Boots by George Harrison, Hair by Robert Smith: The Posies Interview, Part Four

September 18th, 2014

Continued from Part Three

Bill Kopp: There’s a track of yours on Yellow Pills Volume 2, “Saying Sorry to Myself.” To my ears it has all the hallmarks of the first album. I like the way you take a bit of the lyric of “The Ballad of John and Yoko” and stand it on its head. Does the song date from the period around the making of Failure, or is a later recording?

Ken Stringfellow: It’s funny that you bring that song up. We haven’t played it in ten, fifteen years. I just had someone write me from Japan today, asking me if I had the lyrics to that song handy. I said no; I hadn’t even thought about it in fifteen years. By the time we got around to recording “Saying Sorry to Myself,” it was with a full band. It was done, I think, at Egg Studios, an eight-track studio that was owned by the owner of PopLlama.

Jon Auer: It’s interesting that you picked that song to mention. That’s one that kind of got thrown by the wayside. If you consider that it was an eighteen year old singing it, it does have the feeling of someone a little bit older. I’m glad that you appreciate that one.

Ken: That song followed on the heels of Failure, as our songwriting transitioned from the chirpy, bright- eyed, bushy-tailed thing that Failure is. Every line in “Saying Sorry to Myself” is clever wordplay. That clever thing was very appealing to us, because we were not grown up or experienced enough to put that much emotional depth into words. But things started to happen shortly after that; we matured, and some of the darkness that we knew from our young lives started to make its way into the lyrical content. The mood of things got a little deeper even by our next album.

Just as Failure came out, and we did find a bass player (Rick Roberts) and drummer (Mike Musburger), I moved into an apartment in the house that they were sharing. And a month later Mike moved out to his own apartment, and Jon moved in. We had a central room in that house to rehearse in. I dropped out of college and took a job that wasn’t too demanding so that I could have my living expenses covered. And that summer of 1988, we really got into writing a lot of songs. A lot of those songs were in the vein of “Saying Sorry to Myself.” And in that house we wrote a lot of songs that didn’t make it onto our 1990 album Dear 23. We were more dialed into things; three of the four of us worked in record stores, so we had access to a lot of things.

And in turning this chirpy, clever kind of melodic pop songwriting into something with more depth, it was at this time that we were introduced to the music of Big Star. And that was thanks to some of the more wise fellows who worked in those record stores. And that changed our songwriting: here was great, exuberant pop music with a lot more depth and wistfulness, a whole ‘nother emotional dimension. And it was made by people who were our age: when #1 Record came out, Alex Chilton was about 20. They set our bar to a whole different level.

The subsequent intertwining of The Posies and Big Star and REM is getting into the quantum physics field. It’s so odd that I went from such a distant observer of these bands to entering their lives.

Jon: I’m the guy who had to go through the archives for all these reissues that are coming out. After Failure, eventually Dear 23, Frosting on the Beater and Amazing Disgrace are all getting this reissue treatment from Omnivore Recordings. And I think that “Saying sorry to Myself” has definitely got to be a bonus track on the Dear 23 reissue. I had forgotten we had so much stuff; these reissues are not going to be like just repackaging. We’re going to have a hard time figuring out what not to put on these things.

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Boots by George Harrison, Hair by Robert Smith: The Posies Interview, Part Three

September 17th, 2014

Continued from Part Two

Ken Stringfellow: Listening to Failure, it would be hard to tell what we were listening to. Because the album has a very sixties vibe to it, kind of like if some sixties beat group moved to California. But I can give you a breakdown that will show you where some of these songs came from. I can tell you what I think they’re direct rip-offs of, and you’ll see through the sixties-ness of them to the original source.

“Under Easy” sounds a bit like The Byrds or something like that. But it really is [based on] a Bob Mould song. There’s so many Bob Mouldisms in the chord progression and melody; it’s just that the production fools you into thinking it’s sixties-based. We were absolutely obsessed with Hüsker Dü; they were heading into a more songwriter-y vibe; they had left the punk sound behind.

Jon Auer: Two bands that we absolutely worshiped were The Replacements and Hüsker Dü.

Ken: “At Least for Now” is maybe a little closer to its source. It’s a less agonized version of a Paul Westerberg song. Imagine it as a slightly more cheerful version of “Here Comes a Regular.” We were massive Replacements fans. And what was a nice turnaround is that when this record got released as an LP and started to get national airplay, it really became a favorite of Paul Westerberg’s. He took us on tour shortly thereafter.

“I May Hate You Sometimes” seems like it’s some sort of Beatles ’65 thing, but if you listen to the wordplay and the nonstop vocals, it’s a little bit of Elvis Costello. It’s a title that has so much irony in it that it’s not clever enough to be great irony.

Jon: You can certainly hear the influence of The Beatles, but any record made past a certain time has that influence on it. If you wanted to compare “I May Hate You Sometimes” with “The Word” from Rubber Soul, we copied the cowbell, the percussion track. It’s pretty much an homage; we just ripped ‘em off.

Ken: Of course we had the sixties music influence because of our parents and their record collections – those were the first records we were encountering – but at the time, we listened to a lot of the great, clever songwriters of the UK scene: Squeeze, XTC. In fact the drum intro in “Paint Me” is directly lifted from XTC’s “Ball and Chain.”

Jon: A band that cannot be underrated as an influence upon us at the time is XTC. So while we were into the sixties scene, we were influenced by artists who had been influenced by it as well. Skylarking is one of my favorite records; so much so that on our album Frosting on the Beater, we tried to sequence the songs in the same way that they did on Skylarking. I’m giving you way too much information; you get the gist.

Ken: “The Longest Line” is [based on] a Smiths song on Meat is Murder. And you can hear REM influence on “Believe in Something Other than Yourself,” even down to the chord progressions. It’s dangerously close to the chorus of “Radio Free Europe.” And there’s a thing in “What Little Remains” with a kind of reverb-y backing vocal; that’s directly ripped off from REM’s “Pilgrimage.”

I was really into the California punk scene with Black Flag and Dead Kennedys; and Blue Note Records stuff was a big influence on me…even though there’s no bebop on this album. We were into a little bit of everything. Being small town people as we were, in the pre-internet age, music listening was based on opportunity, on what things came your way. At this time, we were still learning. We weren’t old and experienced enough to have a body of work to synthesize into new things.

I love musical quotes; now I like to weave a musical pun into every album I make. But I vary it, and most people never discover them. At that time we were less subtle.

Bill Kopp: Your vocal harmonies have long been the main signature of The Posies. When you started out – and now, even – did you have to carefully work those individual parts out, or did they evolve naturally as you worked on the songs?

Jon: The singing is probably one of the most natural things about The Posies. This is going to sound horrible, but Ken and I were in the choir at our school. So even though we weren’t singing together in a band per se, we were learning about things like harmonies and counterpoint. To even further the geek ante here, we had extracurricular activities together that involved singing: we were in a thing called jazz choir. And to make us sound even geekier, we did that in the mornings before our first class. We didn’t wait until after school; no, we got up an hour earlier to go to this thing.

Bill: So I suppose whether it was conscious or not, there was a fair amount of musical theory underpinning your vocal arrangements on Failure

Jon: Well, again, I’m going to give credit to that early choir training. It certainly didn’t hurt.

Ken: The harmony vocal parts came very quickly, very easily. The chord progressions lend themselves very easily to being made with harmonies. That was always there with us; they were not labored over. There’s a lower second harmony in the verse of “Under Easy.” That just happened on the spot.

Jon: If people ask me what makes The Posies unique, I’d say its the harmonies. We did all of the vocals for the album in one weekend. Lead, harmony and backing vocals – all of them for that record – were done in a two-day period. All twelve songs.

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Boots by George Harrison, Hair by Robert Smith: The Posies Interview, Part Two

September 16th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: I thought it was a nice bit of contextualization to include Veronika Kalmar‘s snarky and negative review in the liner notes of the Failure reissue. It might be tough for you to cast your minds back to that time, but how did you react when you first read it in that magazine?

Jon Auer: I have to be honest: I was really hurt when I read that review. As a naïve, music-loving innocent eighteen year old, I didn’t consider that people could try to do you harm publicly. It wasn’t just a bad review; it was a targeted piece. It really cut us down.

Reviews are ultimately opinions, but people read them, and when it’s put into the context of a magazine, it’s an important thing. Everybody’s got an opinion, but the don’t have a vehicle for it. Well, of course now they do; it’s called the internet. There’s another great quote – I’ll paraphrase it because I don’t have it handy – that suggested the magazine made a poor choice of reviewers. [the letter writer] likened it to having a skinhead cover an Al Green concert. I thought that was pretty great.

Ken Stringfellow: Well, something had to come up; things were just going too well for us. And the story didn’t really look believable. It really is unbelievable what happened to us. So it looked like there was some payola, or some weird anti-marketing going on. There must have been a master plan to make a band from Bellingham — a duo as unlikely as us – to suddenly be everywhere at once. It defied the laws of credibility. We were two cuts deep into Seattle commercial radio a hundred hours after releasing this homemade cassette; it just didn’t make any sense. And over the course of that summer, it grew so rapidly. If we did a free show where kids could attend, we’d have thousands of people showing up. And we could fill clubs by that summer.

Jon: We became vilified by a certain segment, but it worked in our favor in a way: we kept the letters section in the magazine alive for six months.

And, you know, Veronika apologized to me. She said she didn’t think the review was fair, though she didn’t think it was the greatest record. So there you go. Sometimes you have to wait awhile in life for things to reveal their true colors.

Bill: And in her note included in the liner notes for Failure‘s new reissue, she does refer to Dear 23 as “a masterpiece.”

Jon: But she still thinks the lyrics are too angst-ridden and teenager-y. And you know what? I’ve got to agree with her. Some of the lyrics are that way for me, too. But I was sixteen years old when I wrote half of those songs. We sort of incubated for a couple of years in Bellingham, writing songs until we had enough to make Failure.

Ken: We weren’t from the same music scene as the bands we’d come to know as the recognizable SubPop bands. They were all nascent at that point, just about to happen. Those guys were all just a few years older than us, so they had played in bars; they could hang out in bars! So they had that scene going; Seattle and its environs didn’t really have an all-ages scene. We weren’t old enough to hang out in bars, so nobody knew us. So, who were these dorky-looking dudes playing this dorky music, anyway? It took awhile. So I think Veronika’s reaction at the time was based on an assumption that there must be something un-DIY about us.

The music’s good, I think, but it seemed like more than it just being good: a whole bunch of dominoes fell at once.

Jon: We were hand-dubbing cassettes, and selling them out of our backpacks. We moved like 800 copies that way. That’s not insignificant without anybody helping you.

Bill: In hindsight, Failure is really pretty out of step with what people now think of as the Pacific Northwest scene of that era. What sort of music were you listening to in the period when you were writing the songs that ended up on that first album?

Jon: Oh, jeez. There were things we were listening to that might make you think Failure was the obvious result. But you’re talking about a couple of guys who listened to everything growing up, who went through every phase. We’re just fans of songs and good music. And that comes in any genre, any shape, size or form. At the time, that would have included anyone from Elvis Costello to The Beatles. Or Depeche Mode, as you can maybe see when you look at the picture on the back of the album. We went through a quasi-goth phase.

In fact, I’ll go off on a tangent here about that picture. It tells you a lot about us then. We were always doing our own thing, slightly out of step with whatever was happening at the moment. We had a complex mixture of elements.

Bill: I look at that picture and I think, “Boots by George Harrison, hair by Robert Smith.”

Jon: Y’know what? Please put that in your piece. Because it’s brilliant.

My first job was working in a record store. I had been one of those kids who went to the record store every day after school. So eventually they just gave me a job. And at the time I looked like I was probably in The Cure or some goth band. But I was into everything musically. I was there when the first CDs arrived in the store, the first ones ever. And you know, of course what some of the first CDs that came out were: reissues of the Beatles albums. It was a pivotal moment; it made those records ripe for rediscovery. I grew up with my parents’ Beatles records, but to get these digital versions and explore them, we started to do that.

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Boots by George Harrison, Hair by Robert Smith: The Posies Interview, Part One

September 15th, 2014

While grunge or alternative might be the first rock genres that spring to mind when one thinks of the 1990s, an unlikely group from the Pacific Northwest had already gained a foothold – both commercially and critically – with their brand of melodic guitar-based pop. The Posies – eventually a band, but originally just a duo featuring teenagers Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow – recorded and released their first album, 1988′s Failure – in what would come to be thought of as an early example of DIY success.

Failure would go on to be reissued by a proper label, and the group’s fame grew, thanks in part to their being championed by influential tastemakers who counted themselves as fans. But it has always been the music – and the pair’s trademark vocal harmonies – that have brought The Posies their well-deserved success. Failure has just now been reissued yet again, this time by Omnivore Recordings, who have appended eight bonus tracks to the CD, along with fascinating liner notes. In my conversation with Ken and Jon, I asked them about the development of that first album, and how it fit into the arc of their constantly evolving musical style. And I learned that the coming months will see a good bit of additional Posies (and related) material released on Omnivore.

Bill Kopp: You were both short of 20 years old when you recorded Failure. I really like the production style of the album: unadorned, gimmick-free, and always in service to the songs. When you cut the album, what kind of goals or aspirations did you have? Did you think you might make the big time, and if so what would “the big time” have been for you?

Ken Stringfellow: When we started recording Failure in 1987, I was 18 and Jon was 17. We had a very fortunate situation in that Jon and his dad had put together a small studio in their family home; that was an incredible gift. We had an eight-track analog tape machine. The production limitations are more or less based around track count. We recorded eight tracks of music, and then bounced that down to a cassette, believe it or not. And then we used those mixes from the cassette on two tracks, and did six tracks of vocals. That approach dictated how the record sounded.

As far as our aspirations, we really made this record as a demo. Basically, we couldn’t find anyone who wanted to play in a band with us.

Jon Auer: I probably wouldn’t have wanted to play with us, either!

Ken: We couldn’t really explain our concept: it was so gimmick-free that there really wasn’t an “elevator pitch.” Other than writing great songs, and what’s the elevator pitch for that? So we really just wanted to find people to form a full band with. The demo would show them our tunes so that they’d kind of get the idea.

As we realized this might actually be a record, our friends who heard it were feeding back to us that, hey, this is something very special, things happened very fast. We put it out as a DIY cassette, it got on commercial radio, we had offers for shows. Everything happened at once. In ten days we went from zero to being able to fill venues. It was insane, and we saw none of this coming. We were completely overwhelmed, as you could imagine.

We wanted to be part of this local label called PopLlama. They picked it up and reissued it on LP. We wanted to play this local festival called Bumbershoot, and we did. And all that was as far ahead as we had thought. We already had interest from some major labels, but we hadn’t even conceptualized something like that. We just got carried along in the slipstream for a couple of years.

Jon: The “big time” was never a consideration. We were just very much thinking of modest goals in the beginning. We hoped we’d get to open for a band we really admired, and still do: The Young Fresh Fellows.

What I liked about Failure is that it was made in a very pure environment. It had nothing to do with wanting to get noticed in a major way at all. It was something that we did because we wanted to do it. Maybe we weren’t very smart; maybe we should have considered other things – like the potential trajectory of our career – more [than we did]. But we were just having a good time. And we were lucky because I grew up in a home that had that small but powerful home studio.

And the realization of all of our eventual goals was something that happened naturally; it was never a case of us trying to force things.

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Everything Comes Together: The Paul & John Interview, Part Three

September 12th, 2014

Continued from Part Two

The album that would become Inner Sunset was announced in 2013, but the project’s gestation was a lengthy process, especially when compared to the quick, DIY measure employed by most other artists on the Mystery Lawn label. “Several factors contributed to the album taking so long to come out,” John Moremen explains. “First, we wanted to record it at Mystery Lawn Studio with Allen Clapp engineering. It was a very busy four-year period for Allen, working with The Corner Laughers, Alison Levy, Jim Ruiz, Agony Aunts, William Cleere, Marshall Holland and [John Moremen's] Flotation Device. We had to wait until Allen and the studio were available.” Paul Myers stresses that “Allen was ridiculously generous with his time, resources and talent, but that often meant we had to wait while The Orange Peels recorded and toured, or while other Mystery Lawn people had their turn with him.”

And while The Paul & John‘s mid-project decision to use only newer songs resulted in a better record, that too set the completion date back somewhat. “Over the course of four years,” says Myers, “our sound evolved, and the later songs were better than the early ones. We’d decided that there’d be no filler or dead weight songs; every moment had to be uniformly ‘awesome,’ if only to ourselves.” Moremen notes that “we completely rewrote the album about a year after we started working on it.” And that, Myers adds, “meant throwing out stuff, re-cutting some stuff, and writing new stuff. Time flies when you’re having fun.”

Moreoever, while Inner Sunset is a carefully crafted work from start to finish, it’s the product of two men who remain very involved in a multitude of other musical (and music-related) endeavors. “ We aren’t a day-to-day thing,” Paul Myers points out. “We both have other projects and jobs, so we end up taking weeks and months to accomplish what some bands do in a couple of days.” During the years leading up to the eventual release of Inner Sunset, music journalist/author Myers was writing and doing promotional work for A Wizard / A True Star, his excellent book on Todd Rundgren. Meanwhile, Moremen was “busy working on The Orange Peels’ Sun Moon album, recording a new album with Flotation Device and playing shows with Alison Levy, Roy Loney, and Half Japanese.” He laughs and says that “It’s kind of a miracle that we finished Inner Sunset with all those other projects happening.”

Yet another factor that affected the release timetable for Inner Sunset was the pair’s reliance upon crowd funding to finance the album. “I was a nervous wreck when we first launched our Kickstarter and donations weren’t coming right away,” Myers candidly admits. “You start to doubt your mission, and for me, it stirred up old demons about social popularity. Insecurities run deep with me, and I really began to feel scared.” But once word got out about the planned album, support grew quickly. “The best part was the overwhelming support,” Moremen says. “People really, really wanted to see this album come out. We had so many positive vibes coming our way from so many people wishing us well.” As the funding deadline approached, fans rallied. Myers explains that “in the final weeks, the drought lifted, and a deluge of pledges came in. We exceeded our goal. So now, I feel gratified that people really did care. And I hope they actually play and enjoy the record.”

And though it was ultimately successful, Myers and Moremen learned a lot from the Kickstarter experience. “The next time I do one of these, I’m going to put a little more planning into it regarding budgeting,” says Moremen. Striking a hopeful note, he adds, “the next one should be a lot easier!” Myers sums up the crowdfunding concept in a single sentence: “People ultimately love to help creative people bring their artistic dreams to life.”

The Paul & John’s Inner Sunset is available now from Mystery Lawn Music. And as Todd Rundgren, one of Myers’ musical heroes, might say “And there’s more.” Paul says, “we’re putting together the live band [a record release show in San Francisco is scheduled for October 30], and we hope to start writing more songs together real soon. That’s where it all starts for me. I really hope it’s not another four years until a follow up!”

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Everything Comes Together: The Paul & John Interview, Part Two

September 11th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Speaking of the process of songwriting, the songs on The Paul & John‘s Inner Sunset are truly the product of a collaborative approach between Paul Myers and John Moremen. “When we originally started working on The Paul & John stuff, Paul was writing lyrics for some of my music,” explains Moremen. “Then we decided to try a few face-to-face, and those were fantastic. Things were going so well writing this way that we decided to scrap the old original tunes and basically rewrite the album.”

“While John graciously deferred all the lyric writing to me,” Myers says, “we wrote all the music 100% together. We made a rule that, even though either of us could probably start and finish entire songs, that wasn’t what The Paul & John was about.” Moremen adds, “Usually Paul or I would have a little piece of something, but that would just be the kindling to get the fire started. Often the original idea would be unrecognizable by the time the song was finished.”

Since the pair had, in Myers’ words, “opted to only record songs where we had a chance to collaborate on all the music,” the songs bear the distinct character of their collaborative approach. “On ‘Hungry Little Monkey,’ John had made a GarageBand recording of the verse chords and melody, then I took that home to my studio and pasted in my original musical idea for the chorus. It was like Frankenstein’s monster, but it really worked. That’s one of my favorite songs now.”

The pair crafted all of the sounds on Inner Sunset without the enlisting of outside musicians. Moremen handled guitars (more often than not, the lead parts) plus drums and vocals. Myers played guitars (usually, but not exclusively, rhythm parts) plus bass guitar, vocals, and Mellotron-like “string” keyboard sounds. Moremen says that a goal of upcoming live dates to promote Inner Sunset will be to keep “the vibe of the performances… as close to the album as possible.” In practice that means The John & Paul will stick to guitars and vocals, joined by players from a pool that Myers characterizes as “a lot of talented friends locally here in the Bay Area, and all over North America. There’s a lot of potential there to have unique backing lineups in different cities.” In addition to a bassist and drummer, they’ll feature “two extra players to help on the big background vocals, and to play percussion and other things that we overdubbed in the studio,” says Myers. “I think,” says Moremen, “with the addition of the multi-instrumentalist and the extra harmony, we should have all the parts pretty well covered. We put quite a bit of four-part singing on the album, so that was important in considering the live thing.”

When the label “power pop” is mentioned in connection with their music, the two men offer distinctly different responses. “I’ve never been a fan of the term ‘power pop,’” admits John Moremen. “To me, it does seem limiting for music such as this. We love The Beatles, and we love it loud just as much as the last power popper. I feel that our influences are diverse; that’s where I can see the difference between us and a band that would be called power pop.” He’s not adamant about the issue, however. “It doesn’t matter too much, though. If people dig what we’re doing and they call it power pop, it’s actually fine with me!”

Paul Myers takes a view that puts the subject in some historical context. “Fifteen or so years ago, when major labels were courting bands like ours, a lot of these bands felt ghettoized by the term ‘power pop,’ like it meant ‘lightweight’ or bubblegum. The labels hated the term, and good power pop bands had to kind of keep it under their hats. I never backed away,” he admits, name-checking a who’s-who list of artists who’ve suffered (or proudly worn) the power pop tag. “I always loved Cheap Trick, XTC, Squeeze, Big Star, Badfinger, Wings, Raspberries, The Who, Jellyfish, Teenage Fanclub, and too many more.” Myers smiles and says, “If there’s a power pop revolution, you’ll find me marching out front, head and banner held high.” And The Paul & John deserve mention in that list: Inner Sunset‘s standout track, the swoonworthy “Everything Comes Together” is as good as the best from any of those groups.

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Everything Comes Together: The Paul & John Interview, Part One

September 10th, 2014

Music lovers who appreciate highly melodic and memorable rock-based songs – the kind of instantly hummable tunes that stick in your head long after the song is over – should take heart: though the style (however you might label it) doesn’t top the music 2014 charts, the style is far from moribund. In fact, San Francisco’s Bay Area might be considered something of a “ground zero” for the upbeat (yet occasionally melancholy) form that some call “sunshine pop,” “power pop” or some other label that attempts to distill a description down to a couple of words. The Mystery Lawn label has quickly established itself as a reliable purveyor (or perhaps “curator”) of high quality music from a wide array of thoughtful, individualistic artists. Though each has their own distinct musical personality and vision, all Mystery Lawn acts share a love and appreciation (as well as an uncanny knack) for well-crafted melodies with substance.

The latest in the consistent line of highly regarded releases is the long-awaited debut from The Paul & John. The duo of singer/songwriter/guitarists Paul Myers and John Moremen released Inner Sunset this summer.

The duo are careful not to let critics lump all Mystery Lawn groups into a single, confined genre. “To me all of the [label's] groups are very different from each other,” Moremen insists. Myers concedes that groups releasing their music on Mystery Lawn do have much in common, but believes they’re distinct as well. “I think that while John and I come at this approach to pop rock songwriting from oh-so-slightly different angles, the unified region of our Venn diagram is larger than the non-aligned regions,” he says. “By filtering it all through (label head/producer) Allen Clapp‘s ears (and gear) the sound is even more unified, and of course more Mystery Lawn.”

Moremen agrees: while he allows that “the one thing we have in common would be Allen’s influence, which is immeasurable.” Citing a shared predilection toward “big harmony vocals and broad sonic gestures like reverb-y guitars, and roomy drums,” Myers notes that “all of the acts on Allen’s label make records that sound like records…just maybe not records from today.” And to those who might tag The Paul & John’s music as “retro” – myself, I’d more likely call it timeless – Paul Myers says, “no one involved in Inner Sunset was self-consciously “retro” in our approach to the sonic design. It just so happens that our ideals are the accumulation of a lot of 70s and 60s records, and we’ve all been doing this for a long time.” Moremen admits that The Paul & John will occasionally “venture into Orange Peels territory a little, but that’s mainly because I play guitar and co-write the music in both groups.”

A unifying hallmark of the ten songs on Inner Sunset – from “Inner Sunrise,” the brief, Everly Brothers-styled acoustic opener, through the disc’s more rocking, full-band styled tunes, to the soaring, pastoral “Inner Sundown” that closes the album – is an unerring insistence upon memorable melodic lines. Or, as we used to call them, hooks. “We love hooks,” Myers readily admits. In his view, “A hook can be a compelling melody, an ear-grabbing riff, or even a life-altering chord change. So we do begin with some kind of initial hook, then refine, add to and arrange.” He considers song arrangement a critical component in songcraft. “The layout is built around nurturing and protecting the hooks. This is not a cynical thing,” he hastens to add. “We really do approach it based on what excites us as listeners.” Moremen approaches the subject from a subtly different perspective. “For the most part, we started [writing] the melody, or words and a melody. I find that the hooky bits just naturally present themselves as the tune is coming together.” In fact, he says, “I can’t remember a time when I’ve actually put a hook into a song, unless it’s a recurring riff or something like that.” But almost immediately, he amends his remark: “In the case of the song ‘Inner Sunset,’ it was completely rewritten, because we felt something was missing. I guess,” he allows, “in that case you could say we made it ‘hookier.’” The texture of Moremen’s hollowbody electric guitar solo on “Inner Sunset” is evocative of George Harrison‘s lead work circa A Hard Day’s Night; listeners can decide for themselves if that quality classifies as hooky.

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Album Review: Sloan — Commonwealth

September 9th, 2014

Rock fans who fall into a certain age bracket may recall the buzz around the release of Liz Phair‘s major-label debut, 1993′s Exile in Guyville. As the popular story went, the album was a track-by-track feminist response to The Rolling Stones‘ 1972 double LP Exile on Main Street. Or something like that; on close examination, the argument didn’t hold up. But the album was superb, regardless.

I’m not here today to convince you that Sloan‘s Commonwealth is the Canadian quartet’s answer to The Beatles‘ self-titled 1968 double LP. But surface similarities do exist.

First off, the new Sloan album is divided into four sections. All four members of the band compose, play and sing, and rather than mix things up (like, say, John and Yoko did on Double Fantasy), each member gets his own side (the album is available on vinyl, though my review copy is a silver CD). Each songwriter gets thirteen to fifteen minutes or so to present a suite of songs that display his own distinct personality and perspective. But here’s the kicker: unlike the white album, where some tracks featured only Lennon, and others might even have Paul McCartney behind the drum kit(!), on Commonwealth, the all-for-one/one-for-all approach means that each side finds the composer/vocalist ably and enthusiastically backed by his band mates. Commonwealth is that rarest of albums: a series of tracks from distinct individuals, all presented in a way that makes the disc into a cohesive whole.

The first five songs are labeled Diamond Side and are composed by Jay Ferguson. Sounding a bit like Belle and Sebastian, Ferguson’s songs – most notably the lovely midtempo “Three Sisters” feature clever flourishes that might remind listeners of Ringo Starr‘s Revolver-period drum fills. Each of the tunes is generally built around a piano melody, but plenty of muscular lead guitar is woven into the arrangement. The five tunes segue smoothly into one another; let your attention slip a bit and you might miss the transition to the shimmering “You’ve Got a Lot on Your Mind.” The band ups the tempo and energy level for the infectious vibe of “Cleopatra.” Guaranteed ear candy, Ferguson’s songs alone plus filler would equal a very, very good album.

Chris Murphy‘s Heart Side is next. His “Carried Away” may well be the most soaring tune on Commonwealth, but he and his band mates offer strong competition. A lovely string section leads into a chorus you won’t soon forget. With its elegiac piano and cynical lyrics, “So Far So Good” sounds like something off John Lennon’s Imagine. More of those wonderful drums-down-the-stairs fills, Leslie’d lead guitar and creamy ahhh vocal harmonies make it a standout track. The stuttering beat of the brief “Get Out” distantly recalls George Harrison‘s “Old Brown Shoe.” The melancholy “Misty’s Beside Herself” is full of beauty and heartbreak. Murphy rocks out on his last spotlight track, “You Don’t Need Excuses to Be Good.” The minor-key number features a lengthy but stinging riff as the basis of its chorus. It’s a rare songwriter who can compose ballads and rockers of equal quality, and then sequence them on an album in a way that isn’t jarring, in a sequence that makes sense. Murphy succeeds.

Shamrock Side features four songs from Patrick Pentland. Right out of the gate he serves up “13 (Under A Bad Sign),” a rocker that swaggers like T. Rex. Wonderfully distorted guitar fills leave the listener wanting more. Some bursts of noise and what initially sounds like the same backing track used on “13” lead straight into “Take it Easy.” Even more distorted, nearly atonal guitar skronk atop the chugging, insistent rhythm section brings out the rock in Shamrock Side. “What’s Inside” is a slow, gauzy, almost psychedelic swirl that is highly appealing and will draw listeners into its musical maelstrom. Pentland’s side wraps up with the Rolling Stones-y “Keep Swinging (Downtown).” Some wonderfully retro combo organ textures recall the mid 1960s garage scene, and a brief effects-laden guitar solo is yet another highlight.

Commonwealth ends with Spade Side, an eighteen-minute suite of Andrew Scott compositions all woven together under the singe title “Forty-eight Portraits.” The opening section could – if one wishes to labor the white album comparison – be thought of as Commonwealth‘s “Revolution #9.” Found sounds (barking dogs, alarm clocks, out-of-tune parlor piano) unfold gradually, and then the piano rises from the aural mist, seamlessly unfolding into a beautiful melody topped by some tight dual lead vocal harmony work. While none of Scott’s melodies sound like lifts, there’s a definite Abbey Road (Side Two, specifically) vibe to the mini-songs; the manner in which they hang together only strengthens the similarity. Had he cared to, Scott could have easily extended any and all of the brief “songlets” into full-length numbers, creating an entire excellent album in the process. It’s a testament to the democratic approach of Sloan that he and his band mates chose otherwise. The thirty-second section that begins around the 11:20 mark is perhaps the hookiest segment of “Forty-eight Portraits,” but there’s not a weak moment in the entire track. Around 12:15 Sloan take us back –albeit briefly – to the Summer of Love, with insistent piano and brass that backs the vocal countermelodies. Then there’s a bit that recalls the weary yet jubilant rooftop vibe of “I’ve Got a Feeling,” featuring some children’s chorus vocals that recall early Traffic, XTC and the Rolling Stones all at once. The song then gradually takes off into the ether, explicitly recalling either Abbey Road‘s “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” Badfinger‘s “Timeless,” or – most likely – both.

And then it’s over. Luckily you can play it again. And you’ll want to. Commonwealth truly displays the common wealth of songwriting prowess among Sloan’s four very equal members. Easily a strong contender for Musoscribe’s best album of 2014, Commonwealth earns my enthusiastic Must Buy recommendation.

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Album Review: The Legal Matters

September 8th, 2014

My friend Bruce Brodeen occasionally endures some good-natured ribbing for those mini-reviews he penned in his NotLame mail order catalogs of the 90s. If you viewed his writing a certain way, it seemed like he thought everything was great. But I’m reminded of the (possibly apocryphal) conversation between a fan and Raymond Burr of TV’s Perry Mason: approached on the street and asked how he could possibly win every case, Burr is said to have replied, “Well, madam, you only see the cases I try on Thursdays!” Point being, some reviewers (myself included) don’t waste much time shining light on lesser efforts, unless they deserve it. With that in mind, here’s another review in which I basically tell you that I really dig the music.

I first stumbled across the music of Andy Reed in early 2012, around the time his album Always on the Run (credited to An American Underdog) was released. Reed’s a busy guy: he’s also a member of The Verve Pipe, whose recent album Overboard is enthusiastically recommended to fans of timeless pop (rock guitar and vocal variant). But those two ongoing projects are seemingly not enough to keep him occupied; he has of late joined forces with two songwriters (and musicians and singers) of comparable merit to form The Legal Matters. Fans of shimmering, memorable pop rock won’t want to miss their self-titled debut album. Joining Reed are Keith Klingensmith and Chris Richards; the trio share composition duties, and take turns on lead vocals.

“Stubborn” is some delightful midtempo rock with just a hint of country influence, on the level of Tom Petty or Gin Blossoms. There isn’t any filler on The Legal Matters: subtly distorted guitars are joined by rhythm guitar (often acoustic, always a good thing in this sort of context), plus plenty of lovely vocal harmonies, like the “la la la” and “ooh” bits peppered throughout Reed’s “The Legend of Walter Wright.” The Legal Matters don’t sound exactly like anyone else, but there are some production and composition signatures that suggest a stripped down answer to Rick Hromadka‘s Maple Mars.

Klingensmith and Reed cowrote “Mary Anne,” one of the most gentle and contemplative tunes on the disc. Subtle instrumental backing supports some carefully stacked vocals.

The Legal Matters might be thought of as a songwriters’ collective. Richards’ “It’s Not What I Say” would work well enough as a guitar-and-single-vocal tune, but here, with the (still understated) backing of band mates, Richards and his song end up recalling the best of soft rockers like Pure Prairie League. An acoustic guitar solo is the cherry on top.

The spare and restrained instrumentation on Richards’ rock-oriented “Before We Get it Right” recalls The Beatles‘ “Getting Better.” Reed’s “So Long Sunny Days” strikes a wistful tone, and his lyrics are wholly consistent with that approach. Once again, the tight and carefully-applied vocal harmonies are a highlight. The c&w influence is more pronounced on “Outer Space,” but it’s presented well within a melodic pop context, free of artifice; the song’s bridge takes things to another (higher) level entirely.

The Legal Matters closes with Reed’s “We Were Enemies,” wherein the trio judiciously applies a bit of keyboards to support the melancholy number. The soaring harmonies and electric lead guitar balance things nicely, ending the album on a perfect note. The extended outro (full of ahhh vocals) is a delight.

More, please. Timeless pop like this is never in great enough supply, though The Legal Matters are certainly doing their part.

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Album Review: The Small Faces — There Are But Four Small Faces

September 5th, 2014

History has a way of playing tricks on us. How many of us American fans of Beach Boys music remember that Pet Sounds was – upon its original release – considered something of a commercial failure? The album’s subsequent elevation into the Pantheon of great albums has caused us to forget that inconvenient bit of trivia.

So, too, do many of us – and I’m first thinking of myself here – fail to recall that as impressive a body of work as they created, The Small Faces were not hit makers on the US charts. Chalk it up to any of several factors: “they were too British” is a common explanation. They themselves in interviews have opined that their lack of touring stateside had a good deal to do with it.

No matter. The music they created is filled with charms. And with the benefit of hindsight and context, it’s very much of a piece with the best of the era’s rock, and doubtless influenced those other artists who did hear it.

The group’s 1967 album There Are But Four Small Faces may well be the group’s most accessible entry point for the uninitiated. The following year’s legendary Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake is arguably even better, yet at the same time more idiosyncratic, giving rise to those “too British” sentiments. But on There Are But Four Small Faces, the quartet’s brand of rhythm and blues-influencd rock meshes nicely with Summer of Love styles and sentiments. From the memorable “it’s all too beautiful” refrain of “Itchycoo Park” to Kenney Jones‘ phase-shifter-treated drum fills on the same tune, the album is that rarest of creatures: very much of its time, yet somehow timeless. The stomping r&b of “Talk to You” – featuring some lovely piano figures from Ian McLagan – is a near perfect balance of finely-tuned subtlety and uncompromising rock. Throughout the twelve-track album – now reissued on vinyl alongside a 2CD version that features stereo and (DJ promo) mono mixes and bonus tracks – the Small Faces assert their right to the label “best British band you’re least familiar with.”

“I’m Only Dreaming” utilizes gentle piano and vibes, and finds Steve Marriott leaning in a melodramatic crooner direction, but the song’s dynamics include plenty of space for the vocalist to belt it out as well; that shift in tone inside a song was a hallmark of the group, and served to showcase all of their strentghts within the confines of a three-minute (or so) pop tune. And echoes of that style can be heard in subsequent material from The Marmalade and Grapefruit, two of the many acts greatly influenced by The Small Faces. (The fact that you may well not have heard of those groups is yet further testament to The Small Faces limited chimerical reach in the 60s).

“I Feel Much Better” weds a twee “do waddy waddy / shang a lang” vocal chant to some thunderous bottom-end work from bassist Ronnie Lane; the group seemingly had an endless knack for melding the sweet and sour, the light and the heavy.

The albums’ song most well-known (to Americans) is “Tin Soldier.” McLagan’s memorable electric piano introduction, followed by an overdubbed organ, joined then by Marriott’s crunchy lead and the rest of the band: all these together would be enough to render the tune a stone classic. But it develops from there, showcasing the ace riffage and vocal-chord-shredding performance from Marriott and his band mates.

Perhaps it’s mild overstatement to compare a brief tune such as “Get Yourself Together” to the mini-operas Pete Townshend was writing – see: “A Quick One (While He’s Away)” – but the variety put into Small Faces tunes such as this often rivaled the intricacy of late 60s songs from The Who.

“Show Me the Way” (not the later Peter Frampton tune) is built around some very baroque harpsichord work from McLagan; it’s the most of-its-time sounding track on There Are But Four Small Faces, but it’s an understated gem nonetheless.

Owing to its clear drug-taking lyrical references, “Here Come the Nice” was a controversial tune in the UK. But that didn’t keep it from being a great tune. And “Green Circles” is reminiscent of some of the Yardbirds’ late-period pop experiments; again that combination of heavy rock and light-classic influenced pop is a winning recipe.

The album wraps with “(Tell Me) Have You Ever Seen Me,” ensuring that There Are But Four Small Faces is a no-filler album, itself a rarity in the mid 60s. The CD reissue version’s inclusion of the mono mixes – designed for maximum impact on AM radio – are enjoyable in their own way, but as the stereo album is relatively free of wide-panning stereo gimmickry, the two mixes are not a world away form one another. The CD set comes in a very nice hardbound book, plus a well-put-together booklet of photos and essays. But there’s something about the vinyl. Unlike me, you might not need both. But if you appreciate any of the best rock the mid 60s had to offer, you need at least one.

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