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

September 5th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Album Review: The Mojo Gurus — Who Asked Ya?

September 4th, 2014

Once upon a time, rock was rock. In the days before popular music fell prey to market segmentation, the catch-all term of rock conjured – at least to some extent – a kind of music that was played (usually) by men who possessed an onstage demeanor and attitude that said “we’re here to rock.”

Sometimes it didn’t say much more than that. And sometimes – oftentimes, in fact – that was enough. Nobody really looked to Aerosmith or Van Halen (or Led Zeppelin, for that matter) for great statements about the human condition. The songs expressed sentiments no deeper than, say, “ I Can’t Drive 55.”

That kind of music seems in short supply in 2014. Instead we have mope-rock, wherein the vocalists don’t look the audience in the eye, turn their backs to the crowd when it’s (extended) solo time, and generally seem to apologize for their existence. Not to suggest any sort of violence be associated with music, but if a “real” rocker stumbled across that kind of thing, their music would – at least figuratively – kick that kind of thing right off the stage.

Such rare creatures do still exist, though one has to dig a bit to find them. (And yes, I will readily concede that lessened demand plays a part in the scarcity of the style.) A showpiece of the we’re-ready-to-rock-you approach is Tampa, Florida’s Mojo Gurus. The name – at least for me – immediately brings to mind classic bluesmen (as in, “Got My Mojo Workin’”) and the melodic rocking of Austalia’s Hoodoo Gurus. And the music itself is the kind of thing that efficiently gets across the sort of attitude that says in essence, “fuck it, let’s party.”

The Mojo Gurus know that they’re this kind of band, too: their current tour is billed – without a hint of false humility – as “The Last Rock ‘N’ Roll Show Tour.” And why not? The new album, Who Asked Ya?, blasts right out of the speakers with opener, “Where You Hidin’ Your Love.” A beefy horn section cranks out an insistent riff while the four-piece band swaggers their way through the tune without compromise. Musically, it’s straight-ahead blues changes and Doc Lovett‘s stinging guitar solo right exactly where you’d expect it, doubled in length because that’s just how it oughta be. And for good measure, there’s a second guitar solo. Again, just because.

Sure, these guys could probably slay “Mustang Sally,” but so could a billion other bar bands. But The Mojo Gurus ply their trade without artifice. “Hoodoo Man” is hard-charging blooz-rock: not only does lead vocalist Kevin Steele‘s harmonica sound like it’s played through the de rigueur Green Bullet mic, but the vocals and guitars have that overdriven-right-into-the-red vibe as well. The band conjures a storm.

The opening of “Devil to Pay” is more than a bit reminiscent of The Rolling Stones‘ “Honky Tonk Women,” bu from there it’s a piano-led barroom rocker. It’s slightly understated compared to the rest of the disc, but subtlety and restraint are –by design – not part of The Mojo Gurus’ bag of musical tricks. Imagine if ZZ Top widened their musical approach just a bit ( and packed up the synthesizers and sequencers for good), and you’d have something not far from The Mojo Gurus.

A quick scan of the song titles provides a rundown of this band’s musical and lyrical worldview: “No Damn Good,” “Bad Attitude,” “C’mon Over to My House.” But they do more than just rock out 24/7. “No Damn Good” is built around guest musician Nina Wegmann‘s accordion, and the tune has an aura that suggests Los Lobos covering The Drifters‘ “Save the Last Dance for Me.” But that calm respite is over as the band pivots right back to “Someone Else Will, with its pegging piano figures and stomping beat. When the music stops at the end of a phrase, allowing Steele to sing the chorus lyrics without accompaniment, you might think briefly of The Georgia Satellites‘ “Keep Your Hands to Yourself.” Is that a bad thing? I think not.

They do some porch-rocking c&w on “Bad Attitude,” with Steele doing a good vocal approximation of one of the characters from Squidbillies. Jason (Del McCoury Band) Carter‘s keening fiddle and mass-singalong backing suggests the band could make a career out of the style, were they not such unrepentant rock’n'rollers. And the group does some convincing spaghetti western, Herb Alpert-meets-surf-rock on the instrumental raver “Bandito.”

In keeping with their “this is how it used to be done” approach, the group has issued two of the disc’s standout tracks – “Where You Hidin’ Your Love” b/w “Bandito” – on 7” vinyl with a picture sleeve.

Who Asked Ya? won’t change the world. And The Mojo Gurus don’t seem to be intent on any such lofty goals. They just wanna rock, and if you do too, you’re advised to check them out.

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Album Review: Wendy Carlos (and Journey) — TRON Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

September 3rd, 2014

The soundtrack of the 1982 motion picture TRON showcased the work of synthesist-composer Wendy Carlos in a more commercial context than was normally the case for her work. A new 2LP edition restores deleted material that wouldn’t fit on the original single-LP version.

After the brief “Creation of TRON,” which barely registers as tune, “Only Solutions” features – of all things – Journey, doing what soundtrack supervisor Michael Fremer characterizes as their best Police impersonation. (The Police were in fact Fremer’s first choice to provide the required pop track for the film.) Aside from gated reverb drums, it’s not a bad tune. Journey were near the apex of their commercial viability in ’82, and — consistent with the tenor of the times — the studio (Disney) threatened not to release a soundtrack album without a potential single.

Most of the remainder of the TRON soundtrack album is Carlos’ work. Perhaps surprisingly, the material is the opposite of what one might suspect: the orchestral parts – courtesy the London Philharmonic Orchestra – were cut first; only then did Carlos judiciously add her synthesizer parts to the score. The result is an album that’s richer – and far less dated – than synth-centric works tend to be.

Like any science fiction movie with dramatic content, parts of the TRON score recall Gustav Holst‘s “Mars, the Bringer of War” from The Planets. But Carlos does so in a way that’s not overstated; her synth parts on “Ring Game and Escape” put more sonic distance between her and Holst.

Clearly, the music was intended to convey and support the emotional themes displayed on celluloid: the workmanlike titles (“Love Theme,” “Ending Titles”) make that explicit. But the music stands well on its own. Carlos’ synthesizers do form the basis of a few tracks, most notably “TRON Scherzo.”

The Sweeping, magisterial “Miracle and Magician” wouldn’t be out of place in one of the Lord of the Rings films. And “Theme from TRON” has almost no synth, Carlos’ composition relying instead on the LSO for its delivery. “1990′s Theme” is Journey’s second and last appearance on the soundtrack. As an instrumental theme, it works well. But as the track is full of what now sound like 80s pop tropes, its whiny guitar effects and stiff drum tracks feel dated.

With heavenly choirs and orchestral arrangement, “Love Theme” seems a bit over the top; but probably fit perfectly with its film scene. If you were a kid when you saw TRON, this is probably the moment in the film when you got up and went for another bucket of popcorn.

“Tower Music – Let Us Pray” is the album’s most effective pairing of electronic and orchestral sounds; unless one listens very closely, it is difficult to discern which sounds are from which. And on a good stereo system, the lower register notes on “Sea of Simulation” will shake your home’s foundation.

“Ending Titles” brings things to a close with some sumptuous pipe organ work under the film’s closing credits; it’s a fitting end to an evocative score.

The new 2014 2LP version of the TRON soundtrack benefits from a remaster, and spreading music onto two discs allows a louder and clearer sound overall. About the only thing that could have been done to improve this vinyl reissue would have been to make one disc translucent red, the other blue. (Both records are blue on my review copy.)

The excellent liner notes (a Wendy Carlos-penned essay from the 2001 CD release, plus a 2014 essay from Fremer) help place this groundbreaking and forward-looking soundtrack album in its proper historical context.

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Album Review: Sade — Love is Stronger Than Pride

September 2nd, 2014

Love is Stronger Than Pride, the third album from Sade (the band named after lead vocalist Sade Adu) was a commercial juggernaut on its original 1988 release, yielding four hit singles in eight months, three of which made the US charts. With its recent reissue, now seems as good a time as any to review it with the hindsight of more than a quarter century(!)

Sade Adu could be considered an Astrud Gilberto for the late 1980s; though Sade’s music wasn’t categorized as jazz, it had an exotic, world-music vibe that was a key ingredient of its success. The soft and sultry voiced chanteuse crafted albums full of mellow, generally minimalistic instrumentation.

The title track opens the record in characteristic fashion, with guitar leads held until near the song’s end. The nearly cymbal-free percussion feels like hand drumming. “Paradise” moves in a more uptempo, dance-oriented direction, though – like most all Sade songs – it never finds its way into rock territory. The tune stakes out a hypnotic beat, while Adu’s overdubbed vocal harmonies are joined here and there by breathy backing vocals.

The sleek arrangement features lyrics that won’t be most people’s idea of groundbreaking poetry, but neither will they embarrass the group. Musically, it’s little more than a two chord jam that goes nowhere, but it doesn’t really need to. It’s greater than sum of its relatively humble parts.

“Nothing Can Come Between Us” starts off as if it were “Paradise, Part Two,” but some nice dialogue between bass and guitar (with electric piano backing) improves things. The song’s reliance (once again) on but two chords threatens to become problematic. For all its charms, it’s a vamp in search of a song.

The Spanish guitar figures that form the basis of “Haunt Me” offer a welcome change from the album’s stasis. Graceful acoustic guitar and Andrew Hale‘s agile piano backing provide a backdrop for Adu’s smooth, yearning vocal. A soulful saxophone solo and subtle string section work provide texture. The album credits mention a solo violin on this track, but it’s so low-key as to be nearly inaudible.

“Turn My Back On You” approaches funk territory – or what passes for funk on a Sade album– in a muted fashion. Here Adu explores the upper register of her vocal range. For the first (and thankfully, almost only) time on Love is Stronger than Pride, the drums have a heavily processed, 80s feel to them. The song is built upon an unusual time signature, but – like many components of the group’s music – it’s so subtle as to be barely noticeable.

“Keep Looking” is more in keeping with Sade’s signature slick European style; as ever Adu seems not to be breaking a sweat cutting her vocal parts. Some tasty guitar soloing from Stuart Matthewman once again mines a Spanish style. “Clean Heart” doesn’t veer far from the confines already established on the disc, but it does feature one of the album’s stronger melodic lines. The track also features some appealing brass section work that’s not heard elsewhere on the record. Congas enliven “Give It Up,” but overall the album’s homogeneity starts to wear thin for the listener interested in a bit of sonic variety. Electric piano gives “I Never Thought I’d See the Day” a contemplative air; the song is pretty but underdeveloped.

It’s curious, then, that Sade would choose to close their third long player with “Siempre Hay Esperanza,” an instrumental groove. The track is pleasant enough but — here we go again — fails to go anywhere; a single bass figure atop an exceedingly subtle two-chord vamp is about all that happens here. But the backing does provide a suitable showcase for some sax work.

In 2014, Audio Fidelity has reissued Love is Stronger Than Pride on limited-edition, 180-gram vinyl. The audio has been remastered, and discs are issued in limited, numbered editions. The sturdy and heavy gatefold sleeve opens to display a full set of lyrics and a curiously low-quality (scanned?) photo of the group. Sade Adu penned all the lyrics, and had a hand in writing all of the album’s music; she also arranged and produced the sessions, which took place in Nassau and Paris. The group would wait four years to follow the album up; 1992′s Love Deluxe offered more of the same styles, and once again charted worldwide.

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Coming Attractions: September 2014

September 1st, 2014

Happy Labor Day to my readers in the USA; happy September to them and everyone else. This month is going to be an especially event-filled one for me: near the end of September, I will be getting married to my sweetheart. The plan is for my normal posting schedule to continue, with some minor modifications.

This week is an unofficial “vinyl week,” duration which I’ll take a look at four 2014 vinyl releases. Some are reissues; some feature new music.

As the month unfolds, I’ll also feature post-festival coverage of last weekend’s wonderful Transfigurations II Festival, and a show review of tomorrow night’s Asheville sets from Man…Or Astro-Man? and opener Wray.

Also on tap: interviews with two classic pop songwriting duos: Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer of The Posies; and Paul Myers and John Moremen aka The Paul & John. A feature I’ve written on Mardi Gras Indian funk collective 101 Runners will be published in next week’s print edition of Mountain Xpress; it will appear on the blog two weeks thereafter. Next week a reissue of Rick Wakeman‘s Criminal Record will be out on Real Gone Music label; I wrote the liner notes. This month’s Stomp and Stammer (print edition) features my interview with rockin’ Jason D. Williams.

My backlog of albums for review is as large as ever: upcoming reviews will include new music in several genres: loads of timeless pop (Gramercy Arms, The Brittanicas, The Legal Matters, Sloan, Nina Persson, Three Minute Tease, The Psycho Sisters, Martin Newell, The Penguin Party and more), rock and prog (Keith Emerson and Greg Lake, Brian Jonestown Massacre), jazz, blues and soul (Thom Douvan, Mark “Muleman” Massey) and much more. Reissues and/or rarities from X, Sun Ra, Big Star, Jethro Tull, Dream Academy and Cass Elliot are just some of what are in the queue for review.

And a pile of DVDs including a ’74 Queen concert, a recent Ian Anderson show, and a documentary on the life of BB King are all set for coverage.

Around the time of my wedding, I’ll feature a few retrospective posts that will point the way toward some of my older pieces that you might have missed, drawing from my more than 1300 pieces published here on the Musoscribe blogzine.

As always, thanks for reading.

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Album Review: Hedersleben — Die Neuen Welten

August 29th, 2014

According to our friends over at Wikipedia, krautrock is defined as “a form of rock and electronic music that originated in Germany in the late 1960s, with a tendency towards improvisation around minimalistic arrangements.” Though the style had its adherents in the 1970s – famed tastemaker/DJ John Peel among the most well-known of them – the style never caught on in a commercial sense outside Germany.

But the style – hypnotic, pulsing, almost tone-poem music – never went away. Julian Cope went so far as to write a book about it, 1995′s Krautrocksampler: One Head’s Guide to the Great Kosmische Musik – 1968 Onwards. And thanks in no small part of Cope’s championing of the music made by groups such as Amon Düül II and Faust, krautrock has persisted right into the 21st century.

The music of Nik Turner (late of Hawkwind) lends itself especially well to a krautrock approach, especially in a live setting. So it’s no surprise that beginning around 2013, Turner enlisted the able aid of an outfit naming themselves after a city halfway between Hanover and Berlin. Hedersleben features the guitar work of Nicky Garratt, the British musician best known for his work in seminal punk group UK Subs. American drummer Jason Willer also played in UK Subs with Garratt, and Bryce Shelton (from San Francisco) plays bass with Hedersleben. Keyboardist Kephera Moon is also from San Francisco. All of this may make you wonder what exactly is the German connection to this band. Good question; the answer lies within their music and their overall sonic approach.

The band does a bit of shape-shifting: when they record or perform with Turner, they’re sometimes billed As Nik Turner’s Hawkwind. When backing Swiss musician Joel Vandroogenbroeck, they’re the current-day lineup of psychedelic band Brainticket.

But when they play their own music – the largely instrumental examples of which are showcased on Die Neuen Welten (The New Worlds), Hedersleben have a personality all of their own. With Moon’s Ray Manzarek-like organ work out front, the dreamscapes of tunes like “Zu Den Neuen Welten” and “XO5B” take their time to unfold. The densely-layered music floats along; Shelton’s bass lines weave their way under the textures in a way that sometimes feels like Gary Wright‘s Moog bass circa The Dream Weaver. Garratt’s often heavily-treated guitar soars above the mix in a decidedly non-punky fashion, and Willer’s spellbinding drum patterns evoke warm memories of Nick Mason circa A Saucerful of Secrets.

Kephera Moon makes extensive use of synthesizers: Mellotron-sounding samples recall early Tangerine Dream, and gurgling analog synth sounds show that she understand the intelligent uses to which synths can be applied; the synthesizers are never used as mere “sound effects.”

Garratt’s lead guitar is a highlight of “On the Ground (Safe and Sound),” in which he solos over a chugging one-chord vamp. As with most of the band’s work, vocals (here little more than the whispered/chanted recitation of the song’s title) are mostly used as a textural element, rather than to convey anything like a story. That role is left to the music.

Garratt’s acoustic guitar underpins some stinging lead guitar overdubs on “Nomad World (Dreamstate).” It’s the gentlest tune on the disc, and some chanted ahhh-style vocalizing from Kati Knox adds to the dreamy vibe made explicit by the title. The faraway-sounding “XO5B” feels like a Pink Floyd jam from the More/Obscured by Clouds era; Garratt’s fret-buzzing guitar and Moon’s celestial organ work are the track’s highlights.

The five-track album closes with “Tiny Flowers/Little Moon,” at once the most conventional and most accessible tune on Die Neuen Welten. With standard signing (again courtesy Knox) and recognizable lyrics, here Hedersleben sounds of a piece with bands like The Black Angels. A vaguely sunshine-pop texture lends the tune an air not unlike the rare pop-leaning moments of The Velvet Underground and Nico. Moon’s delicate piano work – occasionally punctuated by guitar stabs from Garratt – ends the album on an extended, reflective note.

Though there are no Germans on the album; though it was recorded in Oakland, California; , though it veers close to tuneful rock in places; Hedersleben’s Die Neuen Welten is highly recommended on its own merits.

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Album Review: Rog & Pip — Our Revolution

August 28th, 2014

I’ve just stumbled upon what sounds like the greatest album Sweet ever made. The thing is, most of the tunes on Our Revolution have gone unreleased – or have been available only on one-off, Europe-only 45rpm singles – since 1974. Oh, and one more thing: none of the guys that gave the world “Little Willy,” “Fox on the Run” and “Love is Like Oxygen” are on these tracks, and the hit production team of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman had nothing to do with the recordings.

And this newly-released album is credited to the duo Rog & Pip. In fact, other than the location (merrie olde England) and the era (the first half of the 1970s), Our Revolution has nothing to do with Sweet. So of course a bit of explanation is in order.

Philip “Pip” Whitcher left hit-making group The Sorrows to form a songwriting team with guitarist Roger Lomas. Whitcher’s involvement with The Sorrows predated Don Fardon, the singer who fronted the band for the hit “Take a Heart” (most easily found today on the essential 4CD Nuggets II: British Empire and Beyond). Lomas had been an early member of the group as well. But by the 70s they wished to strike out on their own, and while the fruits of their labors earned them next to nothing in fame nor fortune, the dozen songs now collected as Our Revolution will leave fans of stomping, good-time hook-laden 70s- style hard pop wondering why Rog & Pip weren’t as big as Slade or any of the era’s other glam-rocking hit makers.

Rog & Pip may have had a musical personality of their own, but there’s no mistaking the fact that everything about “Why Don’t You Do What I Want?” screams Sweet: the insistent beat, the shouted lead vocals and high backing voices, the fuzz-laden guitar, the direct and simple sentiments expressed in the song’s lyrics.

“My Revolution “ is even better, sounding to all the world like a cross between T. Rex and Uriah Heep (less the organs and histrionics). First-pumping and head-nodding are near-involuntary reactions to the rocker. “Rock With Me” adds some assured harmonica work, expanding the duo’s sound in interesting directions while staying well inside the format: “Come on and rock with me!” exhorts Pip while the tune chugs along, full-tilt. The phase-shifting riffage of “Evil Hearted Woman,” plus some guitar-and-bass lockstep work and nimble drumming may remind listeners of Deep Purple, or perhaps of an uncharacteristically upbeat Black Sabbath.

And speaking of Sabbath, on “Gold,” the band slows things down to the sludgy pace favored by Birmingham’s finest; the result is reminiscent of The Open Mind (“Magic Potion,” also on Nuggets II). For “Doin’ Alright Tonight,” it’s back to the stomping boogie, with some nice staccato riffage enlivened by – you knew it was coming – cowbell. When the band sings the tile lyric, you’ll find yourself singing along in a shout (mirroring the lead vocal) or perhaps in a helium-voiced pitch (along with the backing singers). The Free-style lead guitar breaks are icing on the cake.

Rog & Pip won’t have won any awards for subtlety or originality with tunes like “A Little Rock ‘n’ Roll,” but the hard-rocking tune – in the mold of a Mud or even Suzi Quatro – remains fun indeed. The snaky, vaguely sinister “Hot Rodder” ranks as Our Revolution‘s most subtly-rendered tune, but if subtlety is your taste, best keep moving past this in-your-face set of tunes. “It’s a Lonely World” slows things down and sounds like a cross between The Marmalade (once again, check Nuggets II) and Jimi Hendrix‘s “Hey Joe.”

“Why Do You Treat Me Like That?” is in many ways a retread of “Why Won’t You Do What I Want?” but then since Rog & Pip didn’t hit pay dirt with the original tune, one can’t blame them for rewriting it in hopes of success (however futile). “From a Window” is not a cover of the Lennon/McCartney obscurity, but is instead a heavy riffer that ranks among Our Revolution‘s strongest tracks. It also moves beyond the glam style toward something heavier, all while keeping the tune built around insistent licks, a (one would have thought) sure-fire recipe for success.

Alas, it was not to be. The heavy “War Lord” combines the Black Sabbath aesthetic with the bubblegum sensibilities of Sweet, and the result is another ace tune. But none of Rog & Pip’s efforts got them anywhere, and their association ended by 1977. The liner notes that accompany this 2014 release tell the story in exacting and engrossing detail; lots of photos (the performing lineups, the rare singles and picture sleeves) make an very good package even better. Though the band’s “revolution” was not, in the end, widely broadcast, the discerning retro-minded rocker should not be without Rog & Pip’s Our Revolution.

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Festival Preview: Transfigurations II

August 27th, 2014

Two thousand and four would not be most people’s idea of the perfect year to open an independent record store. Even without the benefit of hindsight – the economic meltdown of 2007 made consumers less likely to engage in such discretionary purchases as music – 2004 wasn’t exactly The Year Vinyl Broke (Again). But in August of that year, Asheville NC residents Matt Schnable and Mark Capon took the plunge, opening a good-sized retail space in the heart of “east West Asheville,” a part of town that was on the front end of a definite upswing. Their pioneering spirit was embodied in both their choice of location and in what they chose to sell: new and used vinyl.

Harvest Records (no connection to the Capitol subsidiary record label that gave us those early Deep Purple and Pink Floyd albums) has gone on to great success. In addition to stocking an excellent selection of new vinyl releases that caters to a wide array of tastes (no small feat in a relatively small city such as Asheville, with a population of only 70,000 or so), Harvest stocks a good selection of music-related magazines, and their used record section is reasonably priced and full of reliably good-condition vinyl.

Once a year Harvest holds a “basement sale,” during which they open the doors to their cramped, musty space full of Rubbermaid containers jam-packed full of all manner of used vinyl. Yes, you’ll find the usual suspects – the Grease soundtrack, Frampton Comes Alive, and of course Herb Alpert and the Tijuana BrassWhipped Cream and Other Delights – but intrepid cratediggers will also unearth some real gems, all for a dollar apiece. At the most recent sale (less than two weeks ago) I scored over fifty records, mostly cool jazz titles by Ramsey Lewis, The Modern Jazz Quartet, and (a pre-vocal) George Benson. I also found a half dozen Frank Sinatra albums I didn’t already own. And, as I knew I would, I bumped into a half dozen of my friends, who, like me, are inveterate vinyl junkies.

In 2011 the store expanded, adding more merchandise, “elbow room,” stereo components, and a stage for in-store performances. They also sponsor some of the more interesting concerts scheduled in town; I sometimes cover those on my other blog, the twice-monthly “30 Days Out” on the Mountain Xpress site.

While waiting in line for the doors for the basement sale to begin, I chatted briefly with co-owner Matt Schnable. He told me that on occasion Harvest buys huge lots that collector/hoarders are looking to unload; after picking through those for items to sell in the regular retail space, the remainder goes in the basement. And sometimes, they sell huge lots: you know that recent story that’s been lighting up the internet of late, the one about the Brazilian collector who’s buying millions of records? Harvest has sold to him on at least one occasion.

Whatever Harvest does, then, they do it well. And to celebrate their tenth anniversary, they’ve organized a music festival. Taking place in Asheville and relatively nearby Marshall (population: 868), Transfigurations II is scheduled for this week, Thursday August 28 through Saturday August 30. I’ll be attending the Thursday night set at The Grey Eagle, featuring headliners The Sadies. And on Saturday, I’ll make the short trek up Riverside Drive, along one of North America’s oldest rivers, the wild and beautiful French Broad River, to Blanahassett Island, site of the day-long segment of the festival.

Now, Blanahassett Island is a curious thing: a roughly 1500ft x 400ft bean-shaped land mass in the middle of the French Broad. Years ago, when Marshall was a (somewhat) booming mill town, the local authorities thought it would be the perfect location for…a high school. Yes, because, you know, rivers never flood or anything, right? (The French Broad saw not one but two “hundred year floods” in September 2004, weeks after Harvest – situated on high ground, thankfully – opened its doors).

But I digress. No doubt thanks to the stature of Harvest and its owners, the lineup for Transfigurations II is quite fascinating. Unlike other locally-based festivals – say, Moogfest – there’s no discernible musical theme for this festival: there’s something for many tastes. For me, the most anticipated shows feature acts rarely seen on these shores, much less in the Blue Ridge Mountains. New Zealand’s The Clean are the act about which I’m most excited; the long-bubbling-under r&b sensation Lee Fields promises to light up the stage; Asheville’s own garage rockers Reigning Sound can always be counted on for an incendiary show; and Sir Richard Bishop (who I missed at Hopscotch – or was it Big Ears – last time ’round) provides some avant-garde guitar skronk for those attuned to boundary-pushing. And there are plenty of others; I expect I’ll come away having discovered a new (or at least new-to-me) group or three.

Keep an eye out on this blog after the festival is over for words and images about Transfigurations II.

Weekend Passes are already sold out, but tickets for individual days were still available when I hit “publish” on this piece.

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Never Had It Better: A Chat with James Lowe of The Electric Prunes (Part Two)

August 26th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: In 2012 I wrote a blog entry in which I suggested that Syd Barrett may have – consciously or otherwise – nicked the intro of “Are You Lovin’ Me More (But Enjoying It Less)” for Pink Floyd‘s “Astronomy Dominé.” The two are too similar for it to be coincidence, I think. And it’s well established that Barrett was listening to a lot of American music, having admitted to being inspired by the riff of Love‘s version of “My Little Red Book” when he wrote “Interstellar Overdrive.” So although the Electric Prunes weren’t active for a very long period back in the 60s, the band’s influence outpaced its record sales. Do you hear the sound and approach of the Prunes in bands that would come after?

James Lowe: I think what it probably was, most of all, was is that “Are You Lovin’ Me More (But Enjoying It Less)” was a really weird sounding record. So I think that we got thrown in the weirdo category when we were actually pretty normal. I can see why the music of that time became a sort of turning point, because things were going electronic. And with stuff going backwards and sliding around, maybe that was there at the right time. I like that record. A lot of people don’t like their hit records; I love it.

BK: Also in 2012, Real Gone Music put together a complete singles collection of the band’s Reprise releases, The Complete Reprise Singles. The thing that made it special was hearing the mono versions of all of those songs. On the first couple of albums, what degree of input did the band have regarding things like arrangements, mixes and so forth?

JL: We did all the arrangements. And I did the mixes with Dave Hassinger, mostly. People have asked that before, about mono versus stereo. The first mix was always the mono mix. Because some people had stereo; some didn’t. So you’d sort of be making a stereo mix for a few people. But the mono mix was the thing that went on the radio. At American studios, we’d make a mix of something, and then we’d go out, transfer it to the car, and sit in the car and listen to it on the radio. Mono was very important. I know why a lot of people collect it, because it does sound different.

BK: It’s much punchier; if it sounds good through a crappy little car speaker over AM radio, it sounds good.

JL: Amen!

BK: That said, the stereo effects are cool. But I still prefer those mono mixes.

The songs on WaS: were they written expressly for an album or is the album a sort of collection of material you had floating around, and you just decided that now was the time to put something together?

JL: We had some things floating around. This was the album Mark and I were putting together before he died. There were some things that we had already recorded, and some things that were partially finished. And there were other things that we had sketched out, that hadn’t been completed yet. So WaS is sort of a compilation of all those things. And I think it represents what Mark and I would have done for the final album if he hadn’t checked out.

BK: I’m impressed by just how – dare I say – authentic sounding the new album is. In the age of ProTools and digital recording, it’s paradoxically, I think, more difficult to make an album that has that particular sonic quality of the mid to late 60s. I think you succeeded. What did you do special to make that happen?

JL: I think that a lot of the things that make it sonically the way that it is have to do with this: we always did everything through the amplifiers. On our recordings, when we wanted to get an effect, we’d get it with the amplifier. Rarely did we really use the studio devices to create an effect. So a lot of the stuff on disc is just the way we really did, trying to – for example – take a Fender Reverb amp and do something weird with it. And I think that makes a difference; there’s a certain kind of warmth to my ears. I like digital stuff, but this is kind of a combination of those things.

BK: I would think also that if you’re achieving the sounds that way in the studio, it’s going to be that much easier to recreate those sounds live onstage.

JL: It does, yeah. It at least gives you a handle to hang the stage act upon. So there’s nothing so abstract that you could never play it.

BK: What’s coming up as far as live dates in the near future for the Electric Prunes?

JL: I don’t know; I was hoping that you were going to tell me! We’re hoping to go to Europe. We keep getting these adventures offered to us, but the hardest part is to get people off the couch and to come out to a show and see the band. People always tell us, “Hey, I had no idea you were in town!” And I think, “Why not? Why wouldn’t you know?” It seems that people would rather hang and watch Netflix than they would go down to some place and see an old band play.

More information about the band and their new album can be found at http://www.electricprunes67.com/

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Never Had It Better: A Chat with James Lowe of The Electric Prunes (Part One)

August 25th, 2014

In that heady summer of 1967, one of the songs that captured and embodied the zeitgeist was “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night),” a fuzzed-out psychedelic miniature masterpiece by the trendily-named Electric Prunes. While the original group managed only to squeeze out two albums – the debut LP titled after the hit single, and Underground (both released in 1967) – before surrendering to their producer’s vision, an approach in which their participation was minimal to nonexistent, they left behind a number of excellent tunes.

Serious fans of the band often dismiss Mass in F Minor and the two albums that followed it as not being part of the band’s true canon. But those early tracks, including numbers like “Get Me to the World On Time” and “The Great Banana Hoax” displayed a vibe that was as at times as dark as The Doors, but yet seemingly also possessing of a more good-timing disposition.

Bassist Mark Tulin and guitarist/vocalist James Lowe were the prime movers in that original lineup, and after a decades-long hiatus, the pair reactivated the Electric Prunes for the 21st century. A pair of studio albums – California (2004) and Feedback (2006) – showed that the group had new material in the vein of their 60s work, and their live shows displayed their onstage fire to a new generation.

Tulin passed away in early 2011, but by the time of his death, a new Electric Prunes album had already gotten started. Lowe and the rest of the band finished the material, released in 2014 as WaS. Recently, I spent some time in conversation with Lowe, discussing the new material, the old songs, and the forces that have helped the music of The Electric Prunes to endure for so many years. – bk

Bill Kopp: When Lenny Kaye‘s original and influential 2LP Nuggets compilation first came out on Elektra in the early 70s, how aware were you of it and the fact that “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night” was on it?

James Lowe: I wasn’t aware [of it] at all. I didn’t know; I had no idea. In fact my son told me about it…I don’t know what year it was; years later. He said, “Do you know you’re on Nuggets?” And I said, “What’s that?” Here’s the thing: I didn’t tell anyone I had been in that band. I was doing commercials and films and stuff, and nobody knew me as the guy in The Electric Prunes. So nobody would bother to mention it to me.

BK: The first time I recall seeing your name was on liner notes for Todd Rundgren‘s Runt album; you engineered it, right?

JL: I engineered Nazz, Nazz Nazz, Nazz III, Runt, The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, Someting/Anything…we did a bunch of albums together.

BK: So in the period during which the Electric Prunes essentially went inactive, and up until when you reactivated the group around 2000, what were you doing musically?

JL: I had a commercial production company, so I was doing corporate image films and stuff like that. Other than underscoring those things, I wasn’t doing any music projects.

BK: When you did reunite around the turn of the century, what was it about that particular time that made it right?

JL: A guy named David Katznelson from Warner Brothers wanted to release an album of our stuff from the 60s. And we couldn’t figure out why he did; we didn’t think anyone would want to buy it. He seemed so knowledgeable and involved, that we just sort of surrendered ourselves to him. So we made a compilation called Lost Dreams. And that reinstilled my interest in music. I had gotten Mark Tulin on board when they called me to do it. And with both of us sitting there listening to these old tracks after all those years, we thought that we didn’t sound that bad! I gotta be honest: it wasn’t bad.

BK: The liner notes the new album, WaS, are sort of cagey about whether this is the end: “Maybe the last we will ask you to support.” With Mark having passed, are you keeping your options open, or is this really the end?

JL: Well, to be honest with you, the band – the guys we’ve been playing with for the last seven or eight years – these guys really like playing, and they’re interested in still performing. So…I”m not sure if we’ll do any more records; we’ve got some stuff in the can, enough to do some more records. But these guys wanna play. And I wanna play, too. I’ve been playing this stuff for the last year, year and half while we recorded it. But it’s also a lot of fun to go out and play it for people.

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