Thursday, January 21, 2016
Les Claypool and Sean Lennon have formed a mutual admiration society, which began with some acoustic jamming while their bands shared the bill on tour last year. These explorations flowered into something more substantial, with the results being this very interesting collaboration. I took this track, Cricket and the Genie for a couple of spins and it is a decidedly pleasant surprise. Claypool plays bass, Lennon handles everything else including vocals on this tune. Deliberately strange, with shifting sand time signatures, full marks are given for ingenuity and some honestly crafty playing.
Underground sounds of 1973 shaking hands with 2016 and no apologies. If you are roundly bored with the homogenized sludge that is passing for music right now, then dig this. Very excited to hear more.
Monday, January 11, 2016
There is an endless river of ideas, sounds and pictures quietly flowing just a few feet above the heads of humanity. Those that are fortunate enough to be woken from a dead sleep and invited to dip their hand in this wondrous pool can retrieve invaluable gifts. It is how you assemble the information for presentation to others that counts. Imagine having the ability to glide along the surface in perpetuity, fishing out these treasures with ease.
"All the pictures I see are smiling at me, but today I'm somebody new"
True talent always finds a way to tap into this stream, penetrate the public consciousness with what they have found and remain there by consistently working on their craft. David Crosby has built a very successful career by raising his voice in song, harmonic brilliance and opinions that carry great insight, if you care to listen. Dividing his time amongst several very successful musical aggregations over the years (The Byrds, CSN, CSNY, C&N, CPR), has meant that the energies reserved for his own projects were often sublimated in favour of collaborative efforts. When listeners do get a record from him, it has always been quality over quantity.
His most recent solo release, Croz, is one of his very best.
Shamefully late to the table in picking up on this disc, it has quickly worked its way into my regular rotation. He is in quite good voice, per usual, though it is his facility with words here that bears repeated examination. Arrangements are sharp, featuring some spectacular detours from the main melodic theme, supported by a cast of impeccable players. Figuring prominently in this mix is his son, James Raymond. His composition, "What's Broken", leads off the set in style. Rhythmically active with slippery bass lines, a very clever turnaround into the chorus and the decorative guitar work of guest contributor Mark Knopfler, this is an strong opener. Floating over this soundscape is a perfectly executed vocal with those trademark harmonies providing the sweetener.
What's broken? Not a thing...
Keeping the pulse as this stunning track dissolves is the percussive intro to "Time I Have".
Life in the city is so densely packed, fear of each other is an accepted fact
Exploring an esoteric lyric that balances positive self-talk to counter what the writer observes in the often depressing actions of the entities that attempt to us hold back with fear mongering. Peace doesn't always win the day, though the melody is enough to coax even the most cynical individual toward that path. As it goes with the best of art, the true meaning is left open ended. Spend the time that you have wisely.
Highlights are plentiful on Croz, though "Holding on to Nothing" occupies top position in that department. Gentle acoustic guitar in an exotic tuning frames this jazzy piece, which is graced with a beautiful trumpet solo from one of the masters, Wynton Marsalis. There is a downbeat atmosphere created which is only slightly dispersed by the expressive horn, which evokes a similar mood to that with which Chet Baker cast over Elvis Costello's "Shipbuilding". The words convey a subtle sadness, saying much with great economy.
Sunny days can fool you/they can look wet with rain/even words from a friend/can bring back the pain
Another absolute stunner is the second James Raymond offering, "The Clearing". If you were hard pressed to find a musical equivalent of "ethereal". look no further. Personally, listening to this one provided the same familiar chills felt when I first heard Jeff Buckley's Grace. Crosby channels the emotion effortlessly. Lulled into a sense of where this might be going, the surprise comes in the outro as the soundscape shifts to prog in an instant with some deft guitar work underpinned by inventive, bass-heavy synth lines. Given a moment to establish a motif, the scene breaks back to a tapestry of shimmering acoustics. Listen for yourself.
There is strength in every note brought forth here ("Radio" has an uplifting chorus, while "Set That Baggage Down" is a confident reminder to keep looking forward, despite any wreckage that you may have caused or endured), though one more selection has to be called out for special mention, as it features the artist without a net. "If She Called" is delicately rendered, bewitchingly arranged for solo voice and guitar. A distant cousin of "Guinevere" (in feel only and without a harmony vocal line), the inspiration for this song apparently came from a group of prostitutes that he saw near his hotel in Belgium. This should have been placed as the last track, as it floors everything that follows it. Stellar in every sense of the word, as with everything you'll encounter here.
Deserving of every superlative, the overall result is the fruit of intensive and inspired labor. The hard and dirty work that goes into song craft is often dismissed by those who have never turned their own hand to it. In a contemporary musical culture that has produced "artists" who are unable to flip on a light switch in a studio, let alone define what key signature their latest hit falls into, it is very welcome to listen to a cohesive collection that genuinely has something to say. This is an album that anyone would be proud to sign their name to.
Support the artist and grab yourself a copy right here or from his website, where you will also find details on his upcoming west coast solo tour.
Saturday, January 09, 2016
As an apple-cheeked, chemically altered 15 year old, it was my duty to buy this cassette in the week it was released because CIRCUS magazine had been talking it up.
Remember CIRCUS? Remember talking?
Long before the iPhone surgically removed the need for personality from humanity, the sixth Van Halen album was released to an unsuspecting public on this date, 32 years ago. Listening to Ed's technically dazzling fretwork is always a sonic treat, though this gift overshadows his fine sense of melody. This element was sadly lacking in most all of VH's imitators, poodles balanced on their heads, filling every space with "oodily-oodily-oodily" solos that were woefully unsupported by any evidence of a tune. David Lee Roth in mid-air, Alex Van Halen with 1000 arms flailing and Michael Anthony's harmonies were all key ingredients in making this band something special, though they remembered to mix hooks with instrumental chops.
With a running time of just thirty-three minutes, the material on this disc claims your attention by virtue of its brevity and variance in approach. Ponder that for a moment. Heralded by futuristic strains squeezed from an Oberheim OB-X, run through a Marshall stack, the icy instrumental "1984" showcased the most recognized guitar slinger on the planet at that time...on keyboards! This theme ends before it begins, setting up the intro to the monster-number one hit single, "Jump". Curiously, this would be their only trip to the top of the pops. Emerging with a grin from behind the synths, Eddie treats the faithful to the first of many perfectly executed solos midway through exhortations to attempt an escape from gravity. His salvos are a keen reminder that this is still VH. "Panama" steers the record back into more familiar territory, with a highly caffinated Roth tearing up his vocal alongside very innovative riffing. Just as the party is taken down a few notches to allow Dave to ease the seat back. there is a full climb up the scale as the players build to a crescendo and go out blazing on the chorus. The two tracks that close out the first half of 1984 veer in yet another direction. "Top Jimmy" arrives in water-droplet harmonics, with trademark squeals in the background, only to morph into Dire Straits territory, kicking in on steroids. The whole affair is capped by Mike and Dave in harmony throughout. It is radically different from everything else on this stunning set. "Drop Dead Legs" features an embarrassment of riches in terms of guitar figures with Alex keeping everything in the pocket. Saving the best licks for last, EVH wanders into frenetic free form jazz as he peels off a sequence of devastating runs, creeping well away from all boundaries, hypnotically into the fade.
"Hot For Teacher" begins the back nine with a wall of drums and could very well be classed as quintessential Van Halen. Humor, hammer-on hysterics and nerve all dressed up in a gut-bucket blues shuffle taken at an insane tempo. This remains a staple on rock radio, with an energy that is still felt three decades on. The synth returns from the closet for "I'll Wait", which also provides a much softer landing pad after the roller coaster ride that precedes it. Sporting a chorus made for heavy rotation, it leans more toward pop than the others, keeping things fresh from a stylistic perspective.
My personal favourite is "Girl Gone Bad" which takes you on a jaw-dropping slalom course of bass runs, if you're able to listen past the full fledged assault created by Alex and Ed. Hold one of your tinnitus-damaged ears close to the speakers and you'll hear sheer finesse alongside the urgency, with a minor key hint of sadness in the breakdown. Atypical of Roth, this only lasts a moment, though the atmosphere is perfectly framed by a dynamic arrangement. There is a remarkable amount of control on display from everyone in the room, reading the mood of the piece perfectly. One of their best compositions. "House of Pain" dated back to the demos that they did in advance of their first album, though it was retooled for inclusion here. Shifting gears and time signatures, it keeps the pulse of the proceedings high right to the end.
All this in a half hour? All you can do is play it again. I wore out my copy doing just that back in the winter of '84.
"1984" was Roth's last full length album with his cohorts until A Different Kind of Truth in 2012, bringing the Diamond Dave with Van Hef-lin in the 80s era to a close.
Van Halen fans missed him, too, because he brought a truckload of personality and humour to the table.
Does it hold up in 2015?
You bet! All killer, zero filler.
This is a creative and commercial watermark for the group. Exuding confidence on all levels, it is consistent and remains very listenable well outside of the time in which it was conceived.
Tuesday, December 29, 2015
It is with much sadness that I write a few sentences in tribute to a true ambassador of rock and roll. As these words take shape, I am drinking cheap beer while listening to the Bomber album. Proud to be a former teenage metalhead, Motorhead kicked down the door and stormed into my life in the early 80s. While those precious cassettes from that time are long gone, likely buried in a landfill, the memories are razor sharp. First cigarettes (left-handed and otherwise), the spine-tingling, adrenalin rush that ensued while blasting their anthems, pissing off parents, small dogs and children within a one mile radius. This culminated in the happiness of being swept along by that wonderful tsunami of noise, without pretension, containing the energy of a thousand suns. All other poser bands could suck it!
Whatever happened to your life? Stone dead, forever
My favorite recollection from that misty period was trading Anvil's "Forged In Fire" for "Another Perfect Day" back in 1983. The guy who did the deal didn't care because "Fast" Eddie Clarke had left Motorhead. Who cares? It was Lemmy's band. He continued to make uncompromising slabs of rock as my listening tastes shifted to other vistas.
Still came back to No Sleep 'Til Hammersmith from time to time, while visiting the ever popular, scenic altered states. The bass solo in "Stay Clean" is worth your left arm.
We are the road crew!
All of us rent a corner of the planet for a second, only to be cut down into biodegradable matter for recycling. With that knowledge, you should feel free to do anything. If you take up an instrument, sing and spread music to anyone who is willing to hear, then you will be the recipient of much love in return.
Lemmy has collected a lifetime of it, slashing away at his Rickenbacker while craning his moustachioed mug upward toward the mic.
Play his music loud for the next week, Your neighbour's lawn will turn brown and the prophecy will be fulfilled.
Sunday, December 27, 2015
Nocturnal musings from a basement window of introspection could very well be the overarching theme this week. This precious space when most other humans are comatose allows for the anarchistic laundering of thoughts in seemingly fresher air. Inane chatter coupled with the incessant pinging of devices are thankfully muted. The perfect compliment to this gently unfolding quiet?
Tony Bennett's warm baritone wrapped around the dextrous playing of jazz pianist Bill Evans.
Two very gifted individuals in every respect, their collaboration is filled with many rewarding moments for the listener. Opting to record solo voice and piano is pretty daunting from the perspective of any singer as every note is under scrutiny. Poor phrasing or awkward pitch are easily exposed, without the coverage of other instruments. Working without a net, Bennett steps up to every song with confidence and cool, delving deeper into his artistry in the process. When this record first appeared in 1975, unheralded, its contents were very much out of step with contemporary noises, likely puzzling anyone who had not spent time in the confines of a smoky jazz club. Song selection along with arrangements were reportedly worked out during the sessions, with no prior preparation. Impressively, the duo ran through each tune a few times before deciding that they had a final take.
Evans approached the material with delicate brilliance, supporting Bennett tastefully as he sang, generous in leaving space for his vocals to soar. When he did stretch out to take solos, he became an orchestra, lifting the compositions to greater heights. Their choices all tend toward softer, downbeat jazz standards ("Waltz for Debby" being the lone piece composed by Evans), though this is quite a strong set. Very easy on the ear, it is highly recommended to be enjoyed under a purple sky, in close proximity to ocean currents with your favourite libation. Recognizing an undeniable chemistry, they teamed up to produce a second LP in 1977 (Together Again), though Evans passed away in 1980, sadly precluding the revival of this inspired pairing. Simply a masterclass in sheer technique all around.
Saturday, December 26, 2015
Gently influencing all of the liquid on our planet, the first Christmas full moon since 1977 is also cutting a grand figure in the evening sky, shedding some of its reflected light on a corner of my music collection that has been ignored for quite some time.
Skip James' Blues from the Delta came back into listening rotation after a long hiatus, much like the musical path taken by the man himself.
He cut some remarkable material in a single session early in 1931 for Paramount records and was paid the miserly sum of forty dollars for 26 songs. Eighteen tunes from this recording spree saw release on cheap, 78rpm discs, though they did not sell. Nehemiah James then turned to the church, was ordained as a baptist minister in 1932 and concentrated on gospel music, forming the Dallas Texas Jubilee Singers and backing his father, who was a preacher. Some years after that, he stopped playing altogether and drifted back to Mississippi, where he worked driving a tractor and cutting timber.
Now here's one to ponder. Imagine if Robert Johnson hadn't died so young and was living in relative obscurity, only to be located by young blues enthusiasts and encouraged to return to live performance as he approached retirement age.
That's exactly what happened to Skip James in 1964.
Fortunately, he was also able to re-record his phenomenal music with far more sophisticated technology than what he had originally been afforded. His work was rescued from barely audible, scratchy discs and allowed to breathe. Cream also did a vastly different version of his tune "I'm So Glad" on Fresh Cream that put some long overdue money in his pocket. History came to life as one of the best Delta bluesmen had his music resurrected, with scores of very lucky people able to see him play live. His pure falsetto voice was unique as was his use of modal guitar tunings. That effortlessly light vocal approach is what separates him from so many others who mined this genre, most choosing to wring each phrase from their "troubled and worried minds" in a far lower register.
Poor health plagued him during this brief renaissance though and he passed away in the fall of 1969.
Listening again now to these cuts is quite stirring, with each note containing vast amounts of what draws people back to timeless art:
Skip will still be astonishing in late December of 2034.
Thursday, December 24, 2015
Suspension of disbelief is the attitude that will take you far when you wade into the exceptional catalog of Mr. Frank Zappa. Commanding every stage upon which he walked, peeling off impeccable solos dressed in a guitar tone finer than silk, the man did not suffer fools gladly. Fueled by coffee, cigs and satire, he revolutionized recording techniques, while only the greatest musicians lined up to play/record with him.
"Apostrophe" is by far the best record with which to introduce a casual listener to Zappa, being one of his most accessible works. That doesn't excuse you from checking out the rest of his output, which is rich in exquisite playing, ingenuity of arrangement and eclecticism. Humour was the essential element in his lyrical subject matter, though he was serious as a heart attack about the fine details of every note produced under his watch. The title track on this immaculate disc features a solo taken in the Lydian mode, sitting straight-faced next to an opus about a fur trapper who is temporarily blinded by the "deadly yellow snow".
You just have to listen.
Satirical pieces that target hypocrisy in organized religion ("St. Alphonzo's Pancake Breakfast", "Father O'Blivion"), New Age charlatans ("Cosmic Debris") and the misguided zeal of some social activists ("Uncle Remus") blend wit with effortless, musical gymnastics. Understanding sound from an orchestral perspective, his stock in trade was deploying a superb, rotating cast of sympathetic players to bring his sonic vision to life.
Now ladies and gentlemen, destined to take the place of the mud shark in your mythology, here it is, the killer guitar tone...
Sublimation of original thought in favor of following trends was a constant theme that he railed against and with "Apostrophe", no subject is safe from his razor-sharp, verbal barbs. He would continue to publicly defend freedom of expression throughout his life. While Zappa would continue to astound, amuse, confound and sometimes piss off listeners, this album represented a commercial breakthrough. For an artist who was not bound by the restrictions of the two minute pop single, it really didn't matter.
Genius is a label that is tossed around far too liberally in the world of recording arts, though it deservedly applies to the multi-talented, late Francesco Zappa. Better still, he would reject that tag and simply allow his art to do the talking.