Thursday, January 31, 2008
DVD: Yes - Their Definitive Fully Authorized Story
Label: Image Entertainment
Released: January 15, 2007
I'm a fan of Yes. I understand that they have serious flaws from Jon Anderson's esoteric, eastern-philosophy-lite lyrics to their frequent substitution of calculation for emotion, but somehow, they manage to get away with it in my book.
Like Yes' better moments, this DVD often finds itself short on thrills, but long on quality nonetheless. The biggest problem is that the whole thing is 95% interviews. There is very, very little live footage and only slightly more vintage images. While that makes it rather dull and difficult to connect to the music (isn't the music the point?), there is still value here. Jon Anderson, Chris Squire, Peter Banks, Steve Howe, Bill Bruford and Alan White as well as managers, journalists and other insiders all share their point of view quite honestly. They deal frankly with firings, members quitting and the pressures of the business end of music. You also get to see Steve Howe looking like a mad scientist these days and that's kinda cool.
The second disc provides more interviews (probably overkill after the 204 minutes of disc 1) and three music videos. "Owner of a Lonely Heart," while perhaps not a true Yes song to prog purists, is a classic video, but the "Wonderous Stories" video doesn't add much value. "Tempus Fugit" is a strange inclusion, because there is a camp for classic Yes line-ups and another for the Trevor Rabin era, I doubt there's anyone who runs to the defense of Drama. Disc 2 also includes a still photo gallery, but I for one have never found the galleries on DVDs to all that interesting and this one is no different.
Yes - Their Definitive Fully Authorized Story is interesting, but that hardly qualifies it as a great rock film. For the die hard Yes fan, there is plenty of good information, but it might be more enjoyable to get your old Yes album out and listen while you watch, because there's just too little music here. If you're a casual Yes fan, there's just not a lot here.
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Review: Zolof the Rock and Roll Destroyer - Schematics
Label: Flight Plan/Reignition Records
Released: September 25, 2007
Zolof the Rock and Roll Destroyer is yet another power-pop band among what seems like an endless stream coming out these days. So, what sets this female-fronted hook-fest apart from the others? For one thing, energy. In a genre that seems to go through the motions, Zolof is engaged in what they're doing. Straightforward rhythms are augmented by solid hooks, sometimes in the vocals and sometimes on the organ. Unlike so many power-pop and pop-punk bands, the vocals have a bit of edge, just enough to keep the songs out of that sappy territory in which most of their peers tread, but not enough to suck the pop out of the power. Zolof is a band in every sense of the word. From the rhythms and the the power chords to the sweet edgy vocals backed by plenty of "whoa-oh-ohs," nothing gets all that complex and piece steps on another. The result is both a raw energy and a refined catchiness that is tough not to like.
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Review: Watts - One Below the All Time Low
Label: Self-released; buy it at CD Baby or Not Lame
Released: September 4, 2007
Watts took their name from the drummer of perhaps the most over-rated rock band in history. However, the part of the Stones that they tap into is that of the band in its hungry 60s prime, not the bloated dinosaur of the last 35 years. And the Stones aren't the only band that Boston's Watts channels. Occasionally, they stray into the catchy punk territory of the Descendents, but most often, they hit up the Replacements, not just in sound, but on a deeper level as well. One Below the All Time Low might not live up to the Replacements very best work, but it's certainly on par with the 'Mats album cuts and that's not half bad. Most importantly, they play that down-to-earth rock n roll that resonates in our hearts. This isn't an album of optimism or cynicism, but one about that place where we all live, not romanticized, just reality in all its gritty here-and-now glory.
Interview: Gypsy Pistoleros
The Gypsy Pistoleros would be pigeonholed into a genre that I usually dismiss, but that would be a mistake in this case. Sure, there were some great glam bands, but most of those still hanging around are just old men who can't admit their day has passed or young bands that want to recapture glam at its commercial peak (which happens to be its creative slump, surprise, surprise). The Pistoleros are another story. Not only do they add a Latin flair to their music, but they also play it with an intensity and a hunger that is too often absent not only from their genre, but from rock n roll in general. I had an opportunity to get a little bit of insight into what makes the Pistoleros tick from frontman Lee Pistolero.
RnRnMN: You guys successfully marry glam with Latin music. How did you come by that idea?
Lee: I was living in Zaragoza (Spain) in 1992 after running away from London (Lords of the New Church, Kill City Dragons years) & then L.A.! I started a band there, discovered flamenco & rumba pop (Spanish late 70's/early 80's gypsy pop). Loved it!! Everyone said it was sacrilege & that you couldn't play it in a rock n roll band! I've always hated someone telling me i can't!!! So we played a couple of flamenco/rumba tracks when we supported The Ramones in 1993 Spain & it worked!! It rocks up really well!
RnRnMN: Do you worry that you'll be viewed as a novelty rather than a serious band because of the glam/Latin angle?
Lee: Were the Gypsie Kings a novelty? Los Lobos?? We do what we do!! I think that original, unique is fukkin amazing in this World of the norm, safe!! Glam was fun! Music should be fun, escapism!! We are what we are!
RnRnMN: You seem to be pretty close to the fans. I see you posting on forums and having a lot of direct contact with people. How do you think that personal contact effects your music? Do you think you'll be able to maintain that level of contact as the band gets bigger?
Lee: Yes!! We'll break our bollocks to!! Personal contact means everything. They are great critics. They want you to succeed & they tell you the truth (from the heart). No greater critics or advisors. It's getting harder as the volume increases, but when you have more time for the bullshit people than the REAL people, you're lost anyway!
RnRnMN: How would you define success as a rock n roll band?
Lee: 2009, we headline Rocklahoma! A new band being supported by the old legends! Someone turns round & says "You know Hanoi Rocks, Motley Crüe, Gypsy Kings, they sound a bit like GYPSY PISTOLEROS!"
RnRnMN: What's the story with re-issuing the album? Why change the title for a remaster with two extra songs?
Lee: BAD REPUTATION are a very happening label! Evil Boy Records couldn't cope with the demand, so (we) licensed it to a real record label! We recorded two new tracks & remastered the old album! It was recorded & mixed, mastered in 14 days, eveything (Joe Gibb is a genius a we owe him!) We couldn't afford the orchestra for 'Moonchild!' The next album will be on a different level! That said, I love this ugly baby!!
RnRnMN: The original release sold well without major distribution. How is Para Siempre doing with a push from Bad Reputation?
Lee: No idea, the pressings were ready 24th January! I bloody hope it sells!!
RnRnMN: You have quite a few fans in the US. When will the album be available over here?
Lee: On import you can get it from Bad Reputation. We are in discussion with major U.K & U.S management & U.S Record Companies!! Hence us pulling out of our U.K & Euro Tour to demo the next album, etc!! Its killing us, but this deal is massive!!
RnRnMN: What's the scoop with Eric Stacy? Did you ever work with him or did the whole thing fall through before you got together?
Lee: Love Eric. We thought it could work but all he was interested in was $$$. Never even asked about the music?? We recorded the two new tracks as a four piece & it sounded great! So we didn't need him. (He didn't take it too well!)
RnRnMN: You're one of the few bands in the glam genre that is actually pushing the boundaries rather than living in the past. Is it frustrating having to open for bands that aren't doing much more than reliving past glory like at Rocklahoma?
Lee: I used to love L.A Guns, Pussycat, Bang Tango, etc. & still do! They just aren't as hungry as us neverhavebeens! We lived & died on those Euro dates onstage! Scenario- we sing in half Spanish/English, no one had heard of us in Austria, Budapest, Italy, Germany but we went for it (for the throat, like every gig was our first & last). Not a poster in Vienna, but an encore after they had to switch the disco off after the crowd went mad. Those are the nights that make you realize why you sleep in vans, don't eat, fuck up everyone you leave behind! When Chad Stewart comes out to the merch stand & announces "this is Chad Stewart from L.A Guns, (silence, then) over here with the GYPSY PISTOLEROS", then mania. In a City that had never even heard of your band 3 hours ago but now loves you. We returned to London with L.A. Guns after 2 Months on the road & were met by loads of people in Pistoleros t-shirts in the crowd (God, we loved them for that).
RnRnMN: I heard there would be a full US tour this year. Is that true? Will you be headlining or opening for a bigger act?
Lee: No idea bro! The politics & major interest means that it is out of our hands! We love the U.S. & have had a real backlash in the U.K. over it, but we will be back soon. Hopefully before ROK 08!
RnRnMN: Who do you think are the top acts in the glam scene today?
Lee: God, i thought long & hard! I used to love Hanoi Rocks, but our album just blows their new one away!! Crystal Pistol, Crash Diet, Crazy Lixx, I love the Scandinavian bands, plus our good U.S. bro's Dirty Penny (who are like brothers)!! No one really comes close to us at this moment. The next album is way better too! Sorry if i sound like a conceited twat, but i have supported the greats (in my eyes) U2 the early years, The Lords Of The New Church, The Ramones, Motorhead, UFO, DIO, SABBATH, etc. I wouldn't have bothered if this band was ordinary!
RnRnMN: If the Gypsy Pistoleros have a message for the world, what would it be?
Lee: Fuck, life is short! Laugh, smile. Fuckin' live! Always chase your dreams & never, ever say "If only!!!"
RnRnMN: Pick your favorite from each pair:
Beatles versus Rolling Stones - Can't, yin/yang
Hanoi Rocks versus Motley Crüe - Can't
Ramones versus New York Dolls - Can't
Hank Williams versus Johnny Cash - The man in black
Slade versus T Rex - Slade
Monday, January 28, 2008
So, what will be the effect on tangible music products (records and CDs)? How will this effect indie bands and labels? Can they get a piece of this pie? The times they are a-changin', except that the major labels are still gonna be calling the shots, I suppose. Okay, maybe they aren't a-changin' that much.
There are articles in Rolling Stone and CNN today.
Review: Hackman - The New Normal
Label: Small Stone Records
Released: May 29, 2007
The heavy sludge that is the principle ingredient in Hackman's sound isn't necessarily a hot commodity these days. In order to stand out, bands have to incorporate more than just a love for Black Sabbath and Hackman does just that. The album starts off slow and heavy, but doesn't stay that way. It really opens up with "You Can't Ever Get What You Want," keeping the heaviness, but with a quicker, upbeat rhythm. From there, they dabble a bit in Helmet's post-hardcore rhythms and even touch on the slow end of 80s thrash. The vocals are sparse, but they tend toward a hardcore growl that might be overbearing if they were as dominant as they are on everyone else's albums. Hackman has the good sense to not let the vocals drive their sound, making what might be a weakness into a strength. On top of all this is a space rock freakiness that, though common in the stoner scene, adds yet another dimension. Hackman doesn't cross their genre line, but they at least make it interesting.
Review: Steve E. Nix and the Cute Lepers - Terminal Boredom b/w Prove It
Label: 1-2-3-4 Go! Records
Released: July 3, 2007
Steve E Nix and the Cute Lepers serve up a fun little slab of old-school punk and new wave on this EP. "Terminal Boredom" is '77-style punk rock that borrows heavily from the Clash and Ramones, while "Prove It" could almost be a outtake from Elvis Costello's "Armed Forces." If you're gonna borrow, borrow from the best and Steve E and company certainly do that with just the right amount of snotty punk rock swagger.
Sunday, January 27, 2008
Discography: Kiss (the makeup years)
Kiss' debut has some great songs on it. "Strutter," "Firehouse," "Cold Gin" and "Deuce" are among their best. The trouble is that it also includes "Kissin' Time" (which actually wasn't included on the first pressing) and "Love Theme from Kiss," the former a lackluster cover and the latter a complete embarrassment. Still this album had the raw swagger of the British glam bands Kiss surely wanted not just to imitate, but beat at their own game.
Hotter Than Hell (1974)
Their sophomore album didn't polish things up, but it tends to drag too often. Sure the title track is one of their most famous tunes and "Watchin' You" and "Let Me Go, Rock n Roll" are every bit as good as the debut, but there's too much material like "Goin' Blind" (it feels like a coma) and "Mainline" (if I wanted Faces, I'd play Faces, because they're better at it). Coming out less than nine months after Kiss, it's pretty clear this one was rushed.
Dressed to Kill (1975)
Coming only five months after Hotter..., Dressed to Kill should have suffered from the same shortage of good material, but it didn't. Sure, I've heard "Rock and Roll All Nite" way too many times, but I still get a kick out of "Room Service," "C'mon and Love Me" and really the whole album. "She" is one of their most memorable songs.
Destroyer had long been my favorite Kiss album and it certainly has plenty of fine songs, from the well-known "Detroit Rock City" and "God of Thunder" to lesser known cuts like "Flaming Youth" and "Shout It Out Loud" (both of which were singles). The trouble is Destroyer is just too slick and despite good songs, the album lacks the loose fun of their earlier releases. Oh yeah, and this one has "Great Expectations," which might be the best case against it.
Rock and Roll Over (1976)
While Destroyer erred on the side of slickness, Kiss made an adjustment on the follow-up. Rock and Roll Over splits the difference between their early rawness and the somewhat emasculated sound on Destroyer, resulting in perhaps Kiss' best record. "I Want You" and "Makin' Love" measure up to their best songs and "Baby Driver," "Take Me" and "Ladies Room" aren't far off either. Since Rod Stewart didn't want "Hard Luck Woman," the band decided Peter Criss was the next best thing. Of course he's nowhere near Rod, but it's a decent ballad nonetheless.
Love Gun (1977)
Kiss found the right formula on Rock and Roll Over and stuck with it on Love Gun. Once again it worked, but it's a shame they didn't have one more good tune so they didn't have to cover "Then She Kissed Me." Still, the title track, "Christine Sixteen," and just about everything else here are great catchy hard rock tunes. "Shock Me" and "Hooligan," whose lyrics are dumb even dumb by Kiss standards, are still a blast.
This one has taken a beating over the years and it's certainly somewhat deserved. Kiss actually had an edge prior to taking their solo album break the year before, but there's very little of that left on here. However, there are some good pop moments in "I Was Made for Loving You" and "Charisma." "Hard Times" is the hardest rocking song, but it's just plain dull. It's sad when the best song on the album is a Stones cover. The reality is that Dynasty has too much in common with what bands like Toto were doing at the same time. Yeah, I guess Dynasty deserves what it gets.
This one generally fares even worse than Dynasty, but I like it a little bit more. They were still short on good songs (maybe less so than on the last album) and it really has no teeth whatsoever, but the whole affair doesn't feel as forced. I suspect that on both of these albums, Paul stepped forward to take control of a seriously listing ship and set its pop course. He succeeded in keeping it afloat, but it's arguable as to whether that was a good thing or not. Most of the album is very mediocre, but "Talk to Me" and "She's So European" save the album from "Shandi." "Torpedo Girl" isn't a bad time either, even if it's nothing to write home about.
Music from the Elder (1981)
All I can say is the album is as bad as that video for "A World Without Heroes" where Gene (still in makeup of course) cries. I think everyone who bought this wanted to cry and wishes, like Gene, they could hide behind some goofy makeup too.
Creatures of the Night (1982)
Kiss seemed to take Ace's (yet unannounced) departure much more in stride than they had Peter's, which seems odd since Ace was bigger contributor. Still, they saw that no one was interested in the pop leanings or, worse yet, the concept albums of a bunch of goofballs in Kabuki face. Rather than take off the makeup, Kiss instead made their heaviest album ever. It didn't increase sales much in the US, but the outcome was some of their best material. The title track and "Killer" find Kiss as a metal band really for the first time. Even the ballad, "I Still Love You," has some heavy parts and "I Love It Loud" is an anthem of inarticulate loudness.
I've only addressed the makeup-era studio albums here and I'm just going to pretend the solo albums don't exist. While it wouldn't be so bad to spend some time with Ace's, that would force me to listen to the other three. Some would say that listening to this much Kiss at once is surely masochistic and perhaps it is, but I'm not up for the kind of beating that Gene and Peter's solo albums in particular can dish out on my poor ears.
Friday, January 25, 2008
Review: Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly - Folkways: The Original Vision
Label: Smithsonian Folkways
Released: April 25, 2005
It's interesting how sometimes, two completely different artists can embody the greatest facets of an entire style of music. For example, take a look at The Beatles and The Rolling Stones; one is the hopeful and adventurous warmth of daylight, while the other is the nihilistic swagger of darkness. And while rock fans love to debate the relative merits of each, they were both vital to the evolution and longevity of rock music. Neither band would have made as much of an impact had the other not been there as well.
Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie were a pair much like The Beatles and the Stones. Sure, there were many similarities between the two. Both were musicians who left the world very different than they found it. Both were passionate men of great talent. Both captivated their audiences, whether they were playing for children or prisoners. From the little I've read, the two men had a genuine respect and fondness for each other, and they spent a good deal of time together both on and offstage.
But it would be hard to find two musicians as different as these two. Guthrie's voice is as inviting and pleasant as a warm spring afternoon. It's a bit thin and a bit nasally and it has a bit of a twang, but its charm reaches out to you with a warm hand and an open heart. His words are easy to understand, and you can sing along by the time the first verse is over. He offers some very complex and difficult subjects in his songs, but his voice is so accessible that people can listen to his music as entertainment without ever digging into the messages of his words.
Lead Belly, on the other hand, has a voice that is like a humid summer night. It's rough and raw and difficult, but it pulls you into its depths and holds you there like a blissful hostage. His words can be tough to decipher, but his voice is filled with truth and life. And his melodies... well, the man's music is filled with more catchy melodies than pretty much every teenybopper pop band put together. All of these things result in music that, like Guthrie's, greets listeners with a warm hand and an open heart.
Folkways The Original Vision is a good introduction to these two artists, but it's more than that. By the time you get to the end of "We Shall Be Free" (a lively performance that showcases the best aspects of both men), there's a good chance that you'll understand things you didn't understand before. You might understand that, sometimes, things aren't as different as they appear to be. You might understand that, sometimes, beauty and truth come in really unusual packages. You might understand that, sometimes, warm hands and open hearts appear where you least expect them.
The song selection is skewed toward Guthrie's music, but that's my only complaint. Overall, this is an excellent collection. Each song flows naturally into the next, and at times I became so absorbed in the flow of the music that I didn't even realize the singer had changed. And that might be the greatest strength of this collection: it lets the listener hear that these two completely different singers share the same musical heart.
Review: Avett Brothers - Emotionalism
Label: Ramseur Records
Released: March 15, 2007
Americana's return to the distant roots of rock music can be both a strength and a limitation. The genre often taps into the stripped down honesty of early music, but is also limited in its influences. The Avett Brothers, however, capture the genre's strengths without being held to its limitations.
The band, Scott and Seth Avett on banjo/kick drum and guitar/high-hat respectively, and Bob Crawford on bass, along with a variety of guests, stick to traditional string band instrumentation and that both keeps their sound rooted in tradition and makes their broad sound more surprising.
While "Shame," one of the album's strongest songs, largely fits the traditional mold, it's the Avetts' ability to add a pop hook that is the cream rising to the top. They stray even farther from the old-time, down-home sound as they dabble in cabaret on "Paranoia in Bb Major" and Latin music on "Pretty Girl form Chile." They nearly cover "All My Loving" with "Will You Return," but that very Beatlesque charm pops up throughout the album in less obvious ways.
Because the arrangements are so traditional, Emotionalism never crosses the line into the ridiculous despite its boldness. The vocals in particular have a charming imperfection, adding both color and warmth. Instead of being sold on itself, the album remains down to earth, allowing low-key tunes like "The Ballad of Love and Hate" to speak directly to the listener, like a friendship rather than a performance. The Avetts' ability be simultaneously rooted in tradition and stretching their legs with eclecticism allows them to translate genre-specific work into broad appeal.
Review: Steel Train - Trampoline
Label: Drive-Thru Records
Released: October 16, 2007
Trampoline is aptly titled, because the album has a lot of bounce and not the teeny-bopper kind of bounce either. This bounce is the combined force of Steel Train's energy and elasticity. The band's biggest influence is perhaps the Beatles (and who would complain?) and they draw on everything from early jangly pop ("Dakota") to psychedelic experimentation ("A Magazine") to the soulful leanings in the Fab Four's later recordings ("I've Let You Go"). They also hit up U2 and the Clash ("Firecracker" might be a little too close to "Hitsville UK") at times as well. Steel Train even draws just a bit out of arena rock and 90s alt rock to fill their sound out, but not so much as to become generic themselves. Despite clear influences, each song takes off and soars in its own way. Steel Train knows the formula for a very good pop song, but they also know how to tweak the formula just enough to make it their own.
Thursday, January 24, 2008
Live: Ladysmith Black Mambazo
January 23, 2008, Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, Maryland
Everyone remembers Ladysmith Black Mambazo for their contributions to Paul Simon's Graceland, but the group, formed in the late 1950s in South Africa, has had a prolific recording career to which many people are oblivious. As an a capella group playing traditional African music, there isn't a huge market for their albums here outside of world music circles and their studio performances (without Paul Simon anyway) don't really transcend that boundary. However, seeing them live is another thing altogether.
This is the second time I've seen Ladysmith and both experiences have been...well, amazing. The power of their voices is so much more than that of a rock band with a wall of Marshalls. Joseph Shabalala, their leader and lead vocalist, still has a striking voice. The eight other singers that make up Ladysmith are so smooth that they function as one, even as individuals leave the harmony to sing other parts. Technical perfection is almost always at the expense of heart and soul, but not with Ladysmith. Theirs is a perfection that comes from within and washes over the audience in waves of beauty, hope and joy.
Their traditional dances, unlike the music, seem less perfect, more random and spontaneous, and perhaps this is what brings the very spiritual experience of hearing them sing back down to earth. Don't get me wrong, they're amazing dancers, more limber than I thought possible (and they're not all young men).
The music and dance combine not just as a cultural experience but also to bring Ladysmith's ultimate message: hope. This isn't some superficial, sugary message about a better tomorrow, it's not even so much a message as it is their very essence. This is a group formed out of the hope of people living in the townships under apartheid, the hopes of people who have lost loved ones, the hope that sustains, not the false hope of lies. It's striking to hear this hope in their music while living in a culture that's sarcastic and cynical despite being inundated with comfort and convenience. It was strange to walk out into the Baltimore night afterwards and know that the hope that sustained Ladysmith in times worse than we know in America today is missing. And that's what's killing people, perhaps more than guns and drugs. The group has a humility (and corny sense of humor), despite being international recording artists, despite being able to truly hold thousands with just their voices, that allows the music to speak their message without preaching, without complaint. There is something in Ladysmith Black Mambazo that could change us...if only we listen.
Here are a few videos, but none do them justice:
Live in 2003
With Paul Simon at Graceland - The African Concert
Review: Bad Habit - demo
Like many great punk records, this one's almost over before it starts. While this isn't quite great, it does cover all the hardcore bases: fast, loud, aggressive. The four song demo clocks in at just 5:39, but it lets up very little over that time. Bad Habit draws a lot from Minor Threat with just a slightly looser approach a la early Black Flag. They throw in a bit more melody on "Cancer" and it sows the seeds of being more than just another young punk band playing fast and angry. Remembering that this is a demo, a preview of the future so to speak, and that they've only been together about six months, it's an exciting listen. The production is acceptable, but not exceptional and the performance is passionate and honest. Lyrically, they cover the typical topics of frustration, alienation and family breakdown and while the lyrics aren't poetry (c'mon, it's hardcore not folk music), they're heartfelt. To keep things from getting too serious (something so many hardcore bands forget to do), they also throw in "Israeli Girl," an ode to the girl of their dreams, Natalie Portman. I wonder if she's heard it...
The entire demo is available on their Myspace page, but contact the band for a hard copy with lyrics (and a funny drawing of a hot dog).
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
Review: Classic African American Gospel from Smithsonian Folkways
Label: Smithsonian Folkways
Released: January 29, 2008
I attended a memorial service for a coworker's husband a few years ago. The chapel was small, and the service was filled with speeches and laughter and the occasional gut-wrenching sob from the front of the room. It was touching, but as someone who didn't know the dead man, it was relatively mundane.
But then God came down and paid His respects.
God came in the form of an unassuming man who stood behind a keyboard at the front of the room and sang. His voice was like a mixture of Al Green and Marvin Gaye, but it was bigger than either of those two giants. I'm not a religious man, but as the light was streaming through the stained glass windows and the music was pouring out of this man's soul, I truly felt that God was in the room.
Unfortunately, God doesn't make many appearances on Classic African American Gospel from Smithsonian Folkways. There are certainly some powerful performances, but few performances that channel a higher power.
Many of the songs on Classic African American Gospel are hopeful odes sung by people who have suffered more than anyone should suffer. As Two Gospel Keys sing, "You may be crippled, you cannot walk, you may be blind and you cannot see, when the Lord gets ready, you've got to move." This is an album about moving in the name of God. This is music that was born from pain and strives for joy. This is powerful music, and it's great in its own, human way.
But that's the problem with so much religious music. It is filled with humanity instead of divinity -- and not even the best parts of humanity. Most religious music is conservatively dressed and well-behaved and concerned with appearances, when it should be powerful and passionate and a little bit crazy. It should be covered with mud and blood and hope and despair and love, and it should possess all the things that drive us to feed the hungry or help the poor or start a revolution. Most religious music is so concerned with honoring God that it never invites Him to sing along.
Only one performance on Classic African American Gospel sounds as if the musicians invited God to join in the song. The instrumental rendition of "It's Time to Make a Change" by Madison's Lively Stones is passionate and inspired, and the musicians' enthusiasm for both God and music is evident. The liner notes say that this is a "shout" band, and "shouting (is) an ecstatic state that involves speaking in tongues, improvised dancing, and singing/performing on a musical instrument. ... (They) perform not only at Sunday church services, they also praise the Lord at funerals, church convocations, parades, and baptisms." These sound like people who invite God to participate in every aspect of their lives, including their music. Especially their music.
Classic African American Gospel from Smithsonian Folkways is a good collection of spiritual music. It's just disappointing that God wasn't around for more of these recordings.
Review: Lead Belly Sings for Children
Label: Smithsonian Folkways
Released: March 23, 1999
Lead Belly is widely considered one of the greatest influences on modern American music, yet I know few who actually listen to him. That doesn't diminish his influence, but it does call into question whether he is directly relevant today or a generation or two removed. The follow-up question would then be, if he is no longer directly relevant, is that his flaw or ours? Lead Belly Sings for Children is able to answer the first question and at least hint at the answer to the second.
When I listened to this album for review, I deliberately did so with my kids present. If Lead Belly is singing for children after all, they may catch things that I, despite a strong distaste for adulthood, would miss at my age. I was hoping for some insight from them, unencumbered by life experiences, pretensions and soul-dulling pragmatism. What I got was...well, nothing. Perhaps my kids were just a little too young (they're four and one) or maybe they just watch too much TV to be engaged by this album, but I doubt it, because they both love music. My four-year-old likes Johnny Cash, Led Zeppelin and Soul Coughing, not Barney. My one-year-old is mesmerized when I play guitar (and believe me, he's the only one who thinks it's a treat). I think it's really just that these naive little shows that mesmerized kids in person 60 years ago, have lost their effect. If Huddie Ledbetter was still alive, surely he could keep the ear of even the worst case of ADHD in person and his lessons would not be lost, but not on a recording, not today. So, his relevance may be a generation removed, coming to us through the intermediaries of 60s folk and blues, but who's fault is that? Perhaps, no one's. Perhaps, as one of those he directly influenced said, the times are a-changin'. Or maybe our generation is still waiting for a music video.
Still, Smithsonian Folkways, as always, provides some excellent information about the recordings, Lead Belly's goals and how he mixed the silly with serious to teach real life lessons. As an education, the albums is fantastic. But as children's entertainment, it is lost in time.
Rating: (kids) 4/10; (adults) 8/10
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
House of Eternity to star Geoff Tate and Candice Night
Review: Gypsy Pistoleros - Para Siempre
Label: Bad Reputation
Released: January 15, 2008
For those not familiar with the Gypsy Pistoleros, they play sleazy, gritty glam with a touch of Latin flair (although not quite as prevalent as they sell it, it certainly amounts to a lot more than just some Spanish lyrics). Unlike the many bands from the hair metal heyday of the 80s that refuse to die a dignified death (let's face it, dignity wasn't exactly their thing anyway) and the many new bands that simply regurgitate material that, with a few exceptions, wasn't all that great the first time around, the Pistoleros are an exciting rock n roll band. Their energy, swagger and creativity is more reminiscent of the original wave of glam bands that dominated the British rock scene of the 1970s even if their sound has much in common with early Motley Crue as it does with Mott the Hoople. In a genre that seems like it should be long dead, the Gypsy Pistoleros have more than enough life to stay afloat in what is otherwise a fairly stagnant sea.
Para Siempre is essentially a re-release of the Pistoleros debut, issued last year on Evil Boy Records, remastered with two additional tracks. The remastering made a noticeable difference. The sound on Para Siempre is considerably richer and packs a solid punch even if the previous release was entirely acceptable. The track list was rearranged to include the additional songs and the flow is every bit as good. "Chicas Peligrosa" is more of the same fun that's to be expected from the band, but their cover of "Livin' La Vida Loca" (yeah, it's the Ricky Martin song, but something tells me their crazy life is a little bit different than his) is the big surprise. It takes the catchy pop song, gives it some teeth and stirs it into an actual rock song. If anything justifies buying this repackaging, this cover is it. For those who missed the original release, you luck out, because they improve upon an already very good record the second time around.
Monday, January 21, 2008
Stream the new Slingshot Dakota record, Golden Ghost
Review: Juno Soundtrack
Released: January 8, 2008
When I first saw Kimya Dawson several years ago opening for They Might Be Giants, there was nothing that made me think that her music would eventually be the soundtrack to a successful movie. Don't get me wrong, I liked her...a lot. She can't sing, she can't play, her songs are simple, yet she has an undeniable charm that comes from a bizarre off-color and childlike innocence. As such, she is perhaps the perfect person to make the music for a film with characters whose innocence isn't candy-coated.
For those not familiar with Dawson or the anti-folk movement in which she is quite prevalent, the songs are typically off-key little ditties with a point of view that may seem a bit skewed to the rest of the world. It would be easy to dismiss her work, yet so many people who actually get to hear it can't. Why? Because in all of her quirkiness, there's a charming honesty, an honesty we can admire even as we wonder if she's for real. Dawson contributes five songs to the soundtrack plus one with Moldy Peaches and two with Antsy Pants, all odd little tunes that are as awkward and beautiful as the journey through adolescence. The soundtrack actually begins with "All I Want Is You," a tune by children's artist Barry Louis Polisar which forms a nice bookend with the Moldy Peaches' "Anyone Else But You" as performed by actors Michael Cera and Ellen Page at the close of the film. The open, naive beauty of the first fits almost perfectly with the irony and sweetness of the closer, bringing the album, like the movie itself, full circle. In between, there are, as with most soundtracks, songs that fit the album without the movie and songs that don't. The Kinks' "A Well Respected Man" and Mott the Hoople's "All the Young Dudes" are surely perfect in the film, yet they stick out like sore thumbs when the soundtrack is taken on its own. Just in case you didn't catch the indie credibility of including Kimya Dawson, Jason Reitman and company make their claim with everyone's first choice in instant hipper-than-thou cred, Sonic Youth. Frankly, I could live the rest of my life without hearing "Superstar," the noise rock version here or any other, and its inclusion only hurt the soundtrack. At least "I'm Sticking with You" wasn't the typical Velvet Underground pick, redeeming at least a little from that Sonic Youth misstep. A couple tracks from Belle & Sebastian fit in nicely as does Buddy Holly's "Dearest." While Cat Power's take on the classic "Sea of Love" isn't essential, it's a worthy effort that's worth hearing.
As with all soundtracks, it is difficult to make something that stands on its own outside of the film. A song that may fit perfectly within the context of the movie may be lost without the visual and the story. The Juno soundtrack is no exception. However, instead of the typical b-side quality music that ends up in so many films, Juno provides mainstream exposure to the work of an amazing yet unknown artist to a broad (and hopefully receptive) audience. It's a bit of an erratic ride, but worth the effort to hear nonetheless.
Thursday, January 17, 2008
Review: Free Diamonds - By the Sword
Label: Deep Elm Records
Released: August 27, 2007
Anything with any post-punk influence is bound to be pretty angular, but Free Diamonds take it to a new level. They focus on rhythm to the point that everything, voice included, is a rhythm instrument, giving the entire album a very polyrhythmic effect along the lines of Sound Affects-era Jam and the jazzier moments of the Minutemen. This band isn't a one-trick pony either. In addition to post-punk, there is clear evidence of ska and jazz and, in a peculiarly modern way, rockabilly. That last influence is the most subtle, yet perhaps the most interesting, because it, along with the folky closing track, serves to tie their very modern sound back to the roots of rock n roll. There's also hints of dance (albeit a pretty frantic dance) and English hip-hop that conjure up a fair amount of fun in the midst of the album's angst and serve to move both the feet and the soul. The vocals are likely the one think that may divide listeners. The screeching, fast talking style is a key part of the band's skewed approach and it certainly prevents anyone from enjoying the music passively, but its grating nature is likely to alienate as many people as it embraces. Still, By the Sword, with all its beautifully jagged edges and irrepressible frenetic energy, stands head and shoulders above the masses of other bands schooled on similar record collections.
Review: The Sailplanes - A Second, or Ten Years Later
Label: Red Headed Stepchild Records
Released: July 1, 2007
In listening to A Second, or Ten Years Later, two influences kept cropping up: New Model Army and Joy Division. There really couldn't be two things more different than New Model Army's warm, human, folky anger and Joy Division's cold, stark, dark emptiness, yet the Sailplanes manage to work both into their music. That ability to juxtapose such seemingly different things is a subtle, yet powerful strength. It's not just passion and desperation that they place side by side either. They align fuzzy, sludgy bass and ringing guitar with the driving precision of the percussion. Their sharp, angular sound sits on top of smooth, ambient keyboards. They butt the harsh up against the clean. They even alternate between male and female vocals. All of these contrasts run parallel to one another as if the two sides of the music are the two sides of the human heart and soul. The album's weakness is that it wears its influences a bit too much on its sleeve. However, hints of Berlin-period Bowie/Eno (and a recent move to that city) might be just the thing to bring their sound together without inhibiting the natural conflicts that makes it so good.
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
Review: Loom - Angler
Label: Exigent Records
Released: February 26, 2008
It seems that some of the least likely bands are incorporating strings of the non-guitar variety these days. Plenty of metal and hardcore bands don't seem to even blink at the idea anymore. Sometimes, it sticks out like a sore thumb and other times, it's perfectly integrated. Salt Lake City's Loom is the latter. They play intricate post-hardcore with agile, mathy rhythms, guitars that alternate between hardcore crunch, rock riffs and prog complexity and vocals that growl and sing. Oh yeah, and there's violin that's both seamless and essential. Angler might get lost in the post-this-and-that shuffle without that violin, but with it, it's clear this band has the potential to enter into more uncharted territory. This is a pretty good accomplishment for a band that's only been together a little over a year.
Review: Soho Roses - Whatever Happened To...
Label: Full Breach Kicks
Released: August 21, 2007
Here in the US, when most people think of glam, they think of Sunset Strip scene of the late 80s where hairspray had more to do with a band's success than their music. Little known to so many on this side of the Atlantic, there was another glam scene across the ocean that ran concurrently. With Hanoi Rocks as its kings, bands like Dogs D'Amour and (London) Quireboys were only known by a handful of rocks fans over here. These bands weren't just a bunch of pop bands with big hair and over-indulgent guitar solos. They were rooted in real glam like T Rex, Sweet and Slade as well as the punk rock of the New York Dolls, the Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks. Many of these bands did just fine for themselves in the UK and Europe, but failed to make a dent over here. One of these bands, Soho Roses, was an almost complete unknown in the US, much like their highly influential predecessor Slade was during glam's first wave.
During a short run in the late 80s, Soho Roses recorded two EPs (a 7" and a 12") and one LP, all of which are obviously out of print. Almost 20 years later, the material is finally being re-issued. Don't be put off by the glam tag if you associate it with LA, because Soho Roses' music is dirtier and grittier. As they say themselves, it isn't "Sunset Strip crap." While the subject matter isn't exactly rocket science, the music is played with true rock n roll swagger rather than silly staged theatrics. Their cover of the Buzzcocks' "What Do I Get" shows that they were, as glam truly was, more at home with punk than metal. While they aren't the caliber of Hanoi Rocks, they're at very least in the ballpark of Dogs D'Amour. They're a fine treat for anyone who prefers a little bit of real rock n roll over the corporate business rock that put on some lipstick and eyeliner over here in the 80s and they're downright essential for fans of real glam.
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Review: Untitled Musical Project - s/t
Label: Tigertrap Records
Released: October 29, 2007
Unbridled. Unrefined. Uninhibited. Those can be the qualities of great rock and roll or a complete disaster. Untitled Musical Project is like a band with Keith Moon as every member, so they're clearly the former. Don't get me wrong, they don't play at Moon's technical level, but they do have his complete sense of abandon in their performance. There is little focus on melody or groove. The album works because it's all about visceral energy. It's as if they took Discharge, Gang of Four and just a dash of industrial, threw it in a blender and then recorded the blender! To say the album is deliberate is an understaement. Thick, fuzzy bass, noisy guitars and snotty vocals are driven to the very limit by relentless straightforward drumming. Even the song titles are extreme. "I Don't Need You Honey! All I Need is Rock n Roll!" and "I May Not Be Jimi Hendrix But At Least I'm Still Alive" meet even the high expectations that such titles raise. The latter is particular compelling, because of all the tracks, it has the most melodic elements yet doesn't break stride. In fact, each hint of melody stands out simply because there aren't that many over the course of the album. If Untitled Musical Project has a fault, it's that the songs can't stand on their own. These aren't the kind of songs that you could change up a bit and cover in another genre or sit down and play on your acoustic guitar. Changing the extreme intensity of the performance would rob the music of everything that's great about it.
Review: The Ark - Prayer for the Weekend
Label: Roxy Recordings
Released: April 16, 2007
The Ark don't do a single original thing on Prayer for the Weekend, but how many bands really do? To understand a band like the Ark is to understand their influences. In their best moments they channel the likes of Queen, Sweet and T Rex. They have a huge arena-sized sound and all the necessary bombast to pull that off. Whether they're recreating the dance-infused rock of Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" on the title track or the simultaneously silly and heartfelt teen anthem of Sweet's "Teenage Rampage" on "New Pollution," the Ark can can bring the best of big 70s rock into their tunes. Like their early glam influences, the Ark also successfully marries a big rock sound with candy-coated pop hooks and even the heavy hints of ELO's slick strings work well for them. Oddly enough, the Ark is at their best when they're completely over the top just like the early arena rock bands they emulate. At times, they rein themselves in and the more subdued approach hurts the album. More often though, they draw enough from the best of some of rock's most grandiose bands and package it together in a way that makes their revival pretty easy to buy into. Frankly, this is not typically my thing and yet I found myself engaged by Prayer for the Weekend rather than appalled by it.
Monday, January 14, 2008
Radio Moscow : Live Sessions @ hearya.com
Review: Ringo Starr - Liverpool 8
Released: January 15, 2008
Can Ringo Starr do anything without seeming like a goof? He was the comic relief for the Beatles and he's continued in that role during his solo career, including his latest release, Liverpool 8. It's a bit of a sentimental journey for Ringo it seems, but not one with a lot of depth. It benefits from being a band effort which includes ex-Eurythmic Dave Stewart once again and in it's best moments, the album produces some fun pop music with hooks simple enough for Ringo's flat voice to carry. Even when it relies too much on range-deprived Ringo's vocal skills, it has a light-hearted nature that makes it far less offensive than it could be, though not nearly as charming as he was on "Octopus's Garden" and the the like. It's pretty clear that Ringo learned more from McCartney's pop approach than he did from John's sarcastic wit. There's nothing here we haven't heard from Ringo before and the album, like his naive world-view expressed throughout, is best described as a well-meaning flop.
Review: Various Artists - Vancouver Complication
Label: Sudden Death Records
Sudden Death Records has re-issued the classic 1979 compilation that served as a state of the union for the early Vancouver punk scene. The Vancouver Complication is as much an historical document as it is a great punk album. In addition to the first rumblings from now legendary politico-punks DOA and the Subhumans, there are many other gems from the days when, as the liner notes put it, "D-I-Y was really a matter of having to D-I-G." In addition to the original 21 tracks, Sudden Death has included five bonus tracks and in true punk fashion, it still clocks in under one hour.
One of the things that's really amazing in retrospect is how different all these bands sound. From the raw melodies of Shades and Pointed Sticks to the cold, angular Devo-influenced pop of Exxotone to the pre-hardcore of the Dishrags, it's clear that the scene was still in its nascent creative period. You can even hear the T Rex influence on No Fun. At that point, punk was more of an ethos than a sound and these bands shared a common interest in living differently while bringing a tremendous variety of musical influences to the scene. It seems odd today in an era when punk rock is as pigeonholed as even the most commercial genres. The squalor described in the notes certainly makes it seem as though these weren't the "good ol' days," but they must have been fascinating beyond most of our imaginations.
Being a faithful history, the CD comes with reproductions of the original artwork for each band, handwritten or typed, cut out and pasted together the way it was done before Myspace. It also contains some enlightening liner notes that dig into what it was look in the days before punk was cool.
Review: The Bowmans - Far From Home
Label: Mother West
Released: April 10, 2007
The Bowmans aren't your typical Americana band. Like the more widely known Avett Brothers, they work from a broader palette than many of their peers. The Bowmans maintain a rootsy feel throughout despite breaking away from traditional folk style and augmenting their sound at times with electricity.
The vocals are the centerpiece of the music. Sarah and Claire Bowman's harmonies are rich and colorful. Best of all, they really use those harmonies to make the songs bold. It's not just something they save for the chorus, but something they use to create the ebb and flow of their music. They often incorporate a hint of jazz and it's the cadence of their voices that makes everything swing. While it may all revolve around their voices, the music behind is often responsible for some of the subtleties that make the album shine. Much of the album's understated catchiness and quirkiness is in the backing band. It is these very things that make it sneak up and grab you. In addition to the indie folk of their Americana base and the jazziness that runs through it, the Bowman's also manage to throw in some rock, with one flat out rocker, and even dabble in chamber music and vaudeville at times. They finish it all off Abbey Road-style with a fun little ditty called "Porker Song" (although unlike "Her Majesty," this one actually has a message).
Far from Home is essentially a rootsy Americana record, but it isn't old-timey by any means. At its worst, it's still fine folk music for the indie crowd, but at its best, it brings a lot more to the table and has a much broader rock appeal that throws out the limitations typically seen in the genre.
Friday, January 11, 2008
Review: Paul McCartney - Memory Almost Full (Deluxe Edition)
Label: Hear Music
Released: November 6, 2007
I reviewed the standard release of Memory Almost Full already, so this review will focus on the additional material: three bonus tracks and a DVD.
The bonus tracks are all clearly B-side material. The best of the bunch, "In Private," is an instrumental that might work as an album track, but certainly doesn't add value to the package. The other two tracks didn't make the cut for the standard release for good reason. "Why So Blue" has a few moments of potential, but is generally flat in both writing and performance and overwhelmed by the string arrangement. "222" just stinks of light jazz and should have been scrapped before being committed to tape.
The DVD offers some value. Excerpts from a show at London's Electric Ballroom include "Drive My Car" and four songs from Memory Almost Full. Since McCartney is usually an arena attraction, there is a nice intimacy to the performance. Unfortunately, there are hard breaks between songs that counteract that intimacy. There's also videos for "Dance Tonight" and "Ever Present Past." The former is a typical corny McCartney video, but the latter is almost like his take on "Addicted to Love," sufficiently less suave to fit with McCartney's personality rather than Robert Palmer's (and better filmed).
The trouble with this set isn't the price (it lists for a mere dollar more than the standard edition), but that it came out five months later. McCartney fans already bought their copy and then the record company parades a deluxe version out to milk them for their loyalty. Memory Almost Full is worth hearing and if you didn't buy it already, there's no reason not to pick up the deluxe version. If you ran right out to buy the standard version in June though, don't waste your money on substandard bonus tracks, some live footage and a couple music videos. There's nothing all that deluxe about it.
Review: Dusty Rhodes and the River Band - First You Live
Label: SideOneDummy Records
Released: October 9, 2007
With the popularity of the whole folk-punk thing, whether it draws on American folk music like Defiance, Ohio or European folk like Gogol Bordello, it isn't surprising to see another band throw their hats into the ring, but it does beg the question, "What does this new band bring?"
Dusty Rhodes and the River Band tap into a variety of rootsy lines, from folk to country to zydeco to cabaret to gospel even. But instead of just throwing it all together in a ramshackle way or simply speeding it up and adding electric guitars, Dusty and company add the sloppy rock n roll of the Replacements and even enough arena rock to create a big sound ("Street Fighter" even borders on prog). Instead of pulling it off in a traditional manner, they bring their old influences into the present and create what is essentially a rock album with a roots feel. As they incorporate all of these influences, it is the folk nature behind it all that makes First You Live such a cohesive album.
Thursday, January 10, 2008
Review: Seizure Crypt - Hello My Name Is Madness
Label: 316 Productions
At their best, Seizure Crypt is a rehash of 80s New York hardcore, wavering between its earlier thin punk and later more metallic veins. Those high points are energetic, aggressive songs with the typical trappings of the genre: unbridled speed alternating with slow churning grooves, metallic riffs, growls, infectious anger. Both "The Deadend" and "Thankless" channel at least a little bit of Age of Quarrel-era Cro-Mags, but these are the exception. Most of Seizure Crypt's songs are mediocre hardcore tunes that fall well short of those they are emulating. Their dual vocal approach should serve to add some depth and color, but frankly, it's hardly noticeable. Sure, there are two voices, but they don't work together as a sum greater than its parts. There's just two separate singers, but nothing dynamic that results from them. To make matters worse, they throw in a bit Black Sabbath heaviness on "Herein the Problem Lies," but the song is so flat that it's stagnant next to the fast pace of the rest of the album rather than being a successful change-up. Inexplicably poor production courtesy of Don Fury, who's worked with a hardcore who's who from Agnostic Front to Youth of Today, may have hidden some strengths, but not likely enough to make this a must hear album even within the purist hardcore community. If Seizure Crypt were just a small scene local hardcore band, they might be a stand out, but not on the NYC or national stage. There's just too much competition and Hello My Name Is Madness doesn't offer enough to compete at that level.
Wednesday, January 09, 2008
Review: Birds of Avalon - Bazaar Bazaar
Label: Volcom Entertainment
Released: May 22, 2007
If I were to write that Birds of Avalon mix grandiose prog, upbeat power pop and riffy psych and leave it at that, most people would scratch their heads and just assume that Bazaar Bazaar was an erratic affair that couldn't possibly find itself. That assumption seems like a good one, but it's flat out wrong. Birds of Avalon reminds us that prog doesn't have to be devoid of emotion and that pop doesn't have to be devoid of grandness. Surprisingly, the two aren't mutually exclusive and Birds of Avalon bring the them together along with an element of trippiness for good measure. It's no small feat, but Birds of Avalon do it with such ease that it doesn't even seem striking unless you think about it.
Tuesday, January 08, 2008
Review: Clare and the Reasons
Label: Frog Stand Records
Released: September 4, 2007
Clare and the Reasons find their inspiration somewhere between the old pop standards of the 40s and 50s and a vaudeville show, but their music is only partially a revival because they bring their modern selves into the mix. It's clearly intended to have a retro feel, yet all the years of pop music that have intervened are not ignored. There is a shiny, happy veneer and there's a darker side with a kind of film noir feel beneath (that's a bit less obvious than it is on the cover art). This duality runs throughout, but is most prominent in Clare's voice which is sexy, but more coy on the surface than overt. They avoid being too slick and occasionally little oddities give them a sense of independence and rebelliousness. With The Movie, Clare and the Reasons have gone back through pop music's past and applied an off-kilter sense of modern indie music that turns it slightly away from center. The result is is an album with a subtly dark undercurrent that successfully plays to both the past and present.
Review: Dirt Mall - Got the Goat by the Horns
Label: Daykamp Records
Released: December 4, 2007
While hard rock is probably one the easiest genres to play, it is probably one of the hardest at which to succeed. It's has been played by so many for so long that it's really hard to be a standout. Sure, the old hard rock regulars will flock to anything that reminds them of AC/DC, but the legions of AC/DC soundalikes (and AC/DC themselves for that matter) aren't exactly good bands. To be a good hard rock band, you have to either find a new angle (almost impossible) or play with such unbridled energy and groove that you can't be denied.
Dirt Mall do a lot of things right on Got the Goat by the Horns. They don't rehash bad hard rock from the 80s. They don't get all dressed up in the studio like someone they're not. They don't get pretentious. They claim to be a rock and roll band and that is just what they are. However, it takes more than that to get over the hard rock hump. For the most part, Dirt Mall's energy seems to be latent on the album. It's there, but it's hidden, lurking in the background rather than pushing the songs over the edge. They do draw on some of the late 80s metalicized punk, perhaps from fellow Boston band Gang Green's later albums, but they lack the lingering punk rock punch. I think Dirt Mall is likely going for something along the lines of a hard rock Replacements, but they lack Westerberg's knack for hooks and drunken poetry. Don't get me wrong, this is good hard rock and their ability to at least look to bands that actually have substance give them an edge over most of their peers, just not quite enough to really stand out in such a big crowd.
Still, they did nail a couple tracks on this eight song album. "The Demons & the Damned" has a slow, understated groove, but it keeps the song, the album's longest at just over nine minutes, moving along its dark, moody path. The closer, "Ghosts Descend," the other of Dirt Mall's more subdued tracks, is not quite as long, but has an almost mystical energy (as well as the album's best riffs). What's great about both of these songs is that they stretch beyond the limitations without sacrificing the strengths. They don't try to artificially enhance them with the puffed up bombast of typical hard rock. Instead, they maintain their down-in-the-trenches, straightforward rock and roll imperfections that make the songs truly theirs. There's really nothing worse than a band who gives up the very bumps and lumps that make them who they are. Dirt Mall's ability to embrace them even when they expand their sound is a major point in their favor.
Like their friends in Cheater Pint, Dirt Mall don't get wrapped up in all the pretensions of their art. They simply wanna rock. Perhaps that simplicity keeps them from shaking things up at times, but they when they loosen up and let go, they make it clear that they really can play both sides. Seriously, they have a nine minute song that doesn't feel long, cumbersome or gratuitous. That alone is worth checking out. My guess is they're at their best live where they can shake free of any confines that come with the studio.
Sunday, January 06, 2008
Review: Rainbow - Rising
Any disappointment that Deep Purple fans must have felt when Richie Blackmore departed in 1973 not alleviated by Rainbow's debut should surely have been dispelled by Rising. It has all the power of Deep Purple while recapturing a leaner, more agile sound that was absent from Purple for some time. While David Coverdale was a fine singer, it was really Ian Gillan's shoes that Ronnie James Dio would have to fill and fill them he did. Blackmore and company's second album bridges the gap between prog rock and heavy metal in a way that would later be pursued and perfected by Iron Maiden. The music is technically superior to most of Rainbow's peers, yet maintains an energy level that challenges all but the rawest rock n roll of its time.
DVD: Blackmore's Night - Paris Moon
Released: November 6, 2007
At its very best, this DVD hints at Spinal Tap's "Stonehenge." Of course, that's the last thing Blackmore and company were going for, because they actually take this stuff seriously. Sure, he could get away with this kind of fantasy crap when Ronnie James Dio sang with him, but Candice Night is no Dio and the music makes breeze rock look like speedmetal. Night comes out looking like a young Stevie Nicks, but her sappy demeanor coupled with the dull, overwrought songs quickly dispels that illusion. Night isn't a strong singer by a long shot and while the others seem to be entirely competent players, they are no more interesting. I think Blackmore's Night would like us to believe that they've wedded renaissance music with rock, but if that is in fact their goal, they're sorely lacking on the rock end of that marriage. This makes pretentious nonsense like the Trans Siberian Orchestra look like real rock n roll. I guess I should have seen it coming when the package looked like the Lord of the Rings special edition DVDs!
Just as a funny aside, Candice Night made an appearance at the Spoutwood Farm Fairie Festival in 2007. I've taken my kids to this thing and it's basically like a Star Trek convention for fairie fanatics. Yep, people over the age of 10 dressed like fairies and wizards and trees and other goofy stuff. If that's your thing, fine, but it certainly doesn't bode well for good rock n roll. Here's a silly video from the festival. Ms. Night makes an appearence about 3:15 into it.
Oh, one more thing. If someone would like a copy, I have one to give away. Contact me (there's a link in the menu to the left) if you're interested. First come, first served.
Friday, January 04, 2008
Review: Buffalo Killers - s/t
Label: Alive Natural Sound Records
Formed out of the ashes their previous band, Thee Shams, which was limited to some extent by its love of the Stones, the Gabbard brothers find a much more expansive, heavier sound with Buffalo Killers. They dip generously into the heavy psychedelia of Cream and Hendrix and alternate that with a dose of the Allman Brothers' southern soul. Just a dash of the Beatles adds a hint of pop accessibility without tempering the heaviness or groove.
Buffalo Killers' debut is not about technical prowess (even though they're good players), but about free and wild expression. The rhythms aren't complex, the riffs aren't flashy and the vocals aren't dynamic. Whether playing heavy psych or garagey soul, the band as a whole shuns the pristine in favor of digging down and unleashing a power that pushes rather than punches. The whole is in fact greater than the sum of its parts.
Thursday, January 03, 2008
Interview: The New Dress
Bill and Laura of Brooklyn's The New Dress are a duo playing a punk/folk hybrid that taps the past without leaving the present. Their album, Where Our Failures Are, is one of the best I've heard in this burgeoning genre (and it made my Best of 2007 list). If you aren't familiar with them, check out the review first.
RnRnNM: Brooklyn seems to be an indie rock hotbed right now. Do you find that beneficial, detrimental or unimportant?
Bill: I think it has the potential to be beneficial. I don't think we have taken full advantage of it so far, but there are great bands doing cool things around here, and teaming up with them and playing shows together... that can only help your band.
Laura: Definitely beneficial—there are so many venues for indie bands to book free and cheap shows in Brooklyn right now. I was worried when North Six closed that it'd be hard to replicate that basement show feeling at other venues. But places like 538 Johnson, 131 Tompkins, Lost & Found, Pete's Candy Store, Don Pedro's etc. are putting on great shows for independent bands and we've really benefitted from the close community of friends and bands that lends itself to.
RnRnNM: What are your live shows like?
Laura: Since it's just the two of us, playing shows is sortve just like hanging out with our friends, singing songs we all know the words to. And when people don't know the words, it's feels like hanging out with Bill.
Bill: Our best shows are the ones with other bands on our label, Red Leader Records, and with friends' bands in Brooklyn and New Brunswick. I mean, with just the two of us, what you see is what you get. So, when people are singing along and having a good time, you can see that we genuinely are too.
RnRnNM: How is being a two-piece different than the traditional vocals-guitar-bass-drums approach?
Laura: I think people get to know us as a band a lot quicker than fuller bands—I mean, you can hear us up there breathing! Sometimes I wish we took up the same "space" that other bands do, but only because the songs are important to us.
Bill: In my experience, there's definitely that aspect of the live show being more... intimate? I don't think we're projecting any image and as a result, I feel like we are approachable. Y'know, come and talk to us afterwards or whatever. I can't say for sure if that's a result of us not having a rhythm section, or if that's just our personalities.
RnRnNM: What/who are your non-musical influences?
Laura: Our brothers influence us quite a bit, I'd say. Likely more than they know! And, while our songs are clearly influenced by disappointment and anger towards current events, we are also equally inspired by the new friends we make playing and the support bands give each other. Oh, and Seinfeld.
RnRnNM: If you could play a show with any artist or band, past or present, who would it be?
Laura: Yikes, too much pressure to choose only one! It would be pretty outstanding to play with Ted Leo and then get to talk with him about World Cup, Project Runway and the upcoming election. I suspect we'd see eye to eye on most of those topics.
Bill: I say Randy Newman, he seems like a cool guy. (And a magical band called TheClashRancidTedLeoTomWaits)
RnRnNM: Like Billy Bragg, a clear influence on your music, you have an ability to write meaningful songs. What do you think is the key to that?
Bill: Maybe it's because ever since we started doing this the only thing that matters is that the band and the experience remain meaningful to us. The songs are important to us. But it's also important to us to have fun, and I think that can be found in the songs, too. We write and do the things we think are funny... our logo is a drum kit!
Laura: I think laughing (essentially, all Bill and I do at practice) with friends you trust and admire helps you to make meaning out of troubling times….it helps give you perspective.
RnRnNM: What's right and what's wrong with music today?
Laura: What's right with music today is American Steel's new record. I could probably name what's wrong too, but people like what they like I guess.
Bill: I think it's silly to complain about "the state of music today" like an old man or something. I don't remember any kinda glory days when things were any different. There are always great new bands, and there's also always a ton of crap out there too. It just so happens that most people like stuff that sucks, so it's the crap that's popular. You may have to search out the good stuff, but that makes it more meaningful to you. One extremely positive thing about music today is our access to pretty much anything we want. So if you're not discovering new cool music everyday, you have yourself to blame.
RnRnNM: What's coming up in the future for the New Dress?
Laura: We are working on a couple really sweet new songs that have us excited about the possibility of recording again, and hopefully touring again in the spring or summer. We met some amazing people on tour upstate and we're looking forward to getting back there when it gets a little less snowy. For now, while we are hibernating, we're playing lots of shows in Brooklyn and New Jersey with our friends and Red Leader siblings, and hoping people like the record.
RnRnMN: Pick one of the following:
Beatles versus Rolling Stones
Billy Bragg vs. Dead Kennedys
Hank Williams vs. Johnny Cash
Sex Pistols versus The Clash
Husker Du versus Pixies
Both. But probably the Beatles.
Umm, Billy Bragg.
Tough one! Hank Williams.
Psshh! Easy. The Clash.
Laura: I don't get it—is this to the death, or to the awesome? If its to the awesome, I'd go:
If its to the death…same answer.
Wednesday, January 02, 2008
Review: Glenna Bell - The Road Less Traveled
Label: CD Baby
Released: January 8, 2008
The first thing you notice about Glenna Bell's music is her voice. It can be delicate and bold, rich and breathy. She has this amazing vibrato that you can feel as much as hear. It would make for great country music even if the songs were awful. But they're not awful, they're actually quite good. The first half of the record is largely traditional, made up mostly of country waltzes that allow Bell to really exercise her voice. Her band does better with the slower, understated material while they miss, if only slightly, with the low-key rock n roll shuffle of "Can't Get My Mind Off You."
Two covers in the middle of the album are the only miscues. Bell's take on Willie Nelson's "The Family Bible" is too measured and planned. On "Jackson," Bell and male vocalist Johnny Bush do their best June and Johnny. While it's very good, it can't compare to the definitive version. With her voice, she could easily have made the song her own to avoid a comparison and let it stand on its own. These are both adequate covers, but next to everything that precedes and follows, they are at best a lull in the album.
While the first half showed Bell can play in the realm of old school country, the second half shows that she can modify that a little and appeal to indie rock fans as well without giving any ground on the traditional front. The quirky, dark humor of "How I Found Out I'm Insane" is grounded in a lazy shuffle and talking vocals. "Shiner Bock & ZZ Top" is an off-kilter, but colorful ode to the simplicity of living for today. Her narrative approach to speaking out against suburban sprawl on "La Casa Que Yo Amo" presents a human story that is easy to feel as much as hear. The Road Less Traveled saves its best for last. "Be My Valentine (on Christmas)" is not just a clever holiday song, but perhaps the best vehicle for Bell's amazing voice. While the music still grounds these songs in country's long tradition, their lyrics have a more modern appeal that should allow Bell to capitalize on the broadest spectrum of Americana's fan base.
While the beautiful shakiness of her vibrato may be The Road Less Traveled's most striking element, the songwriting should not be overlooked. Bell has subtly brought pop elements and indie quirkiness into a fine collection of songs that tap into a long musical tradition that goes back well beyond Bell's own years. Other than the covers, the album ranges from very good to downright brilliant.
Tuesday, January 01, 2008
Review: Chuck Dukowski Sextet - Reverse the Polarity
Label: Nice and Friendly Records
Released: October 16, 2007
Those with a superficial appreciation of Chuck Dukowski's old (and considerably more famous) band, Black Flag, will be rather shocked to hear his new material. However, anyone with a deeper understanding of Black Flag will see CD6 as a logical progression. Black Flag was, after all, essentially a psychedelic band. Not in the sense that they sounded like Sgt Pepper's or the Seeds even, but in the sense that they were mind-altering. And that is the very quality that persists in CD6.
Reverse the Polarity is a more cohesive affair than "Eat My Life," CD6's last release, but that does not come at the expense of its manic power. The rhythms run across rock, jazz and blues and along with Dukowski's fluid bass lines manage the album's energy while horns and the wild play of new guitarist Milo Gonzalez raise the stakes to a mind-bending level. Gonzalez may be the factor that really pushes this album to a new level. Not only are his trippy riffs deceptively strong, but he also brings a consistency that gives the album better flow than their first album. The really striking thing about CD6 though is Lora Norton's voice. Her rich, dynamic voice is both sultry and frenzied and it's so striking that it makes the music more accessible without leveling its emotional peaks.
CD6 has created quite a masterpiece of real psychedelia. Its sense of abandon drives it to the edges of sanity, yet it is grounded in a simplicity that reflects the DIY punk ethic out of which it has grown. There are plenty of bands that are tapping old psyche energy, but none are able to truly capture that spirit and release it in a current sound in the way CD6 has.