Sunday, September 28, 2008

Wrong venue for great band (My Bloody Valentine, 9/27/08, Aragon Ballroom, Chicago)

Last night, My Bloody Valentine played its only Midwest gig at the old Aragon Ballroom in Chicago. Back when the show was announced and my friend Elizabeth asked me if I wanted a ticket, it was easy to say yes. MBV's Loveless was such a watershed record, how could I pass it up?

But the Aragon should have been a red flag. This venue dates back to the days of battles of the big bands and the WLS Great Barn Dance. It's not well made for amplified music, with its high arcing ceiling and cavernous acoustics. I still remember a review of the Sonic Youth/Public Enemy bill that I saw there years ago -- a pundit noted that in the Aragon, even Public Enemy sounded like Sonic Youth.

So last night, My Bloody Valentine roared out of the gate. There is no doubt they are still a powerful band. But pretty much all of the texture was lost in the roar.

The band plays very loudly. So loud, in fact, that earplugs are handed out before walking into the venue.

The loudness and the awful acoustics didn't serve the music well. I watched the first five songs from the balcony and then went downstairs to watch on the main floor. Not long afterwards, the band launched into "Only Shallow", the classic opening track off of Loveless.

And it hit me as to why this show wasn't hitting on all cylinders for me. So much of the texture of the band was obliterated by the volume. It was up to my memory to fill in the blanks as to what I wanted to hear in this song, but couldn't.

At that point, the show was lost for me. It's not that a live performance has to replicate a record perfectly. It's that a live performance should enhance the qualities that make a band special. I felt that MBV came off as an adequate power rock band. It's the hazy psychedelia overlaying the power that makes them special. Any haze at the Aragon was due to pot smoking, not the band, this past Saturday night.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Kooks -- Konk (2008)

The Kooks -- Konk (Astralwerks)

Britpop never dies. It mutates and disguises itself, but there never seems to be a time when there aren’t quartets and quintets of shaggy haired young Englishmen trying to follow in the footsteps of oh so many British Invaders.

The Kooks have developed a following on both sides of the Atlantic. Generally, these four lads seem to draw major cues from Oasis and The Kinks, but the latter inspiration is more superficial than they might realize. Which doesn’t mean these guys aren’t savvy enough to lift a little bit from the 21st Century wave of post-punkers.

It doesn’t hurt that lead singer Luke Pritchard has a voice that, at times, is similar to Paul Smith of Maximo Park. Indeed, "Down to the Market" makes an excellent stopgap for Maximo Park fans waiting for a new album from their heroes. This short, punchy song has a catchy, rubbery guitar riff, and hits crescendos in a manner similar to those Parksters. The only difference is that instead of a keyboard, The Kooks rely on guitar effects for some texture. It’s a really good track and if you’re going to borrow a sound, crib from the best.

I wish more tracks had that energy. There are number of pleasant mid-tempo songs that lack either a good chorus or memorable lyrics. Or both. This is exemplified by the bluesy pop track "Gap". What makes this song more than average is the great guitar work by Hugh Harris, whether it’s the blues fills in the verses, or the exciting instrumental break that acts as an emotional release. Otherwise, the track almost stands in place.

It’s not that The Kooks aren’t capable of the indelible hook. "Shine On" is a track in the vein of Del Amitri and other respectable smart UK rockers. The chorus is nothing innovative, but it’s easy to sing along to and flows perfectly from the verse. Sometimes it can be so simple.

But, of course, it’s not so simple. There is talent here, no doubt. There’s not nearly as much inspiration. If you’re not a Brit pop completist, you can skip this one.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Stratocruiser -- Egg Shells (2008)

Stratocruiser -- Egg Shells (New Atlas Digital)

The latest from this North Carolina band finds the ‘cruiser straddling the line between pop, as melodies and hooks are pretty much mandatory for every track, and a retro ‘70s rock approach. So it’s boogie band intensity with classic song structures -- and none of that tired boogie. I like the results.

These cats are true craftsmen. They can write and they can play. What really makes the band stand out is Clay Howard’s robust vocals. I could easily hear Howard singing straight blues based material or Southern rock. But he doesn’t go for that sort of style, keeping his intensity but harnessing any tendencies to show off (or even worse, bellow). Heck, he can even handle a sweet slice of ‘60s kissed jangle pop (on "Clear as Day").

But I like it best when the songs are more emotional and desperate. Stratocruiser has developed a flair for the dramatic, which comes through in spades on the title cut. Howard opens with this couplet: "I have to tiptoe around your move/and I hope I can find my groove." He sings this over an attractive acoustic guitar bed, augmented by some nice blues licks. And the blues are appropriate, since Howard is stuck with a lover who has him worried at every turn. The strong hook in the chorus brings it all home, so to speak.

In a similar vein, but even more dramatic, is "Light Sleeper". This song moves from verse to bridge to chorus in speedy fashion for a mid-tempo bluster. "You say you only lie when you’re sleeping/so I’m hopin’ that you are awake/and that you are a light sleeper" goes the chorus. It’s a somewhat corny/clever notion that might fit a country song. It sounds like a pop hit bid from The Marshall Tucker Band or The Henry Paul Band.

Most importantly, Stratocruiser gets the tone right. Too over the top, and this would be camp and not as fun. Too unserious, it would turn from an urgent plea to silly piffle. Instead, it sounds like a blast from the past in the best way possible.

While not as rock and rolling as the last album, there is one song that hits the classic rock bullseye. With just a bit of manipulation, "Rolling Green Fields" could be a Black Crowes song. Instead, it comes off more like a really darned good Free wannabe, with a fail safe lead guitar part that makes it instantly memorable. And I just love, love, love the pretty middle eight (think of Paul Rodgers singing about "love in a peaceful world" on "Wishing Well" - it’s a bit reminiscent of that).

This all works so well because the band has the basic requirements of this style down and learns one lesson that many bands from the bygone area missed -- never plod. While Stratocruiser never reaches terminal velocity, the songs move along with just enough momentum that the riffs, lead guitar lines and melodies hit with an impact. One more example of this is the powerful "By Design".

I have no idea who the audience is for this music. But I’d like to think that there are some bars in North Carolina where patrons can’t wait until Stratocruiser hits the stage again.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominations (UPDATED)

This year’s nominees for 2009 induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame have been announced. Let me preface this post with an acknowledgment that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a severely flawed institution. When you get down to it, almost any Hall of Fame is flawed, because it’s nearly impossible to set definitive criteria as to what makes one worthy of recognition. In women’s golf, you make the LPGA Hall if you win so many majors or tournaments. That’s about the only Hall I know with a true standard.

In sports, there are statistics to aid in determining who gets enshrined. But even stats are subject to interpretation. In music, things are even more skewed, because the number of hit records one has doesn’t come close to telling the whole story.

Obviously, a group with one true album (The Sex Pistols) or no great albums, but a legacy of terrific singles (countless ‘50s and ‘60s artists) can merit inclusion. But just being around for a long time shouldn’t be enough.

And sales and a certain "respectability" are critical. While I wouldn’t have The Eagles in the Hall, I can see arguments for including them. That being said, The Fall and Pere Ubu are way more qualified for inclusion, but they’ll never ever get nominated.

So the Hall is a joke. It doesn’t have to be. The Country Music Hall of Fame isn’t perfect either, but if you walk through the plaques there, you won’t raise your eyebrows too often. Then again, I’m a country music fan and not a scholar.

With that disclaimer out of the way, it’s still fun to discuss the merits of the nominees. Here’s the list: Jeff Beck, Chic, Wanda Jackson, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Metallica, Run-D.M.C., The Stooges, War and Bobby Womack.

Let me go in somewhat of a particular order:

Run-D.M.C. -- I think these guys are one of the most important acts in rock history. The press release notes how Run-D.M.C. was an innovator in using guitars in hip-hop. This is true, and it’s part of the band’s legacy. However, I think what made the boys from Hollis, Queens so important was how they boiled hip-hop down to an essence. Hammering beats and two human voices. Run and D.M.C. were both terrific emcees, whose styles complimented each other perfectly. Moreover, in the stark settings of the band’s early tracks, they commanded a listener’s attention with direct lyrics. They showed how elemental hip-hop could be and still be totally involving music. I can’t say enough about how great Run-D.M.C. is.

Wanda Jackson -- She’s the original queen of rock and roll. And she’s still going strong. At the Country Music Museum in Nashville, I saw a couple vintage television clips of Wanda in the ‘50s, and she was so charismatic. Listen to her classic sides and this really is a no-brainer.
The Stooges -- Weren’t they nominated last year? This band is so influential, taking blues rock in a new direction that inspired punk and post-punk, led by one of the all-time great frontmen. It’s a joke that the Stooges have had to wait this long.

Chic -- Like most of you, I’ve never heard a whole Chic album. I’m curious how it would hold up. Nile Rodgers and Bernie Edwards (with the help of Tony Thompson) created an incredible sound. It was a new type of R & B -- smooth, urbane, classy. It was made for the discos, but it had so much more going for it. Certainly more than one post-punker in the early-‘80s took some cues from Chic, whether it was trying to imitate them or subvert them. Get them in, please.

Metallica -- I still haven’t gotten around to listening to the early Metallica records. I’m sure I’d find some things to like about them. My first true exposure to Metallica was And Justice For All. While I can’t dispute the power of the band’s wall of sound, quite frankly, most Metallica music on that album, and subsequent songs I’ve heard over the years, is ponderous and supports bellowed lyrics that really shouldn’t be taken seriously by anyone over the age of 15. Not that there isn’t a place for that sort of thing. But I think Metallica is as cliched as the old metal that the band was supposedly supplanting. Metallica will obviously get in, but I think they are one of the most overrated bands of the past 20 years, no matter how kick ass the early stuff was.

Jeff Beck -- The original e-mail I got had Jeff's first name cut off. Meaning I though that Beck was nominated, which seemed a bit premature. So I've had to delete my Beck WTF? entry and here's the new (and correct) one. As for Jeff Beck, no one can argue with his talent as a guitarist. One of the all-time greats. But his solo work has only been sporadically worthwhile. I think his best work was with The Yardbirds. I figure he will eventually go in as a solo artist, because he's a legend. But it's for his talent not his (solo) artistry.

Little Anthony and the Imperials -- Really? I can only think of only two Little Anthony hits and I’ve read more than my fair share of rock histories, and these guys rarely make the footnotes, let alone the text. There are a lot of ‘60s acts who are more deserving. I think the Hall should admit individual records too -- then Little Anthony might have a better argument.

Bobby Womack -- I have a Womack compilation and I was a bit underwhelmed. His music was good, of course, but he’s a notch or two below the true soul legends of his era. But he’s a big industry guy (producer and songwriter too), and that will probably get him in.

War -- I wish I knew War’s albums better. I’ve had two greatest hits comps and I have to say that War deserves more respect, just based on the quality of the band’s singles. War definitely had a soul sound rooted in L.A. (adding a cool Latin influence) and a Dutch harmonica players. I don’t think of War as Hall material, but if they have LP cuts on par with "The Word Is a Ghetto", "All Day Music" and "Me and Baby Brother", that’s not too bad of a resume.

Please feel free to comment away. Thanks for reading this far!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Andy Bopp -- This Guitar Kills Singer Songwriters (2008)

Andy Bopp – This Guitar Kills Singer Songwriters (Rainbow Quartz)

The Myracle Brah man and lead Love Nut breaks out his trusty acoustic guitar and leafs through some of the yellowed pages of what is now a rather large songbook to reel off a reliably entertaining set of tunes. This album contains no revelations but serves to confirm what I already knew -- he’s one helluva songwriter.

Well, I suppose there’s one revelation. Okay, revelation is putting it strongly, but "Hello" is a new song. And it sounds like a typical Bopp song. His vocals are strong, the hook is established early, and fans of music that gravitates in The Beatles/Badfinger/early Big Star universe should enjoy this quite a bit.

That universe is a large part of Bopp’s songcraft, though his work with Love Nut showed an affinity for Cheap Trick at times, while Myracle Brah periodically attempted to build on its ‘60s classicism with some moodier sounds. In this acoustic format, pop rules the day. But it’s not overly slick. If anything, the more intimate approach draws more emotions out of these songs, even when the lyrics may seem a bit impenetrable.

Bopp draws most from what may be the two best albums from his past: three songs apiece from Life From Planet Eartsnop and the second Love Nut album, Baltimucho. Knowing a good thing, he opens the album with the lead track from Eartsnop, "Whisper Softly". This is just over two minutes of pop perfection. The rise and fall of the melody is matched by the even greater rise and fall of the melody (I just reread this and I'm trying to figure out what I meant -- I think what I mean is that the chorus has a rise and fall melody and the bridge out of the chorus is similarly structured, but more intense. I think that's what I was referring to).

Bopp also takes on "Just Because", a ballad that has a bit of a John Lennon-ish feel, and my favorite Myracle Brah song of all, "Good Day to the Night". "Night" simply has one of the best power pop choruses I have ever heard. It’s urgent and memorable and Bopp sells it with all he has. This is a song that, even when played without a full band, is intense from the get go and manages never to let up. All without any outrageous tempos or excessive guitar noise.

The winners from Baltimucho sound great too. "Falling Down" and "Miss Fortune" (a song Myracle Brah also recorded) have that "should have been a hit" kind of feel. While the first Love Nut album was alright (and is represented here by "Jane"), Baltimucho was chock full of great songs. One of those was the type of song that should have been played at high school proms everywhere, "If You Go Away".

For a lot of folks, this may have been their introduction to Love Nut, as it was featured on one of the Yellow Pills CD compilations. It’s a plaintive plea to a lover, telling her what life will be like if she splits. It showcases another one of Bopp’s instantly classic melodies. This song is unforgettable from the first play. The original version had a lot of dramatic lead guitar work. While that was swell, Bopp shows that the song is just as great without it.

Bopp also plays numbers from Platespinner and Bleeder, and those hold up as well as the other relatively better known tunes. I suppose the songwriter doing his songs acoustic is now akin to the live album or the all-covers affair -- a stopgap. But if the album is a good listen, who cares? Hearing this, I’d really love to have Bopp come to an intimate venue in Chicago soon.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Oneida -- Preteen Weaponry (Jagjaguwar)

Oneida -- Preteen Weaponry (Jagjaguwar)

Over the past few records, Oneida’s focus had shifted from aggressive Krautrock to winsome psychedelia, especially on the lovely album The Wedding. This album was the most song-based Oneida album yet.

Apparently, rather than continue down that path (perhaps a case of "been there, done that"), the New York trio instead went in the exact opposite direction. Preteen Weaponry isn’t just an album title -- it’s the only song on the album. It’s a winding 40 minute opus, maximizing the minimalist side of this always intriguing band.

Unlike the band’s typical Krautrock excursions, this is extremely subtle music. In particular, Kid Millions’s drums are not harsh and metronomically pounding. Well, at least they aren’t harsh. This album comes across as a soundtrack to a black-and-white movie set in an economically depressed factory town.

Consistent with the band’s previous stretched out excursions, repetition is central to the work. The band establishes a tempo and pattern. From there, little elements come in and out of the song. These subtle changes might not be immediately noticed, but they are what keep this composition for being too static.

The CD is banded so that the composition has three parts, or movements. The first part of "Preteen Weaponry" begins with keyboard drone and tapping on the cymbals. The guitar then begins to squall, and the keyboards, in an early Pere Ubu fashion, do the same. A minute-and-a-half into the track, the drums begin to pound out the basic rhythm, and the droning begins to take structure. One keyboard part plays a rhythm that knots together with the drum pattern. And the guitarist begins to accent these sounds with little bits of leads.

The drumming then picks up the pace. A second keyboard part comes in, with deep, resonant bass tones. The effect is three or four different rhythms interlocking, with each component taking up a slightly different place in the mix. Thanks to Millions, this is fairly driving and overall, the music is hypnotic. Little variations creep in and out during the 14 minutes of this first movement.

As the first movement fades out, loud ugly synths bleat out, and slight marital drums create a more ominous atmosphere, which is really saying something after the first movement. As the drums slowly and insidiously beat out a signal, the synthesizer swells in and out. The effect is more like bursts of magma under the surface of a volcano than the crash and recession of ocean waves. The guitar again plays a secondary role, embellishing on the fury from the other instruments.

Almost seven minutes into the second movement, there is finally singing. A disembodied psychedelic melody is overlaid upon the mix of pure synth noise and the constant drum pattern. The words are hard to fully discern, but the mood of the music and the sound of the vocals make this an aural version of a nightmare.

The third movement is less harsh, and the initial waves of keyboards sound a bit spacey -- the soundtrack for a starry night. Yes, the sci-fi sounds at times sound like a corrugated version of the liquid tones of Robert Fripp. They are complimented by busier drumming, with lots of snare and cymbals. Here, the guitar seems to have disappeared entirely. It’s drone, drums and space sounds.

This portion is the least layered of the three. It also has the least variation -- the drumming is what keeps it interesting, and 14 minutes is a lot for any drummer to carry. Therefore, I don’t find it to be as effective, though it is certainly consistent with the overall approach to this song.

This is the first of a planned trilogy. This album isn’t something I’ll play much, if I ever play it again. Which isn’t to say that it’s a bad record, but I appreciate it more at an academic level than any other way. I think that it would be best to hear Oneida perform it live (even though it was basically recorded live in the studio), as I can only imagine these guys would push this material into new shapes and sounds. It’s not a failure by any means, but it’s a very limited success on its own terms.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Michael Carpenter & The Cuban Heels -- New Dog - Old Tricks (2008)

Michael Carpenter & The Cuban Heels -- New Dog - Old Tricks (Big Radio)

Michael Carpenter has always had a fair amount of heartland rocker in him. While pigeonholed in the power pop bin, his covers albums have shown a love for Springsteen, Petty and Earle. These influences have crept into some of his songs too.

On this instant EP (recorded in early August 2008 and made commercially available in roughly a month!), Carpenter has assembled a band to add some rootsy backing to five new originals and two covers. All this does is make some of his inspirations more overt. Carpenter doesn’t try to come across like a Robbie Fulks honky-tonker or a Gram Parsons wannabe. He just ornaments his consistently strong songwriting with some different instrumentation.

This becomes especially evident on "Some Days Are Worse Than Others". This showcases one of Carpenter’s greatest traits -- the empathy that comes across in his songs, a result of his engaged vocals. He writes fairly direct lyrics and commits to them thoroughly. This mid-tempo song is about a guy in the aftermath of a break up, and with Jason Walker’s pedal steel and Jadey O’Reagan’s piano, the song is cut from the same cloth as Poco, The Eagles and Scud Mountain Boys.

A couple of tracks move into Bob Dylan/Byrds territory. "If You Ask Me" has a classic folk rock structure and is played with the right relaxed feel. The bridge out of the chorus has some delicious chord changes, and there’s a great middle eight that ups the emotional ante. This is an instant classic. The opener "The Ballad of Ambivalence" not only evokes Dylan and The Byrds (Carpenter’s vocals are a bit more pinched), but I can hear a little Michael Nesmith too. That’s never a bad thing.

It’s not all strum and twang. "Working for a Living" is a flat out rocker. For all of Carpenter’s melodic magic, he’s a lot more capable rock guy than he gets credit for. Here, the whole band simply shines, playing with a lot of vigor. However, this song is pretty darned close structurally to "Working for a Living" by Huey Lewis and the News. There are worse things in life, as that single was a typically enjoyable slice of Huey back in the ‘80s, but it nags at me every time I hear it.

The disc ends with a spirited cover of Hank Williams’ "Jambalaya". Carpenter finds a great mid-point between the pure country vibe of Hank and his own ebullient personality. By that I mean that he’s not hung up on being totally authentic, he and the Cuban Heels just go out and have a cracking good time. It’s a great song, just sing it with spirit and it will work.

This is a limited edition, so act now if you want a copy. Maybe Carpenter will find a way to make more. Or get the Heels back in the studio really quickly. If they book a week in the studio, they could knock out a box set.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Oxford Collapse -- Bits (2008)

Oxford Collapse -- Bits (Sub Pop)

The Collapse’s second Sub Pop effort shows that this veteran band has an inexhaustible supply of offbeat indie pop tunes. They continue traveling down the path of smart and slightly bent rockers like The Embarrassment, Big Dipper, Hypnolovewheel, New Radiant Storm King and Archers Of Loaf.

The album gets off to a galloping start on "Electric Arc". With fast drumming and strumming and jangling guitar leads moving the tune along, Michael Pace sings over and over, "I can’t remember things, I just don’t know what to do." The song mentions "father’s agenda" and walking "six and half, maybe more." It’s a bit cryptic, but whatever he is singing about, it doesn’t sound good. The intensity of the music keeps it all humming.

On a number of songs, the Collapse whip up a good head of steam and don’t stop. "For the Winter Coats" starts off a bit quietly before the guitars get swirling and dirty. The song moves towards a strong hook in the chorus, but the band plays like it is always on the verge on just flying out of control. The lyrics again sketch out only part of a story, but are consistently engaging, my favorite being: "You got so excited for the coming of gold/that you blew your load on your winter coat."

The band’s frenetic pace makes "A Wedding" a real treat. The band works with strings and shows that the songs are always there underneath the frenzy (or lack thereof). Even in this controlled environment, the group's choral vocals are pretty unrestrained. You can’t totally tame the Collapse.

On "Men & Their Ideas", the band hits some real ‘80s jangle rock territory. The backing track features a prominent walking bass line over some jangling guitars and splashing drums. The vocal is herky and jerky, as the melody follows the rise and fall of the bass line, sounding pleasant and sour at the same time.

Dynamics work their magic on "Young Love Delivers", which is an insistent mid-tempo number. The verse slows and cools down, before picking up into pure rock territory with absolute gusto. The band knows how to write a conventional song and knows enough in how to add some twists. Yet these guys still can come up with a masterful middle eight.

This record exudes a real confidence. Having gotten deserved national exposure through its first Sub Pop album, this band has its sound down and the trio plays with so much enthusiasm and intelligence. The Oxford Collapse will never reach the heights of The Shins or Rogue Wave, but I hope this band gets a sizable audience -- something that has eluded many of the bands who played this kind of stuff in the past.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Robert Forster -- The Evangelist (2008)

Robert Forster -- The Evangelist (Yep Roc)

Some bands become favorites -- you know every note off each album. If you put a fave band’s track on a mix CD, when it’s over, you’re brain expects the next song from that particular album. That’s real devotion.
Other bands you like maybe one album. Or a song.

Of course, it’s not always so clearly delineated. Take The Go-Betweens. I love some Go-Betweens music passionately. I played "Bachelor Kisses" to death when I was at my college radio station. A few years later, I was awestruck by the band’s seeming swan song, the classic 16 Lovers Lane.

You think that would have been enough to get me to go back and pick up all of the earlier Go-Betweens albums. Instead, I bought the compilation Capitol put out and never got serious enough to go further. This really makes no sense, since the comp introduced me to even more great songs. The mysteries of being a music fan...

Nevertheless, when Robert Forster and Grant McLennan reformed The Go-Betweens, I felt a duty to keep up with the band’s output. Maybe it was penance for not catching up with the old albums. The first comeback album was alright, but the next one was better. And then Oceans Apart reached a level equal to the best recordings of the original incarnation of the band.

Here it was, the year 2005, and The Go-Betweens still had it. And then Grant McLennan passed away at a relatively young age.

Albums should be evaluated on their merits. Outside factors shouldn’t count. But it’s hard not to listen to this new Forster solo album without thinking about what could have been. Three of the songs on this album build on bits started off by McLennan.

"It Ain’t Easy" is a upbeat shuffle, with Forster’s typically forthright and erudite vocals. It’s easy to get lost in the loping melody and catchy chorus -- the chorus written by McLennan. But the song is more than just a light throwaway. It’s a loving tribute to Grant. Forster puts it so simply -- "it was melody he loved most of all." With economical lyrics, Forster captures the big spirit of McLennan, his imagination, and how he was a great friend.

The other posthumous collaborations are not as personal, but are equally wonderful. On "Demon Days", Forster sounds tender and vulnerable. The music is quiet and elegant, with lovely string accompaniment on a song about lives that are bound to an uncertain and unwelcome fate. Forster moves to the other end of the spectrum on "Let Your Light In, Babe", a sunny folk strum about giving of yourself. It has a small town feel, as Forster talks about taking in a single mother and child into his farm home. That might not sound like much, and it isn’t. It doesn’t have to be. The song is so infectuous, as the joy of giving to another is all that Forster needs.

Forster melds a Velvet Underground inspired tune with more string accompaniment on the title cut. On this song, a man tries to take his woman to the woods, to live his simple life. She eventually brings him back to her suburban world. Although he thinks his lifestyle is the better one, he concludes "I believe baby/I believe in us." The song is the essence of simplicity, Forster’s vocals front and center. Forster’s lyrics aren’t so much cryptic as they are intentionally incomplete. He gives just enough details to outline his story. It tends to give the words he does use that much more power.

Fans of The Blue Aeroplanes would latch onto "Don’t Touch Anything". It sounds like a great lost song from one of that band’s late-‘80s albums. "If It Rains" is a gentle, philosophical album opener, with big acoustic guitar chords, mixing with some fine lead work. The way this song is structured, it would seem to require bombast. But the reserved treatment manages to give it more power. It’s more resolute.

Resolute is a good way to describe Forster. I don’t necessarily mean that he soldiers on without McLennan, because making music is what he was born to do. What I mean is that instead of self-pity or mawkishness, he continues to look at the human condition from such interesting perspectives, and sets them to music that does the Velvets, Dylan, and others, especially Grant, very, very proud.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

elodieO -- Stubborn (2008)

elodieO -- Stubborn (Mulatta)

This is cool and sexy music with a vibe that is both Swingin’ ‘60s and absolutely modern. Elodie Ozanne is a French chanteuse who has bounced around the French and New York music scenes (she’s worked with Brazilian Girls) and has developed some chops. Her breathy vocals match her gamine image, and sound great with the electronic soundscapes she’s created.

Some of these songs are reminiscent of the spate of femme fronted Swedish electro-pop bands that sprang out of Sweden earlier this decade. A good example of this is "Milk and Honey". The song starts with Elodie singing over light backing: "There is a land of milk and honey/it’s a strange and marvelous country they say." The music kicks in a bit, with Elodie’s "ba ba" backing vocals and hints of ‘60s soft pop waiting to burst out. The song is keyed by the tension between the main musical motifs, which are kind of chilly, and the interludes of perkiness. Texture rules here.

This is proceeded by "Wake Up Without You", a very sexy tune. The song again starts with Elodie’s voice front and center, stressing pure intimacy. Then the music shifts into a light pulsing dance vibe -- somewhat in a Saint Etienne vein. From there, the song moves into a disco mode, with echoing guitar, percolating synths and distant keyboard lines intertwining. The interludes with Elodie doing more of her "ba bas" over this insinuating backing track sound made for a hip French film, coming soon to an indie house near you. The cello part in the middle just puts this great track over the top.

The most danceable track is "Cuckoo". It takes a couple of minutes before hitting grooveland. But once it does, it’s a nice slab of electro-disco, suitable for all clubbing needs. Elodie pans her vocals around at times, and mixes the array of keyboards very well. Yes, the track slows down for a bit, but it’s mostly percolating.

Meanwhile, "Home" is cloaked in mystery. The backing track has a bit of a grime feel to it, with skittering electronic percussion. The cheery romantic sentiments melt into a lush melody, with Elodie singing, "I couldn’t love you more." This is probably her best vocal performance on the entire disc.

If there is one knock on the album, the "start slow and move the tempo along" motif is used on just about every song. She needs to work on varying her approach a bit. But she shows that she has a lot of songwriting and arranging talent, and should be capable of a more well rounded album the next time around.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians -- Luminous Groove (2008)

Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians -- Luminous Groove (Yep Roc)

There’s a time when I might have said that Robyn Hitchcock is a true immortal, someone who belongs up there in the pantheon of all-time greats. His surreal lyrics and keen melodic sense, combined with his mastery of all things Barrett, Dylan, Beatles and Byrds certainly bears the stamp of a classic artist.

But as time went on, he released some duff efforts, and the narrowness of his artistry became all the more apparent. By the time Robyn and The Egyptians came out with Perspex Island, I found myself a bit less interested. His earlier brilliance was unquestioned, but he didn’t seem to have much more to say.

However, Hitchcock has proven me wrong. No, his more recent work doesn’t fully rank with the brilliance displayed on his earliest records, but the narrowness of Hitchcock’s approach has turned into an asset. His odd insights and sublime chord changes still work. When you’re an original (even one who is musically derivative) you can wear really well.

Getting the latest Yep Roc Hitchcock box set has me feeling all warm and fuzzy yet again for Robyn. This time, we get the first three albums he did with The Egyptians, a band that was somewhat of a Kimberley Rew-less Soft Boys reunion. Some of the edge was taken off The Soft Boys approach, with Hitchcock venturing into glistening quirky pop and glistening quirky quirk, among other things.

Fegmania!, Gotta Let This Hen Out and Element Of Light are all very strong albums, and have aged much better than the music of some of the band’s contemporaries. Fegmania! is littered with exceptional songs, from the beguiling opener "Egyptian Cream" to the effervescent "Strawberry Mind"; the silly psych-stomp of "The Man With the Lightbulb Head" to the soaring pop perfection of "Heaven". The album was a great roll out for the Egyptians, whose provided texture and color to Hitchcock’s fabulous songs.

This crack unit then got the chance to attack some of Robyn’s best solo tracks to date, and some Soft Boys chestnuts, on the live Gotta Let This Hen Out. This is one of the better live albums ever released, as the band infuses the solo songs with power, and plays with such fluidity. Songs like "America" and "Sometimes I Wish I Were A Pretty Girl" realize their full potential (and the studio versions weren’t shabby), and the performance of "Heaven" is definitive.

The third album, Element Of Light, was not quite as well-regarded as the other two, but damned if I can figure out why. The album is less aggressively whimsical as portions of Fegmania!, and shows real growth and ambition. The drama of "Lady Waters & The Hooded One" and the sighing languid "Winchester" were great additions to Hitchcock’s bag of tricks. Whether the outright John Lennon ripoff "Somewhere Apart" was necessary is up for debate, but it’s still a fun song. And "Raymond Chandler Evening" is one of Hitchcock’s most poignant numbers.

All of these albums have been reissued separately with a slew of bonus cuts. But for only a few bucks more, if you’re fan enough, this box is the way to go. Bad Case Of History is a two-disc set -- one disc of studio outtakes and one disc of live stuff. The live disc is fantastic, because it covers a lot of Robyn and The Egyptians’s major label work. That A & M period yielded the solid and accessible Globe Of Frogs, the uneven, but intriguing, Queen Elvis, the too slick Paul Fox-produced Perspex Island, and the sadly overlooked gem (and swansong) Respect.

There are some great renditions of songs from all of those albums, such as a lovely "Wax Doll", the hyper-poppy "So You Think You’re In Love", the sad "Railway Shoes" and "The Wreck of The Arthur Lee", one of Hitchcock’s most dazzling compositions. There are also a couple of covers -- The Byrds’ "Eight Miles High" and Bob Dylan’s "Chimes of Freedom". The live disc is a winner.

The studio side also yield some gems and, perhaps just as importantly, no real embarrassments. For the most part, as borne out by both this disc and the studio outtakes on the Fegmania! and Element Of Light discs, Hitchcock does a pretty good job of figuring out what should go on an album and what shouldn’t. Maybe "Hanging Out With Dad" and "Live Man Die" were worthy, but maybe they didn’t fit within a particular album’s structure.

While listening to this disc, I was struck how fine the line can be between a good song and a merely listenable one. A number of these outtakes superficially sound swell, but they lack an extra twist, a bit better melody, or a hook with enough...hook to be really terrific. Maybe Hitchcock has been too free with releasing his rejects, but they really put the creative process in perspective. And they only increase my admiration for his consummate songwriting talent.

Captain Wilberforce -- Everyone Loves A Villain (2008)

Captain Wilberforce -- Everyone Loves A Villain (Blue Tuxedo)

I listened to the first Captain Wilberforce album a couple of years ago or so, thought it was pretty nice, and then didn’t get around to reviewing it. That was a mistake, as I could have been on the ground floor, so to speak, in touting a really talented British popmeister, Simon Bristoll.

On the second Wilberforce full length, Bristoll makes good on the promise of the debut with a mature, intelligent pop record, laden with strong melodies, hooky choruses and smart lyrics. To top it all off, Bristoll has one of those smooth pop voices that fits a variety of approaches. Vocally, he sometimes reminds me of Stephen Duffy of The Lilac Time, Glen Tilbrook of Squeeze, and the late, great Wiz of Mega City Four, both in tone and the expressiveness of his voice.

Musically, Bristoll has a widescreen approach to pop, in line with acts like Cosmic Rough Riders and Teenage Fanclub. The guitars are prominent, but the mix is never crowded. It’s a spacious sound that perfectly suits the vocals and makes some of these songs particularly emotionally resonant.

One track that really grabs the heart is "The Longest Night". This song really hits me the way some of the mid-period Mega City Four tracks did back in the ‘90s (which is, for me, extremely high praise). The approach is low key dynamics, Bristoll’s voice often in front of sparse instrumentation, contrasted by parts where the guitars unleash some of the underlying emotions coming forth in the lyrics about a relationship gone bad. Meanwhile, the song is so strong melodically, with about four or five great melodic parts seamlessly pieced together for a stupendous pop-rock number.

This is followed by another fantastic track, "The Girl Who Broke Her Own Heart". This is an aching ballad with string accompaniment. It’s an immediately captivating song, mixing a dramatic verse with a chorus that builds and moves to a great conclusion. This is songwriting on par with Neil Finn, Elvis Costello and Andy Partridge.

Bristoll hasn’t quite consistently reached that level, but there are other songs here that show that getting there is a distinct possibility. The album opener, "No Strings or Ties", is an urgent rock tune that simply soars, with yet another thrilling chorus. "Born Again Brand New Man" is rooted in ‘60s Brit pop (yep, The Beatles, The Move, Bee Gees, and so on), though it takes advantage of modern technology with farty synthesizer noises that add a touch of whimsy to the proceedings. There’s more of that great guitar work on "Confetti, Champagne and Roses", a swell piece of observational songwriting that backs up my earlier mention of the Lilac Time.

What more can I say? I really dig this record. It’s certainly one of the top pop records of 2008.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Randy Newman -- Harps And Angels (2008)

Randy Newman -- Harps And Angels (Nonesuch)

Nine years after his fantastic Bad Love album, Randy Newman is back with his usual mix of observational songs and social commentary. While there are a few new musical wrinkles, his ragtime-cum-Tin Pan Alley sound is basically the same. What fuels his music are his ideas.

Here, the political commentary is hit-and-miss, while the commentaries and love songs sound pretty good. On the political side, Newman has rarely released something as muddled as "A Piece of the Pie". The song starts out okay, with some of the most interesting music on the album -- it sounds like a cross between John Philip Sousa and Tom Waits. Well, sort of.

Newman is trying to make a point about haves and have nots and how the haves ain’t doing much for everybody else. But he runs off the rails when he notes that "no one gives a shit but Jackson Browne." I think he wrote the lyric just to tweak his buddy and because his name is fun to sing (apparently). As a reference, it’s pretty out-of-date, and then the attack on John Mellencamp and the mention of Bono do nothing to really further the premise. It just doesn’t work.

Things go a little bit better on "Korean Parents", which is Newman’s suggestion for how to get our non-Korean kids to perform better in school. The quasi-Asian flavored music is just thisclose to being offensive, and the joke is pretty thin. This song just doesn’t have much bite to it. But the last verse, where Newman notes that "your parents aren’t the greatest generation...[t]hat generation could be you" almost redeems things.

Newman hits the mark on "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country". This is a classic track, with a bit of a loping country feel. Newman plays his favorite character, the sort of clueless blowhard. Newman mitigates how bad things are in the U.S. now by noting that the country’s current leadership isn’t as bad as Hitler or Stalin. Newman then shifts to looking at how things really are, and gets in some digs at the Supreme Court: "I defy you, anywhere in the world/to find me two Italians as tight-assed as the two Italians we got."

There are some other songs that equal or surpass that track. The New Orleans parlor jazz pop of "Only a Girl" verges on Lyle Lovett territory, as Newman describes the young girl who’s in love with him. She’s full of quirks, and only at the end does he figure out what she sees in him.
The string-laden "Losing You" harkens back to old Newman classics like "Louisiana 1927" and "I Miss You". Newman shows yet again that for all of the cynicism and nasty humor, he can be as achingly sincere as anyone. The album closer "Feels Like Home" is also in this vein, though it sounds like it’s overreaching a bit.

And the title track isn’t a classic, but it’s a song that only Newman can do. Over some typical boogie woogie piano, Newman essays a near death experience. This being Newman’s world, he’s only saved from death by the recognition of a clerical error. Yet he clearly doesn’t get the lesson that he’s being taught -- he just wants to go out and get a drink.

This isn’t Grade-A Newman, but, as always, there is plenty of worthwhile stuff here. Now the question is whether it will take him another nine years to recharge his batteries?