Album Review: Magic Sam — Live at the Avant Garde

April 8th, 2014

Soulful blues guitarist Magic Sam (Sam Maghett) was only documented on album-length studio recordings twice in his short career. West Side Soul in 1967 and the following year’s Black Magic – both released on the venerable Delmark label – showed the electric guitarist to good effect. But quite a few live recordings (of varying fidelity) provide a more intimate sonic portrait of Magic Sam. One of those – this newly-released set – documents a date at Milwaukee’s Avant Garde in summer 1968.

Fro a field recording, the recording quality is superb. While it’s a bit thin and tinny in places, all of the instruments come through: Sam’s piercing guitar and thick lead lines, Big Mojo Elem‘s tight bass work, and Bob Richey‘s rock solid drumming are all well-placed in the house mix, and so that’s what was captured by Jim Charne‘s multiple-microphone setup.

The recording was planned and carefully executed; this was no “reel-to-reel hidden inside a bag” sort of recording. Though Charne was merely a high school senior when he captured this performance, he clearly knew how to operate the equipment. The resulting tapes are, as Charne writes in the set’s liner notes, a faithful document of the show: “When the band went on, the tape rolled. What we heard in the room is what we got on the machine.”

And what they got was Sam and his bandmates confidently running through sixteen tunes in just over an hour. Blues standards from Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters are prominently featured, alongside several Magic Sam originals and modern blues numbers like Freddie King‘s immortal “San-Ho-Zay” (the set opener). Soulful lead vocals and plenty of tasty guitar solos abound. Even on the nearly-one-chord workout “Feelin’ Good,” Sam thrilled the assembled small crowd with his singing and guitar work while Big Mojo and Richey provided peerless support. The slower blues (such as Lowell Fulson‘s“It’s All Your Fault Baby” were just as exciting in their own way as the more uptempo blues numbers. A highlight of the set is a reading of Amos Blakemore‘s “Come On In This House,” in which Sam engages in call and response between his vocal and guitar licks; every lyric line is answered with some fleet-fingered guitar work; the rhythm section lays back and provides their most subtle backing on the set.

But there are many high points on Live at the Avant Garde, and those who enjoy blues guitar work will want to hear it all. The question that arises at the end of listening to this CD is: are there even more Magic Sam live treasures waiting to be released? While we wait for an answer – should one even be forthcoming – this set should provide many hours of pleasure.

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Album Review: Tower of Power — Hipper Than Hip

April 7th, 2014

For quite a number of years – primarily the mid 90s to around 2006 – I was immersed in a consuming hobby of sorts: I collected and traded bootlegs (aka ROIOs or recordings of indeterminate origin). For me, listening to unreleased recordings of artists I like – studio outtakes, live concert tapes, radio broadcasts and the like – provided an additional window of understanding into their work, a depth of understanding often unavailable through more conventional means.

With the rise of faster internet speeds and peer-to-peer sites, the trading of physical artifacts has largely died off. In the same way that trading of those physical CDs put a practical end to the for-profit (and illegal and unethical) practice of commercial bootlegging, the end of trading came on suddenly.

But a desire for these kinds of recordings persists. And just when one thinks the unreleased cache has been completely mined, something new turns up. The latest example of this is Hipper Than Hip: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow by Tower of Power. This 2CD set documents a WLIR radio broadcast from Long Island’s Ultrasonic Recording Studios on May 14, 1974. While Real Gone Music focuses primarily on rare and archival reissues, Hipper Than Hip is two-plus hours of previously unreleased material.

Tower of Power was (and remains) an eleven-piece band to be reckoned with. They brought the energy and fire of funk by expanding the basic rock lineup (guitar, bass, drums) with keyboards, percussion and a horn section. With Lenny Williams fronting the band on vocals, TOP tore through their tunes, giving ample spotlights to soloists. Chester Thompson‘s keyboard work is the centerpiece of many of these tracks, often engaging in incendiary dialogue with the horns (trumpet, two tenor saxes and a baritone sax).

Recorded in the studio but with a live audience, the recording is the best of both worlds: high quality recording techniques and the energy that can only be captured when the band plays in front of real human beings. The 2CD set captures the band at the height of their success, running through their hits (“Soul Vaccination,” “You’re Still a Young Man,” and “What is Hip” along with perennial favorite “Squib Cakes”) and a dozen others.

Led by founders Emilio Castillo and Stephen “Doc” Kupka (both of whom remain in the band today, along with a couple others from back in the 70s), Tower of Power provided a sort of updating of the hard-charging road bands of the swing era (Duke Ellington‘s band, for example), injecting the music with heavy doses of soul, r&b and the ever-present funk.

From start to finish, Hipper Than Hip is a thrilling document of a band and horn section at their best. Whether it’s a smooth soul ballad such as “You’re Still a Young Man” or an irresistible groove, Tower of Power delivers. The liner notes provide a bit of history and context along with some background on the sessions that produced this historic recording. As successful as the studio albums of that era were (1974′s Back to Oakland was the group’s then-current release), it was in concert that Tower of Power were best experienced. And while they did release a live album in the 70s (1976′s Live and Living Color) that contains versions of four of the numbers on Hipper Than Hip, this new 2CD set is worth having for its combination of up-close-and-personal with studio production values.

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Festival Review: Big Ears 2014, Day 3 (Part Two)

April 4th, 2014

The final set of performances we took in at Big Ears 2014 were all centered around the work of minimalist composer Steve Reich. It was all deeply thrilling, visceral, emotional stuff, the kind of thing that’s quite difficult to put into words. It might sounds like a cop-out to say so, but this is music that must be experienced live. I had never heard most of it in recorded form, so I claim no point of reference. But it was stunning and beautiful in ways I find myself unable to articulate. So instead I offer some photos. They don’t quite get at it either, but they’re cool nonetheless. If you find my writing about music at all resonating with you, just trust me when I tell you that this music was amazing. Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead solo, then a couple other Reich pieces by Ensemble Signal.




I don’t consider the word “commercial” a pejorative term, but neither do I consider it an essential component of worthwhile music. Big Ears 2014 was for the most part far, far, far from commercial, but I sincerely hope that the organizers made their earnings goals. Because as festivals go, Big Ears 2014 was well-run, incredibly thoughtful in terms of artist selection, and user-friendly in the extreme. An unqualified success. I truly hope they schedule another one soon, and if they do, I’ll make every effort to cover it.

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Festival Review: Big Ears 2014, Day 3 (Part One)

April 3rd, 2014

Dean and Britta
I had already seen Dean Wareham and his wife/collaborator Britta Phillips on Day One of Big Ears 2014. But what was advertised for their Sunday performance – this time at the smaller Bijou – was intriguing enough to get my attention. The plan was to project thirteen of Andy Warhol‘s famous “screen test” films while the musicians provided a real-time soundtrack. I figured it would bear a passing similarity to Marc Ribot‘s accompaniment to the Chaplin film from Day Two.

I was wrong. While Ribot was shrouded in total darkness, leaving our auditory senses the only ones to process his real-time work, Dean and Britta (and band) played on a lit stage. They also provided commentary between the films.

The music was good, but there was a definite self-conscious air about it all. As each piece wound its way toward the end, Wareham could be seen intently studying a flat-panel monitor at the foot of the stage. This, I suspect, had the films on it plus a time clock. So while the songs had been rehearsed out to follow the rough run time of each film, Wareham had to signal the band to (in some cases) vamp an ending a bit longer or (other times) end sooner than planned. That’s all well and good, but seeing the wizards’ goings-on behind the curtain did indeed detract from the experience, making it seem a bit stiff.

Britta’s lead vocal turn on Bob Dylan‘s “I’ll Keep it With Mine” (accompanying a Nico screen test) was a highlight. And the sight of Lou Reed onscreen moved some in the audience to give said screen a standing-o.

One other slight off-note: when I saw Wareham on Friday, he made a comment during the second song to the effect of “There are a lot of photographers up here.” It was said with what I took to be equal parts discomfort and distaste. But I decided to forget about it. Until Sunday, when Wareham took the opportunity between songs to approach the front edge of the stage, lean down toward the front row, and scold a photographer (not me) for shining a light in his eyes. (They weren’t using a flash, and were shooting during the proscribed first three-songs period.) Now, Wareham wasn’t pulling a Cat Power, and nobody likes having a light shone in their eyes, but as I say, the episode added an unsettling feel to the show as a whole.

Rachel Grimes
The vibe could not have been more different when Rachel Grimes took the stage for her shortish yet delightful set. Initially it was just her and a grand piano, with highly melodic and expressive instrumental pieces. It was good enough that – had that been all we got – it would have been well worth the time spent.

But then it got better. Grimes, who was clearly thrilled to be onstage at Big Ears, refreshingly seeming as much a fan as a performer, introduced Helen Money (aka Chesley) on cello. We were thrilled, since Money’s earlier solo show was one we hadn’t been able to make. As she sawed expressively on her cello while Grimes played more of her lovely tunes, it was truly a thing of beauty.

And then it got better still. Sax player Jacob Duncan joined the two women onstage. And – shades of Rashaan Roland Kirk – he played two saxes at once. It was amazing from a technical point of view, but none of that would have mattered if the music wasn’t breathtaking. It was. As was the entire set.

Earth
We then headed over to the tiny Scruffy City Hall for what would be our only show at that venue. The standing-room-only crowd there was – at least in terms of my own Big Ears experience – an anomaly, but we didn’t mind, since we were going to see and hear a buzzworthy band.

About all I can say regarding Earth is that they’re the perfect band for anyone who thinks Black Sabbath plays too fast, or doesn’t drop-tune far enough. The low groan of Earth’s songs offered little in the way of melody or variation. And please understand that I say this as rock fan who’s been to hundreds of concerts, but it was fucking LOUD. And, honestly, pretty boring.

Amusingly, a look around the packed room found countless heads nodding slooowly in time to the music, like a flock of stoner dippy birds. They all reminded me of someone struggling to stay awake but nodding off anyway.

After several samey songs, they announced that the next piece would be “a new one.” We decided to stick around and give it a chance. The piece started off every bit as monotonously slow, uneventful and deafeningly loud as the others, but what we heard felt like an extended intro. So we waited, half-expecting at any moment after an endless droning squall of feedback to hear the drummer count off a quicker one-two-three-four and kick up the tempo.

It never happened. We left.

Coming in the next installment: review of a set of Steve Reich compositions that capped the three-day festival, and some closing thoughts on Big Ears 2014 overall.

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Festival Review: Big Ears 2014, Day 2 (Part 2)

April 2nd, 2014

After getting (respectively) a headache and a power nap, my sweetheart and I headed back to the Tennessee Theatre, remarking all the while how well-thought-out Big Ears 2014 is as a whole. The four primary venues all lay in a straight line in downtown, the farthest apart being no more than about six blocks. And while the lack of crowds might not have exactly been part of the game plan for the organizers, it sure made things nice for those of us who were attending. No lines, no jostling…just music and good vibes.

Wordless Music Orchestra
I wasn’t altogether sure what to expect from this outfit. The festival guide described it as performances of film music, mostly by Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead), and mostly from a handful of critically well-received films, There Will Be Blood and Norwegian Wood among them.

Greenwood himself wouldn’t figure into this particular performance (that would come on Sunday), and what concertgoers got instead was a smallish ensemble mostly made up of violinists (with some celli, some basses), seated in rows facing each other. The sight of a projection screen above the musicians led me to anticipate scenes from these films flashing by whilst the players ran through the scores, but that was not to be. Instead, the screen merely indicated the name of each piece, its composer, and the film from which it came (if it was a film piece; some weren’t).

Overall, it was a bit monochromatic. The musicians were all fine; excellent, probably. But the music was less varied than I might have hoped, and a good portion of it was melancholy, sometimes almost dreary. The Greenwood pieces were the best; some of the other pieces bordered on the unpleasant. As a way to spent an hour on a Saturday afternoon, it was worthwhile, but the excitement quotient was largely nonexistent.

Steve Reich’s Drumming
Another case of the putative marquee name not being part of the performance, this one was nonetheless a stunning showcase. Featuring a pair of ensembles called So Percussion and nief-norf Project, this concert was one nonstop piece of percussive music. The work started from nearly nothing – one person hitting some small tuned drums – and built to a climax. Then it ebbed, flowed, swelled and receded. Players were added. Players sat down. The music never stopped, and the audience was held in thrall.

Occasionally vocalists were added to the mix; while the piece was totally scored, it had an organic, seemingly improvised feel to it. The vocalists, for example, seemed to seek out the patterns and melodies as opposed to merely react to them. A recognizable pattern would emerge, and then as soon as a listener such as myself started to groove on it, it would disappear into the percussive maelstrom. I’d never seen nor heard anything like Drumming before (and no, the drum circles here in Asheville don’t compare), and felt honored and awed to be in the presence of such an amazing performance.

Television
It was quite a temporal shift, then, to remain in our seats when the next act came out. New wave / no wave/ punk heroes Television took the stage at the Tennessee Theatre. With three-fourths of the classic lineup – guitarist/vocalist Tom Verlaine, drummer Billy Ficca and bassist Fred Smith – the band was joined by longtime Verlaine associate Jimmy Rip (guitarist Richard Lloyd left the band amicably in 2007).

Television have long held an odd place in rock history; they’re often (rightly or wrongly) lumped in with the late 70s NYC scene that included The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads and the like. But with two stellar lead guitarists (there’s rarely any “rhythm guitar” in Television songs) the group came on more like the era’s answer to Thin Lizzy. Or something.

Guitar heroics without all the histrionics and posing: that was a big part of what made Television great then, and it’s what brought the house down this night. Rip is an ace player, and did a great job of both satisfying those who wanted to hear the songs done the way Lloyd woulda done ‘em and making sure that people knew he’s his own man with plenty to say in his own playing.

The songs were long, but never meandering; the guitar dialogue between Verlaine and Rip was electric, and Ficca and Smith provided a thrilling yet rock-solid foundation for the guitarists. The group even pulled out a new song that will hopefully show up on a new Television album…some day.

Stay tuned for more Big Ears 2014 coverage.

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Festival Review: Big Ears 2014, Day 2 (Part 1)

April 1st, 2014

Marc Ribot (Again)
The second day of Big Ears 2014 kicked off with a most unusual event: Marc Ribot seated in total darkness, armed with only a classical acoustic guitar. Above him on the Bijou stage was a projection screen, upon which was shown Charlie Chaplin‘s 1921 silent film, The Kid. Ribot’s charge was to create a real-time audio accompaniment for the film. This he did with amazing skill.

In fact, while this was ostensibly a Ribot solo gig, in fact the guitarist’s presence meshed so seamlessly with the film that it seemed almost not to exist on its own. His highly expressive guitar lines fit so perfectly with the onscreen images – alternately conveying, joy, menace, whimsy, pathos and the other sensations that encompass the human experience – that one could easily forget about them and simply enjoy the movie.

Which is exactly what the packed house did. Fro the entire film’s run time (approximately an hour), the audience, laughed, gasped and otherwise sat enthralled with the antics portrayed by Chaplin and his seven-year old sidekick Jackie Coogan (known best to my generation as The Addams Family‘s Uncle Fester). Ribot’s real-time score was so perfectly integrated that one could have been forgiven for thinking it has been pre-recorded. As it was, the solo performance was a tour de force, one not likely to be bettered.

David Greenberger
Greenberger and I have been Facebook friends for years, but as a byproduct of his status postings there, I know of him primarily as a writer and visual artist. So when I learned that he’d be doing a sort of spoken-word piece at Big Ears, I knew I’d have to catch the performance.

It was a thrill. In the intimate setting of the Square Room, Greenberger took the stage accompanied by a lively and expressive upright bassist (Evan Lipson), nimble and nuanced drummer/percussionist Bob Stagner, and Amanda Rose Cagle, a multi- instrumentalist who played piano, melodica, accordion, electric guitar, percussion and Theremin (and that’s only a partial list).

The premise was rather straightforward, on paper at least: Greenberger read a number of shortish pieces (“a dozen and a half or so,” he told us), all monologues by characters based on conversations he’s had with residents of nursing homes. These raged from barely-lucid ramblings to bitter tirades to bizarre, Dada-ish rants that made little or no sense in any context. And they were unfailingly entertaining.

The musical backing was as varied as Cagle’s instrumental arsenal. Always well-suited for the monologue at hand, the trio provided deep tone color backdrops to Greenberger’s monologues. Initially I thought the trio was improvising; it quickly became apparent that they were instead working from a highly structured – although often seemingly abstract – plan. The only pop-culture equivalent I can think of to describe Greenberger’s performance (with the trio dubbed And Prime Lens — an anagram of their mutual friend, collaborator and guiding light, the recently-deceased Dennis Palmer) is the word-jazz work of Ken Nordine. While Greenberger’s delivery is less stylized than Nordine’s, it’s every bit as enthralling.

Dawn of MIDI
The festival guide’s preview of this trio painted an intriguing picture: a lineup that essentially follows the classic jazz trio format (piano, bass, drums) plays a highly repetitive, minimalistic totally acoustic kind of music that evokes the sound and feel of early synthesizer music ad/or motorik. The truth was, I suppose, quite close to that description, but my reaction to it was unexpected.

As my sweetheart and I arrived at the darkened confines of the Bijou, we could barely see our hands in front of our faces as we crawled around looking for seats. Once we found those seats, we sat down and I snapped a few photos. The next thing I recall took place approximately thirty minutes later, when I was awoken by my sweetie’s whispered words: “I have two words for you: water torture.” While the insistently repetitive music had almost immediately lulled me to slumber, it had given my partner a headache. Looking around into the darkness, I saw that several nearby fellow concertgoers were also splayed out in their seats, fast asleep. One guy, however, was physically gyrating his torso and head in (attempted) time with the music. Go figure.

My coverage of the second day of Big Ears 2014 will continue.

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Festival Review: Big Ears 2014, Day 1

March 31st, 2014

Dean Wareham
We arrived in Knoxville in plenty of time to grab front-row seats in the beautiful Tennessee Theatre. It certainly helped that attendance for Wareham’s set was light (the venue filled in pretty well as the performance got under way). A relatively low-key performance free of any sort of visual effects, Wareham’s set included songs form his new (and first) solo album, titled Dean Wareham (“I couldn’t think of anything else to call it,” he deadpanned).

The set also included some numbers from his Luna and Galaxie 500 days; the crowd helped the relatively uninformed among us (myself included) know when one of these was beginning by helpfully applauding a bar or two into the tunes. Wareham’s spouse and musical collaborator Britta Phillips held down a nimble bottom end on her p-bass, while the second lead guitarist added plenty of tone color via understated but highly effective lines on his SG, and some lovely slide work.

Wareham’s tunes hit the sweet spot between indie-rock and catchy, hooky pop, providing a surprisingly accessible opener for what I had assumed would be a rather avant garde festival.

Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog
That assumption was confirmed, however, with the second set we witnessed this evening. At the Bijou (conveniently located mere steps form the Tennessee Theatre; Big Ears is nothing if not an intelligently laid out festival), thanks in part to the later start time, a relatively larger (adjusted for venue size) crowd turned up.

In general, I often equate seated musicians with low energy, laconic performances (see: Grateful Dead, 1987). But Ribot and his band mates – drummer Ches Smith and Shahzad Ismaily on bass, percussion and electronics – put the lie to that assumption. Tearing through a set of mostly original material, the trio served up what will stand in my memory as one of the most musically unclassifiable performances I’ve ever witnessed. There was punk-skronk, avant-jazz, and even a sort of weird rethink of heavy 70s rock done in some bizarre time signature that would threaten to break the ankle of anyone who dared try to tap their foot along in time.

While Ribot’s original material was fascinating – especially his acerbic “Masters of the Internet” – for me the highlight was a heavily rearranged take of Dave Brubeck‘s “Take Five.” The basic structure of the tune was there, but the band headed off into myriad exploratory directions, making the chestnut truly their own.

Most assuredly not the easiest of listening, Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog brought together the experimental and accessible in a way that was at least intriguing, and at best thrilling.

Susanna
The Norwegian thrush is possessed of a crystalline voice and stately, regal manner. Seated at her grand piano on the dimly lit stage of the Tennessee Theatre, she delivered her icy-cool yet emotionally wrought songs with the subtle aid of a drummer who as often as not played mallets and provided splashes of percussive color rather than a beat) and a guitarist who was equal parts understatement and finesse.

Susanna’s songs conjured strong images in my imagination: cold, grey, desolate landscapes that are somehow beautiful in their own way…that kind of thing. Her songs about death and whatnot are designed to produce just such a reaction, I suspect. Early on in her set, Susanna explained to the crowd that “I am Susanna, and,” gesturing to her bandmates, “we are Susanna.” She further explained that she has released many albums in the last decade, under her own name and other guises as well, and that she has something of a reputation for doing unusual covers (reinterpretations is a better word) of other artists’ material.

She proved this last point by performing an elegaic rendering of Thin Lizzy‘s “Jailbreak.” Slowed to the breaking point, and punctuated with simple yet lovely piano melodic lines, she offered a wholly original concept of the hard rock classic.

More Big Ears 2014 coverage throughout the next several days.

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Preview: Moogfest 2014

March 28th, 2014

When the first Moogfest took place (2004) it was a smallish event in New York City, and its namesake – Dr. R.A. Moog – was still alive. The festival focused on the synthesizer technology pioneered by Bob Moog and others, and featured Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, Bernie Worrell and other synth luminaries closely associated with Moog technology. In the wake of its initial success, the festival grew and grew, and eventually (2010) relocated to Asheville NC, headquarters of the revitalized Moog Music and the home of Bob Moog, who passed away in 2005.

While the bigger Moogfest was undoubtedly a go-to event for music fans, and although it boasted some impressive lineups, a strong case can be made that its initial purpose, the guiding philosophy, had been lost (or at least diminished). Shortly after the 2012 Moogfest, the contract with its organizing entity (AC Entertainment, the people who put on Bonnaroo, Big Ears and many other fine events) was not renewed, and so it looked as if Moogfest was no more. (AC launched Mountain Oasis in its place, and while the 2013 event seemed successful, plans for a 2014 followup were put on hold).

But in late 2013 it was announced that Moogfest would return. And as information about the nature of the revived festival emerged, the shape it took strongly suggested that the 2014 festival would mark a decided return to the ethos of the original Moogfest. Yes, there would be plenty of must-see musical acts. But those seem to have been chosen as much for their musical affinity with Moog synthesizer and related technology as for any sort of commercial consideration.

More fascinating, even, than the music lineup – which includes some rarely-seen acts such as Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder – is the speaker lineup. A jaw-dropping list of who’s-who in music technology will be giving talks and workshops, and taking part in panel discussions. Pioneers in synthesizer technology slated to appear at Moogfest 2014 include Herb Deutsch (one of Bob Moog’s closest associates, and a major figure in the development of early synthesizers), Roger Linn (of Linn Drum fame), and many, many, many others. And a staggering list of currently-active “technology futurist” types (including techies from Google and the team that created the TV show Futurama) will be in attendance as well; Moogfest 2014 is most assuredly not a backward-looking event in any sense of the word.

So while I’m eagerly anticipating the music at Moogfest 2014, I’m at least as excited at the prospect of attending as many of the scheduled talks as possible. The organizers recently announced the day schedule (and pricing for single-day tickets), and this link will take you there.

I’ll be covering Moogfest in great detail, with another advance feature/interview plus plenty of post-event interview/features, and – if circumstances allow – I might even get into a bit of live-blogging form the event. Moogfest 2014 takes place April 23-27 in Asheville NC.

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Album Review: Lisa Loeb — No Fairy Tale

March 27th, 2014

Last weekend I was wandering about in an antique/ephemera mall that also housed a coffeehouse (this is Asheville; you routinely find such things here). There was an acoustic guitar singer-songwriter type of middling to good ability purveying his tunes to the assembled coffee drinkers. He wasn’t bad, but his original songs were a bit run-of-the-mill for my tastes, so I kept rifling through the piles of old Paul Revere and the Raiders LPs. Eventually he threw in a cover, and it was (for me, anyway) the best tune of the set. But his choice of, um, “oldie” was something totally unexpected. He ran through a credible reading of Oasis‘ “Chapagne Supernova” from their 1995 album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? It was a bit of sweet nostalgia for me, because I love that whole album. I still play it at least once a month.

And so I’m reminded that there was quite a lot of really good, tuneful music on the rock/alternative/whatever charts in the 90s. It was but a year before “Champage Supernova” that Lisa Loeb‘s “Stay (I Missed You)” ruled the airwaves. Thanks in no small part to its prominence as part of the Reality Bites soundtrack, the wistful tune – with a sweet melody and Loeb’s fetching voice – gave Loeb a #1 charting single before she had even inked a record deal.

I will admit I didn’t follow her career after that. But neither did I ever change the station when the song came on; had I listened to a lot of radio, I might have found the song overplayed. But as it was, I liked it, and still do.

Lisa Loeb is still busy recording and releasing albums. While her tenth album (2011′s Lisa Loeb’s Silly Silly Sing-Along) was made for kids, her most recent is most definitely aimed at an older market. No Fairy Tale was initially released in 2013, but of late it’s been getting a renewed marketing push, with vinyl copies (with different cover art, more of which presently) sent to reviewers who respond with interest.

No Fairy Tale is quite good, though not in the way that “Stay” was, or, I suspect (but cannot verify) in the way her kid-themed album was successful. The songs have, if you’ll pardon the dated reference, a sort of Riot Grrl vibe to them. Loeb (on vocals, electric and acoustic guitars) is ably supported by her co-producer Chad Gilbert on guitar, with Colin Strahm on drums plus a handful of other musicians on various tracks.

It’s worth noting, perhaps, that one of those other musicians is one Brad Wood, who also mixed No Fairy Tale. Wood is best known as a producer himself, and his best known production is Liz Phair‘s Exile in Guyville. He’s also worked the boards for Veruca Salt and The Bangles. So it’s safe to say he knows how to help female rockers get the sound they want.

None of which is intended to take away from Loeb’s talents. About half of the twelve tunes were written by Loeb herself, and most of the remainder are co-writes. The two songs she didn’t pen herself were composed by Tegan and Sara (Quin), credible female indie rockers themselves.

But it’s still Loeb’s show all the way. No Fairy Tale rocks far more often than it doesn’t. The opening title track kicks off with crunchy power chords worthy of The Who. The power trio of Loeb, Gilbert and Strahm charges through the song, and Loeb’s tightly arranged overdubbed vocals make “No Fairy Tale” a statement of grown-up purpose in a modern world.

Loeb doesn’t kid around: she’s got a riffy rocker called “The ’90s” that mentions videos, name checks MTV, and tells listeners, “You say you loved me then, but I don’t want to go back.” Her wry, acerbic wit and refreshing self-awareness are on full display as she sings, “So alternative, just like everybody else in the mainstream.”

Even when she runs through a more plaintive, contemplative number like “Weak Day,” Loeb delivers it in the manner of a rocker who’s dialing it down, rather than a folkie who finally gets to play with fewer of those nasty electric guitars. “Walls” is another appealing rocker with a soaring melody. For “A Hot Minute,” Loeb spits out the lyrics at top speed, right in line with the song’s urgent tone. She teases with the lyric, “I”m not asking for forever / I’m just asking for tonight,” but the remaining lyrics suggest that she knows the object of the song feels pretty much the same way, at best. In its own way, “A Hot Minute” (one of the Tegan and Sara tunes) is more forthright than anything on the supposedly nakedly confessional Exile in Guyville.

The shifting tempos of the folk-rocker “Sick, Sick, Sick” show that Loeb’s got a lot going on musically, but she couches it all in winning, tuneful and memorable songcraft.

Side Two kicks in with “Matches,” another chugging rocker that Cheap Trick wouldn’t be embarrassed to include on one of their albums. “Married” is a cautionary message to a friend (“He’s married / you don’t know what you’re doing”). “Swept Away” is a midetempo rocker with another strong melody, made even better by the overdubbed vocals and multiple-guitar leads that evoke not the 90s but the 70s.

“He Loved You So Much” is a sort of rock answer to the sort of song Loeb did nearly two decades ago with “Stay.” And on “”Ami, I’m Sorry,” Loeb does (briefly) return to her folkie singer-songwriter roots, with a song of heartbreak. Gilbert and Wood are on hand, but their contributions are nearly inaudible, and – it seems – not really needed. The album wraps with “The Worst,” a sort of campfire pop tune that offers words of encouragement (“Don’t worry; the worst is there to comfort you”). A lovely end to a lovely record.

The special repackaging of No Fairy Tale features a cartoon image of Loeb, who in actual photos looks a bit like a bespectacled cross between Jennifer Garner and Rachael Ray. And each of these special LP versions is personalized with Loeb’s autograph and brief message. Hey, if it’s a shameless marketing ploy, it’s done for a good reason: it got me to listen to a wonderful album by an artist whose name I knew, but whose catalog I did not. Fair enough. Lisa Loeb’s No Fairy Tale is highly recommended.

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Album Review: Barry White — Can’t Get Enough

March 26th, 2014

James Brown might have been Soul Brother Number One, but it was Isaac Hayes who brought soul into the mainstream with his lush, romantic workouts such as his cover of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” And while Hayes would remain the master of that style, he had other things on his mind as well, such as the driving soundtracks to Shaft, Truck Turner and other flicks of the era.

But in the 1970s we had Barry White to carry the torch of that particular sub-style. Rock fans might even think of White as a sort of ELO to Isaac Hayes’ Beatles: he took one specific part of a great act’s musical approach and ran with it.

Some say he ran it into the ground. But with the benefit of hindsight, and if approaching it while attempting to keep irony at a safe distance, it’s actually a lot of fun. Can’t Get Enough was White’s third album, but he had been successful right out the gate with his first two solo LPs: I’ve Got So Much to Give and Stone Gon’ (both 1973) hit #1 on the US R&B charts, and top-twentied on the pop charts. Still, Can’t Get Enough was the crowning achievement: number one on both charts, and certified Gold in both the USA and UK.

The album is characterized by a mix of lush songs – often including his lugubrious Isaac Hayes-inspired raps – that were in turns heavily orchestrated and filled with propulsive, proto-disco beats. “Mellow Mood (Pt. 1)” is such an orchestrated number that segues quickly into the #1 dancefloor hit “You’re the First, The Last, My Everything.” But most of Side One is consumed by the slow jam “I Can’t Believe You Love Me,” a prototype of 70s makeout music that features equal parts low-register rapping (the old kind, kids) and equally-low-register romantic crooning. A studio full of strings, harpsichords, Rhodes, female choruses and a slowed-to-the-breaking-point drum part all come together to make this signature track.

The sort-of title track, “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Baby” topped the pop and R&B charts, and deservedly so. With the drums mixed way out front (right up there with the orchestra and ol’ Barry’s multi-tracked voice), it was made for dancing. And the production and arrangement are impressive and crystalline. “Oh Love, Well We Finally Made It” has a memorable sax riff, but otherwise it tends – at least when compared to the other tracks on Can’t Get Enough – to come off a bit faceless.

“I Love You More Than Anything (In This World Girl)” features a stronger melody, and strikes a balance between slow jam and disco territories; it probably works best as a slow dance number, conjuring as it does visions of glittery disco balls. The brief “”Mellow Mood (Pt. II)” wraps up the disco with a repeating riff of strings and wah-wah guitar while imaginary credits roll.

When White was ruling the charts, this ten-year-old Billy had no use for his romantic notions and discofied beats. When I was a teen and bought my first of several copies of The Rolling Stone Record Guide, I laughed aloud when I read part of Dave Marsh‘s review of White’s side-project Love Unlimited Orchestra: “And Barry White is (you know, baby) pretty (uh-huh) goddamn lame.” But hearing Can’t Get Enough some forty years after its original release – on 180-gram Audio Fidelity vinyl, I must hasten to add), it’s some pretty fine music, well worth reconsideration. This 2014 reissue comes in numbered editions housed in a sturdy gatefold sleeve; like the ’74 original, it includes all of the (yeah, baby) lyrics so you can (uh-huh) sing along.

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