Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 5

May 8th, 2015

This week of capsule reviews spotlighting new music wraps up today with five releases that all came to me on vinyl. I love vinyl. Did I mention that I really enjoy listening to music on vinyl? Well, I do.

Anthony W. Rogers – Wrong…
When this record arrived in my mailbox, I thought to myself, “I know that name…”. Then it came to me. Through the 1990s and beyond, a network of hardcore fans collected and traded live recordings of Todd Rundgren and related artists. And Anthony Rogers was one of the scene’s leading lights. But on this new solo album, Rogers stakes out musical territory that supposedly draws on SMiLE-era Brian Wilson. The tunes on Wrong… have a distinct DIY/lo-fi ambience, occasionally recalling Wilson, sometimes Rundgren. But Rogers’ music nearly always reminds me of that most idiosyncratic of pop artists, R. Stevie Moore.

Harpoon Forever – American Flag EP
This four-song EP sounds as if it were recorded in somebody’s garage, on cheap equipment. But that lo-fi approached worked for Guided by Voices; it works here, too. Shifting time signatures applied to sturdy, vaguely folk-rocking songs might confuse some listeners, but the catchiness of the melodies and the fetching everyman vocals of guitarist/songwriter Alex Goldstein shine right through. A gauzy approach vaguely recalls Third/Sister Lovers era Big Star, filtered through the sensibility of someone whom (I’m guessing) digs prog as much as he likes Pavement. On this disc, Harpoon Forever is a duo; these days they’re a full band.

Lannie Flowers – “Best I Can” b/w “Back of a Car”
Lannie Flowers really has it going. He writes, play and sing fantastic, infectious pop tunes. And he’s quite consistent at it. Better still, he’s quite prolific these days. Just last year he released an excellent live set, Live in NYC. That collection presented Flowers and band in front of an audience that was as enthusiastic as it was small. This single’s b-side, a lovely Big Star cover, is taken from that set. But the a-side is another in Flower’s growing catalog of winning rocking pop tunes. To his tried-and-true mix he adds some simple but dramatic keyboard work. Another winner.

Alvin Youngblood Hart – “Helluva Way (For a Man to Make a Livin’)” b/w “Watchin’ Brian Jones”
An object lesson in the “never judge a book by its cover” category, this single features the customarily acoustic guitar playing Hart (of the South Memphis String Band) rocking out in a big way. If his greying beard and Gibson Flying V don’t provide enough cognitive dissonance, a listen to this blistering 45rpm single should do the trick. Taking his “Helluva Way” at breakneck speed, it’s garage punk at its finest. The flip is a low-and-slow bluesy romp full of sly, clever lyrics. Less than seven minutes with Hart will convince you he could succeed in damn near any genre.

TimLee3 – 33 1/3
Tim Lee was a key member of 80s alternarock underground darlings The Windbreakers. These days he shares the spotlight with his missus (Susan Bauer Lee) and drummer Chris Bratta. Lee’s old group’s twangy take on powerpop is built upon in his trio: Susan takes many lead vocals, giving the band an original sound reminiscent of Jason & the Scorchers crossed with X, but decidedly upping the hooks-and-melody quotient to Plimsouls level. The chiming “Photo Booth” is guaranteed ear candy; the sweeping, dusty grandeur of “Our Lady of the Highway” is breathtaking. “Daddy’s Girl” is a delightful c&w romp. Highly recommended.

More to come.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 4

May 7th, 2015

My unrelenting trip through my CD backlog continues today with five more capsule reviews. These five are rock and/or soul and/or pop.

The Monochrome Set – Spaces Everywhere
Heroes of the first wave of new wave, The Monochrome Set formed in the late 1970s. Though they never achieved any measurable success in the USA, they’ve persisted. Lucky us. Their songs have a lot in common with that UK style pub rock. On their latest, they head in some new directions: on several tunes, lead singer Bid sounds uncannily like The Smiths‘ singer Morrisey. Guitarist Lester Square (great stage name!) turns in tasty lead guitar lick after lick, making Spaces Everywhere a consistently rewarding listen. And dig that Hammond organ and those female backing choruses! You should hear this.

Dina Regine – Right On, Alright
Soulful rocking with assured lead vocals is the order of the day on this, the debut disc from New York-based Dina Regine. None of that fancy Autotune nonsense – or synthesizers, for that matter – appear on Right On, Alright. Instead it’s an organic album with solid rocking rhythm section and beefy horn section. The disc’s winning opening track, “”Gotta Tell You,” was named one of Underground Garage‘s “coolest song(s) in the world,” but there are even better tunes elsewhere on the disc. The ominous “Can’t find You Anywhere” bears the hallmarks of a mature songwriter. Check this one out.

The Neighborhood Bullys – Callin’ All Rockers!
This five-song EP is the band’s second in a planned series of four releases, and features straight-ahead rock’n'roll tunes that all but compel the listener to follow along with fist-pumps, air guitar or air drums. Though they’ve worked with famed bubblegum/glam producer Mike Chapman before, the production aesthetic here doesn’t betray those origins. You’ve heard all of these riffs before – hundreds if not thousands of times – but this Los Angeles quartet makes every one of them sound fresh and new, and whets your appetite for the next EP release. Neat trick. I suspect they’re very good live, too.

Paul Kelly Presents the Merri Soul Sessions
Paul Kelly is rightly revered in Australia and beyond for his music. He writes and sings memorable tunes, and his catalog is deep, with twenty albums released between 1981 and the present. On his latest, he takes a radically different approach: while he wrote or co-wrote all of the album’s eleven songs (and play rhythm guitar), as a vocalist he’s nearly absent. Instead, vocal duties are variously handled by several singers (mostly women). The band assembled for this project, Merri Soul, has a very slinky Memphis vibe that is true to the classic Stax/Volt arrangement aesthetic without slavishly copying it.

BP Fallon – Live in Texas
I know my rock history pretty well, but even I didn’t know that BP Fallon was a recording artist. I’ve always known of him as a disc jockey and, well, personality. Apparently his career as a recording artists didn’t really commence until a 2009 collaboration with the ubiquitous Jack White. That track – “Fame #9” – kicks off this set. Fallon doesn’t play an instrument; guitar duties are ably handled by Joe “King” Carrasco. What Fallon does is recite is poetry/lyrics, occasionally breaking into a singsong that follows the music. It’s fascinating stuff, and the guitar fireworks add tone color.

More to come.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 3

May 6th, 2015

I’m not complaining; it’s a good problem to have. But even after culling the ones I don’t like (and skipping the ones that impress me only mildly), I still end up with a massive pile of albums for review. And when said pile gets out of hand, I do a string of 100-word reviews. I’m right in the midst of that now; today’s collection features artists that fall more or less into the jazz category.

Nekozurashi – Ahostractions
This Osaka-based collective is led by composer/arranger/guitarist Koota Tanimura. The group’s sound distills a wide array of influences, including free jazz, big band, rock, hip-hop and more. Those who came to appreciate jazz form a rock-oriented point of view are likely to enjoy this disc, and will discern echoes of Grand Wazoo and Waka/Jawaka-era Frank Zappa. The tunes always swing, and sometimes swing for the fences. And there are even some ginchy pop songs (sung in Japanese) thrown in; those recall Absolutely Free-era Mothers crossed with, say, The Mops, and approached with a sensibility that recalls Le Sacre du Tympan.

Jason Miles and Ingrid Jensen – Kind of New
The album title is a play on Miles Davis‘ immortal Kind of Blue, but it’s not hubris for this team to reference the master; Jason Miles was Davis’ keyboard player for several years. This delightful disc features Ingrid Jensen on trumpet, and while the tracks occasionally evoke memories of Davis’ Jack Johnson period, the groove and melodies are rooted in a more accessible foundation. Mellow but never, ever falling into the tepid “smooth jazz” trap, Kind of New works equally as well as rewarding subject of active listening as it would for groovy background music for your next cocktail party.

The Aristocrats – Culture Clash Live!
Truth told, The Aristrocrats aren’t most people’s idea of jazz. But while the trio – shredding guitarist Guthrie Govan, monster bassist Bryan Bellar and drummer extraordinaire Marco Minnemann – rock out with the best of ‘em, they do in fact come from a jazz sensibility. Those who enjoy the pyrotechnics of a Steve Vai or a Joe Satriani definitely need to check out this group. There’s a bit of overlap between the tracks on the live CD and the live DVD in this package, but they’re different enough not to be redundant. Fun instrumentals include “Sweaty Knockers” and “Blues Fuckers.”

Jack DeJohnette – Made in Chicago
A giant in the jazz-rock fusion world, drummer DeJohnette was an early member of the venerated Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. This live disc finds him reuniting with old friends and musical associates including sax/flautist Henry Threadgill and ECM head Manfred Eichler (the latter mixed the recording). That said, this isn’t fusion; it leans in a much more improvisational/exploratory direction, with little in the way of rigid meter or conventional melody. Put another way, it’s the kind of thing that those who dislike jazz point to to support their view. Recommended for fans of the abstract and adventurous.

Chris Potter Underground Orchestra – Imaginary Cities
Another title from the venerated ECM label, Imaginary Cities often feels more like modern classical music (of a most accessible kind) rather than jazz proper. But as soon as one acclimates oneself to that style, the music shifts into some highly melodic movements that give the various players in this large ensemble their chance to shine. The expansive title track is a four-part suite that makes up the bulk of the disc, and it’s exceedingly effective at conveying a wide range of moods. Beautiful, contemplative stuff, Imaginary Cities is worth your undivided attention. A sublime triumph from start to finish.

More to come.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 2

May 5th, 2015

My march through the CD backlog in my office continues today with quick (100-word) looks at five new albums. Though the artists themselves might not always welcome the classification, these are all what I consider powerpop (or guitar pop, if you prefer). Fans of the genre will recognize some of the names as exemplars of the genre; the artists you don’t know create music of a very high standard as well.

Lazy Lions – When Dreaming Lets You Down…
With a sound that suggests a more pop-flavored Smithereens (or an American Rockpile), this Brooklyn (NYC) quartet adds a few unexpected ingredients to the mix: female vocals (bassist Anne-Marie Stehn) and combo organ. Rather than playing full-on, the group favors a more finely textured approach that gives the songs room to breathe. The disc includes twelve memorable melodies, most of which feel familiar without overtly quoting anyone else. With a different vocalist (not that they need one, but one can imagine Jim Allen singing c&w), any of the songs would have fit nicely on the That Thing You Do! soundtrack.

The Rubinoos – 45
These guys are true believers in the power of pop. And the title of their latest album is a reminder that the Berkeley-based group has been at it for 45 years. In a just world, The Rubinoos would have made the big time; instead, they’re known primarily to powerpop fanatics. That’s a shame, because four and a half decades on, they’re crafting winning tunes as endearing as anything they’ve done before. Fantastic harmonies and a preternatural knack for creating wonderful earworms are hallmarks of the Rubinoos approach. There’s a warm, inviting vibe throughout this album; it’s polished without being slick.

The Grip Weeds – How I Won the War
Another group that has kept the powerpop fire burning, The Grip Weeds favor an approach that recalls The Who (Pete Townshend is often credited with coining the term powerpop) and The Kinks. Finally getting ’round to the most obvious of album titles, The Grip Weeds have another winner on their hands. With a perfect balance of creamy (and often intricate) vocal harmonies and heavy power chording, the New Jersey group’s latest shows that 27 years after their debut, they still have plenty to say musically. If anything, they’re getting better with age; when they want to, they rock quite hard.

Dwight Twilley – Always
Since the mid 1970s, this Tulsa, Oklahoma-born singer-guitarist has been plying his trade. Though his “I’m on Fire” is a stone classic of the genre, Twilley has rarely seen much in the way of commercial success. In 2015 he shows that his skill at crafting pop gems remains sharp. While he’s clearly the star of his own album, the list of musicians involved reads like a powerpop who’s who, with Cowsills and Posies, members of Let’s Active and 20/20 playing alongside Tommy Keene and Leland Sklar. In a clever bit of self-referencing, the title track quotes his famous 1976 single.

Various – Power Pop Planet Volume 4
Powerpop fans know the name Bruce Brodeen. Founder of legendary label NotLame, Brodeen was at the vanguard of the genre’s 1990s renaissance, right alongside Jordan Oakes and a select few others. While NotLame is long gone now, Brodeen remains active. This fourth in an ongoing series picks up the baton that Oakes launched with his own Yellow Pills compilation series. As always, your individual taste might mean you dislike a few of the 34 bands (and 34 songs) on this 2CD set, but most of it is excellent, upbeat pop that will remind you of everything you love about powerpop. [BUY]

More to come.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 1

May 4th, 2015

Once again, it’s time for me to review several handfuls of CDs. Today’s five all fall (more or less) into the progressive rock bag, and are decidedly European in sensibility. Here we go.

Metallic Taste of Blood – Doctoring the Dead
Perhaps the first thing you should know about this international collective is that it counts Australian bassist Colin Edwin as a member; he’s the eternally-bemused looking bassist from the still-on-hiatus Porcupine Tree. The other three musicians are from Italy, the USA, and Great Britain. This instrumental quartet crafts brooding yet melodic soundscapes. Very much on the accessible end of the progressive/art rock scale, Metallic Taste of Blood might be better severed by a less gothic moniker; don’t let the name (or the impossibly gruesome cover art) scare you off. The group’s music is super-heavy yet soaring and full of grandeur.

Obscured by Echoes – Avidonia Part 1: The Escape
Never let it be said that this space/psych unit doesn’t make their influences clear: with a band name that references works by Pink Floyd (those being the 1972 LP Obscured By Clouds and the epic “Echoes” from 1971′s Meddle). Based – like so many current psych bands – in Austin TX, the group aims for the multi-part suite approach favored in the early 70s. Their sound leans closer to Hawkwind than Pink Floyd, though, with a plodding (in a good way!) and menacing approach that leaves plenty of room for bone-crushing riffage, bloopy synth fills and the like. Excellent stuff.

Mollmaskin – Heartbreak in ((Stereo))
When the average 21st century rock fan thinks of Norway, the first subgenre that springs to mind is black metal. That particularly Scandinavian style is foreboding and – in its own way – evokes the bleak and endless night that is Winter. But Mollmaskin is actually a solo project featuring only Anders Bjermland, member of psychedelic outfit Flashback Caruso. The sound is closer to the softer, dreamy side of Dungen‘s best works. The impressionistic tunes are beautiful, and Bjermland sings variously in Norwegian and English. The sprawling 2CD set will thrill lovers of Mellotron, Fender Rhodes and yearning vocal harmonies.

Kaukasis – I
Heavier and more foreboding than the previously-mentioned disc, this Norwegian group featuring Rhys Marsh on vocals, very much in a Jim Morrison / Ian Astbury vibe. Which is to say that while it’s metal-leaning progressive rock, it’s very much song-based. Full of melodrama, the hypnotic songs approach symphonic prog in their scope and arrangement, and there’s a strong middle eastern flavor along the lines of Led Zeppelin‘s “Kashmir.” Fans of Steve Hackett-era Genesis will find a lot to like here as well. Theirs is a big sound, consider that the group is a trio. This is a disc worth settling into.

E Gone – All the Suns of the Earth
Another solo effort, E Gone is Sweden’s Daniel Westerlund. As at home with trip-hop and electronica as he is with psychedelic and garage styles, Westerlund crafts intricate, highly hooky songs that employ a kitchen sink approach. In the first two minutes you’ll hear sitar, bouzouki, banjo, sampled beats, and analog synth. Some pieces are songs, while others are ambient works. I’m behind the curve on this one, having been meaning to review it long ago; the follow-up (Where I’ve Been Is Places and What I’ve Seen Is Things) came out this week. This disc (available on vinyl) is highly recommended.

More to come.

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Album Review: The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings

May 1st, 2015

Vocal great Tony Bennett and jazz piano legend Bill Evans both had long, successful and impressive musical careers by the time they decided to collaborate. The pair met in the studio on two separate occasions – the first for three days in June 1975, the second for four days in September of 1976 – and the immediate product of those sessions was a pair of LPs, The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album and Together Again. Each was released shortly after its sessions concluded.

Fast forward to 2009. Bennett is 83 years old still very active musically, while Evans has been dead nearly thirty years. Concord Music owns the Fantasy Records catalog, and issues a 2CD box set called The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings. That set compiles the tracks from both 1970s LPs, and adds twenty alternate takes, plus two songs (the Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley composition “Who Can I Turn to (When Nobody Needs Me),” written for the musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd, and Cole Porter‘s “Dream Dancing”). The set receives near-unanimous acclaim and will remain an in-print part of the Concord catalog offering.

Fast forward again, this time to 2015. Bennett is now 88 years of age, and he’s still at it musically; of late he’s been working with Lady Gaga, giving listeners – those who might otherwise not give her a listen – a chance to discover just how talented the woman born Stefani Germanotta truly is. Meanwhile, Concord takes well-thought-out advantage of the resurgence of interest in vinyl, and releases The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings as a 4LP set.

The first LP reproduces the contents of the 1975 album. Produced by Evans’ longtime associate Helen Keane, the record features only the two men, in live-in-the-studio performance. There are no overdubs, and no additional instrumentation beyond Evans’ piano and Bennett’s voice. Tunes from the Great American Songbook make up the bulk of the record, and a reading of Evans’ classic “Waltz for Debby” is included. Bennett sings in his trademark strong voice with liberal use of vibrato, and Evans delivers in his trademark style too: rarely does the piano carry the melody. Evans skitters across the keyboard using his block voicings, remaining free of the song’s meter yet somehow within it.

Because there is no discernible “production style” to these sessions – because they’re both simply documents of what was being sung and played, both men in a room together – there is little or no sonic difference between the two sessions. That said, Evans’ piano seems a bit brighter on the first, slightly warmer on the second. The second album (the second LP on this vinyl reissue of Complete Recordings) showcases Evans to a greater degree; “The Bad and the Beautiful” is a solo spot with Bennett on the sidelines. The highlight of this disc is a song closely associated with Tony Bennett, “Make Someone Happy.”

The third and fourth records in the set present additional material from those 1970s sessions. The pair of unreleased tunes mentioned earlier kick off the third disc. The remainder of that and the fourth disc feature outtakes. These are alternate takes of most (but not quite all) of the songs on the original albums. These are noted by their sequence in the recording session (“The Two Lonely People” alternate take 5, for example), which raises an interesting point about semantics. This set is not, strictly speaking, the complete recordings. Instead, we can safely assume, it’s a document of the completed recordings. When the set indicates two alternate takes of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” (takes 16 and 18) we can safely assume that all but one of takes 1-15 and 17 were breakdowns, that is, incomplete takes.

In the end, one wonders how the decision was made to choose the takes that would end up on The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album and Together Again. There’s little difference – subtle nuances, really – between the initially released versions and the outtakes. Of course Evans never plays the same way twice, and Bennett’s voice seems to occupy slightly different spaces on various takes. But it’s all pretty wonderful.

Those who bought the CD set won’t find anything new on this 2015 4LP release, other than the restored warmth of analog. But then that’s something, especially on an organic recording that features only a man’s voice and a piano. Those who bought the original vinyl LPs, however, should give serious consideration to this 180-gram vinyl set.

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Album Review: It’s Jamaica Jump Blues Time!

April 30th, 2015

For American readers and listeners, this new compilation from Fantastic Voyage requires a bit of background; when I first laid eyes on it, I had no clue as to either its contents or its overall theme. But thanks to the set’s excellent liner notes (courtesy of Phil Etgart), It’s Jamaica Jump Blues Time! Jamaican Sound System Classics 1941-1962 makes all kinds of sense.

Though it’s situated about six hundred miles south of Miami (off Cuba’s southern coast) The Caribbean island country of Jamaica is a Commonwealth realm of the United Kingdom. As a result, its cultural ties to Great Britain are strong and deep. That explains the relevance of a Jamaican-themed album to a London-based record label. But is the music on this set from Jamaica?

Well, yes and no. And mostly no. That’s the part that needs explaining. And while Etgart does so in a clear and concise manner, I’ll try to do so in even fewer words.

In the 1950s, American rhythm and blues – especially the pre-rock’n'roll style we know know as jump blues or shuffle blues – was a huge sensation. But record imports to Jamaica were nearly nonexistent. To fill the need, a class of disc jockeys rose up on the streets of Kingston and other Jamaican cities. With lorries (in the USA we call ‘em trucks) fully kitted out with massive loudspeaker systems – the likes of which would still impress today – the deejays’ mobile sound systems provided the soundtrack for outdoor dance parties. Dancing in the street, indeed. These enterprising deejays engendered fierce rivalries, with each vying for the biggest, best system and – more importantly – the best new music.

So these businessmen/entertainers established contacts within the USA to provide a steady stream of new product, of new and exciting music. But that’s not all they did: they went to great lengths to make sure nobody else could horn in on their territory. They achieved this through several methods of varying degrees of shadiness. First, they’d scratch off the labels of the discs, so if anyone caught a look at them, they wouldn’t know who the artist was or what the name of tune was. They’d go on to re-title the song when announcing it. And if all that weren’t enough, if a particular song really caught on, they’d go to a local pressing plant in Jamaica and have a stack of pirated versions – with new title and perhaps even new (nonexistent) artist noted on its label (if any) – which they’d go on to sell to hungry music fans.

It’s Jamaica Jump Blues Time! collects the best-loved songs from that era in Jamaica, and presents them with proper annotation and credits. So eighty-four songs across three discs cover American r&b, but through the sensibility of a Jamaican listener. Got it? Okay. Now, if you like, forget all of that and focus instead on the music without that Jamaica-centered context.

What you have is a superb three-disc set of American jump blues and r&b covering the early 1940s through the era right before the British Invasion began. Early sides from Louis Jordan, Lionel Hampton, Memphis Slim, Joe Turner and Wynonie Harris make up a good bit of the first disc. The second disc covers the first half of the 1950s and features Jimmy McCracklin, The “5” Royales, The Penguins, Johnny Ace, Smiley Lewis and more. And the third disc (covering 1955-1962) focuses on “the big three” American labels, with artists like Fats Domino, Lowell Fulson, Ernie K. Doe, Huey (“Piano” Smith) & Jerry, and Bill Black’s Combo. It’s safe to say that there are no weak tracks among the seven dozen cuts on the set.

The sound quality is generally superb, though there are a few scratchy tracks, likely “needle drops” from rare 78rpm discs. The historical value of those tracks – not to mention their musical appeal – make those flaws worth overlooking. And for those who discover the delights within, there’s further good news: It’s Jamaica Jump Blues Time! is the fourth in a series from Fantastic Voyage, the other collections again focusing on tunes popular in Jamaica between the mid 1940s and the pre-Beatles era.

Staying with the Jamaican connection for a moment, if you will. The American music on this set, heard as it was by a generation and more of Jamaican listeners, greatly influenced their indigenous music. While American listeners weaned on such greats as Louis Jordan and Joe Liggins would go on to develop what we call rock’n'roll, the Jamaican perspective on the music led to bluebeat, which as Etgart reminds us, led to ska and then inevitably to reggae. So while reggae might still sound alien to American ears – or at least unconnected to our rock tradition – in fact its roots come from some very similar places. For that reason alone, It’s Jamaica Jump Blues Time! is relevant and important. But however you approach it, it’s an essential collection of music.

(Note: there’s also an abbreviated 2LP set of the same name; it collects 28 of the best tunes from the 3CD version.)

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Hungry Hearts: Andrew Scotchie & the River Rats Release New Album

April 29th, 2015

“I meet some people, and they say, ‘Oh, you’re a musician? You’re never going to eat,’” says the singer-songwriter/guitarist/namesake of Andrew Scotchie & the River Rats. He recently finished a record that responds to the starving artist stereotype: “Like the title of our album says, we all stay hungry. And we’re happy about it.”

Initial tracking for We All Stay Hungry took place in Asheville at Sound Temple Recording Studios, with the bulk of recording, overdubbing, mixing and mastering completed at Eagle Room. A single, “The Best in You,” featuring a guest vocal by local sensation Lyric, was released on April 1. The full record debuted at a release party — a free show — on Friday, April 17, at Highland Brewing in Asheville NC.

Photo by Jim Donohoo Photograhy

There’s a story leading up to that release. In early 2012, Scotchie started a busking duo on the streets of Asheville. “We had always played electric music,” he says. “But [acoustic] busking was my way to get back to the core of everything.” Through the process of interacting with other musicians, “we just met a lot of people who wanted to play.” The plugged-in version of Andrew Scotchie & the River Rats eventually formed around a nucleus of lifelong companions. “Eliza [Hill, drummer] and I have always been friends,” Scotchie says. Eliza’s brother Asher Hill joined on bass and keyboards.

The resulting trio created an original sound that at times suggests a scaled-down Drive-By Truckers. It was that lineup that recorded the band’s first album, Soul and Sarcasm. The group booked plenty of live dates, earned radio play and even got rotation of one song on a Nashville-based cable TV network.

Onstage, the trio was sometimes joined (“for a couple of songs near the end of the show”) by a pair of horn players, Alex Bradley and Kyle Snuffer. Scotchie recalls that the pair came to him at one point and said, “Hey, we can play the whole set. Just give us the opportunity.” So two more longtime friends rounded out the group: “We [had gone] to school and Boy Scouts together,” Scotchie says.

Having a five-piece band changed the way that Scotchie wrote songs. He would start thinking, “I’ve got the chords; I’ve got the words. What are the horns going to be doing?” The result was a more deeply textured brand of music than before. “A lot of people think rock ‘n’ roll is simple,” Scotchie says. “But so many different elements can go into it: jazz, fusion and even big band.” His newer songs highlight the funkier elements in his songwriting.

And though Scotchie is the leader, the band arrangements grow out of collaboration, out of live performance. “A lot of the horn parts are things that Alex and Kyle came up with on the spot,” he says. “Right onstage. They’d try something, and we’d all say, ‘Yeah. That’s the one.’” The collective showcases its cohesive strength on We All Stay Hungry.

And the band is committed to music as a lifelong pursuit. “I want to be busy, I want to have a schedule, and I want respect,” says Scotchie. “Looking back at this time last year, I’m really happy with where we are now.”

An edited version of this feature was originally published in Mountain Xpress.

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Album Review: The Moody Blues — The Magnificent Moodies (Part 2)

April 28th, 2015

Continued from Part One...

The early Moody Blues certainly deserved better success than they found. Their lack of chart action was certainly a factor in Denny Laine‘s departure. But during his time with the group, The Moody Blues recorded enough material for another album in a pair of sessions (one day in July 1964 and then a string of dates between April and September 1966, with Denny Cordell in the producer’s chair). Those previously unreleased sessions form half of the new The Magnificent Moodies set’s second disc.

An almost painfully slow reading of “Go Now” serves to point how right a decision it was to record and release the faster version we all know. The bits of studio chatter are fun for those (like myself) who enjoy studio outtakes and such, and remind listeners that in those days, a band tended to play their live set, live in the studio, for recording sessions with minimal overdub.

A quite bizarre reading of the 23rd Psalm is one of this new box set’s great finds. Arranged by the entire group, the song finds Ray Thomas singing in a vaguely Elvis balladeer style while the band provides vocal accompaniment and some vaguely Merseybeat musical backing. Then the song lurches unexpectedly into an upbeat “negro spiritual” arrangement, replete with handclapping. Talk about stylistic left-turns; it’s easy to understand why this track was left in the can for decades, but it’s an interesting curio to be sure.

The BBC Saturday Club tracks remind listeners yet again that The Moody Blues were a tight, impeccably rehearsed outfit; the BBC versions differ little from their official counterparts. Clearly they were given little time in the studio for either situation (Decca or BBC), but their songs and arrangements didn’t seem to require more time or effort than was given/spent. “From the Bottom of My Heart” showcases Mike Pinder‘s piano and Thomas’ flute. While enjoyable, the group’s reading of Rufus Thomas‘ “Jump Back” is perhaps the least-convincing of their r&b excursions; likely part of their live set, no Decca studio version of the tune exists.

A pair of tries at Tim Hardin‘s waltzing “How Can We Hang on to a Dream” again lead (in context) to the later Moody Blues sound. And while neither “Jago & Jilly” nor “We’re Broken” rank as a lost classic, they do feature the closest thing to guitar riffage as one is likely to find in the early Moody Blues catalog. Those two tracks are also much closer to the rock-leaning side of later Moodies, having almost completely shed any rhythm and blues trappings.

Pinder’s barrelhouse piano is the centerpiece of his “I Really Haven’t Got the Time,” a chirpy number that wouldn’t have been out of place in the crowded UK charts of early 1967. “Red Wine” suggests what The Who might have sounded by had they been led by a pianist instead of a guitarist.

The set’s third version of “This is My House (But Nobody Calls)” is the best, both in terms of recording (it’s in stereo) and performance, and it wraps up the 2CD The Magnificent Moodies in style. The entire set is housed in an attractive, study and colorful box; both CDs are packaged in LP facsimile sleeves with color artwork. A 24-page booklet is stuffed with discographical information, informative essays and great photo memorabilia. A handful of reproduced fan club handbills and a large, foldout full-color poster will remind music fans of a certain age of rock’s golden days when every album seemed to come stuffed full of relevant (if extramusical) goodies. Taken as a whole, The Magnificent Moodies is an essential purchase for fans of British sixties pop, as well as for those who love the Days of Future Passed-and-onward lineup of the group but remain interested in from whence the group came.

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Album Review: The Moody Blues — The Magnificent Moodies (Part 1)

April 27th, 2015

Not long ago I interviewed Moody Blues founding member/flautist/vocalist Ray Thomas; much of our conversation centered around a new box set documenting the group’s pre-Days of Future Passed material. That music originally took the form of a UK album called The Magnificent Moodies (issued around the same time stateside as Go Now: The Moody Blues #1). The group also issued a number of non-album singles during that time, and – as was standard practice, especially for a group with the relatively high profile they enjoyed – they appeared on a number of radio programs in the UK.

There have been several reissues of The Magnificent Moodies, but none has approached the level at which the term “comprehensive” is an accurate description. Until now, that is: the new Esoteric Recordings release of The Magnificent Moodies collects the original July 1965 Decca album, adds fourteen non-album cuts from the era, and also adds an earlier, unreleased take of “Go Now!”

And that’s only the first disc. A second CD features seven additional studio outtakes (including, as Ray Thomas mentioned, material he doesn’t even recall having recorded), a dozen songs from various Saturday Club radio sessions, a mid-60s interview (also from Saturday Club) with Thomas and co-founder/drummer Graeme Edge (here’s my 2010 interview with him), a Coca-Cola radio spot, and an entire additional seven-song session the band cut with producer Denny Cordell. Pretty much the only audio missing from this set is the French radio appearances the Moody Blues did in the 1960s, but as Thomas told me, they couldn’t come to financial terms with the French (he used another word) that would secure rights to the recordings.

Taken as a whole, the new The Magnificent Moodies set paints a picture of a group very different from the one that would go on to worldwide success as a Mellotron-centric band fronted by vocalists Justin Hayward (guitar) and John Lodge (bass). The early lineup included neither of them. Instead, the early Moody Blues featured Denny Laine (later of Wings) on lead vocal and guitar, plus bassist Clint Warwick. Keyboardist Mike Pinder (here’s my interview with him) was the remaining member, another co-founder and one of three (with Thomas and Edge) who would go on to the “new” Moody Blues, much as the rhythm section of John McVie and Mick Fleetwood would form the basis of the old and “new” versions of another British group of the era(s), Fleetwood Mac.

Those early Moody Blues sides show a band very much in a American r&b vocal vein, the kind of group one would expect to see and hear in a club in a period-piece film like The Who‘s Quadrophenia, or perhaps on an episode of the Inspector Morse prequel Endeavour. Their torrid run-through of James Brown‘s “I’ll Go Crazy” doesn’t attempt to ape the original, but it’s more soulful than The Blues Magoos‘ version from 1967. And though it was their biggest early hit, “Go Now” is a cover, too; the original was cut shortly before by Bessie Banks (wife of the song’s composer) in the USA.

It’s only on Side Two of that original album that one finds any group-penned tunes, making clear the fact that – at least in those early days – The Moody Blues métier was the interpretation of rhythm and blues classics and obscurities. And that they did quite convincingly.

That second side introduces the Laine/Pinder writing team, and tracks like “Let Me Go” display a softer, more refined sound that presages the later lineup’s sound in some subtly yet important ways. The layered vocals of Pinder and Thomas are shown to more nuanced effect, and Ray Thomas’ flute playing is showcased. The songwriting is solid, but nothing of the sort that would give Lennon/McCartney a run for their money; “Thank You Baby” is not unlike the kind of thing Graham Gouldman was writing for The Mockingbirds at the time.

The singles (A’s and B’s) that fill out the first disc of the new expanded The Magnificent Moodies are quality as well, and none would have been out of place on the album proper. They’re mostly covers as well, but the highlight among these is an original, “Lose Your Money (But Don’t Lose Your Mind)”. Soulful tracks like “Steal Your Heart Away” stay safely in that modified r&b style in which the band traded. The band cut a credible reading of a song first recorded a year earlier by Kai Winding and His Orchestra. That b-side, “Time is on My Side,” was of course a hit for another better-known British band (albeit eight months later).

By 1965, however, The Moody Blues singles released would consist only of original compositions, all from the Laine/Pinder writing team. These songs reflect a more mature songwriting style, one that seems to attempt to continue the r&b flavor of the group’s earlier material while moving past it in some ways. Production values increase, and while tunes like “Boulevard de la Madeleine” may have seemed a stylistic left-turn in January 1967, viewed in the context of the group’s later material, they make perfect sense. In fact, those songs suggest that had somehow the original lineup (or at least Denny Laine) continued as the Moody Blues, they might have made music not altogether unlike what the Hayward/Lodge-led group did. (A listen to the post-Moodies Denny Laine String Band provides further evidence supporting this idea.)

Meanwhile, the melancholy yet somehow goodtiming “This is My House (But Nobody Calls)” sounds very much like the kind of thing that would have scored on the charts in ’67 London. (It’s a bit reminiscent of The Beatles‘ “Another Girl” from their Help! soundtrack.) Alas, neither it nor the group’s three subsequent singles did much (“House” did scrape the bottom of US charts, briefly reaching #119 in 1967).

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