Friday, October 31, 2008

Silvery -- Thunderer & Excelsior (2008)

Silvery -- Thunderer & Excelsior (Blowup)

This is caffeinated pop of the highest order. Silvery comes from the same place as bands such as Sparks (who they have cited as an influence), Roxy Music, Split Enz (during the Phil Judd era), Cardiacs, Supergrass, The New Pornographers and The Features. This is rock and roll sent careening through the funhouse, with plenty of energy and some distortions, which manages to stay intact due to strong compositions and a bevy of hooks.

The album plays somewhat like an A-sides/B-sides compilation, and, indeed, the band’s terrific singles lead off the disc and the tail end of the album shows that they can handle more than 2:30 bursts of excitement.

The album gets off to a cracking good start on "Horrors". The keyboards dominate on a song that sounds like a collaboration between Gaz Coombes of Supergrass and Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks. The song has two distinct melodies and goes from verse to chorus (and thus, the hook) speedily.

Next up is "Devil in the Details", with a rising and falling melody, and singer James Orman quivering and going up in his range while keyboardist Simon Harris mixes church-style organ with horror movie sounds. This song has about four separate parts to it and the arrangement is clever as there is so much going on in the mix. And the hook is, again, indelible.

The band then moves into punchy Maximo Park territory on "Action Force". Here, the tinkling ivories contrast with Orman’s dirty sounding guitar. Things finally slow down a bit on "Penny Dreadful". The opening riff is a two-chord wonder, a la Sparks’ "I Predict", with the song opening up into a whirligig chorus that reeks of Split Enz.

These songs alone guarantee a good album. But there are more treats further down the road. "The Nishikado" turns one of my favorite tricks, resolving a somewhat dissonant verse with a rambunctious sing-a-long chorus. Well, sing-a-long if you can make out all of the words.
On "Star of the Sea", Silvery adds a ska beat to the proceedings, but only for a while. This is a mini-epic, with changing tempos and multiple parts. The journey culminates in a rousing ending, making the build up pay off.

I wish I could make out a bit more of the lyrics, which I only catch in a snatch here or there. The best songs have at least one memorable turn of phrase. But it’s the form that wins out over the substance. Silvery has a sound that is evocative of some of favorite pop music ever. And the songs have stuck in my head from pretty much the time I first listened to the disc. If the comparisons I made at the beginning strike a chord in you, you really should check this out.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Fall -- Imperial Wax Solvent (2008)

The Fall -- Imperial Wax Solvent (Sanctuary)

The second album since Mark E. Smith sacked his entire band (except for the missus) on an American tour, and things are looking up. The last album, Reformation Post TLC, was made with some of the musicians who filled in on tour after Smith had fired a top flight band. The band had no snap or power, which didn’t make too much of a difference, since the songs were equally lifeless. It seemed like The Fall was nearing the end of its usefulness.

Well, Smith has again both added and subtracted to the dole, with another new set of musicians -- Peter Greenway (guitar), Keiron Melling (drums) and David Spurr (bass). This band is a bit more supple than the Reformation crew. While Melling is still not up to the level of the best Fall drummers of the past, he and Spurr do seem to have a great sympathy towards each other.

The songwriting is better this time around. Not consistently so, as it seems like Smith and his new cohorts are taking measure of each other. Over the course of the album, the band investigates various Fall sounds. At times, this approach yields some fairly generic stuff. But there's some very worthy material here.

There is a snap to some tracks that can only be The Fall. "Is This New" has a punch to it that sounds like it came from the Light User Syndrome album. On "Tommy Shooter", the band locks into a percolating groove that is a mid-point between the band’s garage rock and Kraut rock influences, with Elena Polou’s keyboard parts synchronizing with Greenway’s dirty guitar, creating some unusual textures. It’s effective.

The album opener, "Alton Towers", is a change of pace. Rather than the usual clangor or proto-rockabilly, this song is grounded in David Spurr’s tension building bass playing, with Keiron Melling playing creatively on his drum kit, not laying down a beat so much as decorating the atmosphere with percussion.

The album reaches its peak early. "50 Year Old Man" clocks in at 11:33, which could have been very ugly. On Reformation, the lengthy "Das Boat" was an embarrassment, a drunken demo that played more like a bad parody of The Fall rather than the real thing. Thankfully, Smith may have learned from that mistake. Or he may just have forgotten it entirely.

This is typically rambunctious Fall tuneage. The band rumbles along as Smith rants about the drawbacks of becoming middle aged, even as he defiantly enjoys his stature. Wasn’t it Abe Simpson who said that the reason God let us grow old was so that we could point out everything that is wrong with the world? Smith was a curmudgeon in his 20s, so this song is a natural. Now I’m not sure why he thinks Steve Albini and the train system are conspiring against him, but he’s pretty steadfast about that.

The song has three movements. After the initial burst, there’s an out-of-nowhere banjo interlude. The band then goes back to the woodshed, but instead of pounding out the song, Poulou’s keyboards take more prominence. The track then breaks down into ambient shambling for a couple of minutes, before reaching the conclusion, which is a rockabilly-ish jaunt, as Smith proclaims that "I’m the type of guy/who knows what is on CD/how dare they lecture me?" This is a pretty impressive track.

Then Poulou gets her best moment as a member of The Fall, courtesy of her husband, a rare sole Smith composer credit. "I’ve Been Duped" is, plain and simple, a fun piece of garage rock. Poulou’s accented and artless (and enthusiastic!) vocals are the perfect compliment for this song about being pissed off. And the song is catchy as hell.

This is followed by "Strangetown", a cover of a 1970 track by The Groundhogs. I can’t say that I’m familiar with the original. But this sounds like it was tailor made for The Fall. It’s wobbly rock, Smith really tears into the lyrics, and the decision to add weird static and buzz (like a faulty radio transmission) adds to the coolness of the track.

Not all of the tracks are so distinctive. Still, there’s enough here that I hope and pray that Smith keeps this aggregation together for a couple more albums to see what they can produce. This is a very encouraging start for the band that keeps reinventing itself while always sounding like no one else but themselves.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Sign Of The Fox -- For Anybody Else (2008)

Sign Of The Fox -- For Anybody Else (The Sound Of Sounds)

This veteran L.A. band plays a laid back brand of rock that sounds like it could have been recorded on the back porch. Let me be clear here -- "back porch" often implies a blues orientation, and that’s not the case. And "laid back" might connote some sort of soft rock. And that’s not the case, either.

This is just relaxed, yet it’s still enthusiastic. This sounds like some punky vets who are having a good time, playing songs about love and love lost, among other things. The result of this approach is that the album kind of snuck up on me.

It started with the penultimate cut on the disc, "World Shakin’ Girl". The song is based on melody that probably goes back to the heyday of Merseybeat, played at a slightly slower and heavier tempo. This is backed up by a heavy and greasy guitar part. Lead singer Jack Polick is characteristically enthusiastic as he sings about the gal who changed his world. This song has a shaggy dog appeal to it that typifies what these guys are about.

Soon thereafter, I got into "Magnetico". This song has a beefy guitar line that is Latin inflected, with the Latin character sifted out. The song contrasts this catchy guitar part with a piledriver chorus. This is basic build tension and release songwriting, that works pretty well. But my favorite part of the song is the instrumental break where these Foxes cut loose.

Although these two songs first hit me, the song that has hit me the hardest is "Loosen Up". This tune verges on power ballad territory, but it has enough rock attitude and a melody that harkens back to classic late ‘50s and early ‘60s rock and roll that keep it from being cheesy. Everyone from Cheap Trick to Splitsville to E’Nuff Z’Nuff, just to name a few, has done a song in this territory. And there are a couple of twists here to keep this from being a pro forma genre exercise. Moreover, this is the most passionate performance on the whole album.

It took me a bit longer to appreciate the quieter side of the band. There is a lot to like when Sign Of The Fox dials it down a bit. "Answer" is a loping mid-tempo song with some reggae inflected guitar. On "The No Talk Tango", the melody reeks of desperation. Polick isn’t the rangiest vocalist and that works to his advantage on this track, as the strain on his voice really sells the sadness of the song.

And the album closer, "Close to Home", has one of those melodies that sounds like it has been around forever. It probably has, but not precisely in the form it takes here. It’s a sweet song, and a swell conclusion.

This is a nice, but not great, album. If there were a few more killers like "Loosen Up", it would really be something. But I certainly enjoyed it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Bamboos -- Listen! Hear!! The Bamboos Live!!! (2008)

The Bamboos -- Listen! Hear!! The Bamboos Live!!! (Tru Thoughts)

This Aussie soul revue is in fine form on this concert document. This was recorded at the Metro Theatre in Sydney just over a year ago, and the seven piece band, augmented on some songs by vocalist Kylie Auldist, is a well oiled machine.

Okay, during the opening instrumental medley, it is a bit jarring to hear a distinctive Down Under accent greeting the audience, and talking about "super soul." But the guy ain’t lying. The medley includes snippets of Sly Stone and James Brown and allows everyone in the band to show what they can do, especially the three piece horn section and Ben Grayson on the Hammond organ.

Lance Ferguson’s chicken scratch funk guitar gets things going on the second instrumental medley, which essays a variety of funk sounds with some strong jazz overtones at times. This medley (of "Hot Pants Break Down", "Captain Buckles", "Upstairs on Boston Road", "Ghetto Funk" and "Sister Janie") may strike some as a bit too slick. The Bamboos are certainly not the grittiest outfit out there. I think that’s because the band’s brand of funk emphasizes the rhythm section and the Hammond organ, rather than the dirtier sound of the guitar. I think it works pretty well.

It works even better when Kylie Auldist is thrown into the mix. Auldist, whose 2008 debut showcases a terrific modern soul singer, has a honeyed voice that adds a bit of grit to The Bamboos’ recipe.

Auldist steps in, appropriately enough, on "Step It Up", an original Ferguson composition. This song is a workout, with a prominent bass line and the horn section punctuating Auldist’s invocations of the title phrase during the chorus. Ferguson also gets a chance to play a fast and clean solo over the constant moving rhythm. This isn’t a song -- it’s a work out.

Grayson and Ferguson composed the languid "I Don’t Wanna Stop". This is a perfect Young-Holt Unlimited or Rascals-type summer soul shakedown. On this track, the melody rules the day and Auldist is so darned inviting.

She shows off her more rugged side on "My Baby’s Cheating (I Sure Get the Feeling)". The band’s James Brown inspiration comes through yet again. The funk isn’t quite as hard as what The Godfather and the Famous Flames and the JB’s could cook up, but Auldist needs a bit more space (as opposed to Brown’s gospel cries and funk grunts) for her voice.

Her best performance is saved for last on "Never Did I Stop Loving You", which is featured on her recent solo album. This is a great soulful pop tune, somehow balancing the fizzy joy of Northern soul with the earthier vibe of Southern soul. Auldist, as always, does not oversing and conveys every feeling perfectly. As good as her album is, Auldist is a notch or two better live.

This album makes me want the price of gas to really go down so The Bamboos can hop on a jet and fly here to the States. But if they would happen to leave Auldist at home, then I’d be inclined to stay home too.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Lindsey Buckingham -- Gift Of Screws (2008)

Lindsey Buckingham -- Gift Of Screws (Reprise)
The suddenly semi-prolific Lindsey Buckingham turns from the lovely intimacy of Under The Skin to an album that constitutes a survey of everything that Buckingham does well, with a few songs sounding like outtakes from the classic Fleetwood Mac albums of the ‘70s. This album isn’t as emotionally intense as its predecessor. This is made up for with some of the giddiest pop Buckingham has produced since Go Insane, his second solo album.

The album kicks off with "Great Day", which hearkens back to his early solo work. Electronic drums and plucked guitar strings (played with the dexterity of a flamenco guitarist) create an ominous atmosphere. This song is about rhythm and tempo and includes some stellar lead guitar work.

On "Time Precious Time", Buckingham’s plays circular patterns on his acoustic guitar, creating a dreamy atmosphere. This song is predicated on dynamics, with Buckingham singing barely above a whisper in the verses, with the chorus blooming like a flower, as the intensity of the guitar playing picks up with the verses. The lyrics are spare, as Buckingham sings of not rushing when making a crucial decision. The urgency of the music is at cross purposes with the words. The meaning of it all -- don’t take too much time.

After these two excursions into rocky terrain, Buckingham comes back with a grade A pop tune. "Did You Miss Me" comes from the place that gave us Buckingham classics like "Trouble" and "Think About Me". It’s a textbook pop song that takes the concept of ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ to logical extremes. Well, maybe not entirely logical, but certainly extreme. Anyway, it’s a winner, aided by the involvement of Buckingham’s old rhythm section of John McVie and Mick Fleetwood.

The pair also show up on the effervescent title cut. This song is another juxtaposition between lyrics and music. While Buckingham is singing about how "authority makes us bleed bleed bleed/essential oils are wrung/the attar from the rose," the music is bouncy and Buckingham adds some wacky backing vocals and playful lead guitar playing.

The blues show up on "Wait For You", yet another song that could have come out any time between 1977 and today. Playing a repeating blues figure and then overlaying a taut melody, Buckingham builds the tension like a master craftsman. The song then unfolds into guitar filled chorus, Buckingham’s voice becoming tremulous and full of longing. This is very smart pop-rock.

I could pretty much praise every song on this LP to the gills, but I’ll end this mash note with the last track, "Treason". It’s a melancholy tale of attempted redemption. A guy told a lie and now he wants forgiveness. He is full of despair. But the song is optimistic -- he believes "we will rise from this treason."

This song has a simple melody and is less produced than most of the other tracks on the album. Here, Buckingham lets his vocals take the center stage and conveys a great deal of hurt and hope. He effectively uses true background vocals (i.e., they are way in the background) on the indelible chorus. Yet another instant classic.

Musically, this is superior pop music. The lyrics are not always up to that standard, but they are, at a minimum, effective. This very well might be Buckingham’s best solo record to date.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Pas/Cal -- I Was Raised on Matthew, Mark, Luke & Laura (2008)

Pas/Cal -- I Was Raised On Matthew, Mark, Luke & Laura (Le Grand Magestry)

I picked up this album after hearing my friend Dale say some nice things about one of Pas/Cal’s previous EPs. The band kicked out three EPs before taking time off to work on this album. I need to pick those up, though I can’t imagine how they could be better than this album.

Pas/Cal has come up with one of the most ambitious pop LPs since the Lilys’ The 3-Way. The center of Pas/Cal’s sound is the pastoral sounds of The Kinks during the Village Green phase and the androgynous sounds of T. Rex. Like the Lilys, Pas/Cal uses these fey and fun ‘60s sounds as a springboard to imaginative compositions that aren’t content with simple verse/chorus/verse structures.

Of course, this also means that Pas/Cal also has something in common with ‘70s pop bands that tried to keep things memorable and melodic, while not just pounding home the hooks. Bands like 10CC, Split Enz, and Sparks, just to name a view.

The challenge when you are trying to be pop and yet not pop is to keep the songs from spinning out of control into either boredom or excessive preciousness. Perhaps Pas/Cal verges on the latter, but the twists and turns on these songs overcome that, in my book.

"Dearest Bernard Living" is just one example of the journeys that occur on this album. It starts with CSMR singing over chamberlin strings, with drums and more vocals coming in on the second verse. The song then goes from the stately verse melody to a jaunty Turtles-like interlude, with cool electric piano accompaniment. The song then twists into a brief bossa nova inflected section -- bossa nova with harsh guitar chords. Then it’s back to the original melody for a verse. As that winds down, Lauren Semivan’s violin moves the song into an upbeat resolution. And that’s just one track.

One of the band’s strengths is the immediacy of the melodies. As a result, whether it’s a sudden upturn or downturn in the melody or a tempo change, the songs always have an appeal that makes it worth repeat plays to grasp everything going on. On "You Were Too Old For Me", the band throws in about as many changes and different parts as "Bernard Living". The band wisely makes sure that the main melody keeps coming back (kind of like a great long free jazz piece), and then adds a couple hooky parts, which keep things from ever growing stagnant.

Not every song is a musical equivalent of San Francisco’s Lombard Street. If you want to hear Pas/Cal at its most straightforward, move on to "Summer Is Almost Here". The song pretty much works the same melody and chords, though playing out almost every variation possible on this pretty basic scheme. Likewise, the lyrics are full of offbeat observations like: "Now I could live with radiation/but the fashion of the season/is to expose one’s soul through their clothes."
The glam aspect that I mentioned comes through on the wonderful "O Honey We’re Ridiculous". On this song, drummer LTD gets to lay down a fairly steady beat. Of course, Pas/Cal does not settle for pure simplicity, adding flourishes and tricks throughout. Still, this is as ‘primitive’ as the band gets, with bass, drums, keyboards and plenty of guitars.

Towards the end of the disc, Pas/Cal links together three compositions on "Suite Cherry". The three songs are linked together by lyrics and mood. "Cherry Needs a Name" begins the proceedings, with lovely vocals and spacey moog sounds (‘spacey moog’ is redundant, I suppose). The suite moves from arty soft pop to the shuffling sounds of "Cherry Tree", with Naud (yes, these folks all use stage names) singing with a clear vocal tone. This song sounds like a homage to Love, The Millenium and other soft poppers from the ‘60s. This brief ditty sets up the climax, "O My Cherry".

This paean to Cherry celebrates her imperfections, which are numerous ("a tripped up stutter," "not well-read or informed," and "rheumatic" -- what’s not to love?). When Cherry responds to CSMR’s unique manner of winning her over, noting that she’s now 33 years old, he responds, "But even Christ got hung up on the early thirty blues/Yes even Christ!/O Jesus Christ’s got nothing on you..." Who wouldn’t fall for a line like that?

This album continues to reward further listening. Indeed, I’ve been wanting to review this for a month or so, and I keep hearing new things. This is simply one of the best albums of 2008.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The New Duncan Imperials -- End Of Phase One (2008)

The New Duncan Imperials -- End of Phase One (Pravda)

This veteran Chicago trio has been a mainstay of the Chicago rock club scene for years. They might not play out as much as they used to, but the Imperials are always a party waiting to happen.

The band’s first foray into the studio in eight years finds the Imperials sounding fresh and excited. The basic recipe is amped up rock with a sloppy punky vibe a la The Replacements, The Dogmatics, The Smugglers and The Service, the Dekalb, Illinois band that featured some members of The Imperials.

The band gets into it right away on "High School Soul". While there’s a sloppy punky vibe, there’s also some trad hard rock moves going on here. On this track, the verses are built on quick sharp guitar chord slams -- this has worked for everyone from AC/DC to Webb Wilder -- followed by a really driving chorus, augmented by Paul Mertens, the "one man horn section." Pigtail sings in an accusatory fashion, detailing the crimes of an immature rocker: "You left the stage a mess/you left the amps on." Yes, this is serious business.

The band continues in this fashion, with a lyrical nod to Cheap Trick, on "I Love You Honey But I Hate Your Band." Insistent riffing and drums that push the song along at a brisk pace keep this rock and roll nag from being whiny. Instead, it’s cocky and brash -- can Pigtail separate the girl he loves from her "shitty band?"

The band has a softer side. One might even say tender. You can hear a very Westerburg-ish thang going on with "Nothing to Do". This is a pithy little ditty, with a jazzy guitar and a happy melody. Pigtail may not be the greatest singer, but he shows that he can be as sincere as he can be snotty.

The band goes a step farther on "What Do People Like?", adding a country vibe. Brian Wilkie guests on the weepy steel guitar. This isn’t one of the stronger tunes on the album, but it’s a nice change of pace.

But the bread-and-butter of this band is high octane burners like "(I Never Got Anything) Off of You" and wry humor, well displayed on the mid-tempo "Land of the Eligible Bachelors". The New Duncan Imperials have done themselves proud with this album. They aren’t trendy, but they are fun, and fun always trumps trendy.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Chuck Klosterman -- Downtown Owl (2008)

Chuck Klosterman -- Downtown Owl (Scribner)

Because rock and roll weaves in and out of this book, I suppose Downtown Owl might be referred to as a rock and roll novel. Especially since the book is written by the renowned Spin Magazine writer who first gained attention with his thoughtful take on growing up a heavy metal fan in a small town in the ‘80s, Fargo Rock City. But, like a lot of Klosterman's writing, there's more to it than that.

Since his debut publication, Chuck Klosterman has revealed himself to be a witty and astute social commentator. As first established in Sex, Drugs, And Cocoa Puffs, Klosterman writes about pop culture like nobody else. Klosterman is fascinated by how the things we absorb from the media impact our behavior and what that says about us.

Klosterman has developed a very specific writing style, heavy on parentheticals. His prose is instantly identifiable. And, as other reviewers have noted, Klosterman hasn't figured out a way to craft dialogue that is different than his prose style. Many of the characters in the book speak just like Klosterman. This is only a minor problem, in the scheme of things.

This doesn't impact the book too negatively, because Klosterman succeeds in creating an interesting and real small town milieu. Of course, it would be a great failure if he couldn't replicate a town like the one he grew up in.

In Owl, some folks live a mile or two away from their nearest neighbor. Gossip gets around town almost instantaneously, without the aid of the Internet (the book is set in the early '80s, so word of mouth is still the prime form of communication). Pop culture reaches this tiny North Dakota town, but it doesn't saturate it. Since the Owl movie theater closed, the main action for anyone over the age of 18 is one of the few bars strewn around the town. If you're in high school, your best bet is getting in your car and driving around and around and around the main drag. This last part is so true -- I remember a couple of summers in Crossville, Tennessee where the Main Street circle was about all teens had to do.

Klosterman focuses on three characters -- Mitch, a thoughtful high school student and not so successful jock, Julia, a 23-year-old Milwaukeean whose first teaching job is at Owl High, and Horace, a retired long time widower whose life revolves around b.s. sessions at a downtown diner. Each chapter is devoted to one of the characters. To an extent, the novel is three concurrent character studies.

This method works well for Klosterman. The common thread in these three characters is that they are fairly smart but directionless. Mitch fits in well enough with his peers, yet there's a distance between Mitch and his classmates as he seems to be (internally) questioning why things are the way they are with a greater degree of rigor. Julia took the teaching job in Owl because there weren't many other opportunities coming her way. She become pals with a fellow teacher and they rotate between the town bars, while Julia gets special attention as THE single girl in town. And Horace has settled into a comfortable existence of little excitement but utter contentment, with one secret gnawing inside him.

By not having a traditional plot driven narrative, Klosterman can go wherever his inspiration takes him. So there are odd stories, thoughtful conversations and clever detours from literary technique. For example, in one chapter set in a classroom, Klosterman looks into what each student is thinking while a teacher natters on about George Orwell's 1984. In the single funniest chapter, Klosterman breaks down a three-minute conversation between Julia and her sort of love interest, the laconic Vance Druid. After each bit of dialogue, Klosterman follows with "What she meant," "What he meant," "What she hoped to imply," "What he believed," and so on. The chapter has great insight into how men and women think, and how we sabotage ourselves with the inability to be direct.

While there is no plot per se in this novel, there is one plot point, a massive blizzard that comes with no warning whatsoever. Klosterman has always been interested in why people make the choices they do, and here, confronted with a weather disaster, Mitch, Julia and Horace each have to make the right choice or suffer. Or make the right choice and suffer.

Overall, this is a very enjoyable novel, though Klosterman's inability to find a voice other than his own for his characters is a limitation that he needs to overcome to grow as a fiction writer. But check this sample out:

"I need to change my ways," said Julia. "I can't keep doing these things. I can't keep living like this." Like all self-destructive creatures, she completely meant these words, but only while she spoke them.

As long as Klosterman can keep coming up with observations like that (and there are plenty more where that came from), I'll keep coming back for more.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Brian Wilson -- That Lucky Old Sun (2008)

Brian Wilson -- That Lucky Old Sun (Capitol)

The latest Brian Wilson album is his most ambitious solo project yet. It’s pretty apparent that getting the Smile monkey off his back has him feeling really good. Perhaps it’s better than he’s ever felt before.

So he’s off and running with a new song cycle, with Mr. Song Cycle himself, Van Dyke Parks providing some contributions with some narrative links between the songs. But the main collaborator on this album is Scott Bennett. Bennett is a Chicago area musician who met Wilson during the days of the Imagination LP, when Brian lived in St. Charles, Illinois.

Bennett had his own band back in the ‘80s. I once saw them do a version of Elvis Costello’s "Pump It Up" that was laughably bad, in a Holiday Inn lounge sort of way. Which isn’t to say Bennett has no talent, but a rocker he ain’t.

And he’s no Eugene Landy, either. Remember how Dr. Landy took co-writing credits on all of the songs on Wilson’s first solo album? And how that album is still Wilson’s best solo disc of original tunes? Maybe Landy should have helped on this. (NOTE: If my memory serves me, subsequent litigation led to Landy’s name being removed from the credits).

Wait, that makes it sound like this isn’t a good album. It sure sounds good. The Brian Wilson Band, with all of those Wondermints, and Jeffrey Foskett, among others, are ace as usual. No complaints about the playing or singing.

But the songs are, for the most part, second rate. Most of them lack emotional resonance or any compositional inventiveness. For example, "Forever She’ll Be My Surfer Girl" is an adequate composition that is slightly evocative of the great Beach Boys songs of the past. But the melody is pretty average and it’s only saved by the performances.

I feel pretty much the same about "Good Kind of Love", a pleasant trifle that barely sticks in the brain pan. I actually like the melody in the verse -- it has that first solo album feel. But the chorus is just alright. So it’s 67% good, I suppose. It just doesn’t pay off as well as it could.

Then there’s "Mexican Girl". The Latin flavor is swell, and a nice touch. But the lyrics, even by Brian Wilson’s standards are pretty dopey. Not racist, but when the song segueways into the narration, entitled "Cinco de Mayo", there’s a patronizing quality. I find that most of the narrative links are pretty disposable but not irritating, except for this one.

On "Oxygen to the Brain", the compositional ideas of "Vegetables" are revisited, not as successfully as on the original. The song even shares the idea of "Vegetables" -- clean living will get you far. Especially if you’re in California. There is one personal lyric that sneaks in: "How could I have got so low/I’m embarrassed to tell yo so/I laid around this old place/I hardly ever washed my face." I do think it’s cool that Brian has opened up a little.

With "Oxygen", the album takes a turn for the better and finishes strong. "Midnight’s Another Day" is cut from the same cloth as "Surf’s Up". Is it as good? No, but it works really well. This is the most emotionally connected song on the record, as the rich chords and Wilson’s best vocal come together for a top notch track.

This is followed by "Going Home", a silly R & B number that fits in with Brian circa 1967 through 1977. This is also a trifle, but it’s a really fun trifle.

The album concludes with "Southern California". While not a magical Brian Wilson composition, it has a great chorus and as Wilson looks back at California and how it inspired Brian and his fellow Beach Boys, his connection to the tune is unmistakable. It’s a lovely conclusion.

There is enough on this album to give one hope that Wilson has another terrific album in him. He is fully engaged in the material, and while he’s not the singer he was in the ‘60s, he knows how to sing, and his weathered voice still has an innocence and optimism that is perfect for his music. But Wilson needs a collaborator who can push him to his full remaining potential, and I don’t think Scott Bennett is that guy.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Reducers -- Guitar, Bass & Drums (2008)

The Reducers -- Guitar, Bass & Drums (Rave On)

The greatest bar band to come out of Connecticut in the ‘80s is the greatest bar band to come out of Connecticut now. More than two decades after The Reducers got some recognition for three splendid LPs in the mid-‘80s, the boys are older, but still boys. They are still firmly in the middle of the six-way intersection of pub, punk, and garage rock, and they still have it.

Of course, any Reducers album lives in the shadow of the mighty Let’s Go, where the band’s songwriting was as inspired as its balls-to-the-wall playing. It’s no shame that the band can’t top that minor classic. But on 1995’s Shinola, the songs were solid, but the proceedings had mellowed a bit.

Well fuck mellow. No, this isn’t unholy feedback and breakneck tempos. This is rock and roll, played by guys who love the music as much now as they did when they first got together. Maybe good old rock isn’t as dangerous as whatever genre is getting kids to cut themselves or read lots of Alastair Crowley. But when played with the right spirit, it radiates a ton of energy.

Just hear the passion of "Don’t Ya Wanna". This is true power pop. The song establishes the melody right away, with a thoroughly engaged lead vocal. When the band kicks in, the playing is muscular, but the boys make sure to keep the spotlight on the melody. This song is wistful and happy and has a great message -- go out and rock: "So don’t tell me that you’re busy/that you got other things to do/don’t tell me that you’re tired/hey, I work all day too/’cause there’s a band that’s playing somewhere/and that’s the place I’m gonna be." Yeah!

I’ve always liked the fact that The Reducers respect good old fashioned rock and roll and blues (like the band’s fabulous "Bums (I Used to Know)" from back in 1984). This comes through loud and clear on "Paranoid Blues". This song has a swinging beat with a classic chord structure and plenty of guitars.

All of the bases are covered. "Meltdown" is a sweet pop tune with a pub rock buzz. It’s the type of track that should have come out on the A-side of a Stiff Records 45 back in the day. The galloping "I Don’t Mind" is a somewhat garagey power jangle number that sounds like prime Hoodoo Gurus.

The best track on the disc unites The Reducers with Mark Mulcahy, the former leader of Miracle Legion, and a fellow Connecticut rocker. "My Problem" is one of those songs that instantly announces itself as a classic. Mulcahy’s hang dog vocals are perfect for this song of devotion, with a Big Star quality melody married to a solid R & B inspired foundation. This song would have sounded great in 1978, 1988 or 1998, and certainly does so now.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable disc from beginning to end. Long live The Reducers.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Epicycle -- Jingo Jangle (2008)

Epicycle -- Jingo Jangle (Cirkle)

The third album from this Chicago duo picks up where album number two left off. Epicycle is a band (actually, brothers Ellis and Tom Clark) that has a psych-pop center, but doesn’t limit itself to recreating 1967 in all of its glory. Yes, the ‘60s loom large in the band’s sound, but that’s just a jumping off point for a fun house ride through an array of melodies and hooks.

Let me put it another way -- amongst the special guests on this album are Chloe F. Orwell from the new-wave-a-licious Handcuffs and the Nilsson-a-riffic Kevin Tihista. Epicycle can reach out to those corners of the pop-rock spectrum too.

Especially the turf Tihista navigates. The final song on the disc, "You & Me", might be the best track overall and it has the same stately pop feel as the best of Mr. Tihista. The gentle strum of the guitar, the jaunty melody, the vulnerable lead vocal and the pretty piano backing all cohere to make for a winning track. And that’s all before the chorus kicks in. This is a superb slice of ‘70s styled pop.

The first song on the album also starts sweetly. But the electric guitars kick in, and "8-Track Mind" takes off. It’s a soaring power pop number that hints at the grandeur of Electric Light Orchestra and Doug Powell. The song takes a fond look at the past when big riffs and colossal melodies were teenage necessities.

Nostalgia rears its head again on "X-mas". As the title indicates, this is a look at how Christmas seemed when the Clarks’ were kids. They sing about happy memories and the punchy music perfectly matches the vibe of the words. It’s too bad the U.S. is not as keen on the holiday single as they are in the U.K., because this sounds like a holiday hit.

Goofy Britpop pastiche is the order of the day on "Girls Don’t Rule My World". Over a hopping piano part that sounds like it comes from an XTC or Beatles record, one of the Clarks growls in a low voice about how he’s finally figure out how to keep the ladies from controlling his mind. But as the chorus says: "that what I tell myself/even though I know it’s not true." To ram that point home, Chloe F. Orwell provides her patented sass to establish that "you know the girl rules."

Let me get back to that growling voice. Either Ellis or Tom Clark sings in this low, spooky register. It’s well suited to oddball psychedelic songs like "Anti-Disestablishment". On this song (which provides the album with its title), Eastern music influences mix with loud guitars and clever percussion and production. The music isn’t quite arty, but it’s not quite poppy either. The key is the Clarks don’t take it too seriously -- whatever heavy elements are in the song, they are used to set up all sorts of cleverness.

I hope this review has given you the impression that this isn’t a cookie cutter album. Epicycle has a few different musical targets and shoots at all of them on this album. It works because the Clarks know how to pen a strong song, and, as a result, they know how to mess around with song form.

After a promising first album and a good second effort, this third album represents one more step up. Epicycle has found its groove and it’s pretty groovy.