Tuned In To Music

Reflections from a lifetime

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: The Low Frequency in Stereo, Futuro

Start with a blender.  Add a  good amount of deeply stoned psychedelic rock of the kind played by the great late ’60s San Francisco bands at their peak.  Add healthy dollops of Velvet Underground and Shoegaze à la My Bloody Valentine.  Flavor with a post-rock sensibility and a garage rock attitude.  Add a few bits of the Doors, Can, and Stereolab.  Season with discord to taste.  Set the blender on low so you end with recognizable chunks in the mix.  What do get?  The Low Frequency in Stereo, a band that flat out kicks ass.

The Low Frequency in Stereo is a five piece out of Norway.  Futuro is their first full length album.  Whatever images Norway brings to mind, forget about it.  These guys transcend space.  The retro influences named above may also bring images to mind.  Forget about those too because these guys also transcend time.  You can hear the band’s influences but they are not making derivative music.  This isn’t The Low Frequency in Stereo doing Velvet Underground or Stereolab.  It’s a  creative band making original music.

It’s rare to find a band that can internalize a style from the past so deeply that they sound like they could have been one of those bands.  It’s even rarer to find a band that can do this for more than one style.  And it’s rarer yet for a band to be able to do this within the confines of one song and make it sound like an organic whole rather than an bolted together, unwieldy mess.  The Low Frequency in Stereo is one of those ultra-rare bands and Futuro is one of those terrific albums that doesn’t have a bad cut on it.  Recommended.

“Solar System”

07/13/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: The Phenomenal Handclap Band, The Phenomenal Handclap Band

The Phenomenal Handclap Band is all over the place which isn’t so suprising given that the Phenomenal Handclap Band is all over the place as well.  The band lists its members as Daniel Collás, Sean Marquand, Patrick Wood, Luke O’Malley, Nick Movshon, Bing Ji Ling, Joan Tick, and Laura Martin.  According to the track credits, Ji Ling, Tick and Martin don’t appear on any of the songs on the album.  Kimi Recor contributes vocals to 4 of the CD’s 12 tracks and isn’t listed as a member of the band.  The track credits list a bewildering array of musicians that appear once and are never heard again.

Things become clearer when you focus on two names.  The Phenomenal Handclap Band are basically music producers Collás and Marquand and whoever they happened to get together to contribute to their tracks.  Collás and Marquand wrote or co-wrote all of the tracks save one (more on this one later) and play keyboards throughout the album.  The band’s website insists they really are a band and maybe an actual band came together in the making of this album but we’ll have to wait for their next release to hear what they sound like.

What The Phenomenal Handclap Band sounds like is somebody’s mix tape who likes 70s funk, R&B, and disco with a healthy dose of psychedelic rock.  Like LCD Soundsystem’s recent This Is Happening, many of the tracks on The Phenomenal Handclap Band sound like The Phenomenal Handclap Band doing their version of some other group.  “All of the Above”  is their version of a Traffic tune; “15 to 20” is like Go Team! with Lady Tiga doing the playground chants instead of a bunch of kids.  And so on.  Also like the LCD Soundsystem CD you can’t help but think that the original bands did it a lot better.

The one track that Collás and Marquand did not have a hand in writing is “I Been Born Again” which was written by Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman.  Some listeners may recognize Kaylan and Volman as the duo who formed The Turtles of “Happy Together” fame in 1965.  They joined Frank Zappa in 1970 where they began calling themselves The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie, which was later shortened to Flo and Eddie, names they have used ever since.  Kaylan and Volman are the vocalists who appear on the terrific Zappa live album Just Another Band From L.A, Chunga’s Revenge and others from the same time period.

I found The Phenomenal Handclap Band to be one of those albums that sounded pretty good on first listen but got old quickly.  Too many of the tracks are pale imitations of other people’s work.  Maybe with a stable lineup and a refocus on developing their own sound The Phenomenal Handclap Band may generate more interest the next time around.

“All of the Above” from The Phenomenal Handclap Band

07/06/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Porcupine Tree, Stars Die – The Delerium Years 1991-1997

Porcupine Tree had a long and convoluted history before its first proper album as a full-fledged band, Signify, was released in 1996.  The band began when Steven Wilson and a friend made up stories about a fictional 70’s prog rock band in the Pink Floyd mold called Porcupine Tree.  From there Wilson started producing music under the Porcupine Tree name either alone or with an occasional collaborator.  Some of this music was released on various formats including cassette tapes, contributions to multiple-artist collections, E.P.s and limited release albums and CDs.  The band, which at the time had Wilson as its only member, signed with Delerium Records in 1991.  Delerium released several Porcupine Tree albums and Wilson began to put together a full band in 1993 in order to be able to perform live.

Stars Die is a twenty-one track, two-disc compilation of material from the Delerium catalog leading up to the release of Signify.  The first seven tracks on disc 1 are from the time when Wilson alone sang and played all the instruments.  The remaining tracks (with one exception that is another Wilson-only creation) include various combinations of additional musicians until the final band coalesces with Wilson on guitars, keyboards and vocals, Richard Barbieri on keyboards, Colin Edwin on bass and Chris Maitland on drums.  The collection ends with “Dark Matter” which also closed Signify (and can be heard in our Signify review).

Stars Die is a collection that was put together with obvious care.  A booklet provides a paragraph about and a list of the musicians who played on each track.  The sound quality is first-rate and the tracks chosen for inclusion provide an excellent survey of early Porcupine Tree.  Four of the 21 tracks are previously unreleased (“Synesthesia – extended version”, “Phantoms”, “Men of Wood” and “Signify II”), four are appearing on an album for the first time (“Stars Die”, “The Sound of No One Listening”, “Colourflow in Mind”, and “Fuse the Sky”) and one (“The Sound of No One Listening”) has been remixed by Wilson for this album.

There’s so much good music on Stars Die that I’m having a hard time picking out one track to include with this review.  If you are a Porcupine Tree fan, the collection is a no-brainer.  If you don’t have it, get it.  Even if you have everything except for the unreleased material, having it all together with good sound is a good buy.  If you like prog or psychedelic rock and don’t know or are only somewhat familiar with Porcupine Tree, Stars Die is an excellent place to learn about the band.

The full-length and previously unreleased version of “Synesthesia”.  Steven Wilson sings and plays all instruments.

06/09/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Porcupine Tree, Signify (Deluxe Edition)

After hearing Parametric Monkey’s “Horns of the Moon” a fan thought I might like Porcupine Tree.  Turns out this is one of the unexpected benefits of making your own music available for people to hear – discerning fans tune you in to music you hadn’t listened to before.  I don’t hear what it is about “Horns of the Moon” that might link it to Porcupine Tree (at least what little I’ve heard from the band) but I do like Porcupine Tree.

Porcupine Tree is usually categorized as prog rock and compared with Emerson Lake and Palmer.  Comparisons to ELP have the effect of making run in the opposite direction.  Porcupine Tree is also characterized as psychedelic rock and I should have noted that and paid more attention.

Signify is Porcupine Tree’s first proper album originally released in 1996.  The Deluxe Edition reviewed here includes a second disc entitled Insignificance which contains demos, alternative versions of some of the tracks on Signify, and songs recorded at the same time but not included on the original album.  All of it has been remastered.

Steven Wilson is the pith of Porcupine Tree.  He wrote or co-wrote all of the tracks on Signify, sings, plays guitar and other instruments and produced and mixed the album.  At least at this stage of their development, Porcupine Tree is his vision and, musically, he sees far and wide.  In both breadth of style and virtuosity Wilson’s guitar playing reminds me of Frank Zappa.  Also like Zappa, Wilson is a composer as well as a musician.  While on Signify he doesn’t display Zappa’s compositional abilities (but then again, who does?), Wilson is very good and almost always interesting with a seemingly inexhaustible cache of ideas.

As lyric writer I find him less interesting.  Signify is filled with the kind of overwrought angst that is stereotypical of this type of music.  Everything sucks, nobody understands, nobody has suffered like he has. Boo-hoo.  Fortunately, the mopey lyrics are embedded in brilliant music and Signify devotes much more space to the music.

I don’t know enough about Porcupine Tree to know if the inclusion of the second disc would make this a worthwhile purchase for fans of the band.  Special edition discs of demos and tracks left off albums often illustrate why the tracks were left behind in the first place and are only of interest to rabid fans who are fairly uncritical in their acceptance of anything their idols have done.  The Insignificance disc doesn’t sound like this to me.  Wilson is very good and even the tracks he didn’t think were good enough for general consumption at the time have a lot to offer.

Fans of prog rock probably already know about Porcupine Tree and either have this album or don’t like the band.  If you like psychedelic or prog rock and haven’t listened to Porcupine Tree, by all means check them out.  If you like any kind of rock that aspires to be more than a place holder in this week’s top ten, Signify is well worth your time.

“Dark Matter” from Signify

06/02/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Review: The Time and Space Machine, The Time and Space Machine

The Time and Space Machine appears to be (there’s not much info included with the CD) a duo out of London composed of Richard Norris (vocals, guitars, keyboards and programming) and Wildcat Will (drums, percussion and vibrations).  Norris also wrote most of the tracks.  There are also occasional singers and an added guitar on one track.  Your guess is as good as mine about the Wildcat’s “vibrations” but the credit gives you a pretty good idea of what The Time and Space Machine is all about.

If you thought sun-kissed psychedelia you got it in one.  All of the earmarks of this type of music are correct and accounted for: hazy synths, creative use of delays, flutes, chanted refrains and song titles like “Children of the Sun”, “Trip Sideways”, “Set Phazer to Stun” and my favorite, “More Cowbell”.  That last is a rhythm track that could lead you to think more cowbell isn’t such a bad idea.

The CD opens with “Time and Space” which features a vocal by Norris that might make you wish you had left the disk in the store.  Aside from his work in The Time and Space Machine Norris is part of remix masters Beyond the Wizard’s Sleeve.  He clearly has multiple talents but singing isn’t one of them.  His vocals don’t bring The Time and Space Machine down, however, because the rest of the tracks either have guest vocalists or are mainly instrumentals with chanted vocal lines which he carries off without difficulty.  Although some may be tempted to call The Time and Space Machine a one-man band because of Norris’s many contributions to the album, Will’s drumming and percussion are critical to the success of the set.

With one immense exception The Time and Space Machine is a pleasant album of psychedelia that is well performed and avoids the excessive self-indulgence that can plague this type of music.  The Time and Space Machine’s most prominent weakness at this point in time lies in their arranging.  Several tracks come across as a collection of good ideas that don’t quite lie down well together.

The exception is their cover of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” with Raissa Kahn-Panni on vocals.  It opens with the instantly recognizable chiming two note introduction to Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” which is an especially nice touch as Young was first introduced to the musical world at large as a member of Buffalo Springfield.  The Time and Space Machine’s cover is a show-stopper that blows away everything else on the album.  It’s let down by an arrangement that has a break that’s much too short for all of the good ideas present in the song that really should have been explored further and a weak ending that simply fades out aimlessly.  Even with these shortcomings it’s terrific.  They own this song.

If you like psychedelia, The Time and Space Machine is a set you might very much enjoy and with their cover of “After the Gold Rush” you’ll have one of the best tracks you’re likely to hear this year.

“After the Gold Rush” from The Time and Space Machine

05/10/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Yellow Moon Band, Travels Into Several Remote Nations of the World

Yellow-Moon-BandThe Yellow Moon Band is a quartet that plays . . .  music.  People seem to be having a hard time figuring out just what kind of music they play.  “Entangled”, one of the tracks from Travels Into Several Remote Nations of the World, appears on the  A Monstrous Psychedelic Bubble Exploding in Your Mind compilation which has led some to categorize their music as psychedelic prog.  However, “Entangled” also appears on Fred Deakin’s (one half of the electronic music duo Lemon Jelly) Nu Balearica collection which has led allmusic.com to label the Yellow Moon Band as an electronica group.  Others have labeled them as folk, funky or groovy.

Ok, so the listeners are having a hard time figuring it out.  What does the CD say?  Nothing.  The disk I received came in a fold-over cardboard holder with a sleeve for the CD in one side and a sleeve for the pamphlet in the other.  Got the CD but didn’t get a pamphlet and the cardboard sleeve has no info about the band or the music whatsoever other than that the band wrote the music.

So what kind of music do they play?  For starters, Travels Into Several Remote Nations of the World is almost entirely instrumental.  There are a couple of vocals but they are not what the music is about.  The band sounds like two guitars, bass and drums (allmusic is completely off the mark labeling this as electronica).

As I listened to Travels Into Several Remote Nations of the World again and again I was overwhelmed with the feeling that it was really reminding me of something but I couldn’t quite place it.  Then I had it.  The Yellow Moon Band reminds me of the original Allman Brothers without Duane Allman, without the orientation toward blues rock, and without the jamming.  wtf?  You take all that away and what’s left?

A lot when you think about it.  Duane Allman was such a brilliant and unique guitar player (when he was on) that no one, not even the Allmans without him, sound like the Allmans with him so the Yellow Moon Band is like every other band in the world in this regard.

What about the blues rock thing?  The Allmans often used blues rock structures to bookend their jams but once they cut loose the music went where it went without regard to genre conventions or limitations.  Remember these were the guys who turned Donovan’s “There is a Mountain” into a 20 minute masterwork.  Losing the blues rock increases the similarity between the Yellow Moon Band and the Allmans as often as not.

Losing the jamming may be a problem.  The Allmans’  improvisational jams were often superb.  The Yellow Moon Band may be able to jam like that as well but the evidence isn’t on Travels Into Several Remote Nations of the World. Instead what we have are tight, focused full band work outs that sound like they may have begun as jams which were then then practiced, tightened up, and refined. Pure meat, no fat.

The end result is a CD filled with tight, muscular guitar led instrumentals.  There is a clear influence of late ’60s – early ’70s psychedelic music but the Yellow Moon Band never come across as imitating someone else.  They are their own band and they’re outstanding.  Travels Into Several Remote Nations of the World is one of the best CDs I’ve heard this year and is very strongly recommended if you like first-rate guitar-driven rock.

11/02/2009 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: The Quarter After, Changes Near

For awhile I thought I was the only one.  When the Byrds burst on the scene with their version of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” I was enthralled and thought folk rock was an exciting new kind of music.  Roger McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker!  And those vocals!  Heaven.  I had recently tuned in to John Coltrane so I was right there with them when the Byrds released “Eight Miles High”.  But then came the turn to country music under the influence of bluegrass-playing bassist Chris Hillman and new addition Gram Parsons culminating in Sweetheart of the Rodeo.  That album is widely cited and admired as one of the foundations of country rock but all I could think was “what happened to these guys?”  What had happened was that the combination of changing personnel and an uncommonly open eared set of core musicians had moved in a direction I wasn’t prepared to follow.  I just never could get into the “pure” country stuff and the more traditional it got, the less interest it held for me.  The Byrds’ country rock is held in very high esteem today and as I read the ever-growing adulation of Gram Parsons and the reverent tones with which Sweetheart is discussed in the music press I began to think I was alone in preferring the early band’s music. Apparently not.

As far as I can tell The Quarter After’s Changes Near is the album the Byrds would have made if the original group had stayed together after Turn! Turn! Turn! and kept Hillman’s country leanings in check.  The band has perfectly nailed the Byrds’ folk rock and psychedelic rock sound.  And I mean perfectly.  The raga-influenced drone rock, the hints of 1960’s-era jazz, the superb vocal harmonies and that signature Rickenbacker 12-string sound are all there.  Of the twelve tracks on the album, one (“Counting the Score”) does the country thing and although a pedal steel shows up here and there on other tracks, the rest of the album is devoted to the original Byrds sound and styles of music.

Often when a band turns to the music of their forebears for inspiration they end up making pale copies of the original music.  That’s not the case here.  The Quarter After don’t sound so much like they’re copying the Byrds as picking up the ball where the Byrds dropped it and carrying on.  Although Changes Near has numerous moments when I felt the hair on the back of their neck rise from the precision with which The Quarter After captures the Byrds, I never felt like this was just a band copying somebody else. 

Maybe it’s because I loved the early Byrds and have always felt that they abandoned their unique music long before they had exhausted its possibilities that I’ve enjoyed Changes Near so much.  If Sweetheart of the Rodeo is your favorite Byrds album you may find little of interest in The Quarter After’s music.  But if you really like those first three Byrds albums do not miss Changes Near.  It’s terrific.

07/13/2008 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Joy of Cooking, Joy of Cooking

The UK record label Evangeline has a very interesting catalog.  On the one hand they have a sweet collection of hard to find psychedelic San Francisco rock that is largely being ignored by US joy of cookinglabels that includes albums like Sons of Champlin’s Loosen Up Naturally, Dinosaurs’ Friends of Extinction, and “Copperhead” featuring Quicksilver Messenger Service guitarist John Cipollina.  On the other hand, they are the UK distributers for Govt. Mule and Hammel on Trial.  Lots of variety there.

Joy of Cooking’s self-titled first album is part of their ’60s and ’70s San Francisco collection.  The band was from Berkeley, across the Bay from San Francisco, and included Toni Brown (keyboards, vocals), Terry Garthwaite (guitar, vocals), David Garthwaite (bass), Fritz Kasten (drums) and Ron Wilson (percussion).  The band stood out from the other bands in the SF area at the time in several ways.  The most obvious were the two front women, Brown and Garthwaite, who sang, wrote most of their tunes and played the lead instruments.  The two had been singing together for several years before the full band coalesced and it shows.  Their voices are markedly different.  Garthwaite, who takes most of the lead vocals is somewhat reminiscent of Janis Joplin in phrasing and timbre (but not in emotional power, and to Garthwaite’s credit, she doesn’t try to emulate Janis), while Brown has a softer and more “folkie”-type voice.  The two sound exceptionally well together and at times they play off each other so intimately they sound like two voices with one mind.  The band also stands out in that Wilson, the percussionist, is seen as an integral part of the group and his percussion is well miked and integrated into the band’s sound.  Part of the reason they called themselves Joy of Cooking was that they cooked, as in they frequently stretched out with danceable jams in which Wilson’s percussion plays an important role.  “Did You Go Downtown” is a good example.

The band also had, at times, a distinct country rock sound.  Sometimes this results in songs that, save for Brown & Garthwaite’s intertwined vocals, sound like any number of other country rock tracks from the period.  At other times, however, they use the hee haw stuff as a launching pad for much more exciting things.  “Brownsville/Mockingbird” progresses as an up-tempo country shuffle until they morph into Mockingbird and the song takes off with Brown and Garthwaite trading call and response before Garthwaite takes over.  It rocks.

Brown and Garthwaite are clearly the draw here but Joy of Cooking never presented themselves as two women stars with a backup band.  They were a five person band and a very good one at that.  “Joy of Cooking” holds up very well.  Nice of Evangeline to keep this music in print.

Listeners who enjoy “Joy of Cooking” might also be interested in the band’s second album “Closer to the Ground“.

09/21/2007 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , | 4 Comments