Saturday, November 29, 2014

Turas Bóthair Mór


Ar ais muid abhaile. Chuaigh Léna agus mé go Meicsiceo Nua go dti Michigan ansiud. D'fhillear go muid go Michigan go Meicsiceo Nua ais aríst.

Thiomaint Léna 5200 míle ar fud Mheiriceá. Nascleanúineagh mé. Bhain sult asainn é.

Chonaic muid na Sléibhte Creagachaí. Thrasnaigh muid aibneachaí móraí. Chuir cuairt muid ár chairde ina hIarthar Láir.

D'ól muid beoir agus léann go blasta fós. D'fhán muid ina hóistain is mó agus "móistain" eigin níos an-ghránna. Mar sin féin, bhí ag thaistil ar na bóthar mór agus ar an lánaí beag, i te agus fuar, báisteach agus grian.

B'fhéidir, gheobhaidh ar ais go Kentucky agus Tennessee an lá eile. Is dócha go mbeidh muid ag dul An Deisceart seo chugainn. Ba mhaith linn a fheicéail an críoch ann a thuilleadh.

A big road trip. 

We returned home. Layne and I went from New Mexico to Michigan beyond. We returned from Michigan to New Mexico again.

Layne drove 5200 miles across America. I navigated. We enjoyed ourselves.

We saw the Rocky Mountains. We crossed great rivers. We visited our friends in the Midwest.

We drank tasty beer and ale too. We stayed in a grand hotel and some "motels" very ugly. All the same, we travelled on the highways and the small lanes, in warm and cold, rain and sun.

Perhaps, we will go back to Kentucky and Tennessee another day. It's probable that we will go to the South next. We will see the terrain some more. (Photo/Ghriangraf le Léna i Dakota Thuas, Páirc Stád Custer/ State Park)

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Fall's "Live: UUROP VIII-XII Places in Sun & Winter, Son": Music Review

After thirty studio records, these tally only about a third of the total releases from Mark E. Smith and whomever he has hired and fired since 1976, when he founded this ornery, restless art-punk/ post-punk outfit. The rest of The Fall’s discography consists of compilations and live albums, many of dodgy quality, many issued without Smith’s consent. So, this new live album, credited for its curatorship to Smith himself, implies a firm direction taken by Smith. 

Furthermore, this twelfth live album documents the longest stint by a Fall line-up ever. Drawn mainly from the past four studio albums by the band--Imperial Wax Solvent, Your Future Our Clutter, Ersatz GB, Re-Mit--Live: UUROP VIII-XII Places in Sun & Winter, Son lacks the scrawled album liner notes or art (except under the CD itself in the tray) of many Fall records. Perhaps the rip-offs or homages by Pavement and recently Parquet Courts have led Smith to streamline his albums visually and musically.

Without any guidance, the listener has only the title to suggest European origins and seasonal variation for when these twelve live tracks appeared. The stark typography and cover art strip down the graphic presentation. So do many of the songs, as the latest iteration of the band favors a gritty, arid approach.

Starting with a chiming “Wings (With Bells),” this venerable, allusive 1982 track from Perverted by Language repeats the dense, historical erudition of the original, enriched by, of course, bells. Smith sounds happy to be on stage, too, even if many of these tracks cut off any connection with the audience. Its prevalent ambiance reveals a boxier, muddier feel to the sound than the shinier studio versions for the inclusion. The album sounds better, arguably, than many live Fall records, but fans have come to expect that the band tends to issue even “official” live releases with lo-fi or compromised audio fidelity.

After all, The Fall remain iconoclasts. “Auto 2014 Chip Replace” feels jaunty and experimental, integrating as its title suggests bleeps and jolts, with squeals as backing vocals from Smith’s wife, Elena Poulou on keyboards. As on studio versions from this line-up, her contributions mix in blips and squawks, but the toy-like nature of her instrument somehow melds well with her lurching bandmates. 

So does another song that staggers about, the demented “Amorator” with its marital intimacy and squabbling, enhanced by Poulou’s Greek-accented backing vocals as good-natured barbs or taunts. Many Fall albums lately (as in the past twenty-five years?) falter a few songs in.  As delighted as Smith boasts at the beginning of “Jetplane”, the song hits turbulence rather than cloudless sky. However suitably shambolic the title of “Irish” may be, this reviewer of such lineage dutifully notes it falters, too.

Three songs here average seven minutes.  “Jetplane” is 3:45 but feels seven. Peter Greenway’s clattering guitar fights against the murk of the sprawling “Cowboy George” and sometimes succeeds. The Fall conjure up the spirit of the Velvet Underground, when Nico and John Cale contended with Lou Reed. Similar competitive tension, fueling a more eclectic song structure and sonic blend, may wear out a listener resigned to a bleary soundboard tape to discern whatever lyrical wit or scorn Smith mumbles. Or, it may reward a patient fan, for those who follow The Fall know, decades in on the long march, what to expect from Smith and his crew, who sign on for a treacherous voyage under a stern, sly taskmaster.

Desiccated, “Chino” warps a Western tune, showing Smith’s incorporation of country and rockabilly influences into the electronic scene energizing so much of European music during The Fall’s parallel career. It can make for a tiresome companion, but after a long, bleak sonic trek, a mirage appears. “Sir William Wray” as a bow to guitar hero Link Wray crackles with welcome life. It brings static; it revives. 

The pairing of “Fifty Year Old Man” and “Wolf Kidult Man” play off Smith’s middle-aged (he turned half a century old in 2007) rants, delivered in trademark groans and moans. They again sustain what his audience by now expects, as if a Beckett protagonist before the limelight, full of learned asides and staccato bursts of grumbling. The quality of these recordings, as before, may test any listener less loyal.

The one song from the period immediately prior to the formation of this line-up, “Reformation,” rallies the pace. Co-written with bassist Rob Barbato of Darker My Love (and along with bandmate Tim Presley, a pick-up member for The Fall for one CD), this track stands out. It blends in the krautrock and assaultive psychedelic tendencies of Darker My Love, locked into Smith and The Fall’s repetitive groove. At last, Keiron Melling’s drums and David Spurr’s bass push along Greenway’s guitar, and all works well.

Closing with “What About Us,” the call-and-response of Smith and Poulou on the original version gets muffled here, but it’s fun to hear her spit and yelp above the shadowed live version. Fun may not be the first word associated with The Fall, but those who have accumulated, as I have, the many recordings and reiterations of this unpredictable band under its unwaveringly resolute leader will find this an appropriate testament to the band’s most durable lineup yet. But that may all change tomorrow. (As above to Spectrum Culture, 10-27-14; in shorter altered form Amazon US 11-12-14)

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Proper Ornaments' "Wooden Head": Music Review

After meeting in a London vintage shoe shop, Argentinian Max Claps and Veronica Falls' Andrew Hoare formed this duo, appropriately signed to Slumberland. That label name never sounded more apt for a release from these two guitarists as The Proper Ornaments. Their debut, "Wooden Head," features fourteen measured, woozy, and catchy songs. Modestly but insistently, they burrow in.

The opener has stuck in my head for days after I first heard it. "Gone" mumbles its lament, over stumbling guitars and a shuffling beat. Vocals recall the British neo-psychedelic sounds of thirty years ago, and like much of this album, these short songs stay faithful to predecessors, if august ones. The Jesus and Mary Chain, sans feedback, provides a fitting reference for this first, unsteady song.

"Sun" rises slowly, as its Beatlesque drums and thick melody turn to the take that like-minded revivalists Darker My Love took on their first two albums. Swirling voices, a wash of cymbals, and strums over steady percussion. It ends suddenly, with a hint of menace after a magical mystery tour.

For "Ruby," the guitars turn gentler. A pastoral mood carries this along, unassumingly. By this time, a boost is needed to spark the track sequence. The Byrdsian guitars and foggy production of "Now I Understand" could have come off of "Younger Than Yesterday" and this blend of simple arrangements with chiming chords works well to highlight the pair's knack for pleasant folk-rock.

It's back to the Beatles, perhaps filtered through a L.A. Paisley Underground band such as Rain Parade, for "Don't You Want to Know" with its keyboard backing and forceful if understated drums.

Despite a title of "Magazine," I hear hints of The Kinks, cleverly crossed with the Beatles-period of the Byrds. However, a strength of this album is that such patterns entice rather than dissuade a listener. As a fan of every band I've listed in this review, I admire the craft this record incorporates.

Another twist of band references floats "Stereolab"; here we hear that band in the propulsive keyboards and layered pulses of the guitars. But there is also a nod to New Zealand indie rock on the Flying Nun label in the expansive instrumental approach. It's too brief a song, but it feels very epic.

A brasher delivery for "Step into the Cold" follows, a well-chosen jolt to sustain the spacier ambiance of the predecessor with a churning guitar arrangement again suited to aficionados of 1980s college rock. Hearing this, The Clean or The Chills hover at the edges, under the confident, intricate attack. Appropriately, a dominant influence on so many revivalists, The Velvet Underground, surfaces at its end in the twinned or overlain guitars and this song ends on a familiar, welcome note of repetition.

By now, "Tire Me Out" may sound an admission of weariness. It deftly simmers many of the sounds mentioned above. Yet it keeps a stripped-down, homespun sound with its backing track, as if a demo tape from an obscure if talented Down Under band circa 1982. For me, that's high praise.

The smokier mood of "Always There" creates a huskier atmosphere. It has a slight Ennio Morricone ambiance. For me, it seems inspired more by Chris Isaak than the more effusive musical forebears. However, it offers some variety for those who may like this sultrier, less effervescent or lysergic tone.

Yes, "Summer's Gone" does sound like another Jesus and Mary Chain downbeat ditty, in title and delivery. It borrows from the mid-period Velvets a contemplative attitude. It feels more reverential than revivalist. This may or may not recommend it to you, but again, the decision by The Proper Ornaments to divert itself from fourteen songs determined to repeat past masters merits due respect.

And, "What Am I to Do" reminds me of "Dear Prudence" as it begins with a slow jangled progression of guitars over a clicking percussion track. In its severe, sedated state, it summons up well sleepiness.

If you ever wondered what simmering the J+MC with the Beatles might produce, cue up "You Shouldn't Have Gone" for a fine example of what melancholic voices and processed effects produce. Boyhood fans in the 1960s turned 1970s musicians to make records in the 1980s in turn. These then spawned the creators of congenial sounds, five decades on. This song is a fine tribute to the pioneers of the psychedelic-pop and indie-rock movements which stretch by now back an entire half-century.

British accents on "You'll See" one last time pay homage to this legacy. For all its polite bows to those who came before, "Wooden Head" rewards in reminding us of the songwriting strengths within comforting three-minute songs. May this record keep playing on repeat for you, as it has for me. (7-31-14 in edited, shorter form, to Spectrum Culture)

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Aislers Set's "Terrible Things Happen" + "The Last Match": Music Review

The Ronettes cover Joy Division. This was my first impression when, a decade ago when browsing at Amoeba Records in Hollywood, I heard this San Francisco band playing over the speakers. Their third CD had just been released. I asked the clerk, I found it, and I bought it. 

What I heard, when I sought out the previous records by Amy Linton and her colleagues, was a sound that endeared me to their post-punk indie pop blend. However, when I downloaded many of tracks I liked best, I also skipped over a few on each album. For, The Aislers Set dashes between atmospheric or jaunty evocations of longing and love, and chirpier, more twee tunes that left me less moved, if respecting their craft.

The Suicide Squeeze CD and Slumberland Records LP reissues (no rare or bonus tracks, unfortunately) of The Aislers Set demonstrate how much of the Set's impact comes from singer-songwriter Amy Linton and how much from her nimble band mates. They began to enter the line-up halfway into the making of her self-recorded debut. Terrible Things Happen (1998) had started in Linton's lodgings, and it keeps some of the homespun drone-pop of her former band, Henry's Dress.

"Friends of the Heroes" opens the first album typically, with downbeat post-punk guitars and Linton's forlorn presence. "California" mixes in well-paced acoustic textures, but it sours its summer setting with whirring electronics, ominous bass, woozy vocal backing, and thundering drums. "Holiday Gone Well" similarly, plays its title against its start, as industrial rhythms hammer. They fade into a passage reminiscent of Joy Division, careening down into a voice rising from somewhere deeper. A blend of delicacy ("I fell in love again") and uneasy emotion, as the track chugs along, introduces true talent.

Slowing down, "Alicia's Song" roams into girl-group turf from more than thirty years before. (Critic Jack Rabid has compared Amy Linton to Shirley Alston Reeves of the Shirelles.) Measured drums and a sparer use of keyboards accentuate the texture of this, as it uses traditional arrangements to pay tribute, but not to imitate, Linton's forebears who sang of love, lust, and loss as they all reverberated.

This segues into "I've Been Mistreated" in similar fashion. The guitar swirls down into a melodic drain. Here, Linton's songwriting continues to reveal a knack for combining old and new, as if 1966 Motown met 1977 Manchester. Critics have found traces of groups as diverse as Belle and Sebastian, My Bloody Valentine, and The Who in her modest but impressively constructed productions, but to me, The Aislers Set, whether more of an early solo project or the later band, cuts out a fresh template.

"Mary's Song" shuffles along, indicative of the varied pacing on the band's albums. All three tend to fall off in energy as they progress, but on this first release, the energy sustains itself longer. The tracks move from early delight or delusion into delicacy and dissipation. Wyatt Cusick, a multi-instrumentalist, takes over the mike for "Why Baby"; his voice reminds me of Will Schwartz, from another inventive, sometimes surprising, queasy pop band from The City, Imperial Teen.

Mathematical wordplay enlivens "Long Division"; the remaster improves on the warped, appealing, if very lo-fi production on the 1998 disc. Reminiscent of Lou Reed's guitar in its more relaxed mood, "London Madrid" allows Linton another round of tambourine and plucked bass. Some songs on this album feature Cusick and drummer Yoshi Nakamato, stalwart support for the stolid or sly Linton.

A very minimal "Cocksure Whistler" uses only a subtle strum to back up Linton's lyrics. Returning to the depths where the bass digs in and voices strain to rise above, "Army Street" imitates its title, as if a regimented stretch beneath a tall concrete wall, or a hundred barriers. The attempts at cheer in "Falling Buildings" again clash with the title, as the lyrics seem to scrape out an admission of defeat. Whether its of Linton or her rival remains uncertain in her blurred articulation. The atmosphere of "Jaime's Song" filters from a distance Linton's chimes and voices, overlain in elegant, languid layers.

Finally, "My Boyfriend (Could Be a Spanish Dancer)" ambles along in catchy style, as if a garage-band's hit from the era so much of this album captures, yet does not mimic. For instance, the drums careen about, throwing off playfully the jaunty beat, and upending it just for fun. In this way, updating the sounds of the past, post-punk and girl-group, on this reissue, these songs remain some of Linton's best. Critics tend to assume she and her band, as she expanded her solo project, improved in range and execution with other two albums, but they both spin away with many downs as well as ups.

Keyboardist and bassist Alicia Vanden Heuvel joins for The Last Match (2000). While this is ten minutes shorter than the first CD, its uneven sequence, and wider influences as others contribute to the Set's sound, make it a challenge  that perplexes as well as pleases the listener. 

The punchy "The Way to Market Street" boasts improved production as it compresses the old-new influences of the first record into an organ-backed, percussive, civic celebration. More retrospective than previous songs, "Hit the Snow" recalls what the Beach Boys might have penned if they lived in more frigid climes. Cusick's "Chicago New York" delivers what many may interpret as an homage to Belle and Sebastian. More typical for the band, "One Half Laughing" roars with organ fills, sighing la-las from Linton, and spirited guitar-bass-drums crunch. Here, the girl-group sashay mingles with the surf-speckled strut, in a closely miked combination of two 1960s genres for a forceful pop tune.

Blondie might have been jealous of "Been Hiding". It brings that band's female-dominated perkiness into a more aggressive guitar arrangement, but one still recalling that patented Phil Spector Wall of Sound. The crunchy interplay of instruments over Linton's soft voice in the lofty "Balloon Song" (from fellow Slumberland act 14 Iced Bears) shows off the band at its most effervescent, and how it works best in short bursts with sturdy riffs. Back for "Lonely Side of Town", Cusick offers a lighter, piano-based contribution to balance our the ambitions of his band mates on the louder, denser tracks.

The title track soars as if effortless. Over, or under, an orchestrated instrumental bank of rising sounds, Linton incorporates horns to highlight her graceful appeal to "tell me something nice".  Continuing the tribute to the power of the keyboard, "Christmas Song" integrates sleighbells over another construction of sounds, as the band proves it can deliver a satisfying track without a singer.

Sidling into spaghetti-Western territory before wandering back to the haunts described above, "The Walk" lags, by comparison. The surf-guitar and punk bashing of "The Red Door" revive memories of Linton's roots, as well as a reminder of the band's ability to kick in amplification and feedback over what can be quite an atmospherically diverse CD. Only 35 minutes, it can feel epic, if uneven, too.

As proof, the skittering "Fairnt Chairnt" while better in its remastered version still lacks the staying power of the album's best riff-laden selections. None of the songs on either album fall flat, but if a handful had been originally cut, these albums might near classic status. Cusick shows on "We Give Up" that he can handle a more aggressive song as frontman, but as it lacks the depth and intricate structure of some previous standouts, it remains by comparison satisfactory and not a standout. Yet this attests to the strengths of these two imaginative albums. With a title like "Bang Bang Bang" closing this second CD, one has no idea what to expect. It's a gentle, spare coda, as Linton reflects.

These remasters pound the instruments into your ears. They deepen the vocal separation from the percussion, bass, and guitars. The original CDs had a tinny, warbled charm, but they also wore one out as Linton's appealing if mannered delivery worked best in three-minute doses. So, you may find yourself compiling, as I have, an Aislers Set playlist. I often play it in the starting stages of a long jet flight: the tones fit departure, and its giddy balance between pressure and its release. Many of the Set's moods prefer melancholy. They mass guitars behind a yearning woman's small, echoed voice which demands attention. After all, it first caught my ear above the clatter of hundreds of CD cases thumbed through by hundreds of customers in a cavernous, cement floored, Hollywood record store. 
(PopMatters 10-24-14)

Friday, November 21, 2014

Speed the Plough's "The Plough and the Stars": Music Review

Pastoral yet churning, soft but insistent, yearning but stoic, this indie-rock band from suburban New Jersey offers its retrospective after three decades. The ever-changing line-up, as one member in the interactive liner notes accompanying this limited-edition double-CD release recalls, resembles a Pete Frame musical pedigree. Its intricacy defies summary here, but guitarist Marc Francia tells it well, along with his present and past colleagues. Among them were the drummer from The Feelies, Stan Demeski, and bassist Brenda Sauter. STP grew organically out of that same Haledon, N.J., setting, and the mid-80s scene that spawned Yo La Tengo, at Maxwell's in Hoboken, and at WFMU-FM.

The genial ambiance gleaned from eclectic influences which YLT and The Feelies mastered fits this neighboring Jersey collective. Two albums appeared, with febrile dynamics, produced by Feelies guitarist Bill Million. Its self-titled 1989 debut and 1991's "Wonder Wheel" captured STP's firm hold on gentle propulsion. Nine out of the seventeen tracks on disc one come from these two long-players.

Highlights include the Eastern-European flavored "Vészprem", "Tommy's House", "Big Bus", "The Tide Won't Tire", and "Cutting Branches for a Temporary Shelter". Those song titles, some of the 75 written by keyboardist John Baumgartner, combine the exotic or reverential with the everyday, and so do their contents. STP mixes YLT's faraway feeling of summer daydreams with the edgier lyrics and more somber mien of The Feelies, pitched for first Brenda Sauter's voice, and, for the entirety of STP's career, Toni Paruta Baumgartner's woodwinds and vocals.

While the Don Sternecker-produced successors, recorded at the Feelies' home studio, may not have earned as wide a distribution, as jangly college rock later that decade began to be drowned out, the diffuse "Mason's Box" (1993) and the song-cycle "Marina" (1995) display their own modest appeal. The Baumgartners both sing, and their unassuming delivery may prove the one acquired taste for listeners otherwise eager to let these flowing, free-associative, and lilting tunes carry them along. Still, this homespun vocal quality arguably adds to the family atmosphere these records convey well.

That family expanded, and the core trio adds their children to the current roster. Ian and Dan Francia as the rhythm section and Mike Baumgartner (with "Cousin" Ed Seifert) on guitar start off some of the second disc. After a couple of decades off for parenthood, the latest version of STP revved its engines with two records in 2010 and 2011. (Their band bio updates this to say that while Ian and Dan since have flown the coop, John Demeski joins, to keep it in the family, along with "talented and charming" bassist Cindi Merklee.) A bonus EP, "Tag Sale", introduces among six strong songs the latest from now two Baumgartner composers. "Regrets (I've Had a Few)" is a great title, by the way.

Five tracks from a WFMU live session in 1993 encourage the band towards a looser sound away from the studio. (This laid-back but energetic mood enters into the song filmed too on disc two, but my promotional copy may have lacked full video inclusion. I had to obtain the advertised download link for the interactive booklet from the publicist, as it was not in the physical CD or the files provided. The Bar/None release in a variety of vinyl, MP3 and CD formats, therefore, may differ slightly from the preview copy I am reviewing here.) The percussion thickens, and the bass particularly improves with a more resonant, rattling rumble. "Centerville" with its pricklier, wobblier undertow works well in this ambiance, while a well-chosen cover of Young Marble Giants' "Final Day" matches the wistful with the critical.

Appropriately, STP covers Robert Wyatt's "The British Road" along with Bob Dylan's "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" and their original songs on ten downloads, live versions from Maxwell's, radio sessions, The Knitting Factory, and NPR's Mountain Stage as sonic evidence (as on "Lock and Key") of a louder, more brittle band than some of their studio legacy from the '90s perpetuated. These less buttoned-down recordings demonstrate, as with Hoboken's neighboring bands, that whether amplified or acoustic, the intelligent selection of solid songs outlasts line-ups, producers, growing up, or parenthood in creating smart music for years to come. (PopMatters 1-29-14 + Amazon US)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

"Temporary: Selections from Dunedin's Pop Underground 2011-2014": Music Review

If you have enjoyed The Clean, The Chills, The Bats, Verlaines, or The Dead C, you're aware of what bands from the New Zealand city of Dunedin can produce. But what about the bands who comprise the indie underground, three decades since the Flying Nun and Xpressway labels first popularized NZ pop, with its blend insular atmospheres, gentle melody, and psychedelically tinged experiments? Fishrider Records releases this compilation, introducing thirteen contenders from 2011-2014, and perhaps a few names debut which may be as respected as those which began this paragraph. We may not need three decades to tell.

The first track opens strongly with the typically "submerged" sonic quality often found in New Zealand productions. They can take on a watery, diffused air. Mavis Gary recalls this, in layered male-female choruses, moody guitar riffs, and a sophisticated take on pop smarts akin to San Francisco's Imperial Teen, in a catchy "Dim the Droog".

The title "Death & The Maiden" recalls that song from the very early period of Dunedin's Verlaines, so when Flowers for the Blind repeats it, one knows not what to expect. It turns out here to be a robotic rather than romantic delivery, with a woman's detached voice over a stern, synthesized rhythm. The chorus of "did you gouge out your eyes?" may not be the come-on a listener expects. 

A sprightlier tune from The Prophet Hens conjures up the lighter moments of The Clean or The Bats.
"All Over The World" keeps true to the underground spirit of pleasant keyboards, steady drums, and an untutored but determined vocal. This might have fit on a C-86 cassette in the mid-1980s, as a  Rough Trade single from an ensemble based in a market town in the Midlands: it's raw, yet confident.

Dunedin bands can be strongly guitar-driven. Males introduce "Heavy Going" in this style, but play this off against a more androgynous voice, throwing off whatever expectations the band's name implies. Again, this sounds like a past generation of indie rock, but it's refreshing and propulsive.

Naturally, harder edges on any such compilation also need honing. Mr Biscuits gets the flat affect vocal, an off-kilter Buzzcocks-like guitar progression, and a lurch into hardcore blasts balanced well in "My Plums are Ripe". Opposite Sex could have opened for the Raincoats or X-Ray Spex, as its knowingly arch commentary on consumerism, feminism, and machismo in "Supermarket" proves.

Side one closes with Strange Harvest's "Amnesia". Its echoed, disembodied whooshes match its title. They also remind listeners, as does The Dead C, that Dunedin is known for darker, edgier sound.

A melancholic combination of smiles and sadness, enhanced by strings, opens the next side. The Shifting Sands with "All The Stars" adroitly measures the right portions of wistfulness and hope. Its soft vocals, well-produced rhythm section, and its memorable, classic chords demonstrate talent.

Wistful is a quality often associated with Dunedin and New Zealand indie-pop. Astro Children, with the strained vocal clashing against tamped-down instruments (as if, again, submerged) in "Gaze", manage to make out of D.I.Y. materials a respectable song, even if the voice grates more than soothes. That harsher tendency, common to many N.Z. bands no matter how pop they otherwise may lean, scatters grit into the sonic blend, keeping its music from being bland.

This scrubbed-clean attitude, as the first moments of Kane Strang reveal in "Winded", give way to an upended Beach Boys arrangement. This sounds as if a beach buggy tipped over into the dunes. This is meant somehow as a compliment. While not the track I'd rush to repeat first on this compilation, it stands out as innovative, for there is a dogged effort here to rethink a revered predecessor's legacy.

The mood winds down again, away from harmonies and high notes, with Bad Sav. "Buy Something New" favors whispered vocals and a shuffling, compressed rock sound, shoved into too small a box. The voice, repeating the mental dislocation of the consumer, as the title urges, forces the hearer into a corner. The track, repeating indie-rock tropes and an amassed, post-punk, gloomy sound, may appeal to fans of a gothic-tinted sensibility. It's more derivative than the other tracks, but it's respectable.

The Scattered Brains of the Lovely Union live up to their name. A warbling guitar, a smear of faint brass, a lazy but snarly voice, and a weary sensibility make "Party to your Om" a woozy call from the margins of lethargy. It's a challenge to "Tomorrow Never Knows" but, as with the Beach Boys before, now the Beatles, as if the score was tipped up and played backwards. A shambolic tribute to past masters, I suppose.

Trick Mammoth concludes "Home Video" is not a bonus video, as far as I can tell on the downloaded file issued for my review. It's the most demo-sounding of the tracks, a singer and his guitar opening, and then only backing voices. What you might hear in a coffeehouse, it's fine, but not enough of a powerhouse track with which to wrap up what has been often a riskier, and more amplified, line-up.

These songs combine previous album or single releases, demos, unreleased, and new recordings. The variety refreshes, and makes one long for the days when such compilations introduced new talent unafraid to take risks. Much of this compilation recalls a promo sampler from twenty-five or thirty years ago, when "college rock" was a niche and variety encouraged on a more daring or more cocky label's eclectic roster. Graced by a colorful zine recounting each band's story, this arguably even improves on the liner notes of old. It is recommended for fans of whatever we call what used to be called "college rock", and transcends that niche even as it celebrates it once again. (10-1-14 to Amazon US; 9-30-14 to PopMatters)

Monday, November 17, 2014

Hamish Kilgour's "All of It and Nothing": Music Review

When the drummer gets to make his own album, listeners tend, with rare exceptions, to hesitate. One recalls Peter Criss, Keith Moon, and of course Phil Collins, for better or worse. But, the results need not always be so dire. Indie-rock drummers, more than arena rock bands, tend not to have their percussionists step forward, so when one from a revered band which started in 1978 does, you notice.

Hamish Kilgour's brother, guitarist David, founded The Clean back then. Now he plays not only with that band but with the Heavy Eights, while longtime bassist Robert Smith went on to sing with The Bats. Hamish also teamed up, when he moved to New York City, with Lisa Siegel as The Mad Scene. Another member of that band, on guitar, is Georgia Hubley, drummer for Yo La Tengo, and that band in turn has championed many of the New Zealand indie bands founded back then, yet at it now. Band often flip instruments, lineups, and approaches, but they sustain a love of crafted, quirky, indie rock.

Recorded with sometime Mad Scene member Gary Olson at his studio, Kilgour, now a New York resident, provides a stripped-down solo album, at first resembling demos rather than finished product. However, the lo-fi aesthetic of his band and their milieu assures that songs are not rough drafts, sketchy as they may be, but meant to sound just as they are, if often simply adorned and rendered.

For instance, "Going Out" features subtle percussion, as vibrations and resonance enhance the tune under the acoustic guitar and the closely-miked vocals. Kilgour in The Clean to the best of my knowledge tended to keep drumming rather than as stand out as front man. His voice keeps a casual tone unsurprising for his place in the lineup. He sings as if to himself, rather than croon or project his deep tones, and this delivery attests to the feeling of this album as DIY labor of love, for himself.

With a more prominent drum sound, "Strength of an Aye" approaches the propulsive quality that energized The Clean. It's strange as this seems to upend the guitar-driven pace of that band's more frenzied records. Here, it places the drums at the front, and arranges percussion behind it, with guitar and bass more submerged as the rhythm section. It makes me wonder what rock music would sound like if drummers stood out from their usual place in the line-up. (Phil Collins notwithstanding.)

The jangle and tambourine of "Crazy Radiance" recall XTC at their peak on a summer pastoral song. Once again, the percussion is nimbly used as backing, similar to a kettledrum in an orchestra, which creates a homespun grandeur to a bare-bones presentation of a confession of a singer's sorry heart. "Smile" circles around a celebration of a woman rather than a lament to her, but it finds a happy midpoint between a subdued and a swaggering attitude. "Hullaballoo" resembles his brother David's more tense and dour lyrics, under more insistent chords. These strummed songs would work well on a small stage. So, the demo-like nature of their production by Olson makes you feel their intimacy.

More amplified tunes also appear. "HK Eleven Eight" shamble along with a more fully realized production. The unsteady psychedelic hints of The Clean return and the effects through which electric guitar is filtered add to the dazed appeal of this shuffle. Kilgour's vocals fade as the feedback rises.

Feedback into "Turn Around" as tambourine and guitar balance on Kilgour's ascending riff and descending vocal, all done without undue attention, let the listener into what feels very near to the ear. Olson's production sprinkles in effects rather than drowns the songs in them, and the album benefits from such restraint. As with an experienced cook, Olson supervises Kilgour's creations; he knows when to let them simmer on their own and when to blend them with the deftly placed garnish.

Keyboards drown voices barely audible at the start of "Rave Up" as percussion shimmers, in a jazzier style. I prefer jangle to groove and tinkle, so this for me went on a bit too long. But it's not that bad, still. A couple of other songs chug along well enough, and the album as a whole conveys satisfaction.

As an admirer of many New Zealand bands who began thirty-odd years ago, I wondered what The Clean's drummer would sound like on his own, as the only vocalist. Given the chance at last, the results, as with so many of his nation's songs, prove winningly if roughly delivered. They should satisfy not only fans of New Zealand indie rock but any curious listener who may relish tunefully played, inventive songs with unexpected touches. When this drummer gets to release eleven songs as a guitarist and vocalist, you sense the pride he takes in these quietly assembled songs emerging, after all these decades behind the indie-rock kit. This step forward belies its title, "All of It and Nothing." (Spectrum Culture 9-7-14)

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Ag siúl ag timpeall i dTailte na Dearg

Shúil muid thart ar lár i dTailte na Dearg. Bhí an tráthnóna riamh ag cuir cuairt Ghleann Darach. Ar dtús, d'ith Léna, Leon agus mise ár lón ina bialann Indaich.

Tháinig muid leis chara Leon, Mike, go an picturlann mór chun feicéail "Gone Girl." Bhí tráchta go leor ann. Níl muid ábalta a fháil páirceála ach ar aghaidh anseo, ag an stásiún traenach iontach chomh ina ghrianghraf anseo.

Rinne muid ar súil go dinnéar ar Eureka in aice láimhe. D'ith borgaire glasraí i stil na Iarthiar. D'ol mé seagal beoir áituil ó Ghrúdlann Doíteán.

Chuaigh muid ar cheile triu ar lár. Bhí a fhíos Leo cara eile ann. Cheannaigh muid uachtar reoite dheantas baile as a shiopa beag ar an Bóthar Citris; roghnaigh mé blas an oraiste agus míl. 

Ní fhaca mé an baile ag timpeall ansin riomh. Thaitin liom a breathnaigh ar an gealach geal os cionn na crainn pailme. Bhí an lá an-té; bhí an óiche taitneamhach ansuid.

Walking around Redlands

We walked around the center of Redlands. It was evening after we visited Oak Glen. First, Layne, Leo, and I ate at an Indian restaurant for lunch.

We came with Leo's friend Mike, to a theater to see "Gone Girl." There as so much traffic there. We were not able to get parking but in front of the wonderful and old train station in this photo here.

We made a walk to dinner at Eureka nearby. I ate a veggie burger in Western style. I drank a local rye beer from Ritual Brewery. 

We went together through downtown. Leo knew another friend there. We bought homemade ice cream from his small shop on Citrus Avenue; I chose orange honey flavor.

I never saw the town around there before. I enjoyed watching the bright moon above the palm trees. The day was very hot there; the night was pleasant out there. (Ghriangraf/Photo)

Thursday, November 13, 2014

David Kilgour and the Heavy Eights' "End Times Undone": Music Review

"That record's one of the best I've heard in a long time." So the clerk praised my purchase of David Kilgour's "Frozen Orange" a few years ago. That album featured Kilgour's cover painting of a diver amidst bright coral and clear water, and so does this latest release. But on it, no diver can be seen, only coral. Perhaps "End Times Undone" hints at a more natural setting, or a more apocalyptic one?

Whatever the reason for the title, these ten short songs capture the buoyant mood of this singer and guitarist from longtime New Zealand indie stalwarts The Clean. Backed by guitarist Tony de Raad, bassist Tom Bell, and drummer Taane Tokona, these modest songs begin in spirited good cheer.

"Like Rain" soars with optimism despite its title, as after all, this is New Zealand where such weather may more be the norm than the exception. "Lose Myself in Sound" sustains the buzz and lo-fi charm of The Clean's guitar workouts. "Light Headed" prefers to settle down, with a measured use of percussion, reverberating production, and a headier production integrating whispers over keyboards.

So much of the music from these islands gains its ambiance from the setting, and this record feels both lazily played and carefully arranged. That is, while the recording of this over the past few years came from not steady tinkering over songs but days now and then when the Heavy Eights convened to record quickly, the combination of leisure and efficiency sinks into these congenial grooves.

A previously released single, "Christopher Columbus", celebrates an early mariner's quest west. Jangling, this updates on the shanty to convey the restless nature of those who seek out another way. "Spread a little light around, send it in the right direction. Bound to need a rest, everybody needs a rest." This unassuming tune displays Kilgour's three-plus decades of songcraft simply and deftly.

An edgier "Crow" uses a prowling guitar arrangement and grumbled vocals to explore a darker mood. It ends without resolution, as if the singer still seeks a meaning that eludes him. "Dropper" swirls up a spacier sound, hinting at psychedelic influences even if the production refuses to give into, at first, to its typical phasing or effects to illustrate an altered state. It holds back, so when such elements enter, they prove more rewarding for having been delayed. Whereas an acid-rock band would have over-indulged, the brevity of the Heavy Eights under Kilgour's control keeps these moments brief.

The soft-rock strums of "Comin' On" circle around themselves, as doubt in the lyrics plays off against the cheer of the guitars over a steady bass and reliable drums. Kilgour deepens the resonance of his vocals in the mix as he contrasts chipper instruments with darker words. Again, it's a humble success.

An underwater distance echoes in "I Don't Want to Live Alone"; the lyrics of isolation and loneliness stand out more on this track as the instrumentation is pared down, heavy on the snares and keyboards, processed to increase their gloomy impact. It's closer to a jazz vocalist than an indie-rock guitarist's moment before the mike. "Down the Tubes" continues this feeling of depression as the album winds down. The keyboards rise up and the guitar, bass, and drums beat them back, as the singer contends with his longing for unrequited love, seconded by a repeated riff which grows as the song continues.

A bit of a boost seemed timely at the end. "Some Things You Don't Get Back" cautions the hearer against too much hope, however. "Running out of gas" floats up from the vocals, and the impression remains that this final song wishes to stick to the increasingly sad mood of the track sequence.

Similar to albums by The Clean, "End Times Undone" feels longer than it is, in a good way. It packs pleasant moments into its short span, but it prefers to settle down with a listener ready for unsettled introspection, immersed in intelligent songs from a reliable musician fronting a solid indie band.  PopMatters 9-16-14

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Elliot Smith's "Roman Candle": Music Review

After Elliott Smith’s death in 2003, a wall on Sunset Boulevard, where L.A.’s Silver Lake blends into Los Feliz, filled with tributes. They crept over a colorful design of an auto-repair shop’s façade, featured on the cover of Smith’s Figure 8 (2000). I drove past it often, as my wife works a few blocks away and my sons started pre-school on Sunset in this relentlessly gentrifying, lucratively twee neighborhood. My sons and I watched that wall crowd with penned or scrawled flourishes. One of my boys wondered about its boldest message, left in broad black marker, way up high in a corner: “You fucking coward”.

Similar to Kurt Cobain, a fellow Northwest talent and misfit, Smith’s sudden end generated sympathy among many and anger among at least a few. At the time, Smith’s death was locally rumored a suicide, although some averred that the two stab wounds to Smith’s heart were perhaps the result of a drug deal gone wrong, rather than a self-inflicted, fatal wound. Like other entertainers already famous or not yet so, who moved to Los Angeles and then died mysteriously, Smith’s fate shrouds how we respond to his career. Listeners may find more gloom in his terse debut album, Roman Candle, than even Smith intended. Or, this half-hour may foreshadow his mortality a decade after he recorded nine songs on a four-track machine with a Radio Shack microphone, as a demo tape for Portland label Cavity Search.

I’ve always liked Smith’s previous band, Heatmiser. While overlooked, it boasted a grittier, denser post-hardcore attack, led by fellow guitarist Neil Gust (later in No. 2), backed by bassist Sam Coomes (later in Quasi) and drummer Tony Lash (later in Sunset Valley). The fact that Smith’s fellow Portland-based musicians never sustained the success he would, as Roman Candle signaled his solo career, does not diminish Heatmiser’s compact power, with raw melodies and honest lyrics about sex or sordidness.

These low-life attitudes, if expressed in educated form (Smith and Gust met at rarified Hampshire College), permeated Smith’s tunes. The title track opens with soft but insistent strumming. Smith sought to separate himself from Heatmiser’s roar, and the grunge glory of Seattle’s Nirvana and Soundgarden. Behind the closely-miked chord changes and muted fidelity, Smith warbles and wavers, usually troubled.

His talent arrived early, for “Condor Ave.” was written when he was 17. A livelier tune, it narrates depressing subject matter with cheerful delivery, over a spritely air. This typical, dogged juxtaposition, over even this short album, can wear an attentive listener down. Smith parades his gift for lovely guitar, as on “No Name #1”, but his refusal to ease up on downbeat narratives betrays a contrary bent. In hindsight, this slant may have hastened his separation from Heatmiser (even if Gust appears on the cover and Lash helped mix Roman Candle), given his next 10 years of heavy drinking and drugs.

The titling of four songs, and three in a row, as “No Name” nods to Smith’s willful obscurantism, his insistence on obscurity. Numbers #2 and #3 stay respectable, if less memorable: “Everyone’s gone/ Home to oblivion.” Yet, pleasant singing and graceful harmony convince a casual listener (if words retreat to the background) about Smith’s wise choice to lighten cloudier moods with sunnier melodies.

“Drive All Over Town” drags; the fourth “No Name” about a breakup finds Smith straining his voice to reach a sensitive register which, while he carries it off convincingly, may have inspired his imitators to whine and moan about the lover who left. This self-pitying atmosphere does dampen Smith’s legacy.

The titles of the final two tracks, “Last Call” and “Kiwi Maddog 20/20” (a fortified wine) allude to the alcohol-fueled concerns that haunted Smith. The first song despite its put-downs and self-hatred whirls around a more aggressive guitar, recalling Heatmiser’s ornery, if textured, songcraft. The second applies reverberation for resonance (aided by a drummer) which expands acoustic textures. Both songs anticipate his self-titled second album and his third, Either/Or (which some of his fans, me included, count as his best). Major label signing followed. Then, his music became more baroque, more pop and more Beatlesque. Smith’s characteristic songwriting continued, but studios and bigger budgets muffled the punch of his direct, honest, even if uneven first three records, which better show his dynamic range.

Smith figured these songs would lead to an offer of a seven-inch single on Cavity Search. But all were accepted and released by the label. Their lo-fi nature (a 2010 remaster tweaked its frequencies, but I have only heard the CD as released in July 1994) conveys Smith’s pain, as it applies his musical remedy.

The qualities Smith brings to these sparely played, deftly arranged, yet simply recorded tracks reveal the themes and styles that led, after two more (arguably better) albums on Kill Rock Stars, to critical acclaim and modest mainstream success. Smith was accepted by those who would too soon express their sadness on that Sunset Boulevard wall. Anyone who viewed at the 1998 Oscars his nominated ballad “Miss Misery” may remember his unease, aired all alone before a billion people. Backed by the house orchestra, he curled up into one of his characteristic expressions to loneliness. His awkward stance as he sang an abridged version of the Good Will Hunting song displayed his discomfort. Fame never fit Smith, although his reputation grew. Predictably, he lost to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” from Titanic. (Spectrum Culture 10-9-14: "Holy Hell! Roman Candle Turns 20")

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Game Theory's "Blaze of Glory": Music Review

I first heard Game Theory via a clock radio in the farmhouse attic where I lived in 1983. Despite the lack of fidelity, from the first listen, I recognized talent. Its chirpy, insistent, jangle-pop stuck. Scott Miller's earnest, slightly strained vocals, his strong melodic gift, his knack for smart lyrics, witty delivery, and self-deprecation won me over. Miller recruited eager musicians willing to surrender their own whims to the commitment he demanded. The results, coming out of a California college town, introduced the first of many ambitious recordings he and his friends, in Game Theory and then The Loud Family, left to us to enjoy for the next two decades, as the epitome of a revered cult band.

His music stands for his time, but (I admit that I am nearly identical in age to Miller, so this deepened my interest in his career) it does not date it for me. Too clever for the masses, Miller listened to a wide variety of musical genres and, in subversive and entertaining manner--and sometimes disturbingly so--he challenged them. The jolt of Miller's unexpected death last year spurred his devoted fans and colleagues to move forward. Once again, or at last, attention is being paid to him.

Omnivore Records kicks off their re-releases of Game Theory's long out-of-print albums with this expansion of their first LP, Blaze of Glory. Miller was making indie music since his teens; Alternate Learning, formed in Miller's native Sacramento in 1978, shows on the live version of "Aliens in Our Midst" already the guitar attack, the command of dynamics, and the vocal confidence belying the young age of Miller and his fellow musicians. The first two bonus tracks fit neatly, almost seamlessly, into the sound of the college-era band that would succeed them, Game Theory. As future Gamester Donnette Thayer observes in the oral history which serves as most of this CD's liner notes, Miller had written some of that band's first material while still in high school. Childhood friend and Game Theory bassist Fred Juhos affirms what fans may have long suspected: "It was clear from the beginning that it was Scott's band." I find a comparison to Mark E. Smith of The Fall appropriate. I recognize the admiration musicians may admit for an autodidact, a stubborn muse who from his teens refuses to let his dream of how his rock songs must sound be warped by compromise or by sellout.

Admittedly, as with many such band's initial efforts, the results (even for admirers like me) must be judged as promising rather than fully accomplished. This is fitting, after all, for musicians learning how to play, recording at home. I had heard much of this as replayed over by a band assembled under Miller, and re-produced by him as Distortion of Glory (1993). There, the songs emerged as brighter, if more brittle CD cuts. They felt jagged, if sometimes very ethereal. Perhaps that also proves Scott Miller's ability to combine the sunny and the shadowy, imaginatively. Here, by contrast, these 1982 originals favor a slushier, muddier mood. I like both styles, but as earlier tracks (as a vinyl LP, it came wrapped in a garbage bag) had never been issued digitally, this 2014 remastering captures a less baroque or fussy feel. This attitude compliments rawer, or more delicate, live recordings and demos made by Alternate Learning, and Miller solo, among these fifteen bonus tracks generously added.

Highlights do shine, although this will mainly appeal to fans of Game Theory, whose later works burst with the potency evident as they gestate here. The starter "Something to Show" sparks with energy. "Mary Magdalene" introduces the inverted chords and offbeat progressions typical for Miller's blend of mildly psychedelic atmospheres to cloak his stories of failed love and persistent longing. Fred Irwin's drums power "The Girls Are Ready to Go" to show the band's affection for party tunes. Nan Becker's keyboards churning under "Sleeping Through Heaven" typify Miller's preference for catchy New Wave rhythms, played under or at angles against his erudite, stoically wry lyrics. These, full of references to high culture and pop dreck, drew comparisons to Thomas Pynchon. (I speculate why Miller did not seek to cover some of Pynchon's own archly demotic, oddball lyrics, matching them to Game Theory's power-pop experiments. I suppose that elusive author remained so.)

The remainder of this reissue also intersperses four snippets, audio of hijinks from "Scott Miller Testing Laboratories Record Tests"; yes, as the disclaimer advises, some of the material is "for historical purposes only." However, it's fun to hear Miller and his bandmates--some of whom appear as once or future members of the band (shades again of The Fall)--letting loose in live versions of many of Miller's early songs. Alternate Learning had gained its reputation live, in the college scene near Sacramento. Now, listeners can appreciate the impact Miller and his bandmates were making while still at the University of California, Davis. Game Theory calculated its impact and sharpened its range. They bore down, as Miller became even more ambitious, combining studio skills with intellectual craft. Omnivore's future releases should convincingly chart the lasting legacy of his band.
(Spectrum Culture 10-5-14)

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Gun Club's "Fire of Love" Music Review

"Why are these songs not taught in schools?" So asked Jack White in 2008, citing "Sex Beat", "She's Like Heroin to Me", and "For the Love of Ivy". Careful examination of them, as much of this fiery 1981 debut which pioneered post-punk roots music, may provide a self-evident answer why impressionable tots may not want to be exposed to sex, drugs, and promises of a third element added after to the first two: death. But it all sounds like fun, ten tracks that wallop on this reissue as exciting, entertaining, and evil as ever.

Jeffery Lee Pierce's howling vocals, backed by Ward Dotson's slide and lead guitar, and two recruits from Los Angeles punks The Bags, Rob Ritter on bass and Terry Graham on drums, fire this album up. Produced half by Chris D. of The Flesh Eaters and half by Tito Larriva of the Plugz, it carries a ramshackle feel that the original vinyl (which I happen to have bought on release from Chris D. himself as he used to man the checkout counter at L.A.'s Rhino Records; his clever cover art appeared only on the import as Slash Records preferred a tamer tribal design instead of his chortling or menacing voudou themes) with hiss and crackle and a very low budget conveyed vividly.

This remaster, from Superior Viaduct, heightens the impact of the raw sound. While on its Ruby Records vinyl what Robert Christgau dismissed as the "tunelessly hooky allure" provides for me the merit rather than the drawback of this, after all, punk-era indie LP, it may not satisfy purists. Pierce's poetry: "we sit together drunk like our fathers used to be" survives his slurred phrasing and the band's clunky playing. His cover of "Preachin' the Blues" combines Robert Johnson's and Son House's lyrics, showing an intelligent rendering of this classic blues song, updated with Dotson's ringing slides up and down the frets, and a skittering drum roll from Graham, before Pierce enters, growling.

Following a rockabilly "Sex Beat", these two track signal the band's intentions: The Gun Club wanted to be taken seriously, not only to amuse, by its punk-blues fusion. Pierce could be lighthearted, but he also could hone his voice and guitar into a threat, making sex seem less a release than a sentence imposed on his intended partner, or target. "We can fuck forever/ but you will never get my soul", the object of his affections is assured in "Sex". At the end of "Preachin'", he yowls with similar glee, sure that his calling, one that gets him off the hook of having to do real work for a living, is now attained. 

Larriva's plaintive violin backs "Promise Me" with a slower pace, droning as the fiddle's few notes sustain under the slide guitar; the band's use of dynamics on this album merits acclaim. Sequenced well, it mixes tracks from Larriva's and Chris D's productions, adding variety in tone and volume. Therefore, "She's Like Heroin to Me" showcases Pierce's knack for boastful blues swagger and surprising snips of poetry as when his earnest voice and unsteady pace make him more rather than less believable. "I know my special rider/ I can feel her in the dark." He presents himself as both superhero and everyman, as capable of transport on whatever kind of horse he may summon at night.

"For the Love of Ivy" wobbles as the rhythm section pounds out the basic patterns, while Pierce opens with "You look just like an Elvis from hell." The song meanders despite its relative brevity, but it too conveys the sense of a band exploring new ground musically as it figures out its innovations. Pierce's boasts continue, and akin to an antagonist in a Quentin Tarantino flick, I find them less disturbing than Christgau did. Pierce may be seen as a precursor of complex racial appropriation, or not. It may be for shock value, or it may be drug-fueled and drink-sodden macho posing. After all, both the blues and punk shared this lyrical and musical stance. The Gun Club figured this out first. 

You can hear him hiss "shh" as the song concludes, a feature of the remaster. "Fire Spirit" closes what was side one with a mid-tempo "Fire Spirit". This allows the band to regain its place in a manner anticipating Pierce and a changing line-up in later years, when the band lost its early edge even as it attained a better grasp of alt-rock standards. They achieved European and overseas success, but in our native Los Angeles, I can attest at this time as one who longed to see them (but was barely too young for the over 21 clubs they preferred), that an eager following abroad was less reciprocated here.

A chugging guitar introduces "Ghost on the Highway" with another rockabilly song to start a side of the vinyl original. "It is not an art statement/ to drown a few passionate men" is likely not a sentiment to be found on either punk or blues records preceding it, I reckon. The offbeat nature of Pierce's lyrics, declamatory and allusive, offer a twist on either genre, and they embed themselves in the songs beneath their busy or lazy melodies. He ends with a moan, and the listener shares his loss. 

Side two settles in more. "Jack on Fire" takes the slow burn approach. Again, Pierce adopts a series of claims as he confronts his lover to be: "Me and you a temporary debut." "Some Creole boys were lying dead." "I used his blood to paint my costume." "You will make love to me tonight." "It will be understood that I am bad." "For every day is Judgement Day to me." It's meant all in jest, surely. Or maybe not. For like a skilled front man, Pierce keeps us guessing his next move. It draws us in deep.

True to its title, "Black Train" trundles on, as Graham's drums begin. Ritter's bass was always the least-prominent instrument on this rather primitive recording, and the remaster while it sharpens the soundstage and allows Pierce's voice a better place at the center, apart from the music, doesn't sufficiently boost the lower registers here. The record feels tinny, if as a lo-fi homage to past masters.

The bass pops up more amidst the swampy feel and grinding, bayou critter percussion from Graham, echoing in the quieter "Cool Drink of Water". It sounds the most improved, sonically, on this reissue. This covers another Johnson, Tommy, in the most languid track.  "I wanted water/ She gave me gasoline" is quite a couplet, too. It does take its time, as a blues song may, but it's a needed respite.

"Goodbye Johnny" closes with a farewell, gliding away on slide guitars again. They alternate with slashing ones, and Ritter's bass rumbles along. It serves as a fitting reminder of both a sawed-off, hard-bitten punk sensibility and a bluesy, drawn-out compulsion to sink deeper into cloudy depths. 

This record has often been reissued, but it has been a decade or so since it has appeared on CD. Take this opportunity to add it to your collection. New generations need to hear this, and so should you.  (In slightly edited form to Amazon US 8-11-2014; Also slightly revised 8-25-14 to PopMatters)

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Who's "Quadrophenia Live in London": Music Review

"They are no longer kids, but they have not forgotten." So Ellen Willis, the late cultural critic and pop music reviewer, mused about The Who. Back in 1969. Having finally achieved American success with "Tommy", they had more than one rock opera in them. So Pete Townshend sought to prove.

After his "Lifehouse" project floundered in the early 1970s, Townshend chose to adapt the band's four personalities into another double-LP rock opera. This time, the characteristics of The Who, with Roger Daltrey as the "helpless dancer", John Entwistle as the romantic, and Keith Moon as the "bloody lunatic", contended with Pete, "a beggar, a hypocrite", as various leitmotifs dramatized. At the time, quadrophonic speakers were the audiophile's innovation; these combined and contrasted with the schizophrenic nature of one Mod's attempt to reconcile his fractured self, set more or less a decade earlier, when The Who emerged (if briefly) as the premier Mod ensemble. About ten years into their career, Quadrophenia found the godfathers of arena rock squaring off against the punks.

The original 1973 vinyl has been fussed over and remastered and reissued already. The 1979 film adaptation found Entwistle manipulating some of the songs for new mixes. The album has been played live more than once, originally with poor results. This may account for it being toured less often than "Tommy", which perhaps outlived by its own cinematic version its initially fresh impact.

Quadrophenia benefits by comparison, with Jimmy's less outlandish story (enriched in the original gatefold LP by a narrative booklet of photographs, here available in a deluxe edition version), a more sophisticated integration of orchestral elements as Townshend mastered the synthesizer, and a more relevant storyline set in London when music mattered and fans proclaimed allegiance to their faction, their fashion, and their bands. Issued at what may have been a low point for mainstream rock music, it signaled a revitalized band at its creative peak, eager to take on the challenge of staying so, after so many years at the top, alongside The Rolling Stones and The Beatles as Britain's most famed bands.

Forty years later, this double-CD live concert from London's Wembley Arena on July 8, 2013, about two hours long, proclaims that sprawling, complicated album. Daltrey moves his voice down a peg from the high notes he can no longer attain, but on "Love Reign O'er Me" and "Helpless Dancer", both demanding challenging vocal range, he manages fine. The former song also slows down in its opening, allowing Townshend to tinker with the arrangement slightly. He integrates deft touches on guitar often, as on an extended "5:15" closing the first disc. He sprinkles updates into the synthesized voices and effects throughout which thickened the original album, as when he fiddles with which voice chimes into the overture "I Am the Sea". It's now a female, and she's a haunting touch that gently enhances the earlier version.

For a live concert, it marches along with additional instrumental support. Pino Palladino on bass, Scott Devours on drums, and Pete's younger brother Simon on second guitar deliver solid backing; Simon sings lead on "The Dirty Jobs" in a thinner voice than Roger. Frank Simes, John Corey, and Loren Gold earn keyboard credit and backing vocals; Dylan Hart and Reggie Gresham fill in on horns. Veteran listeners to this album will realize neither Keith Moon nor John Entwistle are present in person, but they emerge. Entwistle's bass solo remains on "5:15" "via video recording" while Moon's "Bell Boy" vocal from the original studio album is wisely incorporated. The subtler 2013 differences highlight rather than detract from the respectable, solid, if at times workmanlike, delivery.

Some of the band's big hits fill out the rest of the concert. "Who Are You" and "You Better You Bet" catch Roger a bit winded. The keyboards continue to hold up well, but the playing of the guitar, bass, and drums doesn't lift later songs up much from their earlier renditions, live or on record. "Pinball Wizard", "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" offer competent versions of these warhorses. A song from another partial song cycle, "Endless Wire" (2006), a "Tea and Theatre" which recalls The Kinks in style if not voice, closes this live album in a more acoustic, reflective manner.

Fans of the original may enjoy a chance to hear how Pete and Roger meet the onstage task of reining in operatic material so as to focus on both its orchestral heights and its rock foundation. This may not replace the 1973 album in any collection, but like the 1979 soundtrack, it merits recognition for its own insights into its enduring appeal, long after Mods or Rockers themselves mattered. The band continues to strive to do justice to melodic and intelligent material. The Who, however it survives, repeats that that youthful concerns and ideals matter, no matter how long the band or we endure. (PopMatters 8/19/14)

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Move's "Live at the Fillmore 1969": Music Review

My favorite album from this Birmingham band's impressive back-catalogue (much of it sadly out of print in the U.S., where they never had the impact they deserved) is 1970's "Shazam". Their command of pop and psychedelic moods, combined with an increasingly heavy rock sound (before they morphed into ELO by 1972), makes that record one of the finest from the British progressive scene. They combined typically eclectic and often cleverly revamped covers such as Ars Nova's "Fields of People", Frankie Laine's "Don't Make My Baby Blue" and Tom Paxton's "The Last Thing on My Mind" with the ambitious original "Cherry Blossom Clinic Revisited" which presaged ELO's classical rock blend. "Hello Susie" was a hit for the Amen Corner in a lighter version than Roy Wood's, indicative of the more brutal, if still tuneful, sound the later band was incorporating before Jeff Lynne joined, and the drift away from pop and psychedelia gave way to the classical crossover.

Five out of "Shazam"'s six songs are supplemented on these tapes kept by the band's singer, the late Carl Wayne. The concert adds their earlier hit "I Can Hear the Grass Grow", "Goin' Back" (the Gerry Goffin-Carole King song covered by the Byrds), and lengthy, bruising adaptations of songs by the Nazz, "Open My Eyes" and "Under the Ice". The latter's rumbling, extended treatment on stage does outweigh its welcome, but it shows how The Move generously acknowledged its colleagues and influences.

On the tapes from October 17 and 18, 1970, while the San Francisco audience can barely be sensed, the band delivers a molten version of some of their best original and cover songs, even denser than the arrangements on "Shazam". While touring tensions between Wood (who does not contribute to the liner notes which bassist Rick Price and drummer Bev Bevan supplement) and Wayne apparently accelerated the breakup of this lineup, The Move despite U-Haul-tugging road weariness and Price's unknowing ingestion of bad acid manage to pummel Californians for over eighty minutes in concert.

Additional "night performances" reprise three of the songs. Some of these tracks stomp on longer than their LP versions, but that adds value for loyal fans. Wood excelled at mordant shorter tunes, but the swaggering mood of The Move by late 1970 tilts toward bashing, amplification, and assault, all the while keeping the lyrical wit and intricate layers of the music they had by then made elaborate.

Overcoming the limited fidelity of the master tapes, forty-five years later, these last dates of a tour where they played on the same bill as Joe Cocker and Little Richard shows the four musicians straining to break through to a "hard to please" American audience. Bev Bevan's phrase, from the notes and his affable recollections which close the second CD, captures a commitment to musical quality and sly invention which The Move did so well. (9-1-14 to Amazon US)