Album Review: Dengue Fever — The Deepest Lake

February 18th, 2015

The band Dengue Fever has been together for about twelve years; prior to their latest album, they’ve released six full-lenth albums (including a film soundtrack) and three EPs. But somehow I’ve missed them until now. My only prior exposure to the group was via their curating a 2010 compilation called Dengue Fever Presents Electric Cambodia. In my measured review, I put across the reaction that the disc was a bit exotic for my tastes. And my tempered enthusiasm for it stuck with me, making me (by extension) less receptive to music from Los Angeles-based Dengue Fever.

The loss was clearly mine, as I discovered when I gave the band’s latest, The Deepest Lake, a spin. Where the tracks on the 2010 compilation betrayed miniscule or nonexistent recording budgets and a musical sensibility somewhat alien to western ears, the music of Dengue Fever bears none of those characteristics.

Sure, it leans in a decidedly “world music” direction, but Dengue Fever’s music is firmly rooted in western styles – most notably (but by no means exclusively) sixties garage and psychedelic rock – with a pan-global sensibility folded into the music.

Right out of the gate, Dengue Fever employs an approach that seamlessly blends east and west: on “Tokay,” drum machines chug along right alongside “real” percussion by Paul Dreux Smith, and a southeast Asian-flavored melodic line is delivered using western instruments like Ethan Holtzman‘s venerable combo organ and synthesizer. Lead vocalist Chhom Nimol sings in an unfamiliar language (Khmer), but Zac Holtzman delivers some delightfully reverberated spaghetti-western electric guitar. The result is exotic and familiar all at once, and quite hypnotic. We don’t know what Nimol is singing about, but we like it.

“No Sudden Moves” is, if anything, an even more successful hybrid of Asian and western textures; David Ralicke‘s soulful horns nudge the group’s sound in the direction of bands like New Mastersounds and DC Fontana, and Zac Holtzman’s surf-n-spy guitar licks. But Nimol’s delightful, expressive and high-register Khmer vocals take the music other places indeed.

For “Rom Say Sok,” Nimol not only sings in English, but the band adds in backing harmony vocals; the result sounds not unlike X crossed with the go-go-dance aesthetic of The B-52′s, with some ultra-cool guitar and synth work layered on top. As good as the first two tracks are, with “Rom Say Sok,” The Deepest Lake really hits its stride. And Ralicke’s horn charts on the cut are thrilling.

“The Ghost Voice” dials back the energy, creating a gentle, swaying ambience. Nimol returns to singing in Khmer, and the stuttering beat of the tune – lots of cowbell – will draw listeners in. But everyone in the band contributes something interesting and valuable, so picking the song apart in one’s head yields further delights. That it all works together smoothly – that it’s not some sort of gruesome or precious hybrid – is a testament to Dengue Fever’s skill at songwriting and (especially) arrangement. (Composition of all of the band’s music is credited to the full band.)

“The Deepest Lake on the Planet” weds western ba-ba-ba vocals (from the Mamas & the Papas / Turtles school of pop) to a spooky, slinky melody with a dreamy Khmer vocal from Nimol. One could imagine the band playing this in some smoky Cambodian bar while a tuxedoed James Bond sips on a vesper nearby. “Cardboard Castles” continues in that vein, adding some appealingly twangy lead guitar licks throughout. Here, Nimol alternates effortlessly between Khmer and English.

I’m not sure if it’s a real or sampled flute that opens “Vacant Lot,” but whichever it is, the effect is lovely. Because of the Khmer vocals (and lack of a lyric sheet), it’s impossible to know for sure, but one can’t help wonder if Dengue Fever’s songs on The Deepest Lake concern themselves with melancholic and poignant subject matter; some of the titles certainly suggest it’s the case. The music on “Vacant Lot” and many of the album’s nine other tracks delivers beauty and sadness in equal parts.

The upbeat “Still Waters Run Deep” uses Nimol’s vocal lines as a musical instrument; the Memphis-styled horn battle that provides the song’s centerpiece is easily the most exciting musical moment on an already highly engaging album. “Taxi Dancer” is one of the few tracks on The Deepest Lake in which male (backing) vocals can be heard clearly; the English-language response to Nimol’s Khmer call is a bit unexpected, but it works.

The album closes with “Golden Flute,” featuring a stripped-down arrangement that feels like Martin Denny crossed with Parisian street music; it’s delightfully disorienting in its musical hard-to-pin-down-ness.

Listeners who are open to an album featuring little in the way of English-language vocals are strongly encouraged to give Dengue Fever’s The Deepest Lake a spin; the alluring performances and strong melodies will win over the open-minded.

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Album Review: District 97 with John Wetton — One More Red Night

February 17th, 2015

With exceedingly few exceptions, progressive rock is a man’s game. There’s certainly no law against women singing or playing in the style – Julie Slick, for example, is one of the best bassists around these days, irrespective of genre and gender – but the truth is that the progressive rock scene is one in which males vastly outnumber females. (Put another way, straight single guys shouldn’t go to a prog festival hoping to hook up with a nice chick; the competition is likely to be fierce.)

As is so often the case, it’s the exception that proves the rule. District 97 is prog rock’s exception. Fronted by the immeasurably capable Leslie Hunt (yeah, yeah: a 2007 American Idol semi-finalist; hold that against her and it’s your loss), their 2010 debut album Hybrid Child is a dazzling display of prog rock chops wedded to engaging songs and arrangements.

The world being what it is, the group’s success to date is thanks in no small part to having an attractive vocalist out front. But their skill and musical appeal is beyond question, so if a pretty woman who happens to have an excellent voice helps get people to take notice of the band, small or no harm done. District 97 have built a solid reputation on the strength of their studio efforts and their live performances, and they’ve become a fixture at many of North America’s prog festivals. (Compared to other music genres, the progressive rock world is a relatively small community, especially in the USA.)

Not long ago, the band came to the attention of John Wetton, the bassist/vocalist best known from his long tenure as the lead singer in Asia. Among longtime admirers of his work, however, its Wetton’s work with King Crimson that tops his impressive résumé. Wetton handled bass and lead vocals through one of King Crimson’s most creatively fertile periods, appearing on Larks Tongues in Aspic (1973), Starless and Bible Black, the mighty Red (both 1974), and 1975′s live USA album.

Because King Crimson’s subsequent lineups were always possessing of a forward-looking bent, the opportunities to hear songs from Red played at all (much less in arrangements faithful to their studio versions) were all but nonexistent. The closest anything came was the group billing itself as the 21st Century Schizoid Band, populated largely by ex-Crimson members and fronted by Jakko Jakszyk (himself now in the current incarnation of King Crimson, “Mk VIII” as it is commonly known). But the 21CSB was too expensive a proposition to keep alive, and ceased activities after an all-too-brief run (2002-2004).

Luckily for fans of Wetton-era King Crimson (“Mk III” if you’re keeping score), the bassist-vocalist looks fondly upon his work from that period. And who better – who better, I ask – to back him up on a set of classic Crim than this crack midwestern prog band?

None better, as it happens. A brief tour took place in 2013, bringing the music of King Crimson Mk III to modern-day audiences through the musical vehicle of District 97 with John Wetton. And the cleverly-titled One More Red Night (you’ll get it if you’re a fan of Red) documents a single performance from the tour.

The small performance venue Reggie’s Music Joint in the band’s hometown of Chicago hosted the October 2013 set. From the sound of the live recording, one can assume that D97 came out and did a set of their own music first. And then at the show’s midpoint, they were joined by John Wetton at the mic (he doesn’t play bass on this set; that daunting role is ably handled by District 97′s Patrick Mulcahy). The group then proceeds to tear through largely faithful versions of songs from the four Crim albums that featured Wetton.

John Wetton is in fine voice throughout, hitting the notes with power, subtlety and just the right amounts of emotion (when called for). He’s ably assisted by Hunt, who sometimes trades vocal lines with him, and other times provides live accompaniment in places where Wetton had originally overdubbed his voice (she does both on “The Great Deceiver” and several others).

The band is stunning throughout. Playing any King Crimson material requires a level of finesse and precision unachievable by the garden-variety musician, but the members of D97 are clearly up to the task. And while they’re all on fire on this set, guitarist Jim Tashjian deserves special notice for his precise recreation of mid 70s Robert Frippery. Jonathan Schang‘s drum work compares favorably (and sounds a helluva lot like) drum master Bill Bruford, as well. If there’s a criticism of this set – and this really isn’t one – ace keyboardist Rob Clearfield is somewhat underutilized in this show. That’s due, of course, to the relatively minimal amount of keyboards called for on these numbers.

The band stomps through “21st Century Schizoid Man,” a song that dates from King Crimson’s earliest days when Greg Lake was their singer. But the song figured into Mk III sets, so its inclusion makes sense here. And it also gives Clearfield an opportunity to display his abilities within the context of the King Crimson material, making it even more welcome. A truncated arrangement of the malevolent and majestic “Starless” provides another opportunity for dark, Mellotron-flavored keyboard lines; it’s also a showcase for Wetton’s vocal. Serving up a severely abbreviated summary of the dissonant second half of “Starless,” the band segues into “Easy Money,” where Wetton and Hunt engage in some wordless vocal harmony.

With Bruford retired and Fripp otherwise engaged, One More Red Night is as close as modern-day listeners are ever going to get to a Red-era King Crimson reunion. Put this CD on, close your eyes, and you’ve pretty much got one.

Note: I haven’t a clue why the album is going for upwards of US$56 on Amazon (see box). But it’s available from the D97 web site at a vastly more reasonable price.

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Album Review: Siena Root — Pioneers

February 16th, 2015

I feel that it’s my duty to take an unusual approach to this review: instead of some sort of contextual introduction, I’m going to go directly to my main thesis. Here it is. Ready?

On Pioneers, Siena Root sound very, very, very much like Deep Purple.

There it is. And I’m not talking Book of Taliesyn Deep Purple; no, Siena Root has the Machine Head / Who Do We Think We Are / Burn / Made in Japan sound down pat. From the husky, assured rock’n'roar of Jonas “Joe Nash” Ahlén‘s lead vocal, to the swirling, assertive, leading-the-pack organ pyrotechnics of Erik “Errika” Petersson to the fiery yet lean-and-mean fretwork of lead guitarist Matte Gustafson (whose ability to conjure Blackmore-styled riffage is nothing short of uncanny), this group succinctly and superbly nails the early 70s vibe of one of rock’s most popular hard rock outfits.

But that’s not the most important thing about Siena Root. No: putting together a band that sounds like it includes Ian Gillan, Jon Lord and Ritchie Blackmore isn’t (in and of itself) all that remarkable; Deep Purple did it for a few years, after all. What makes Siena Root special is the music. This five piece from (as you might have guessed from the surnames) Stockholm creates songs with strong hooks, solid, hummable melodic lines, and enough high-octane rock punch to hit the mark squarely.

Siena Root’s lyrics aren’t deathless poetics: their topics range from women who done them wrong (the album’s standout “7 Years”), who-we-are position statements (“Root Rock Pioneers”), and what sounds like “Highway Star” styled space travel (“Spiral Trip”). And when they do cover someone else’s tune, it’s not Blackmore and Co.; it’s the early Led Zeppelin chestnut, “Whole Lotta Love.” But when Siena Root covers Zep, they make it their own: The signature riff that underpins the song is delivered via Hammond organ routed through an extremely overdriven Leslie speaker.

If your idea of a good time includes a fist-in-the-air rock soundtrack a la the early 1970s, but you want something you haven’t heard hundreds of times (no “Smoke on the Water” in Guitar Center, please), then you can’t do much better than Siena Root’s Pioneers.

There are plenty of dynamics with Siena Root’s tunes; they’re not lunkheaded, piledriving rockers. (Or put another way, they don’t look to Status Quo for inspiration.) The musical twists and turns on tracks like “7 Years” make sense, and unfold in a logical way; Siena Root are here to rock you, not impress you with fussy, progressive arrangements. But the shifting gears of that tune’s tempos – driven largely by the rhythm section of bassist Sam Riffer (his real name?) and Love “Billy” Forsberg on drums – add an element vaguely sinister excitement to the proceedings. (They all have long hair and beards, too. Which helps.)

The sticker on the CD case calls Pioneers – the group’s sixth(!) album but their U.S. debut – “stoner rock,” and unapologetically describes it as “a heavy blend of Deep Purple & Iron Butterfly.” As if there could be any other variety of blend. And as if there should be.

So yes, Siena Root are derivative, and they’re unashamed to admit it. But their musical fountainhead is some seriously prime rock that combines the best aspects of heaviosity and melody, and they up the ante with good songs. If you thought Wolfmother‘s first few albums were good and you wished they hadn’t run out of steam, you’ll greet Siena Root’s Pioneers with welcome ears.

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Album Review: The Residents’ Commercial Album

February 13th, 2015

Ex-Turtles and Mothers vocalists Flo and Eddie (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan) used to have a nationally-syndicated radio show. One recurring component of the merry duo’s program involved spinning records by some of their musical peers. The thing is, they wouldn’t play anywhere near the whole song: after they felt like they had given listeners the gist of a song, off it went.

The thinking behind that practice was simple: once you’ve heard a minute or so of a pop song, you’ve pretty well heard everything it has to offer. The rest is repetition. This is true (perhaps to an alarming extent) for most pop, rock, blues, country, soul, funk, and r&b. In fact I apply that thinking whenever I’m doing one of my periodic “smash or trash” exercises to determine which submissions get reviewed. (Because of the complexity and shifting tone that are hallmarks of jazz and progressive rock, music of those genres gets a more thorough once-over).

But I didn’t invent the idea, and as much as I love Flo and Eddie, they didn’t come up with it, either. Neither, perhaps, did The Residents, but they may well have been the first musical artists to explore the idea in depth and then craft an entire album by applying its principles.

That’s the underlying premise/concept of the group’s 1980 album The Residents’ Commercial Album. Certainly not commercial in the most popular definition (as in, accessible and lending itself to mass marketing), the Commercial Album takes its name from the fact that each of its forty tracks are exactly sixty seconds long…like a television commercial.

Across forty tracks, The inscrutable collective that is The Residents explore the pop landscape from their skewed perspective. But in its own twisted way, Commercial Album is – by Residential standards – fairly accessible stuff. Stripping their compositions down to the most basic elements, The Residents still endeavor to give listeners what (in other contexts) would be considered a verse and chorus. Often the vocals are delivered in the peculiar sung-spoken style that is the group’s trademark, but other times there’s actual singing (sometimes by guest artists including Lene Lovich and Snakefinger, both of whom have more, um, accessible vocal tones).

The instrumentation on Commercial Album‘s tracks varies from exceedingly minimalist (say, one synthesizer and a drum machine) to fully-developed “band” type arrangements that feature multiple musicians (or at least multiple overdubbed instrument parts). Occasionally, the tunes fall into a samey-ness of meter, but then – knowing The Residents – that characteristic may be a way for the group to wordlessly comment on the generic nature of much of what passes for pop music.

There are some catchy tunes here, as well. The first two cuts (“Easter Woman” and “Perfect Love”) are nothing if not pop-leaning in their construction and delivery (note that when it comes to matters of accessibility, The Residents are graded on a curve). It’s worth noting just how far The Residents traveled musically between their debut album Meet the Residents (recorded 1974, but not widely released until 1977) and Commercial Album just a few years later. For pop-attuned ears, Commercial Album is far easier to take than the group’s first disc. But the changes/refinements The Residents made to their music in the interim didn’t dilute their vision a bit: Commercial Album is as weird and wonderful as ever.

It’s also worth pointing out just how difficult it is to create forty distinct songs that are all exactly the same length. Some groups have almost achieved that kind of thing by accident (see The Ramones‘ early catalog for evidence) but doing it on purpose is some sort of accomplishment in and of itself.

That The Residents’ Commercial Album is listenable and entertaining start to finish is a testament to the group’s quality of vision. The 2014 CD reissue of the album by MVD doesn’t offer anything new in the way of bonus tracks (a 1988 reissue had ten) or liner notes(!), but then The Residents’ Commercial Album has always been just fine the way it is.

By the way, four more of my Residents reviews (and an interview!) are HERE.

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Musical Parody Gets Into a “Grey” Area: 50 Shades! The Musical Parody

February 12th, 2015

Ever since its 2011 printing, E.L. James‘ erotic romance novel 50 Shades of Grey has been an inescapable presence in pop culture. Though as literature – five hundred pages of dominance, submission, bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism stitched together with little character development – James’ “mommy porn” leaves much to be desired, there’s no doubting the novel’s success. A film adaptation hits theaters just in time for Valentine’s Day 2015, and the two followup novels have enjoyed similar success in the marketplace (along with inevitable widespread critical drubbing). An endless stream of tie-in (ouch) marketing has resulted in a variety of adult-oriented products bearing the 50 Shades brand.

Anything that achieves that level of success is a rich target for parody. And where E.L. James’ book is concerned, the most spot-on skewering of 50 Shades the book – and 50 Shades the marketing juggernaut – is the stage show, 50 Shades! The Musical Parody. A team of writers and choreographers with backgrounds in The Second City and Baby Wants Candy comedy troupes devised the musical as equal parts send-up and tribute. “There was a news story about the book every night, it seemed,” says Emily Dorezas, one of the parody musical’s producer/director/writers. “And then once we realized just how dirty it was, we thought that the juxtaposition of making it a musical felt like the right thing to do.”

Many reviewers have pointed out that while author James vividly describes BDSM and other activities, she betrays a paucity of imagination concerning such matters as word choice. There’s even a drinking game in which participants read aloud from 50 Shades of Grey, pausing to knock back a shot every time Christian Grey “cocks his head” or “steeples his fingers.” Dorezas is diplomatic on the book’s literary merits, and chooses her words with care. “It’s…not really plot-driven,” she allows. With that in mind, the parody’s writers devised a plot of their own. “The book club ladies are a kind of framing device,” Dorezas says. “And one of them goes through a change after reading the book. We wanted to show some growth in the characters, because if we were just making sex jokes, that would get old in about five minutes.”

Fans of sex jokes need not fear, however: 50 Shades! The Musical Parody is stuffed with innumerable laugh lines. An offstage announcer welcomes ladies, and then – after a pregnant pause – adds, almost as an afterthought, “…and gentlemen.” “I think we do a good job of getting across that this is a super-dirty show. Nobody ever brings kids,” Dorezas observes. “Now, husbands and boyfriends…that’s a different story. They’ve heard about the book, but sometimes they don’t quite know what it’s about. But a lot of men take the time to contact us after the show. I always quote the guy who wrote, ‘The party hasn’t stopped since we got home. And that was four days ago!’ We hear more from husbands than from wives.”

For those who haven’t read the book but are curious about the parody musical, Dorezas likens its sensibility to the approach South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker employed with their smash stage hit The Book of Mormon. But Dorezas notes that the book upon which that show is based “has been around a long time, and it’s not as silly” as 50 Shades.

Emily Dorezas’ take on E.L. James’ first book differs from the critical consensus in a fascinating, perhaps unexpected, way. James “did self-publish the book,” Dorezas points out. “Sometimes people challenge it from a feminist point of view, because it’s about a woman in a submissive position. But one of the best depictions of feminism I can think of is E.L. James’ approach: ‘Oh, you don’t like it? I don’t care; I’ll publish it myself! I don’t care if you think it’s trash; I believe in it.’ And obviously she’s gotten the last laugh.”

Whether or not James has gotten laughs from this unauthorized parody is unknown. “I know she knows about it, but she hasn’t seen it,” Dorezas says. “But from everything I’ve heard, she has a great sense of humor. I think she’d have a great time at our show.”

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The Bobby Lance Story, Part Three

February 11th, 2015

Continued from Part Two

Listening now, “More Than Enough Rain” isn’t even the best track on First Peace. Lance’s soulful vocal work, supported by The Sweet Inspirations, is a highlight of the album. There’s not a trace of Lance’s Brooklyn roots in his singing; he sounds like an authentic son of the South, and he insists that it came naturally when he sang. Because most of the songs were Lance/Robins compositions originally intended for various other acts on Atlantic, the record is a showcase of varying styles. The gospel strains of Lance’s Southern-flavored blue-eyed soul come to the fore on “Brother’s Keeper,” and it’s easy to imagine Aretha Franklin covering “One Turn You’re In One Turn You’re Out.”

Overall, the First Peace sessions cost a good bit of money. But because Motown was poised to share in any profits First Peace made, the decision was made at the highest levels within Atlantic not to promote the record. So despite the strong songs and performances, First Peace didn’t make a ripple on the album charts; the LP would quickly go out of print. The label gave the record only a perfunctory push, releasing a pair of singles to radio stations: “Brother’s Keeper” and “Shake Down Blues” were both promo-only 45rpm discs, featuring monaural mixes (for AM radio play) on the A-side, and stereo (for FM stations) on the B side.

In late summer 1971, Lance got a pair of rare, if brief, mentions in Billboard Magazine’s “Signings” column, noting that he had recently signed a new management contract with SAS, Inc., the artist management firm run by Sidney Seidenberg, B.B. King‘s longtime manager. While his musical career was bearing creative fruit, behind the scenes, his career was a mess, with SAS, Motown and Atlantic all involved to varying (and confusing) degrees.

Still, by 1972, Lance was once again in the studio, there to cut his follow-up LP. And in line with his goals as an artist, he sought to make an album that reflected his individual creative persona. Now billing himself only as B. Lance, he was recording for release on the higher-profile Atlantic label. Rollin’ Man would bear the credit, “Arranged and Produced by Bob Lance,” though engineer Geoff Haslam – in demand thanks to his production work on a successful string of albums by Atlantic label mates Cactus – played a significant role. Recording in the company’s New York City studios, Lance had chosen not to use the Muscle Shoals session players for the album. Instead he auditioned and assembled a proper band, and the members – coming from Alabama, Chicago and New York City – had convened in New York for several weeks of pre-recording rehearsals.

Gone, too, were King Curtis and his horns, The Sweet Inspirations, and Edwards’ string arrangements. Nor was Lance’s sister Fran Robins involved: all nine tunes of Rollin’ Man are Lance solo compositions.

Alabama-born guitarist Kenny Mims handled all lead guitar duties on the album; it was his first professional gig ever, but his lean and assured lines – like the double-tracked leads on “Bar Room Sally” – sound like the work of a seasoned pro. And though his background was in jazz, keyboardist Mitch Kerper played in a rollicking, R&B style; the instrumental dialogue between Kerper and Mims throughout the album – most notably on the eight-minute-plus “Hot Wood and Coal” – is one Rollin’ Man‘s most enduring features. “She Made Me a Man” is a soulful ballad in a style similar to Lance’s fellow New Yorker, Laura Nyro. The call-and-response vocals of “John the Rollin’ Man” – all overdubbed by Lance – capture the rhythm and blues vibe. The rhythm section of Dick Bunn (bass) and drummer Jimmy Evans cooks on “You’ve Got to Rock Your Own.” And with its mix of Mississippi delta acoustic blues guitar and gospel-inflected piano, “He Played the Reals” features a lyric that explores Lance’s deep feeling for the music he loves. And the brief “Tribute to a Woman” closes the album with a message to the woman Lance loved.

The Rollin’ Man LP came housed in a gatefold sleeve that featured Lance’s lyrics alongside a photo collage. Like its predecessor, and again without marketing support from Atlantic, Rollin’ Man did not chart; most copies of the semi-rare LP found today are cut-outs (remaindered, non-returnable stock). No one seems to know how many copies Atlantic pressed. The label did release a legitimate (as in, not simply a promotional disc) single, “Rock Your Own” b/w an edit of “Hot Wood and Coal” from Rollin’ Man, but it, too, failed to chart.

In the meantime, as part of his contract, Lance continued with other duties for the label. He handled vocal arrangement duties for King Curtis’ “Ridin’ Thumb” on Curtis’ 1971 Atco LP Everybody’s Talkin’, and penned “If a Dream Goes By,” a non-charting 1972 Garland Green soul side on Cotillion.

Lance’s sister Fran continued her songwriting career on her own, penning a number of songs for a wide variety of acts including Tony Orlando. She also began doing public readings of her poetry, mostly in the town of New Bern NC, were she and husband Norm lived. In her later years she was reportedly working on a musical. Fran Robins passed away in May 2014.

By the end of 1972, with the terms of his Atlantic contract fulfilled, Lance found himself without a record deal. Since neither First Peace nor Rollin’ Man had scored any chart activity, there was little demand for a follow-up record. The Rollin’ Man lineup landed a few live dates in and around New York City, but nothing high profile came of their efforts.

Lance soon left the business and settled in Tarrytown, New York, just up the Hudson River from New York City. He eventually enrolled in college, earning a pair of Bachelor’s Degrees: one in Biology and one in Music. He also earned a Master’s Degree in Education. Lance developed an interest in literacy through music, eventually combining his musical background with teaching. For nearly twenty years now he has been teaching students in a school environment. He still writes songs and plays music.

Thanks to Norm Robins, Kenny Mims, and Bob Lance for their help in researching this story.

You can purchase Bobby Lance’s First Peace/Rollin’ Man here.

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The Bobby Lance Story, Part Two

February 10th, 2015

Continued from Part One

The Lance/Robins songwriting team had come to the attention of George Goldner, head of the Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller-founded Red Bird Records. In particular, Goldner recognized Bobby’s talent, and believed he could go far in the business. He asked the teen where he’d like to get a job, and Lance quickly named the label that was home to many of his rhythm and blues heroes: Atlantic Records.

Goldner lined up a meeting for Bobby Lance with Jerry Wexler, the head of Atlantic. Auditioning his songs in Wexler’s office in front of the record mogul and Atlantic stars Wilson Pickett and Solomon Burke, Lance impressed everyone enough to be invited back the next day. On his return, Lance was signed as an in-house songwriter and arranger; his contract included a provision allowing him to release two albums.

Now established at Atlantic (an organization that included “house” labels Atco and Cotillion), Lance and sister Fran had composed another R&B tune, written expressly for Aretha Franklin. But when the 1968 composition “The House That Jack Built” wasn’t cut for Aretha’s then-current album, a miffed Lance brought the song to Barry Records and Thelma Jones. In fact, both that tune and its flip, “Give it To Me Straight” were written by the Lance/Robins team. On its release, Jones’ recording, using Bobby’s arrangement, started making appearances on local and regional record charts.

However, the next time Lance was at Atlantic, he was called into the studio. They had a surprise for him. They played a new record that Aretha had just recorded: “The House That Jack Built.” Her version used much the same arrangement as the Jones single, and once released, it quickly pushed Thelma Jones’ version right off the charts and into musical footnote status.

In his 1999 book The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, renowned critic Dave Marsh ranks Aretha’s “The House That Jack Built” as #704. The tune reached #6 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 and #2 on the R&B charts. It dated from the period during which Atlantic Records made extensive use of the excellence of Muscle Shoals, Alabama session musicians, including Jimmy Johnson (guitar), David Hood (bass guitar), Barry Beckett (keyboards), and drummer Roger Hawkins.

Lance and Robins soon placed another of their tunes, the strutting soul number “One Night is All I Need,” on Arthur Conley‘s final Atco LP, 1969′s More Sweet Soul. That album featured backing by the Muscle Shoals studio cats, plus a young session guitarist named Duane Allman. Meanwhile and on her own, Fran Robins penned “Sweep Around Your Own Back Door,” a Lulu B-side on Atco, also recorded in Muscle Shoals. She also placed a tune on Lulu’s Melody Fair LP, yet another album featuring Duane Allman’s guitar work.

Meanwhile, Lance was beginning to chafe within the songwriting partnership he had with his older sister. Their lives were deeply entwined: Fran had acted as a surrogate mother to Bobby for many years; and the two had been writing songs together for a decade. As Lance began to grow toward manhood, he felt a growing need to express himself more independently. To that end, he began thinking about writing songs on his own and/or with other partners. His naïve pursuit of that goal took the form of signing another contract, this time with Motown. The plan was that he would be an in-house songwriter for the Detroit label, and he might also do some session arranging work. That there might be a serious conflict of interest didn’t occur to the young songwriter.

Once the executives at Atlantic realized what had happened, they began efforts to extricate Lance from his ill-advised deal with Motown. The legal wrangling would drag on for some time, and the agreement that was finally hammered out ceded to Motown a stake in any financial success that Lance’s Atlantic albums might enjoy.

In 1971, Lance’s debut album First Peace was released on Atlantic’s Cotillion imprint. Cut in late July 1970 in sessions at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios and at Atlantic’s NYC studios, the eleven-track LP featured all original tunes written by the Lance/Robins team.

Beckett, Hood and Hawkins provided most of the musical backing on First Peace, while Lance sang and played guitar. A King Curtis-led six-man horn section provided beefy charts for several of First Peace‘s numbers. A string section conducted by Leo Edwards graced several tracks. Famed session man Eddie Hinton handled the lead and slide guitar on all but one cut. And though he’s not credited anywhere on the original LP, for First Peace‘s “More Than Enough Rain,” Duane Allman provided some stinging electric slide guitar.

Though it has been the subject of speculation for decades, Lance vigorously confirms Allman’s presence on “More Than Enough Rain.” The chronology of Allman’s involvement goes like this: Bobby had self-produced the sessions for First Peace, but remained dissatisfied with the completed mixes for a few of the album’s tracks. Ace producer Tom Dowd offered to remix those tracks, so Lance traveled to Dowd’s Miami, FL Criteria Recording Studio (also known as Atlantic Records South), bringing along the multi-track master tapes. Under Dowd’s supervision, Lance overdubbed some vocal tracks, and left the tapes with Dowd. Soon thereafter – October ’70 – Allman was at Criteria for the sessions that would produce Ronnie Hawkins‘ self-titled 1970 LP. In a spare moment during those sessions, Dowd asked the guitarist to lay down some licks to improve Lance’s track; the resulting mix of “More Than Enough Rain” features musical sparring between King Curtis’ horn lines and Duane Allman’s impromptu yet fluid slide guitar work (the track also appears on Rounder’s 2013 box set, Skydog: the Duane Allman Retrospective).

To be continued…

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The Bobby Lance Story

February 9th, 2015

Late in 2014, I was contacted by the music reissue label Real Gone Music. Label head Gordon Anderson asked me if I’d be interested in writing the liner notes for an upcoming release. I had already done a number of projects for RGM, including a Brotherhood CD reissue, a Cannonball Adderley title, and a Rick Wakeman project. But with regard to this potential assignment, I wasn’t at all familiar with the name Bobby Lance, the artist whose pair of early 1970s albums were released on Atlantic and Cotillion (an associated subsidiary label). Both LPs went out of print forty-plus years ago. But a quick visit to YouTube convinced me that his music – very much in the Muscle Shoals/Stax blue-eyed soul mold – was right up my alley.

The thing was, there was very little in the way of hard information on Lance or his albums. Gordon gave me a bit of decade-old info on Lance’s last-known-location, and pointed me to another blogger’s brief essay (from a few years ago) in which the writer asserts a possible Duane Allman connection.

Even though I had little to go on – and a deadline – I was hooked.

Fast-forward to a few weeks later; by that time I had found and spoken to a number of people connected to Lance, a highly-regarded musician who had played on the album, and Bob Lance himself. You really need to hear the music, but the back story is nearly as important. Here it is, in three parts. – bk


The musical story of Bobby Lance starts years before The Beatles scored their first hit in America, and reaches its peak in the early 1970s with the release of two solo albums for a major record label. Lance’s career arc includes close associations with some of music’s most legendary names, though Lance never achieved the high profile that they enjoyed.

Orphaned at a young age, Brooklyn-born Lance was for many years effectively raised by his sister Fran, seventeen years his elder. Fran married Norm Robins (née Rabinowitz) in the late 1950s, and Norm took a great interest in the musical pursuits of his wife and brother-in-law. In fact it was Norm Robins who picked up the tab for a very young Bobby Lance to cut a single for Square Records, a local label. The pre-teen Lance cut a song of his own composition, “Baby I’m Gone.” Very much in the Bobby Vee teen idol mode, the song reflected the popular style of that time, but very few copies were pressed. Robins, lacking connections in the music business, wasn’t able to get the song onto radio or into widespread distribution. But the experience did whet the appetites of everyone involved to keep trying.

Bobby and Fran had already begun writing songs together: though a classically trained pianist, Fran stuck to writing lyrics, while brother Bobby composed the music. Though both were white Jews from Brooklyn, their songs’ lyrics reflected common, universal themes, and their music displayed their deep interest in African-American rhythm and blues.

Back around 1957, teenager and fellow Brooklynite Richard Perry had formed a vocal group with two of his friends; they called themselves The Escorts. By 1962 and the time of their third single, they had replaced their lead vocalist with female singer Goldie Zelkowitz; that lineup released “I Can’t Be Free” on Coral. The song was written by the now very active team of Francine “Fran” Robins (often misspelled on credits as Robbins) and Bobby. When Zelkowitz (later known as Genya Ravan) left The Escorts in early 1963, Bobby came in as lead vocalist; he sang on their last two sides.

Elsewhere in 1963, a Brooklyn doo-wop group called The Monorays released the red vinyl 45rpm single, “Face in the Crowd” b/w “Step Right Up” on Pittsburgh’s tiny Astra label. Both sides came from the pen of the Lance/Robins team. The siblings remained busy, writing tunes for Maxine Brown, The Sidekicks, The Ravenettes, and Zelkowitz’s new group, Goldie and the Gingerbreads.

A 1965 Lance/Robins composition (with Richard Perry, now in the dual role of co-composer and session producer) performed by The Young Generation yielded a genre minor-classic in “The Hideaway.” The Young Generation was notable for its lineup: three twelve-year-old girls, one of whom, Janis Siegel, would go onto fame as a member of Manhattan Transfer. (“The Hideaway” is included on Real Gone Music’s 2011 compilation, The Red Bird Girls). Around that time – with both doo-wop and girl-group styles well past their sell-by date – Bobby Lance and Fran Robins began writing songs that displayed a more R&B-inflected style.

By 1967, Lance and Robins connected with gospel-turned-R&B singer Thelma Jones; she would cut a number of singles for Barry Records, the small label run by colorful and notorious music industry figure Hy Weiss (and named after Weiss’ son). The b-side of her 1967 single, “Oh, Oh, Here Comes the Heartbreak” b/w “Gotta Find a Way” was arranged by Lance. Though the single didn’t do much chartwise, it established a working relationship between Jones and the young arranger/composer.

Click to continue…

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Album Review: The Silos – Cuba

February 6th, 2015

When music historians write or speak about the college-rock music of the 1980s, and when they focus on the country-leaning exponents of that sound, many worthy acts get mentioned. The Long Ryders, The Blasters, Lone Justice, even R.E.M. all get recognized. But too often overlooked are The Silos. Formed in the middle of that decade, The Silos were the musical vehicle for Walter Salas-Humara (formerly of The Vulgar Boatmen) and Bob Rupe. On their second album, 1987′s Cuba, the folky, acoustic-leaning Silos wedded a tuneful sensibility to singer/songwriterly lyrics, and wrapped it all in a genre-spanning sound that took in elements of c&w (notably David Pearlman‘s pedal steel that graces “Margaret”) and alt-folk a la Camper Van Beethoven (for example, Mary Rowell‘s fiddle all over the album).

Rupe and Salas-Humara both sing in a decidedly Southern rock-inflected style, but the tunes on Cuba aren’t beer drinkin’ barn burners; as often as not, the songs concern themselves with marriage, wives, memories and other universal, workaday concerns.

The album blows by in a hurry; the second side rocks harder than the first, kicking off with “Memories,” among the album’s most commercially-oriented tracks. That quality may be related to the full-band (read: electric) arrangement that features the only use of keyboards (guest Rick Wagner on organ) on the entire record.

Cuba is an unassuming record; the songs don’t jump out at the listener. Even the careening and distorted electric guitar squalls on “Just This Morning” are couched in a ramshackle, near-campfire sort of arrangement that keeps the focus on the vocals and lyrics. And a roomful of guests add to what would otherwise be a one-vocal-and-acoustic guitar affair on “Going Round.” With the augmented lineup featuring voices and classical string instrumentation, it’s a thing of beauty.

“It’s Alright” is a wistful number that’s very much in the style of Sid Griffin‘s Long Ryders work; again its lyrics concerns itself with life’s little pleasures. The tune also features Rowell’s most effective violin work on the disc. “All Falls Away” applies the Silos sound to a three-chord rocker; the result feels like a rougher-hewn rethink of Violent Femmes (with much less affected vocals). Taken as a whole the songs on Cuba have much more depth to them than might be initially evident; as such, Cuba is an album that rewards the listener who spends more time with it.

The 2015 reissue of Cuba applies a star black label to a creamy white vinyl LP. A contrasty band poster promoting Cuba is also included; its size and style are evocative of the gig posters of the era. A download card is also included, but I’m quite happy to stick to the vinyl version.

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Album Review: The Ben Webster Quintet — Soulville

February 5th, 2015

The folks at Vinyl Me Please have struck gold once again. The mail-order subscription label has carved a unique niche in the music marketplace with its carefully-chosen and -curated monthly LP releases, and its latest offering – The Ben Webster Quintet‘s 1957 Soulville – continues the label’s trend of exquisite reissues.

Tenor saxophonist Webster had played with Duke Ellington for many years, but by the time of this album – the fourth under his own name – Webster had made a name for himself as a soloist and bandleader in his own right. With a who’s-who band that featured Oscar Peterson on piano, bassist Ray Brown, Stan Levey on drums, and guitarist Herb Ellis, Soulville is peak Webster. The songs vary from understated, bluesy workouts to more uptempo cuts, and throughout, everyone takes his turn at soloing.

The aptly-named title track is cool and understated, built around a blues framework. “Late Night” is a blues as well, but a much more sexy, uptempo one that swings. The romantic “Time on My Hands” features some exquisitely expressive sax work from Webster. “Where Are You” is skillful, subdued, late-night minimalistic jazz. The familiar “Makin’ Whoopee” is given a suitably playful reading by Webster, with solid support from is band mates.

A 2003 reissue of Soulville (on another label) appended the set with three bonus tracks that featured Webster on (sprightly if loose-limbed) piano; one of those cuts (“Boogie Woogie”) is included on the Vinyl Me Please reissue; other than that, it’s a straight reissue of the original Verve LP. It’s noteworthy (and odd) that the new LP doesn’t have a paper label; instead, the Verve logo and other info that would have been printed is instead tooled directly into the black vinyl.

The heavy-gauge LP comes in a deluxe paper sleeve, and – as with all Vinyl Me Please reissues – includes a poster featuring new artwork, and an overleaf sleeve that features brief notes from VMP’s Tyler Barstow. And as ever, the overleaf includes a recipe for a cocktail that Barstow believes well-matched to the music; in this case it’s a very old-school Gin and Tonic. I can vouch for its successful pairing with Ben Webster’s Soulville.

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