(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Concert Review - Dead Rock West, Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers

30 May 2009 (Aggie Theater, Ft Collins, CO)
A Roger Clyne show is guaranteed to be a fun, uplifting experience. That's why I see him every chance I can. Fortunately, he comes through Colorado fairly often, maybe because he's friends with local legend Johnny Hickman (Cracker). If you don't know Roger, he was the front man for a great band called the Refreshments, mostly known for their big hit Banditos. Since then, he's grown a lot as a writer and performer.

Dead Rock West
It's hard to open for a band like Roger Clyne's. The fans are all psyched for his unique sound and songs and they're ready for the mood he creates, too. The warm up act has to come out and fit into that somehow and still show enough of a unique character to get the audience's attention. Dead Rock West did an admirable job. Overall, they have a country roots rock sound with some of that vaguely defined "Americana" feel, which complemented the Peacemakers. My first impressions bounced around bands like the Beat Farmers, X, and maybe a touch of early REM. Of all these, X was the most obvious, with Cindy Wasserman and Frank Lee Drennen providing nicely contrasting vocal harmonies over a punky/rockabilly jam. Okay, the music angle is well covered but what about the mood?
That's covered, too. The whole band bring an exuberance that is quite different than Roger's while still building up that party vibe. The other guitarist (Gregg Safarty?) bounced around with his Flying V to every song; the energy stayed consistently strong. Frank and Cindy have an easy rapport that adds an intimacy and depth to their songs. While leads weren't the center of what the band does, they knew how to build intensity, layering a jangly wail over a deliberate country rock groove.
The more I listened to Dead Rock West, the more I could pick up a mid-60s' rock vibe, like the Animals or early Rolling Stones. Simple parts came together to create something rich and interesting. I bought their CD, Honey and Salt, and recognized several songs from their show. The energy is fairly different than their live show, maybe a little more down tempo. It wasn't as hot as their live show, which is typical, though the songs are tight and compelling. Rocket From the Crypt was my favorite of what I heard them do live. This song drives strongly and has that wailing guitar I mentioned. The CD also has their cover of X's Burning House of Love, which features harmonies that are a little sweeter than X's. Check out some of the links and give them a listen.

Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers
Aside from the great songs, the real reason why people come out over and over again to see Roger Clyne is because of the mood he creates. There's a kind of openness and acceptance that Roger personifies and the crowd takes on as their own. It's a diverse mix of people. Frat guys, older hippies, bikers, cowgirls, and more co-mingle and the shared ritual of the show transcends the labels. Don't think of it as a hippy Be-In love scene. There's a deeper layer of pragmatism that recognizes that we are all flawed and that's okay, maybe even desirable.

The crowd is just as important as the band. We all sing along with every song. Roger turns the microphone to the audience and acknowledges that these have become our songs, too. The songs talk about Mexico as an idea (Mexico, Nada, Banditos), flawed relationships (Preacher's Daughter, Down Together, Girly), and the true love buried in those relationships (Green and Dumb, Your Name on a Grain of Rice, Mercy). Then there are the drinking songs (Mekong, Jack vs Jose). Roger takes on all of these characters and the whole band throws themselves into each song. This is deeply sincere music.

The first 45 minutes passed in a blur with no real break between the songs. Then the pace let up a little and the party was well underway. The setlist favored the Refreshments era more than some of his shows, but there were still plenty of songs from the recent CDs. Roger surprised us with a cover of Tom Petty's American Girl. Normally, he doesn't play a lot of songs by other artists. Another treat was pulling out Feeling, a real old Refreshments song that I hadn't heard in a very long time.

After the band wrapped up Nada and walked offstage, the crowd chanted, "uno mas" until they came out for a final encore (Tributary Otis). Feeling wrung out and purified, we all walked into the night. It was a fine evening for cerveza y tequila.

More photos on my flickr.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Concert review - Ozric Tentacles

21 May 2009 (Aggie Theater, Fort Collins, CO)
The Ozric Tentacles deserved a bigger crowd than they performed for last night. Maybe it's because they played here a couple of months ago or maybe Thursday night was laundry night in Fort Collins. In any case, the 50 or so people who did come out got their chakras realigned and the cobwebs blasted out of their minds. It was clear that most of them knew exactly what to expect.

The Ozrics are known for a heady mix of progressive rock, psychedelia, jazz, and electronica. The songs often start with a foundation of prog-rock bass and drums: interesting time signatures (simultaneously smooth and jerky), intricate melodic lines that step just outside of simple key signature carried by a throbbing bass. Layers of keyboard flow over the top, providing washes of sonic texture and repetitive robotic groove. Ed Wynne's guitar tears through the soundscape, with a wailing distortion or choked-down funk line. Sometimes, the speedy rush opens up into a dreamier section or something more odd, like a Mideastern sound or dub groove.

Throughout their songs you can hear elements of old influences, like Wired era Jeff Beck (with Jan Hammer), Brian Eno, and Robert Fripp. But there's a more modern feel, too, like some occasional Buckethead guitar thrash, Porcupine Tree rhythms, or a techno trance pulsation. During the more intense sections, the full volume creates sonic artifacts that aren't entirely clear to understand: is that a part they're playing or is it the inner ear being overwhelmed? In either case, when the show is over, it feels like coming back home to earth.

It was an intense ride. The band was tight, even tighter than when I saw them last year. I haven't heard their new album yet (The Yum Yum Tree), but they played some songs I hadn't heard and I assume these were from the new CD. They also pulled out a number of old favorites, including Sploosh! from Strangitude.

One thing that was a little unusual was that Brandi, who's normally on keys, played bass for most the night. She nailed the progressions and added the right amount of dark bass intensity. On some of the songs, the arrangement was reminiscent of Robert Fripp, with tightly intertwined bass and guitar. This just showcased how well Ed and Brandi play together. And even though my pictures show her more pensive side, there were some moments of bliss in her playing, too, especially on Saucers. Despite her focus on bass, she did step up and put her own touch in during the sets and focused on keys for much of the encore.

I almost forgot my drink recommendation: a nice sweet, traditional dessert mead would have been perfect. Sadly, the venue only had beer.

More photos on my flickr.

Monday, May 18, 2009

CD Review - Gogol Bordello, Gypsy Punks

It's so easy today to get all the music you can listen to without leaving your safe cocoon. The iTunes store (or Amazon, et al.) will recommend music to you based on what you've bought. It's easy. It's safe. It's too damn safe.

I'll keep the old fart muttering to a minimum, but "in my day, we had record stores and you went there looking for music and who knows what you'd find." Last year, I was wandering through the local CD/head shop looking for a gift, maybe a nice set of earrings. As I was looking through the display cases, suddenly something sunk in. What was this music?? I was transfixed. It was totally unique: eastern European folk instrumentation (nylon string guitars, accordions, etc), Gypsy minor scales and harmonies, driven to a frenzy by a thumping bass and punk beat, elements of ska and dub style music, all of it wrapped up with the voice. It was a crazy voice. The kind of voice that gets you in trouble, that screams at you when you don't listen closely enough, that comforts you when it all falls apart. Eugene Hutz's thick Ukrainian accent is a constant presence in this music. I never found the right gift, but I bought Gogol Bordello's Gypsy Punks and immersed myself.

At some level, the whole album is a quasi-political assertion that we must fight the power in the finest Gypsy tradition. In an alienating society, anyone with a soul is an outsider, which effectively makes them fellow gypsies. Don't worry about it getting too heavy or preachy because one thing is certain with this Gypsy mindset: life is celebration, too, and there's always an excuse to dance.

There are so many great songs on this disc. The first song, Sally, drives a Clash guitar chank and violin/accordion riff trading. No one is safe from the Gypsy infection (cultural revolution), least of all poor Sally from Nebraska. This is a theme that continues through the album.

"In the old time, it was not a crime". Not much in the way of lyrics here, but I don't care because it's so much fun. Not a Crime starts with a piece of foreign language dialog, but this jumps quickly into a driving jam. The gypsy minor scales scream by with a rocking rhythm. There are elements of rapping and Jamaican toasting, but it's a psychedelic mix of noise and repetition that's hypnotic. There's a trippy dub section that I can only imagine hearing live at a show. The closest comparison I can make with this music is with some of Camper Van Beethoven's folk psychedelia.

A coherent philosophy emerges through the progression of the songs. In Oh No, they sing about the rejection of capitalism and our innate ability to create art and joy outside the "system". Underground World Strike asserts that all of the interesting cultural stuff comes from the underclasses, which is all connected "through the Gypsy part of town." In Illumination, they push self-reliance and valuing ourselves over crass society:
But we who see our destiny
In sound of this same old punk song
Let rest originality for sake of passing it around
Illuminating realization number one:
You are the only light there is
For yourself my friend
You are the only light there is
For yourself my friend

The music is constantly interesting. The groove occasionally drifts into a stereotypical "Gypsy" feel, with the violin, accordion, and acoustic guitar, but there's always a twist. It may come from a touch of ska, dub, or toasting. It may be a hard rock, distorted guitar, low tech punk arrangement. Or maybe all of these together.

Toss back some Sambuca and start dancing. It's going to be a long night.

As a bit of a postscript, I've also got their next album, Super Taranta! It's a good album, with more focus on the gypsy groove and a little less punk. Still, the songs are strong (Supertheory of Supereverything and Dub the Frequencies of Love are personal faves).

Monday, May 11, 2009

CD Review - BJ Block, Glitterball

This is a 2008 recording by guitarist BJ Block out of Vancouver, BC. Block has two other musicians (Brian McLaughlin and Lenny Fatigati) backing him. Since I downloaded this, I don't have liner notes to credit everyone in more detail.

Most of this album is a mix of moody, very melodic, instrumental guitar jazz with some ambient and electronica touches. There are a couple of exceptions. The opening number, Theme Musik, is a cross between disco and soundtrack work. I don't really think this fit in well with the rest of the songs. Mersey Beat, sort of a retro R&B/funk groove, was a better fit. Throughout the album, there are a lot of retro touches, especially in terms of production values, for example, his use of reverb and chorus. Still, the electronic synth work gives a modern twist.

Block has cited guitarists like Charlie Hunter and Bill Frisell among his influences and that's easy to hear in this music. I also heard a bit of Adrian Legg and some of Bruce Cockburn's instrumental work.

My favorite track, The Twilight Drive-In kicks off with a descending bass with a foggy layer of keys clinging to it, driven by a distantly mixed drum back beat. Like much of this album, I'd classify this song as program music, in part because of the the melodic arrangement. It evokes the dreamy mood of a drive in before the show has begun. I love how this song balances a contemplative guitar engaged in a call and response with the keys.

Another great track is Kaleidoscope, which starts with a keyboard progression and an electronic beat and then flows into a music box sound. This grows to incorporate a set of interlocking jazz guitar lines that are repetitive and evolving. Though the tone was very much like Charlie Hunter, the song sounds more like Bill Frisell. Every listen, I pick up on more simple little pieces, like the heartbeat drum beat or some of the layers of guitar parts.

Finally, of the typical tracks, I'll mention The Coloring Book. This leads off with a clean acoustic guitar with some Bruce Cockburn style guitar leads. This is also where I heard the most Adrian Legg influence. The melody here is fluid and intricate; it's much more complex than the title suggests. Maybe more of a box of paints than a coloring book. Still, the harmonies between the guitar parts are golden sweet.

Of the less typical pieces mentioned earlier, Mersey Beat is also standout. The initial R&B changes shifts into a retro funk, reminiscent of Sly Stone or Average White Band (Pick Up The Pieces). The Latin percussion groove adds a touch of Herb Alpert. The song bounces between two sections and has more of a theme music sound than the lead off song.

This is perfect music to immerse yourself into but you can still just play it in the background if you have company. Drop by BJ Block's site to hear some of the songs I've mentioned here. I enjoyed this music with a vintage 2000 Porto Pocas; the complexity of each complemented the other.

Friday, May 8, 2009

CD Review - Prince, LOtUSFLOW3R/MPLSound and Bria Valente, Elixer

Prince is making a big play to gain ear-share again. He had achieved a big boost after his Superbowl Halftime performance in 2007. At the end of 2008, he started performing new material promoting a new Lotus Flow3r project which has been released as a triple CD set, available at Target for $11.98. Sure, you can pay more to join his site and get some additional stuff but this move has pulled some press and gotten a lot of people to buy a big chunk of Prince all at once. It will be interesting to see if this was a good investment for pulling in new fans.

Of course, getting three discs means that he has plenty of room to indulge his various musical interests with abandon. In a nutshell, Lotusflow3r is his rock/guitar god side, MPLSound is his dance music side, and the Bria Valente disc shows off his R&B side and his role as mentor yet again. Anyone who's a Prince fan will find something to enjoy (and something to ignore).

Many people are not used to thinking of Prince as a big rocker. They've focused on his persona as a hedonistic singer buried in funky little grooves. But throughout his career, Prince has demonstrated his ability to shred a guitar. Lotusflow3r spends a fair amount of time making that point. His guitar tones are reminiscent of Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix, with licks branching out into Clapton and Zappa. Personally, this is my favorite of the three discs.

The opener, From the Lotus starts out a lot like Riders on the Storm by the Doors but kicks into a nice Jeff Beck groove (shades of Freeway Jam), maybe with a touch of Robin Trower. The keys and bass carry the rhythm, driving a jazzy blues jam. This melts down directly into Boom, a psychedelic song with a sweet Jimi Hendrix style chord melody behind the verses. The chorus more of a power rock sound with a lead a little like Steve Vai era Frank Zappa.

This leads into his cover of Tommy James' Crimson and Clover. Like the original, the guitar is drenched in tremolo. To make it his own, he throws in the bridge from Wild Thing. This is not a medley I would have predicted, but it works very well. Picking a song like Crimson and Clover to cover is an interesting choice. Throughout this disc, Prince is looking back. He pulls out that Jeff Beck tone several more times (Love Like Jazz, Wall of Berlin). Colonized Mind is built on a Robert Cray influenced sound, much like Clapton's Old Love. Aside from referencing his influences, he also pulls out some of his own sound from the Sign o the Times and Lovesexy sessions (4ever, Feel Good, Feel Better, Feel Wonderful). Despite being rooted in the past, the music is lively and fun.

My favorite song of them all is Dreamer. With a heavy retro hard rock sound, this could have easily appeared on a Cream album or maybe Bad Company. This is some of the same ground that Lenny Kravitz has mined but he can't sell it like Prince. Nice wah wah work and wailing distortion. This is a great foot tapper.

Minneapolis Sound. This is more of Prince's dance/party music persona. Lots more keyboard, falsetto singing, funky beats, and low key rap. This brings up a lot of his Diamonds and Pearls period crossed with Batdance or Housequake. While Lotusflow3r was pushing the guitar, MPLSound works the keyboards and drum machine. There's still some guitar but it generally fades back.

Prince tries for a more modern sound on Chocolate Box, one of the stronger tracks. Taking a page from T-Pain (who's standing on Cher's shoulders), he throws some Auto-Tune on his vocals and gets a more electronic sound. A funky piano groove pumps energy in.

Valentina brings in some guitar, with a Santana influenced lead. This kicks off with an '80s keyboard rock sound and then lurches into a funk groove. The lyrics are typical Prince ego/erotica.

On the softer side, U'r Gonna C Me and Here each stir up memories of When 2 R in Love and Wendy and Lisa, respectively. So, despite having some updated touches, MPSound plays on the retro side, too. I don't mind that it's familiar ground, though. Prince does a good job at this sort of thing.

Bria Valente - Elixer
Prince has had many proteges over the years: Vanity, Apollonia, Wendy and Lisa, Cat Glover, Rosie Gaines, and others. Like all of those, Bria has good singing voice. She's sultry and reminds me a bit of Brie Darling from Boxing Gandhis or Wendy Melvoin from Wendy and Lisa. On the downside, her voice is fairly tied down, which comes across as detached and impersonal. On the other hand, her job here is to sing some Prince songs the way Prince wants her to.

Most of the songs are smooth jazz/R&B with a taste of Simply Red's Forever. Again, it's more of a retro sound, bringing '70s easy listening to mind, albeit in a sexier mood. Both Here Eye Come or Something U Already Know hit this target, with steamy vocals that slip the slightest hint of moan at the end of the lines. But these songs also have some very slick playing and arrangements. Prince is a perfectionist when he sits in the producer's chair and these tight arrangements show it.

The sweetest moment of this disk comes on Everytime. The voice, the arrangement, even the lyrics and melody -- this is perfect Karen Carpenter moment. It actually reminded me of some of the good things about the Carpenters, besides the schmaltz and bad anorexia jokes. It starts with strings and a Brazilian beat. The reverb adds a distance to the vocals and the acoustic guitar provides a scaffold for the tight collection of parts.
He takes my breath, cause he takes his time
He takes my soul, body and mind
He takes what he wants, and that's okay
He takes my breath...everytime
For some, this might be overstepping into camp but I really think it's the standout song. Unfortunately, it jumps from there to the busy faux-disco of 2nite, which kills the mood.

Immersion is the other high water mark, with a surging moodiness. There are a lot of little pieces that fit together behind the simple piano focus. This song is crafted like most of the others but you can't see the seams from here. The lyrics have a sweet flow, with some well turned phrases. If more of the album were like this, I'd be listening a lot more.

As I said, something for almost everyone. This shotgun approach might garner him some newer fans or they might be put off by the parts they didn't like. Since I don't recommend a single sitting for these disks, I'll suggest vodka shots, vodka and Red Bull, and a Vodka Collins. Choose your poison.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

CD Review - Navegante, Microcosmos

Another happy accident. I recently heard about about the band Navegante and got the chance to hear their upcoming release of Microcosmos, which is due out officially on June 19. The band has been compared to a "Latin Gnarls Barkley". They've also garnered praise from Carlos Santana, which gives them some serious cred but the key, as always, is in the music.

And Microcosmos is a great collection of music, with the main influences coming from Latin R&B and various styles of dance music, like trance and electronica. Many of the songs would easily fit on one of Santana's more recent albums but the dance influence twists it into something a little different. The Gnarls Barkley reference fits because of the vocal delivery style and some of the backing keyboard work, but it also reminds me of some of Sting's solo work. Beyond that, I can hear som African and reggae influences hiding in the background. Overall, Microcosmos offers a lot of what I really enjoy: great beats, a serious groove, and enough underlying complexity to make it really interesting. The complexity is a pleasant surprise from a trio like this. Playing live must be their true showcase but the CD shows a pretty nice range.

One caveat: be prepared, the songs are all in Spanish. On the other hand, the delivery and vocabulary are fairly straightforward. I was able to understand most of it without much effort and I am definitely not fluent.

The album has matching bookends with the song Apariencias ("Appearances"). The closer is a remix of the first song. Initially, I preferred the remix; it has a heavier groove and more synthesizer and echoing guitars. After a few listens though, the mix is a little better on the first one. Speaking of mixes, if I have to find fault with anything with this CD, it's the engineering work. The mixes are compressed and muddy, which makes it hard to hear the separation between the instruments. Little tricks, like varying the EQ and reverb of the various parts, would have made this easier to listen to and would have helped emphasize the bottom end bounce and the shimmery synth washes.

The second song is one of my three favorites off the disc. Todo o Nada ("All or nothing") starts out with a Moorish/mideastern feel with syncopation and a reedy, processed chant in the intro. The beat drives the song but the syncopation balances it into a looser groove. The underlying fill music plays some very interesting scales that take it beyond Latin into a North African/world beat sound. The spoken/sung vocal delivery is typical for the album, contributing to the laid back feel. The only thing this lacks is a heavier bottom end to the groove to take it more into a club beat. The song has a number of sections that all fit together and keep it interesting. This is heavy in my current rotation.

Ya Verás ("Really!") is another of my favorite tracks. It starts with a simple drum beat but there's an underlying sixteenth note guitar ticka-ticka that comes up a little like the verse in Another Brick in the Wall, but this is no Pink Floyd thing. Once again, there's some wonderful complexity between the beat, the guitars, and synths that really catch my ear. Unfortunately, this is where the mix doesn't really deliver on what the song could be. I want a serious thumping bass here with walls of guitar and some cutting synthesizer. The parts are all there but they all smoosh together.

My third pick (and favorite) is , which starts out as a simple ballad, with some trance-like touches. The psychedelic feel comes from echoed shimmery synth washes, the sound of static, and some intensely layered vocals. This is mellow and emotional. There are touches of Beatles influence (Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds) but nothing overt. Even though a cleaner mix would have helped, the overall engineering here is better than the other tracks I mentioned.

There are plenty of other standout tracks on this album: La Optimista reminds me of some Journey song I can't quite name, Cameron brings Johnny Clegg and Savuka to mind, and Calor has a great electronic R&B feel with a hint of trance. This last track is a good example of what I meant by reggae influence -- it's not the beat, it's the dub-style of the arrangement, with instruments dropping out once in a while to add emphasis to the remaining parts. The live version, which is also included, has more jam to it. I'd love to catch this live in person. The irony is that the trance groove adds a cooler distance that belies the title ("Heat").

All together, this is a good example of Latin club music that's worth checking out. My first thought for a pairing was rum and Coke but a nice sipping rum like Cacique from Venezuela would be even better.