A Trip Back in Time with Trip Shakespeare (Part Three)

March 13th, 2015

Continued from Part Two

Bill Kopp: As we discussed earlier, you’re credited as co-producer on the new Trip Shakespeare reissues of Applehead Man and Are You Shakespearienced? I assume that the original albums were cut on analog equipment, right?

John Munson: Yup.

BK: So were the masters in good shape? Did you do anything along the lines of remastering or fiddling with the mixes for the reissues?

JM: I really left the actual masters to Omnivore. I approved the masters. Because they sounded just great to me. Immediately. It was like, “Oh, this is just so much better.” On Are You Shakespearienced? in particular.

In some cases, we didn’t have great stuff to work with. A lot of the source material has been lost to the sands of time. [laughs] The sands have washed over and buried a lot of the stuff. So while I think they had the original half-inch masters for Are You Shakespearienced?, we couldn’t find them for Applehead Man. So they might have had to work with a CD version, and then remaster it. But they improved both of them so much, in my opinion.

BK: When Trip Shakespeare ended, you went on to work with Dan Wilson in Semisonic, and then when that ended you teamed up with Matt Wilson for The Twilight Hours. From that I assume you’re all still on pretty good terms. I know you got together to play two songs onstage in December 2013. With the buzz created around these reissues, has there been any talk of a Trip Shakespeare reunion, even just a one-off?

JM: [grasps for the right words] You know, I would love to do it. And certainly a lot of friends are like, “Come on!” [laughs, and then turns more serious] It was…a complicated band. It’s not like you could just uncork it and pour out the magic. If we were going to do a full show, it would take a lot of effort and time to do that. And I think we’re all a bit leery of…crapping on our legacy. [laughs]

BK: I appreciate your candor.

JM: Well, you know, a lot of my mates tell me, “You guys were the tightest fuckin’ band I ever saw.” And we spent the time. So it’s not necessarily so easy to fall back into it. Think about what Elaine [Harris] does, for example. That stand-up drumming thing is not like falling off a log. Even to do the couple of tunes that we did at the [2013] Holiday gig, I chose the songs that I thought would be the least strain on her. And she killed it, of course. But she practiced for months to get herself back up to a level where she felt comfortable.

And so that’s what it would take. And I don’t know if anybody has the time. I would do it in a heartbeat. But I think it would have to be the right offer, or something like that.

BK: You make a good point. A big part of what made Trip Shakespeare loved by the people that loved them was the fact that so much care did go into the music. I love the Replacements, too, like you mentioned. But their aesthetic was, if they screwed up, that was part of the charm. That was never the Trip Shakespeare approach. It was finely honed. And if you got together for a ramshackle performance, it would be kind of crapping on the legacy, quite honestly: “What’s this!?”

JM: I think that’s true. So if we were to do it, we would do it with tender loving care. And if we didn’t do it, the reason would be because we didn’t have the time to pour the attention that we wanted to into it.

BK: Changing subjects a bit now, if you don’t mind. As I mentioned at the beginning, I absolutely loved Stereo Night by The Twilight Hours. I have the red vinyl. In fact on my blog I named it one of 2009′s best albums along with Pugwash (who are now also on Omnivore), along with albums by Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey, a Big Star box set, and the like. What’s the current status of The Twilight Hours?

JM: It’s funny that you should ask, because I was just comping a vocal for a record that we’re all but done with…

BK: I am so happy to hear that.

JM: We have about three vocals left to do. And then it’s going to be mixed, and – by God – it’s gonna be out this year! It’s definitely going to happen.

It’s been such a journey. The thing about it is, it’s hard to have it be anything less than exactly what you want it to be. Because there’s no urgency to sort of just kick it out the door. Because what’s going to happen? No one knows. Very little, probably. There’s no momentum that we have to pursue, so we just have to satisfy ourselves, essentially, and get it out.

I should mention – no big secret – that Dan actually sang on a couple of tracks. I almost feel like we should get Elaine to play on it a little bit, and then it would almost be like a little bit of a Trip Shakespeare reunion in some sense.

BK: As much as I loved Semisonic, when I first heard Twilight Hours, I thought, “This is more of a straight line from what Trip Shakespeare did.” It’s different, certainly, but it had more in common with Trip Shakespeare than Semisonic did. To my ears, anyway.

JM: For sure. That’s Matt. Dan and Matt, they’re brothers, and their voices sound very similar sometimes, but their artistic sensibilities are quite different. Dramatically different, really.

For me, when we started up Semisonic, that was really refreshing. Because as great a time as we all had doing Trip Shakespeare, by the time that we kind of augered in [laughs] and were like a burning heap on the runway, I was done with it. All the baroque moves and the attention to detail, I – and all of us in the band, even Matt – had become tired of it. It was just too much.

Have you ever heard Matt’s [1998 solo] record Burnt, White and Blue?

BK: No, I haven’t…

JM: Oh, you must get that. If you’re a fan of Matt’s music – and it sounds like you most definitely are – you should find it. It’s a truly great record. He made that right around the time that Dan and I were making Feeling Strangely Fine, which has “Closing Time” on it.

It kind of shows: both projects were kind of incompatible with the Trip Shakespeare sensibility. It was more like a straight rock approach. But I think that by the time we came around to Stereo Night, the Trip Shakespeare viewpoint was a little more…it was back, a little bit.


And in a sense, Trip Shakespeare are back. The new Omnivore Recordings reissues of their first two albums, Applehead Man and Are You Shakesperienced? are out now, packed with previously unreleased bonus tracks and featuring excellent liner notes by Jon Niccum, including numerous quotes from John Munson, Elaine Harris, Matt Wilson and Dan Wilson.

 Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

A Trip Back in Time with Trip Shakespeare (Part Two)

March 12th, 2015

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: When Trip Shakespeare cut Applehead Man, you were originally a trio. By the time of the second album, Matt Wilson‘s brother Dan had joined. Two brothers. How did that change the dynamics of the band?

John Munson: Well, it did change it. I was sheepishly telling somebody the other day that when Dan joined the band, I cried. Literally. It broke my heart. I was quite content to have it be a trio, and I suspected that with Dan coming in, it would change the dynamic in way that would lock me out.

And that did not turn out to be the case. What it really did was put the whole vocal concept way more forward. I was recently listening to the Applehead Man remaster, and there’s a lot of cool vocal stuff going on there. But it’s almost all Matt. After Applehead Man came out, and we started to do more gigs, Matt’s voice revealed itself to be a pretty fragile instrument. And as we were talking with agents about doing more shows, one guy said, “Well…Dan can sing really well. And John can sing. Why don’t you figure out a way that Matt can sing a little bit less? Maybe that will make it easier on you.” Matt really took that to heart, and that’s when the larger vocal concept moved forward. That’s when the vocal arrangements got really dense and [laughs] baroque.

Matt would write songs and then say, “I think this is one for you to sing.” So it wasn’t necessarily even songs that I was writing that I’d sing; Matt would just say, “This one’s for you, John. You sing it.” Also, another thing that would sometimes happen is that Matt would write a song, and then everyone would try it, to see whose voice it worked best with.

BK: A band is dealing from a position of strength when they have multiple lead singers.

JM: It’s true. But on the other hand, while from a musical point of view it makes good sense, it makes it more confusing for the audience: “Who’s really in charge?” It’s kind of important to audiences to kind of know who’s the sort of heroic, artistic auteur. I think audiences want that on some level. So sometimes when I think about what went wrong, I sometimes wonder if that was a factor. For a certain kind of fan, it was something they really attached to, gravitated toward. But I think for most, for more general audiences, it made it harder to understand the band.

BK: Good point, I guess. But…it worked for the Beatles.

JM: [laughs] I guess that’s true! Lest we forget.

BK: We’ve already begun to touch on this point. I’m not the first to comment on the seemingly magical qualities of sibling vocalists in a band. The Everly Brothers, The Kinks, hell, even Oasis. So that was something you picked up on once Dan joined…

JM: Most definitely. There’s something that happens there; maybe it’s the shape of the voice box. It’s magical, or just genetic. And beyond understanding. You can’t coach it; it just happens.

BK: Both of the new reissues – Applehead Man and Are You Shakespearienced? – include lots of bonus material in the form of previously unreleased tracks. When you heard these bonus cuts again recently, did you remember them? Or had they all faded away in the mists of memory?

JM: As a matter of fact, I basically oversaw the gleanings and cullings and all that. So I was quite familiar with those tracks by the time these reissues came out. To me, in every single case with any and all of that stuff, there was a good reason why it didn’t see the light of day originally. But also, I believe that in every case there’s a reason why it might be interesting to the more serous fan. There are some gems in there.

I had kind of gone through…hmm…I want to say maybe as long as fifteen years ago…and gathered up a bunch of outtake stuff and said, “Look. We’ve got all this stuff. There’s an interest. People would enjoy it. Let’s put it out.” I presented it to the band, and there was [pauses] a real reluctance to go down that road at that time. And so I put it away, sat on it. And then when Cheryl [Pawelski] called, she asked, “Do you have any outtake-type material?” And I said, “Oh, yes I do.” And enough time had gone by so that – even reluctantly – people were willing to let it come out.

There are still a few things hanging around, that we’re saving for the next record if that actually happens. And if it doesn’t…maybe I’ll put that stuff up online or something…

BK: …Which leads very nicely into my next question. I know you did one EP after Lulu. I’ve never heard Volt but I’m sure I’d like hearing Trip Shakespeare do covers. Are there plans for Omnivore Recordings to eventually reissue Across the Universe and Lulu, and if so, do you think the songs from Volt will end up as bonus tracks?

JM: Most definitely Across the Universe and Lulu. Or…at least we’re discussing it. I think the big issue for Cheryl and for Brad [Rosenberger, both of Omnivore] is, does it make financial sense? I don’t have any idea if this [Trip Shakespeare reissue program] is working out the way that they had hoped, or better than they had hoped, or not as well. I really don’t know. I do know that the initial reissues were really nicely received here in the Twin Cities. But beyond that I don’t really have any concept of how it’s done.

That was the thing about the band: it was well-loved in the Midwest, and as you got farther and farther from there, it [dwindled]. We had an audience in New York and Boston; it became a thing that was only in bigger towns. It kind of petered out as we got toward the coast, a little bit.

BK: Well, yeah. I grew up in Atlanta, and I bought both of the A&M albums when they came out, on vinyl. But I didn’t know anyone else who did. [laughs]

JM: Not very many people did. We had very good friends down at Wax n’ Facts [record store]. I think we played in Little Five Points here and there. We had a good friend named Jim Barber, who was a big mover and shaker down that way. Atlanta was actually one of our little strongholds. But the records did best in the upper Midwest, for sure.

Click to continue

 Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

A Trip Back in Time with Trip Shakespeare (Part One)

March 11th, 2015

My interview with John Munson, bassist with late 1980s critical darlings Trip Shakespeare, began with him noting that my name sounded familiar to him: “How might I have heard your name before?” he asked me. I told him that it may well have been in connection with my enthusiastic 2009 review of an album that he and Matt Wilson (as The Twilight Hours) released, a record called Stereo Night. (I’d go on to name Stereo Night one of 2009′s best albums, and I stand by that assertion more than five years later.)

We would discuss that subject more later in the interview, but Munson agreed that that was probably where he had heard/seen my name: “Whatever reviews that record ever got, I read them with great interest,” he laughed. “Because there weren’t that many of them!” He then made a keen observation. “Every musician becomes accustomed to the fact that at least a goodly portion of their total output will be ignored.” He laughed when he said that, too, but his comment serves as good an introduction as any into the main subject of our interview.

In 1986, Minneapolis-based Trip Shakespeare released Applehead Man, their first album, on tiny local label Gark records. At the time the group was a trio: founder and guitarist Matt Wilson, bassist John Munson, and stand-up drummer Elaine Harris. The album was a bit out of step with the prevailing “Minneapolis sound” (whatever that was) but it was an excellent debut. The group followed that disc up two years later with Are You Shakespearienced? again on Gark. By that point they had added a second guitarist, Dan Wilson, who also happened to be Matt’s brother.

On the strength of those two albums and their live performances, Trip Shakespeare finally got noticed, and by 1989 the group had signed with A&M Records. They’d go on to release two major-label albums and an EP before breaking up around 1992. After the group ended, two members (Munson and Dan Wilson) went on to form Semisonic, a more musically straightforward band that scored major hits, most notably the single “Closing Time.” After that band ended, Munson teamed again with Matt Wilson for Twilight Hours. Dan Wilson then embarked on a successful solo career.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: those first two Trip Shakespeare albums have now been reissued by Omnivore Recordings, each appended with bonus tracks that nearly double the length of each disc. The former members of the band remain on good terms (as you’ll discover reading our conversation), and they cooperated on this new reissue. In fact, John Munson is credited (along with Omnivore’s Grammy-winning Cheryl Pawelski) as co-producer of the reissues.

As a longtime fan of Trip Shakespeare and the members’ subsequent musical activities, I jumped at the opportunity to chat with John Munson. Picking up again just after his observation about toiling in obscurity, here’s our conversation. – bk


Bill Kopp: For me, one of the most appealing hallmarks of Trip Shakespeare’s sound has been your bass. Not only what you play, but how. It sounds like a lot of what you did was played on a fretless.

John Munson: That kind of started to happen a little after the first two records. I did play some fretless on Are You Shakesperienced? But none on Applehead Man. I had started to learn it when the band started, but I wasn’t confident enough with it to subject people to my learning curve. Later, I got bolder about making mistakes.

BK: The only other rock player of note I can think of who played a good bit of fretless was Colin Moulding of XTC. Are there any bass players you’d name as influential on your style?

JM: I grew up [listening to Paul] McCartney. My brother had all those records; he would get them as soon as they came out. And I really love Colin Moulding, too, as a matter of fact. And John Paul Jones was another guy who used some fretless bass here and there. I’m really an admirer of his; he’s a really funky, groovy bass player. People don’t always think of him that way, but he’s got a lot going on.

It’s the melodious players that I love the most. And certainly if you’re playing fretless, you know that Jaco Pastorius is a guy that always comes to mind. I could never be him, never play “Donna Lee.” But I love his sound; it was so very expressive.

BK: And now you can say that you have music out on the same label as he does…

JM: Is that right?

BK: Yes. Some really early Pastorius stuff came out on Omnivore in 2014. An album called Modern American Music…Period! The Criteria Sessions. Really good.

JM: Oh, I’m gonna have to pester Cheryl for that! [laughs]

BK: To me, a strong sense of melody has always been at the heart of Trip Shakespeare’s music. The band was never “twee” so to speak, but neither was it as funky as Prince or as hard-edged as Hüsker Dü. At the time – in the mid 1980s – how did you see yourselves fitting into the music scene in Minneapolis?

JM: You know, I think that we never did fit in, to be perfectly honest. At that time, I remember that people would talk about the “Minneapolis sound.” And if you were actually in Minneapolis, it never really made all that much sense. Because there was so much going on, and it was all really different. I mean, how do you square Hüsker Dü with Prince? It doesn’t add up. And both artists would be characterized as the Minneapolis sound. Not to mention The Replacements and the nascent version of Soul Asylum, Loud Fast Rules. There was a lot of different music going on, and to some extent Trip Shakespeare stood a little bit outside of that mainstream of rockin’ Minneapolis. It was a little bit…it’s hard to characterize yourself, but it was a little bit more…melodious and worked-over.

There was a real attitude, certainly among The Replacements, that they were tossing it off. Like, “Aw, it’s something we rolled out of bed and made into a record.” There were never any illusions for us, other than that we wanted to work really hard to make the music the best that we possibly could. And so some people, I think, thought that we worked it too hard, that to a certain strain of Minneapolis rockers we were kind of embarrassing: “Don’t show that you want it.”

BK: While composition of some of the songs on the albums are credited to the whole band, most are by Matt Wilson and/or his brother Dan Wilson. But on every Trip Shakespeare album, and later, on every Semisonic album, you have at least one composition credit or co-credit. To what extent were you involved in things like vocal arrangement, musical arrangement and so forth?

JM: I think everyone in the band was pretty darn involved in developing the songs. A band needs a kind of engine, an urgent aesthetic point of view. And for Trip Shakespeare, that was definitely Matt. It was Matt’s vision from the get-go. He had a concept for what it was that he wanted to accomplish. But he was also the foremost advocate for a democratic band view; he wanted the whole band to be involved in the band. And so everybody really was involved, and we worked really hard to make vocal arrangements and things like that that really worked for all of us.

And he’s also very encouraging in terms of writing. Both Dan and Matt were always encouraging me to put my ideas forward, which is great.

Click to continue

 Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Album Review: Harvey Mandel — Snake Box

March 10th, 2015

Meaning absolutely no disrespect to the artists to whom I refer, the music scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s was filled with what one might call second-string guitarists. These guys (and at this point in history, nearly the entire roster was male) weren’t on the notoriety level of Jimmy Page, John McLaughlin, or Eric Clapton. But at their best, they were as good, even if their music was known (much less heard) by fewer listeners. Some of the names that come to mind include fusion great Larry Coryell; three of pre-pedestrian Fleetwood Mac‘s guitarists (Peter Green, Danny Kirwan, Jeremy Spencer); and Canned Heat‘s Harvery Mandel (I am certain readers can think of many others).

Alongside his work with Canned Heat (he was a member of the group’s “second classic” lineup circa 1969-1970, and rejoined briefly on several later – and less noteworthy – occasions), Mandel maintained a solo career. Between 1968 and 1972, Mandel released six solo albums. Five from this period – all but the ’72 release Get Off in Chicago – have now been released in a set titled Snake Box (Mandel’s nickname is “The Snake”). While all of the original vinyl albums (Cristo Redentor from 1968, Righteous from 1969, 1970′s Games Guitars Play, 1971′s Baby Batter, and The Snake from 1972) can still be acquired for small sums (i.e. often under $5), none of the albums has had a recent CD/digital release. So the new box set presents them all together, each housed in an LP reproduction style sleeve, in one tidy package.

Snake Box also includes a rare onstage recording called Live at the Matrix, a set from Christmas Eve 1968 in San Francisco that features an all-star lineup of Frisco locals: Mandel with Jerry Garcia, Elvin Bishop, Steve Miller, Mickey Hart, and John Chambers.

Mandel was and remains a guitarist of great versatility, and one with a wide stylistic vision. Nominally a blues player, he sounds comfortable in any number of musical idioms. Widely recognized as an originator of the two-hand tapping technique (see also: Eddie Van Halen and Stanley Jordan), Mandel sounded as comfortable playing jazz-inflected licks as he did within the context of blues (or blues rock).

Mandel’s ability to trade in multiple styles resulted in albums that could seem all over the place. His interests and influences on these disc are so vast that it’s quite difficult to pin down a Mandel style. As often as not working with an ensemble, Mandel created albums that were cohesive wholes, not merely showcases for his guitar playing. For example, the first track on his first album, the title track of Christo Redentor, features a wordless female soprano vocal that sounds eerily like a Theremin. And the track’s lush string arrangement (complete with harps) is pretty well outside the rock idiom. From there Mandel left-turns into “Before Six,” a tune that anticipates early Blood, Sweat and Tears, and sounding not unlike The Paul Butterfield Blues Band crossed with, say, Cold Blood.

For those who haven’t heard Mandel’s solo work, the nearest artist to whom he might be compared is Shuggie Otis, another musician of singularly wide musical vision. Mandel’s playing is often exciting, featuring thickly sustained notes that are both economical and expressive at once. For his albums, he enlisted some legendary talent, including Graham Bond, Larry Taylor, Eddie Hoh, Pete Drake, and Emil Richards (to name but a few). Vocals show up occasionally, but Mandel seems to understand his strengths (and they are many), sticking to those.

Dave Thompson‘s liner note essay is informative, but the reader may be left wishing the box’s producers had given him more space. But that’s really a minor complaint, as the music on Snake Box largely speaks for itself. Snake Box is a treasure trove of heretofore underappreciated gems. Harvey Mandel is an artist who starts with blues and then pushes far beyond the supposed boundaries of the genre. Those receptive to such an approach are well advised to dive into this box set.

 Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Book Review: Who Did it First?

March 9th, 2015

Have you ever wandered into (or been drawn into) a conversation with a trivia master? Not to make outsized claims, but by some measures, I’m one of those guys. Many years ago – not long after the game Trivial Pursuit took off – I received as a gift a board game called Rock Trivia. But the problem was, no one would play the damn game with me. Even at that age (early 20s) I could spot mistakes in the answers printed on the cards. “Who first recorded the hit song ‘(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone?” Well, I’d answer, of course it was Paul Revere and the Raiders! The Monkees version came very soon thereafter. But of course the card read, “The Monkees.” I’m told it was no fun to play with me, as I would invariably contest the answers, heading to my bookshelf to provide substantiation for my own (“officially” wrong) response.

Happily, I’m much less insufferable now. No, really, I am. A few years ago I was involved for awhile with a group of people who gathered weekly to play Quizzo, a beer bar version of trivia. I served as the music and pop culture guy, the one to call upon when questions related to “dad rock” and whatnot came up. Luckily there were other team members who knew about subjects such as professional sports; my knowledge of (and interest in) such things is laughably negligible.

But my love of the minutiae of rock history remains. I can’t quote deadwax matrix numbers, but I know a good bit of music pop culture. And I’m always on the lookout for more. So I was pleased to discover a new book called Who Did it First? Great Rock and Roll Cover Songs and Their Original Artists. Across more than 250 pages, author (and well-known radio deejay) Bob Leszczak takes readers on a trip through time, covering (ha) several hundred well-known songs.

For each tune, Leszczak provides some basic information, clearly formatted: the composer, original artist, a cover artist, year of release, and chart positions (where there are any). Some of his listings are pretty obvious, ones that nearly any casual pop music fan could rattle off: Van Halen‘s cover of Roy Orbison‘s “Oh! Pretty Woman” is a good example of the obvious cover.

But there are plenty of less well-known examples, and in more than a few cases, the cover versions are worth seeking out. Also, there’s the reverse scenario, wherein the original wasn’t all that monster of a hit, but the cover scored on the charts. And there are a few ringer, examples where some unimaginative artist cut a whole album of covers (Rod Stewart, Elton John and some country artist whose name I’ve happily forgotten, I’m looking at you). Those covers serve as space-filling examples in a book that doesn’t need padding. There’s so much worthwhile and interesting material to discuss.

The author’s breezy alphabetical-order run through several hundred songs is trivia-filled and entertaining. And by its very nature, Who Did it First? Is the sort of book one can work through in small bites. It’s chock full of information, presented in a clear, concise and informative fashion.

Leszczak left out a few major covers, however. Badfinger‘s “Without You” is the first of these to come to mind. The Apple Records group released the song as an album track on their No Dice LP in 1970. Though it was a very good song, their version felt unfinished and raw. But no less a talent than Harry Nilsson fell in love with the tune, and recorded his own version in 1972; he scored a worldwide hit for his efforts. (Mariah Carey added nothing of value to the song in her own 1992 cover, but she got a hit with it as well). He also passes by Translator‘s great cover of the early (pre-fame) Beatles tune, “Cry For a Shadow,” and not once does he mention any off the immortal covers turned out by Mrs. Miller. (To his unending credit, Leszczak does discuss “Senator Bobby‘s” memorable cover of The Troggs‘ “Wild Thing.”

The book is not without its glaring errors, and those are of concern in a book that is meant to serve as a trivia guide. (Imagine if I had used it to contest one of the Rock Trivia answers, only for it to be discovered that the book was wrong! The shame! The horror!) Leszczak discusses Crowded House‘s classic tune “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and the subsequent cover by Sixpence None the Richer; both versions charted. But then he wanders off the reservation by mentioning Crowded House’s follow-up hit, a tune he calls “Something So Wrong” (emphasis mine). Funny choice of word: the actual title is “Something So Strong.”

A bit more egregious than a possibly typographical error is the author’s seeming unfamiliarity with one of rock history’s most notorious episodes. In his discussion of the Rolling Stones‘ “Sympathy for the Devil,” Leszczak notes that when the group performed the song at Altamont in 1969, “…a young girl was killed.” Anyone with a cursory knowledge of the Rolling Stones – not to mention anyone who’s ever seen the Gimme Shelter film documenting the event – knows that Meredith Hunter was an eighteen year old African American male.

There are a few other, lesser, mistakes in Who Did it First?, but overall the book is reliably accurate, and a fun read. The reader will be able to spot instances were the author has conducted first-hand interviews with some of the artists involved (most notably Tommy James), because the entries for those songs are much longer than the sometimes cursory entries found throughout the book. And occasionally, Leszczak’s level of insight seems nonexistent, and sometimes the writing seems designed to do little more than fill the page. How else to characterize such comments as – for example, when discussing Bachman-Turner Overdrive‘s “Takin’ Care of Business” – “It’s a song that compares and contrasts the singer’s life to that of the average nine-to-five worker (letting the listener know that the life of a rock star is far better).” But such empty-headed faux-analysis doesn’t detract from the overall value of Leszczak’s book, and in fact it might elicit a few (unintended) chuckles. No harm done.

Significantly, Who Did it First? never presents itself as something it is not (say, a scholarly work), and its tone is designed for a casual reader, not a trainspotting boffin who can’t help but play gotcha! when reading it. Who Did it First? is a lightweight, fun and informative trip through rock’s history.

 Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Hundred Word Reviews for March 2015, Part 5

March 6th, 2015

For the final entry in this run of hundred-word reviews, I take quick looks at some rare and/or reissued music. I think it’s all worth your time.

TV Eyes – TV Eyes
TV Eyes was a 90s alternapop supergroup. Jason Falkner has a stunningly high quality catalog of his own. Roger Manning was a prime mover in Jellyfish, one of the 1990s’ best, least-appreciated bands. And Brian Reitzell is renowned for his work with Air and Moog Cookbook. The bad news is that the group’s sole (2006) album was Japan-only. Until now, that is. Its dance-friendly sound weds guitar pop to an electroclash underpinning; it will appeal to Gary Numan fans. TV Eyes also helps explain what Beck saw in Falkner and Manning (both toured as part of his band in 2014).

Ron Nagle – Bad Rice
I find it endlessly fascinating just how many truly creative artists are lurking right around the fringes of rock’s universe. Nagle was a member of The Mystery Trend, a band who were historically important (if largely unknown) in the 60s San Francisco scene. And as co-leader of Dūrocs, he created some skewed (and again underheard) pop music. And there’s his solo album, done in the interregnum between those projects. It’s even less known, originally released on the cult-friendly Warner Brothers label (see also: Van Dyke Parks, Randy Newman, etc.). It’s more mainstream than its pedigree suggests, and it’s funny, too.

Linda Jones – The Complete Atco, Loma, & Warner Brothers Recordings
Jones’ 1967 single (R&B #4) “Hypnotized” may well be where the malpropism “hyp-mo-tized” originated. Regardless, that and many of her other singles of the era are fine examples of gospel-flavored soulful R&B. When she passed away prematurely in 1972 (as the result of a diabetic coma) at age 27, she left behind an impressive if under-appreciated body of work. Her expressive voice and breathtaking range are showcased in her music. Real Gone Music once again does yeoman’s work in rescuing these 21 sides from obscurity, and working through the knotty licensing to bring them all together on a single disc.

The 5 Stairsteps – Our Family Portrait / Stairsteps
A family band in the Jackson 5ive style (though the Burke family recorded before the Jacksons), The Five Stairsteps are sometimes characterized as bubblegum (or “bubblesoul”). True, there’s an undeniable family-friendly vibe to their music, but that shouldn’t diminish their work in the ears of music lovers. From the doo-wop-meets-TV-variety-show music of “A Million to One” to their smash “O-o-h Child,” there are pleasures to be found throughout their catalog. But their first two albums (now compiled on CD with bonus tracks) are their best. Their covers (“The Look of Love” and studio-era Beatles album cuts) are often quite impressive.

The Unforgiven – The Unforgiven (Expanded Edition)
Imagine if The Alarm were from Los Angeles instead of Wales, and you’ll have an idea of what this six-piece sounded like. Very dated 80s production flourishes (gunshot drum sounds, roaring arena-styled guitar) wedded to the odd c&w flourish (an occasional dab of pedal steel) and a perhaps ill-advised preoccupation with their look (cowboy dusters before every lame country band started wearing ‘em) are the three legs of The Unforgiven‘s musical stool. Every song swings for the fences, wanting to be an anthem, and it’s all a bit too earnest. Worth a listen but in no way a lost classic.

 Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Hundred Word Reviews for March 2015, Part 4

March 5th, 2015

Prog, jazz, blues: there’s something for most musical tastes in today’s roundup of hundred-word reviews.

Mark Wingfield – Proof of Light
If there’s a common raison d’être among the varied acts signed to Leonardo Pavkovic‘s MoonJune label, it’s to explore the sweet spot at which jazz and rock convene. Wingfield’s disc features a trio format – electric guitar, upright bass and drums – but what you’ll hear suggests the presence of other instruments. Imagine a low-key Joe Satriani with less flash and more of a jazz sensibility — albeit with plenty of skronky electric guitar texture – and you’ll be on the path to what this all-instrumental sounds like. The arrangements are subtle, but listen closely and there’s a lot going on.

Winter in Eden – Court of Conscience
Just when I finish a piece in which I assert that there are pretty much no women in prog, along comes this disc, by a UK symphonic progressive act. Soaring Mellotron-sounding keyboards (on the “choir” setting) are met by thundering bass lines, and the requisite tricky time signature work from the drummer. Lots of sonic light and shade means that graceful piano lines are met by crushing, edge-of-metal arrangements. The one-sheet tells us that the band is popular at “various Femme Metal Festivals.” That such a thing exists is news to me. A worthy purchase for fans of the genre.

Mississippi Heat – Warning Shot
I’m always a little guarded when I stumble across an album that sports of a picture of a really large band. It makes me think of those terrible horror-metal bands like Slipknot: does it take nine people to make that sound? To be fair, while the Warning Shot credits list thirteen players, the photo only shows seven. What we have here is traditional, Chicago-styled electric blues with harmonica and vocals out front. Nothing new, really, but then “new” isn’t what most people want from a blues outfit. It swings, and for fans of the harp-through-the-Green-Bullet vibe, it’s just the ticket.

Tony Joe White – The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings
The early 70s music scene seems to have been filled with white singers who could traffic in a credible southern soul style. Louisiana-born Tony Joe White was one of the best, often outshining guys like Elvis Presley (no slouch himself). With a style that sometimes sounds very much like Creedence Clearwater Revival fronted by Mark Lindsay, White turned out three fine albums for Warner Brothers. His guitar playing is pretty impressive, too, in an understated rhythm-guitarist kinda way. Nearly every track here is a White original. No “Polk Salad Annie” (that was earlier in his career), but many other gems.

The Soft Machine – Tanglewood Tails
Canterbury legends The Soft Machine are one of the genre’s best-loved groups. With their jazz meets rock aesthetic, they were an early bridge between the then-disparate styles. Their first several albums are legendary, and deserve to be part of every serious music lover’s core collection. The 2CD set Tanglewood Tails, however, is really a for-the-faithful set of rarities, outtakes and other lo-fi oddities from the group’s earliest days. Studio tracks (such as the delightful “Clarence in Wonderland”) are cracked pop that will appeal to fans of Syd Barrett, as long as one can overlook the consistently distracting dodgy sound quality.

This series of hundred-word reviews wraps up tomorrow.

 Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Hundred Word Reviews for March 2015, Part 3

March 4th, 2015

“Rock” is such an all-encompassing term. It can include speedy punk, gothic rockabilly, krautrock, indie rock, and more. So, too, can a selection of my hundred-word reviews. To wit:

Stuyvesant – Shmyvesant
The cover art suggests pop-punk. The band photo shows husky, middle aged white guys. The music says, “We may be from New Jersey, but we look to Minneapolis for at least some of our inspiration.” Stuyvesant are indeed reminiscent of Hüsker Dü, though Sean Adams‘ voice is a lot higher (but just as expressive) as that of Bob Mould. The band does a lot with a small arsenal of instruments, and there’s plenty of stop/start action to keep the songs from getting samey. Think of it as college rock made by guys who’ve long since left the university. Well worth spinning.

The 69 Cats – Transylvanian Tapes
This international (Finland/UK/USA) gothabilly outfit stakes out a sound that’s equal parts Cramps, Cure, and Doors. I’m not sure if it was their goal with this album, but the collection of original and cover tunes points out the aesthetic similarities between Bauhaus (“Bela Lugosi’s Dead”), The Doors (“People Are Strange”) and The Rocky Horror Show (“Sweet Tranvestite”). You’ll either love or hate the yelping vocals of Jyrki 69, who sometimes favors Brian Setzer. Fans of reverb-drenched rockabilly guitar will enjoy this thirteen-song set. Blondie‘s Clem Burke handles the drums, and 77-year-old legend Wanda Jackson guests on Leiber/Pomus/Stoller‘s “She’s Not You.”

Guru Freakout – Mothership
Krautrock never really caught on in any sort of way here in the USA. Even genres like 60s-styled garage rock seem mainstream in comparison to the proggy, borderline ersatz-jazz, droning, fuzzed-out sounds of bands like Birth Control and Grobschnitt. So it’s a bit of a surprise to find modern-day bands mining the genre. But mine they do. This fantastic five-track CD – a thirty-plus minute track plus four shorter but still long numbers – is primarily the brainchild of krautrock legends Guru Guru‘s Mani Neumeier and Die KrupsJürgen Engler, and finds them firing their spacerock rocketship on all cylinders.

Pete Galub – Candy Tears
Some spiky guitar textures applied to catchy melodies gives Candy Tears a feel that’s halfway between powerpop and indierock, 90s version. Galub’s vocal delivery suggests a punk singer who just wants to get his point across – while defiantly chewing gum and sneering – but his skilled way around the fretboard shows that he’s far more artistically ambitious than your average pop-punker. Some angular, almost no-wave guitar lines give his jangly rock songs more bite than they’d otherwise have. Vibraphone on a couple of tracks is wholly unexpected – especially in this musical context – but it works, and well.

Fractal Mirror – Garden of Ghosts
These guys remind me of another band, but for the life of me I can’t figure out which. Unusually strong vocal arrangements, creamy keyboard textures and shimmering guitars suggest a sound not miles removed from – and I’m grasping at straws a bit here – Icehouse, Peter Gabriel, Japan, and Porcupine Tree (the latter’s Richard Barbieri was in Japan). The band is Dutch, but as with many European bands, American listeners will be hard pressed to spot a “foreign” accent. The minor-key melodies are best described as hauntingly beautiful. More keyboard connections: the group is associated with Synergy‘s Larry Fast.

More to come.

 Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Hundred Word Reviews for March 2015, Part 2

March 3rd, 2015

Powerpop and jazz rarely go together. But in this edition of hundred-word reviews, they do.



$15.00
Available only from Kool Kat Musik

The Jeanies – The Jeanies
I look back fondly upon the early-to-mid 1980s, an era in which the cost of studio time began to fall within the range of local, unsigned acts. And others just scored a Tascam Portastudio and went the DIY route at the tail-end of the analog era. It’s that latter approach that is suggested on a new(!) recording from The Jeanies. The album sounds like it was mastered direct from cassette. The lo-to-mid-fi production doesn’t mask the energy of the group, who aim for (and hit) a winning Romantics vibe. Absolutely no keyboards were used in the making of The Jeanies.


Jason Adasiewicz’s Sun Rooms – From the Region
If you like upbeat, thrilling jazz in a bop style – and if you like the buttery sound of the vibraphone – then From the Region belongs on your must-hear list. The trio – Adasiewicz on vibes, Ingebrit Haker-Flaten on bass, and Mike Reed on the drums – turn out eleven original pieces on this disc, and the instrumentals are heavy on melody. As is somewhat standard in jazz, all three players are doing their thing at all times – not merely backing up the other players – but the whole thing holds together in an edge-of-mayhem way. Highly recommended.


Jason Roebke Octet – High Red Center
As presented here, the octet operates on the small end of big band. Influenced greatly (and unapologetically) by the mighty Duke Ellington, this vibes-centric outfit combines free jazz with more melodic variants of jazz. It’s thrilling, challenging and alluring all at once, and the interplay between alto sax, tenor sax, bass clarinet, oboe, cornet and trombone alternates between out-there and harmonious. A solid bass (band leader Jason Roebke) and drums rhythm section wisely keeps things from flying away into the realm of outer space (because that’s Sun Ra‘s territory), and across eleven tracks, it’s an exciting ride. Check it out.

Sax Gordon – In the Wee Small Hours

Here in Asheville, there’s an older African American gentleman who goes by the name of Bobby Sax. He’s inevitably found at the exit gate after a ballgame at McCormick Field, or outside after a Civic Center concert. He seems to know every standard ever written, and he plays for tips. That aesthetic (except for the remuneration, one hopes) is not unlike the approach of one Sax Gordon on this album. Backed only by organ and drums, Gordon winds his way through a familiar songbook, with a swinging soul jazz style that will please fans of Jimmy McGriff and the like.



$9.99
Available only from iTunes

The Mangoes – The Mangoes
On one hand, The Mangoes is a concept album, a rock opera, or something like that. But at the same time, it’s a winning pop album in the tradition of 10cc‘s best work. The album’s opener “I Told You So” sets out the storyline, but you can ignore the story/concept and focus on the singalong melodies. Loads of 70s-styled keyboards, soaring power-chording guitars and tight harmonies (sometimes recalling Sweet) make The Mangoes an unexpected pleasure. Underground hero Tim Morse is half of The Mangoes, a group that even has its own theme song (chorus: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s the Mangoes!”).

More of these brief reviews to come.

 Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Hundred Word Reviews for March 2015, Part 1

March 2nd, 2015

Time for some more backlog-clearing hundred-word reviews. All of these are worth my (and your) time in some way, but because of the sheer volume of worthy material in my inbox, I regularly do these short-form reviews to keep them from languishing on my desk. Today’s four are all artists I’ve covered before.


The New Trocaderos – Frenzy in the Hips
Recently I reviewed the recent three-song disc from this Northeastern trio, and while I liked it a lot, I found the stylistic ground covered disparate enough so as to be confusing. This six-song disc repeats three of those cuts. The new three are reminiscent of some quality Southern acts of the 80s — specifically Georgia Satellites and Jason & the Scorchers — and serve better to define the group’s sound. Little Steven (he of the Underground Garage digital radio program) is a fan; he’s bestowed the “Coolest Song in the World” designation to two of the cuts on this disc.


The Well Wishers – A Shattering Sky
Jeff Shelton is one prolific guy; almost like clockwork a CD from him shows up in my mailbox every few months. And even though he’s not high profile, I cover his stuff because it’s good. If you’re the sort who picked up Jordan Oakes‘ peerless Yellow Pills powerpop compilation CDs back in the 90s (or most anything from Bruce Brodeen‘s NotLame label) then this is the stuff you’re looking for circa 2015. Any of the twelve cuts here would be right at home on a Yellow Pills set. Like-minded pals Chuck Lindo and Bradley Skaught help out on some cuts.


Red Jacket Mine – Pure Delight
As with their 2013 long player, on this six-song disc, Lincoln Barr‘s Red Jacket Mine is stylistically varied. Barr’s voice is the centerpiece of these well-assembled tunes, and some interesting keyboard textures (funky 70s-styled clavinet, some really well-recorded piano) plus some tasty synth strings give the disc a vaguely Ben Folds feel (minus the humor), even though Barr’s a guitarist. The soulful “Crow” and the sing/songwriter-flavored “AM” are both a bit of a left turn, departing from the group’s generally upbeat approach. “Nearly Marjorie” is retro in that “(Just Like) Starting Over” kind of way. “Get Paid” is wryly humorous.

Dewa Budjana – Hasta Karma
This Indonesian guitarist is a busy guy; like Jeff Shelton (see above), he seems to always have something new for his listeners. Of course where Shelton’s nominally powerpop, Budjana is progjazz, with a style that’s reminiscent of the better mainstream fusion albums of the 1970s (specifically Jean-Luc Ponty‘s albums). His music is ambitious and intricate while remaining highly melodic and accessible. Joe Locke‘s vibraphones keep things in a jazz vein, as does Ben Williams‘ upright bass (which often sounds like a fretless electric bass guitar). Recommended as a disc to spin for jazz friends who don’t think they like prog.

More capsule reviews to come.

 Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.