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

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Recording review - Dub Pistols, Worshipping the Dollar (2012)

Fresh mashup mix of island sounds with DnB

Back in the early '90s, Jungle brought reggae and dancehall elements into the rave scene. Within a few years, drum and bass evolved and moved on to wider sounds. Barry Ashworth and Dub Pistols call back to that era, mining the jungle sounds and updating it. On their latest, Worshipping the Dollar, the band offers a cool mix of ska, dub style reggae, and hip hop that's been mashed up with drum and bass to satisfy a clubby, pop-centric ear.

The album offers a small initial taste with Alive, featuring Barbados reggae artist Red Star Lion. Splashes of brass open the track before the beat kicks in. While the electronic beat sets a solid dance pace, Red Star Lion's island accent and phrasing feel fresh.

Things get deeper with the next cut, West End Story. Hip hop artist Akala gets socially conscious over a backing track reminiscent of 10cc's Dreadlock Holiday:
What is the cost of freedom and who pays it?
Is the world not one big slave ship?
Where some stood whipped and stripped naked
All your freedom is written in your pay slip
Worshipping the Dollar takes its title from another line later in the song. Akala's message rides on a smoothly flowing delivery. The music is nicely layered, with cool funk touches and samples extending the reggae groove.

Dub Pistol's formula of bringing in guest artists gives each of the tracks a unique personality, from the poppy sheen and heavy rap of Rock Steady to the dancehall-meets-Latin-bop of New Skank But my favorite is the skanking soul of Bang Bang. Kitten and the Hip get slinky over a TwoTone ska jam. It feels lightweight compared to the socially conscious themes on some of the other tracks, but it's clever and fun:
You and me, we've got no future
Truthfully, I'd love to shoot ya
Bang bang, you're dead
Take a bullet in the head
Got to say I never felt better
I could shoot you a million times
Punish you for all of your crimes
But you wouldn't ever get deader
The only thing I would have liked better if the taste of dub step from the intro could be mixed in and out during the track to push the genre bending vibe.

Worshipping the Dollar sounds fresh even though this is a vein that the Dub Pistols have been working for some time.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows, 7/30

30 July (Bluebird Theater, Denver CO)
White Denim

It's been a while since I've seen Austin's White Denim, but their acid drenched jams and soulful grooves will keep your head spinning and your mind grooving.

3 August (Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison CO)
4 August (Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison CO)
My Morning Jacket

My Morning Jacket is one of those jam bands that turns out to be remarkably grounded. They tap into zen simplicity. Retro rock and psychedelia, everything is filtered through a soulful open attitude.

3 August (Cervantes Other Side, Denver CO
Sister Carol

And for really soulful, drop by Cervantes Other Side this Friday to see Sister Carol. Her feminist conscious rap/reggae is a delight. I'm hoping to catch this show because I've never seen her live.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Concert review - Tenacious D with The Sights

26 July 2012 (Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison CO)

The show contrasted a serious young band full of nervous energy and a well practiced, experienced headliner. Both acts gave fair value with strong sets.

Red Rocks is a large venue. I had good seats with great sound, but a bit far back for good photos.

The Sights were out of their element. This tour is certainly exposing them to some large audiences and Red Rocks is long way from the Michigan bars back home. Where a lesser band might have been cowed, The Sights stepped up with their incredible bar band energy and played large enough to own the stage.

Eddie Baranek's manic stage presence comes through in The Sights' YouTube clips, but he was even more amped as he strutted the stage here. The whole band was hyped as they pounded through the relatively short set.

They mostly favored the new album, Left Over Right (review), but they pulled out some older cuts, too. I loved Baranek's wicked guitar jam kicking off the bluesy rocker, (Nose to the) Grindstone.

The Sights emphasized their rocker side, which was appropriate for a Tenacious D crowd. So, they toned down some of their soul sound. Still, their tight pop harmonies sweetened the mix.

They wrapped up the set with an amazing version of Fool (I Can't Stop Making Out With You). Baranek set his guitar down on the edge of the stage and let it feedback in an extended version of the album track's tease intro. Then, he took the mic with his harp and threw down against Dean Tartaglia's wailing sax. The vocals still reminded me of Eric Burdon and the Animals, but with the band off their leashes. Tartaglia doubled down on free jazz sax riffs, playing two saxes at the same time. Kyle Schanta's heavy bass lines anchored the tune.

Sweaty and spent, the band took their bows at the end. They seemed a little shell-shocked. Eddie Baranek looked dazed as he thanked us for the "Best night ever". No, Eddie. Thank you.

Tenacious D are touring behind their new album, Rize of the Fenix (review). Rather than mix up the set, interspersing older song with the new songs, Tenacious D split the set into two halves. In the first section, they played many of the new songs. Then they laid out a tongue in cheek jam, showcasing a "new direction" for The D -- Jazz. It was an amusing send up of pretentious free jazz, complete with Jack Black's scat vocals. After that, the second half of the set hit a bunch of favorite songs from their earlier albums.

Rize of the Fenix isn't Tenacious D's strongest album, but the live energy kicked ass. They started out the set with a theatrical version of the title track. The dynamics of the song were bigger and the stage set (a giant Fenix/cock) was exactly the kind of excess that Tenacious D does so well.

While Kyle Gass stayed quiet and serious in his straight man persona, Jack Black dominated the show with his over-the-top acting. Black's funniest acting roles are rooted in his ability throw himself into a silly part, selling even the goofiest character (Nacho Libre, etc). This was part of the magic of the Tenacious D show on HBO that launched the franchise. The Red Rocks set was fairly scripted, but Black was so invested with his role, that it took on a kind of sincerity. Whether he was playing prima donna between songs and ordering his roadies around or pushing his campy Neil Diamond impression on 39, Black kept us laughing as we rocked.

That balance between humor and catharsis makes Tenacious D such a great band. If Black handled the bulk of the funny, Kyle Gass and the band drove the music. Longtime backing musician John Konesky was incredibly versatile on guitar, effortlessly bouncing from classical lines to shredding leads. Bass player John Spiker played some solid lines, but his solo during the band introductions was jaw-dropping. Brooks Wackerman showed off his agility with kick drum rolls and tasteful fills. KG's guitar work was a nice contrast to Konesky's. On the new material, his playing was more subtle, but he had plenty of chances to show off during the older songs.

Tenacious D kept up a pace chock full of peak moments. With Konesky "possessed" by Satan, the band ran through the skit/song of Beelzeboss (The Final Solution). Without giving us much time to savor the big finish, Gass sauntered to the full front center of the stage and kicked off a rousing medley of the Who's Tommy. Starting with Pinball Wizard, he nailed Townshend's speedy rhythmic strum. The band transitioned from Pinball Wizard to There's a Doctor before finishing out with Go To The Mirror!

Tenacious D wrapped up the set with an extended version of Double Team that detoured out to band introductions before the inevitable climax from the Fenix spewed confetti into the audience. We didn't have to wait long for the three song encore, which wrapped up with a crowd singalong of Fuck Her Gently.

More photos on my Flickr.

  • Rize of the Fenix
  • Low Hangin' Fruit
  • Señorita
  • Deth Starr
  • The Roadie
  • Throw Down
  • 39
  • "Jazz"
  • Kielbasa
  • Kickapoo
  • Dude (I Totally Miss You)
  • Kyle Quit the Band
  • Friendship
  • The Metal
  • Wonderboy
  • Beelzeboss (The Final Countdown)
  • Tommy medley
    • Pinball Wizard
    • There's a Doctor
    • Go To The Mirror!
  • Tribute
  • Double Team
    • with band intros & solos
  • Baby
  • Jesus Ranch
  • Fuck Her Gently

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

History Lesson - David Bowie, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972)

Bowie's transcendent concept album rippled into the real world

While David Bowie had achieved some commercial success with Space Oddity, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars transformed Bowie into a larger than life character. It's important to understand that Ziggy was not just music; it was a full blown persona, a story, and a fashion palette. Along with Marc Bolan (T. Rex), Bowie used this platform to define the androgynous look of glam rock. Ziggy also proved to be the first step in David Bowie's serial self-reinvention. Without Bowie-as-Ziggy, it's hard to imagine Madonna or Lady Gaga.

Ziggy was Bowie's first attempt at a concept album. The loose storyline sets up Ziggy as a Christ like figure, complete with a fall if not a resurrection. Compared to more fully realized works like the Who's Tommy or Pink Floyd's The Wall, Bowie's mirage-like structure doesn't stand up to focused attention largely because the story is barely sketched in. But Bowie's instinctive theatrical sense accented by the production makes Ziggy connect on an emotional level. The lack of coherent detail in the narrative leaves room for interpretation, allowing an impression of completeness. As Bowie assumed Ziggy's persona off stage, he imbued the character with more depth, adding to the fascination.

Despite the flawed storyline, the musical flow has an unconscious perfection. The drum beat fade-in of Five Years invites us into a story already in progress. The sparse arrangement is dominated by the drum beat and bass line. Bowie's lyrics paint an end-of-the-world scenario, but it's heavy with sentimentality. The maudlin sense thickens as the string backing fills in later. The arrangement subtly moves the song through a grieving process as the news sinks in. The treacly strings lose power to chaotic elements of denial and fear. Then the darkness fades, allowing a hint of acceptance before we fade out on the same drum beat of the beginning.

Soul Love paints a mixed picture of life after the news, with a narrator caught up in his own solitude. The horn solo foreshadows Bowie's later work on Young Americans. The soft ending provides no warning for the opening punch of Moonage Daydream. Ken Scott's psychedelic production shifts the tone of the album into its science fiction comfort zone. Mick Ronson's guitar work subtly colors the track. His tone howls, but it's applied with restraint to get maximum effect. Then, in the final section, Ronson slips free and lets it wail, surfing on some of the rage missing from Five Years.

We get our first real taste of Ziggy and his message through Starman. This is followed by the sole cover on the album, Ron Davies' It Ain't Easy. Within the Ziggy's context, the simple blues song becomes a key step in the story, indicating Ziggy's self discovery and hinting at his preordained fall: "it ain't easy to get to heaven when you're going down."

On vinyl, the Beatlesque coda of It Ain't Easy meant it was time to turn the record. That pause was important. The ritualistic record flip gave you time to consider that it wasn't easy, not to get to heaven or even get ahead. The break was a chance to appreciate that the first half of Ziggy is the set up, an inhale to drive the quick power of the second half.

Lady Stardust gives us the first clear look at our androgynous hero in his initial perfection. The measured pace captures the magic of gazing on Ziggy, transfixed. This is followed by Star. The doo-wop tinged rocker reflects Ziggy's impact on his fans, pushing them to aspire to rock and roll themselves. Then the pace kicks up with Hang On To Yourself. The beat is all over the place, with fast intervals between slower paced verses. The tempo speeds up to a breakneck pace for an orgiastic finish (Come on, come on).

Next is the glam masterpiece of Ziggy Stardust. Ronson's guitar is perfect. The repetition of his opening line tells a story all by itself. Bowie begins the meat of Ziggy's story with the simplest of statements, "Ziggy played guitar". The verses reminisce sweetly, but the picture isn't always pretty, contrasting Ziggy's charisma with his ego. The breaks are darker, sharing the jealousy of the Spiders and Ziggy's eventual end. It all wraps up where it started: "Ziggy played guitar"

After this, we get the slightly out of place, but rocking Suffragette City and the perfect ending of Rock & Roll Suicide. This closer brings back the deliberate pace and darkness from Five Years. But despite the heavy mood, it's the antithesis of Soul Love. Where the former sadly notes that "love is not loving", Rock & Roll Suicide stages a full scale intervention: "you're not alone/you're watching yourself but you're too unfair". It's theatrically grand and it ends with an echo of It Ain't Easy's Beatlesque finish.

It's a small loss when things we loved in our youth don't stand up to more experienced minds or our fond memories. An album that seemed like perfection at 14 may still be beloved at 40 while it's slipped from our listening rotation. But Ziggy remains strong for me in large part because I never left it; it became one of my musical homes during my teens that I still regularly visit.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Recording review - Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires, There is a Bomb in Gilead (2012)

A soul screaming message from the depths of the dirty South

Don't worry about the pun in the title, this is anything but a comedy album. This is a country rocking, blues wailing, soul screaming message from the depths of the dirty South. Lee Bains III (ex-Dexateens) charismatically gnashes, moans, and croons his way through a rich, earthy mix of songs. While the tracks on There's a Bomb in Gilead shift genres, Bains' voice and his vise-grip tight band maintain a consistent all-or-nothing attitude to drive every song.

In Centreville, Bains proclaims:
If you hear any bleakness from me and the boys
We're over educated and we're under-employed
But they're anything but bleak. This double time Lynyrd Skynyrd Southern rocker drives forward with unstoppable energy. A couple of songs later, on Choctaw Summer, the Glory Fires offer more of a laid back, Allman Brothers groove. The interlocking leads don't get quite as intricate as the Allmans, but the mesh is perfectly soulful.

The heavy hitting songs like the anthemic Magic City Stomp! propel the album, but it's the softer moments that truly show off the band's range. The sad and sweet country folk of Roebuck Parkway, the swaying gospel of the title track, and the soulful blues of Everything You Took are every bit emotionally moving as the foot stomping rockers on the album. Bains' desperation and loss bleed through over the touches of Soul Man pedal tones on Everything You Took:
You can keep my Walker Percy
You can keep that t-shirt my brother got the time he saw the Ramones
But just a little small piece of your sweet mercy
That's the dearest thing I've ever known
The juxtaposition of literary and pop culture references shows off the band's complexity.

Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires are almost certainly more intense band in the club, but There is a Bomb in Gilead is an amazing album that stands on its own.

For another sample, check out Righteous, Ragged Songs on Soundcloud.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows, 7/23

The lazy heat of late July offers a thinner set of concert choices. There are still a couple of cool options, though.

24 July (Cervantes Masterpiece, Denver CO)
Black Uhuru

Black Uhuru has gone through some changes over the years, with Duckie Simpson being the one constant. With so many classic jams in their back catalog (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Sponji Reggae, Great Train Robbery, ...), it will be a great show.

26 July (Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison CO)
Tenacious D
The Sights

Tenacious D is touring behind their new album, Rize of the Fenix. While I didn't think Rize measures up to the D's earlier work, their live show should certainly be spectacular. I'm sure we'll be treated to many classic tunes in addition to the new tracks.

The Sights, a retro rock and soul outfit, are opening. The Sights' latest, Left Over Right (review) is a recent favorite album of mine, as it conjures up Eric Burdon and the Animals crossed with Badfinger.

26 July (Hodi's Half Note, Ft. Collins CO)
27 July (Larimer Lounge, Denver CO)
Keys N Krates

Pulling remix techniques out of the studio, Keys N Krates make it happen on stage. Layering in drums, keys, and electronic sounds, they splice and dice a live show that reacts to audience response.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Concert review - See-I with Atomga, DJ Jahstone

19 July 2012 (Cervantes Other Side, Denver CO)

Someone did their homework when they put together this line up. DJ Jahstone laid down some tasty reggae mixes to warm up the crowd. Atomga kicked up the energy and got us dancing. After another DJ set, we were ready for See-I's explosive set.

DJ sets can be hit or miss, depending on the pairing. DJ Jahstone cemented the show as he tailored his sets to each act. After Atomga's sound check, he started out with some tasteful rootsy reggae jams. The crowd was pretty thin, but the rock steady grooves set the reggae mood and still meshed with Atomga's jazzy, Afrobeat vibe. As people filtered in, he kicked it up to get people ready for the band.

It was interesting to see the shift in his second set. Between Atomga and See-I, DJ Jahstone brought in electronic elements and a stronger dub feel, along with some dancehall
vocals. The modern sound was a great set up for See-I and the beat kept up the dance energy.

Compared to filling the stage at the Boulder Theatre opening for Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 (review), Atomga were packed tightly at Cervantes Other Side. That didn't seem to slow them down at all. Vocalist Devan Blake Jones has moved on, but their instrumental set was every bit as energetic and entertaining as before. Even without the vocals, their set featured the same fusion of Afrobeat jams, Latin rhythms, and mondo funk.

Like the classic jazz bands of the '40s, Atomga was a well-rehearsed unit. There was never a hesitation as they negotiated sudden transitions, punched through a perfectly harmonized horn line, or traded off leads. Their fluidity makes it all seem effortless. Watching carefully, I could catch the signals, but the glances and nods seemed more a reassurance than a necessity.

Rehearsal and talent alone, though, only carry a band so far. On stage, Atomga had the chemistry to transcend mere technical skill. They created true magic on stage and a party in the room. Whether it was trombonist Alekzandor Palesh's joyous dance moves and infectious grin or baritone sax player Leah Concialdi's eye contact with the audience, the band communicated their connection to their music and their gratitude that they were sharing it with us.

This feel-good aura didn't distract the crowd from the compelling rhythms, as they danced to the heavy jams and jazzed out Afrobeat grooves. My favorite song was the soul funk punch of Blood and Dirt. The percussion interplay was cool, Concialdi's solo was particularly amazing, and Casey Hrdlicka's wah-wah guitar was retro gold.

I also enjoyed the Take Five feel of Still Today. The organic flow of solos and the tricky polyrhythm beats created a balance of natural simplicity amidst complexity. The real surprise of Atomga's set was that they pulled off this intensity with a guest bass player and a guest percussionist.

Rob Myers fed a taste of guitar into his delay box as the band got started. He dropped to his knees and began playing with the echoed noise. He manipulated the sound into a rising psychedelic crescendo. It was the perfect rock and roll moment as the wailing tones hung in the air. Instead of driving into a rock jam, it all crashed down into a laid back reggae groove as the Steele brothers took the stage.

Arthur "Rootz" Steele and Archie "Zeebo" Steele came out in costumes that recalled Jamaica's history. Their coats and hats had a retro colonial look. But as they worked harder they eventually surrendered most of those ties and developed their full, unique sound. And just as Jamaica is a diverse place, See-I's music went well beyond reggae, although that backbone framed their sound. They flirted with rock, funk, and dub in addition to the reggae roots.

The Steele brothers also showed a versatile vocal style as they bounced from toasting to rapping or from soulful crooning to harder edged singing. Their stage dynamic had a lot of hip hop style in the way they traded off lyrics and used the full stage space. They moved from attitude-heavy power posing to charismatic intimacy. Zeebo would crouch at the edge of the stage to create a more personal moment, then thrust his hips before dropping back to dance with the groove.

One of my favorite songs was Soul Hit Man, a reggae soul masterpiece. Although the live version misses the horns from this version, Salem Steele's keyboards filled those holes. Ashish Vyas' heavy hitting bass drove the groove. The soul vibe dominated, but the loose flow let the song meander into other realms. During some of the dub sections, Myers threw in some dreamy guitar fills.

See-I's set was extremely well choreographed. The band stepped through the song transitions quickly and not even a broken guitar string could break the flow. Almost every song kicked off with Ashis Vyas' monster bass lines. Speaking of Ashish Vyas, the man is a dynamo. He stayed in constant motion, marching across the stage. Whether he was nailing a simple groove or laying down a more complex funk line, he was locked into the rhythm and radiating his musical connection.

Even though this was only one of several nights that See-I will be playing in the
area, the turnout was high and the packed club danced into the early morning. The band has quite the following here in Colorado, so I know I'll get the chance to see them again.

More photos on my Flickr.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Recording review - The Henry Clay People - Twenty-Five For The Rest Of Our Lives (2012)

Zen koan concept album is still anchored in classic rock immediacy

If albums are dinosaurs in these short attention span times, then the concept album is primordial. Retro psychedelic or overwrought progressive bands may exhume the format, but it's an old school play.

The Henry Clay People are all about the immediacy and punch of solid rock. On Twenty-Five For The Rest Of Our Lives, each song stands on its own with most of them clocking in under three minutes. But the band threads a common theme through the tracks, creating a Zen koan of a concept album: the coherent message is there, but it's almost an aside.

Like Jethro Tull's Too Old to Rock 'n' Roll: Too Young to Die!, the Henry Clay People find themselves facing the developmental crisis between their undisciplined youth and the prospect of boring adulthood. Jethro Tull's title track is somewhat morose, although it tacks on a happy ending. By comparison, Twenty-Five is more nuanced as it offers a deeper view of the question.

On 25 For The Rest Of Our Lives, the Henry Clay People capture the grown up frustration that comes from an undirected teenaged rage. They recognize the futility of holding on to an irrelevant past:
I don't wanna turn 25 for the rest of our lives
Spend the rest of our lives eatin' off of the ground
But where will I survive, cause we don't know how to die?
I said we don't know how to die...let's die right now!
Decide right now!
Joey Siara and the band skip the "holy crap, are we supposed to be adults now?" phase of this developmental crisis and dive into the "now what?" phase. They're looking for a meaning or a path, but they retain enough attitude to maintain some standards: "Now we've got to settle down? We don't settle for anything!"

Twenty-Five explored the idea, like a tongue probing a sore tooth. The band reminisces over the past, but with a clear eyed recognition. The Fakers calls back to their youth and what they overcame, but admits that "one was a faker, the rest of us were fakes".

But where are they now? Over the slashing Ramones beat of Every Band We Ever Loved, they take down the whole indie scene, starting with themselves:
No more room for romantics, I want to be a machine
I been sentimental, got no memories
You gave us nothing to do, and so we did nothing
Nothing sentimental, no more memories
By the time they reach Those Who Know Better, they're philosophical. The dreamy, tremolo-soaked sound is distant. Even when it rouses into energy, it remains muffled.
Been offered some wisdom
Been cut down to size
By those who know better
And those who think twice
The message is fatalistic, but the Henry Clay People don't sound like they've quite accepted that wisdom they were offered.

The best part of Twenty-Five For The Rest Of Our Lives is that you can ignore the concept arc and just enjoy the music. The Henry Clay People still stir up a mix of classic cock rock strut, Ian Hunter's glam rock frantic energy, and smooth pop vocal veneers. They may be growing up and reevaluating, but some things never change.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Random notes

It's time again to stick the iPod on shuffle and see what comes up. A few wild cards, maybe? I'm more surprised by which haven't come up yet, despite the full representation in my collection.

She Is Not Dead - Adrian Belew (Twang Bar King)

In a world of deeply competent studio musicians that work in the shadows, Adrian Belew built a career using his own unique musical voice. His significant work with Frank Zappa, Laurie Anderson, David Bowie, King Crimson, and Talking Heads showed off his ability to take guitar into strange realms. Animal howls, traffic noises, and sounds of a foreign bazaar are all fair game.

She Is Not Dead comes from Belew's second solo album, Twang Bar King. It shows off his singular aesthetic: the polyrhythmic percussion and processed guitar tones create a musical complexity that is anchored to a very sentimental song, devoid of irony.

Roots, Rock, Reggae - Bob Marley (Rastaman Vibration)
I Shot the Sheriff is Bob Marley's most well known song because of Eric Clapton's version, but Roots, Rock, Reggae proved to be Marley's best charting song in the US. The laid back chank and Aston Barrett's note perfect bass line are a great introduction to reggae's rich groove.

While I really enjoy Roots, Rock, Reggae, I think my favorite track from Rastaman Vibration is War, which offers a stronger philosophical message and has elements reminiscent of Fela Kuti's Afrobeat feel.

Charley Patton Songs - Gomez (How We Operate)
I've reviewed Gomez a couple of times. I love their mix of sounds that comes from three distinctive singers and writers. Charlie Patton Songs features Ian Ball's softer, reflective vibe. His milder tone is so far from Charlie Patton's rootsy blues life, but that distance feeds the longing in his voice. This is a beautiful song of searching. The instrumental bridge has a carousel feel, with the repeated theme as a touchstone. Each spin builds the energy before it returns to the theme to define the interval.

Propinquity (I've Just Begun To Care) - Mike Nesmith (Nevada Fighter)
Michael Nesmith always seemed out of place in the Monkees. He wasn't very good at hiding his frustration with the pre-fab nature of the band and fought hard for more artistic control in the band. Left to his own devices, he settled into a series of fine country rock albums. Propinquity (I've Just Begun to Care) was demoed for the Monkees, but was never an official release (Rhino did release a demo version as part of their 2006 Deluxe Edition of The Monkees.

This version comes from Nesmith's third solo album, Nevada Fighter. The arrangement is nice; it starts out simple, with sweet steel guitar fills. Nesmith slowly layers in additional guitar parts, backing vocals, and fuller drums to match the song's theme of love slowly developing.

Cubism Dream - Local Natives (Gorilla Manor)
I covered Gorilla Manor a few years back, impressed with Local Native's smooth mix of rich vocal harmonies, shimmery guitars, and compelling complexity. I love the arrangement on Cubism Dream. The syncopated guitar line meshes with the evocative bass line behind the falsetto vocals. The loose balance is so jazzy, but the song develops more of an indie rock feel as more instruments creep in.

Serious - Eric McFadden and Wally Ingram (Alektorophobia)
Eric McFadden is one of my favorite live performers. His musical range is incredible, reaching from gypsy blues to country to hard rock to funk. We'll talk about his work for other bands (like Stockholm Syndrome, Eric Burdon's Animals, and P-Funk) another time. While McFadden almost always plays an acoustic guitar, he can make it scream and shudder if necessary. On Serious, he sets up a simple Beatlesque feel accentuated by strings. But the song builds into a heavier bridge that starts to show signs of darkness and discord. McFadden's solo is fluid as it fits the harder sound but still emphasizes the Beatles vibe.

Poltergeist - DJ MegaMax (Dark Side)
Israeli electronic artist DJ MegaMax got his start creating remixes and that shows in his songs like Poltergeist. Ambient elements decorate the song, which lays out a solid techno bass beat. Threatening vocals and trance touches raise the song above its simple club vibe to create an evocative feel. It's a short track though, I think a longer run would let the pieces sink in to make a deeper impact.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Recording review - The Sights, Left Over Right (2012)

A perfect storm of retro rock and soul

I first heard about Detroit retro-rockers The Sights because they're touring with Tenacious D this summer. The blurb included a link to Fool (I Can't Stop Making Out With You) from their new album Left Over Right. A flirt of feedback and drum stick click count started the song and I was transfixed within seconds. A haze of harmonica and sax settled in on top of the deliberate drive of the guitar and bass riff, but then the discord clarified to reveal Eddie Baranek's vocals. His verses conjured Eric Burdon and the Animals. Then the soulful chorus broke the tension with a tidal wave of sound: horns, harp, and tight rhythmic stabs.

As much as I love the convenience of my iPod, Fool made me long for my turntable again. The volume knob crept higher with each replay. After swallowing this hook, I had to hear more.

Fool's intro is more modern, but the bulk of the track screams 1965, in large part because of Jim Diamond's old school production. The softened woomph of the kick drum, the roomy vocal reverb, the subtle build on the keyboard - these sonic decisions nurture both those stripped down verses and the headier choruses.

The rest of Left Over Right provides similar moments of satisfaction. The sound creeps forward to visit late '60s/early '70s classic rock, decorative bits of psychedelia, and even folk rock. There are so many whispered influences (The Animals, Badfinger, Bowie, The Band) that it's not so much a tribute as a long comfortable soak in a bygone era.

Diamond's engineering on Left Over Right is such a strong contributor that it almost deserves band-member status. Like a sculptor, he tweaks the texture to generate subtle effects and elicit the perfect mood. On Mercy's intro, he slathers on a thick mono layer of retro, like a teenager's cheap phonograph. This opens into a fuller, soul-tinged rocker that pushes the clock forward by about seven years:
The three sides to every truth
Are yours, mine, and the absolute
Which one are you gonna choose?
Whichever one suits your needs
The musical question is appropriate. Are The Sights retro-purists, gold diggers, or just naturally groovy? As Left Over Right time travels back and forth, the band blends in like chameleons. Still, every track sounds natural as the production, arrangement, and the writing create the appropriate mix.

The band itself seems to address the credibility question. On Anything to Anyone, The Sights offer a more modern sound, like Portugal. The Man's psych-pop. Baranek tosses down the gauntlet:
I look at myself and wonder, what would I become?
Anything to anyone?
I could sing without pretense
Or dance in your decadence
Would you think it's all an act?
With candor, he pushes the question back to the listener. He knows who he is and challenges his audience on their own consistency.

Without a yardstick for this longtime band, I can't judge their classic cred. But Left Over Right is a damn good reference point and a great album.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows, 7/16

18 July (Red Rocks, Morrison CO)
Emmylou Harris
Steve Martin
Arlo Guthrie

This should be a spectacular show. Each artist brings something special to the table. Emmylou Harris is a national treasure, well known for her great songwriting and beautiful voice. Steve Martin has fully reinvented himself as a credible bluegrass musician. And Arlo Guthrie is still a fine storyteller and performer.

19 July (Cervantes Other Side, Denver CO)
See-I (members of Thievery Corporation)

Thievery Corporation's Eric Hilton integrated reggae players Rootz and Zeebo Steele into his rotating cast of collaborators. See-I's solid reggae grooves sound great on-line, so I have high expectations for this show. Frank Roddy from Atomga alerted about the show - I haven't seen them since they opened for Seun Kuti and Egypt 80, so that's another good reason to head down to Denver.

19 July (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)
Reel Big Fish

Skanking rockers Reel Big Fish are touring with a new album coming out, Candy Coated Fury. Their press promises that it's a return to the clever attitude and high energy ska sounds of their first two albums. The tiny samples in their teaser seem promising. Reel Big Fish always create a great party vibe in their live shows.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Concert review - Quintron and Miss Pussycat with Dream Police, No Funeral

12 July 2012 (Hi-Dive, Denver CO)
I don't put a numerical ranking on my reviews because I try to separate my tastes enough to recognize quality, even it's not what I like the best. Concerts are harder to grade than albums, though. For example, should the opening acts affect the score for good or bad? In this show, the headliner killed, but the first opening act...well, not so much.

No Funeral
No Funeral featured some cool laser effects, along with a fog machine, which gave the Hi Dive a rave look. Aside from a touch of glow stick style tubing wrapped around his arms, laptop noise artist No Funeral (Warren Bedell) didn't make any other concessions to "performance".

His brief set focused on deconstructing pop songs like the Lovin' Spoonful's Summer in the City. In DJ mode, he diced in overdriven vocals, electronic tones, and echo artifacts. Bedell met his noisy goal, but his set didn't do much for me or provide much support for the other acts.

Dream Police
The name "Dream Police" conjures up images of a Cheap Trick tribute band. That might have been an interesting choice for an opener, but the raw punk thrash that the band brought was more welcome. In recent years, punk pop bands like Blink-182 or Green Day are the strongest influences for punk scene, but Dream Police opted for a more old school, hardcore sound.

The quick pace, inarticulate shouted vocals, and high energy recalled classic bands like The Exploited and GBH. It was a reminder of the cathartic power of punk.

The dual guitar line up gave the band a solid wall of sound. Dream Police was also unique because it's rare to see a female punk guitarist. When she added backing vocals, it created some great whipsaw moments. The call and response on their opening song, R U OK?, got the crowd moving. This was a much better lead in for Quintron's set.

Unfortunately, Dream Police's set aborted early. The drummer broke a stick without any spares. He still managed one more song, but then he had to give it up. It's good to leave an audience wanting more, but 16 minutes was too damn short.

As is typical for the band, the set started with Miss Pussycat's performance art. In puppet form, she addressed the crowd:
Hello, everyone. My name is Miss Pussycat. I'm going to do a puppet show for you tonight about a grizzly bear that wanted to go into outer space. Then, we'll have a dance party with Quintron.
Miss Pussycat reminded me of Amy Sedaris (Strangers With Candy): her show was deliberately primitive and rough, but hysterically funny and entertaining. Quintron's electronic soundtrack and sound effects supported the show, which featured cannibal parties on the moon with Mother Nature, vampires, and a happy ending on "Magical Nebula Rainbow Land". The surreal show cleared our minds of all outside influences and prepared us for the music.

Quintron's music was a brilliant Frankenstein mix of punk energy, raw power, Wall of Voodoo/Talking Heads quirkiness, and retro sounds of soul, blues, and Cajun rhythm. He's referred to it as "swamp tech", which seems fitting. Like a one man band, Quintron played organ, various synthesizers and a partial drum kit. A key element of his sound was his invention, the Drum Buddy, which is a light activated drum machine/optical theremin. With all of these toys, Quintron was like a juggler. With his hands fully occupied, he might whip a booted foot up to kill the drum beat at the end of a song.

Despite all his toys, though, Quintron was a great performer. Rather than losing himself in the technical detail, he connected with the audience. His grooves got the crowd dancing and created a sort outsider rave vibe. While the music bounced around through B-52's new wave pop, rootsy revival soul, uptempo swamp blues, and Mojo Nixon-style manic outbursts, the crowd fed off the dance party atmosphere and embraced the quirk.

Miss Pussycat's backing on vocals and maracas was also vital to the balance. Her stage persona tended to be cheery and spacy, but she had a good range. On Swamp Buggy Badass, she summoned a catty 1950s tone and kicked off the vocals. Then, as Quintron took the lead, they slipped into a call and response that ratcheted up in intensity. After Quintron set the music on autopilot, he came out and accosted the crowd and it became a tribal rite.

The musical climax was an amazing Drum Buddy solo, with Quintron showing off the range of the instrument. The pair finished out a strong set and even played a solid encore. Quintron himself summed up their aesthetic perfectly: "We say 'yes' to everything." The buzz from this show lasted the 70 minute drive home and sent me off to dream filled night once I got to bed.

More photos on my Flickr.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

July singles

This month's singles may start out soft, but we'll build to the fireworks.

Teengirl Fantasy - End (from Tracer, due August 2012)

Let's ease into the July Singles and beat the heat with some chill electronica. Teengirl Fantasy spins out an atmospheric groove on End, weaving an organic mix of washes and scattered melodic notes. Like a glossy Xanax hit, the deliberately paced surface doesn't hide the seething tension below. It just chooses to ignore it. Beautiful oblivion.

Fools For Rowan - Killed a Man Today (from Who Killed Amanda Day?)

"Fools For Rowan" conjures up some kind of trad-folk image, but this Nashville quintet are at the opposite extreme. The opening of Killed a Man Today sets up a great modern rock drive before slipping into full-on power ballad. Erin Mullins sings within the eye of a hurricane. Her voice is grounded even as she soars for notes and she seems unruffled by the power of the music. The band's riffs are solid, but I'd like the guitar to be a touch more forward.

Aerosmith - Legendary Child (from Music From Another Dimension, due August 2012)

Too much is never enough. Hard rocking Aerosmith has made an art out of bombast. Their secret, though, is that they can take a joke or maybe even be in on it. Their new single, Legendary Child, delivers on both counts and does not disappoint. The 75 second movie trailer intro is over the top, but it does include the classic line "This is a story. The story of Aerosmith. Done by girls on roller skates. How fucking cool is that?" Amusingly cool, I'd say.

Legendary Child dates back 21 years to the Get a Grip sessions, which explains why the track captures Aerosmith's classic sound. Between the lyrical references to the band's past and the reignited band chemistry, it indicates a much needed reboot for the band, resulting in the new album and this summer's Global Warming Tour.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Recording review - Parlovr, Kook Soul (2012)

Theatrical and expressive, Parlovr's sound has matured

Montreal rockers Parlovr (pronounced "parlour") were scattered on their 2010 EP Hell / Heaven / Big / Love (review). Synth pop, indie rock, new wave, garage -- Parlovr defied genre and clarity of vision to offer a glimpse of their own schizophrenic internals.

Kook Soul's music still reflects a cracked mirror perspective of various influences, but Parlovr has found continuity in a theme of commitment and its occasional failure. Pleasantly, they manage to cover that trite ground without self indulgence. Along with their thematic coherence, the band has taken an evolutionary step and developed a theatricality that elevates Kook Soul's pop and provides an aesthetic link to fellow Montrealers, Arcade Fire.

On Just Marriage, an ambient start escalates into a shrill wail that culminates into a solid glam rock drive. Standing on Mott the Hoople and T-Rex's shoulders, the band pounds through the song, filling the cracks of the tune with fuzzy bits of whatever comes to hand. The kick drum and heavy bass provide grounding for the falsetto vocals. The wordy lyrics fit the tension of the song, offering little comfort in their wisdom:
Like a solid scream, the thought shot through her heart in the dream
And though it woke her up, the feeling became a real thing
And now the wedding she wanted so bad had all become a lie
Oh how the nuptials, they only pull the wool over your eyes
Parlovr mixes a matter-of-fact tone with punctuations of over-emoted expressiveness, which gives Kook Soul a confessional vibe. The glossy glam and new wave riffs suggest a slick veneer, but Parlovr's deeper feelings are often revealed. On I'm Holding on to Something, the verse starts out passively:
You promised you'd be home
I made myself available
Guess I'll just wait outside your door

But the truth of rejection becomes clear which leads the song to a simple chorus of raw, exposed desperation: I'm holding on to something. I'm holding on to you!

But rather than play drama kings, the band remains self aware and avoids taking themselves too seriously. Take the retro mod-pop of Amaze-Me-Jane. This goofy tune sets up a simple garage rock jam with tossed off lyrics. But the song's energy builds and the vocals veer towards anarchy while the music tries to keep up.

Kook Soul's maturity and coherence are an improvement over Hell / Heaven / Big / Love. Parlovr continue to develop their voice and it seems like they have interesting things to say.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows, 7/9

Check out some classic masters or just try to catch the perfect moment this week. BTW, it's good news to see that the Mish is open again.

12 July (Hi-Dive, Denver CO)
Quintron and Miss Pussycat

Quintron is a tempermental, experimental electronic musician and performance artist. Along with his keyboards, he plays a collection of other instruments he's invented himself. He performs with his muse and collaborator, Miss Pussycat, creating a heady mix of dance music/electronic chaos/New Orleans time warp. The Hi-Dive should provide the perfect ambiance to appreciate the full scope of the Quintron/Miss Pussycat experience.

12 July (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
13 July (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)
14 July (Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom, Denver CO)
Victor Wooten

Victor Wooten is one of the greatest living bass players. His work with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones has been impressive, but his solo work has expanded his musical footprint. I love his playing and the way he internalizes a zen approach to his playing that brings exactly the right flash, tone, and notes to accentuate whatever music he accompanies.

13 July (Mishawaka Amphitheatre, Bellvue CO)
Keller Williams

Speaking of transcendent musicians, Keller Williams developed his live looping technique to build rich musical worlds in his solo shows. But true to his nature, he finds the musical heart of his songs and makes you forget that he's juggling some impressive technology to get there. Like Victor Wooten, if you've never seen Williams live, you're missing a peak musical experience.

15 July (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)
Black Joe Lewis and the Honey Bears

Black Joe Lewis and the Honey Bears are firmly ensconced in a retro soul time warp, where JB and Ike Turner are still the reigning kings. The soul party should be in full swing next Sunday, so come out and boogie down.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Concert review - Dick Dale with Bonnie and the Clydes

4 July 2012 (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)

The Aggie was double booked on the 4th. Lucero's show at the Mishawaka Amphitheatre was moved to a late night slot at the Aggie and the Dick Dale show was pushed earlier. The doors opened at 6pm, but the real surprise was that the opening act took the stage at 6:30 pm. The quick start time surprised a lot of us.

Bonnie and the Clydes brought a strong, classic country sound to the stage. They didn't aspire to flashy technical chops, but their tight arrangements showed their dedication. The band's real strength was recognizing that entertainment is about more than just hitting the notes.

Bonnie Sims was a perfect centerpiece for the band. She had a big, friendly personality and a relaxed stage presence that clicked with the audience, even though they weren't all country fans. She rounded out the package with good instrumental skills and a very strong, expressive voice. While she was charismatic enough to eclipse the rest of the band, each member found their own way to stand out and connect as well.

Fiddle player Nancy Steinberger added sweet vocal harmonies and some tasteful instrumental lines. Drummer Jason Pawlina projected a cheery aura along with the solid beats. Bass player Michael Schenkelberg naturally gravitated to wherever the action was on stage and injected his personality. Taylor Sims was a bit more reserved on lead guitar. He had some good twangy leads, but he often seemed pleasantly surprised he pulled off his parts. This endeared him to the crowd.

Taken as a whole, the band seemed very conscious of their stage blocking. The players shifted to follow the lead as it was tossed from guitar to fiddle to vocals. That pulled the audience's attention to the action and built it higher.

I liked their original songs -- they have a new album coming out in the next couple of weeks -- but some of their interesting cover choices made the biggest impression. Their version of Patsy Cline's I Fall To Pieces was fairly straightforward. The tempo was skosh quicker, but Bonnie Sim's singing hit those deep opening notes and captured Cline's expressive vocal crack. On the other hand, their cover of Bob Dylan's Gotta Serve Somebody drifted further from the original. I've heard soulful versions, but this is the first dark country rock version I've come across. Sims' powerful voice had more in common with Etta James than Dylan's original, but that was fine.

The pause between the sets was shattered by a wicked flurry of guitar notes assaulting our ears from offstage. The band took the stage first. Then Dick Dale strolled out, still laying out his patented reverb-soaked, overdriven guitar shred. This dramatic start was Dale's way of reminding us that he is the King of Surf Guitar. The bombast also made it hard to believe that he is 75 years old. The initial blast of speed and fury kicked off a breakneck pace for the set.

The band's line up featured Sam Bolle (Agent Orange) on bass and Dick's son Jimmy Dale on drums. Their high energy playing transcended "power trio" to be more of a "superpower trio". Bolle's bass had a punk energy, but enough flash to stand up to Dale's guitar. Jimmy Dale was a powerhouse on drums, banging out tight driving fills and rumbling kickdrum rolls. Although Dick occasionally tossed in some chords, the band had no need for a rhythm guitarist. Bolle's thick bass sound and Dale's wailing guitar saturated that sonic space with ease.

Ever the master showman, Dick Dale owned the stage, staying in near constant motion. With a theatrical gesture, he'd toss energy at the bass and drums for their solos. Then, with a big flourish, he'd blindly tap out harmonic notes on his fretboard with deadly accuracy. Dale's relationship with his Fender Stratocaster was expressive, one moment he'd coax it, then he'd shift to wrest sound out of it like it's a living beast

The songs were often extended medleys. Pipeline slid into Ray Charles' What'd I Say, with the crowd already ready to follow Dale's vocal cues. Then, after a hint of California Sun, the song ran through Summertime Blues, Smoke on the Water, and The Peter Gunn Theme. With each new twist, the jam kept expanding.

This flow allowed Dale to hit most of the crowd favorites along the set, including the classic Miserlou, Nitro, The Eliminator, and House of the Rising Sun (with Dale on vocals!).

The climax of the set was the drum solo duet from Dick and Jimmy Dale. The pair meshed together with the elder Dale focusing on the toms and Jimmy working the snare and kick, but their riffs interlocked as they crossed drums. Then, Dick came to the front of the stage with his sticks. As Bolle presented Dale his bass like a sacrificial offering, Dale started drumming out notes. Bolle fretted the notes while Dale tapped out a fast, fluid melodic solo. Then he flipped the bass and Dick played the back, generating an echoey, rumbling tune. Occasionally, Dale reached a stick underneath to slide a note on the neck before punctuating the line with a final tap. Even having seen Dale do this before, this was phenomenal -- a stunning visual and sonic showpiece.

Even after bouts with cancer and reaching 75, the legendary Dale still refuses to compromise on his show or music. He and his amazing band cranked through about a full hour of music that left the crowd exhausted but happy.

More photos on my Flickr.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Commentary - Golden Summer

This seems to be the year for Golden Anniversaries. The Rolling Stones unveiled their new logo for the occasion. Shephard Fairey's design decorates a version of the classic tongue logo.

The other big 50th is the Beach Boys reunion tour. Remaining founders Brian Wilson, Mike Love, and Al Jardine, along with longtime member Bruce Johnston, got back together to release That's Why God Made the Radio, which released last month. 1985's The Beach Boys was the last time Wilson recorded with the band.

Given the history of confrontations between Wilson and Love over the years -- Wilson's deterioration from drug use and mental problems, Love's sense of ownership of the Beach Boys name and legacy, and the several lawsuits between them -- it's a pleasant surprise to see them get back together again. Brian Wilson has already demonstrated his recovery with a return to recording and performing over the last decade or so. And Love is...

Well, Mike Love is much the same. He's happy to be performing with Wilson again and the boost it offers, but the business side of the Beach Boys looms large for him, too. He's talked about the ridiculous cost and logistics of the reunion tour and he's also continued to book his more streamlined version of the Beach Boys for fall shows. This has led to some confusion about which band is getting booked, with at least one venue canceling a show because it wasn't the reunion tour.

Wilson is staying above it all, focusing on the fun of connecting again. This is really why anyone still cares about the Beach Boys. Wilson played the delicate artist with a gift for emotional connection, in thrall to his love of the music. Love kept the band together and in focus, to create a legacy for Wilson to rejoin. The magic was a joint effort.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Recording review - Johnny Hickman, Tilting (2012)

Folky roots rock with country twang and new wave punch

Tilting is Johnny Hickman's second solo album. Plenty of people know the Cracker co-founder's rock side, but Hickman also has strong country-folk influences that he's shown with the Hickman-Dalton Gang. Tilting plays like Hickman's eclectic history. It's a melting pot of folky roots rock with moments of country twang and new wave punch, plus a few other surprises.

Cracker fans might prefer the rocking numbers, like the snide Elvis Costello post punk of Sick Cynthia Thing or the indie rock sneer of Takin' Me Back. This latter track could turn up on a Cracker album, but it really nails a Beat Farmers country rock groove. The lyrics are clever and clueless as Hickman sings from the perspective of someone who doesn't realize "she's just not that into you":
She needs a break for our relationship's sake
Takin' me back, takin' me back, she will be
So, I give her space, but I call her in case
She's takin' me back, takin' me back, she will be

Someone says she's missing me

Lost in her regret
Feels more like she misses me
Every chance she gets
Sharp and punchy, it's a strong contrast to Tilting's rootsier tracks that lean towards folk rock. Those songs lay down a simple sound to support Hickman's lyrical message, from calling out the greedy and venal on Measure of a Man to the his philosophical musings on Destiny Misspent. Hickman is comfortable with this stripped down approach and he gives the songs room to breathe.

One track, though, is a complete outlier. The jazzy blues of Papa Johnny's Arms has some great guitar work and it could easily fit on a Leon Redbone disc. It's a fun song, with a polished sound and smooth flow. The guitar solo is particularly nice - not quite Django, but with a taste of gypsy jazz. But as much as I like the laid back vamp, it breaks up the album's flow.

Even so, Johnny Hickman is confident in his choices and Tilting is anything but a single niche album.

(As a contrast from the link above, here's another track, Another Road.)