Hundred-word Reviews for July 2015, Part 1

July 21st, 2015

Power pop is a term that can be taken to mean a lot of different things. For me it almost always means fun and appealing music. Here are five examples, each reviewed in brief.

The Shoe Birds – Southern Gothic

During my recent conversation with him, Drivin’ n’ Cryin‘s Kevn Kinney threw out a phrase I hadn’t heard before: kudzu rock. The phrase was new to me, but I knew exactly what he meant: a kind of jangly southern rock that draws from classic rock but is informed with a c&w sensibility. R.E.M. and Tom Petty are kudzu rock; Charlie Daniels and Danny Joe Brown are most assuredly not. But The Shoe Birds are: their music features heartfelt lyrics coupled with memorable, hooky song craft. At its best, Southern Gothic conjures the ghosts of Big Star without copying their style.

Kurt Baker Combo – Muy Mola Live!

As part of The New Trocaderos, guitarist/vocalist Baker showcases his skill at crafting fast, catchy and memorable rockers. But here, fronting his own four-piece, Baker ups the wattage considerably. The songs are even better, and – thanks to the live setting for this recording – the energy is much more palpable. The visceral feel of punk is combined with the cheery perspective of power pop and the swagger of full-on rock’n'roll. They start and stop on a dime, and play to the small audience like rockstars. Their reading of The Remains‘ “Don’t Look Back” is stellar and incendiary. Vigorously recommended.

The Hangabouts – Illustrated Bird

Swimming in the less powerful – but supremely melodic – end of the power pop pool, The Hangabouts (John Lowry and Gregory Addington) craft melodic, acoustic flavored pop of the highest order. Their songs are reminscent of some of Pilot‘s best work, and fans of Matthew Sweet, Michael Penn and Jeff Lynne will quite possibly fall head-over-heels in love with the thirteen songs on Illustrated Bird. This music is proof (if it were needed) that one needn’t rock out all of the time. The production and arrangement (by the duo) are both up to the standard of the songs, too.

Aerial – Why Don’t They Teach Heartbreak at School?

The album graphics and packaging suggest a sort of teenage, angst-filled punk pop, and in some ways, that’s what the music delivers. But this American band has a more nuanced and textured musical approach than, say, Green Day. With guitars that pummel along like Bob Mould‘s old band Sugar, Aerial definitely have one foot in the punk/hardcore camp. But the poppy songs lean very much in a melodic direction; listening to their wonderfully hooky songs, one might guess that the group’s favorite Ramones album is End of the Century. Bonus points awarded for the ace backing vocals throughout the album.

The Super Fuzz – Super Famous

Taking a page from the way-out-front, exuberant playbook of Cheap Trick (“Speedball” even musically quotes Rockford’s finest), The Super Fuzz play a sort of glam-inflected, power-chording rock that puts strong emphasis on melody, groove, vocal harmony and roaring-guitar-centered performance and arrangement. One might detect hints of Fastball and Redd Kross in the grooves of Super Famous. Song titles like “Surprised Your Boyfriend’s Still Around” make it clear that this isn’t deep philosophy. What it is, is fun, fist-pumping rock that will have most listeners singing along. But please keep a hand on the steering wheel. Find this and buy it.

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Blu-ray Review: Elliott Smith — Heaven Adores You

July 20th, 2015

The life and music of Elliott Smith bears some superficial similarities to Nick Drake: a quiet, introspective songwriter who never quite seemed at ease, and whose life ended tragically maybe or maybe not by his own hand – at a far too young age. But while Drake didn’t achieve anything approaching stardom during his lifetime, Smith was catapulted int othe spotlight.

A new film, Heaven Adores You, explores Smith’s life and music. Over the course of an hour and forty minutes, the film charts his life and career. Remarkably little footage of Smith talking or being interviewed surfaces in the film; whether that was an aesthetic choice or due to such material simply not existing, the effect is to render Smith as a ghostly, enigmatic figure who’s sort of half present, half not.

And that ambience seems to suit the subject very well. As some of those relatively rare audio interviews show, Elliott Smith didn’t want to (or perhaps could not) reveal much of himself in conversation. During an interview for KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic, Smith is asked why he had relocated – years earlier – from Dallas, Texas to Portland, Orgeon. He begins to answer, and then thinks the better of it. The tension hangs in the air until the subject changes back to music.

Heaven Adores You draws upon interviews with friends, family and musical associates. Many of them remain visibly moved by the thought of Smith, and there’s a fair amount of holding-back-tears onscreen. This is one of those stories where most viewers know how it ends before they see it, and director Nickolas Rossi wisely starts the narrative at the end. Only once that part of the story is covered does he wind back to the beginning.

The film has a distinctive visual style. High resolution, shallow depth-of-field camera work is used, and the camera lens lingers on its subjects – trains in yards and at crossings; traffic at night; buildings – for unusually long periods. The subjects (or elements within the frame) move, sometimes via time-lapse techniques, but there’s a quiet, forlorn and meditative feel to the visuals. That feel – heightened by the directorial choice to eliminate the audio tracks from those scenes – provides a pleasing backdrop for the musical and narrative audio that moves the story forward. Heaven Adores You isn’t exactly an “arty” film, but it’s an artful one, a film in which the visual approach fits the story like a glove.

Viewers familiar with Smith’s work will find many gems; the soundtrack is packed with music form all phases of his career, including some unreleased material. Those who know Elliott Smith only from his work on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack are in for a treat. And those who know only his acoustic side may be intrigued to discover his much more rocking side, most notably with the band Heatmiser.

But it’s not necessary to know anything at all about the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist (he was a fine and expressive pianist, by the way) to enjoy Heaven Adores You.

Interview: Kevn Kinney of Drivin N Cryin

July 17th, 2015

Yesterday I published my feature based on an interview with Kevn Kinney. Today I present the entire interview. — bk

Bill Kopp: The new vinyl album Best of Songs compiles songs from the four EPs that Drivin N Cryin released between 2012 and 2014. How did you decide which tracks went on and which were left off?

Kevn Kinney: I tried to keep it kinda poppy. Because it’s supposed to be like a 1970s record – we designed it to look like a K-Tel record – I wanted to keep it upbeat and groovy. So I focused more on our power pop type stuff, like “Hot Wheels,” “Turn,” and “Strangers.”

I didn’t put “Sometimes the Rain (is Just the Rain)” on there for that reason. Once again, it’s an album. So we had to think of things in the same way that we did when we made our fist album [1986's Scarred But Smarter]. We’d think, “well, that song is too long.” I love the [long] intro to “Sometimes the Rain” – I love how the lyrics and the music work together – and so I asked myself, “Do I want to put it on the album but without [the intro]?” Because the song is, like, seven minutes. And I realized, “I don’t want to put a seven-minute song on here.

So I looked at the times of the songs, and I thought about which ones we do live, like “Dirty,” “Ain’t Waitin’ on Tomorrow,” and “Roll Away the Song,” and that’s kind of how I decided.

BK: I think it’s a good call not to have edited a song down just to fit it on there…

KK: But it’s fun to listen to. The songs all go together. But I also wanted to try to include at least something from all four of the EPs, if I could.

BK: When I first learned about the EP series, I was reminded of Marshall Crenshaw‘s similar project that’s ongoing. When I asked him about it, he said that part of the thinking behind doing a series of short-form releases was to keep his name and music in the minds of listeners, as opposed to the normal couple-of-years between albums, which is a lifetime in pop culture. People can forget about a group in that time. Did you have a similar motivation for your Songs EPs, or was it something else?

KK: Yeah, that was part of the motivation, the idea of putting something out more often. But also, I love the 45rpm format. Maybe I’ll do a series of 45s in the future, one every two months or so.

But also the EP idea came about because I think that twelve songs is too many songs! Too many songs by one band for a person to listen to. When my friends give me their CDs, I only make it to the tenth song. I’m in the car, I hear the first five or six songs, and then I’m usually wherever I need to be, or I’m bored.

I made the Bubble Factory record [2009's The Great American Bubble Factory]; that was meant to be a long playing, listen-to-all-the-songs album, because it was a “theme” record. But then I released EPs that each dealt with a different musical era. The first one is ‘kudzu rock’n'roll’ [Songs From the Laundromat] like R.E.M., Fetchin’ Bones and all of our heroes of that era. The punk rock one [Songs About Cars, Space, and The Ramones] is our hard rock side. And the psychedelic one [Songs From the Psychedelic Time Clock] is pretty obvious. I wanted to deconstruct the band through those EPs. Because if any band needs to be deconstructed, it’s Drivin N Cryin. We’re all over the map. And if I can do anything to confuse the audience even more, that’s what I want to do!

BK: You mentioned the thematic approach of those four EPs. I reviewed three of them, and I wrote that Songs From the Laundromat sounded to me like The Replacements crossed with Foghat or Grand Funk

KK: Yeah. There you go.

BK: The 1970s thing, but through a more modern, punky kind of sensibility…

KK: Right. And also, we really wanted to take advantage of this great kid who was playing with us. Sadler Vaden co-produced almost all of these EPs with me. He co-wrote and played guitar, and he played bass on some of the tracks. This guy is a genius. We had him in our band, and I knew that this kid was gonna be big. What was happening was like lightning striking. So I wanted to make as many records, as fast as I could, with the guy while he was with us. Because he’s just a pleasure. Now he’s with Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, but this kid is gonna be a famous producer someday. You’re gonna hear about him for the rest of your career, his career. I just love the guy. He’s somebody who I wish I had to work with back when I was 19 or 20.

Paul Ebersold produced Three Doors Down; he’s an enjoyable guy to work with, so we thought, “Let’s go to Nashville. There are so many producers who were Drivin N Cryin fans when they were young. They do these million-selling albums, but then they say, “ I want to do something fun: I want to produce Drivin N Cryin.”

All of the famous songs you can think of – “Satisfaction,” “Louie, Louie,” even “Whole Lotta Love” – these songs weren’t recorded in three days. They were recorded in an hour.

BK: The first Beatles album was recorded in twelve hours…

KK: Right. So a lot of the [choice of producers] was them being a good personality, having a group of good musicians that I’m happy to work with, and having a good environment in which to do it.

We could do an EP in a week; it’s not a big commitment like recording an album. It’s like the difference between making a movie and making music video. In a movie, it takes months; there’s a story arc, there’s editing.

BK: And of course you know a bit about that, having had the 2014 Scarred But Smarter documentary made about you and the band. [link: my review of Scarred But Smarter]

You mentioned earlier that you believe twelve songs is too many. With iTunes and streaming and the like, people aren’t interested in albums, but instead in individual songs. If true, that’s sort of a return to the era of 45rpm singles. Do you think the era of the album – as a creative medium – is over?

KK: I don’t know if it’s over. I just don’t know if it’s necessary. If Lucinda Williams wants to put out 40 songs, twelve songs, or five songs, that’s cool with me. It’s gonna end up on my iTunes anyway. If I like it, I’m gonna put it on my playlist. I’m gonna construct my own thing.

And this little Best of Songs project is kind of a playlist. You can take all four of the EPs, download ‘em on your computer, and you can make your own album. All those twenty-odd songs that are on the EPs, that’s the amount of material that a band would usually give to a record label’s A&R [Artists and Repertoire] person back in the 1970s and 80s.

BK: And then they’d pick…

KK: Right. They would pick the ten that they like. And they would have you re-record them in the order that they like, and all that. These would all be demos to them.

BK: And the others might end up as b-sides…

KK: Yeah. Or end up on another record, or they might never see the light of day.

BK: The various songs were recorded in Atlanta, Nashville, and at Ardent in Memphis. The band lineup was consistent across all the EPs. To what degree did the use of a particular studio affect the sound – or even the vibe – of the songs cut there?

KK: It doesn’t really matter that much. But – compared to home studios – what happens in studios where you’re spending $100 and hour is that you tend to work a little faster. When we were at Ardent, it was like, “You’ve got from 11 to 7. You can either make something happen, or you can’t. It’s up to you. But you’ve got 11 to 7. And the meter’s running.”

When you do that at a studio, they’ve got three engineers, they’ve got everything happening. If you need something done, it’s done now. We did “Turn” and “Roll Away the Song” [both on Best of Songs] at Ardent. Those just had a great vibe. I could play my acoustic guitar and sing, and they’d isolate the band; the band was in a different room. There’s more space, and you can do more to cut live. We did “Turn” live; we did it a bunch of times, and then everybody went and had dinner. When we came back, I was tired and kinda sleepy; I said, “I’m just gonna play my acoustic.” And that was the one. We weren’t pushing it.

BK: Did the loose concepts of the EPs give you the freedom to write music in styles not typically associated with you, and your band?

KK: No. I always do what I want to do, and then sort it out later.

BK: On some albums, the songwriting is credited to the group, not to you. On other albums, it’s credited individually. And on the EPs and the record, it’s back to group credit again. To me that makes sense, because although you write the lyrics, shared credit acknowledges the value that the other musicians bring to the music. Why does it seem to keep changing back and forth?

KK: It just depends on what song it was, and how it turned out. Eighty percent of everything is mine; basically, I write all the songs. That’s just a practical statement. But if, say, Sadler really helped put something together, then that’s groovy, y’know? I think he should be recognized. Even if it’s just for arrangement.

The band didn’t want credit on [unintelligible], which I thought was stupid. It’s a great fuckin’ song. So I said, fine, I’ll keep that one for myself.

BK: The EPs were released on New! Records, and the LP is on Cheetah Chrome‘s label Plowboy. Having had plenty of experience with the majors, do find that you have more creative control over your material now? What are the other benefits? Would you sign with a major if one came along today?

KK: Yeah, well, obviously. ‘Cause no one’s giving me a hundred thousand dollars. If they give you $100k, you gotta let them have their input. Which is not good; it’s not good. I think some of the [major label] Drivin N Cryin albums sound horrible. Like Whisper Tames the Lion [1988] and Fly Me Courageous [1991]. All of my acoustic records, I think they sound great. They were all babysat, they were all done really fast. I think Smoke [1993] is the best Drivin N Cryin record. Wrapped in Sky [1995], some of those records aren’t really even the band…it’s kinda weird. They were really heavy-handed producers – Anton Fier and Geoff Workman – with producers back then, it was like you were working with [Francis Ford] Coppola. They want this record to sound like they produced it. And that was kind of a drag. From the minute the producer sits down, you end up compromising. And then you just give up, eventually: “I don’t know; whatever. Maybe this one will be huge.”

You have to get lightning in a bottle, like R.E.M. Did. But even R.E.M. hates some of their early stuff. But I love it. And my fans love Mystery Road [1989]. They love Fly Me Courageous. So I get it. But I remember what the demos sounded like. These songs could all be re-recorded next week with Jack White, and they’d be totally different.

BK: Not counting the new LP – which is essentially a compilation – the last release from Drivin N Cryin was The Great American Bubble Factory back in 2009. Six years ago. What’s in the future for the band?

KK: This is our last project for awhile. We’re gonna tour on this record, and now we’ve got Warner Hodges from Jason and the Scorchers on guitar.

BK: Just a quick aside: notwithstanding the literal meaning of the lyric on “The Great American Bubble Factory,” the line that goes, “if you can make it here / why dontcha make it here?” Reminds me of the line from “New York, New York.” Coincidence or intentional?

KK: That was intentional. Totally intentional.

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Drivin N Cryin’s Kevn Kinney: Sowing Confusion

July 16th, 2015

Since their debut in the mid 1980s, Atlanta-based Drivin N Cryin have crafted their own take on southern rock. Led by guitarist/songwriter Kevn Kinney, the group has distilled its many influences into a sound that is all their own. A recent series of EPs set out to explore those various styles, and selections from those CDs have been compiled on the new vinyl-only release, Best of Songs.

With more than two dozen songs released on those EPs between 2012 and 2013, Kinney had a lot to choose from when sequencing Best of Songs. “I tried to keep it kinda poppy,” Kinney says. “We designed it to look like a 1970s K-Tel record…upbeat and groovy. So I focused more on our power pop type stuff.”

The motivation for that original EP series was twofold. Because two years between albums can seem a lifetime in pop culture, shorter and more frequent releases keep a group in the public’s mind and ears. But there was another reason for smaller musical servings. “Twelve songs is too many songs,” says Kinney. So does he think that the era of the album is over? “I don’t know if it’s over,” he says. I just don’t know if it’s necessary. If Lucinda Williams wants to put out 40 songs, twelve songs, or five songs, that’s cool with me. It’s gonna end up on my iTunes anyway. If I like it, I’m gonna put it on my playlist. I’m gonna construct my own thing.” That thinking influences Kinney’s ideas for future releases. “Maybe I’ll do a series of 45s in the future, one every two months or so.”

Each of the four Drivin N Cryin EP releases focuses on a musical style. “The first one is ‘kudzu rock’n'roll’ like R.E.M., Fetchin’ Bones, and all of our heroes of that era,” says Kinney. “The punk rock one is our hard rock side. And the psychedelic one is pretty obvious.” A fourth, Songs for the Turntable, is a five-song stylistic grab-bag. “I wanted to deconstruct the band through those EPs,” says Kinney. “Because if any band needs to be deconstructed, it’s Drivin N Cryin. And if I can do anything to confuse the audience even more, that’s what I want to do!”

After having released seven albums on major labels (Island and Geffen) followed by several on smaller labels, Drivin N Cryin chose to release Best of Songs on Plowboy Records, a small indie label that features Cheetah Chrome (of punk legends The Dead Boys) as its A&R guy. Kinney muses on the difference between indies and the majors. Smaller labels allow the artist more creative control. “Because,” laughs Kinney, “No one’s giving me a hundred thousand dollars. If they give you $100k, you gotta let them have their input. Which is not good.” He repeats for emphasis. “It’s not good.”

Kinney says that guitarist Sandler Vaden was a star of – and a motivating force behind – the songs on the EPs and Best of Songs. “Sadler co-produced almost all of these EPs with me. He co-wrote and played guitar, and he played bass on some of the tracks. This guy is a genius. We had him in our band, and I knew that this kid was gonna be big. What was happening was like lightning striking. So I wanted to make as many records, as fast as I could, with the guy while he was with us. This kid is gonna be a famous producer someday. You’re gonna hear about him for the rest of your career, his career. I just love the guy. He’s somebody who I wish I had to work with back when I was 19 or 20.”

With the amicable departure of Vaden – “Now he’s with Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit,” notes Kinney – Drivin N Cryin has brought Warner Hodges, guitarist with another southern institution, Jason and the Scorchers, on board for touring dates. After more than ten Drivin N Cryin albums, four group EPs and eight Kevn Kinney solo albums, what’s in the future for the band? “This is our last project for awhile,” says Kinney. Catch them while you can.

An edited version of this feature was published previously in Mountain Xpress. Tomorrow I’ll run my entire original Q&A with Kevn Kinney. — bk

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Album Review: The Volt Per Octaves — Joining the Circuits

July 15th, 2015

There’s a line of thinking that insists electronic-based music is cold, bloodless, and bereft of emotion. And in its most high-profile variant (EDM, or electronic dance music), the style places infinitely more emphasis on beat than melody. But while there’s plenty of aural evidence to support those assertions, that perspective simply doesn’t account for the music created by Asheville NC-based trio The Volt Per Octaves. As displayed on Joining the Circuits, their new (and fifth) album, the group’s music is emotionally evocative, lush and textured, melodic, and – for lack of a better word – organic.

The Volt Per Octaves are a family group: Nick Montoya plays an assortment of synthesizers (more on those in a moment) as well as a talkbox unit, Theremin, and electric piano. He also handles drum programming; there are no “real drums” on Joining the Circuits. Nick’s spouse Anna Rhoney Montoya plays more synthesizers and electric piano. And the couple’s daughter Eva Montoya plays yet-more-synths and melodica. Though their music is largely instrumental, all three handle vocals. Most songwriting is credited to Nick and Anna, with occasional compositional collaborations with daughter Eva; famed Parliament/Funkaledelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell (a longtime friend and mentor of the VPOs); and multi-instrumentalist Jason Daniello (of the very different synthesizer outfit Orgatroid), who also lends lap steel guitar to “Trim Pot.”

If such a thing were needed, Joining the Circuits could serve as a demonstration disc for a wide assortment of products manufactured (hand-built, in fact) by Moog Music, the Asheville-headquartered company that employs all three Montoyas. The gear list – happily printed on the back of the album sleeve – features new and vintage Moog instruments including Minimoog Model D (circa 1972), various Little Phatty synths (a current-day Moog innovation), the Memorymoog Plus (dating from the early 1980s), and various Moog-built Theremins. The trio also makes use of several Korg instruments, as well as the distinctive Wurlitzer Electric Piano (“student model” 206), featured on several cuts.

But none of that would matter to anyone beyond synth geeks and gear fetishists were it not for the music itself. With a sound that recalls the warmer, more humanistic end of Kraftwerk, the Volt Per Octaves apply their analogue technology to catchy, midtempo melodies. Unlike the dark and distant aesthetic favored by many of the 80s-vintage synth acts (Depeche Mode, New Order) or the sometimes hyperkinetic, dance-oriented synth outfits of that era (The Human League), The VPOs favor a warmer, friendlier approach that doesn’t reply upon any kind of faux-mopey poseur stance. It’s not difficult to imagine the trio’s songs recast as acoustic melodies; they would certainly sound different, but the sturdy underlying song structures would retain their appeal.

But The Volt Per Octaves’ chosen medium is the analog synthesizer – many of which are monophonic (capable of playing a single note at a time) – and so while the realization of their songs remains complex enough to interest musicians and other musically demanding types, the music’s firm rooting in melody means that the songs on Joining the Circuits are accessible to all listeners. There’s a playful feel to many of the disc’s seven tracks, one that may remind listeners of another trio, Trio (the German group that gave the world 1982′s “Da Da Da”). In fact, Trio described their music as Neue Deutsche Fröhlichkeit (New German Cheerfulness), which gets to the heart of The Volt Per Octaves’ musical personality: electronic but not foreboding; technology-based but never emotionless.

On the album’s opener “Trim Pot,” Anna Montoya’s faraway, kittenish vocals are reminiscent of Beach House‘s Victoria Legrand, with a touch of Cocteau Twins mixed in for greater expressiveness. Guest player Steve Maass‘ bass trumpet adds a delightfully unexpected non-electronic character to the instrumental “Altadena.” Whirring and whistling synth lines buzz by while a simple percussion program and a bass-bombtastic foundation hold things together. The groove-centered, dance-oriented “Mimi Cupcake” continues the instrumental approach with a melodic line that will lodge itself in the listener’s memory. Another instrumental, “Squidgity” takes things in a moodier direction; subtle touches of broken chords on the Wurlitzer heighten the pleasingly eerie, hypnotic vibe of the track.

The minor-key dynamics of “Divide Down” suggest film soundtrack music; here, The Volt Per Octaves are at their most Tangerine Dream-sounding. The track makes the disc’s most effective use of percussion simply by dropping the synth drums out of the mix at strategic parts of the tune. Nick Montoya’s talk box work on the cut calls to mind some of the best moments on The Alan Parsons Project‘s 1977 I Robot album.

“Equidistant” again features Maass’ trumpet, albeit in a slightly less prominent role. The track’s relatively simple, spare melody could have rendered it as Joining the Circuits‘ least fully-realized tune, but the varied and interesting synth textures throughout the track more than rescue it. The primary musical focus of “Ehbah” is a dance-flavored synthdrum beat, but creamy synth lines float in and around the percussion; the contrast between the motorik-styled beat and the lush synthesizers is very effective. The track fades out to the sound of electronic “wind.”

Joining the Circuits wraps up with the title track, and features Worrell on synthesizer and Wurlitzer. It’s the busiest track on the album, and it’s also among the disc’s best. Multiple melodic line crisscross one another, atop a relatively intricate synthdrum track and a propulsive (yet still decidedly midtempo) bass line. Joining the Circuits finds The Volt Per Octaves moving forward musically while remaining faithful to the sonic approach upon which their musical aesthetic is based.

Note: a release party/show for Joining the Circuits will be held on Friday, July 17 at Asheville’s Grey Eagle. The Volt Per Octaves welcome their friend, mentor and guest, “Uncle” Bernie Worrell, onstage for the performance.

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Some Long-lost Artist Biographies

July 14th, 2015

Way back in the depths of the Great Recession (2007-2009), one of my former writers (from my time as Editor in Chief of a now-defunct magazine I won’t dignify by naming) put me in touch with the good people at Amoeba Music. The California-based record chain had an ambitious plan: creating artist bios to serve as a resource on their website. Right alongside online ordering, visitors could click on an “Artist Biography” link, and read a concise bio about that act.

I was commissioned to do several dozen of these, but owing to that little worldwide financial debacle I mentioned earlier, the project was shelved indefinitely. And because the pieces I turned in before deadline were “works for hire,” they were the property of Amoeba. So I couldn’t publish them myself. Fair is fair.

Fast forward more than six years, to a couple of weeks ago. I stumbled upon one of those essays online! Turns out that – and I don’t know when this happened; could’ve been years ago – Amoeba has published five of the six essays I penned; most (but not all) of them include my byline.

If you enjoy any of the acts listed below, you might also find these short biographies an interesting read. For my part, I’m just happy that they’re available. All excerpts below ©Amoeba Music.

The story of Badfinger is one filled with tantalizing promise, modest success, and crushing tragedy. Initially viewed as something of an heir apparent to the Beatles’ legacy, a combination of naivete, emotional fragility and misplaced trust served to rob this quartet of greater fame; their brief time in the limelight (1970-1974) ended with the suicide of their primary songwriter, effectively spelling the end for this talented group. Despite the band’s tumultuous history, Badfinger has earned its place among the top tier of power pop groups. [read more...]

Blind Faith
The aptly-named Blind Faith is a textbook example of unrealized potential. Formed in 1968 from the remnants of other high-profile groups, this “supergroup” brought together some of rock’s greatest talents. The quartet issued one hastily-recorded album, did a quick tour and disbanded. In some ways, Blind Faith is no more than a footnote to the careers of three of its members. Yet in its lineup, approach and songs, the group possessed immense potential to push popular music in new and exciting directions. They made tentative steps in those directions, but left fans wondering what could have been. [read more...]

The Rutles
The mockumentary/rockumentary genre didn’t start with the 1984 film This is Spinal Tap. As far back as 1978, NBC-TV aired All You Need is Cash, a prime-time special that purported to tell the story of The Rutles, England’s “Pre-Fab Four.” Former Monty Python troupe member Eric Idle had conceived of the project years earlier, and the project’s musical director (Neil Innes from the Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band) had already written and produced a few songs in a mock-Beatles vein both with The Bonzos and The Grimms. [read more...]

Spinal Tap
Rock music is often funny; rarely is it intentionally so. The 1984 film This is Spinal Tap was a faux documentary (“rockumentary” or “mockumentary”) that followed the exploits of fictional British heavy metal band Spinal Tap (“one of Britain’s loudest bands”). Like The Monkees before them, Spinal Tap went from being a fictional group to a real one; unlike The Monkees, Spinal Tap never had ambitions to be taken seriously. Turning every rock cliché on its head for laughs, Spinal Tap (the band and the movie) may be the most fully-realized parody in all of popular culture. [read more...]

The Tubes
The Tubes successfully combined rock, theatre and satire. Their biting combination of offbeat subject matter, complex yet muscular arrangements, and provocative presentation pushed the boundaries of rock like few before or since. Most modern visually-oriented acts owe a debt—knowingly or not—to the Tubes. [read more...]

The list of acts I was planning to cover for Amoeba (but didn’t) was long, and included Syd Barrett, Boston, Brinsley Schwarz, Junior Brown, Cheap Trick, Cream, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Neil Finn, Fleetwood Mac, Flo & Eddie, Fountains of Wayne, Robert Fripp, Gentle Giant, David Gilmour, Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship, Jellyfish, John Lennon, Nick Lowe, Nazz, Porcupine Tree, Procol Harum, Raspberries, Redd Kross, The Replacements, Rockpile, Todd Rundgren, Soft Boys, Ringo Starr, Pete Townshend, Traffic, The Turtles, Utopia, Steve Ray Vaughan, Roger Waters, The Who, Brian Wilson, Johnny Winter, and Roy Wood. As you might note from the links embedded in that last sentence, I’ve since written about many of them – and even interviewed several – on this site.

As of this writing, my completed-and-submitted biography of Moby Grape remains unavailable. Far be it from me to suggest that the (allegedly, I say) dastardly Matthew Katz has anything to do with its omission. I’m sure he’s a lovely man. Really. Honestly. Everyone says so.

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Album Review: Thelonious Monk — The Complete Riverside Recordings

July 13th, 2015

In my final year of college, I was exceedingly fortunate to have signed up for a course called American Popular Music History: Stephen Foster to the Present. There were only six of us in the class, and our professor was one Murray Silver; he had just co-authored Myra Lewis‘ book, Great Balls of Fire. But I digress, already.

One of the things we learned was that – according to at least some music scholar-historians – the term jazz was a corruption of the slang term “jass,” which was another word for “mistake.” (Of course there are other, less, um, savory theories as to the etymology of the word jazz, but this one suits my present purpose.)

Few jazz artists have more fittingly embodied that theory of the word’s origin than Thelonious Monk. Though an advanced and expressive technician, Monk’s unorthodox, dissonant phrasing and chording (if one can even call it that) led many to think he was just plain sloppy, that his performances were full of mistakes. In truth, that was simply not the case.

Monk recorded and released some forty albums under his own name; more than half of those came from the periods during which he was signed to Riverside (1955-1961) and Columbia (1962-1968). A Grammy-winning 1986 box set, The Complete Riverside Recordings, compiled all of Monk’s recordings for Riverside onto 15 compact discs. Taking note of the present-day music consumer’s preference for physically more compact sets (see also: parent company Concord Music Group’s recent small-size reissues of 2009′s The Complete Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Recordings and The Complete Stax Soul Singles Vol. 3), 2015 sees the CD set reissued in a box measuring 5” x 5½” x 1¾.” The fifteen discs are each packaged in a thin cardboard sleeve, and the original set’s booklet – featuring liner notes from the late, famed producer Orrin Keepnews – has been downsized to a 60pp CD size as well. With the new reissue’s decreased focus on packaging, the music returns to front-and-center.

Rather than taking the approach of compiling Monk’s Riverside albums and then appending each with unreleased bonus tracks (alternate takes and such), The Complete Riverside Recordings presents a chronology based upon recording dates. Thus, regardless of when a track was originally issued (or, in some cases, not issued), the set presents an audio document of 153 studio, club and concert recordings – solo and with sidemen – in the order that Thelonious Monk experienced them.

The list of sidemen whose work shows up on the set is, of course, a who’s who of the era’s jazz giants. Drummer Art Blakey, John Coltrane (sax), Johnny Griffin (sax), Coleman Hawkins (sax), Thad Jones (trumpet), Gerry Mulligan (sax), Max Roach (drums), Oscar Pettiford (bass), Sonny Rollins (sax), Charlie Rouse (sax), Clark Terry (trumpet, flugelhorn) and Wilbur Ware (bass) are just some of the musicians who appear.

Monk’s arrangements on the band material are quite democratic – most everyone gets his turn in the spotlight. And the live tracks have a level of excitement that the studio cuts – no matter how inventive and well-executed – simply cannot match. His solo pieces are by definition a bit more idiosyncratic, but once one allows for and accepts Monk’s unconventional approach to the piano keyboard, they’re fascinating.

The alternate takes demonstrate the level of inventiveness and spontaneity inherent in Monk’s (and his sidemen’s) playing. While it’s generally clear why one take was ultimately chosen for (original) release over another, even the initially-unused takes and breakdowns, for that matter) are a treasure. The alternates and breakdowns constitute about 10% of the total music on these discs, but their presentation in context helps provide the listener with a sense of how the original sessions unfolded.

For anyone whose interest in Thelonious Monk extends beyond casual – in other words, for anyone whose appetite has been whetted by, say, Misterioso – the comprehensive The Complete Riverside Recordings merits serious consideration.

Note: A vinyl version of this set seems only to have been released in Japan (circa 1988) and sells on eBay – assuming you can even find one for sale – for more than twice the price of this new, slimmed-down CD set.

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Album Review: The Standells — Live on Tour 1966!

July 10th, 2015

The Standells – considered a quintessential protopunk band of the 1960s – got their start as a matching-suited, club band playing frat-rock and covers of the day. The pride of Boston thanks to their name-checking 1966 hit, “Dirty Water,” The Standells weren’t even from Massachusetts; they were a Los Angeles group.

But with the passing of a few months and a few band members, The Standells quickly coalesced a lineup around founder and former solo act, keyboardist Larry Tamblyn, and former Mouseketeer Dick Dodd on vocals and drums. The band toughened their image, and signed with Tower Records, where they began to work with producer Ed Cobb. Cobb would write (or co-write) “Dirty Water” for (or with) the group, and went on to produce another legendary 60s garage group, The Chocolate Watchband.

Buoyed by the success of “Dirty Water,” the group cut more songs in the nascent garage rock style, including genre classics “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White,” “Riot on Sunset Strip” (from the 1967 teen exploitation movie of the same name), “Why Pick on Me,” and the banned-in-Texas “Try It.” By ’68 the group’s style was past its sell-by date, and though they would continue with various lineups, no new music was forthcoming.

Back in ’64 an early Standells lineup released The Standells in Person at P.J.’s, but that set captured the pre-garage version of the group. In 2001, Sundazed released a 10” vinyl record, The Live Ones! (a riff on the title of The Standells’ second of three 1966 LPs, The Hot Ones!). That set provided the first officially-available live document of the garage-era group. Recorded in the summer of 1966 at Michigan State University, the surprisingly good quality recording found the band at their snarling yet good-natured, fuzztone best.

Now – almost fifty years after it was recorded – Sundazed has unearthed yet another live document of The Standells from that banner year of 1966. Recorded no more than a couple of months after the show that would yield The Live Ones!, and performed less than sixty miles southeast, Live on Tour – 1966! is equally exciting, and it features twice as many songs.

The recording opens with a laughably tepid introduction (probably by a college administrator) explaining that there will be two acts on the evening’s bill: The Standells (curiously, this is met by silence from the audience) and The Beach Boys. The crowd seems to chuckle inwardly at the announcement before breaking into delayed applause. But once the announcer introduces The Standells, the crowd’s reaction is much more enthusiastic. A friendly bit of pandering from Dick Dodd (“We hear somebody won a game today; is that right?”) leads straight into the guitar buzz of “Mr. Nobody.”

Dodd’s vocals come through loud and clear, as do Tony Valentino‘s electric guitar, Larry Tamblyn’s Vox Continental organ, and Dave Burke‘s Fender bass. Dodd’s drums are less distinct, but overall Live On Tour – 1966! is a superbly recorded (and preserved) recording.

The setlist doesn’t differ greatly from what’s showcased on The Live Ones!; while that set featured songs closely associated with The Standells, this disc features the complete opening-act length set, a setlist that included covers that were well-known (and oft-played) by garage bands across the USA: “Good Lovin’,” James Brown‘s “Please, Please, Please,” Wilson Pickett‘s “Midnight Hour,” and the all-but-required “Gloria.” But The Standells imbue their readings of these tunes with just the right combination of polish and grunge.

Mid-set, they feature a Tamblyn lead vocal (with ample vocal support from the rest of the band) in a faithful cover of the then-brand-new “Sunny Afternoon.” The Kinks‘ single had been released in the USA weeks before; at the time of this concert (October 22, 1966) the tune was riding high on the singles charts. Dodd notes afterward, “That song can be found on an album of ours which will be released around Christmas time, where we do nothing but everybody else’s hits…probably the best album we ever made.” It wasn’t, not by a long shot; the world didn’t really need a Standells reading of “Eleanor Rigby.”

But there are no Beatles ballad covers on Live on Tour –1966! “Now that we’ve messed up everybody else’s number, we’d like to mess up one of our own.” Drawing out the tension with a serious of groan-eliciting one-liners, the band finally relents and launches into the garage rock anthem, “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White,” playing it in a fashion that’s both Just Like the Record and shot through with the energy that only comes from an onstage performance. The crowd claps along start to finish while the band closes their set with their million-selling hit, “Dirty Water.”

With the fine exception of the low-key Kinks cover, Live on Tour –1966! is a consistently uptempo, rocking good time, and proves – in case there were any doubts – that The Standells were a solid, engaging live band, one that leveraged a garage-punk image with professional musicianship.

This review was previously published in BLURT Magazine.

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Album Review: The Shadows of Knight — Live 1966

July 9th, 2015

In their heyday – a period that began in 1966 and ended, well, in 1966 – Chicago’s Shadows of Knight embodied what we now look back upon as the garage rock aesthetic. A group of suburban teens inspired – like countless other groups of teens in those days – by the British Invasion, the Shadows of Knight channeled American blues through the filter of British sensibilities (Them, Rolling Stones, Animals), reinterpreting it yet again and creating something fresh and exciting in the process. A newly-released live recording, Live 1966 offers a previously unheard document of the group’s onstage power.

The group released two albums in 1966 (and one more a few years later) but their strength was best expressed on the 45rpm single. Their reading of Van Morrison‘s “Gloria” – originally a b-side of Them’s top ten hit “Baby Please Don’t Go” – helped enshrine the tune as a garage rock classic. Though the group’s success was short-lived, The Shadows of Knight received belated attention when their reading of Bo Diddley‘s “Oh Yeah” was featured on Side Two of Lenny Kaye‘s influential 1972 compilation, Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968.

On the group’s 1966 singles and albums, the production (credited on the sleeve only as “A Dunwich Production”) was of the basic, let’s-get-it-done variety. In those days – especially where a small regional label such as Dunwich was concerned – bands were expected to have their repertoire tight, ready to lay down in the studio in one take. (With their bigger budgets, larger labels often dispensed altogether with the niceties, enlisting so-called Wrecking Crew session players to record, one-and-done, in the stead of the named groups.)

What this meant in practice for The Shadows of Knight is that their finished studio recordings did indeed sound a good bit like the actual group. The eleven songs on the group’s Gloria LP – nine overs, three originals – captured the band’s assertive, energetic playing and singing. They had certainly gotten tight playing live gigs, and the records captured that vibe as best as could be expected.

But there’s nothing like the real thing, and Live 1966 is that real thing. Recorded in front of what Jeff Jarema‘s liner note essay calls “suburban Chicago’s hands-down hippest teen club,” Arlington Heights’ Cellar, Live 1966 finds the group playing to a familiar and appreciative hometown crowd. Jarema notes that there’s no way of knowing the date of this performance – club owner Paul Sampson was known to record shows – it likely dates from late in the year, after two of the group’s albums had been released (the compilers’ best guess is December ’66).

These white suburban kids sure did have a thing for the blues; their first LP featured no less than three Willie Dixon numbers alongside covers of Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters. Live 1966 features several of these. Even their Chuck Berry cover (“Let it Rock”) was delivered in a bluesy manner. And their original tunes were a clear attempt to write in that same blues-based style.

The second album widened the group’s scope a bit to include their take on New Orleans funky pop (Huey “Piano” Smith‘s “High Blood Pressure”). A cover of the Boyce/Hart number “Tomorrow’s Going to Be Another Day,” released at almost the same time as the Monkees‘ version, couldn’t have less in common with the prefab four’s reading; in the hands of The Shadows of Knight, the tune sounds like early Rolling Stones.

A solid selection of tunes from Back Door Men figures into the Live 1966 set, too, including a soulful run-through of Jimmy Reed‘s “Peepin’ and Hidin’” sung here not by drummer Tom Schiffour (he sang on the single version) but by lead guitarist Joe Kelley.

Live 1966 is presented in astonishingly good audio quality; the monaural recording accurately captures David “Hawk” Wolinski‘s walking bass lines. The drums aren’t as forward in the mix as modern tastes might dictate, but overall Live 1966 is quite the well-balanced recording. Occasional amplifier hum only adds to the you-are-there feel of the recording, and Kelley’s stinging guitar leads punch through the mix. The group shines on “Oh Yeah,” with the band – led by a screaming Jim Sohns – adding just a bit more swagger and abandon than found on their studio version.

Closing with six wild minutes of “Gloria,” The Shadows of Knight deliver a loose yet forceful performance that renders The Doors‘ posthumously-released live version (recorded in the late 60s) completely unnecessary. And a brief quote from The Mothers of Invention‘s just-released Freak Out! suggests that the group had more than just the blues on their mind.

As a heretofore undiscovered document of mid-sixties garage rock at its rawest and most authentic, The Shadows of Knights’ Live 1966 is essential for fans of the genre.

The review was previously published in BLURT Magazine.

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Album Mini-review: Rhett Miller — The Traveler

July 8th, 2015

File Next to: Old 97s, Pete Yorn

In his role as guitarist and lead vocalist of Old 97s, Rhett Miller has been at the modern-day vanguard of successful rock/country cross-fertilization. His solo career dates back even farther than Old 97s’ debut, and while he put solo efforts on hold for most of that band’s first decade, he resumed his solo career in 2002. The Traveler is Miller’s seventh album. The Traveler doesn’t represent a major shift in musical emphasis; while album’s arrangement choices mean that a track like “Jules” features a string section that will remind listeners of Out of Time-era R.E.M. (specifically “Losing My Religion”), Miller’s straightforward songwriting always keeps the melodic quotient high. His breezy, laconic vocal delivery has a genuine (but not overly earnest) quality that makes listeners stop and pay attention to what he’s singing about. And nobody combines c&w’s musical virtues with glam-rock quite like Miller does on “Most in the Summertime.”

An edited version of this review previously appeared in the Colorado Springs Independent.

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