Archive for December, 2012

Musoscribe’s Best 12 of 2012, Part One

Monday, December 31st, 2012

Yeah, everybody does their “Best of the Year” lists. Why should I be any different? Well, partly because I can’t help it. My own tastes are decidedly outside the mainstream. But I’d argue that my favorites belong in the mainstream, because they’re that good. In fact most of my top twelve releases of 2012 are tuneful, accessible pop (in its classic sense) music. And the ones that aren’t (a bit of prog, some jazz, some instro-surf) are equally compelling in their own ways.

Now, my list doesn’t include the oft-discussed new release from Mumford & Sons and so on. Not to take anything at all away from that record any many others, but if you want to read about them, there are plenty of (other) places you could go. Plus, do you really need convincing about that music one way or another? I thought not.

So instead I present my top twelve releases for 2012, skewed toward music that (a) you probably haven’t heard, (b) might not even know about if I didn’t bring it to your attention and (c) is worth your time. And to support (c), I’m providing handy-dandy links to my original, detailed reviews of each record.

Steve Barton – Projector
As a member of San Francisco-based Translator, Barton was responsible for some of the better unjustly-ignored music of the 80s, though “Everywhere That I’m Not” got some chart action. His solo album is an altogether more personal affair, with shades of David Bowie at his very, very best.

The Corner Laughers – Poppy Seeds
I write quite a bit about the amazing pop factory that is Mystery Lawn Music. So far, they seem to able to do no wrong (the album by MLM labelmates Hollyhocks nearly made this list, too). But The Corner Laughers combine the best of sunshine pop (think: Spanky and Our Gang) with a modern-yet-classic pop sensibility. And they’re an impossibly cute bunch of people, which never hurts.

Stevie Jackson – (I Can’t Get No) Stevie Jackson
Here’s another breakout solo album from a member of a highly-regarded group. Stevie Jackson is part of the collective known as Belle & Sebastian, and while he’s not the primary songwriter in that group, everything that you would love about the group is present in his songwriting and playing and singing. This record is a delight start to finish (but then, so are all on this list, says I).

The Poster Boy – Melody
You might not expect one of the finest pop/powerpop albums of the year to come from Budapest, Hungary. But here it is nonetheless. I can’t say enough good things about this record. But I do try.

The Higher State – The Higher State
This decidedly retro release hits all the right notes — the arrangement, the production style, the lyrics – so that one might almost miscategorize this as an archival release, or one of the best unheard albums from 1968 or so.

The Explorers Club – Grand Hotel
While on their first record, this Charleston SC -based outfit sought to create new music in the style of the best Beach Boys era – roughly the Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) to Wild Honey era – on their second release, they deftly sidestep the dreaded sophomore slump curse and instead turn out an album that conjures the best of late 60s/early 70s AM radio pop. I’ve seen them live, and what they pull off onstage is nothing short of amazing. For me, the best new album of 2012, tied with one other I’ll cover in the next installment.

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Adventures with Mr Yeats: The Waterboys’ Mike Scott

Friday, December 28th, 2012

The Waterboys are that curious band about which the critics and cognoscenti fall all over themselves raving (and for good reason), but that doesn’t make large ripples in the commercial music pond/marketplace. For decades now, The Waterboys – singer/songwriter Mike Scott and assorted auxiliary musicians – have made winning albums that do more than merely entertain; their music engages the listener. From their third album This is the Sea (a 1985 release that counted the incomparable Karl Wallinger – later of World Party – as a Waterboy) to the desert island disc Fisherman’s Blues (1988) to more recent releases, The Waterboys have always crafted though-provoking music.

Nowhere is this more true than on their latest release. An Appointment with Mr Yeats applies the words of the Irish poet to new, modern-day music. And while that might sound a tad pretentious on paper, trust me that the music is far from that. It’s in turns warm, lovely, rocking and soaring, a successful melding of hundred-year-old words with brand new music.

A few days ago, I spoke with Mike Scott about the new record. Here’s our conversation.

Bill Kopp: I will admit I am not especially familiar with the work of Yeats. What, to you, sets his work apart from other poets? In other words, why choose his work for such a project?

Mike Scott: The first thing is that many of his poems rhyme and scan very easily. And as they sit on the printed page, to my eye, they’re song lyrics in search of a tune. That’s the first reason.

Secondly, I’m sympathetic to Yeats’ choice of subjects, and I like the way he uses language; he’s got a wonderful way of sculpting words. He does it in a way that I can tell he’s been very deliberate about. He’s very conscious about where the words go, and every full stop. The words flow lightly off the tongue, and that’s a remarkable thing. And it’s a beautiful thing to turn around in my mind and sing.

BK: You mention that quite a few composers have set the poet’s words to music before. I don’t know this for certain, but I don’t think that is true of many poets. Does Yeats’ poetry somehow lend itself to this kind of thing? And if so, why?

MS: I did some research on this; as far as having words set to music, I found that he was probably the most set-to-music poet in the world. There are so many different interpretations of his words. There are many on iTunes, by a variety of artists. And I found my research very useful, to document all the instances in which he has been set to music. He always manages to creep into the “top ten.” The others include William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare, and several others. Interesting, isn’t it?

BK: Yes! Would you say that the words of a given poem inspired you to sort of paint a certain sort of picture with the music? What I mean is, beyond notes and chords, do the words of some of the poems suggest an “arrangement landscape” of sorts?

MS: Absolutely. You explain it in a way I couldn’t better myself. That exactly what they do: the first couple of lines will set out the melody, but the whole thing develops the mood. And what I’m trying to do is to create an audio version of the landscape I see in my mind when I read the poem.

BK: I understand that composing the songs for this album was a long-term project for you. Were there any failed experiments, situations in which you tried to set a given poem to music but found it simply didn’t work?

MS: Yeah…I must have set three dozen to music, of which fourteen are on the album, and twenty are in the full stage show. So that leaves sixteen or seventeen poems – some of which are actually pretty good interpretations – and those would be good on a bonus CD perhaps, or something. But there were some I dabbled with, that really didn’t work. And then there are all the ones that I began and scrapped, because I couldn’t do them justice.

BK: In the press kit, you cite your mother as your first exposure to Yeats’ poetry. Has she heard the new songs, and if so, what does she think of them?

MS: Oh, of course…she likes it! I think she’s really delighted that I would take something that she’s known from so long ago, and turn it into a record.

BK: Speaking of taking one art form (poetry) and merging it with another (music), as I listen to these songs I am struck by what one might call their cinematic quality. Have you given any thought to producing – or having produced – music videos for any of these works?

MS: No, I haven’t…no. I’m loath to force a single interpretation.

BK: this is a broad-brush question, so I’ll apologize in advance for making a sweeping generalization. But then I’ll make it. As an American, oftentimes when I think of certain non-English artists from the British Isles, I think of a more pronounced interest in epic storytelling, big themes, very vivid word-pictures. I think of artists like Phil Lynott, Bob Geldof. Do you think there’s something culturally quintessential at work there?

MS: I think it’s a Celtic thing. Not specifically Irish; I’m Scottish myself, even though I live in Ireland and work with many Irish musicians. But I think that’s a Celtic trait.

BK: An Appointment with Mr Yeats actually came out in the UK some months ago; is there a reason for the lag-time between its release there and the US release (March 26, 2013)?

MS: The English record company had plans for someone to release it in the United States, but that deal fell through. So rather than hold the whole release back, they went for the UK and the rest of the world, and figured we’d sort out the States later.

BK: Because the gestational period for An Appointment with Mr Yeats has been so long, I strongly suspect that you’ve been busy with other creative pursuits as well. What other projects or potential project do you have under way, in development or on the horizon?

MS: I’ve just published a memoir called Adventures of a Waterboy, which is the story of my life in music. I’ll be giving some readings from the book on the east coast: New York, Philadelphia, Boston. And I do little acoustic concerts in which I read for an hour and then play some music. It’s a nice little show. So that’s been keeping me busy. I’ve also been touring a lot in Europe. And I’ve been writing songs; there’s always something cooking. I’m working slowly toward the next Waterboys album.

We’re premiering the Mr Yeats stage show in New York (March 20, 2013, New York Town Hall). It’s based on the show we did in Dublin two years ago.

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Old (But Previously Unreleased) Jazz, New Vinyl

Thursday, December 27th, 2012

Recently, I devoted an entire week’s worth of coverage to vinyl releases. But as it turns out, a clutch of recent jazz releases on the new-but-already-venerable Jazzhaus label are also available on vinyl. The full review of two of these new albums of music from Zoot Sims, Dizzy Gillespie and my personal favorite Cannonball Adderley (the last isn’t covered) is here, but their vinyl counterparts deserve mention.

Housed in study, creatively-designed two-color sleeves, these three albums are of superb quality. Pressed onto 180-gram vinyl, the albums also include mp3 download cards. The sound on the discs is just what you’d expect: warm, crystalline-clear. Even though these master recordings are old (1958, 1961, 1969) the care applied to the SWR archives means that the recordings are fresh and bright.

It’s true that each of the vinyl albums hold less music than the CD counterparts; the physical limitations of vinyl don’t permit the squeezing to too much more music into the grooves (volume loss is the first caualty when this is done). But the choices of what to leave in / what to leave out are good ones.

Anyone who appreciates jazz from its classic era should pick up these albums (especially the Adderley one, with Joe Zawinul on electric piano). And if you own a turntable, the warmth of these recordings will come through nicely on the vinyl versions.

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The Jeremy Spencer Interview

Wednesday, December 26th, 2012

I’m a big Fleetwood Mac fan. But I should explain: I don’t care much at all for the AOR/California vibe of the mid 70-and-beyond megastar lineup. No, for me, Fleetwood Mac was at their best in their earlier days, when they were much more of a blues-oriented outfit, a sort of spinoff of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. (Namesakes and founders Mick Fleetwood and John McVie were Mayall’s rhythm section before launching their own band.) Boasting no less than three ace lead guitarists – let’s not blame them for Southern rock, though – the early Fleetwood Mac showcased the fretwork of Peter Green, Danny Kirwan and Jeremy Spencer. All three had their own distinctive styles, but Spencer’s was most influenced by early rock’n'roll and earlier blues.

Jeremy Spencer left the band in the early 70s (as had both of the other guitarists), and while he hasn’t had a high profile musical career (to say the least) since then, his abilities have only improved. His latest album, Bend in the Road, shows that he’s still got the fire. Here’s my recent conversation with him. – bk

Bill Kopp: The Elmore James influences that characterized a lot of your work as far back as the Fleetwood Mac years are still very evident in your sound. As a young man growing up in south London, how did you discover American blues?

Jeremy Spencer: Students introduced me to it while attending Stafford art college in 1964 — mostly the Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker style of blues, which I liked pretty okay and worked on playing it, but it wasn’t until I heard Elmore that I said, “that’s what I really want to do!”

BK: And what was it about the blues that “spoke” to you?

JS: It was specifically the call and response between the singer and guitar – preferably being the same person — like B.B. King and Otis Rush, which got me.

BK: Back in the Mac days, another prominent feature of yours was your love for – and effective pastiches of – the music of early rock’n'rollers like Buddy Holly. That side of you isn’t nearly as evident on Bend in the Road. Is your love of those early rock’n'roll styles still a part of your musical approach?

JS: Very much so. I recently recorded with a trio of young French musicians in Fontainebleau, near Paris, and covered some oldies of that era.

BK: On one hand, it’s remarkable just how much you still sound like you did circa 1970 – your slide guitar playing remains expressive, and your voice has changed very little in the ensuing forty-plus years.

JS: Thank you! I am amazed, too, when I hear myself back! People have commented that I sound like a seventeen-year-old. I probably would have taken exception to that back 40 years ago, when I was trying to sound like an old, whiskey-soaked blueser!

BK: If one measures your activity in terms of record releases, Bend in the Road is only your fifth album since leaving Fleetwood Mac. I assume you didn’t give up music during that time. Can you tell me a bit about how – and in what ways – music figured into your life these last decades? Did you continue to write, play, etc.?

JS: During that time, I mostly used my gift for art and within the last decade, a latent writing talent, but I was always involved with music.

Besides recording the album for CBS in 1972 and Flee for Atlantic in 1978, I had quite a voluminous “in-house” musical output over the last 40 years! That is, material recorded in improvised, but adequately equipped studios all over the world designed for use in Christian publishing and edification. The material included audio dramas, children’s songs and even scriptures set to melody and music.

It seemed that wherever I traveled and there was no studio, it was often a case of, “if I come they will build it!” The locations in sequential order over these years, beginning in 1971, were Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, Boston, London, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Florence, Athens, Sri Lanka, Manila, back to Rio and Mexico. It amazes me to look back on it!

I can work tirelessly in a recording studio, and even when without regular access to a home studio, I usually have some portable recording device with me. And most of all, I have to have a guitar around!

BK: On your blog, you note that you cut 32 tracks in the sessions for what became Bend in the Road. Are there any plans or thoughts about releasing the tracks that aren’t on the finished album?

JS: I’d like to see those tracks go out, although some need a revisit, which I am itching to do.

You might be interested to know that some more 50’s-style numbers are in that batch, including a country song called “Durango” about a kid gunslinger based on the typical 50’s cowboy comic book scenario like “Kid Colt Outlaw”!

BK: Although in the liner notes, you mention some overdubs (most notably your keyboards) the Bend in the Road album as a whole has an organic, live-in-the-studio feel to it. Were the basic tracks, at least, cut with the full band playing together?

JS: Most basic tracks were recorded with full band. Everything bluesy was done live with vocal and full band and a minimum of overdubbing, such as an acoustic guitar or, as you mention, my keyboards, which were done while the vibe was still hot. I am still in the old school of preferring to get as much as possible down in one take. I was amazed and appalled when I first heard about composite tracking of a lead vocal or guitar solo from a dozen or more takes! I think something gets lost in the process that you can’t explain and you wonder why such perfect and seemingly seamless performances impress but don’t move you.

BK: I am assuming, this being the 21st century, that modern recording techniques were used to record the album in Detroit. Especially in light of the fact that your last studio release (aside from 2006′s Precious Little) was in the 70s, I am interested in your perspective on how recording technology has changed, what you like better about the modern methods, and what (if anything) you think has been lost in the migration to digital.

JS: Interestingly, Precious Little was recorded in five days at 15ips on a 24-track analogue recorder that a musician called Seasick Steve had shipped over from the States to Bluestown studios in Norway. Apparently, it was an old deck that had been used in Atlantic studios during the 70’s! That was a wonderful experience. Analogue and a tight deadline say “no” for you to the luxury of over-tweaking!

I have to admit that I was somewhat wary when venturing into the Bend sessions, knowing that we were going to be working with digital and its possibly opening the door to nit-picking perfectionism. Fortunately, we all felt the need to stay militant in capturing the moment, while benefiting from digital recording efficiency and economy of time such as when needing a quick fix-it.

BK: Three of the musicians on Bend in the RoadBrett Lucas, Todd Glass and James Simonson are in the Detroit band St. Cecilia. Have you done live dates with them, and what plans (if any) do you have regarding future live performances?

JS: While there in America, I did a few gigs with them, which were a lot of fun and went over very well with the audiences.

BK: There has been a welcome resurgence in the vinyl LP as a music medium. The original release of Bend in the Road was a double-LP. What was the thinking behind the decision to release it on vinyl, and (in retrospect) was the decision a good one from a financial standpoint?

JS: We (Propelz Music and I) would not have even thought of attempting such a vinyl venture had it not been for the relentless prodding and support of Sam Epstein, a film producer and a man well connected in the recording business. He loved the recordings and had had much experience years ago working with vinyl for Rhino records.

The response to it has been enthusiastic but limited due to international marketing difficulties, so financially it hasn’t yet paid off. In the long run, I think we will see that we made a wise choice, though, as Bend’s vinyl rarity and difficulty to obtain has and should continue to generate a certain mystique for the item! [Note: Fans can obtain a copy directly from Propelz Music.]

BK: What’s next for you musically?

JS: Besides sporadic gigs, there are no concrete touring plans, but I am very excited about musically collaborating more with the aforementioned team of young French musicians that I recently worked with. The guitarist, Mick Ravassat, and I are overflowing with ideas!

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Happy Xmas

Tuesday, December 25th, 2012

Today I (like you, I hope) am taking a day off to enjoy time with those I love and cherish. Normal blogging will resume tomorrow; this is “interview week” on the blog. Thanks for stopping by; below are a couple little treats for ya.

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The 2012 Marshall Crenshaw Interview, Part Two

Monday, December 24th, 2012

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: I interviewed John Murphy of Shoes recently about their new Ignition album. When we got to talking about the band’s future plans, he suggested they might go a route similar to what you’re doing. Rather than making fans wait two years or something for a new collection of songs, they might put out a few songs every few months. We agreed that one big advantage of this is that it creates a more constant means of communication between artist and fan. Rather than the artist disappearing (so to speak) for a long time, putting out EPs keeps the artist in the minds of the fans, and provides him or her with feedback. Is that kind of thinking consistent with your reasons for the EP series?

Marshall Crenshaw: yeah, that’s exactly the same idea. While we were trying to make this happen, I was really worried that somebody was going to read something I said about my idea, and then it was going to look like I was late to the party. So I’m just glad that I was able to get this going now. Of course I’m not saying that anybody got the idea from me, but it is a great idea. It seems like an obvious thing for somebody to pick up on.

BK: That two-way communication quality wasn’t a part of the old record label marketing mix ten, twelve years ago. These days, if you “pull a Fleetwood Mac” and take three and half or four years to put out an album, people will forget who you are. Artistry aside, putting out a couple songs every few months seems like a better way to build and maintain a fan base.

MC: Actually I got my initial idea when I heard that Sam Phillips was going to attempt a subscription thing. And then I knew about the Todd Rundgren from years ago too. So I combined the Sam Phillips idea with vinyl; that was all a matter of personal taste.

BK: The cover of “No Time” from the last Move record Message From the Country record is a little bit of a departure for you. In terms of material, do you think that EPs offer you any sort of artistic leeway you might not otherwise have with albums? In other words, do you feel like you can try things musically on an EP that you couldn’t do on an album? Or is it the other way around: do you feel like one of the three songs needs to have a “single” feel to it?

MC: I think I entered a different kind of headspace with this project. I have done cover tunes on albums before. But I guess if I were making an album right now, I would consider letting loose and doing these cover tunes that I’ll be doing. It just seems like a fun idea. “No Time” was a song that I really loved when it was brand new. It’s kind of a jaw-dropper. Even on that Move album, it takes you completely by surprise.

BK: That particular track would have fit equally well on the first Electric Light Orchestra album, which they cut right around the same time.

MC: It’s a really nice piece; I love it.

BK: I’ve seen you in concert three times if I count Beatlemania in 1978. The second time you opened for Hall and Oates at the Omni in Atlanta, and I must say that I was nearly the only person there who knew who the hell you were.

MC: Yeah, that could very well be.

BK: It was a good show.

MC: It was?!

BK: Yes, I thought so. I didn’t think all that much of Hall and Oates…

MC: We toured with them for a long time. Y’know, I hated all that. A lot. I never liked arena shows myself. It was a good opportunity, but I didn’t make anything out of it. I had no sense of pragmatism about thing like that back then. I just wanted to get out of there; every night we would just pound our way through our set, and split. I guess it might have been the right thing to do to maybe try a little bit. But I didn’t.

BK: Really…?

MC: No. I didn’t really try at any point to connect with any of those audiences, no. I didn’t want to be there. I liked our circuit; we had a really great circuit that we played on ourselves: small theaters, places like First Avenue in Minneapolis. I love those kind of venues. I was really happy at that level, but the idea was that you were supposed to build up from there. And I never aspired to play arena shows.

BK: The third time I saw you perform was here in Asheville in 2007 for a solo acoustic set. But I think I’m more excited about the upcoming show you’ll be doing soon in Greenville SC – at the sort of venue you enjoy – with the Bottle Rockets backing you.

MC: I’ve played with them a lot now, almost two years now. By the time we get to that show [January 25, 2013], it’ll be over two years. We really like playing together, and it’s a really great rock show. From a song standpoint, it’s pretty hard to beat, I think. They love doing what they do, and they’re great at it. It’s been a really good thing for us, and we always look forward to getting back together. I’m going to go out with Dave Alvin, too; that run is going to go from San Diego to Vancouver. I love these collaborations.

BK: On the new I Don’t See You Laughing Now EP, “There She Goes Again” with the Bottle Rockets mines a heretofore unheard the bluesy feel. Is that kind of reinvention of the songs something we can expect more of for the January 23 show?

MC: I’ve been playing it that way for awhile now, for about five or six years. It just struck me at some point that it would feel right that way. I just got the idea to cut the time in half, and it just seems to fit the emotional message of the song. It’s more true to what the song is saying.

That’s one of the built-in things with this EP project; each one of the records is going to contain one of my earlier tunes, each in a sort of re-imagined version.

BK: So have you sort of storyboarded out what’s going to be on all six of the EPs in the series?

MC: The second one is done, and the third one, I know what it’s going to be. And now I have months to sort of hang back and figure out the rest. I don’t want to plan all six of ‘em now; planning or recording them all in advance would really be contrary to the whole idea of the project.


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The 2012 Marshall Crenshaw Interview, Part One

Friday, December 21st, 2012

Marshall Crenshaw has enjoyed – sometimes endured – a long and varied career. And while said career has been consistently lauded by critics, commercial success has sometimes proven more elusive. Add to the mix that Crenshaw isn’t the most cravenly commercially-oriented of artists (thank goodness!). But temper that with the fact that he consistently writes some of the most winning, accessible music in pop. His last album release experience left him unhappy (you’ll read about that in Part One of our conversation), and that dissatisfaction is part of what led Crenshaw to start a new Kickstarter-funded venture: a subscription-based series that will include a half-dozen EPs (we go into some detail about that program in Part Two). This is my third interview with Marshall Crenshaw, and he’s proven to always be an engaging and surprisingly candid interview subject. Here’s Part One of our December 2012 conversation. – bk.

Bill Kopp: Way back in the mid 1990s, Todd Rundgren tried a direct-to-fans marketing/distribution model with PatroNet; as has happened with him a few times, it turned out that he was a bit too far ahead of the curve. But with Kickstarter and similar media, it seems like the direct link between artist and fan is something whose time has come. What drew you to this approach?

Marshall Crenshaw: I thought about that situation with Todd this morning! What drew me to it is that I can’t stop wanting to make records. [laughter] That’s it. And this is simply another approach to it, an attempt at another approach. But it’s one I really like the idea of – and the results of — so far. Including the music itself. I’m really happy with the whole thing.

BK: Big picture-wise, do you think the era of the record label – and all it supposedly offered to the artist – is dead or dying?

MC: Oh, boy. That’s a good question. No, I don’t suppose it’s over, but we don’t know what the endgame is for all of this. The labels have the recorded legacy of American culture; they own it, and that’s a pretty big thing. So there’s continued power in that. But I wonder; that’s a question that I ask myself, but I don’t really have a set of answers. What happened at the turn of the millennium with the labels was an implosion that’s been happening ever since. I’ve said this before: I think it was a matter of them having the tables turned on them; they tried to screw the consumer, and then they got screwed by the consumer instead. But it’s hard to say where it’s all going.

BK: Was there something specifically lacking in the marketing for your 2009 album Jaggedland that led you to take this more direct route?

MC: It turns out that it’s the next logical step. The whole thing with the label that put out Jaggedland was a bad experience. A friend of mine was, abut a year later, about to sign with that label. He called me and said, “Well, here we go.” And I said, “I’m sorry to tell you this, but you’re going to hate every minute of it.” and that was the case.

But the happy side of that story is that I got to make the record exactly how I wanted to make it. I think it’s my best album. But having said that, when I was done with that, I said, “I will never do this again.” And so, what next? So here we are.

BK: Not to pry into your business too deeply, but is this direct model financially viable for you? Or, put another way, is it lower risk and higher return than the old label model?

MC: Yeah. It seems so. The Kickstarter thing is so beautiful; it’s turned out so nicely. And we’ll see where we go from here. I don’t know; it’s really early now. I don’t know how it’s going to work out, but I know that the music’s going to be really nice. That’s number one. And I’ll be able to create these things. The rest is an untold story at this point.

BK: I’ve long been a vinyl fan; I bought your debut LP when it came out, and I continue to buy vinyl whenever I can. How important to your overall plan was having a vinyl format of the new EP?

MC: It was cool. I was really surprised at how I felt about it when I was actually holding one of the records in my hand. A few boxes of them were sent here so I could autograph them for the Kickstarter sponsors. And when I saw the thing and actually held it in my hand, I swear to God: it was like, “Wow!” I hadn’t experienced that in a long time; it has been quite a few years since one of my records came out on vinyl.

I’ve always liked records. When I was a little kid, I had these two older cousins, Carol and Marilyn. I was very close to them, and they were about ten, eleven years older than me. They were hardcore rock’n'roll fans; they would buy 45s constantly. And I was really drawn to these things, like a lot of people. And that turned out to be a lifelong thing.

I just think that analog sound and vinyl records are better. They are, y’know. I’ve always been fully on board with digital, but I think it kind of beats up on your ears and your nervous system in a way that’s the opposite of vinyl. It just puts energy in a room in a way that feels better, I think.

To be continued

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Album Review: Bert Jansch – Heartbreak

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

While American folk music has never had an especially deep resonance with me, the British Isles variant has long spoken to me somehow. There’s something about the European traditional flavor in UK folk, I suppose, that touches me. Many of the rock artists I’ve long treasured have had their music informed to various degrees by folk. Perhaps that’s why I’m more likely to enjoy a Nick Drake album (or a Jethro Tull record!) than something by Pete Seeger.

But I would never claim to be an aficionado nor an expert on the genre. Yes, in my voracious, never-ending quest to read about a wide array of music, Bert Jansch‘s name has come up countless times. Generally it’s in the context of citing the Scottish guitarist as an influence upon someone or other. But until I received the new reissue of his 1981 album Heartbreak (available from Omnivore on stunning clear vinyl in a lovely and sturdy gatefold sleeve that must certainly better the original), I hadn’t actually heard his work.

Seeing the release date, I had some misgivings: folk – as with many musical forms – wasn’t at anything near its apex at the dawn of the 1980s. Would Heartbreak be filled with then-trendy (and now hopelessly dated) production filigrees? Well, technically speaking, some of the things one might fear are indeed present, but damn if they don’t work,and well. Though it’s not credited as such, that sounds unmistakeably like Coral electric sitar in the hands of guitarist Albert Lee on “Up to the Stars” and “Is it Real?” among other tracks. And while Randy Tico is credited on the sleeve with playing “Fender Bass” (one supposes this is to warn purists that Heartbreak is not an all-acoustic affair), it sounds as if Tico shaved off the frets for these sessions.

Jansch’s voice is distinctive and achingly beautiful; he’s one of those singers – like the underrated Al Stewart, one of those artists who has been greatly influenced by Jansch – whose voice is instantly recognizable; hear a few seconds of him singing and you know it’s him. On Heartbreak, Jansch weaves his story-songs through delicate, fetching melodic landscapes. Far less quirky/bizarre than, say, Roy Harper, Jansch paints pictures with his music, often (as on the lengthy, truth-in-advertising-titled “And Not a Word Was Said”) leaning in a very bluesy direction.

A few participants’ presence warrant mention. The crystalline production of brothers John Chelew and Richard Chelew belies the fact that Heartbreak was their first sessions as producers. And despite her MOR reputation, Jennifer Warnes‘ vocal harmonies on “Wild Mountain Thyme” invites favorable comparisons to Sandy Denny‘s work on Led Zeppelin‘s “The Battle of Evermore.”

Jansch’s cover of “Heartbreak Hotel” is inspired; with his player he conjures a sensibility out of the song that neither Elvis nor John Cale could have ever imagined. His reading of “If I Were a Carpenter” is more conventional but no less beautiful. Throughout Heartbreak – though it’s nominally a folk record – Jansch and his fellow musicians create an aesthetic that rock fans should find quite warm and inviting.

Jansch’s career had its ups and down after Heartbreak, including some brief reunions with his former group, Pentangle. He succumbed to lung cancer in October 2011, leaving behind a solo catalog of some two dozen albums plus his work with Pentangle and as a guest on many other recordings.

Postscript #1: there is also a 2CD release of Heartbreak from Omnivore; it contains fourteen tracks compared with the orignal’s (and vinyl reissue’s) ten.

Postscript #2: I have received unofficial word that early vinyl pressings of the 2012 Heartbreak reissue are in erroneously-pressed “collapsed monaural.” I cannot verify this assertion with 100% accuracy, but to my ears, it’s quite possible. That said, true or not, my enjoyment of the vinyl Heartbreak is not diminished one iota.

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EP Review: Wanda Jackson – Capitol Rarities

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

Though her recording career began in the mid 1950s, I only discovered Wanda Jackson sometime around 1993. Sometime that year I was in a Wal-Mart (I rarely if ever set foot in one of those these days, but back then I sometimes did) and found myself poring over a bin or “remaindered” books reduced for quick sale. One title caught my attention: Nick ToschesUnsung Heroes of Rock’n'Roll: The Birth of Rock in the Wild Years Before Elvis. Since it was all of a buck or two, I picked it up.

Turns out it was worth far more than that. Tosches is a provocative and wickedly funny writer. And his vignettes of these early rockers – mostly only three or four pages each – are equal parts irreverence and rich history. Toward the back of the book is an essay on Wanda Jackson titled “Laced by Satan, Unlaced by the Lord.” Tosches discusses Wanda’s early rock-roll sides, most notably “Fujiyama Mama,” a (now) wildly politically-incorrect rocker that equates the singer’s lovin’ skills to the bombs dropped on two Japanese cities near the end of the Second World War.

As Tosches tells the story, Wanda’s rock’n'roll era was short, as her records were too wild for the masses (or at least Capitol Records thought so), so by 1961, as he memorably puts it, “Wanda began recording in Nashville, recrossing her legs and veering again toward tamer country stuff.”

A half-dozen unheard sides (most from that just-post-rock’n'roll era of Wanda’s) have now been collected on a lovely ten-inch vinyl record called Capitol Rarities. While it’s true these are pretty tame when measured by the standards of “Let’s Have a Party” (covered to great effect by Paul McCartney on his standout fin de siècle release Run Devil Run), listened to on their own, they’re pretty good stuff.

Impeccably produced, the six numbers all hew pretty close to standard Nashville arrangement tradition, and remain inside the standard I-IV-V pattern (no doubt allowing the seasoned session cats to get ‘em right in a take or two). There’s a timeless quality to these sides, and the up-front mixing of Wanda’s strong vocals puts across the impression that the singer wasn’t getting pushed around in the studio. “To Tell the Truth” lays on the syrupy strings and vocal choir pretty thickly, but it still has an undeniable charm that makes Capitol Rarities a must-hear.

Tosches’ essay (written in the 80s, at which point Wanda had been reduced to cutting devotionally-themed records for Christian labels) ends with a passage that read in part, “the voice that had been too hot to handle twenty years before was heard no more.” In fact Wanda relaunched her career a few years later, leaning more toward the rockabilly material. I had the pleasure of seeing her in an intimate setting a few months ago at the Americana Music Association Conference and Festival in Nashville; she did a short set in the hotel lobby(!) backed by a fiercely tight rockabilly band (think: Smithereens with a doghouse bass), previewing songs from her excellent album Unfinished Business. That Justin Townes Earle-produced record – like the live set I witnessed — presents Jackson in the manner in which she is best heard. An upcoming CD release (also from Omnivore, the label responsible for Capitol Rarities) will collect 29 songs; I’ll be reviewing that album – The Best of the Classic Capitol Singles – soon, and might even post along with it some live (amateur) video I shot of Wanda’s fantastic AMA set.

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Album Review: Honky – 421

Tuesday, December 18th, 2012

If you will, imagine for a moment an unholy cross of Metallica and ZZ Top. If you can’t wrap your mind around how exactly that might sound, a spin of 421 by Honky would provide you with a fairly good approximation. Taking the aggressive, precise, turn-on-a-dime dynamics of the former and welding them onto the straight-ahead boogie aesthetic of the former (or their pre-synths-n-sequencers releases anyway), Honky pound it out in the most exacting manner possible.

421 is most certainly not for the weak-hearted; the songs come atcha fast and furiously. Floor-shaking bass lines courtesy of JD Pinkus (if that’s not a Lone Star State musician’s monicker then I don’t know what is) are in such tight lockstep with the guitar work of Bobby Ed Landgraf (ditto on his name, yes?) that one might think – just for a second – that this stuff is the product of some ProTools-y studio effort. But the sweat virtually pours off of the translucent blue vinyl on cuts like “Just a Man” and the brief instrumental “4:21,” so if these guys are anything short of 100% authentic, they’ve fooled me, and I don’t want to know differently.

These songs are high octane metal boogie, but there’s nothing throwbacky or traditionalist about this music. Honky may seem to have come out of nowhere, but as it happens, Pinkus was in Butthole Surfers, and 421 is the sixth long-player (each on a different label; are these guys hard to work with or somethin’?) from Honky since their 1998 debut.

421 is a prime exponent of Honky’s branks of southern rawl Anchored by Justin Collins “drummage” (as it’s creditedo n the sleeve), the band’s music takes the best of the aforementioned bands’ styles, and then strips away that which makes each of them less satisfying than they oughta be: though Honk’y's airtight ensemble playing echoes Metallica, they are laudably free of that band’s too-selfserious-by-half, humorless approach. Yet while Honky has an undeniable sense of humor (previous albums have sported titles like Attacked by Lesbians and Balls Out Inn), they are in little danger of becoming cartoons of themselves as ZZ Top did long ago. And the trio displays – gasp! – subtlety on tracks like “All for Nothin’” and “Over Easy” (the latter of which manages to be about both sex and breakfast); both are full of vocal harmonies, hooky riffs, and precise finger picking.

This is one record that – if you like it all – you’re gonna wanna play at something approaching maximum volume. Simply put, 421 is designed for it. The bit of vinyl rumble you might experience will only add to the overall aesthetic experience.

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