Archive for January, 2013

Album Review: Wanda Jackson – The Best of the Classic Capitol Singles

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

If you want a potted history – albeit one from a provocative perspective, and with its own axe to grind – of Wanda Jackson‘s career, I recommend you put your hands on Nick ToschesUnsung Heroes of Rock’n’Roll: The Birth of Rock in the Wild Years Before Elvis. But for the music itself, your go-to item simply must be the new Omnivore Recordings collection, The Best of the Classic Capitol Singles. Wild beyond description, some of the songs on this 29-track set display the high points of a really out-there recording artist.

Jackson’s opening single for the label, “I Gotta Know” veers wildly between rockabilly (or just plain rock) and two-step country. It rocks (so to speak) back and forth, keeping the listener delightfully off balance. Music didn’t often get this adventurous – especially in the Nashville idiom (these tracks were recorded in either Nashville or Hollywood). While the b-sides included here (half of the material, natch) lean in a safer, c&w direction, the a-sides are all over the stylistic map, and in the best way possible.

It’s difficult to imagine just how incendiary this music must have seemed upon initial hearing back in the 50s and 60s. There simply wasn’t a precedent – among white folks, at least – for the sort of unbridled, in-your-face approach that Jackson brought to music. One could almost argue that her sassy approach in songs like “Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad” is something approaching proto-feminist. A neat trick, that: putting forth the image of a strong, assertive woman, and doing it in a way that was sexy to men of that era.

But again, there’s the whiplash of flipping those 45s over and hearing straight-ahead country of “Silver Threads and Golden Needles.” Those tunes are expertly arranged and performed, but they’re not groundbreaking. So listening to The Best of the Classic Capitol Singles straight through remains a jarring experience. Perhaps that’s as it should be: Jackson was never – not then, not now – interested in being boxed into one style, one label.

I saw Wanda Jackson perform a showcase set at last fall’s Americana Music Association Festival & Conference; though she’s now 75 years old, she put on one hell of a show. Backed by a rough-and-tumble rockabilly band, she tore through her songs old and new, and threw lascivious leers and come-hither looks at the men in the audience (including me, in the front row). It was funny stuff, what with her looking like somebody’s grandmother and all, but Jackson balanced a winking I-know-what-I’m-doing-up-here sensibility with a true love and affinity for the music. She’s one of a rare few who seems to have no use for the stylistic boxes musical artists allow themselves to be placed in. Yes, she’s often known as the Queen of Rockabilly, but she’s much more than that, and this new set of a- and b-sides from her classic era show Wanda Jackson at her very best. Essential.

Here’s Wanda Jackson performing her “Fujiyama Mama,” (a hit in Japan in 1957!) at the AMA Festival last year.

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Album Review: Jamie & Steve — Imaginary Café

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

I’ve probably told the story before: growing up in Atlanta, I discovered the Spongetones‘ debut LP Beat Music in the bin of an indie record shop not long after its release. I was taken in first by the cover photos, images that clearly suggested these guys has a Beatles fixation (always a good thing in my book). The inner sleeve reinforced that, what with pics of them in a sort of 80s rethink of Beatles ’65: skinny ties, yes, but also a Let it Be-era bearded Macca lookalike wielding a Hofner violin bass. And the music was – of course – the best part: original songs that sounded like the best Beatles outtakes you’ve never heard.

Fast forward to around 2000. Having relocated to Asheville NC, I discover that the band – based in Charlotte (a bit over two hours’ drive), play locally on occasion. But locals who loved ‘em – and there were many – knew the quartet not as a band that played originals, but as a cover band par excellence, a group that could convincingly recreate – onstage – works such as “I Am the Walrus.” and their prowess and interest, I learned, extended well beyond Beatlesisms; they were heavily influenced by all sorts of sixties pop, distilling it into their original material and their live cover-centric shows.

Anyway, consider me a fan for life. I’ve since met the guys a number of times, interviewed them and written a good bit about them. A few years back, as the Spongetones drew down (but did not curtail) their live onstage and recording activity, half of the group – guitarist/producer/vocalist Jamie Hoover and bassist/vocalist Steve Stoeckel – launched themselves as a duo called Jamie & Steve. Freed from whatever stylistic box the Spongetones label may have forced them into, the duo was now open to explore an even wider range of their musical vision.

In practice, this has manifested itself in occasional live dates, and on three releases. Their debut was 2009′s English Afterthoughts, followed up by a 2011 EP wryly titled The Next Big Thing, and now in 2013, another EP, Imaginary Café.

The title track weds their signature style to a heavier bass-and-drum backing than is typical of the ‘Tones, and the song leans on the dual-lead vocals of the pair. That sounds like a Theremin – or maybe just one of those vintage analog synths Stoeckel always has on his repair bench – deep in the mix. Swirling sounds in the song’s breaks mix things up nicely, as do some flown-in sounds and 70s-styled dual lead guitar a la Thin Lizzy or (shudder) Boston.

Stoeckel’s vocals and some countrified picking are the centerpiece of “Gold Mine.” There’s an intimate, friendly ambience to this and all the songs on Imaginary Café; though they were cut in the duo’s home studio(s), the songs feel as if they were laid down in front of a small, enthusiastic-yet-somehow-silent audience. “Gold Mine’s” splashy drums heighten this feel.

And percussion – specifically tympani – is a centerpiece of “Tokyo Sleeping,” a contemplative, midtempo song featuring some creamy vocal harmony work from the duo. The final minute-plus of the song conjures peak-era Beach Boys without overtly mimicking them. The title of “I’m a Dangerous Man” telegraphs a harder approach, but in truth this is another of Jamie & Steve’s Jekyll-and-Hyde numbers, in which the song’s perspective and arrangement ping-pong between two vastly different (but ultimately complementary) styles.

When I saw the title “Your Name Here,” I briefly wondered if it was a template for a wonderfully endearing ongoing project of Stoeckel’s: on friends’ birthdays, he sometimes crafts custom songs (I was honored with just such a gift last month). But no, this is an original love song in the Spongetones’ illustrious tradition. The always-over-too-soon EP wraps with a delightful slice of soaring, tuneful powerpop called “We Two.” It’s perhaps the catchiest number on the whole EP, and will leave the listener anxious for more from the endlessly creative team that is Jamie & Steve.

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Vote for Me! Please!

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

When I started this whole music journo writing gig many years ago, part of my motivation was to build some “street cred” that I could leverage when proposing one of a few book ideas I have rolling around in my head. It never occurred to me that I might (even on rare occasions) stand up in front of a crowd and talk about this stuff. But thanks to the encouragement of a dear friend, last year (February 2012) I did just that: I gave a what’s called an Ignite Talk. And I enjoyed it a lot.

Here’s last year’s talk. Me? Nervous? Nah.


I enjoyed it so much so that I actually applied to do another one this year. And I’ve been selected as a finalist. But the final decision as to which speakers (ten, chosen from about 35) get the gig…well, that’s up to you. You needn’t be able to show up for the actual event (though that’d be cool, and I might even buy you a drink if you did), but if you enjoy my writing at all, voting for me would be a quick, painless and immensely appreciated way for you to show me some encouragement.

Voting takes only a moment, and you can (but don’t have to) vote for several entries. My proposed talk has to do with one of my book ideas.

This link will take you to the voting page. The deadline is in only a few days. It would mean a heckuva lot to me if you’d go to the page, fill out the form, and cast your vote for Bill Kopp and “The Greatest Music You’ve Never Heard in Your Life.”

Thank you. Count on me reminding you again, but please vote now.

Update: No rare personal appearance for me this go-round. I didn’t make the cut. But I’ll continue to have plenty to say here online.

Album Review: Vermouth — RetroFuture Pop Exotica

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

Being of a certain age, I remember the short-lived exotica revival of the nineties. If you blinked, you might’ve missed it: for a brief few moments in 1994, the pre-Beatles hi-fi-centric craze was all the rage. The fleeting revival had as its exemplar a band named after a cocktail, Combustible Edison. Fronted by a female vocalist calling herself Miss Lily Banquette (neé Liz Cox, formerly of Christmas) and led by her cohort The Millionaire (Michael Cudahy), the band conjured – mostly through their original material – the forgotten sounds of Martin Denny, Esquivel and a select few others.

Sure, it was gimmicky, but it was also quite entertaining in that postmodern ironic 1990s way, especially set against the not-especially-clever backdrop of grunge, the prevailing rock musical trend of that era. The whole “cocktail nation” vibe caught fire for a few brief moments, and no less a luminary than Todd Rundgren went so far as to cut an album (With a Twist) of his best-loved songs, re-imagined in tiki lounge style (the touring dates in support of it were a scream, too, what with two lucky guests at each show seated at a bar onstage during the set, compensated for their trouble with ample umbrella drinks).

But of course it didn’t last; the fickle public moved onto whatever the next transient musical/pop culture craze was (and no, I don’t remember).

Yet not everyone forgot about it. Or at least they didn’t forget about the original music that had spawned the style. So right out of left field in 2013 comes another booze-inspired group name (this time only an ingredient rather than a finished cocktail), Los Angeles-based Vermouth. And once again there’s a female singer/musician fronting the outfit; this time it’s Justine Kragen. And her musical co-conspirator (the pair are responsible for nearly all the band’s music and lyrics) is multi-instrumentalist Steve McDonald (no relation – I don’t think – to the Redd Kross guy). Their debut album is called RetroFuture Pop Exotica. They certainly get points for a direct approach; that title could pretty well serve as a one-sheet for the band (or a review, if one was in a hurry).

While there’s an inescapable pull toward viewing Vermouth as kitschy revivalists – I mean, it’s not as if they’re mining a subgenre with a long and storied tradition; for all its many charms, exotica was/is arguably a musical blind alley – or dismissing them as little more than Combustible Edison for the 21st century, both of those conclusions would be unfair. And they’d lead to passing by some delightfully fun music.

This stuff swings. And it folds in surf’n'spy guitar, creating a vibe that is kindred as much with Los Straitjackets as, say, Henry Mancini. Loads of vibraphone – almost always a good thing – and Kragen’s clear-as-a-bell voice propel the songs forward. The band’s muscular backing is a thing to behold: tight and strong like a crack rock band, they swing like a jump blues outfit. A strong sense of dynamics means that the songs feel like movies for your mind. Everything from Dixieland to free jazz to spaghetti western-styled breaks crop up on this disc, and somehow it all holds together.

Lyrically the songs veer between wacky, goofy and – occasionally – just on the edge of decadent. Sometimes the music is played off against the lyrics, each aiming for a wildly different direction; “Tidy” is a good example of this effective and tension-filled approach. Just when you expect the song to explode into a rocking section, instead you get heavily reverbed guitar and a bunch of jungle bird calls. Yet in context it makes some sort of sense. “Goggle Boy” is thrilling and silly (listen to the lyrics about vodka helping wash down the Red Bull), and the garage-y combo organ stylings plus sharp, angular guitar work make it perhaps the album’s best track (and that’s saying something). Kragen’s double-tracked vocals might make you swoon, too. And Curtis Cunningham‘s deft drum work throughout the album is light, assured, varied and incredibly expressive.

Part of why RetroFuture Pop Exotica is so successful is that second word of the title: the songs are built upon a decidedly pop foundation. So while the arrangements and instrumentation often venture outside of familiar pop territory, the melodies are rooted in convention, and thus remain accessible to ears not attuned to, well, this weird kinda stuff.

Toward the second half of the disc, Vermouth slip in a pair of (relatively) conventional songs, “Curious” and “Blue Sky.” Both point out their mastery of a wide variety of styles; these aren’t strictly exotica.

Missteps are few on RetroFuture Pop Exotica. “Go Go Dancer” is strange, even by this album’s standards, but still works if you imagine something like a Speed Racer cartoon while listening. Only “Over the Counter” with its grating vocalisms and insistent “nee-nee-nee-nee” fails to land; it’s the only place on RetroFuture Pop Exotica where I even considered reaching for the skip button. But what I skipped to was the head-spinning antics of “Pretending,” a manic tune that sounds like nothing so much as an exotica-flavored rethink of Robert Fripp and the League of Gentlemen. Discotronics? I don’t know, but it’s some otherworldly fusion of punk, cocktail jazz and progressive rock. And those keyboard lines! Yikes!

It’s hard to know if this re-revival/update/rethink of a short-lived 50s subgenre will set the pop landscape of 2013 on fire (you set a match to a Combustible Edison, by the way), but regardless, RetroFuture Pop Exotica is a trip well worth taking.

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Album Review: The Cleaners From Venus – Living With Victoria Grey

Monday, January 28th, 2013

I sometimes wonder if Martin Newell gets tired of all the Ray Davies comparisons. I mean, the man (Newell) has released something like thirty or forty albums (many of these on cassette, back in the 1980s) as Cleaners From Venus, Brotherhood of Lizards, and under his own name. While many of these were zero-budget, decidedly homespun affairs – whether he wears the crown proudly or not, Newell is, along with R. Stevie Moore, a true godfather of the whole DIY music movement – Newell’s innate sense of melody always shone though.

While the pop(ular) music landscape of the late 1980s was pop(ulated) by the likes of Dire Straits and their appealing-enough-but-not-exactly-groundbreaking peers, Newell’s band (usually just him and Giles Smith) enjoyed what looked at the time like a big break: they got a record deal, and a budget for “proper” recording. Now, the label was small – and would eventually go belly up, as labels do – and the budget was tiny, but the fruits of this relatively brief era were the best of all possible worlds. The music – sometimes new songs, sometimes re-recorded version of tunes from the Cleaners’ cassette catalog – kept its hooky charm, and avoided that deadly whiff of sellout-commercialism that cult fans fear when their favorite act makes it “big.”

That period of the Cleaners’ history has been anthologized a number of times, owing both to the high caliber of the songs (something true of pretty much all Newell’s work) and the relative polish of the production, the latter of which makes it more accessible to mainstream-attuned ears. A pair of CDs came out on the tiny Tangerine label (no relation to Ray Charles) in the mid 90s: Golden Cleaners (1993) and Back From the Cleaners (1995); both drew form this “accessible” period of the Cleaners’ vast catalogue. And both were utterly fantastic, filled with Newell’s wry vignettes of workaday life in England (well, the twin Englands of reality and his vivid imagination/memory).

A few years later, Cherry Red compiled Cleaners and Newell solo material (close your eyes and the sonic differences are negligible between the two) on a ’99 set called The Wayward Genius of Martin Newell. Now, you might think, why so many collections of material by a guy few have even heard of? The answer is simple and twofold: one, it’s that damn good. And two, the stuff isn’t easy to get ahold of, having been issued on all manner of small and/or short-lived labels, mostly on the Continent.

So once again, in 2004, Cherry Red took a crack at compiling the highlights from the “big time” [sic] era of The Cleaners from Venus, with Living With Victoria Grey: The Very Best of the Cleaners From Venus. Sure, there was a good bit of overlap with those Tangerine discs, but good luck finding those anyway.

Or the Cherry Red one, for that mater. But here’s the great news for 2013. Living With Victoria Grey (titled after one of the very best Cleaners tunes) is out again, reissued by boutique label Optic Nerve. But wait: it’s on vinyl! And not just any vinyl…it’s on that heavy stuff, lovingly pressed in splatter-colored grey (grey…get it)? A wonderful gatefold sleeve and a lavish full-size booklet full of photos and wry essays by both Newell and Giles Smith make it even better. You can enjoy the booklet, but my suggestion is to leave it alone while the music plays; the rich, timeless pop that is Cleaners From Venus music deserves your undivided attention. Once the records are done – eighteen tracks on the pair of LPs – you’ll have time to enjoy the entertaining written words of these two wordsmiths. (Aside: I’d strongly recommend you track down Smith’s book Lost in Music; it deals in great and amusing detail with his Cleaners-era experiences, and is laugh-out-loud funny to boot.)

No, Newell doesn’t sound at all like Ray Davies. But his body of work does indeed deserve mention in the same breath – in the same rarefied air – as the Kinks‘ leader. Track down this new, limited-edition set Living Victoria Grey, and in so you’ll be doing your small part to help rescue Newell and his music from that bittersweet situation known as “undiscovered genius.”

The limited-edition vinyl (500 copies!) of Living With Victoria Grey: The Very Best of The Cleaners From Venus is available from Optic Nerve Recordings.

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The Chris Stamey Interview

Friday, January 25th, 2013

Chris Stamey has been an important – if ever-so-slightly underground – part of the American music scene for decades. An early post-Big Star collaborator with Alex Chilton, he went on to create some of the best and most timeless music in rock/pop as a member of Sneakers, The dB’s, and as a solo artist. He’s remained busy with all manner of projects, and his latest is the new album Lovesick Blues. I chatted with him about that and other things; here’s our conversation. – bk

Bill Kopp: How did the songs on Lovesick Blues develop overall: did you go through your recent compositions and cherry pick the ones that seemed to fit within a certain stylistic framework, or did you decide on an approach and then write songs to work within that format?

Chris Stamey: I wrote a group of songs in two weeks, one or two a day, then looked at what I had. The song “Lovesick Blues” was the cornerstone to me. When I write songs, I just sit in a room and write and don’t try to direct the song, it’s a question of being in the zone so to speak and allowing room for that 15 minutes that it takes to write a song. I also don’t usually rewrite. Even when I try to rewrite, I usually go back to the original in the end; I’m okay if it doesn’t quite make literal sense sometimes.

I woke up every morning, early, and went in a room where the light was good and wrote a song every day. Then I played them for (producer) Jeff Crawford and we picked the ones that seemed best for the way I wanted to record–singing and playing at the same time, so that part was all done, then adding string and wind and vocal colors to my performance using the Fellow Travellers, the ad hoc NC group that had been playing the Big Star Third record.

Once we had a good list, I stood up at the mic and sang and played the record (thus putting the horse before the cart), then we added what we thought was needed to underline the meaning of the songs. I wrote out the parts and tracked the strings and winds and percussion, then Django Haskins, Brett Harris and Evan Way (from the Parson Redheads), among others, sang harmonies. We tried to frame the words in a way that would be a tight match between musical and lyric sense; we were not ever trying to just make cool sounds.

In the process, we added a few other songs. I always think that a record should be like a wedding, “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” For the old, we cut a new version of an obscure song of mine, “Occasional Shivers. “London” is also older, from an era when a transatlantic call was filled with static.

BK: The arrangements on Lovesick Blues are subtle and textured. As you composed the songs, did you often have an idea of how they’d be arranged, or did they being in skeletal form and come together over time?

CS: I can hear the whole effect, but figuring out what I’m hearing takes longer. There’s a lot of “ah-hah, bass clarinet, guitar with a hat rack, that’s the ticket!!” It’s like looking at a movie of a dream…if you could record your dreams and then view them later. Starting with my part (singing and playing guitar) first, with that as a given, let us orchestrate to match the nuance of the specific performance, instead of later shoehorning (overdubbing) the performance into a fixed, prerecorded arrangement, as it’s usually done.

BK: In your work with The dB’s, I assume that – at least to some extent – the final form of the songs you write is influenced by what the other guys in the band bring to the table, so to speak. In a situation like this – a solo album – do you assign everyone their specific parts to play, do you afford them wide latitude, or something in between?

CS: For most of the record, players came in and played what was already written on paper, the arrangement was precisely fixed in the score. I played the basic guitar parts and the bass parts. Mitch Easter and Jeff Crawford were, however, trying out different things; the electric guitars were more improvisatory and collaborative.

BK: Because of the gentle, subtle nature of many of the songs on Lovesick Blues, I would think that the setting matters a lot with regard to live presentation. I saw you debut a number of the Lovesick Blues songs last September in Nashville; as much as I enjoyed the show, I thought the venue – pretty much a standing-room-only bar – did not lend itself to the performance in the way a seated “listening room” would have. What do you think about all that?

CS: I have larger-ensemble arrangements, when I can afford the 15 players, and I hope to be doing this in the right situations. It’s the difference between “orchestral” and “quartet,” and we are trying to match the venue to the lineup. However, that was during a music festival, the AMA; those are always catch as catch can. I did some of these songs at SXSW last year with only a cellist and a violist (from the Tosca Quartet) and think we pretty much wowed them, and it was also a standing room, so I don’t know. I used to see the Williams Bros. in art galleries, I think that’d be nice if the room sounds nice. My preference would be to have the natural sound of the instruments heard (without mics and speakers), but that’s usually not practical. I also don’t plan to give up on rocking out, either; I’ll do some electric shows this year.

BK: “You n Me n XTC” sounds as if – with a slightly different arrangement – it could have fit nicely on last year’s dB’s album Falling Off the Sky. In a live setting, do you even try taking any of your song that were done in one style and applying a different arrangement to them?

CS: “You n Me n XTC” is an outlier, it’s true. I was envisioning our two ferrets sitting in a lowrider car, steering their way through Arizona, and it made me laugh. I could have made a record of consistent sadness and I thought about that, but I steered away from it in the end. Records I like often have a balance (of yin and yang?) to them, it seemed to me that “You n Me n XTC” fit. Actually, I thought that this song could have fit on my older record Travels in the South!

BK: Paradoxically, even though “Astronomy” is one of the more classically-oriented pieces (in terms of instrumentation) on Lovesick Blues, it’s one of the more “rocking” tunes. Is that tension/contrast something you consciously strove for?

CS: It was written last for this record, right before it was due to be mastered. It was actually written for a show of the Fellow Travellers, in about 20 minutes as something to play in the set, but I grabbed it for my record as there wasn’t a Travellers record on the drawing table yet. It’s really me with them, though, just the live arrangement from the gig, everyone playing their live parts. So it’s probably more rockin’ because of that. I really like the “electric mix” of it, a bonus track that’s on the video of this song, as well. It’s got a slide solo and a drumbeat all the way through, it’s quite fun, you should check that one out.

BK: Other than being older and possibly wiser, what skill set or collection of knowledge and experience do you think you brought to the making of this album, that you didn’t have, say, ten (Travels in the South), twenty (Fireworks) or even thirty (It’s a Wonderful Life) years ago when you made a record?

CS: I’ve learned much more about how to write serviceable orchestral arrangements—that’s a big change. I can find those sounds in my head, more or less, and get them on tape. I’d been writing smaller-scale string arrangements for records I was producing and mixing, for several years. My first large-group scores were for the Big Star’s Third concerts, including for “Kanga Roo” and “Holocaust.” And I wrote one for a song of Peter Holsapple’s, called “She Won’t Drive in the Rain Any More,” that I was quite happy with, in fact I wrote a lot of classical-player arrangements for that last dB’s record, and found my feet with this. Not saying I don’t have a long way to go, but I’m working on it.

BK: To what degree is Lovesick Blues a stylistic exercise, and to what degree might it represent a new direction for your future work?

CS: I am not sure what you mean. I was just being creative, I always try to make records that are expressive instead of commerce-driven. But there isn’t a grand plan other than waking up each morning as long as I can. Having one producer for the whole record (who was not me, thank goodness) brought a consistency to it, I think; that is something I’d like to have continue.

BK: You’ve been quite busy lately: the dBs album and select live dates last year, the chamber-pop ensemble you led that opened for The Zombies at Cat’s Cradle, and the new Lovesick Blues album. What’s next?

CS: I’m making a video for every song on the record, pretty much all on my lonesome – and I know less than the hamster next door, about cinema! So it’s really fun, it’s wide open when you don’t know what you are doing. But mainly, I’m trying to find more time to write music. I earn a living these days primarily mixing albums for other people, and I really enjoy that. But I want to put aside more time to write.

Lovesick Blues will be out February 5 on the illustrious Yep Roc Records. – bk

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Capsule Reviews: January 2013, Part 6

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Here’s the final — for now — of four installments in my occasional series of capsule reviews; you’ll find rock, blue-eyed soul, fusion and breezy SoCal pop. I had a huge stack of CDs deserving of review, but time doesn’t allow for full-length reviews of everything, and these were beginning to gather dust. They deserve better. My self-imposed limit for this particular exercise is 150 words on each album.

Bill Nelson and the Gentlemen Rocketeers – Recorded Live in Concert at the Metropolis Studios, London
While the 1960s (defined here as February 1964 to December 1969) are my favorite era for pop music, the 1970s were pretty great, too. And as rock’n'roll became rock, all manner of great bands came out of the woodwork. An untold number were lost in the shuffle. I have about 6000 records, yet many great 70s acts that I like (or might like) haven’t found their way onto my shelves yet. One of these was Be-Bop Deluxe. I used to see their LPs in the shops, but never got ’round to checking them out. Well, they’re long gone now, but their spirit lives on in leader/guitarist Bill Nelson. His latest (a 2CD+DVD set) shows him in fine form, serving up a sort of 70s-styled alternarock. Musically and vocally there’s a passing similarity to Roxy Music, but Nelson cranks out more gnarly textures from his guitar than is Phil Manzanera‘s wont.

Sanford & Townsend – Smoke From a Distant Fire / Nail Me to the Wall
I would never tell you that the 1970s were only about great music. I respect you far too much for that. Plus, you’d never buy such a line of utter bullshit. But it remains true that even when the music wasn’t exactly immortal, it often served its purpose as in-the-moment entertainment. Such is the case with the breezy, slightly soulful Hall & Oates soundalikes Sanford & Townsend. If you liked The Doobie Brothers, Chicago and other FM radio fodder, chances are good you liked “Smoke From a Distant Fire.” Regardless, you sure-as-hell heard it, didn’t you? Real Gone has paired the album of that same with the group’s third album, Nail Me to the Wall (the second LP gets only a perfunctory mention in the liner notes). If you like the hit, you’ll like the eighteen other tunes of slightly lesser merit. Gene Sculatti‘s liner notes provide helpful context.

Scott Henderson, Jeff Berlin and Dennis Chambers – HBC
As a well known and widely admired jazz fusion bassist, Jeff Berlin has lent his talents to many recordings. Both under his own name (with ten albums to his credit) and as a sideman to some of the biggest and best names in progressive/fusion (Bill Bruford, Allan Holdsworth, and even briefly as the unbilled replacement for the also-unbilled Tony Levin in almost-Yes aggregation Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman & Howe), Berlin lends his considerable talents to the music, and is clearly not overly concerned with being in the spotlight. That explains why he’s the “B” in HBC, an album featuring him plus Scott Henderson (guitar) and Dennis Chambers (drums). This is fusion jazz with shredding guitar work and plenty of Berlin’s deft, fleet-fingered Jaco Pastorius-styled bass (according to Wikipedia, Berlin dislikes the comparison). You’ll find few vocals to trouble your soul on HBC, just plenty of taut, expert and thrilling instro-fusion.

Brewer & Shipley – Down in L.A.
Real Gone Music, Numero Group and Omnivore aren’t the only labels run by crate-diggers intent on unearthing forgotten music from our collective past. In the UK there’s Now Sounds. One of their recent releases is a reissue of the 1968 debut from Brewer & Shipley. The songwriting duo who’d later have a hit with “One Toke Over the Line” (a song so ubiquitous it got covered on The Lawrence Welk Show; see YouTube) cut an album for A&M called Down in L.A. To say that the album sank in the marketplace of its time would be understatement. But the folky, country-flavored songs and arrangements (shades of The Association and Buffalo Springfield) deserved a better fate. Support by Jim Messina (bass) and drummers Hal Blaine and Jim Gordon guaranteed that the album would be tasty, but the songwriting’s pretty fine too. A helluva lot better than “One Toke,” too.

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Capsule Reviews: January 2013, Part 5

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

Here’s yet another installment in my occasional series of capsule reviews; today it’s Latin psych, comedy, rock’n'roll and country, and pop. I had a huge stack of CDs deserving of review, but time doesn’t allow for full-length reviews of everything, and these were beginning to gather dust. They deserve better. My self-imposed limit for this particular exercise is 150 words on each album.

Alfonso Lovo – La Gigantona
Count on the Numero Group for fascinating, outside-the-box releases of previously-ignored music. Their Buttons powerop compilation, their reissues of rare material by soul/r&b artist Lou Ragland, and The Boddie Recording Company, and funksters Father’s Children all brought obscurities out of undeserved shadows. And those are just a few. One of the latest is La Gigantona. Originally slated for release in the mid 1970s, this album by Nicaraguan Alfonso Lovo was a victim of that country’s political unrest. Will it sound to untrained ears like Santana? Sure, it will. The presence of percussionist José “Chepito” Areas will only reinforce that sonic connection. But there’s a psychedelic weirdness here – treated vocals, out-there guitar – that moves well beyond Santana’s bag of tricks. Rescued from the sole surviving acetate of the finished album sessions, La Gigantona is a funky, Latin psych-flavored disc that may conjure “what ifs” in your mind.

Joan Rivers – Presents Mr. Phyllis & Other Funny Stories
It’s the rare comedy record – The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart, for example — that sounds as fresh today as in 1962. Joan Rivers started her stand-up career (these days, when she’s known more as a “personality,” we forget she ever had one) back in the mid 60s, and her debut LP has been reissued by the eclectic sorts at Rock Beat. While a lot of her humor here is built around the subject of her hairdreser (the Mr Phyllis of the title) her approach is surprisingly non-homophobic. Remember, this was 1965. The material is delivered in a well-timed, manic style, and Rivers deftly riffs off the audience’s reaction to her jokes. The absurdity of the gags – bits about wig farms and such – is pretty goofy, but there’s a sly and subtle wit to her material that might pass you by on the first listen.

Jerry Lee Lewis – The Killer Live! 1964-1970
Fleshtones biographer Joe Bonomo authored a rhapsodic book-length mash note to one of music’s all-time great albums, Jerry Lee Lewis‘ landmark 1964 LP Live! At the Star Club. Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found is required reading, irrespective of how you feel about Lewis. Recently Hip-O Select collected that album with two other live Lewis documents: The Greatest Live Show on Earth (1964) and Live at the International Las Vegas (1970). While the second ’64 LP certainly suffers in comparison to the German concert, it has its moments, and a bunch of outtakes rise to a similar standard. By the time of the Vegas gig, Lewis had figured out where the money was (hint: country and western), but even it is worthwhile. Sixty live tracks is a Whole Lotta Lewis, but at least a full third of it (and possibly half) is some of the wildest stuff you’ll ever hear.

Dion – The Complete Laurie Singles
Real Gone Music continues a tradition its founders began at their old label (Collectors’ Choice Music) of putting together career-spanning singles collection of pop artists. For completists, these can’t be beat: nearly always sourced from the master tapes, there’s excellent mastering, transfer and fidelity to be found. And since we’re talking about singles, any number of non-LP sides appear, sometimes making their first appearance in digital format. Dion DiMucci – known in those teen idol days simply by his first name – enjoyed some well-deserved hits through his time on Laurie (a period that nearly extended to both ends of the 1960s), but nearly all of the hits came in the pre-Beatles era. Of course “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer” are here, but too are some interesting late-period pieces including a bizarre reinvention of Jimi Hendrix‘s “Purple Haze” (#63 pop) that sounds more like Arthur Lee‘s Love.

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Capsule Reviews: January 2013, Part 4

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

Here’s still another installment in my occasional series of capsule reviews; today I cover rock, prog, industrial/EDM and…you decide. I had a huge stack of CDs deserving of review, but time doesn’t allow for full-length reviews of everything, and these were beginning to gather dust. They deserve better. My self-imposed limit for this particular exercise is 150 words on each album.

Tangerine Dream – Under Cover
When you think of Tangerine Dream, chances are good that the sort of music which comes to mind is a sort of analog synthesizer-based style, one that at worst straddles the gap between ambient and prog. Sort of a Pink Floyd meets Brian Eno. And while the German group has never been afraid to branch out – some of their earliest material used electric guitar, and they’ve employed vocals before – at first glance (and listen!), their approach on Under Cover seems odd. The concept here is to take the works of other artists and create new arrangements filtered through the distinctive Tangerine Dream sensibility. As lofty a goal as that might seem, in practice all it really means is cutting an album of cover tunes. What exactly David Bowie‘s “Heroes” has to do with – gasp! – The Eagles‘ “Hotel California,” I don’t even want to know.

Zweiton – Form
Touch guitar is an instrument used primarily in progressive rock and related avant-garde settings; you won’t hear it on the latest Britney Spears comeback. A mightily expressive instrument that’s tapped rather than strummed (think Eddie Van Halen but add an exponential amount of creativity and take away the booze), it allows for the creation of some music that sounds like the work of several guitarists at once. The touch guitar isn’t far-removed from the Chapman Stick in that way. The instrumental album that is Form combines a variety of influences – prog-metal, dance music and more – to create something that is somehow more accessible and musical than any of those styles. Form is in turns graceful, aggressive, rocking and beautifully lyrical; sometimes it’s all those at once. With its polyrhythms and knotty guitar lines, “Treibwerk” recalls Discipline-era King Crimson. Recommended for adventurous fans who still dig a beat.

Adrian Benavides – Same Time, Next Life
The one-sheet for this release describes the record thusly: “…sounds and feels like a contemporary heavy version of Sylvian/Fripp‘s The First Day. There certainly is a Crimson connection here: Markus Reuter and Pat Mastelotto join Adrian Benavides for this swirling maelstrom of sound. This music leans in a very aggressive direction – think Nine Inch Nails but with a much more prog spin – appropriate with its (not strictly autobiographical but inspired by actual and related personal experience) subject matter, the “story of a grieving father from shock to acceptance after the death of his daughter.” Not a fun subject to be sure, but the music does convey a wide range of emotions. Whether you’re in the mood for such a trip, however, is up to you. My tastes run toward the more contemplative tracks (“Reflection II,” “Reflection III”) but the whole trip is one worth making.

Fischer’s Flicker – Katmandon’t!
I get tons of CDs in the mail. And don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful that people (recording artists, publicists, label reps) think enough of my work to bother with the postage. Some of these are unsolicited, and some fall into the “well okay, you can send it, but no promises” category. So when they show up, they go in a big pile. I do give them all a (partial or more) listen, but I’ll admit that cover art plays a role in developing preconceptions. This one has a goofy cover image, and when it comes to self-released works, that often is Strike One. Luckily I got past that and listened to Katmandon’t!, which really sounds like a contemporary version of The Band, with a bit of Leon Russell and maybe Wilco thrown in. Scott Fischer has an endearingly Rick Danko styled voice, and a strong sense of melody.

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Capsule Reviews: January 2013, Part 3

Monday, January 21st, 2013

Here’s another installment in my occasional series of capsule reviews; today it’s prog, ambient, worldbeat and acoustic. I had a huge stack of CDs deserving of review, but time doesn’t allow for full-length reviews of everything, and these were beginning to gather dust. They deserve better. My self-imposed limit for this particular exercise is 150 words on each album.

Under the Psycamore – I
From Stockholm comes this self-described neo-prog duo (Well, a duo of a drummer/bassist/vocalist and a singer/guitarist, augmented by a cellist). Typical of progressive rock, there’s plenty of drama, emotion and atmosphere, much of it conveyed instrumentally. The vocals here are often (but not always) used more as a textural element than as a means to deliver lyrics. It’s not necessary to be “discovered” by a tastemaker, but it rarely hurts, and Under the Psycamore was discovered by no less a luminary than former King Crimson touch guitarist Trey Gunn (he mastered and mixed I too). Guitarist Carl Blomqvist favors clean, acoustic picking over power-chording, and as such I takes on a dreamy, introspective feel through most of its eight tracks. The Enneagram in the album artwork probably means something; not sure what. But the emotional quality of the music will draw you in no matter what it all means.

Marvin Ayres – Harmogram Suite
I’m a rock’n'roll guy from way back, but beginning in the 80s, I discovered – and became quite intrigued with – ambient music. Now, the brand I discovered relied primarily on synthesizers and other electronically-based instruments, but even then I understood that the form allowed a much wider sonic palette than that. Marvin Ayres‘ work relies solely upon cellos, violins and violas to shape its sonic landscapes – six movements in all – and perhaps it’s the way the whole thing is produced, but the listening experience is so enveloping that you may (as did I) quickly stop thinking about (or caring) what’s making the sounds. Though it’s much more placid than Glenn Branca‘s music, Harmogram Suite does bear some similarities. Most notable among these is the way in which sounds seem to come out of nowhere, created (I assume) by the overtones of the instruments that are present. Recommended.

Mehran – Subterranea
Uh-oh: A concept album from a progressive artist. No fear: although the purported story line of Subterranea concerns what the liner notes describe as “an imaginary, surrealistic and utopian society,” the album is largely instrumental. And Mehran is a flamenco guitarist, so while the backing musicians provide string synth pads, electric bass and drums, there’s an undeniable worldbeat flavor to the proceedings. The lovely melodies have their basis in popular, melodic arrangements, and the new age vibe that pervades much of the music is leavened by the solid rock ensemble backing. (Mehran makes a point of letting the consumer know that those musicians created their own parts; no musical dictator he.) Imagine something halfway between the (admittedly popular) airball sounds of, say, Mannheim Steamroller or Kitaro and something much more dour and substantial, and you’ll find the something approaching the best of both worlds (so to speak) in Subterranea.

Toulouse Engelhardt – Toulousology: Definitive Guitar Soli 1976-2009
I’m not a student of “serious” music, so guitar virtuosi outside the rock spectrum often (if not always) escape my notice (I only “discovered” Wes Montgomery and Buckethead in the last year or so!). So it’s no surprise to me that I had never heard – or heard of – the work of acoustic 12-string guitarist Toulouse Engelhardt. He’s released eight album between 1976 and 2011, and recently compiled this career-spanning best-of. The nature of acoustic-based music such as this – built around Engelhardt’s finger-style guitar – is that it’s pretty damn well timeless. Thus, there’s nothing “dated” about the earlier pieces on the album. They all flow together nicely, taking in elements from various styles. “Revelations at Lunada Bay” would sound right at home on Led Zeppelin III, for example. Engelhardt synthesizes many styles, no mean feat when you’re working with just a guitar.

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