Album Review: Nina Persson — Animal Heart

November 7th, 2014

People sometimes express a liking for music that conveys what might be termed “decadent elegance.” They vibe they’re grasping for is one that’s equal parts scuzz and beauty. It’s an elusive quality, and far too often, those musicians who – consciously or otherwise – try to capture it lean too far one way or the other. The decadent end of it gives you Nico-era Velvet Underground or the unrelenting angst of early Nine Inch Nails; the other direction gives something that at times can be a bit too “pretty,” like, say, Fiona Apple.

On rare occasions, the balance is just right. So it was sometimes with The Cardigans. And on both of their albums – their self-titled 2001 debut and 2009′s near-flawless Colonia – Sweden’s’ A Camp nailed it. And as it happens, both of those groups feature the voice and compositional skills of Nina Persson. So it’s not a surprise of earthshaking proportions that on Animal Heart, her 2014 solo debut, Persson refines that approach to a fine point.

The album kicks off with the title track, a propulsive dance pop-meets-motorik melody topped by Persson’s crystalline vocal mixed way out front. Her degree of vocal control is superb: she hits the notes with precision, adding her trademark vibrato only at key moments; she’s careful not to overuse the technique, saving it for when it fits best. That the song has a delightfully memorable hook – in the form of the tune’s repeated vocal refrain – makes it even better.

“Burning Bridges for Fuel” starts with a somber, one-per-measure piano chord, joined gradually by throbbing synth, Persson’s dreamy vocal, and other exceedingly subtle flourishes. The drums don’t come in until halfway through the tune, and even then, they don’t do much. Nor need they: the synthesizer lines provide as much of a beat as is needed. Some nice Leslie’d guitar near the song’s outro has the feeling of a horn section.

“Dreaming of Houses” starts off as an elegiac, grey-day melody, but unfolds into a pop song of grandeur. Listeners who didn’t know better would never think Persson is Swedish; her vocals betray not a trace of being from anywhere specific. “Clip Your Wings” is a more conventional pop tune, but some echoey piano and slide guitar elevate the tune into something more durable.

Electronica textures might at first seem out of place on a tune called “Jungle,” until one sorts out that the jungle is but Persson’s metaphor for modern life. On this track – as with all others on Animal Heart – Persson is ably supported by husband Nathan Larson, Eric D. Johnson and (on most tracks) drummer Brain Kantor. Johnson and Larsson co-wrote all but one of the twelve songs with Persson.

“Food for the Beast” takes a different approach than the tunes that precede it: its radio-ready beat seems designed for airplay, and lyrics about the discotheque floor reinforce that impression. But once again, it’s Persson’s voice that carries the whole affair. A constantly shifting beat shows that even on a “commercial” number, Persson remains musically ambitious.

The brief instrumental “Digestif” gives way to “Forgot to Tell You,” a tune that recalls some of Colonia‘s more close and intimate musical arrangements. “Catch Me Crying” is built upon a stuttering drum pattern and feels a bit like Autoamerican era Blondie; here Persson displays her knack of showing off her vocal range without seeming at all like she’s showing off.

Americana-flavored guitar kicks off “The Grand Destruction Game,” but it’s quickly joined by synthesizer and 60s-flavored combo organ. Persson’s wistful lyric tells the tale of love gone wrong. The stately “Silver” reveals its charms gradually, as it unfolds across three-plus minutes (Persson’s direct, economical writing style keeps all of Animal Heart‘s tunes relatively brief: only two break the four-minute mark.) And despite its title, “This is Heavy Metal” closes the album in a spare yet sophisticated manner – simply piano and vocal – that recalls Tori Amos‘ best work.

Animal Heart was released back in February of this year; it charted in Sweden, Denmark, Finland and the UK. Despite some stateside press and reviews, it hasn’t made a dent on American charts; it deserves better. Recommended.

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New Crest on an Old Wave: The Dave Mason Interview (Part Two)

November 6th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: This current tour [coming to Asheville's Orange Peel on Nov. 8]  is billed as Dave Mason’s Traffic Jam. From what I’ve read, it seems that you’ll split the show between versions of material that we know from farther back, and the other part is newer material. Tell me a little bit about how the show works.

Dave Mason: I thought it would be kinda cool to put something together where I could revisit things from the beginning, from the Traffic work forward. Essentially what the show becomes is a sort of two-hour travelogue, I guess, of all my music up until this point. We start out with early Traffic stuff, and then after we take a break – though sometimes we do the show straight through, depending on the venue – we come back and I focus on stuff from my own career. From Alone Together to Let it Flow through what’s on the new CD, Future’s Past.

I wasn’t planning on putting out a new CD, frankly. It’s a compilation of things I had been working on at home, playing around with. So there’s some new songs on there, and as you say I revisit new versions of “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” a completely revised version of “World in Changes” from Alone Together, and a live performance of “As Sad and Deep As You.” That’s included because it turned out so wild that I just felt it had to be on there.

Another thing about the show is that it includes some pictorial stuff, and I tell a few stories and things like that. It’s kinda fun, and it’s going over really well.

BK: I believe that I read that the album that became Future’s Past started out as an EP…

DM: Originally, I was just going to put four tunes out. But I had stuff at home, because I’m always futzing around in the studio. And then it was, “Oh, let’s put that one in.” and, “Let’s put that one in, too! That’ll be good.” It ended up being nine songs.

BK: 2008′s 26 Letters 12 Notes was your first album of original material in many years. And now in 2014 there’s this new one. These follow a steady stream of live albums. It seems that in some ways you prefer the stage to the studio; is that true?

DM: The bottom line is now, that it’s truly all about live performance. Frankly, it’s…I don’t want to say the internet killed things, because it’s just another delivery system, but the big flaw is that there’s no radio any more. There’s no way for people to know that there’s something new out. So that’s, to me, the really big problem. In the days of FM, you’d hear some great, mixed-up stuff. Some great music. And for a start, there’d be somebody there deejaying! But as a national format, it just doesn’t exist any more.

The other problem with the internet is that it’s just destroying intellectual property. And the problem there goes to writers [journalists] as well as songwriters. Because everybody’s just taking everything…

BK: There was a time when music journalists could make a living!

DM: Exactly! And that’s the down-side of the internet. I could go on and on, be then it becomes…as people could say, “oh, you’re just bitching.” But I’m not. Because it’s my livelihood. As it would be for a journalist or anybody else.

And so it all circles back to the point that yes, it’s all down to playing live. Which is where it all started, anyway.

BK: The way I look at it, in the days of radio, you had broadcasting; nowadays, it’s narrowcasting. Back then, you’d turn on the radio, and you might hear a hard rock tune followed by a pop sort of thing, followed by something else; kind of all over the map, based at least in part on the whims and tastes of the real-live disc jockey. So people were exposed to different things, some of which they’d like, and some they won’t. Today we’ve got things like Pandora, which to some extent operate on the opposite idea: “So you like this song? Well, here’s something a lot like it that you might enjoy.” So the listener’s focus gets narrower.

DM: Yeah. The focus groups killed everything! [laughs] Everybody gets pigeonholed, tagged. It’s a shame. Because music is much more diverse than that. FM radio was diverse. And not only that: when they played something, they actually told you what it was!

BK: Now there’s an app for that.

DM: But we soldier on!

BK: When I go to a concert featuring artists who came to fame in the 60s or 70s, I’m always interested to look around the room. For some of them, the demographic is simply people in their fifties and over, full stop. For others, it’s more balanced, with younger people in the crowd. Have you noticed, which is it for you?

DM: The bulk of my core audience is 40s up to…hmm…late 70s. But I see younger people being there, for sure. And younger people who come – who are, let’s say, hearing my music for the first time – they come up to me afterward and are like, “Wow! That was incredible!”

Everything gets so categorized, and formularized, pasteurized, homogenized – “it should be this” and “it should be that” – but the bottom line is this: if something is good, and especially if it has the ring of authenticity, then I don’t care what age you are. You’re gonna “get” it.


Mason notes also that signed copes of Future’s Past may be ordered from davemasonmusic.com, and the individual tracks are available for download/purchase. And it is also available on vinyl. — bk

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New Crest on an Old Wave: The Dave Mason Interview (Part One)

November 5th, 2014

Guitarist, singer and songwriter Dave Mason was born in Worcester England, halfway between London and Liverpool. A few years younger even than The BeatlesGeorge Harrison, Mason came up in the sort of second wave of British rock acts, first gaining fame as a member of Traffic. Alongside Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood, Mason was a major force in the band, most notably on their second LP, 1968′s Traffic, on which half of the ten tracks were Mason compositions or co-writes.

But Mason’s relationship with his bandmates in Traffic was always problematic: he had appeared on their debut LP (writing several songs for it as well) but had left by the time of its release (the American LP used a photo of the band that didn’t include him). His on-again, off-again status in Traffic yielded some excellent tunes – “Hole in My Shoe” (an early hit single), the original version of the now-standard “Feelin’ Alright?” and others – but ultimately he found himself on the outside of the group.

By 1970 Mason began a solo career. He also collaborated with Cass Elliot on a well-received album, and thanks to both his skills as a player and his well-connectedness in the rock community, he picked up a lot of high profile session work. If you’re a fan of rock from the late 60s though the mid 1970s, you’ve probably got a good bit of Dave Mason in your collection, whether you know it or not. He’s on albums by The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix (that’s him on acoustic twelve-string on “All Along the Watchtower”), Paul McCartney and Wings, Stephen Stills, Delaney and Bonnie and more. He was even – for a time in the mid 1990s – a member of Fleetwood Mac.

As a solo artist, Mason enjoyed several hit singles, including “Only You Know and I Know” (1970), 1977′s “We Just Disagree” and several others. These days, Mason concentrates more on public performances than studio work – as we’ll see in a moment – but he’s touring now in support of a new album called Future’s Past. Alongside new songs, the album – and its accompanying tour – takes an encompassing look at Mason’s musical career, most pointedly back to his earliest days in Traffic. In advance of his upcoming Asheville date (Saturday November 8 at The Orange Peel), we chatted about the new album, music old and new, and the state of what used to be called “radio.” The first thing I noticed was that – to my great surprise – having moved to the States decades ago, Mason has all but lost his British accent.

Bill Kopp: On the early Traffic albums – especially the second, self-titled one – your songwriting was a key component of the band’s sound. Did you bring those songs to the band, or did they develop out of group jamming to which you eventually applied lyrics?

Dave Mason: No, they were already written; that’s how I work. Which was sort of a conflict with the rest of them in the band, really. But I usually have a pretty good idea of what the song’s going to be, before I even walk into a studio. Other than how the other musicians might interpret it, the song itself is finished.

BK: Judging by the versions of old Traffic-era songs on Future’s Past, some of the arrangements are often quite different from the versions that Traffic recorded…

DM: Yeah, “Dear Mr. Fantasy” – which is not my song anyway – the original is in a major key. I put it in a minor key, and added a few more chords. I didn’t change the melody, but I changed it musically, adapted it. I don’t see the point in trying to reproduce what was already done.

BK: It seems that after your work with Traffic, Delaney and Bonnie, Cass Elliot, Derek and the Dominoes and a number of highly regarded guest spots on some of my favorite early to mid 1970s albums, you largely made a decision to work with your own bands. Is that an accurate characterization, or did it just sort of evolve that way?

DM: Well, there really was no [laughs sardonically] – it’s hard to put it into the right terms – there was really no place for me in Traffic any more. That’s why I went on my own. And then at that point, rather than staying in England, I thought it was time to pack a bag and come to the land where it all originated.

BK: Do you find fronting a band more appealing than, say, a more collaborative approach?

DM: [Lengthy pause while he mulls the question] I never wanted to be a solo artist per se. I always liked being part of a band; I thought that differences were what made things stronger. It sort of just turned out this way, I guess. And then I had to sort of [chuckles] learn to stand up there in front and “be the guy.”

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Big Star Lives! with “Live in Memphis” (Part 2)

November 4th, 2014

Continued from Part One

As Jon Auer pointed out in metaphor form during our conversation, speaking of Big Star in a slightly different context, “You can write the greatest letter in the world to someone, but if the postman loses it, or doesn’t deliver it, and no one ever gets it, no one’s gonna know how great it was.”

As it turned out, the Memphis date wasn’t the revived Big Star’s final show; not by a long shot. They continued to perform on and off for more than sixteen years, and even cut an album of new material, 2005′s In Space.

Thankfully, and no doubt in part owing to the success of the earlier box set* and movie**, Omnivore Recordings did — as filmmaker Danny Graflund would say — indeed give a flying fuck. Omnivore has quickly developed a reputation as musical curators: their approach to releases might be described as, “You probably haven’t heard this before, but you should hear it. This deserves your attention.” They do important, eclectic musical work. So now we have Live in Memphis as both a single audio CD and a concert DVD.

The twenty-song setlist as presented on Live in Memphis doesn’t differ significantly from the Columbia set performed and recorded a year and a half earlier, but the songs included here provide a more well-rounded portrait of the “new” Big Star. A faithful cover of The Kinks‘ “Till the End of the Day” reminds listeners of the studio version that was among the in/outtakes from the band’s Third/Sister Lovers LP. And Alex Chilton‘s off-kilter choice of covers is made manifest not only with Todd Rundgren‘s “Slut” and the T. Rex number “Baby Strange,” but with a surprising run-through of Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire,” the bossa nova smash “Girl From Ipanema” (long a staple of Chilton’s solo shows), and the rock’n'roll obscurity “Patty Girl” by Dick Campbell and the Scarlets.

Chilton doesn’t hog the spotlight, though. While his idiosyncratic style all but guarantees that he’d alter the phrasing of his vocal and guitar lines, Auer and Ken Stringfellow take a more faithful approach, following the original arrangements to, um, the letter. The result is an odd juxtaposition: at times, The Posies duo sound more like “classic” Big Star than does Chilton. But when they take the lead vocals – most notably on Chris Bell‘s searing “I Am the Cosmos,” they achieve the feat of both remaining true to the original (and thus honoring Bell, who died in 1978) and making the song truly theirs. And when Jody Stephens takes his vocal turns, his fragile, heartfelt readings of “For You” and “Way Out West” rank among the disc’s most scintillating moments.

Still, Live in Memphis is perhaps not the best place for a Big Star neophyte to begin; such a person would be best served by finding a copy of the (now out-of-print) single-CD set that pairs #1 Record and Radio City (the 2014 individual album reissues add no bonus tracks, and even use the same brief Mills-penned liner note essay in both!). Moreover, Live in Memphis does lack a bit in terms of sound quality: while it’s entirely listenable, it’s only a few notches or so above an audience bootleg fidelity-wise. (Fortunately, and thanks to improvements in consumer technology, audience bootlegs from the 90s onward tend to sound pretty fine.) Still, for the faithful, Live in Memphis is a must-have. And though I haven’t yet screened the companion DVD (sold separately), I suspect it’s even more essential for lovers of Big Star.

Besides, in the wake of Chilton’s sudden death in March 2010, Live in Memphis might just be the final word on Big Star…

No, wait: acclaimed music journalist Holly George-Warren (with whom I shared a cab ride once; file under “brush with greatness”) published a Chilton biography, A Man Called Destruction, earlier this year. Word also is that a Chilton biopic is in development, and then there’s the absolutely wonderful Big Star 3rd series of concert performances: those feature a rotating cast of luminaries, including Stephens, Auer, Stringfellow, Mike Mills and Chris Stamey. Those shows are a living testament to the enduring appeal of the music created by that little band in Memphis who could never seem to find a break during their original existence. “That we’re still talking about Big Star now,” Jon Auer said to me, “is a testament to how passionate people are about this music.”

* Omnivore’s Cheryl Pawelski produced the Keep An Eye on the Sky box set during her time at Rhino.
** Omnivore served as music supervisors and executive producers for the Nothing Can Hurt Me motion picture documentary.

 

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Big Star Lives! with “Live in Memphis” (Part 1)

November 3rd, 2014

The story of Big Star – a band once so obscure, only critics, musicians and a small handful of in-the-know fans even knew of their brief existence – has now passed into popular culture.

I’ve always considered myself a hardcore fan of their general style of music: back in the early- to mid-1970s, I was into Badfinger, and I knew about bands like The Raspberries and Blue Ash. But at the time, I had never heard Big Star; the only time I even saw their name was in publications such as The Rolling Stone Record Guide. I didn’t have their records; I didn’t know anybody who had the records. They didn’t get played on the radio. And you couldn’t find the records, as they had quickly gone out of print. (As I have chronicled elsewhere, I stumbled upon “new old stock” copies of their first two LPs – still in shrinkwrap – in a record shop in the 1980s.)

In recent years, the Memphis group’s music has been championed by prominent musicians (among them Chris Stamey of The dB’s and R.E.M.‘s Mike Mills). Their two Stax/Ardent albums (#1 Record and Radio City) have been reissued multiple times (the most recent, just this summer, with contemporary liner notes from Mills). A 4CD box set of rarities, Keep An Eye on the Sky came out in 2009 to widespread acclaim. And Big Star got a proper, feature-length documentary done on them with 2012′s Nothing Can Hurt Me.

But all of this modern-day, well-earned appreciation was actually preceded by activity from Alex Chilton, vocalist/guitarist with Big Star through its original existence. Though the famously prickly Chilton had previously shown little interest in revisiting his Big Star years (much of his subsequent solo output seemed, at times, to be a repudiation of the musical approaches of both Big Star and his teenage group, The Box Tops), in April 1993 he surprised everyone by agreeing to a one-off reunion of the original band.

That performance – documented on the slightly-misnamed Columbia: Live at Missouri University – featured Chilton on guitar, plus original drummer Jody Stephens. (Bassist Andy Hummel either declined to participate, or wasn’t asked; no one’s sure, and Hummel passed away in 2010.) The pair were joined by two young musicians who had become Big Star acolytes of the highest order: Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer, collectively known as The Posies. Though the duo had heard and read the name Big Star, they grew up without having ever heard Big Star’s music; once they discovered it, they were – like so many others of a similarly melodic musical predisposition – hooked for life. As Jon Auer told me recently:

“My first experience hearing Big Star — for real — was when I was working at a record store in Seattle. My manager at the time put on [a cassette of The Posies' debut album] Failure. He was a fan of things like NRBQ and Elvis Costello, and he really dug the tape. And he said to me, ‘Hey: have you ever heard this band called Big Star?’ I said I had heard of them. He said, ‘[deep sigh and pause for emphasis] Come. With. Me.’ He pulled out a vinyl reissue of Radio City – not an original copy like you have – and said, ‘here’s what I’m going to do. I’m gonna let you get off work now. Go home and put this record on. And listen to “September Gurls.’ It might sound like a cliché, but when I dropped the needle on that particular groove, it was like the feeling of meeting somebody and feeling that you’ve known them all your life.”

So it was that this foursome practiced up a set of Big Star tunes (plus some solo material from Big Star’s late and departed founder, guitarist Chris Bell) and did the “one-off” show. But the story didn’t quite end there, however: the reformed Big Star went on to do a number of high-profile TV and concert dates. That run was set to conclude with a date back in the band’s Memphis hometown, scheduled for October 29, 1994.

Those who had followed Big Star sensed that this would be an historic event. So arrangements were made to film the concert. Filmmaker and former Chilton bodyguard Danny Graflund convinced the mercurial Chilton to allow the filming (“I’m ready for my closeup,” Chilton deadpans onscreen before launching into “The Ballad of El Goodo”), and the show was a rousing success. But – as Graflund explains in his liner notes for the new Omnivore Recordings CD Live in Memphis, when he shopped a rough cut of the film to potentially interested parties,

“not a single label gave a flying fuck. No bites, no nibbles, not the slightest interest from any of the shits who could have done something back then. So I put the master tapes in a box, put the box in my closet, and there they stayed.”

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Album Review: Gramercy Arms — The Seasons of Love

October 31st, 2014

As a rule, I make it a point to avoid reading reviews of an album before writing a review of my own. I don’t want my opinion formed by the undue influence of some other reviewer’s point of view. But I do like to do a bit of basic research – to get some background – before I write about an album. And so occasionally I accidentally stumble across a review during that endeavor.

That’s what happened while I was looking for a bit of information on The Seasons of Love, the new album from Gramercy Arms. I got the CD some time ago, and by the time it came to review it, I had largely forgotten the background of the group (whom I had not heard of prior to this year). I had a vague sense that Gramercy Arms is some sort of supergroup (akin to The New Pornographers, who I’ll be seeing in concert next week) or perhaps someone’s side project. (Neither assumption was correct, as it turns out.) In my quick search for details, I found a review that described the group’s sound as “slightly cheesy.”

Whoa. Hey, I understand that one man’s Velveeta is another man’s fine fromage, but there’s nothing cheesy about The Seasons of Love. Yes, the songs do concern themselves largely with matters of life and love – the song titles make that plain – but this is some high quality stuff. Perhaps someone raised on a steady diet of 90s grunge rock might find the melodic quotient too high, but for anyone who appreciates the melodic sense of, say, Paul McCartney, Gramercy Arms’ new album is a real treat.

For those attuned to melodicism, The Seasons of Love ensnares the listener right out of the gate. “Always in Love” has a sprightly, upbeat, piano-and-drums led rhythm that strongly recalls Electric Light Orchestra‘s “Mister Blue Sky.” Or perhaps Ben Folds Five‘s masterful “Kate.” It sounds unlike either of those, really, but there’s a composition-in-the-proud-tradition vibe that tells you they know and appreciate a good, strong tune.

Knowing, lived-in lyrics come at you rapid fire; throwaway lines rush by quickly, but if you catch them, you might crack a little smile when you hear “you and whatshisname still goin’ strong” and such. Economic use of horn charts is a hallmark of the tune (and the album as a whole) too.

The minor-key soulful tip of “Beautiful Disguise” makes it clear quickly that Gramercy Arms aren’t all about sweetness and light. But there’s a sense of authenticity in this achingly beautiful song. Gramercy Arms is the project of Dave Derby, a songwriter who busies himself with all manner of projects including work for film and television. That commercial media focus shows itself in his accessible approach to songwriting. And Derby is a fan of that reliably melodic kind of music; on The Season of Love, he enlists some of his friends/heroes; their talent shines throughout the record. Erin Moran (not the actress but instead the artist also known as A Girl Called Eddy) is one; Lloyd Cole (who has his own excellent new album, to reviewed here soon) is another. Matthew Caws (Nada Surf) and Tanya Donnelly (Throwing Muses, The Breeders, Belly) are two more.

Still, it’s Derby’s show. And not all of the songs are built around piano: “The Night is Your Only Friend” is a shimmering acoustic guitar-based tune that strikes a note halfway between the bright pop of “Always in Love” and the melancholy of the slower numbers. Strong melodies and sharp hooks are supported by memorable lead guitar runs and soaring , carefully-placed horn charts.

“Novemberlong” is another winning tune in that classic pop mold, but “Playing With Fire” weds reverbed, spaghetti western guitar and a sting section (violin, voila and cello) and what sounds like a pedal steel guitar to create an intimate, somber, contemplative mood. “Yours Untruly” launches with a slow-as-molasses drum beat that gives way to a soaring arrangement that is reminiscent of Polyphonic Spree; the massed vocal chorus strengthens that connection, but the distorted lead vocal and stabbing, soaring guitar leads keep it more in rock territory.

“The Season of Love” (note the slightly different spelling) features lead vocal from Donnelly and Verena Wiesendanger; oddly enough, it sounds like Elliot Smith supported by a Burt Bacharach arrangement. Put another way, it’s pure pop bliss, and if Mike Myers ever makes that rumored fourth Austin Powers film, it belongs on the soundtrack.

“Say the Word” is another unassuming yet lovely pop tune with lots of oooh vocalisms. “Thin” wraps up the album in somber fashion, with a funereal pace punctuated by sustained piano minor chords. As the tune unfolds, more instruments – gurgling organ, single-note electric guitar lines – are added into the mix. It has the feeling of a slow-waving goodby on a misty morning. And then it’s over. But those who dig solid songwriting with a high melodic quotient would do well to keep an eye and ear out for the next Gramercy Arms album, whenever it happens. Meanwhile the absolutely-not-a-bit-cheesy The Seasons of Love is short-listed for Musoscribe’s best albums of 2014.

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Album Review: R.L. Burnside — Too Bad Jim

October 30th, 2014

Here’s something that can be described as the sweet spot in a Venn diagram charting a curiosity, a history lesson, and an authentic modern-day reading of country blues. R.L. Burnside‘s Too Bad Jim – newly reissued on vinyl; more about that presently – sounds for all the world like a classic country blues session, the kind of thing Alan Lomax might have captured for the Smithsonian decades ago. Burnside’s delivery – vocal and guitar – is deeply redolent of Mississippi delta bluesmen of old (most notably Fred McDowell), but the production values are positively 21st century.

Which isn’t to say that Too Bad Jim has been gimmicked-up, akin to some sort of White Stripes dilettantism. No, Burnside is indeed the real deal. His blues tunes are true to the spirit of those old field recordings in that his blues is not confined to modern/commercial notions of how long each verse should be. In that he shares a sensibility with artists such as John Lee Hooker: Burnside uses the blues form more as a jumping off point than as a framework. He’s a bluesman, to be sure, but he bends the form to suit his needs. His electrified approach is supported on Too Bad Jim by the sparest of backing: this 1993 recording finds him joined only by bass and drums. Not only is their contribution simple and basic – keeping the spotlight where it belongs – but it’s relatively low in the mix.

And by “mix” I don’t wish to imply that Too Bad Jim has the sound of a multi-track studio recording. The sound is crystal clear and uncluttered, but it very much has the feel of one mic hanging from the ceiling (alongside perhaps a lone, naked incandescent lightbulb). There’s a late-night feel to the ten tracks on Too Bad Jim; that vibe pervades Burnside’s mix of originals, traditional numbers, and a cover of Hooker’s “When My First Life Left Me.” His original numbers – take “Short Haired Woman” for as good an example as any – could have been written ninety years ago, but in Burnside’s capable hands, the songs are timeless. His singing and playing is in turns heartfelt, impassioned, assured, and it’s always authentic.

Too Bad Jim was originally issued on the venerable Fat Possum label. A new subscription service called Vinyl Me Please featured Burnside’s second and highly regarded album as its October 2014 selection. Thick, sturdy heavyweight vinyl is packaged in a higher-gauge cardboard sleeve, along with a download card giving purchasers access to 320kbps (read: high quality) MP3 files. A nice foldout poster will evoke warm memories among those who came of age in vinyl’s 1970s heyday. As part of Vinyl Me Please’s good-natured approach, the package for Too Bad Jim also includes a recipe card for a relevant cocktail, in this case a variation on the Bloody Mary, one that was reputedly a favorite of Burnside’s.

With its monthly offerings, the Vinyl Me Please catalog explores a wide array of genres; the only unifying characteristic seems to be high quality.

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Book Review: Vinyl Lives On

October 29th, 2014

Florida-based author/journalist James Goss digs his vinyl. Though he never writes about his own interests or collection, his abiding fascination with the medium of vinyl records shines through loud and clear in his writing. His first two books on the subject – Vinyl Lives and Vinyl Lives II – offered profiles of many of the more notable independent record shops that have endured through the years and/or popped up in the wake of vinyl’s mini-resurgence. Goss’ knowing questions elicited illuminating responses from the shop owners, and that raw material – deftly combined with his own research and existing knowledge – resulted in some very interesting pieces.

That format is used in Goss’ newest book, Vinyl Lives On: Profiles of Musician Collectors and Record Store Owners. As its title makes plain, this book enjoys a widening of Goss’ scope to include collectors of note. And while a good chunk of Vinyl Lives On still focuses upon indie shops (happily, their number has been growing since publication of Goss’ earlier books), the chapters devoted to profiles of collectors provide a balance and an added level of insight.

Goss’ interview/profile of Henry Rollins is in itself worth the price of admission. Rollins is an unfailingly rewarding interview subject, and Goss’ experience was clearly no exception. The subject of record collecting clearly stuck a chord with Rollins; his numerous quotes are unceasingly interesting, shedding light on his voracious appetite for music (and other recorded material) across a wide array of genres.

Some of the author’s profiles of other collectors are marginally less interesting, but that has as much to do with what they have to say (or don’t have to say) as anything else. Goss’ chapters on Bill Frisell and Billy Vera both focus more on overall biographies of the musicians, so their interest in vinyl represents a smaller part of the content.

Not to focus too greatly on form versus content, but two points deserve mention here. First, Goss’ series of books – though published under the imprint of Aventine Press – are for all intents and purposes self-published works. This does show through in the relatively simple cover art and (to my mind, anyway) questionable choices of font and type size. But those issues are largely matters of taste, and don’t appreciably affect the quality of the books one way or another.

The second point is more substantial. Though Vinyl Lives On and its predecessors aren’t published by a major or well-known house, Goss’ books have obviously received a much more thorough editing than is the norm these days. I’ve read innumerable books these last few years, and am relentlessly barraged with syntax errors, factual mistakes, poor and inconsistent spelling. Goss’ comparatively humble books have virtually none of these issues: they’re well-written and expertly edited. For a writer/editor, reading works filled with mistakes can be an especially distracting experience. With Vinyl Lives On and its earlier two volumes, readers are free to focus on the content, well-presented as it should be.

James Goss’ Vinyl Lives On makes it three-in-a-row for my recommendation.

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DVD Review: BB King — The Life of Riley

October 28th, 2014

I know people who argue that – as a creative work – the music documentary is dead. They point out that the medium has become a rote retreading of tired techniques; that every possible clever, creative or even interesting method of telling a story onscreen has been beaten to death, leaving only the shell of a concept in its wake.

I understand what they mean. It’s nigh upon impossible to find a music documentary that doesn’t have these four things:

  1. Character actors “reenact” the musician’s early years while stock audio (that evokes the style of the subject matter without having to actually, y’know, pay royalties for using the actual music) plays in the background
  2. Post-production digital gimmicks like “fake scratched 16mm film” or “fake sepia tinting” or “fake [insert any of the myriad effects]”
  3. Bono, and possibly Dave Grohl
  4. Narration by Morgan Freeman.

Okay, I overstate things a bit here, both to make a point and possibly elicit a small chuckle. But the fact remains that – like the book says – when it comes to music documentaries, it often seems as if there’s nothing new under the sun.

Jon Brewer‘s new documentary B.B. King: The Life of Riley falls into many of these traps: it has the actors, the post-production, U2‘s ubiquitous lead singer, and Freeman (the last as both off-screen narrator and onscreen “talking head”). But despite its often rote approach, The Life of Riley transcends cliché. This is no doubt thanks to its subject matter. B.B. King is very much the real deal, and so even when tired devices are used to chronicle his life, the substance wins out over the style.

Throughout the film, Brewer’s approach seems to be chronological, but a close watch shows that the narrative often jumps forward and backward in the timeline, in service of the mini-narrative being explored. As much is left out of the story as is put in, and the viewer likely comes away feeling that they haven’t been told the whole story. (For example, we’re left wondering if he’s still married to Sue Carol Hall; he’s not). And his monumental, historic 1974 concert in Africa deserves more than the cursory mention it gets in the film. But in the absence of any other career-spanning look at King, The Life of Riley is what we have. And in the wake of King’s very recent suspension of his tour (for health reasons; he’s currently 89 years of age), now is the perfect time for such a film to appear.

In Brewer’s defense, The Life of Riley is perhaps the only music documentary in which the inescapable likeness and voice of Bono does truly deserve its place in the film. U2 toured and performed with King, and their “When Love Comes to Town” (featuring King on vocals and guitar) is one of the better pieces of music they’ve produced. (It’s less clear, however, why Bruce Willis gets screen time, but we’ll leave that one for another day.) And despite the fact that having Freeman narrate your film has become tired even as a joke device, the man’s clear yet laconic cadence is an excellent vehicle for narration.

As portrayed in The Life of Riley, King is painted as something of a good-natured rascal, one who always has a smile but whom you’d best not cross; it seems once he achieved success, he invariably (and inviolably) got his way. Fair enough: if any musician can be said to have paid his dues, King – who came from indisputably hardscrabble beginnings – is that man.

Music fans will come away from The Life of Riley wishing there was more in the way of performance clips in the film. But for that, there’s always King’s deep catalog of music. His most recent album is the Grammy-winning One Kind Favor; I reviewed it on release way back in 2008.

In the end, unlike its subject matter, The Life of Riley doesn’t yield anything that’s groundbreaking or especially inspiring. It’s perhaps only a small notch above an A&E Biography TV special (do they even make those any more?), but it remains worthwhile viewing.

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DVD Review: Ian Anderson – Thick As A Brick Live in Iceland

October 27th, 2014

In 2012, Jethro Tull leader Ian Anderson mounted a tour to promote his latest solo album, Thick As a Brick 2: What Ever Happened to Gerald Bostock? The tour and album both represented a high point in the recent musical activity of the ever-busy Anderson.

I saw the Asheville date of that tour in my hometown, and got the chance to interview Anderson for a print feature in advance of the performance. At the time, however, I reviewed neither the album nor the live show. This new DVD (also available on Blu-Ray) is a document of the show, which is in part a document of the album.

While in the last several years, Anderson’s flute playing has actually improved (we discussed that in our first interview, back in 2007), his vocal ability hasn’t fared so well. In fact, a 2010 DVD (Jethro Tull – Live at Avo Session Basel) vividly illustrates what the ravages of time have done to Anderson’s pipes). Still, as the Thick As a Brick 2 album shows, his songwriting and arrangement skills (and, again, his flute playing) remain sharp, reliable tools.

It is clear that Anderson realizes his strengths and weaknesses. And his solution to this set of challenges is nothing less than inspired: he’s added a new character to the onstage lineup. The Yorkshire-born Ryan O’Donnell was born in 1982, the same year Jethro Tull released their fourtten studio album, The Broadsword and the Beast; around the time of O’Donnel’s fifth birthday, Tull received the dubious honor of a Grammy Award for “best heavy metal album.”

But while the young O’Donnell may not have grown up during the classic era of Jethro Tull (arguably 1970-77), his demonstrably understands and appreciates the Tull aesthetic. Leaping about the stage in a most theatrical fashion – and freed from the demands of having to play an instrument – O’Donnell is able to convey not only the sound of his voice (and let it be said that his vocal texture and phrasing are very similar to that of Anderson in his prime), but the movement and visual flourishes so critical to the narrative of Thick As a Brick 2.

O’Donnell’s onstage presence allows Anderson to have it both ways: he can play his delightful flute parts – including ones that overlay the vocal lines, something he’s obviously never been able to do before now – and he can sing the parts of his signature vocals that lie within his diminished range. And with O’Donnell’s help, it all sounds as good as it possibly can.

Thick As A Brick 2 picks up the story of the child character Gerald Bostock, now fully grown and full of modern malaise. Onstage, Anderson and his team make full use of video clips at key points in the story; these – starring Anderson in one of several character roles – show that in addition to his myriad other skills, the sixty-something Anderson is a fine and natural actor.

Thick As A Brick 2 is full of humor, sarcasm, wit, drama…and lots of good music. Similar to the approach used on the original 1972 Thick As A Brick, the work is presented more or less as a single piece (yet with its sections distinctly titled), and is built around a central musical motif. But unlike, say, Roger Waters‘ three-note riff that represented most of Pink Floyd‘s 1979 The Wall, the Thick As A Brick 2 motif is at its core quite musical, and involved enough to sustain its use across an entire album.

The 2012 performance in Iceland is – by design – nearly identical to the performance I witnessed that same year in Asheville. The choreography dictates that this is so. The first half of the performance is a live reading of the 1972 album; after a brief intermission ,the band returns to present Thick As A Brick 2. And while when I first heard the modern-day sequel (studio version), I sensed that it paled somewhat in comparison to the ’72 album, when the two pieces are performed live, end-to-end, Thick As A Brick 2 benefits greatly. It’s a worthy successor to its predecessor. And with the flawlessly performed, filmed and (courtesy of King Crimson‘s Jakko Jakszyk) audio-recorded DVD Thick As A Brick Live in Iceland, fans of Anderson and Jethro Tull are presented with a must-have purchase. And that’s no mean feat for someone like Anderson, producing vital works some 45 years after releasing his debut album. If you like anything you’ve ever heard from Anderson, you definitely won’t want to sit this one out.

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