Tuned In To Music

Reflections from a lifetime

Review: Little Big Town, The Road to Here

Like most everybody, I love it when my basic beliefs are confirmed by experience.  I love it even more when confirming those beliefs show up my biases and prejudices as just what they are – worthless biases and prejudices.  I don’t much care for country music, in fact I’ve been known to get up and leave to avoid having to listen to it.  But I also believe that having an open mind and open ears is fundamentally important.  So, periodically I pick up a well-thought-of album in a genre I don’t typically enjoy and try and listen to it with open ears.  I heard a song by Little Big Town, liked it, looked into the band, found out they are marketed as a county band, and decided to test my open ears practice with their first album, The Road to Here.  Smart move.  Open ears are good, bias is not.

Little Big Town are four singer-songwriters Kimberly Schlapman, Karen Fairchild, Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook who do two things exceptionally well – write songs and sing them.

The first thing that will strike you when you hear The Road to Here are the vocals.  Each member of the group can sing, their voices work beautifully together, and The Road to Here is built from the ground up on their ensemble singing.  Little Big Town is vocal group first and a collection of individual singers second.  Moreover, they emphasize harmony vocal charts rather than unison singing (everybody sings the same note).  It’s hard to write a good song with a strong vocal lead.  It’s a lot harder to write a song with four intertwining vocal parts.  Little Big Town hit it time and time again.  “Boondocks” has the kind of lyrics that embarrass sophisticates who turn their nose up at this kind of music but the vocal harmonies are so exquisite and the hooks are so strong that the song is irresistible.  And if that isn’t enough they sing a break down and then launch into a four way round for the out choruses.  “A Little More You” has what first appears to be a standard lead vocal playing off a choral background until the chorus turns the word “you” into an eight note riff every fourth measure.  It’s a jaw-dropper.

Little Big Town’s exceptional vocal skills are matched by their songwriting.  Not only can they write killer quartet vocal charts they have a pronounced ability to fit the words to the rhythm and melody lines.  They know when to stretch a word and when to hit it short and sharp so that melody, rhythm and lyrics come across as a smooth and seamless whole.  When this is done well the result sounds effortlessly natural and deceptively simple.  It’s not.

If I have one complaint about The Road to Here it lies in the way the album was mixed.  With one exception, the vocals on all of the tracks on the album are mixed tight.  This strategy works because the voices are so tightly meshed.  However one track, “Bones”, was mixed by a different engineer and he used closer miking and gave each individual vocal more space in the mix.  The exceptional communication these four singers have with each other isn’t lost but the individual harmony parts are sharpened.  It’s a small thing but I would have enjoyed hearing more of the album mixed this way.

Before the internet allowed bands with little experience actually playing together to become overnight sensations, first albums were often career highlights because the band had perfected the songs through long practice and many live performances.  The Road to Here has this sound of songs that have been refined and buffed to perfection.  If you like vocal harmony, listen to this album.  It’s terrific.  Recommended.

“Bones”

“A Little More You”

“Boondocks”

10/18/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Todd Terje, Remaster of the Universe

The Norwegian trio of Todd Terje, Prins Thomas and Hans-Peter Lindstrom spearheaded the Nu-Disco, Space Disco or Nu-Balearic (the music went by lots of names) movement.  Remaster of the Universe is Terje’s summation of his work in that genre.  It’s a two disc collection that includes a 17-track mix by Terje on the first disc and an unmixed compilation of 9 of his remixes on the second disc.

The press release for Remaster of the Universe indicated that the collection is intended as Terje’s farewell to the world of remixing and that now he is going to “heal the world with proper self-composed music”.  Wow.  “Heal the world”?  “Remaster of the universe”?  Sounds like Terje has an immensely inflated opinion of himself that’s out of all proportion with his actual abilities.  He’s good, but he’s not anywhere near as good as he apparently thinks he is.

Terje’s mix on CD 1 is composed almost entirely of his own remixes.  It’s a decent mix that’s certainly worth a listen or four but it isn’t in the same league as the DJs who do this kind of thing for a living.  The meat of Remaster of the Universe is the compilation of Terje’s remixes on the second disc.  On the basis of what he gives us here, Terje doesn’t have the musical depth of Lindstrom nor the timbral breadth of Prins Thomas but within his narrower range of ability he produces first-rate remixes.  Almost every track on the disc is a winner and more than a few are recognized as classics of the genre.

Listeners who like space disco/nu Balearic/nu disco or the music of Lindstrom or Prins Thomas will almost certainly enjoy Remaster of the Universe.  If you’re unfamilair with these names or genre labels but like music that rides a compelling groove into laid-back bliss, check Remaster of the Universe out.

Terje’s remix of Rogue Cat’s “Magic Journey”

09/01/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Walter Gibbons, Jungle Music

In the world of dance music, Walter Gibbons’ reputation is an all or none kind of thing:  People either revere him as an immensely talented and creative pioneer of both live turntable-based mixing and studio remixing or they’ve never heard of him.  I’m guessing most people fall into the latter group which is a shame because the people in the former group have it right.  Walter Gibbons was a monster.

Gibbons became widely known in the very early days of the underground dance scene in New York when he became one of the regular DJs at Galaxy 21.  He was exceptional at extending breaks and beat matching records and could handle the turntables with a precision that rivaled Grandmaster Flash.  Galaxy 21 was an after-hours joint and Gibbons became the DJ the other DJs went to see when their gigs ended.

Ken Cayre, one of the owners of the foundational disco label Salsoul Records, heard Gibbons mix two recordings of Double Exposure’s “Ten Percent” during one of Gibbons’ sets and asked him if he could do the same thing in the studio.  Gibbins said no problem and Cayre asked him to make a remix for Salsoul.  Cayre gave Gibbons three hours in the studio to do it.  In those three hours Gibbons extended the album version of the song by almost three minutes and gave Salsoul a remix that outsold the original by two to one and was widely seen as opening record company eyes to the fact that remixes could provide a lucrative revenue stream.

As Gibbons’ life as a studio remixer grew, his career as a live DJ waned.  His career in the studio would soon follow.  A good deal of his professional downslide was due to Gibbons’ personality and his approach to music.  Gibbons was a creative and original artist who focused on the quality of the music he was making to the exclusion of what anyone else wanted to hear.  As a result, he was often way out in front of the curve making music that many in the dance audience weren’t ready to listen to.  “Set it Off”, the first release from a label Gibbons partially owned, is a good example.  It combined elements of early hip-hop and contemporary dance music in ways neither audience was prepared for.  When first played in clubs it would clear the dance floor.  However, DJs who heard the value of the track made it a regular part of their mix and audiences came to demand it once they became familiar with it.

Gibbons was an intensely focused man and when his interest in the Bible and Christianity turned to zealotry, he became very difficult to work with in the studio.  He refused to work on songs that contained lyrics that he didn’t find uplifting or that celebrated what he saw as the degrading and promiscuous side of homosexuality.  He was intolerant of other’s views and given to delivering sermons in the studio.  Working with him became more trouble than it was worth.  Gibbons spent the last weeks of his life living in a YMCA in New York.  He died of complications from AIDS in 1994.  He was 38.

The core of Gibbons’ musical talent lay in his exquisite understanding of and appreciation for rhythm and percussion.  That talent is on display throughout the 14 tracks on Jungle Music‘s 2 discs.  The first disc focuses on his early mixes for labels like Salsoul and includes remixes of tracks by Gladys Knight, the Salsoul Orchestra and Bettiye Lavette among others.  Some of this material may sound like standard disco remix fare until you realize that when Gibbons built these tracks, there was no standard disco fare.  He was making the mold that so many others would use.

The second disc focuses on his later remixes and it is easy to hear how unique Gibbons was and how far beyond most of his contemporaries he had moved.  It’s no accident that two of the remixes on disc two were done for Arthur Russell, another recently rediscovered giant of the early underground music scene.  Some of  Gibbons’ remixes wouldn’t sound out of place today.

Gibbons has been criminally neglected in terms of making his music available for current audiences.  Jungle Music stands as the exception.  The collection includes two discs of high-quality remixes coupled with a booklet with an extensive essay about Gibbons written by Tim Lawrence the author of the superb Love Saves the Day.  Jungle Music may be hard to find but if you like highly creative, rhythmic dance music or if you have an interest in the pioneers of underground dance music or DJ studio remixing, grab a copy while you can.  There is some exceptionally good music here.

Gibbons’ 12″ mix of Strafe’s “Set It Off”

08/30/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , | 1 Comment

Review: Various Artists, Ministry of Sound The Annual 2010

Like many other label/club/brands Ministry of Sound puts out a yearly compilation of dance music.  Unlike other dance music conglomerates they put out different versions of the Annual in different countries.  I’ve seen UK, US, Australian and German versions. I’m guessing they are attempting to pitch each collection at what they perceive to be the differing tastes of  dance music fans in each country.  With that thought in mind I picked up the German version because I thought Germany’s preeminence in the world of electronic dance music ought to result in a compilation aimed at a knowledgeable and discerning audience.  In other words, I expected the German Annual to be the most interesting of the three.  It is also three CDs while the others I saw are two.

The discs are mixed but little real thought or effort has gone into sequencing.  It’s basically just one beat-matched song after another without a break between tracks.  If you know someone who thinks big-name DJ mix CDs are just some guy playing a bunch of songs, play your favorite DJ mix CD for them and then any of the three discs in the German Annual.  The contribution of a good DJ should be obvious pretty quickly.

If this is Ministry of Sound’s idea of the kind of music their most sophisticated audience is tuned in to, I think I’d best avoid the compilations from other countries.  The German version of the Annual is basically three discs of bangin’ club music with a fairly strong emphasis on vocal content.  Much of it is cliche-ridden and fairly unimaginative.  One the one hand, with three discs there’s a lot of music here.  On the other hand, it gets old fast and you’ve still got the rest of disc 1 plus all of discs 2 and 3 to go.

08/17/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Review: Crowded House, Intriguer

It’s interesting to watch what happens with popular musicians as they age.  Some disappear after their time of stardom and then reappear and do dinosaur tours when their demographic hits the nostalgia stage (any number of hair metal bands).  Some stay in the spotlight ridiculously pretending they’re still 20 years old (Mick Jagger).  Some come out of retirement and humiliate themselves with embarrassing Super Bowl shows that are all about the money-grab (The Who).  And some, like Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and many jazz musicians, continue to make vibrant music that grows increasingly rich and deep with age.  Neil Finn and Crowded House fall into this last group.

At one time it didn’t look like it would turn out this way.  Crowded House officially ended their career with an extraordinary live concert at Sydney’s Opera House in 1996 which is captured on the terrific live album Farewell to the World which was also separately released as a DVD.  Nine years later Paul Hester, the band’s drummer,  took his own life after years of battling depression.  In 2007 a new album, Time on Earth, was released under the Crowded House name.  The newly formulated group combined original members Neil Finn (guitars, piano, vocals), Mark Hart (guitars, keyboards, vocals), and Nick Seymour (bass, vocals) with Matt Sherrod (drums, vocals).  Most of the tracks on Time on Earth were originally intended for a Neil Finn solo CD and the album was drenched in Finn and the surviving band members coming to grips with the loss of Hester.  It could easily have been the final goodbye.

But it wasn’t.  Intriguer is a full blown Crowded House album made by a complete band making their own music and it’s very, very good.  Crowded House were always known for Finn’s exceptional song-writing skills.  The good news is that he hasn’t lost any of it.  The better news is that his personal maturity has produced lyrical maturity rather than desperate grasping for youth.  Finn’s songs are matched every step of the way by the band’s musicianship and elegant vocal work.  As a quartet, Crowded House play and sing together like the consummate professionals they are.  No grand standing, no ego trips, just well-crafted songs beautifully played and sang.

Intriguer comes with a DVD that contains a video for “Saturday Sun”, 8 tracks recorded more or less live (it looks like different takes were expertly combined) at the band’s studio in New Zealand, and two tracks recorded live at the Auckland Townhall which contains an amazing pipe organ.  The version of “Don’t Dream It’s Over” at the Townhall is not to be missed.

When I saw that Crowded House had a new release scheduled for July I was both excited and worried.  Excited because I really like the band; worried because so many bands come back with shitty albums hoping to suck cash out of the accounts of fans who want to pretend they’re still as cool as they think they were back in the day.  When I first heard Intriguer it sounded good but first impressions of CDs can, and often do, change.  They changed for Intriguer – after many listens I like it more than I did at the start.  It’s a grower.  If you’re new to Crowded House, Intriguer is as good a place to start as any. Long time fans of the band are going to thoroughly enjoy this album.  The band they loved is back and just as good, if not better, than ever.  Crowded House isn’t trying to recapture the past, they’re playing music that lives and breathes right here, right now.

Picking a couple of songs from Intriguer is impossible.  Here are two, it could have easily been any one of a half-dozed others.

“Twice if You’re Lucky”

“Elephants”


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08/15/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: A-Trak, Infinity+1

The next time somebody says “Young people nowadays are just a bunch of self-entitled do-nothings that think they don’t have to work at anything while everything should be given to them” point them toward A-Trak.  Born in 1982, the kid won an international DJ competition at 15.  He’s the only person to have won 5 DJ World Championships.  While still a teenager he developed a notation system for scratching.  At age 22 he joined Kanye West as West’s live performance DJ.  He has done production work for Lupe Fiasco among others.  In the spring of this year he released two DJ mix CDs, both different and both good.

One of those mixes, Fabriclive 45, was so hot it took over my computer while I was trying to write a review.  Infinity+1 isn’t as hot as Fabriclive 45 but it’s still good.  Both mixes illustrate  A-Trak’s familiarity with the worlds of hip-hop and club-oriented dance music.  Of the two, Infinity+1 is the more hip-hop influenced while Fabriclive 45 is more of a straight-up club mix.  The generally more sedate tempos of hip-hop may be the reason why Infinity+1 comes across as the less driving of the two mixes. Infinity+1 is also the more consistent mix as it lacks the buzz-kill track that brings Fabriclive 45 to its knees part way through the set.

The only point of connection between the two mixes is A-Traks inclusion of his own “Say Whoa” on both sets.  ZZ opens with A-Trak’s version while Infinity+1 includes a remix by DJ Spinna.  It takes a good degree of confidence to take the chance that somebody might show you up with a remix of one of your own tracks.  Especially somebody who can bring it like DJ Spinna.  No worries.  Both versions work on their own terms.

The closely timed releases of Infinity+1 and Fabriclive 45 highlight how well A-Trak operates with both hip-hop and house music.  Very few DJs could have pulled this off as well as A-Trak has.  The two sets also illustrate how adept he is at drawing smooth connections between the two types of music.  A-Trak also shows a remarkable subtlety of touch in bridging to dance music from a predominantly hip-hop base on Infinity+1 while doing precisely the opposite on Fabriclive 45.

Both Fabriclive 45 and Infinity+1 are more than worth a listen.  If you tend more toward dance music, start with Fabriclive 45; more toward hip-hop, start with Infinity+1.  In either case each mix can open the ears of listeners who enjoy one kind of music to the pleasures of a different kind of music and that is a noteworthy achievement in and of itself.

DJ Spinna’s remix of A-Trak’s “Say Whoa”, compare with A-Trak’s own version from Fabriclive 45

A-Trak’s remix of MSTRCRFT (Feat. N.O.R.E.)’s “Bounce”

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08/08/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Speaking in Code

Suppose you were married and one of you was a documentary filmmaker while the other was really into electronic dance music. You decided to combine your interests and make a documentary about the music. You then lined up an impressive list of people who agreed to participate in the film including DJs and producers Modeselektor and the Wighnomy Brothers, DJ, producer and founder and owner of the BPitch record label Ellen Allien, producer, co-founder and owner of the highly respected Kompakt record label Wolfgang Voigt, and Robert Henke aka Monolake, co-founder of Ableton, and co-designer of the original Ableton Live.

With these people on board, think of the documentary you could make about electronic dance music! You could focus on the music itself, or the technology used to make the music, or the business of making, playing and selling the music. Amy Grill, the film maker who made Speaking in Code, didn’t do any of these things. You first get an idea that Speaking in Code might turn out to be a great opportunity wasted very early in the film when Grill’s voice over tells you that she decided not to focus on the music but on the people. Okay, so you make a documentary that focuses on what life in the electronic dance world is like for the people who produce and play the music. Grill didn’t really make that film either. Instead she made a documentary that is largely about . . . Amy Grill and her then-husband David Day.

Speaking in Code is almost literally a pointless film. There’s no unifying idea that structures the documentary. It’s as if they had the idea to make a documentary about electronic dance music and that’s as far as they got. They spent a lot of money (Speaking in Code has many, many segments of Day (the husband) whining about the state of their finances), shot a lot of aimless film, and ended up with, well, a lot of aimless film. With no coherent ideas about the music, the production of the music or the business of the music to give their footage some structure they decided to make it about “the people” and the people they decided to make it about was themselves.

All of the people mentioned in the first paragraph above do appear in Speaking in Code but very little of interest is done with them. For example, in addition to interviews with Wolfgang Voigt it looks like the film makers were given fairly good access to the people and the business of at Kompakt Records. What we get in the film is someone leading Day through the Kompakt record store saying “This is the section devoted to X type of music and that is the section devoted to Y type of music” while Day looking awestruck says things like “Wow! This is the greatest record store in the world!”   That’s about as deep as the insight and analysis of the subject matter gets.

As far as what life in the electronic dance music world is like we get the camera following someone around who is saying things like “This is the room where I made this track” and “This is the new urinal we have in the bathroom” (I’m not making this up). We get a lot of “we’re all one big happy family” accompanied by film of the big happy family eating together. And so on.  It’s almost as if for all that they’ve immersed themselves in the world of dance music, the film makers really don’t know, or don’t want to know, very much about it.  It’s all “here we are with this famous DJ”, and “here we are in this famous DJs toilet” and “here we are in this really cool record store”, and “here I am on the plane flying to Europe to go clubbing (again . . and again . . . and . . .).

The film includes a segment of Robert Henke opening what appears to be a version of Henke’s Monodeck, a sophisticated midi-controller for live performance that looks like it might have been a prototype of Akai’s APC40 controller for Ableton Live. Henke is clearly excited about the arrival of the Monodeck yet Grill doesn’t ask him what it is, what it does or why he’s excited about it. She basically ignores it. A bonus feature extended interview with Wolfgang Voigt has him happy and interested to talk about electronic dance music in general, how it has developed over time, and how he sees Kompakt fitting into the larger electronic music picture. From this short segment you can see that you could have made an interesting documentary built around Voigt and Kompakt alone. Grill didn’t even include it in the film. One of the things Voigt talks about is the limitation on roles for women in the electronic dance music business. Grill conducts several interviews with one of those women, Ellen Allien, but doesn’t ask her anything about this.

Instead of anything that might be of interest to people who are interested in electronic dance music we get more and more focus on Grill and Day as the film goes on. More interview time is given to Day than to anyone else in the film – or maybe it just seems that way because his role in Speaking in Code is more about relationship drama than about music.  Even when other people are allowed to speak, Grill’s documentary voice over tends to be about what it all means for her and for her deteriorating relationship with her husband. Okay, if the film is going to be fundamentally about Grill and Day’s relationship, is there something especially interesting about the end of their marriage as documented in Speaking in Code? Not really. From what we see in the film it looks like they went through what very commonly happens when people get involved in a serious relationship when they are fairly young and fairly inexperienced in making a life with another, grow apart, find themselves unable or unwilling to make the adjustments and commitments necessary to come back together and deepen the relationship to a new level, and split up. While these events are of profound importance for the two people involved, they are also a common and unexceptional learning experience that many people have undergone for themselves.  Perhaps a suitable subject for a scripted film but this is supposed to be a documentary about electronic dance music.

Speaking in Code comes across as the kind of film you get when a Facebook-addicted, it’s-all-about-me kind of person makes a documentary. If you get a voyeuristic thrill out of watching the sad decline and dissolution of a marriage, Speaking in Code might get you off. If you’re interested in electronic dance music, be forewarned.  If Speaking in Code had been made with an idea about some aspect of  electronic dance music that could have given the film structure and coherence, it could have been a very interesting documentary.  But it wasn’t, and it isn’t.
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08/06/2010 Posted by | DVD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: James Holden, DJ-Kicks

James Holden insists that his recent entry in the DJ-Kicks series is dance music.  That it may be, but it doesn’t sound like a typical DJ mix designed for club play.  In fact, it doesn’t sound very much like anything else in the common genres of dance music.  Holden appears to be thinking well outside the club on his DJ-Kicks.  He’s on the path of realizing some of the immense potential of rhythmically-oriented electronic music but I wouldn’t be surprised if hard-core dance fans don’t care for the album.

Holden’s DJ-Kicks is propulsively rhythmic although he’s working with a pulse more than with a beat.  The rhythms are straightforward but it’s not the simple 4/4 that drives most House music.  He also makes frequent use of atonality, discord and occasional noise elements in his mix.  However, Holden does this in an exquisitely musical way.  This is not at all easy to do and Holden pulls it off both consistently and well.

Of all the DJ mixes I’ve reviewed here in the past several months (along with the ones we’ve listened to at home that haven’t gotten reviewed) I can’t think of one that holds together as a single coherent body of music as well as Holden’s DJ-Kicks.  Its rolling rhythms give it a beating heart, its steady underlying pulse gives it breath, and its atonality and discord give it emotion felt but not fully understood.  It’s like some great beast whose life you share for a time.

Needless to say, I like this album very much.  However, my enjoyment may be affected by the other kinds of music I listen to.  I’ve spent a lot of time listening to, learning about, and developing an enjoyment of adventuresome forms of jazz – the kind of music that caused Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch to piss themselves in outrage and panic back in the day.  Some of this music can be highly atonal, discordant and arrhythmic.  Taken in that context, the discord and atonality of Holden’s DJ-Kicks sound tame.  Listeners who are less familiar with this type of music may find it less enjoyable.

Holden’s DJ-Kicks is not a typical club-oriented dance mix and if that’s what you’re looking for, this isn’t the album you want.  If you’re looking for something different in the world of rhythmic electronic music, DJ-Kicks might be just the thing.  Holden’s deeply musical use of atonality and discord greatly enrich his mix as well as providing a excellent means of entry into a different musical world for listeners who are looking to expand their horizons.

A segment from James Holden’s DJ-Kicks.  The fade at the end does not appear in the original.

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08/05/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Moby Grape, Live

If you’re reading this review, I expect you already know about Moby Grape.  To make a long story short, the Grape, one of the most promising bands to emerge from San Francisco in the mid to late 1960s were beset from the git-go by extraordinary bad luck and poor management choices and they fell into obscurity even though their self-titled debut album is one of the most extraordinary first (or second or third or . . .) albums ever released.  In 2006 they won a decades long legal fight with their original manager which allowed them to use and release recordings under their own name.  Sundazed records immediately began releasing Moby Grape material.  Live is the first “official” live album from the band – released 44 years after they formed in 1966.

If Moby Grape is a new band for you, their first album, Moby Grape, would be a much better place to start.  Fans of the band will almost certainly enjoy Live as long as they understand what they are getting.  The album collects 7 tracks recorded at San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom in 1967, another track recorded at an unspecified location in SF in ’67, the band’s complete performance at the ’67 Monterey Pop Festival (none of which was included in the film), a 5-song Dutch radio broadcast from 1969, and “Dark Magic” a 17+ minute psychedelic jam recorded at the Avalon in 1966.  With the exception of the ’67 Avalon tracks, everything is in mono.  Skip Spence had fallen prey to mental illness and was no longer with the group at the time of the radio broadcast.

Recording quality varies from not-so-good to pretty-good.  Overall it’s better than you might expect.  At times you have to listen carefully to pull some of the instruments out of the murk but the effort is worth it.  You’re getting this album for the music, not the recording quality, and the music is there.

Live makes it abundantly clear that Moby Grape were the real deal.  Everything promised in that superb first album – the guitar interplay, the intricate vocals, the superior songwriting, all of it – was there in their live shows.  Fans who are very familiar with the songs on the first album will be delighted with the riffs played on well-known musical and vocal passages and it becomes apparent that the versions of these songs immortalized on the album were just the versions they happened to play that day in the studio.

Moby Grape were introduced as a band that played carefully crafted and intensively practiced songs.  Their guitars and vocals would have been outstanding on their own but it was the use of those elements in their markedly original songs that made Moby Grape a legend.  The Grape were a band that worked the short form in a time and place where their contemporaries were given to extended jamming.  Seen in this context, the 17+ minute “Dark Magic” is a revelation.  The Grape were also highly accomplished as a jamming band.

Oh, what might have been.  “Monterey Pop”, the film that introduced Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Otis Redding to a much wider audience, might have done the same thing for Moby Grape.  Instead, the manager they fought (and continue to fight) in court for almost 50 years demanded ridiculous amounts of money for the Grape’s performance and film rights.   The band were stuck with this guy but the festival organizers and the film’s producers were not.  Moby Grape was originally scheduled to go on stage right before Otis Redding on Saturday night.  Thanks to their manager they were slotted in as the opening act on Friday night when the venue was half empty and left completely out of the film.  What should have been a story of widespread recognition and professional success became a story of lost opportunities, sadness and despair.  Now, thanks to Sundazed Records and a court system that finally figured it ouy, we have the chance to hear what we should have heard decades ago and the music is just as thrilling now as it was then.

“Omaha” recorded live at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival

“Murder in My Heart for the Judge” (sans Skip Spence) recorded for a Dutch radio broadcast in 1969


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07/30/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Widespread Panic, Driving Songs Vol. 2

While listening to Widespread Panic’s most recent album, Dirty Side Down, I was exploring the web to see what the band was up to and found an interesting add-on to their website.  Throughout their history the Panic have encouraged fans to record their shows and share them any way they wanted.  No restrictions, no demands that they get paid.  Like any professional band, Widespread Panic records their own shows from the main sound board and now they are making their own recordings available for purchase.

The band has set up a website where you can buy recordings of their shows.  It looks like they have every show they’ve done since 2005 up on the site.  There are also selected older shows, package deals that combine several shows performed on successive nights at one venue, multi-CD sets of selected songs from a particular tour, and various other kinds of packages and combinations.  The shows and packages are available in MP3 and FLAC for download, or you can buy them on CDs.  There is also a CD + MP3 option.

There are hundreds of shows and/or packages and combos available on the site.  Unless you want to buy a show you were at or are an obsessive fan fixated on the band who has to have all of their shows, there are too many choices.  How do you decide which show to pick when there are hundreds available?  There is a recommended shows feature on the site but it looks like it’s fed randomly from a pool of shows and you have no idea why any given show is recommended.  There are also fan comments on each show but these are generally useless because they tend to be ecstatic in one way or another.

The band provides a solution to this problem with collections called Driving Songs.  Each volume of Driving Songs contains a selection of songs from one tour chosen and mixed by the Front of the House engineer Chris Rabold.  There are seven volumes covering tours from summer 2007 to spring 2010.  Choosing from seven is a lot easier than choosing from hundreds.  I picked Vol. 2 from Fall 2007 mainly because it looked like the largest of the Driving Songs sets – it comes on four CDs –  and downloaded it in FLAC format.

Is it any good?  Are you kidding?  The sound engineer’s pick of tracks from a jam band that makes it’s living based on its live shows?  Driving Songs Vol 2 ought to come with a warning label.  When Widespread Panic catch fire – and they catch fire on almost every track in the compilation – they can burn your house down if you’re not careful.  Singing in  key can be a struggle at times and if off-key vocals are a special problem for you, approach with care.  There’s no problem with the playing, however, and more often than not Panic tears the place up.  Jam bands are infamous for aimless noodling while they try and find someplace to go or something to do but Panic largely avoids this problem on Driving Songs Vol 2.  The guitar work is usually intense and focused with structured solos and some mind-blowing interplay.  The band is also capable of playing in a variety of styles, not only by playing different types of songs but in the style of guitar playing chosen for a track.  For example, the guitar lead on “Machine” sounds like it came straight out of the Frank Zappa Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar songbook.  Good stuff.

Widespread Panic are known for the amazing covers they do in their live shows and there is a fine selection on Driving Songs Vol 2.  The compilation opens with Dr. John’s “I Walk on Gilded Splinters”.  Other covers include Traffic’s “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” and Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London”.  Although it will probably be taken as sacrilege by rabid Mettalica fans, the Panic also do a killer version of “Enter Sandman”.  This band has no fear when it comes to taking on anything at all that strikes their fancy and more often than not they pull it off.

If you’re a big fan of Widespread Panic and haven’t yet discovered the area of their website where they sell the recordings of their shows, you’re going to feel like you just died and went to heaven.  If you enjoy world-class jam band guitar rave ups Driving Songs Vol 2 is right up your alley.  Four CDs of this type of music is too much for me to listen to at one time; it all starts to sound the same after awhile.  But the quality across this compilation is so high you can pick it up anywhere, listen as long as you like, and be guaranteed to hear terrific music.  I expect it will take awhile to wear Driving Songs Vol 2 out but when we do, I’ll pick up another in the Driving Songs series without any hesitation whatsoever.

“Road to Damascus”

“Werewolves of London”


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07/29/2010 Posted by | music, music reviews | , , , , | 1 Comment

Review: Francois K, Choice – A Collection of Classics

For its Choice series, the Azuli label asked well-known DJs to put together a two disc set of tracks that are their personal favorites.  François K is a great choice for a series like this because he had one of the longest and most influential careers in music of any of the legendary DJs from the New York underground dance scene of the 1970’s and ’80s that gave birth to disco, was the foundation on which house was built, and provided the original models for the European mega-dance clubs of today.

His long career in the music industry notwithstanding, François K has chosen a collection of tracks drawn almost exclusively from the 1970s and ’80s.  There’s disco such as Shalimar’s “Right in the Socket” and Donald Byrd’s classic “Love Has Come Around”, soul crooners like Teddy Pendergast (“Only You”) and Colonel Abrams (“I’m Not Gonna Let You (Get the Best of Me)”), tribal rhythms from No Smoke (“Koro Koro”) and more.  Larry Levan fans will be interested in David Joseph’s “You Can’t Hide (Your Love From Me)” which was mixed by Levan along with his remix of Gwen Guthrie’s “(They Long To Be) Close to You”.  The Joseph track is also available on Journey Into Paradise, The Larry Levan Story but François K’s Choice is the only place I’ve seen Levan’s remix of the Guthrie track.

One track on François K’s Choice deserves special mention.  “Baby Wants to Ride” was written and produced by Frankie Knuckles and Knuckles “with” James Principle are listed as the artists.  As many will know, Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan acquired the basis of their DJ skills when they were both boy toys living in New York’s notorious Continental Baths.  Influenced by what Levan was doing at the Paradise Garage, Knuckles moved to Chicago and became the resident DJ and motivating force behind The Warehouse which is often cited as the source for the term “house music”.  “Baby Wants to Ride” is 8+ minutes of Frankie Knuckles pretending to get laid.  It is so excruciatingly bad that you wonder if François K holds a long-standing grudge against his fellow New York DJ and is using this opportunity for payback.  The track is beyond dreadful.

In comparison with the Choice collection by Danny Howells, François K’s Choice comes off as a missed opportunity.  Howells mixed his set which gives each of his discs a sense of coherence.  François K doesn’t provide a mix but simply gives us a collection of tracks.  In addition, the booklet that comes with the Howells set includes a brief entry on each track by Howells that tells you a bit about why the track is important to him.  The François K booklet has an essay summarizing his career with nothing from François K himself about why he choose these tracks.  The result is that François K’s Choice feels like someone else’s mix tape.  Meaningful to François K perhaps, but just a random collection of tunes for everyone else.

Larry Levan’s remix of Gwen Guthrie’s “(They Long To Be) Close to You”

07/28/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Widespread Panic, Dirty Side Down

The Widespread Panic album that did it for me was ‘Til the Medicine Takes.  We wore that CD out and “Climb to Safety” still raises goosebumps.  We’ve bought a lot of their albums and always found something to enjoy but over the past few years we kind of lost rack of the band and what they were doing.  Then a guy I know reported that he’d caught their set at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival this past spring and they rocked.

Well, you know, Panic are a jam band and they’ve always been known for putting on great shows and great shows don’t always translate into great – or even good – albums so I didn’t run right out and pick up Dirty Side Down.  But I hadn’t listened to the band in a while so I finally decided to give it a try.  When a new CD comes into the house we often put it on for the first time as we sit down to dinner and check it out while we eat.  Almost always, dinner and conversation trump the music and serious listening doesn’t happen until later.  Not this time.

Dirty Side Down opens with “Saint Ex” and it blew us away. Eating went on very quietly and conversation stopped as the song took over.  The track opens with a bit of guitar drone, like 10 zillion other songs, and then breaks into a couple of bars of what sounds like a picked electrified steel string guitar that shifts into a lead guitar segment that instantly grabs attention with a wide screen western sound that I find irresistible.  The vocal comes in and we’re in familiar Widespread Panic mode, ok, back to dinner.  Then a heavy descending rhythm guitar break hits at about 1:30 into the song and this is beginning to sound like Panic has grown in new and exciting ways.  “Saint Ex” is a terrific song that kicks off a fine album.

When a band has been playing together as long as Widespread Panic and, moreover, has been placing a heavy emphasis on improvisation throughout that time, moments of magic can happen.  There’s a refinement and sophistication in the interplay among the musicians that is hard to achieve in any other way.  This produces studio recordings that are studded with moments, sometimes small and sometimes loud, that can take your breath away.  Whether it’s Dave Schools extraordinary bass playing or episodes of subtle, intricate vocal interplay (which are just two of the things that struck me while I’m writing this review) repeated listening of Dirty Side Down is a highly rewarding experience.

If you’re a Panic fan you already have Dirty Side Down.  If, like me, you know the band but have been away for a bit, now’s a good time to come back.  And if Widespread Panic are a new band for you, Dirty Side Down is a great place to start.

For a great source for more live recordings of Widespread Panic than you could ever listen to, see our review of Driving Songs Vol. 2.

“Saint Ex”

“North”

07/25/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , | 1 Comment

Review: SOS, Club

Ministry of Sound began as a dance club in London that was modeled on New York’s legendary Paradise Garage.  The club opened in 1991.. Ministry of Sound and has since grown to be a multimedia entertainment brand with a record label, radio network, clothing brand etc.  The record label has put out numerous DJ mix series over the years with their Club series being the latest.  CDs in the series are projected to include two discs; one containing a mix the DJ would do on a Saturday night in the club and the second featuring the DJ’s own compositions and remixes.  The collection by SOS is the first in the series.

SOS, which stands for SexOnSubstance, are Omid “16B” Nourizadeh, Demi Hajigeorgiou, and Desyn Masiello.  They were a good choice to kick off the Club series.  Disc 1 does just what’s it’s supposed to do – lay down a dance floor mix that’s tight, right and peak night.  SOS ease you in for maybe two minutes and then hit the 4/4 and start to ramp up the intensity.  Ramp it up , hold, ramp it up, hold  . . . hold, hit it!  Rinse and repeat.  These guys know what they’re doing and they do it well.  Disc one is a straightforward house club mix seasoned with nu-disco and funk and it rocks.  If this one doesn’t get your ass in the air go back to Mom and Dad and ask for a reboot ’cause something ain’t right.

Although the idea for disc 2 was to present a collection of the DJ’s compositions and remixes that’s not really what we get.  SOS are only credited with 2 of the tracks on the second disc.  Five of the remaining 11 tracks were written or co-written by Omar 16B and the rest are by other people.  Some of these are tracks that were released on Omid’s label SoulOnWax.  What connection the others have with SOS is unclear.

As expected of a set that compiles original compositions and remixes, disc 2 doesn’t have the linear drive and power of the club mix on disc one.  If you listen to disc two right after disc one it’s easy to go “meh”.  But that would be a mistake.  Taken on its own terms – in other words, don’t listen to it immediately following disc one – it has its own strengths.

As with disc 1, the music on disc 2 is fairly straightforward house music.  As with a good deal of straightforward house music, there’s a tendency to let 2 bar patterns go on for too long with only minor, if any, variation but this isn’t as big a problem for SOS as it is for some other music producers.  Omid B’s “Sequential 002: Same as You” does a nice job of combining a heavy 4/4 house backbeat with a jazz sax solo.  While still clearly in the House mode, the final three tracks introduce more variation than the others in terms of rhythmic patterns and sonic palattes.  These are the three tracks that don’t have any apparent connection with SOS and they sound like they were mixed by the trio but didn’t fit on the first disc.

Based on Club, SOS’s strengths lie more in the DJ than the music production realm but there are more than a few good tracks on disc 2.  Which is gravy, really, because disc 1 is good enough to justify giving the set a try.

To get a feel for a mix you have to listen to the mix, not individual tracks, but here’s Silver City’s “Pendulo (Pete Herbert edit)” to give you an idea of the kind of music on disc 1

From disc 2, the SOS edit of Latenta Project’s “Beach Combers”

07/23/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Juan Maclean, DJ-Kicks

DJ-Kicks is a series of mixes by DJs, music producers and musicians that, at least at the beginning, were designed to be listened to at home.  Juan Maclean’s mix is the 32nd in the series which kicked off in 1995.

Maclean’s DJ-Kicks is a pretty straightforward uptempo party mix of house music that has occasional disco influences.  The set has generally received very positive reviews but it’s just not doing it for me.  The mix starts promisingly with Still Going’s ‘Spaghetti Circus” which does a good job of ramping up the dance intensity.   However, Maclean seems to have been enamored of tracks that feature short vocal phrases that are repeated monotonously throughout the track when he put this mix together.  He uses this techique on track after track and the mix sinks under the weight.

I get the idea that vocal snippets are being used as rhythmic elements and rhythmic elements tend to repeat.  But endlessly repeating rhythm patterns are the bane of this kind of music and shoving the repetition in the listener’s face by putting it in the vocal (which will automatically attract more attention than, say, a repeating kick) just makes the tedium all the more apparent.  When used judiciously, a vocal rhythm part can be very effective.  When it’s used on track after track it’s an invitation to find something else to listen to.  As an example, on Sonny Foderra’s “Everybody Get on the Decks” the phrase captured in the title, or a minor variant of it, is repeated 126 times over 4 mins and 44 secs.  Add to this the 40 times the phrase is repeated at the end of the previous track as Maclean mixes the transition between the two tracks and you end up with a circumstance where it’s hard not to yank the CD out of the player.  Of the 12 tracks that precede “Everybody Get on the Decks”, 10 feature endlessly repeated vocals as rhythm elements.  It’s too much.  Get another idea.

Maclean’s DJ-Kicks is the kind of CD I might drop in the box during a party when you want to keep the crowd moving but are  reasonably sure no one is paying any attention to the music.  If anyone was listening, even halfheartedly, I’d give them something more interesting to listen to.

“Spaghetti Circus” by Still Going

07/21/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Guillaume & The Coutu Dumonts, Breaking the Fourth Wall

Time and again I’ve expressed dismay because producers of electronic dance music rely on the same sound palettes or, even worse, repeat the same 1, 4 or 8 bar pattern so many times that the listener becomes stupefied by monotony.  Guillaume & The Coutu Dumonts doesn’t have this problem. Breaking the Fourth Wall is rich with different timbres and compelling grooves.  It’s one of the most exciting and interesting single-artist CDs I’ve heard in the dance music category in months.

Guillaume & The Coutu Dumonts is a musician out of Montreal named . . . wait for it . . . Guillaume Coutu Dumont (Ringo should have thought of this).  He started out as an anthropology student, began playing percussion at age 17, got involved in a funk band, dropped anthropology and was accepted into a music program in percussion, and then shifted into electroacoustic composition.  Finding the academic environment too narrow and limited, he split and began making his own music.   Breaking the Fourth Wall is his second album.

If I had to give a single characterization of the type of music Dumont produces on Breaking the Fourth Wall I’d say something like tribal but that doesn’t really do it.  He uses a variety of percussion instruments, synths and even vocal lines to build layered grooves that are often very strong in rolling, propulsive rhythms.  He also makes exceptionally good use of jazz-influenced horns.  Before firing up Tuned In To Music I spent many years deeply involved in listening to and learning about jazz.  My first Parametric Monkey track, “Horns of the Moon”, is built around the interplay between an alto and tenor sax because of this background and I’ve often wondered why dance music producers don’t make more use of jazz instrumentation.   Breaking the Fourth Wall is an excellent example of just how well jazz-influenced horns can work in dance music context.

While not everything on Breaking the Fourth Wall works for me, the album is filled with original and interesting tracks.  Album opener “Mindtrap” combines a Miles Davis style muted trumpet with a powerful driving rhythm.  “32 Tonnes de Pigeons” is moving  along nicely on what sounds like a Farfisa organ based groove when Dumont drops in a ghostly trumpet that is very reminiscent of Nina Rota’s instantly recognizable theme from The Godfather.  He then works in a smokey late-night sax and it all hangs together beautifully.  “Walking the Pattern” and “Decennie” are built around samples of either a preacher addressing a congregation or an organizer motivating an audience.  “Radio Novela” features vocalist Dynamike over a groove that’s so deep and funky I simply cannot stop playing it.

When you delve into the software that is available to electronic music producers you immediately realize that the possibilities for manipulating rhythm, timbre, instrumentation, groove, melody, and just about anything else you can think of are virtually limitless.  You also realize that the producers of electronic dance music have barely scratched the surface of what the tools they use will allow them to do.  Guillaume Coutu Dumont ain’t like that.  He’s thinking outside the box and the result is that Breaking the Fourth Wall is a solidly grooving album that doesn’t sound like yet another genre-driven dance music CD.  Check it out.  Recommended.

“Radio Novela” featuring Dynamike

“32 Tonnes de Pigeons”

07/20/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment