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

Sunday, August 30, 2009

CD review - Todd Snider, The Excitement Plan (2009)

Todd Snider's new album covers familiar ground. The music is blues and country tinged Americana and he's still singing about well intentioned losers and telling amusing stories. While The Excitement Plan isn't as strong as 2006's The Devil You Know, it still delivers well written songs with Snider's off-kilter perspective. The backing band provides a bit of Little Feat groove to the songs, adding slide, bass, and occasional piano.

The high point of the album is the long-titled Money, Compliments, Publicity (Song Number 10). It's an amusing response to the standard philosophical advice to rise above venal attachment. The bass provides the perfect groove to carry the simple melody, which gives Snider plenty of room to lay out his lyrics:
A man once said that the pinnacle of success
Was when you finally lost interest
In money, compliments, and publicity

A noble enough idea, I suppose
How on earth he does this, Heaven only knows
I know I need a lot more of all three of those
Before I ever have the nerve to turn up my nose
At any money, a compliment, some publicity

I'm broke as the 10 Commandments
Sometimes I'm harder to follow...
Another funny song is America's Favorite Pastime, about Dock Ellis' experience pitching a no-hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates while tripping on LSD. Rather than simple reporting, Todd extrapolates the basic idea into an omniscient third person narrative.

Most of the album aims to amuse and entertain. As a result, The Excitement Plan doesn't really spend much time on one of Snider's other recurrent theme's: seeking and sometimes finding redemption. But it is a fun listen that you'll probably enjoy. Grab yourself a cold PBR and have a drink with Todd.

Other listening recommendations:
Little Feat, Willin', live version (original is on Sailin' Shoes)
Todd Snider, Looking For A Job, The Devil You Know

Monday, August 24, 2009

Essay: Transcendence

If you've been lucky, you've managed to catch a show, where everything simultaneously stops and takes a leap forward. Where the music suddenly clicks in a way that tells you that you're hearing a perfect instant. Maybe it was Jeff Beck's wailing guitar beating against Jan Hammer's keys. Maybe it was BB King's effortlessly smooth phrasing, speaking straight to your heart. It could have been Karl Denson blowing sax, where you know what he's got to play next, even when he doesn't. It might be when James Whiton is playing "upright death machine" on a song like Bus Driver with Eric McFadden Trio. These are all moments I feel fortunate to have experienced. For sure, transcendence is in the ear and mind of the beholder, but you can see it in facial expressions of the players, too. They know that something special is happening right now and that they are blessed.

Every now and then, I've had glimpses of that place myself: where the band is all hitting their stride and the music is just materializing in my hands. That first gig with Cool Runnings, when it became clear that all of my notes about what I should be playing were irrelevant. That I'd need to listen and just roll where the music went. I remember that first set finishing and being so happy and breathless. I was just amazed at the flow and I couldn't wait for the break to be over.

I've also had those times jamming with my acoustic crowd: Sunny Jim, Dave Hughes, Jim Harlan, Susan Spackman, and others. We'd keep playing a song because we didn't want to lose the flow. The sound of everybody's voices coming together in harmony; everybody finding the perfect hole to place their musical offering to the song.

One common element for me is getting to a point where I can hear the total, without obsessing on my piece of it. Getting that context and then really hearing how everything fits. It's like receiving a wonderful gift. Most of the times I've hit this level, I've been playing with other musicians. More rarely, I've had brief moments alone where my hands are on auto-pilot and I become aware of how I can stretch out my voice just a little bit further and it might be something amazing.

Since I've been playing with looping, I've started to see how I might be able to create the right conditions by building enough complexity into my looped parts. But it's hard to know whether I'll surprise myself because oftentimes the song will just collapse into noise. So far, I've played it safer on stage until I can harness that.

Still, regardless of whether I pull this off in my solo performance or find the right band to get me closer, transcendence is my goal. I hope some of you are there to witness it or help create it.

What are your magical musical moments? Throw a comment out there...

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

CD review - Mumiy Troll, Comrade Ambassador

Mumiy Troll, identified as Russia's biggest rock band, is hitting it big in America. After a successful tour earlier this year, they're preparing for North American tour from coast to coast, including Canada and Mexico. Their formula for success is centered around building grassroots support by sharing their music and their ability to harness the internet and social sites. Their current album, Comrade Ambassador, was just released in America. It's a collection of songs from their last two albums, plus an extra track. All of the songs are in Russian, although there's been a mention of a new digital EP with their first English track. If your Russian isn't up for the task of translation, you can find lyrical translations at sites like russmus.net, although that's not necessary to appreciate their sound. Reading the translations while I listened, I'm not sure whether the original lyrics are this poetic or whether that's an accident of the translation. I'm guessing it's the former case.

Mumiy Troll comes out of Vladivostok, which actually places them outside the more mainstream Moscow and Saint Petersburg rock scenes. Despite being new to us, they got their start back in 1983, although their first real album didn't come out until 1997. They've had plenty of time to develop a unique sound: largely retro rock, with more modern dance/club/progressive influences. Overall, they remind me a lot of the Dutch band, Gruppo Sportivo, which shares their retro rock vibe and mild pop appreciation, but there are bits of other groups like My Morning Jacket, the Clash, Die Toten Hosen, Blondie, and David Bowie in the mix. As a rule, the guitars are thick with reverb, the drums are crisp, the bass is warm, keyboards provide some good synth sounds, and the vocals are also fairly reverb laden as well.

Comrade Ambassador is fairly dynamic, shifting mood from the Roy Orbison guitars and weary vocals of Mothers and Daughters to the dance drive of Nuclear Stations to the more modern pop sound of Witnesses. While there are no bad songs here, there are a couple of particularly cool tracks.

We Overslept encapsulates the dynamic range of the whole album. The music lays out a loose, simple funk, with a weedy keyboard underneath. Fuzzy guitar and a pop bass line alternate between driving and dropping out to leave room for the starting piano riff. The lyrics first seem to bemoan the missed opportunities of a generation, then reject the whole thing. It's a fun song that gets a lot more interesting when it hits the bridge. Then a Brian May style guitar leads through a melodic section, changing the mood to a more retro pop. After returning to a looser version of the start, the song ends abruptly.

Queen of Rock is a big rocker that starts with a Led Zeppelin intro riff. A busy bass line covers the top of a punchy AC/DC rhythm. The chorus reminds me of Soundgarden. The bridge/solo pulls in some wailing guitar feedback that provides the perfect topping.

Relying on the translation, Snowstorm is by far my favorite set of lyrics:
I want the impossible.
I’m overflowing - but stay quiet.
Got swept up.
There’s frost on my waterless lips,
And in my eyes – obsession!
“Watch out…!” “I will!… “ I want the impossible
"I want the impossible." The initial riff sells the lyric. The vocal delivery is laid back enough to contrast with the intensity of these words. The staccato guitars are heavily echoed, the bass wanders loosely, and the guitar runs through some interesting ascending riffs. Taken together, it's a bit like Blondie meets the Police.

The album closes with a Russian version of California Dreamin' by the Mamas and the Papas. Mumiy Troll's version is a bit harder edged and crunchy than the original. The synth pop underneath updates the sound and the electric guitar fills are smooth and satisfying. As it fades out on accordion and a synth beat, it's been an interesting trip. Rock and roll may have started here in the west, but Mumiy Troll has taken a wide world of influences and made their own kind of rock.

Go to their MySpace page and give them a listen. Then, go out and see them when they come through this fall (I'll be catching them in Denver this October). Instead of vodka, I'll suggest a Belgian dubbel as a better match for the music: rich, sweet, but not too easy.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Concert review - Melissa Etheridge

15 August 2009 (Bohemian Nights, Fort Collins CO)
Every year, the people running New West Fest in Ft. Collins bring in some big name artists for a free show on the street downtown. Past shows have included the Cowboy Junkies, Los Lobos, and Little Feat. This year, the headliner was Melissa Etheridge, performing a solo set. As you'd expect with a free outdoor show like this, the street was packed with serious fans and casual listeners.
Melissa Etheridge came out strong, playing a funky arrangement of Brave and Crazy on 12 string guitar. It's been years since I've seen her, but her voice hasn't weakened a bit. She still has that Janis Joplin/Bonnie Bramlett vibe, where she can lay out that hoarse, sultry sound or some soulful blues. She has deepened as a performer, too. She's really learned how to own the stage and invite the crowd into her "home", both through her singing and between songs. Her banter about coming to Ft. Collins and joking about her dated use of the term "super cool" was comfortable and unforced.

She played the 12 string for most of the set, but occasionally switched to a semi-acoustic electric. Chrome Plated Heart was the first song she played electric and it kicked. She changed stage position to get up on the riser that made up the back half of the stage. Stomping her feet along with the playing, she accompanied her self on percussion. It was a great way to build more of a rock energy and drive the crowd. This dynamic shift was typical of the set - she'd build the energy, then push that into a more intense emotional space, and then back.

Aside from playing through many of her well known songs, Etheridge also played piano on a cover of Joan Armatrading's The Weakness In Me. This is one of my favorite Armatrading songs. I think it's a hard song to pull off, because it's a deeply conflicted song and lends itself to overwrought interpretation. Etheridge did a decent job, but didn't quite nail it. Still, it's good to see Joan Armatrading's music get some recognition.

Enough of Me was a high point in the show, starting with the levels down to a desperate whisper, then building up to a defiant intensity. This energy propelled the second half of the set, leading into I Run For Life and other familiar tunes. The encore of Piece of my Heart was a perfect closer. It started out fairly similar to the original, including some of the vocal tics, but where Janis stripped it down into a deep, hurt place, Melissa raised it up as a defiant anthem. It was a great mood to take home after a night of great music. The only thing missing was a smooth single malt, like Dalwhinnie. That had to wait until I got home.

More photos at my Flickr.

Concert review - Filthy Children

15 August 2009 (New West Fest/Bohemian Nights, Fort Collins CO)
I didn't hear much of the music at New West Fest in Ft. Collins, but I did catch most of Filthy Children's set at the Old Town Square stage. As we sat on Coopersmith's back patio for dinner and beers, we got an earful of some serious, horny funk. The volume was kicking. It was loud enough to overwhelm conversation, but sweet to the feet.

Looking at their website, I see that Filthy Children bill themselves as funk/jazz/rock, name dropping groups like Greyboy Allstars and John Schifield. Most of the material didn't quite push the edge that Karl Denson and others pass. Maybe they were trying to rein things in for this crowd. If so, the audience was ok with it: even on the outskirts, people were bopping to the beat and the front of the stage was open for dancing.

Overall, the focus was on dance oriented, straight funk. The first couple of pieces I heard were tightly orchestrated funk, with a tip of the hat to James Brown. When Jenny Anderson sang, it reminded me a lot of Spacefish, a defunct jam band group from the '90s.

They did push a little bit of jazz on a couple of numbers with the horns and guitar teaming up to play some chromatic chord riffs. One song, My Baby Got, reworked of Blood, Sweat, and Tears' Spinning Wheel. They also covered Use Me by Bill Withers, nailing a slower blues funk groove. Still the emphasis was mostly on danceable funk. The bass popped and growled and the horns drove most of the tunes. The drums were solid and the guitar mostly supported the groove. A number of the songs were instrumentals, but when the vocals were there, they were expressive and fun. On the dance funk sound, Anderson just about channeled Dee-Lite, with her laid back, sexy voice.

I'm looking forward to catching Filthy Children at a club sometime. The cask conditioned Hoppy Brown Ale I had matched well with the jams: complex and rewarding.

More photos on my Flickr.

Friday, August 14, 2009

CD review - Arctic Monkeys, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (2006)

This is another older disc that heavy in my rotation. On the surface, it's another one of my "snotty boys with guitars" bands, but Arctic Monkeys don't quite fit that mold. This is a band that burst on the scene back in 2005/2006, carried on word of mouth and internet hype. They got so much attention that I ignored them in knee-jerk fashion. That lasted until I accidentally heard one of their songs and was sucked in. Not being a fanboy, I was oblivious to all of the controversy over their award show appearances and anti-Industry attitude. I just enjoyed the music.

Whatever People Say I Am... is full of danceable thrash, a polished punk/new wave sound with slick vocal production (but a hell of an accent). Running through the songs is a Morissey/Smiths' style crossed with Adam Ant (and a dusting of Duran Duran). The vocals and melodies evoke the Morissey vibe, but the Adam Ant thing is all coming from the heavy drum and bass sound coupled with shards of guitar accents. Thematically, these are observational songs about the club scene and low life in Sheffield England. Taken as a whole, this disk is full of self-similar songs that form a continuity, but it stays sufficiently interesting that I keep coming back to it. One thing that makes it work is that the songs often have multiple sections that change up the music rhythmically and dynamically. Additionally, the chord changes aren't relying on a standard rock progression. They also throw in small elements of ska and other styles to break things up a bit.

The smash single was I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor, which starts out with a chunky guitar sound like the Clash, but quickly drives into a reworking of Middle of the Road by the Pretenders. Arctic Monkeys share a love of '60s style like the Kinks with Chrissie Hynde, which explains the sound. The club song drives hard with catchy lyrics and foot tapping rhythm:
I bet that you look good on the dancefloor
I don't know if you're looking for romance or
I don't know what you're looking for
Lots of pop culture references from Romeo and Juliet to Duran Duran. The vocal delivery is a little detached with an undercurrent of desperation. Pure ear candy.

Riot Van hits the other side of Arctic Monkeys. It's a slower, thoughtful observational song. The lyrics have the ring of personal experience in hassling the police for sport. Jaded lyrics and a tired delivery suggests Morissey. It's a mellow, spare arrangement that ends unexpectedly. This feel is echoed again later in the start of When the Sun Goes Down, which runs down a street life with prostitutes and Johns with the same world weary mood.

Adam Ant comes through in songs like Dancing Shoes, Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secured, and A Certain Romance. The throbbing bass and drums and muted guitar strums sound like Adam Ant's Stand and Deliver. Of these, A Certain Romance stands out because of the juxtaposition of stylistic bits: the club beat at the start, the thrashy follow through that breaks into a music box guitar riff, and the cool ska sound of the verses melding into the straight beat of the chorus. All with evocative lyrics that flesh out the whole club scene they were immersed in.

Slam a pint or two of lager and prepare to hit the clubs. When you get home, Whatever People Say I Am... will be the soundtrack for your memory of the evening.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

CD review - Jim White, Transnormal Skiperoo (2007)

Thanks to Brent for the tip. I had never heard of Jim White, although Crash Into The Sun sounded familiar. As the title suggests, Transnormal Skiperoo takes the listener through an odd set of changes. It starts out with the Americana sounds of country folk, shifts into more of a rock mode, and then crashes hard into Steve Earle territory. After that, it runs through the changes again with the John Prine sound of Turquoise House and the moody groove of Diamonds to Coal, only to run into the foreign orchestration of Counting Numbers. The original folky Americana remains a touchstone through the rest of the disk. This is a consistently interesting album, even though there are a couple of songs that push the envelope of the mix and one very rough song transition (Turquoise House rightly belongs nearer to the start of the disk).

While I liked the simpler country style material, the edgier tracks grabbed my ears. The absolute peak was Fruit Of The Vine. Like a number of these songs, it started with a sort of soundtrack soundscape, blending audio layered with a dirge-like prison blues guitar and noisy artifacts of echoed feedback. The audio touched on material from a film project (Searching For The Wrong Eyed Jesus), including snippets of interviews with convicted meth dealers. Past the intro, the song had a great Steve Earle groove. The lyrics toyed with themes of moral ambiguity and the edges of society:
Now, some say love comes C.O.D., others turn to G.O.D
Cash it in on PCP, IOUs and IEDs
Fruit of the vine, that old fruit of the vine
It ain't no crime in being alive
It ain't no sin, we're just tryin' to get by
Lead our lives, one day at a time
And the night goes down in the dirty old South
Just livin' on the fruit of the vine
The vocals were reminiscent of Steve Miller. Fragments of dirty guitar parts set a blues groove and formed a platform for some slick solos. At almost eight minutes long, I was sorry when it was over.

Earlier on the disk, Jailbird had a similar kind of structure. Some instrumental soundscape set a reflective mood that picked up a slow rock groove that sat somewhere between Simply Red (Holding Back the Years) and Ryan Adams (When the Stars Go Blue). The ethereal backup vocals set a wistful feeling.

Crash Into the Sun could have been an older Timbuk 3 song, with bits of Jim's Big Ego (Jim Infantino). Flowing bass lines supported horns and organ working in counterpoint. Lyrically, it sounded cool, but I'm not really sure what it was trying to say.

Finally, I wanted to mention Diamonds to Coal. This was a moody Bruce Cockburn sort of song with a repetitive, reflective riff and a solid bass. There were plenty of dynamics, but the song built in complexity. Jim's perspective on this idea is that of stepping back from the brink of a destructive life style. It's interesting to compare it to Eric McFadden's song by the same title, which is hard, bitter, and fatalistic (think Black Sabbath). Each taking different paths from the same backwards idea.

Fruit of the Vine and other songs from Transnormal Skiperoo can be heard here. Give it a quick listen and buy a copy to spend some real time with. A malty Scottish Ale will provide a smooth accompaniment.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

CD review - Sister Carol, Isis - "The Original Womb-Man"

This is an older album, from 1999, but it regularly comes back up in my rotation. Sister Carol is a Jamaican DJ/singer, with a unique vocal style. Occasionally, she sounds a little bit like Pato Bantan, but her voice and writing style is all her own. This is the reggae version of conscious rap, with a strong feminist focus. Understand, though, that her message emphasizes the positive. So, if this album raises any hackles, it's not Sister Carol pushing the buttons.

Isis - "The Original Womb-Man"
leads off with Opportunity, a mash up between Bob Marley's Stir It Up, the Righteous Brothers' You've Lost That Loving Feeling, and Sister Carol's original lyrics. The beat is infectious with spare instrumental parts. The toasting vocal is backed with sweet harmonies. It's a catchy beginning.

A couple of songs later, Sister Carol delivers a clever, erotic sex rap. There's a tight bass and percussion groove with little touches of guitar. It's repetitive, but stays interesting because of how all the little parts fit together. The lyrics are smooth and not obscene:
My gentle lover, me say where have you been
I really love the touch, I really love the feelin'
You have a neat little way towards Afro-mancing
Glad you are my friend, me glad you are my darling

The feminist thread runs strong through the songs, with lots of references to Mother Culture. Womb-Man overtly covers this, but the next song, Rasta Girl, is even better. There's a great little intro chant:
We feminine, we genuine withe same melanin
But we have estrogen from the beginnin'
This toast flows with a tight delivery. The song balances between the toasting verses and a singing rocksteady chorus.

Isis is full of great songs, from the Bob Marley tribute of 70 Sup'm Pieces of Bob to the biblical message of Ezekiel 37. Serious topics like immigration, HIV, and materialism get covered without being too preachy or stiff. There are plenty of surprises that make it worth coming back to this disc. The "high" point has got to be Chok-Lit, which takes the 5th Dimension song, Last Night, I Didn't Get To Sleep At All and runs a new set of lyrics extolling her love of chocolate thai.

Sit out in the sun with some spicy ginger beer and groove to the beat. "Bless and no one can test, Mother Culture is the reigning Empress". Yes, yes, yes...

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Concert review - Sex Glove, The Fling, The Knew

1 August 2009 (Road 34, Ft Collins CO)
Back to local music or at least local music joined by smaller, lesser known bands. I reviewed Sex Glove less than a month ago, so this was a nice review session. They were followed by the Fling, out of Long Beach, California. Finally, the Knew from Denver closed down the bar. Across the board, it was an interesting shift of music: noisy psychedelia to laid back groove to dynamic rock.

Sex Glove
It hasn't been long since I've seen Sex Glove, but before the show they mentioned that this set wouldn't be quite as edgy as their show with Action Friend. There was still a little thrash, but the punk elements were dialed back. They led off with Atheist Love Song, a slow groove with some Dave Gilmour style slide guitar and heavily echoed vocals. A version of this song is on their MySpace page. After this moody beginning, they kicked it up.

Their best song of the night was Introvert, which they later joked was their "hit". It should be. It was a hard driving song with echoed Peter Murphy vocals, bowed electric guitar, a bouncing bass line, and noisy keyboard patches. The effect was high energy psychedelic, especially as it grew into something like The End by the Doors.

Once again, the set was too short. Some minor technical difficulties and a full line up of bands didn't help. You'll have catch Sex Glove live because they don't have any recordings yet.

The Fling
The Fling is sweeping the west, making the big loop through the south west, coming to the Front Range, and heading to the Pacific Northwest. It would be overly simple to describe the band as sounding like Tom Petty, although their front man, Dustin, didn't mind the comparison. The similarity comes down to a combination of factors: thick, three part vocals, jangly guitars, a slower, down tempo groove, and a retro ear for tone and arrangement. Maybe they share influences because there are elements of George Harrison and Electric Light Orchestra in their sound. So, if I hear Tom Petty and Traveling Wilburys, it makes sense. Listening to their EP, Ghost Dance, the George Harrison influence is even stronger, especially on songs like Get Back or Cold Comfort.

The vocal harmonies were a central part of the Fling's sound, well above what the average bar band pulls off. For some other band, these parts might turn up on the studio version, but not sound right in a live show. The Fling has clearly put a lot of work into this aspect of their music, but it felt fresh on stage, not over-rehearsed.

The line up for most of the songs was two guitars, bass, and drums. The lead guitarist also played keyboard. Also, for a couple of songs, the bass player just played percussion and melodica, providing a stripped down sound. The ringing guitars created a wall of sound, especially when alternate rhythm parts came together. One of the songs went well beyond Tom Petty, taking a churning discordance and harder beat into a Wilco space.

I think the last song they played was Cold Comfort, which I heard on the EP. This song had a cool Beatles feel. The chords, bass and vocals sounded like I Want You (She's So Heavy) crossed with Glass Onion. This grindy jam also had elements of Supertramp. It was the best song of the set.

The Knew
When the Knew took the stage, they owned the space. Tim Rynders (bass) and Tyler Breuer (guitar) danced around behind Jacob Hansen (lead vocals and guitar), half moshing. The constant movement kept the small audience rapt. Tim's attitude permeated the whole set. Nice bouncy rock numbers mixed it up with moodier songs, and they also threw in some country and blues. The drummer (Patrick Bowden) was steady, mostly keeping it simple, but still throwing in a few more interesting licks. He also played harmonica on a few songs.

The set was more varied than the Fling, hitting some good dynamics between driving rock and more laid back bits. The songs were interesting: good rock and roll without being simplistic. Even within the songs, they could shift the energy -- pulling back to make the faster sections stand out more.

Jacob's voice is a central element of the sound. Slightly nasal, it reminded me mostly of Marc
Bolan from T Rex, with elements of Ryan Adams. Listening to their Boom Bust EP, I hear some Morrissey and Gomez, as well. At times, it was hard to understand the lyrics, but the energy was strong.

The guitar work was excellent, with some slick slide work and shimmery tone. Tyler had some parts that evoked the Edge's tone (from U2). The whole band had a great time on stage and they're worth catching live.

I was drinking Odells' IPA, which worked well - piquant hops and full body match well with a full night of bands.

Photos available on Photobucket (full images on request).