Saturday, July 31, 2010
UK indie rock quartet Deepseagreen have put their heart, soul and considerable chops into the ten songs that comprise this fine, self-titled debut disc. The additional charm lies in the fact that the tracks were done live, off the floor in a two day blow-out back in the fall of 2009.
Rock and roll that's raw, sweaty and real still exists. You have to look a bit harder for it these days, though.
Stripping it down to basics, the two-guitar, bass and drums lineup of brothers Jon and Dan Jefford, Marco Menestrina and Trent Halliday deliver tight, melodic compositions that suggest the glory days of the classic rock era. Allowing the instruments to breathe, the production job scores points for capturing the immediacy of impeccable ensemble playing coupled with a great, natural sound in the room. This disc will resonate with listeners who remember the warmth of the analog recording process. Perfect example is the lone guitar riff that heralds "On the Steps of Summer", which reverberates off the studio walls without recourse to digital manipulation. When the band kicks in, they make it count.
Another great bonus is Halliday's voice. He is spot on, throughout, without a trace of the frightful, auto-tuned aura of insecurity added to almost every contemporary recording. Highlights are plentiful here in terms of quality songs. It's quite easy to let these ten cuts play through, though several really stand out ("Black Maria", "Polarise", "Janine").
Personal favorite for me is "Plastic Lazarus". Opening with a twisting, distorted guitar figure, the expectation is that the rhythm section is going to slam, head-on, into an over-driven tempo.
Instead, it's a very smooth transition into a feel that suggests reggae while maintaining a razor-sharp, rock edge. Clever lyrics top a fine performance.
These guys have their act together. Deepseagreen will almost certainly find a very large audience with work of this quality. I would highly recommend that you check out their CD.
Learn more about the band here
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Following the demise of his artistic partnership with Paul Simon in 1970, Art Garfunkel briefly flirted with acting, teaching and then saw fit to carry on with a solo career that brought a modicum of success. Briefly reunited with Simon in 1975, they managed to fit in a few appearances and recorded one new tune (“My Little Town”) before going their separate ways again.
1977 saw Garfunkel paired with selections from the Jimmy Webb songbook, all of which would be recorded for his third, full length disc.
Well, at least for the initial release.
The completed LP hit the stores in late '77 and was unceremoniously yanked back by the record company as the first single was a no-show on the US charts.
Enter Paul Simon, who joined James Taylor and Garfunkel in a brilliant recasting of Sam Cooke’s “(What a) Wonderful World”. The arrangement is quite different from the original, almost surpassing it in terms of structure. Breathtaking vocal parts really make the difference as all three singers nail the harmonies in glorious fashion, each taking a lead line in the verses.
Serving its purpose, the lone non-Webb penned track was not only added to Watermark (which was then cleared to be sent back into the marketplace in early 1978), but also released as a single where it jumped into the top 20.
Including this stunner lifted the commercial fortunes of the record, though there are many treasures to be found on Watermark. Garfunkel applies his trademark, dulcet falsetto in interpreting Webb’s compositions, which were carefully chosen and impeccably rendered.
"Saturday Suit" is a high point.
Phil Ramone acted as co-producer and helped Garfunkel assemble a veritable "cast of thousands" to back him up. David Crosby contributed vocal parts and the cream of the session-playing crop showed up to grace these grooves. (Steve Gadd, Tony Levin, Hugh McCracken, the Chieftans just to name a few.) Staying away from the huge hits in Webb's impressive catalogue was a very astute move, as it allowed Garfunkel to put his own stamp on each selection.
Incredibly, this phenomenal collection of songs has been relegated to the netherworld of late seventies soft rock. Unjustly, it finds a home in the category of forgotten music.
Spinning my vinyl copy was certainly no chore. It revealed nuances that I hadn't previously noticed, bringing a new appreciation for Webb's lesser known tunes. Garfunkel acquits himself quite well, never seeming overwhelmed by the production that swirls around his natural tenor. "Crying In My Sleep" was the lead-off 45 that failed to dent the top 100, though listeners at that time really should have been more generous with this one. Perhaps the disco-addled brains of the masses couldn't appreciate its subtle charms.
Everything clicks here, with the title song being a personal favorite. Should you happen upon a copy, be sure not to pass it up. This is a very successful marriage of two great talents that deserves to be heard.
Friday, July 23, 2010
Persistence, virtuosity and a staunch decision to follow their instincts have been a recipe for success in the case of Rush.
Defying gravity on stage? No problem.
Creating a diverse and layered body of work over 36 years? Check.
Did the band members themselves think that the ride would last this long?
In the late sixties, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson were high school kids from the suburbs of Toronto. Music meant a great deal to both and they quickly formed a bond through playing together and emulating their favorite bands. The impact on their grades was likely pretty severe, but they were teenagers during the golden age of rock. How could they not be smitten by acts like the Who and Cream?
Signal distortion, more advanced PA and monitoring systems were making it possible for fewer musicians to make a bigger sonic impact playing live. The age of the “power trio” (not to be confused with The Kingston Trio) dawned in the mid-sixties. Casting off the 2-3 minute formats into which pop had been straight-jacketed, many groups began to explore the outer limits of improvisation. Out of these non-linear jams, brilliance could easily slip into self-indulgent flights to the Republic of Tedium. Nevertheless, there were groups that devoted themselves to long form, multi-part epics, brimming with inventive playing. No more would the rhythm section tap or plunk out basic foundation work, while the guitarist and singer reaped all of the glory.
Happily unfettered, everyone now had their chance to shine.
With interminable soloing.
Progressive rock was born.
Truth be told, this genre was around for many years. It was called Jazz, though it wasn’t amplified by 100,000 watts with an accompanying laser light show.
Hey! Weren’t you supposed to be writing about Rush?
Fast forward to 1974: Our protagonists, Geddy and Alex, along with drummer John Rutsey, had long been full time gigging pros who had recorded a single and were furiously doing late night sessions to complete their self titled first album. Owing more than a small debt to the sound of the mighty Led Zeppelin, Rush had placed themselves squarely in the game.
Then John Rutsey announced that the touring grind was not for him, especially with the added burden of increasing health issues in the form of diabetes. He bowed out.
What to do?
Enter Neil Peart, whose explosive percussive skills won him the job following his audition/jam session. They had also gained a lyricist in Peart, with Lee and Lifeson more than happy to strictly work on the music.
Personnel crisis averted they then sharpened their focus, recording two more LPs (Fly By Night and Caress of Steel), toured incessantly and despite their obvious talent, saw little in the way of any significant breakthrough.
Neil Peart picks up the story:
"The ensuing tour in support of Caress of Steel was half jokingly referred to as the "Down the Tubes Tour", and it was a pretty depressing string of small towns and small clubs, and a lot of unwelcome pressure from certain quarters about making our music more accessible and more salable. It was uncertain for a time whether we would fight or fall, but finally we got mad! We came back with a vengeance with "2112", perhaps our most passionate and powerful album yet. We were talking about freedom from tyranny, and we meant it! This was the first real blend of our diverse and schizophrenic influences, and it was also our first really successful album. We felt at the time that we had achieved something that was really our own sound, and hopefully established ourselves as a definite entity. The side long title piece itself became a featured part of our live shows, as much fun for us as for our audiences, and the trend was all upwards from that point on."
Flipping a proverbial middle finger at prevailing musical trends and record company hacks, they put all of their energy into making 2112.
Conceptual pieces were not new in the world of prog-rock. Many artists had already mined this territory, with the Who’s Tommy being one of the most successful examples. Yes, Genesis and scores of other bands would devote much effort to album-side length suites that followed a loose storyline and took listeners on a journey.
So it was with side one of 2112.
Granted, this seven part suite is graced with very engaging instrumental passages, impeccably played, though the story itself is somewhat slight:
In the year 2062, a galaxy-wide war results in the union of all planets under the rule of the Red Star of the Solar Federation. By 2112, the world is controlled by the "Priests of the Temples of Syrinx", who determine the content of all reading matter, songs, pictures - every facet of life. A man discovers a guitar and learns to play different music. When he goes to present this to the priests of the Temples, they destroy the guitar. He goes into hiding and dreams of a world before the Solar Federation. Upon awakening he becomes distraught and commits suicide. As he dies, another planetary battle begins resulting in the ambiguous ending:
’Attention all planets of the Solar Federation: We have assumed control.’
As well they might.
Back in 1976, Rush pulled off a coup. In going against the wishes of their own priests of the temples of Syrinx (i.e. record company executives telling them to ditch the concepts) they gambled and won. 2112 grabbed the imaginations of young, predominately male listeners, who bought it in droves. Add to that the live draw of three world class players who mowed down every audience that they faced and the one-two punch was unbeatable.
There are plenty of magical moments through the first side (vinyl copies) of 2112, with all of the main motifs boiled down and condensed in the “Overture” (shades of Tommy). Signature riffs, tasty bass lines and muscular drum work all underpin Lee in full cry on the “Temples of Syrinx”.
In all fairness, there is enough detail in the twenty minute cycle to at least grasp the intended message, though not enough time is allotted to truly develop characters in any great depth. Hence the jarring, 90 degree angle drop experienced as the piece ends swiftly, with cold totalitarian forces (apparently) obliterating all who dare to bring any light into the lives of the masses under their control.
Let’s all go the lobby, let’s all go to the lobby, let’s all go to the lobby and get ourselves some pot
In stark contrast to the claustrophobic, grim vision of a future without choices served up in the first half, the second side of 2112 starts out with a fantastic train trip through exotic locations. Each destination offers a chance to stuff your pipe with mother nature's finest.
A dope song? Yes and it's quite fine, complete with a fantastic harmonized lead guitar/bass figure. Best track from a very stellar set.
"We only stop for the best."
This hirsute gentleman guarantees it.
Balancing shorter compositions with the extended narrative that comprised the first act was a smart move. "Something For Nothing" is a strong finish to what would be an extremely pivotal LP for Rush. If you listen closely to the lyrics, there is almost a sense that some loose ends are being tied up with respect to the dystopian picture painted of 2112. Far from subtle, it does serve to nicely bookend the idea of a nightmarish society where freedom of expression is forbidden with a gentle reminder that certain rights and privileges are often taken for granted.
Or something like that.
Sunday, July 18, 2010
THIRTY THREE & A THIRD
Never one to mince words about his experiences behind the scenes as a Beatle, George Harrison looked forward to creating music on his own terms when the inevitable split became a reality. Roaring out of the gate with All Things Must Pass in late 1970, he viewed the group's demise as an emancipation of sorts.
Solo success brought additional pressure to top himself, not to mention his former band mates. His need to distance himself from these expectations pushed him toward some very interesting musical territory. The Dark Horse LP, in particular, flirted with elements of jazz and arrangements that his fan base found hard to embrace. The 1974 tour was marred by problems with his voice, took a critical pasting and left him disillusioned with the business that he had once been so keen to break into. By 1975, he released the half-hearted Extra Texture to dwindling sales. Coincidentally, this was the last release for George on Apple Records and the label on the vinyl copies depicted an eaten away core as opposed to the iconic Granny Smith that graced all previous discs.
Such seemed to be the state of his career and personal life at that time.
It did get worse before the gloom lifted.
1976 would see him lose the lawsuit filed against him by Bright Tunes, which charged him with lifting the melody of the Chiffons "He's So Fine" for "My Sweet Lord". The actual story on this one is quite bizarre.
Back in 1969, he accepted an offer to do a short tour with Delaney and Bonnie and Friends. Harrison's experience was quite positive and he enjoyed the simple act of playing as part of a great band, without the nuisance of screaming idiots drowning out every note. At one tour stop, Delaney Bramlett and George were hanging out after the gig and Harrison quizzed Bramlett about his song writing:
"George came over to me and asked what inspired me to write gospel songs. I told him that I get thngs from the Bible, from what a preacher may say or just my feelings toward God. He said, 'Well, can you give me a for instance? How would you start?' So I grabbed my guitar and started playing the Chiffons melody from 'He's So Fine', singing the words My sweet Lord/Oh, my Lord/I just wanna be with you. George said okay. Then I said, 'Then you praise the Lord in your own way.' Rita and Bonnie were there and I told them when we got to that one part to sing Hallelujah."
Over a year later, Bramlett was shocked to hear this tune blasting out of every radio station he tuned to. He called Harrison and told him that he did not intend for him to actually use that melody. George claimed that he had changed it, though certainly not enough to avoid legal trouble.
Bramlett was even more shocked when he learned that he received zero writing credit for his efforts.
Probably for the best as it turned out.
Back to 1976, he was now unencumbered by contractual obligation to Apple. Signing on with A & M Records, health issues in the form of hepatitis delayed the recording of his new album. A & M promptly sued for breach of contract as the master tapes were not delivered on time.
Enter Warner Brothers records, who gladly took him on and bailed him out of his litigation with Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss.
Are we there yet?
Considered a return to form, Thirty Three and a Third benefited greatly from the injection of humor in some of the lyrics. Slapped for his more lugubrious excursions into spiritual subject matter, Harrison toned down his proclivity for proselytizing in favor of more down to earth themes.
This set of tunes found him singing about cars ("It's What You Value"), women ("Woman Don't you Cry For Me", "Beautiful Girl") recent legal tangles ("This Song") the absurdities of life in the good old material world ("Crackerbox Palace") and Smokey Robinson ("Pure Smokey"). Malaise thus lifted, it does seem that a great deal of care was taken with arrangements and acheiving the right sounds to match the mood of the music: light and breezy.
Melodic touch sharpened to a fine point, Harrison's slide work is impeccable throughout. The session crew that he employed was not much different from his previous outings (Billy Preston, Tom Scott et al.), though the material that he gave them to work with was far more upbeat. You can hear great joy infused in their playing as a result.
Taking honors as the standout of the pack, "Crackerbox Palace" marries a silky slide orchestra with some of the wittiest lines to ever grace a Harrisong.
George Harrison - Crackerbox Palace
Another factor that certainly helped this album was George's mining of song ideas from the late sixties. Revisiting no less than three compositions left unfinished between 1967 and 1969 ("Woman Don't You Cry For Me", "Beautiful Girl" and "See Yourself"), he likely found renewed inspiration in their completion. Managing to go back even further, the lone cover is a very clever update of Cole Porter's "True Love", originally sung by Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly in the movie High Society.
Closing with some cool jazz, "Learning How to Love You" was originally slated to be given to Herb Alpert to record. Considering the spectacular failure of George's short-lived partnership with A & M records, there is a certain incongruous calm displayed in this gentle offering that belied the business squabbles in which both were ensnared at that time.
I'm sure that in a parallel universe, there's a George Harrison LP called Fuck You, Herbie!
Definitely one of his strongest sets from the seventies.