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

Thursday, February 25, 2010

CD review - Gil Scott-Heron, I'm New Here (2010)

I'm saying things like a snake
They may sound crazy
But I'm the closest thing I have to a voice of reason
- Gil Scott-Heron, I'm New Here
In many ways, Gil Scott-Heron's deeply personal I'm New Here serves as an epitaph. Maybe not for Scott-Heron himself, but on the performer of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised or Winter In America. Gil Scott-Heron has come back: back from early highs of critical raves, from the maturity of becoming one of the inspirations for rap, acid jazz, and other genres, and back from the lows of drug addiction and extended jail time.

This is not a tale of redemption, so much as a frank look at someone who's passed through the fire to recognize who he is and where he came from. The voice is worn and breaking, the music is modern and spare, his will is still strong, and the songs are more personal than political.
If you got to pay for things you've done wrong,
I got a big bill coming at the end of the day
- Gil Scott-Heron, Being Blessed (Interlude)
Despite prison, personal travails, and health problems, Scott-Heron faces up to where he is now. He shares that insight, matter of fact and unapologetically. At the same time, he bookends the album with On Coming From a Broken Home, which looks at his roots and the strong women who raised him. He wants his audience to know who he is -- strength and weakness.
Because I always feel like running Not away, because there is no such place Because, if there was, I would have found it by now - Gil Scott-Heron, Running
I'm New Here provides deep insight into a great and complex performer. While I miss the young Gil Scott-Heron, I'm glad to catch up with this more battle scarred man.

This is a black coffee CD for late at night, when you've given up on sleep. When you turn the stack of records over and over, so you won't be alone.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

CD review - Sweet Apple - Love and Desperation (2010)

There's a touching story for how this album came to be. It involves death, loss of purpose, and a safety net of friends. For all that, Love and Desperation (due out April 20 on Tee Pee Records) is not overly sentimental or cloying. J. Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.), John Petkovic (Cobra Verde), Tim Parnin (Cobra Verde), and Dave Sweetapple (Witch) have created a good, hard, indie rock album.

Sweet Apple shows off their roots, too. While it doesn't create quite the wall of guitar sound of Dinosaur Jr, it does channel their hard grind and J. Mascis' busy drum fills. Cobra Verde (they used to back Robert Pollard in one incarnation of Guided By Voices) contributes the power pop vibe and significant guitar sounds. There's also a retro psychedelic feel from tremolo guitar tones, that's more unique to the lineup of Sweet Apple.

Interestingly enough, the catchiest tune on the disc sounds like a White Stripes outtake. Flying Up a Mountain has a march beat and a riff driven, hard rock groove.
I wasn't born, I was detached, it made my mother cry
I came out way too soon cause I couldn't stand it inside
It's a great song, although it's not as radio friendly as Do You Remember. This is their first single which has more of a driving power pop beat and a straight ahead grind. Do You Remember is reminiscent of Hold On Loosely (.38 Special), but it's still a strong song. It also sounds closest to Dinosaur Jr, especially listening to the drum fills.

On the other hand, It's All Over Now leans more towards Cobra Verde. Kicked off with a lush, flanged guitar riff, it comes across like an uptempo May This Be Love (Jimi Hendrix). It's pretty, but melancholy, with fine melodic bass work. If Flying Up a Mountain serves as an anthem, It's All Over Now is more introspective and resigned without asking for sympathy. It's an intriguing contrast, especially since it directly follows Flying.

There are plenty of other good tunes: the psychedelic Can't See You, the Doors-like Blindfold, the acid rock feel of Never Came. Whether you're a fan of any of the related bands, this is well worth a listen. Keep an eye out as well, because Sweet Apple will be touring soon

Pour a rich glass of Anchor Liberty Ale (or any other balanced, floral hop American pale ale) and let Love and Desperation wash over you.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Concert review - Three To Get Ready

20 February, 2010 (Taproom at Catalyst Coffee)

Four to go? Icy roads and falling snow didn't keep the crowd at home. There was a nice turnout to catch Brian Fromme's jazz ensemble. The group is normally a trio, but this time they had vocalist Judy Walker sitting in for part of the night. She really filled out their sound.

The trio started off with a laid back arrangement of Black Orpheus. Steve Tippen's guitar work here was tasteful, as he nailed the sweet and fluid melody. Fromme's electric piano tone was a good complement. The next tune showcased how well these guys play together, with Fromme echoing the guitar lines in his keyboard fills.

Excitement spiked once Judy Walker came onstage. They led off with Hallelujah, I Love Him So. Walker's breathy, expressive voice took the classic R&B tune into uptempo gospel. Her high point for the night, though, came a little later in Blue Skies. Great phrasing and some loose scat vocals made this a stand out tune.

Later, bass player Dan Williams got his chances to solo, including a nice turn on the Star Trek Theme. Even while he was backing Tippen's guitar lead, he kept the tune moving with smooth, busy bass work. A little percussion was all that was missing.

There were plenty of classic tunes and tight arrangements in the rest of the evening, including Autumn Leaves, Moondance, and Sunny. This was especially nice, with clean lead work and smooth trades.

Dogfish Head's Palo Santo was the perfect beer for the night: strong, dark, and sweet. And it was on tap at the Taproom.

More photos on my Flickr.

Friday, February 19, 2010

CD review - Trainwreck, The Wreckoning (2010)

"Going off the rails on a crazy train"? I guess Ozzy was psychic about Trainwreck's upcoming album, The Wreckoning (releasing March 2). Trainwreck is Kyle Gass (KG from Tenacious D) along with several of the guys who backed the D. But they're not just Tenacious D minus Jack Black; they've got their own flavor going on, with some Southern fried rock and judicious use of flute. Still, they have the same twisted humor and hard rock licks and many of the vocals seem designed for JB's voice. And the love comes through, even while they're mocking a host of musical and cultural cliches. The band has fleshed out stage personas for each member, but I'm still not sure what's up with KG's toupee.

Often, when a band is built around a satirical concept, the jokes wear thin after a listen or two. But, like Spinal Tap or the D, Trainwreck has crafted tight, riff-heavy songs worthy of repetition. I was hooked from the moment I caught the video for Brodeo. This manthem is Trainwreck's Boys Just Want to Have Fun with a (barely) latent gay sub-text:
And when the BROdeo begins
We'll be hangin' with our friends
All of whom are men
And when the BROverload occurs,
We can all take off our shirts
And wrestle in the dirt.
It's goofy fun, but it rocks and the chorus hook is guaranteed to have a crowd singing along at the show.

Another funny one is Tim Blankenship:
I'm gonna roll up in my Z-28
Gonna start a fire with the love we create
I'm Tim Blankenship...
This rocker is reminiscent of the Rolling Stones' When the Whip Comes Down and could spawn a whole episode on Trailer Park Boys.

While both of those are over the top, songs like Rock Boulder Mountain (listen on their MySpace page) are more subtle. This one kicks off with a flute noodling to a mellow, Moody Blues vibe but then dives into Black Sabbath metal groove. The flute comes back over the metal, rocking it Jethro Tull style. It's easy to imagine Jack Black prancing to this, but Daryl Lee Donald (Jason Reed) does just fine.

Whiskey with a beer chaser should start you down the rails. Pick up The Wreckoning when it comes out and catch Trainwreck if they hit your part of the world.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

CD review - Vienna Teng, Inland Territory (2009)

Shallow comparisons are such a waste of time. If it's a male singer-songwriter with a guitar and obscure lyrics, he's the next Dylan. The slightly self-indulgent jam band is like Phish (or maybe the Grateful Dead). And, of course, a female singer-songwriter with a piano is emulating Tori Amos. In Vienna Teng's case, the mapping goes a little deeper because her vocal tone often mimics Amos and the backup vocal arrangements are similar. Still, she has her own approach, for better or worse.

On the positive side, Teng has done a good job of integrating in some electronic sounds and percussion. She also shifts gears and throws in some interesting old-timey sounding material. On the other hand, those gears can grind a bit when the transitions between songs don't work, such as the jump between the dreamy coasting of Kansas and the jaunty bounce of In Another Life. Either song is good on its own, but they break the flow of the album.

Another problem is that, while her voice is very pretty, it's also a bit detached and impersonal. Like Tori Amos, Vienna Teng uses that trick to contrast with more personal storytelling lyrics, but Amos often follows that up with a fierier song to prove her connection to the material and her audience.

The standout track here is Watershed. This starts out with a tentative solo piano start and cool ambient sounds. This section is very close to the Who's Love, Reign O'er Me, as reimagined by Tori Amos. Moody, it grows into a sense of majesty, much like the Who's song. The flow is gripping: waves break before a confident, defiant island, then the waves come again. The link here is for a live version with a fairly long, detached, ironic intro.

There are other decent songs on the album. White Light has a Suzanne Vega feel on the verse, but a catchier, poppy chorus. Stray Italian Greyhound has jerky piano rhythm that lurches forward as it intrigues the ear. None stand out as much as Watershed, though.

Inland Territory is a Long Island ice tea of an album: there's a lot going on here, but it's not for everyone.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

CD review - BigBang, Edendale (2010)

Norway's BigBang embraces an American sound. If I didn't know their story, I never would have guessed that they're not American. Their second US release, Edendale, has a mellower down-tempo feel than their last album (From Acid to Zen), but they're not soft. BigBang has created a fusion of left and right coast sounds, covering retro California sounds like the Joe Walsh and the Eagles and then pulling in the East coast vibe of Steely Dan and Patti Smith. They've sifted some bluesy R&B over the top along with a little Roxy Music and made a great groove of an album.

This is a strong and varied collection of songs. Still, there are a couple of songs that rise to the top. The tentative, reflective start of Isabel hints at decisiveness. The driving bass and drums cement the focus. The threatening lyrics and imposing vocals add a perfect element of tension. The rich and emotionally expressive lead guitar at the end contrasts with the structured rhythm.

Now Is Not a Good Time has a similar soft beginning. Here, though, the vibe is a laid back groove that feels like Simply Red's Holding Back the Years. Tasteful keyboard accents back the Robin Trower style guitar work. Eventually, they smoothly shift into a My Morning Jacket progressive section, with repetitious staccato riffs building in intensity as the guitar wails over the top.

Singling these out, it's feels like I'm ignoring plenty of other great songs: the edgy Adrian Belew sound of Call Me, the cool Steely Dan tone of Swedish Television, or the funky Cajun blues of Bag of Leaves. I've listened to Edendale eight or ten times already and it stays fresh. The smooth, laid back tone remind me of a great Pacific Northwest barley wine, like Pike Brewing's Old Bawdy.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

CD review - Reno Bo, Happenings and Other Things (2010)

Retro has been the classic black on the indie and pop music scene for a while. Most of the time, bands just incorporate retro elements into their sound or spackle on a thick layer of irony. Guitarist Reno Bo channels the past instead. He brings a purity and joyous naïveté to these songs that evoke the late '60s and early '70s. Happenings and Other Things riffs on classic sounds that trace from the Beatles, through ELO, to Tom Petty (or maybe the Traveling Wilburys, to combine the three).

The album starts off strong, with There's a Light. This anthemic rocker owes a lot to the Band. The arrangement and the vocals are totally unselfconscious, with expressive guitars playing rich bluesy licks. The simple background vocals fill in the perfect harmony. The chorus hooks so strong, it's hard not to join in.

The rest of Happenings and Other Things clicks with the initial listen, with songs like Off Your Back and You Don't Know hitting that Harrison-ELO-Petty space. Sugar Suite Blues comes out promising Aerosmith, lifting bass and guitar lines. The vocals and the bridge changes reset the vibe to Little Feat meets T. Rex.

All down the playlist, these are simple songs that rise above simplicity. It's a fizzy, bouncy instant classic. Pour a clean Paulaner Helles and sing along.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

CD review - Turin Brakes, Outbursts (2010)

The sound is like a polished stone or a bit of sea glass...or maybe the lucky coin you've carried for years. The smooth retro touches pull up a diverse set of references: Fleetwood Mac, U2, and Bread. The Turin Brakes take these sounds and weave them into a sort of dreamy trap. Outbursts is a subtle album, revealing more on each listen and rising above the simple folky first impression.

The first song hits all of these points. Sea Change starts with a folky set of guitars, but then quickly takes on a Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac sound, especially the vocals. Details keep drifting in, like background vocals and layers of percussion. It builds to an epic groove that stays just this side of progressive rock.

The swirling guitars and driving bass of Apocolips (free download here) reminds me of Radio Birdman's Man With Golden Helmet. The bass syncopation is hypnotic but it's tamed by the dreamy, distant vocals. Once again, the little details, like the suggestive keyboard nuances, come out on repeated listening.

The one song that I'm conflicted on is Will Power. This is almost a cover of U2's With Or Without You. Maybe it's more of a tribute, conscious or not. This is a package deal: the vocal, the melody, and the arrangement. On first listen, I was put off by how derivative it sounded. Eventually, though, the flow overcame my reservations. The song intricately builds into a compelling piece. Then, it resets to the beginning, to relieve the tension. The lyrics are loosely sung, but they're powerful.
You are turning from a whisper into a scream
Don't fall upon deaf ears
The short bridge features a lacy bit of twinned guitars.

Some things are an acquired taste, because they challenge the novice. Outbursts is more likely to be dismissed as simplistic, but give it a couple of listens and the subtleties will shine through. The perfect companion for this album is a fine glass of Kölsch (from Früh if you're actually in Köln).

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Concert review - Hickman-Dalton Gang, Roger Clyne

6 February 2010 (Road 34, Ft. Collins CO)

It's always a great party when Roger Clyne comes to town, whether with the Peacemakers or in a more stripped down show like last night. Many people had followed them from Denver to Ft. Collins to catch all three nights of shows with Roger Clyne and the Hickman-Dalton Gang. The tequila and bourbon flowed and the good times rolled.

The Hickman-Dalton Gang

Cracker lead guitarist, Johnny Hickman, and Peacemakers/Railbenders guitarist, Jim Dalton, pair up for the Hickman-Dalton Gang. They take it back to solid country roots, from back when country, folk, and blues weren't so separated as they became. It was a perfect lead in for Roger.

The crowd was primed for a good time, enjoying great songs like Hold My Drink While I Kiss Your Girlfriend. The boys played hard, but always in simple harmony. The setlist was loose: at one point, Jim Dalton led a Railbenders song that Hickman didn't really know. No one would have known if he hadn't spoken up about it.

Roger Clyne

If there was true musical justice and karma, Roger Clyne would be a great star, with wealth and fame, while a lot of our pop idols would be bussing tables. Clyne had a shot at fame with the Refreshments, but a lack of label support and personnel problems combined to hamstring their success. Reforming as Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers, Roger focused on the music with a deep, heartfelt sincerity. Since those days, he's built a loyal cadre of supporters and come to a more sustainable level of personal success.

This tour didn't include the Peacemakers, although, for the latter half of the show Jim Dalton and Johnny Hickman sat in. Roger played through a lot of his standard songlist, which didn't suffer by being solo acoustic. He just stripped the songs down to their essentials: the joy of I Do, the longing in Wanted, the bittersweet acceptance of Green and Dumb.

After playing through a short set, Clyne opened it up for requests, playing several more crowd favorites. The show took an interesting turn with cover songs late in the set. Jim sang the Johnny Cash classic, I've Been Everywhere, which shifted into the riff for Folsom Prison Blues. Before launching into that, though, we got the lyrics for Pinball Wizard. It was a goofy fun. Next up was a cover of Tom Petty's, Free Fallin'. Later, during the encore, Tom Petty would rise again. And again...

The encore was a parade of mostly humorous covers, from Johnny Hickman leading a low pitch version of the Bee Gee's Stayin' Alive, then the whole group attempting Blue Oyster Cult's Don't Fear the Reaper, followed by Neil Diamond's Cracklin' Rosie and Sweet Caroline.

After Tom Petty's American Girl), Roger kept trying to move on, while the guys kept throwing out Petty riffs. Finally, Roger said, "Tom Petty will come and punch me in the nose!" We would have defended him, though.

Raise a toast of tequila and then, wait for the next time Roger Clyne comes through.

More pictures at my Flickr.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Concert review - The Pink Floyd Experience

4 February 2010 (Lincoln Center, Ft. Collins CO)

No surprise, this Pink Floyd tribute show was a trip -- and I certainly brought along enough baggage. Like many people at this show, I've been a Floyd fan for much of my life. These songs and albums have etched themselves into my brain, where they've formed into an idealized representation of the band. The upside is that I can hear half a second of Set the Controls For the Heart of the Sun and effectively listen to the rest of the song within my mind. On the other hand, this is a formula for dissatisfaction when it comes to the Tribute Band Experience(tm). The Pink Floyd Experience didn't do a bad job, they were just measured by a bigger yardstick than they deserved.

As expected, the show favored material from The Wall, Dark Side of the Moon, and Wish You Were Here. There were a smattering of songs outside this, with Let There Be More Light being one of the more surprising ones. All of the songs were pretty close to the originals, but on several, the tempo seemed a bit rushed. They also seemed to like the technique of introducing songs with little snippet references to other songs. This and the faster tempo made it feel like they were trying to cram in as much Floyd as they could, so everyone would leave satisfied. I know the tempo issue bothered me more than it did most of the audience.

Guitarist Tom Quinn did a decent job capturing David Gilmour's guitar style and voice. Similarly, Graham Heath nails Roger Waters' vocal styles. The rest of the band covered the songs well, with drummer John Staten standing out for some great fill work and sax player Jesse Molloy providing some great stage charisma as well as some tasty horn chops.

Musical highpoints included a great version of One of These Days, with some tight bass work and wailing steel guitar. Shine On You Crazy Diamond and Comfortably Numb were also strong. As promised, they even broke out the flying pig during the encore.

Talking to other people during the intermission and after the show, most everyone was satisfied. I agree, it was some good music, but it was more of a staged theatrical presentation, albeit with screaming guitar solos. It's interesting to contrast the Pink Floyd Experience with fellow tribute bands, Lez Zeppelin and Shakedown Street. Both of the latter feel more fluid and live, in part because the musicians have more stage presence and work the crowd. Sure, Pink Floyd always had more theatrical concerts with less jumping around, but it still made this show feel a bit passive.

Be kind and maybe break out the absinthe for the psychological boost.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

DVD review - It Might Get Loud (2009)

Music is fundamentally an exercise in cooperation and contrast. Harmony and melody, dynamics, tension and release...each side provides context and for the other. It Might Get Loud takes three very different guitarists, all from the big tent of rock music and illustrates this idea perfectly. On many points, the three find common ground, but just as often, they strike out in their own direction. Each comes from a different generation, each has his own challenges in his past, and they've all developed their unique relationship with the same instrument.

Jimmy Page is the patriarch of the group, recounting legendary history with Led Zeppelin and his earlier session work. His approach is intuitive and organic. He describes writing Stairway to Heaven to be "like an orgasm", building in tempo and all focused on achieving a crescendo. When he talks about Link Wray's The Rumble, he mimes along with the playing, explaining it but also immersing himself in that moment.

The Edge harnesses technology to chase an elusive sound. He describes the early days of U2 when they had total commitment to music, without quite knowing how they would realize their goals. He is quite analytical and thoughtful, which provides a deeper insight into both the band and his style of playing. It's interesting to hear him talk about writing Sunday, Bloody Sunday or breaking down a guitar sound because he creates the moment with such clarity.

Jack White, on the other hand, has an atavistic tendency. Steeped in traditional blues, he craves the rawness of pure emotional expression. At the same time, he has a masochistic sense that, by stressing or punishing himself, he can spur himself to greater art. Early in the film, he was stiff and affected, seeming too conscious of the camera and insecure with his part in the group. As the movie progressed, this changed as he was better able to articulate some of his rationale for being such a contrarian.

Choosing Jack White as the third guitarist was one of Davis Guggenheim's more debatable decisions. I came to appreciate it, though. White is enough of an iconoclast to stand out in the group and his perspective balanced with the others. Staying within the realm of rock guitar, it's hard to think of a better alternative. Prince? He's doesn't really represent the more recent generation of the genre. My Morning Jacket's Jim James? It's hard to say whether he has the strength of personality to carry this off. Now, if this were expanded beyond just rock, then someone like Charlie Hunter or Keller Williams would have been good contenders, albeit less popularly known than Jack White.

The movie is loosely structured, switching between one-on-one interviews, historical footage, group discussion, and loose jams. I would have liked more of the jams: moments like In My Time of Dying (Led Zeppelin), where the three guitarists trade slide licks, were magical. Similarly, in the deleted scenes, watching the three play around with Seven Nation Army (White Stripes), was great.

It Might Get Loud is not just a movie for guitarists; it's for anyone interested in the artistic process. Maybe a good gueuze beer is the perfect match: a blending of different vintages of wild fermented beers, taking on the strengths of each.