t turn on the trademark vibrato as much as these two. It’s as if they’re needing to consistently remind us that, hey, we sure do sound a helluva lot like Grace, don’t we. What’s thrilling for the first few songs becomes a bit unnerving after awhile.

The third disc includes the “electric” set. Again with the supposedly thematic cover songs: The Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star” gets a doppelganger reading, though it’s mercifully brief; and a few songs from Pink Floyd‘s The Dark Side of the Moon are featured. A longish number called “(Paul Kantner’s) Science Fiction Movie” could also be titled – if one were feeling sarcastic – “Not Quite as Dark Star.” The set also gives us a horrifyingly sloppy reading of David Bowie‘s “Space Oddity,” and – finally delivering some real rock to what’s otherwise a slow- and midtempo set of tunes – some Jefferson Airplane hits to close the set.

The rehearsals on the first disc are performed pretty well, and if one can listen past the bootleg-quality fidelity, they’re enjoyable. The sound check is another story altogether: why anyone would wish to hear the band break down mid-song while making sure mix levels are right, it’s hard to know. The sound check does serve to prove that the band could actually get “Space Oddity” right; the actual performance version shows that for whatever reason, they completely lost their way.

Both the live performances and the behind-the-scenes material feature all manner of onstage patter, lots of what-shall-we-do-next muttering, and the like. For fans of that kind of thing, Tales From the Mothership will be a treasured addition to the CD shelf. Most others would likely prefer a double-disc, or – better still – a single CD putting the spotlight on the best bits.

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Fantasy Festival: Yep Roc 15

Friday, September 21st, 2012

I’m not a fan of professional team spectator sports; that kind of thing has never held any fascination for me. But I sort of understand why others like it, I guess. I also (thank goodness) don’t work in a cube-farm office – got that out of my system back in the mid 90s – so I don’t have to endure endless water cooler chatter about who won the big game last night. My coworkers of that era quickly figured out that I was clueless when it came to sports: then as now I don’t know if the Cardinals (to pick a random example) are a baseball or football team. And I think I heard that the Rams don’t even play in Los Angeles any more.

But I do remember a game-of-sorts that my sports-loving coworkers used to really get into. It was something called “fantasy football.” It isn’t, I don’t think, anything like “band camps” in which you play a vast sum of money to hang out with rock stars slightly past their sell-by date; no, I think it has to do with picking a bunch of your favorite players and somehow pitting them against your friend’s list of players. Maybe I’m wrong.

But if that is what it is, then it’s slightly similar to a little imagination exercise I occasionally engage in: a fantasy festival. If I were a rock impresario with unlimited (or at least substantial) resources, and I wanted to put together a festival with a list of great acts, who might make the list?

As it happens, someone else has done this for me. And as luck would have it, that “someone” is the staff of Yep Roc Records, based in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill region of North Carolina. I live a mere four hours’ drive from the Triangle, and I’ll be attending the festival, designed to celebrate the label’s 15th anniversary. It’s called Yep Roc 15, and the lineup – all acts signed to Yep Roc – is stellar. I’ll be reporting on it a number of times both before and after the three-day festival (October 11-13), and if my smartphone battery holds up, I might do a bit of liveblogging straight from Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, home to the three-night extravaganza.

For a full rundown of the acts who’ll take the stage, visit But here’s a survey of some (not all) of the acts I am most excited about seeing, hearing, and in some cases, meeting:

As co-leader (with brother Phil) of The Blasters, Dave Alvin was a pioneer in what we now call roots-rock. I saw The Blasters way back in 1981, in my fake ID era; that was the only way to get into Atlanta’s Agora Ballroom if you were under age. Alvin’s Romeo’s Escape LP (known outside the USA as Every Night About This Time) featured the amazing, heart-rending “Fourth of July,” a song he’d re-record (in an arguably inferior version) when he subsequently joined X. I saw Alvin onstage last year, and while he leans a bit more toward country than he did in his Blasters days, his story-songs and colorful personality make him a must-see.

There’s so much I could say about Nick Lowe. From his work with Kippington Lodge to Brinsley Schwarz to (most notably) Rockpile and his solo records, he’s consistently turned out some of the finest songs in any genre. While he made his name to some degree as a house producer at Stiff Records in the 70s, his biggest claims to fame are the classics “Cruel to Be Kind” and a song that’s become a standard, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding.” The success of the latter set Lowe up so as not to have any financial worries. Like Alvin, Lowe has moved in a singer-songwriter direction; his current tour brings him to my hometown (Asheville) the night before Yep Roc 15, and in fact my interview with him will run in the local altweekly Mountain Xpress that week (it’ll be on this blog two weeks after that).

Robyn Hitchcock is in many ways the successor to Pink Floyd‘s Syd Barrett. But he’s much more than that. A prolific artist who has recorded with his groups (The Soft Boys and The Egyptians) as well as solo, the Cambridge-based Hitchcock can always be counted on for droll lyrics fused to winning melodies. I interviewed him many years ago in connection with a reissue of his albums. This will be my first time seeing him onstage.

Los Straitjackets are, quite simply, the world’s greatest instrumental surf guitar band. With their high-concept look and flawless choreography, they’re among the most distinctive bands you’ll ever hope to see. I’ve seen them twice and interviewed them twice (in 2007 and 2011). The current live dates are a special treat: guitarist Danny “Daddy-O Grande” Amis returns to the lineup after wrestling cancer to the ground.

Fountains of Wayne rank among the finest exponents of intelligent powerpop; every one of their albums is filled with wry observations on life, and more hooks than seems fair. I first saw FoW onstage at Bonnaroo 2007, and covered the release of a live concert DVD as well as a break-out solo album by their lead guitarist Jody Porter.

Liam Finn comes by his talent at least in part thanks to genetics. His dad is Neil Finn of Crowded House, and Tim Finn (Split Enz, Crowded House) is his uncle. Liam tours sometimes as a member of Crowded House as well, but his own music offers a more modern take on the classic sounds of his dad’s band. I’ve seen him both as a Crowdie and as a solo opener; in the latter situation he made intelligent use of looping to create rocking songs out of nearly nothing but his voice and guitar.

The Sadies are an astounding band; their 2007 New Seasons album just might be the finest synthesis of rock, country and Americana since early Flying Burrito Brothers. But that’s not all they can do: though their vocal harmonies are a thing of beauty, their soundtrack to the documentary about Ed “Big Daddy” Roth (Tales of the Rat Fink) is an instro-surf extravaganza of the first order.

And that’s just some of the acts on the bill. Also scheduled to appear: John Doe (formerly of X), Chuck Prophet, Minus 5, Sloan, Chatham County Line and host/emcee John Wesley Harding. And several more. And the organizers promise more names are yet to be added.

I’m telling ya: Yep Roc 15 is my fantasy festival. I can’t wait; I’m already working on lining up some interviews. Stay tuned.

Tickets have long been on sale, and both discounted-advance and VIP tix are long gone. But individual day passes remain, at least at the time of this writing. Go get yours now.

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Album Review: The Poster Boy – Melody

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

One of the many fascinating discoveries one finds when diving into the sprawling 4CD set Nuggets, Vol. 2: Original Artyfacts from the British Empire and Beyond is in the “beyond” part. Everybody knows what British pop music of that sounds like (even though it’s a wonderfully varied lot), but it’s the selections from the other countries in which the real gems lie. The Mops‘ delightfully cracked “I’m Just a Mops” from Japan; Los Chijuas‘ “Changing the Colors of Life” from Mexico; and Sweden’s Tages, whose “I Read You Like an Open Book” mixes Who-like punch with a dash of proto-prog and a winning accessibility to rival ABBA – these are just a few of the fascinating discoveries.

And what makes them so interesting is the way that the bands took forms familiar to us in North America and the UK, and then applied – deliberately or organically; it really doesn’t matter – their own local flavor. It’s similar to what the Beatles and other British groups did in assimilating American rock, girl-group sounds and r&b though their own filters, and then giving it back to us in a way that truly was fresh and new.

But of course that would happen, you’re thinking. Of course: musicians in a given country or culture would bring a different sensibility to a pop style, even if they didn’t mean to do so. Right?

Up until now, I’d say yes. When, in the early 1990s, Japan’s Flying Elephants tried to make music in the style of The Beatles, it came out sounding, well, like a Japanese Beatles (as opposed to Japanese beetles; sorry). Conversely, a decade earlier when Charlotte North Carolina’s Spongetones set out to do the same thing with their orignal songs, the results sounded like great outtakes from Something New and Revolver. For them, it worked.

Which, finally, brings me to the exception that just might prove the rule. A trio based in Budapest, Hungary called The Poster Boy has released Melody, a pop album the classic American/British pop mold. While the drummer and lyricist (Michael Zwecker) is an American, the dual front men (as described in the press release accompanying my review copy of Melody) are Imre Poniklo and Noel R. Mayer, both Hungarians. The latter two do the singing, but listening to Melody, one wold never suspect that the band wasn’t from somewhere in America’s heartland. Or England. Or at least L.A.

The title track on Melody features chiming Rickenbacker tones, and gentle, dual-lead harmony vocals that recall The Searchers, The La’s or Belle and Sebastian; it’s a transcendentally beautiful song worthy of its title (though it is, in the fine pop tradition, about a girl). It’s so damn good, in fact, that if Melody were a one-sided single, you’d need it.

“Pale Blue Eyes” is an original tune, not the Velvet Underground song. It’s an insistent yet plaintive and melancholy number. While the rhythm guitar and snare propel the song forward hypnotically, the bass shifts subtly under them; it’s almost dream-pop, but with a higher melodic quotient. “Portland Head Light” kicks off sounding like a lo-fi rethinking of T. Rex, but then it explodes into a joyous pop extravaganza.

“Traction” mines the style of The La’s again, but speeds things up and adds in a modern slant; even with the handclaps, it’s a timeless-sounding number. “It’s Over” is featured twice on Melody; the first version starts with a sultry, sexy ballad, weds a Small Faces approach to it, and applies female vocal choruses. The result is a modern take on Northern Soul. The outro features some truly soulful Memphis-styled horn work.

“Once” evokes the Summer of Love, British-style, right down to the piano chording and la-la-la backing vocals. It could easily be a long-lost World Party track, but instead it’s merely another in the broken string of lovely pop songs on Melody. “Only a Test” is a departure, starting with an exotic and vaguely Eastern feel; it unfolds into an alternately yearning/rocking song reminiscent of Crowded House circa Together Alone. The lovely, brief “Diffraction” is the sole cut on Melody built around an acoustic guitar. The album closes with an alternate mix of “It’s Over,” featuring Viki Singh on lead vocals. Her voice wrings even more emotion out of the tune. It’s not fair to compare the two versions; you need both.

Melody is immediately short-listed for Musoscribe’s Best Album of 2012. Check back in late December.

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Album Review: 20/20 — 20/20 / Look Out!

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

Unless you were deeply immersed in the powerpop/new wave scene of the late 1970s and (very) early 1980s, you probably didn’t know about 20/20 during their initial heyday. (I wasn’t, and I didn’t. But I know people who were and who did. That counts, right?) This was the era of skinny ties, good haircuts, and bands (usually four-piece ones) playing high-energy songs with hooks and melodies. You could generally understand the words, the songs usually clocked in under four minutes, and there wasn’t a whole lot of Robert Plant-style preening going on.

20/20, like many bands in those days, relocated from their home (Tulsa OK, home of fellow powerpoppers Dwight Twilley and the late, great Phil Seymour) to Los Angeles in hopes of getting a record deal. They did, initially working with Greg Shaw and his Bomp! Label. When they hit the majors – on the strength of their single “Giving it All” b/w “Under the Freeway” and during a period that anyone who looked or sounded even remotely like The Knack got a deal – they landed on Portrait, a CBS subsidiary label.

20/20 recorded a pair of albums for the label: their 1979 self-titled debut long-player, and 1981′s Look Out! Then, unhappy with their treatment there, they left for Enigma. The liner notes suggest that the band had some second thoughts, but in retrospect it was probably a good call: Portrait soon underwent a major personnel shuffle, and some quality acts covering similar stylistic ground got kicked off the label (Atlanta powerpop group The Producers was one of these unlucky ones.) Of course Enigma didn’t last long either, but that’s another story.

Those cratedigging record nerds over at Real Gone Music have gotten a hold of the master tapes and combined the two Portrait era 20/20 albums onto a single CD, and (by using a single edit of one song) they even squeezed in a couple bonus tracks (I told you the songs didn’t run long.)

Unlike many of their contemporaries, 20/20 managed to incorporate keyboards into their sound without coming off all plastic. The opener of their debut, “The Sky is Falling,” is a short burst of what’s almost musique concrète; it’s impressive, but gives not a hint of what’s to come. The group’s closest thing to a hit, “Yellow Pills” didn’t burn its way up the charts, but it did go on to be an exemplar of the best the genre and era had on offer, and Jordan Oakes‘ four volumes of peerless powerpop compilations took their name from the song.

Most of the songs on the pair of Portrait albums were penned by the group’s founders, guitarist Steve Allen and bassist Ron Flynt. Using a songwriting approach that applied equal parts melodrama and punch, the group crafted a dozen winning songs for the debut album. The note-perfect (and very Beatlesque) harmony vocals on “Tell Me Why (Can’t Understand You)” are a highlight. Missteps are few: even the derivative, overly familiar melody of “Tonight We Fly” is redeemed by a spirited arrangement. The strong vocal arrangements elevate the already-excellent “She’s an Obsession” to an even higher place.

The story of the second album – covered in Stephen Schnee‘s informative liner note essay – is one familiar to anyone who’s followed rock acts. The band took longer to write it, and faced the dreaded “sophomore slump.” The accepted wisdom about the slump is this: you have your entire life to write the songs for album number one; you get a few weeks for the second one.

That said, Look Out! remains a fine album. Though it doesn’t quite scale the heights of the debut – personnel changes and the like having taken their predictable toll – it’s an effective collection. In fact, other than the somewhat darker lyrical tone (the band admits to as much in the liner notes of this compilation) the transition between albums is sonically imperceptible. Though the records had different producers (Earle Mankey for the debut, Richard Polodor for Look Out!) they sound very much of a piece, with a minimum of gimmickry. The song styles vary a bit more than on the debut, but all the tracks stay well inside the powerpop format.

“A Girl Like You” sounds more like some of the more bloodless UK new wave bands, but it’s the exception here. Despite its well-worn title, “Life in the U.S.A.” is a catchy, start/stop number that would have fit nicely on the debut. And the Merseybeat aura of “The Night I Heard a Scream” ranks as three of the best minutes on the entire collection. “Beat City” feels like an attempt to rewrite “Yellow Pills,” but it’s still a worthy followup.

“Mobile Unit 245” feels a bit out of place among the straight-ahead rockers, but it’s a moody, atmospheric number that sounds (in places) like something The Plimsouls might have done. The production choices on “American Dream” suggest that this was the track where the band let the producer make all the decisions. For the most part, they’re poor ones; it’s easily the weakest track here. But the CD ends on a pair of upbeat notes; the pair of 45rpm b-sides appended to the disc are much more in the vein of prime 20/20.

Fans of the powerpop era will want this collection; even though little beyond “Yellow Pills” is likely to fall into the heard-it-before column for most listeners, 20/20 / Look Out! Is a fine artifact of the best that period had to offer.

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Album Review: Lannie Flowers – New Songs, Old Stories

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

Lannie Flowers‘ vocal style is occasionally reminiscent of John Lennon, and the slide guitar fills he often employs are from the George Harrison school. The Dallas/Fort Worth guitarist is the composer of preternaturally strong, hook-laden pop songs that have equal parts muscle and melody. If there’s a single criticism of his work, it’s that he often – no, always – employs some sort of gimmick on his albums. Each record has some sort of overarching concept that sets it apart from everything else that’s out there, whether on the powerpop landscape or in the wider rock/pop marketplace.

But guess what: his concepts — gimmicks if you must – are well thought out, and they exist to further Flowers’ musical goals. His second album, Circles, was released on CD, digital, and vinyl. But these days, especially for indie pop artists, the vinyl angle isn’t so much of a gimmick. But what made Circles so remarkable (on its surface) is that Flowers issued it in both stereo and monaural formats.

Yet that wasn’t the most distinctive characteristic of the album, not by a long shot. As Circles amply displays, Lannie Flowers is a master of the bridge, or to use Lennon and Paul McCartney‘s term, the middle eight. There are no less than four – many more by some counts – amazingly memorable anthem-scale pop songs on Circles. (Read my review of Circles here.)

But the title track of that sophomore release had appeared in abbreviated form, which takes us back to Flowers’ debut album, 2008′s Same Old Story. Filled to the brim with winning pop tunes, Same Old Story had a gimmick of its own: it was a suite of interconnected songs. Songlets might be a better term; the album strung together thirty-six(!) brief songs. The album blows by quickly; it’s an embarrassment of riches.

So now in 2012, Flowers brings us his third album. And what’s the angle this time around, you ask? Well, even though on Circles Flowers displayed his ability to take pop songs to the next level by writing a bunch of great middle eights (a task that’s the downfall of many an otherwise capable songwriter), those songlets on the first record often had none. There simply wasn’t room within the format; the songs were, by design, underdeveloped.

By now I’ve likely telegraphed Lannie Flowers’ approach on his latest release. Titled (appropriately enough) New Songs, Old Stories, his latest takes nine of the ten strongest songs from Same Old Stories and fleshes them out to full length. (As previously mentioned, a full length version of the song “Circles” served as the title track of LP number two.)

Now, by “full length” I’m not describing prog epics; the nine songs on New Songs, Old Stories average under three minutes each, and the longest is still under the four-minute mark. If you’ve heard Flowers’ music before, you won’t find anything radically different, but then the format all but prohibits moving too far from the sonic approach of his earlier records. And why tinker needlessly with an effective approach?

There are some differences beyond the expansion of the songs. Where the debut was recorded with Flowers playing everything but drums, on the new record he uses a short list of other musicians. Drummer Mark Herson returns, but as always, all of the voices you’ll hear belong to Lannie Flowers; his overdubbed harmonies are a key part of his successful recipe.

The full band approach dials back the jangle just a bit, replacing it with a harder edge; “Another Weekend” was a catchy songlet before, but in its lengthier guise, it’s a full-blown Who-like rocker, ever so slightly reminiscent of their Live at Leeds version of Eddie Cochran‘s “Summertime Blues.” The track “You, Yeah You” crosses Rubber Soul era George Harrison with The Searchers, and adds a touch of early Tom Petty for good, twangy measure. And just like on his earlier two albums, the catchy songs keep coming, like some musical conveyor belt with the highest Quality Control personnel making sure no duds make it through to your ears.

One could argue that with songs, playing, arrangement, singing and production as first-class as Flowers’, there’s no need for these conceptual constructs. But if that’s his bag, he’s welcome to it. Just so long, that is, as he keeps the music coming.

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Album Review: Ruby Free – Introducing Ruby Free

Monday, September 17th, 2012

I wasn’t at all sure what to expect when I received a press release along with a review copy of Introducing Ruby Free. I knew Rick Hromadka as the leader of Maple Mars, an intelligent, compelling and ambitious group with a sound that leans toward the progressive end of powerpop. But the sepia-tinted color photographs that adorn Ruby Free‘s debut album conjure up a whole set of mental images.

In addition to a relaxed Hromadka looking as if he just spent a leisurely afternoon at a state fair – mostly in the 4-H exhibits – there are a number of photographs of the lovely Lisa Cavaliere (Rick’s wife, but no relation to Felix of the Rascals, at least none of which I’m aware). Those photos – Lisa on horseback, Lisa with Rick – suggest a warm and comfortable sort of bliss. But not, I should stress, anything reminiscent of the sophisticated pop on Galaxyland, Maple Mars’ 2010 album. Maybe it’s Rick and Lisa’s homage to Paul and Linda McCartney‘s Ram, I thought. So, in popped the disc.

The bouncy vibe of “Bongos and Beards” isn’t miles away from Maple Mars: chiming rhythm guiars a la The Beatles‘ “Getting Better,” an insistent midtempo piano rhythm and Hromadka’s voice are all delightfully welcome and familiar all at once. Lisa adds some subtle oohs and ahhs a la Linda McCartney. The song’s lyrics are charmingly unknowable; they suggest a series of inside jokes that the rest of us don’t get, but thye still make us smile somehow.

“Deep in the Valley” aims for more pastoral pastures, and here Cavaliere takes a more prominent role, harmonizing beautifully with Hromadka on large sections of the songs. Acoustic guitars and a clip-clpop rhythm give the song a vibe a bit closer to McCartney than Ram. A subtly playful undercurrent recalls some of Harry Nilsson‘s work.

“Slow Parade” feels more like like Maple Mars, crossed with a bit of Bill Lloyd; the trilling mandolin, fiddle and side guitars give a slight Bakersfield flavor to what’s still essential a straightforward pop melody of the sort Hromadka does so well. “Good Company” leans toward the powerpop end of Elliot Smith‘s work, with some chord shadings that suggest prime-era Emitt Rhodes.

The production style on Introducing Ruby Free avoids the polished-to-a-gleam approach of Maple Mars; it’s certainly not lo-fi, but there’s a looseness to the songs that serves them well. The melody and breezy guitars on “Are You Magical?” are reminiscent of The Allman Brothers‘ “Melissa,” but Hromadka’s knack with a middle-eight takes the song to another level; this track – more than any other on Introducing – feels like it could be a seamless addition to Galaxyland.

There’s no delicate way to put this; at least not one I can think of. While there’s no reason at all to suspect that Lisa Cavaliere isn’t a first-rate talent, neither is there a reason to think she’s remarkable. With one exception, her vocals never take center stage; at best she harmonizes with Hromadka, but she never takes a prominent lead. Not even on a tune called “Sonny & Cher,” another of Hromadka’s odes to, well, you can guess. (It’s also the one song on the album that really fails to go anywhere musically interesting.) All ten songs on Introducing Ruby Free credit word and music to Hromadka, who also produced and played all instruments except drums and the aforementioned mandolin. Again one thinks of Ram.

The good news is the exception – when Lisa Cavaliere doe sing the lead vocal – is no “Cook of the House.” Instead, “Tiny Stars” is a bouncing pop tune that recalls Katrina & the Waves, but with some memorable synth blasts and an uncharacteristically (for this record) distorted lead guitar.

“Three Cheers for the Sun God” blasts out of the speakers, sounding like nothing so much as stomping British glam rock a la Gary Glitter‘s “Rock and Roll, Part One.” Notwithstanding the fact that it feels wholly out of place on Introducing Ruby Free (as it would on Galaxyland as well), it’s a fun tune.

“Wound Up Too Tight” starts off with a Paul McCartney feel (circa the White Album) but quickly shifts gears into the bloozy, gauzy, distorted territory where bands like Wolfmother and the Black Keys live. Hearing this track, “Three Cheers” suddenly sounds like less of a stylistic left turn.

The aptly-titled “One Last Song” closes the album on a contemplative note, one that plays up the Nilsson feel again. With a few production tweak, this elegiac number too would have fit nicely on Galaxyland.

While Introducing Ruby Free makes only tentative steps to show the world the talents of Lisa Cavaliere, there’s no mistaking that it represents a move forward for Rick Hromadka. One may well have predicted that he pushed his talents to their limit with Maple Mars, but Introducing Ruby Free shows that there’s a depth and breadth to his abilities – most notably as a songwriter and arranger – that is even deeper that one could have guessed. I’ve no idea where he’ll go next musically – more Maple Mars, more Ruby Free, or something else – but I can all but guarantee that it will be worth a serious listen.

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