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”
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”
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.
Scouting For Girls is a trio (guitar/keyboards, bass, drums) out of London. Everybody Wants To Be On TV is their second album. They have achieved success in the UK where their first album briefly reached number one in the charts.
I haven’t been listening to much of this type of music lately and perhaps that is the problem. Scouting For Girls sounds to me like a band with a desperate desire to have their songs featured during the last minute of some crappy TV show. It’s all pop hooks, overwrought emotion, and yearning choruses and, at least to me, it sounds like a zillion other bands who are grinding the same career path. Opening track “This Ain’t a Love Song” is a solid track with a good vocal hook for a chorus but once you’ve heard it you’ve heard just about everything the band has to offer.
Somewhere there is an industrial plant that churns out these bands and the songs they play on a monthly schedule. If you blew it up, they’d just build another one because this is what the big musak business is all about.
“This Ain’t A Love Song”
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.
Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers’ The Live Anthology comes in two basic packages. One has 4 CDs of music. The other, which is being reviewed here has 5 CDs of music (the same 4 as in the CD-only set plus another), a Blu-Ray disc that contains all of the 62 tracks that are on the 5 CDs in both 5.1 Surround and 96K, 24-bit PCM stereo, a vinyl LP with a remastered bootleg of 4 tracks from 1976, a DVD with an unreleased documentary about the band called 400 Days made in the mid-1990s, a second DVD with an unreleased concert from 1978, a large booklet with “zomg! this band is so . . . !!!” from various people, Petty’s track-by-track comments on the tracks in the set and full details on when and where each track was recorded and who plays what on the track, and assorted other bits and pieces including silk screened stage passes and a Live Anthology blank-page notebook (?? wtf ??).
I didn’t watch the DVDs, listen to the vinyl or read the essays. I did listen to the music on the CDs and both mixes on the Blu-Ray disc. The Blur-Ray has the nice feature that you can switch back and forth between the stereo and surround mixes and it keeps you at the same point in the song. This made it possible to do an ABC comparison of the CD, high resolution stereo and surround versions by syncing the CD in it’s transport with the Blu-Ray in the Blu-Ray player. The Surround mix is very gentle with the rear speakers providing crowd noise and a much-dampened delay of the front channels in order to give a slight feeling of being in a live venue. As expected, the high resolution stereo provides greater clarity, depth, detail and dynamic range. However, this will only be apparent if you have a sound system that can reproduce the sound captured on the Blu-Ray. The recording engineers did an excellent job on The Live Anthology and the sound on the CDs is very, very good. The hi res stereo is better but you’re not getting a markedly inferior product if you buy the CDs. You are getting one less disc of music, however.
The Live Anthology is a love letter from the band to their fans. In many ways it is the polar opposite of the recently reviewed box set from Kraftwerk. With Kraftwerk you get nothing but eight of their albums remastered so that the sound is much better than what had previously been available on CD. With The Live Anthology you don’t get any of the the band’s previously released albums. Instead you get live versions (and I’m guessing most are previously unreleased) of (some of) their hits, album tracks, and covers. For many fans, this is all going to be new material.
The collection was produced by Mike Campbell, Ryan Ulyate and Petty. The lengths they went to in putting The Live Anthology together and making sure it was a box set that fans would treasure were extreme. They started with multi-track recordings of 169 live shows stretching over a 32 year period. Those shows were stored on 245 reels of 2″ analog tape and 36 500-GB hard drives. The 245 tapes had to be baked in an industrial oven at 130 degrees for 10 hours each in order to play back properly. Putting it all together they had 3,509 songs. They did rough mixes of all 3,509 (!). Played non-stop, back-to-back, that was 12 days worth of music. There were 245 different songs among the 3,509. They listened for five weeks and pulled what they considered the best version of each of the 245 songs. They evaluated all 245 and ended up with a final cut of 80 songs. These 80 songs were fully mixed (it took 6 months to do the full mixes). Petty then worked on sequencing the 80 tracks. He eliminated 19 songs because he didn’t find a way to sequence them that he liked. That left the 61 songs that are in the collection (the first track on disc one is a band introduction which puts the number of tracks in the set at 62). All of this took more than a year of work. That’s a lot of effort and the result is clear for all to hear on the discs. The Live Anthology is a brilliant collection. Sometimes obsession can be a very good thing.
Every fan of Tom Petty and Heartbreakers will want The Live Anthology. There are many ways to build a successful boxed set, but for a set designed to give fans of the band something they don’t already have it’s hard to imagine anything better than this. Tom Petty has thrown down the gauntlet to every other band with a reputation of putting on a good show. This is the way it should be done. Outstanding.
Listening to parts of The Live Anthology while working on the review I thought “This is the track I’ll add to the review”, then another track played and I thought “No, this is the one.” Then another track played and I thought “I have to have that one.” This went on for five discs of music. This is a band that’s all about the live show and The Live Anthology is a collection of what they think are their best live tracks from 32 years of performing. There’s no way one, two or ten tracks is going to cut it. So here’s two tracks from the disc that happened to be in the player as I write this sentence.
“Learning to Fly”
“Mary Jane’s Last Dance”
If having an abundance of talent, the ability to write and perform fine, sometimes great, songs, and working relentlessly on the touring circuit were enough to bring success in the music business, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals would be a household name. They started strong and have gotten better over time. This is a first-class band fronted by an exceptionally strong singer, songwriter and musician.
The band’s 2007 album This is Somewhere opened with the spectacular track “Ah, Mary”. On the one hand, I don’t think that anything on Grace Potter and the Nocturnals is as good, on the other I think the new album is markedly stronger overall than This is Somewhere. In my review of the earlier album I described the band as primarily country-oriented with a somewhat thin rock overlay and wished these emphases were reversed. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals doesn’t do the reversal but it brings the country and rock elements much more in balance with each other which is probably a better idea. I also noted in the earlier review that my lack of enjoyment of the country aspects of This Is Somewhere reflected my own tastes and that many listeners would probably prefer the band just as they were. Those listeners might not be as happy with the shift toward rock on Grace Potter and the Nocturnals but I think the balance makes for a stronger album.
Potter sings, writes or co-writes their songs, and plays acoustic and electric guitars, piano and Hammond B3 organ. Although comparison of the album photos on Grace Potter and the Nocturnals and This is Somewhere might give you the idea that she may be trying to market herself as a Hot Blonde© in the band’s continued search for the widespread recognition they deserve, all you have to do is listen to the album to know she isn’t this month’s pitch-corrected bimbo with plastic tits & great hair. Potter’s song craft and musician skills are rock solid and she is a very powerful singer. Actually, “very powerful singer” doesn’t quite get the idea across – how about King Kong in heels? Potter can not only rock and roar but she can sell a ballad which gives the band exceptional range.
In addition to Potter the band features Scott Tourney on lead and lap steel guitars, Benny Yurco on rhythm guitars, Catherine Popper on bass and drummer Matt Burr. As you would expect from a band that tours as hard as this one does, they are a very tight unit that superbly complements and supports Potter in her role as front woman.
The history of popular music is littered with great bands who had everything they needed but who didn’t make it for no discernible reason and ended up giving up in frustration. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals are a great band who have honed their skills the old-fashioned way on stage after stage in club after club. It must drive them out of their minds every time a group that has been together for a couple of months gets a glowing Pitchfork review and becomes the darlings of the blogosphere for 10 minutes until they are forced to play in front of an audience and it becomes clear they can barely play their instruments, let alone work together as a band. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals is a very good album from an accomplished professional band. Listening to it you get the sense that as good as they are, they could get even better. The world ain’t bad now but it will be better if they achieve a level of success that is commensurate with their ability and reach those heights.
“Paris (Ooh La La) from Grace Potter and the Nocturnals
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
Starting in 1967 and ending in 1971 The Doors released six albums, The Doors, Strange Days, Waiting for the Sun, The Soft Parade, Morrison Hotel and L.A. Woman. The Perception box set from Rhino/Elektra includes all six. There are at least two versions of Perception , one that includes a CD and a DVD for each album and one that only has the CDs. This is a review of the CDs plus DVDs version.
Each album is presented in it’s own fold-out cardboard folder that contains a CD, a DVD and a booklet. The six folders fit neatly into a heavy cardboard box. The CDs contain the original albums (remixed) along with a collection of outtakes, alternate versions, and recorded snippets of conversation. A good amount of this extra material is listed as “previously unissued”. The DVDs contain high resolution mixes of the album (but not the extra material that appears on the CDs) and a video or two. The high resolution mixes include a stereo mix and 5.1 mixes in both Dolby Digital and DTS. Bruce Botnick, who was the recording engineer on all of The Doors albums, did all the remixes for Perception in 2006.
Each of the booklets contains a brief essay on the original recording of the album or the remix process by Botnick, an essay about the album by somebody or other, lyrics for the original Doors songs on the album and pictures. I found the essays by Botnick to be of the most interest. I read bits and pieces of some of the second essays in some of the booklets but found them to be the kind of laudatory/ecstatic/respectful blather you expect to find in these collections and quickly gave up. There may well be some good stuff here that I missed.
I did an A/B comparison of the first album, The Doors, by time-syncing the CD with the DVD. All of the mixes sound noticeably different and I didn’t find any of them to be clear winners or losers. They all sound good although each has strengths and weaknesses. This is a nice feature for real Doors fans who will have a wealth of different ways to hear these albums. I ended up listening to the 5.1 DTS mix of the entire set. For the most part the surround mix is fairly gentle with the rear speakers providing a slight delay to impart an increased sense of fullness to the music. There are a few exceptions such as the “Mojo risin'” break in “L.A. Woman” where Morrison’s voice is panned around the listening space. The surround on the rain and storm effects on “Riders on the Storm” is also very nicely done.
In his essay on the The Doors Botnick points out that the album was originally released at the wrong speed and hence the wrong pitch. It was too slow and a bit flat. The singles from The Doors, “Break on Through” and “Light My Fire” were both released at the proper speed but all of the album releases, both on vinyl and CD up until Perception played at the wrong speed. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this story is that neither Botnick nor anyone else noticed it until it was brought to their attention by a music professor in 2003. Although I hadn’t listened to The Doors for many years, decades actually, I’m fairly familiar with it having listened to it hundreds of times and introduced it to many listeners on a college radio show I was doing when it first came out. As soon as the corrected version started playing I knew something was “wrong”. I didn’t immediately recognize that it was faster and the pitch was higher but I heard that something was different. Given the amount of time you spend listening to the same music over and over again when recording, mixing and mastering an album it’s hard to believe that neither Botnck nor anyone in the band noticed the problem for over twenty-five years.
The Doors released six albums in four years and All Music lists close to seventy compilations of their music that have been released since. Given that glut of previously released Doors music, who would be interested in buying Perception? If you don’t have all or much of this music in your collection and you like the Doors, Perception is a great buy. The Doors made some truly outstanding music (The Doors and Strange Days are especially fine although most of the other albums have their moments as well), sound quality is uniformly good, you get The Doors playing at the correct speed and pitch, you have multiple mixes to choose from and lots of bonus material on the CDs and DVDs. If you’re a rabid Doors fan who has to have every last scrap of recorded output, you already have this set. If you’re looking to fill in some holes in your Doors collection and/or upgrade the sound quality of the recordings, Perception is a choice worth considering. If you’re reasonably happy with the Doors music you have or don’t care that much about the band, walk on by.
Throughout this review I’ve assumed the reader is familiar with The Doors and their music. I bought their initial album, The Doors, when it was first released because I had heard a radio spot for a club advertising a band called The Doors and liked the music that was playing in the background of the ad. To this day, I still don’t know if it was the same band. I immediately fell in love with the album, however, and had played it to death before the AM radio edit of “Light My Fire” hit it big six months later. Although Jim Morrison got all the press I had tuned in to the band before the media-hype machine had gotten into gear and I never thought of Morrison as anything special. He was an important part of the band, certainly, but not the main focus of interest. Listening to Perception reminded me of what had turned me on to The Doors in the first place. The music. Especially the musicianship of John Densmore (drums), Robby Krieger (guitar) and Ray Manzarek (keyboards). They were all accomplished musicians who meshed together beautifully and played music that didn’t sound like anyone else. There just weren’t rock bands around that featured a classically trained keyboard player, a guitarist steeped in flamenco, and a jazz drummer. They were brilliant, especially at the beginning before it became obvious that Morrison was several zip codes away from being able to handle the consequences of fame and success. Morrison’s rapid deterioration had its effect on the band and the music they played but the first two albums, The Doors and Strange Days, and, for me, parts of the third, Waiting for the Sun, are among the highest moments of the spectacular music made between 1964 and 1971. Listening to the high quality remixes of this music on Perception has been thoroughly enjoyable.
Afroskull is a funk-rock-soul-jazz collective originally based in New Orleans and now working out of New York. Their first album, Monster for the Masses in 2000 showed immense promise with at least one all-out kick ass track in “It”. However, for all of their potential, their reach exceeded their grasp as the band was not quite up to consistently realizing songwriter/guitarist Joe Scatassa’s visions. Monster for the Masses is a very good album that would be worth your time to find but the band was not quite ready for prime time. Close, but not quite there.
That’s changed. Shit happened, Afroskull more or less came undone, Scatassa and drummer Jason Isaac moved to New York and Afroskull was reconstituted with Matt Iselin (keyboards), Dan Asher (bass) and Seth Moutal (percussion). Moving to New York gave Afroskull something they didn’t have in New Orleans – access to New York’s cadre of great jazz horn players. No matter what you think of Wynton Marsalis’ rigid, limited, my-view-is-the-only-view approach to jazz, there’s no question that New Orleans has been the home of superb horn players for well over 100 years but for whatever reason Afroskull didn’t hook up with the best of them. They did in New York. On To Obscurity and Beyond the band is joined by baritone sax colossus and original member of the Mingus Big Band Ronnie Cuber along with the Horns of Doom composed of Jeff Pierce (trumpet), Justin Flynn (tenor sax) and Rafi Malkiel (trombone). These guys make Tower of Power sound like a high-school band.
The results are immediately apparent. To Obscurity and Beyond is dense with horn charts that are brilliantly written and tightly executed. World class stuff. The band churns, drives, rips and roars while the horn section blasts into the stratosphere. This is big band funk-rock-jazz music of the first order. Put To Obscurity and Beyond in your CD player and Afroskull stomps into your house, destroys the furniture, scares the neighbors, and leaves everyone sweating, happy, and wanting more.
If you have any interest in driving rock-funk-jazz-soul big band music check out To Obscurity and Beyond. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. If you don’t already have an interest in this kind of music To Obscurity and Beyond would be a great place to start.
Here’s a taste. Turn it up.
“Dance of the Wild Koba” from To Obscurity and Beyond
There has been no end to the posthumous releases of Jimi Hendrix material since he died in 1970. Some of it has been good; some of it has been nothing more than a blatant attempt to cash on on Hendrix’ s great fame and extraordinary talent with the release of crappy recordings of studio noodling. Valleys of Neptune is something different. The album is built around the last recordings Hendrix made with the original members of The Jimi Hendrix Experience Noel Redding (bass) and Mitch Mitchell (drums). Much of the album was recorded in 1969 after the release of Electric Ladyland. Hendrix was flying high and it looked like there was no end to what he could achieve.
With the exception of “Mr. Bad Luck” which was recorded in 1967 all of the tracks on Valleys of Neptune were recorded in 1969. Hendrix, Redding and Mitchell play together on nine of the album’s twelve cuts. Redding and Mitchell rerecorded their bass and drum parts in 1987 on 3 of the tracks, “Mr. Bad Luck”, “Lover Man”, and “Crying Blue Rain”. Billy Cox, Hendrix’s old friend who replaced Redding when the tension between Hendrix and Redding reached the breaking point plays on three tracks, a hot rendition of “Stone Free”, “Bleeding Heart” and the title track.
Hendrix on a bad day is better than most other guitarists at their peak so it will come as no surprise that his playing throughout Valleys of Neptune is terrific. The blues based numbers “Hear My Train A Comin'”, “Lover Man” and “Red House” are outstanding. Redding and Mitchel’s overdubs laid down almost 20 years after the original recordings are nicely mixed with Hendrix vocals and guitar so that they don’t appear out of place or intrusive. There’s not a bad cut on the CD and it is very nicely produced.
Ever since I had the great good fortune to see Jimi Hendrix and the original Experience live in what were almost perfect circumstances I’ve been at least quietly disappointed by his released recordings and Valleys of Neptune is no exception. This is a foolish reaction as neither a studio nor a live recording could possibly capture what is was like to be in the room with Hendrix when he was in full flight. If you are a Hendrix fan Valleys of Neptune is a must-buy and you probably already have it. If you have any interest in Hendrix’s music and you don’t have Valleys of Neptune, check it out. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
The 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.
I finished my review of Kaiser Chiefs’ second album, Your Truly, Angry Mob, by writing that I was looking forward to their next CD. Well, here it is and I’m finding that I’m enjoying “Off With Their Heads” even more than its predecessor. The Chiefs are putting out state-of-the-art power-pop, new-new wave influenced rock.
Your Truly led off with mega-track “Ruby” which was not only the best thing on the album but brought Kaiser Chiefs a host of new fans when it showed up on the original version of Guitar Hero. “Ruby” sounded like a hit the first time it played and nothing on “Off With Their Heads” has this immediate impact. However, the new album has a characteristic that is arguably even more important than an obvious hit single. It sounds good the first time through and it’s a grower. The more we listen to “Off With Their Heads” the more want to hear it.
Part of the reason Kaiser Chiefs music is so compelling is that they are masters of vocal hooks combined with driving, propulsive rhythms and good songwriting. “Good Days Bad Days” with its loping bass-driven rhythm is a good example. Out of nowhere I find myself singing “‘Cause you are / Descended from animals / And you are / Constructed of chemicals” from “Like It All Too Much” at odd times throughout the day. And “Always Happens Like That” is so catchy it out to come with a warning label.
Another reason the Chiefs rock is that everyone in the band can play and Ricky Wilson (vocals), Andrew White (guitar), Nick Baines (keyboards), Simon Rix (bass) and Nick Hodgson (drums) work very well together as a band. If there are super-sized egos in the group, they are doing a good job of not letting them dominate the music. They are also very well recorded. Producers and engineers Mark Ronson and Eliot James give the band a sharp, clean sound with well defined and beautifully integated instruments and vocals. “Off With Their Heads” sounds terrific on a quality sound system
“Off With Their Heads” is Kaiser Chiefs third album and each one has been better than the last. I don’t know how long this can go on but where I was looking forward to their next album after Yours Truly, the one after “Off With Their Heads” will be an automatic purchase. The Chiefs are on a roll (a Kaiser roll? . . . lol). Get ’em while they’re hot.
Bob Mould has had a long, varied and rich musical career. He broke out with the influential post-punk band Husker Du that was one of the defining alt rock bands of the ’80s. When Husker Du split up he released solo albums in the guises of both a sensitive singer/songwriter and a guitar rocker. He then disappeared for awhile before returning with a new interest in electronic music. He has been DJing in my town of Washington DC for awhile and has released at least one dance-oriented album. With District Line he returns to guitar-based rock and shows no signs whatsoever of coming anywhere close to creative stagnation.
With the exception of drummer Brendan Canty and cellist Amy Domingues, Mould plays all the instruments on District Line along with writing all the songs. The CD falls into the small category of albums that addresses human relationships from an adult perspective (Mould is in his mid-40s) without coming across like a twenty-something trying to sound all grown up or a middle-aged loser straining to hold on to his youth. Mould is simply a talented musician and songwriter who continues to make vital music.
The music on District Line is driven primarily by Mould’s strong guitar and Canty’s muscular and varied drumming. Electronics are used to nice effect as accents and flavoring (as on “Shelter Me” for one example) without being prominently featured. On the evidence provided here, Mould’s personal life has not been so good lately as many of these songs are concerned with the difficulties of maintaining – and ending – long term relationships. “Again and Again” is a particularly good example. Over a rolling melodic hook Mould sings “I never found the trust I needed from you / Everything you did was making me wonder / My biggest mistake was taking you back / Again and again.” If you’ve been there, you can hear that he has too. It’s like a dagger in the heart.
District Line is adult rock of the best kind, sung from an adult perspective without attempting to fit into the musical straightjacket of what the record company suits think adults want to hear. It’s just a good rock record and that’s just fine.