Sunday, April 28, 2019
Commitment to a persona, without so much as a wink, is commendable. Neil Hamburger is an inspired product from the fertile imagination of Gregg Turkington. On stage, he inhabits this character perfectly, often challenging his audience with material that is intentionally offensive, groan-worthy and insanely funny. Possessed of a razor sharp wit, he also expertly destroys would-be hecklers while moving, at a glacial pace, through each set up. Hamburger delivers all and sundry in a very distinctive voice, which he deploys on his latest recording, Still Dwelling. For the uninitiated, Turkington steps up to the mic, singing as Neil Hamburger on all twelve tracks. This is not an easy task, though he makes it seem effortless. For the prospective listener, do keep this in mind when you delve into this very fine disc.
Featuring an impressive list of guest contributors, meticulous production, arrangements and impeccable playing, you will be drawn in by the lush soundscape that lifts every song. The choice of covers had to have been an assiduous process as each selection takes you on both a genre and era-hopping journey. Two original compositions ("The Luckiest Man in the Room" and the closer, "Little Love Cup"), co-written by Turkington and his long-time collaborator Erik Paparozzi, round out the set.
Special mention must be made of the masterful job that Erik Paparozzi does in wearing multiple hats as producer/ arranger/multi-instrumentalist. Assuming the roles of Phil Spector, Brian Wilson and one-man Wrecking Crew (pun intended), he raises the ghost of those legendary recordings that came out of Gold Star and Sunset Sound in the sixties. What is most impressive, is that he did not have the luxury of sitting behind the glass at the board with a crack team of session players ready to do his bidding. He alone lays down all of the bed tracks and painstakingly overdubs a laundry list of additional instrumentation. Deserving of every superlative, this is genius level work and the main reason why the end product has such a warm, cohesive sound.
"Backwards Traveler", which originally featured on Wings' London Town LP, is a clever way to open the proceedings as it sets the tone for the trip back in time that you are about to take. Different from McCartney's arrangement, taken at a faster pace and wisely opting to drop the transition into "Cuff Link", it gives Hamburger a flashy vehicle to establish himself as master of ceremonies.
Highlights abound, though "Everything's Alright" takes things to yet another level of excellence. In addition to the aforementioned exquisite musical underpinnings, Jack Black (as Judas) and Mike Patton (as Jesus) lend their vocal talents to the mix. Their voices bring a sense of balance to this stunning, over the top slice of musical theatre. Former touring keyboardist for the Who, John Bundrick ("Rabbit" to his friends) makes the first of his four contributions, shining brightly with his nimble work on the 88s. Andrew Lloyd Webber himself would surely approve.
Paul Simon's "Homeward Bound" has been covered before, notably by Glen Campbell on his 1967 album, By the Time I Get to Phoenix. His rendition is earnest and smothered in strings. Flipping the script, it is arranged here as a country vehicle. Hamburger brings a genuine a road-weary feel, audibly sighing at times while half-speaking the lyrics, with which he takes a couple of pointed liberties. ("On a tour of one night stands/my suitcase and my jokes in hand" and "Tonight I'll tell my gags again"). Those dusty, maudlin ballads where the narrator spins a deliberately sad tale with a cast of thousands wailing away on backing vocals are parodied here in grand style.
A deep sense of pathos is conveyed convincingly on "Standing on the Corner". Where the original was jaunty, this version has you wondering why the protagonist seems so morose. Key to the desultory atmosphere is the brilliant string arrangement, courtesy of Petra Hayden. Minor key sad, you almost forget about the objectifying nature of the lyrics until the truly creepy, half-whispered delivery of the line, "Brother you can't go to jail for what you're thinking". Imaginatively reinvented, the whole thing works like a Swiss watch. The back nine of Still Dwelling continues with some very pleasant surprises. "Crazy On You" has to be heard to be believed. A galloping drum pattern is interpolated by short breakdowns, with sweeping orchestration (handled by "Rabbit") and choral backing. The coral sitar substituting for the guitar solo is particularly inspired. You can almost picture Hamburger, comb-over and bow tie askew, prodding his finger wildly at those whom he vows to unload on.
Gonna go crazy on you and you and YOU!!
Further ramping up the derangement factor, he also delivers a truly unhinged vocal take on "World Without Love". Gives fresh perspective to that opening line.
Please lock me away
The grand slam moment in this highly entertaining program is the marriage of the Midnight Cowboy Theme with John Lennon's "Isolation". After hearing this beautifully executed piece, you may even be moved to do an A/B comparison with "Let's Go Away for Awhile" from Pet Sounds. Why? Not because the melodies are anything alike, but rather that this is the vibe that radiates from the speaker grills as the music washes over you. It is a very high complement to all involved that this feel is captured perfectly. It isn't a stretch to imagine this wafting from dashboard of a 1967 GTO convertible, racing along the Pacific Coast Highway at sunset.
Closing out on an unexpectedly touching note, "Little Love Cup" offers a tender message to be good to one another.
You'll never be lonely, if love everybody you know.
Signing off with a touch of show-biz schmaltz, the mantra that you're left with is concise: No one loves a hater.
This extremely fun journey through the past is quite clever with nuances that reveal themselves upon each new spin. Love and loss through the lens of truly talented people who have a deep understanding of music history combined with a subversive sense of humor. I would highly recommend that you seek out a vinyl copy of Still Dwelling as this format will allow you to take in every note as it was intended to be heard. Support the artist and grab this for yourself right here
Sunday, April 14, 2019
Steve Lukather, top class musician and songwriter, has a compelling story. The Gospel According to Luke has been out for a couple of years as of this writing, though this is a call to all who have not yet picked it up to do so immediately.
Shame on me for being late to the party
Having devoured countless rock memoirs, I can easily name this book as being three summers ahead of all competition.
Lukather's recollections are unflinching, inspiring and infused with wit. In part, this reads as a passionate love letter to those gifted individuals who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to create the soundtrack of the 20th century and beyond. The players that comprised The Wrecking Crew are deservedly given high praise. They were the gold standard in terms of their craft, setting the stage for the next generation of brilliant, studio session teams that Steve (and his band mates) became an integral part of. The reader is ushered into a world where prodigiously talented human beings were called upon to shape arrangements, turn slight ideas into number one hits and do it all in the least amount of takes.
The brotherhood that led to the creative, multi-platinum selling entity of Toto is examined in unvarnished detail. Rightly setting the record straight about their accomplishments and taking humorous shots at the snobbery of rock critics of that era, you also get an unexpected tug on the heartstrings in his touching portrayal of those genius band members who have since left the material world. Wildly funny tales from the road sit comfortably next to group drama, triumph and loss. It is a page-turning ride that does not let up for a moment. Nor does the author shy away from personal low points. Indulgences in substances, those long nights of work in headphones or away on tour take a toll on families. All is addressed with class and grace.
Name-checking thousands of classic records that he's been a part of is but one layer of the multi-faceted individual who generously shares his life experiences in this tome. Possessed of a relentless work ethic, confidence and guided by a vision that was shaped at the tender age of six while watching the US television debut of four gents from Liverpool, "Luke" reminds you that anything is possible with a mix of timing, perseverance and sheer ability. Happily, there are more chapters currently being written.
Order yourself a copy here and enjoy for yourself. Well worth the investment and ultimately re-readable, it's "a great hang" with a legend.
Sunday, April 07, 2019
When it came time to record their second album, Nazz really had their act together.
All members were apple-cheeked, talented and barely into their twenties. Todd Rundgren provided strong songs, was de facto producer/arranger and burned up the frets with his lead playing. Robert "Stewkey" Antoni handled lead vocals and keyboards like a seasoned pro, with supporting harmonies from his band mates. Carson Van Osten approached the bass with the chops of Jack Bruce while drummer Thom Mooney flew across the kit like a caffeinated Keith Moon.
This mesmerizing set was released 50 years ago today.
Heralded by a manic snare drum build-up, with instrumental swells accented by a crisp bell, the lads forcefully kick down the door on "Forget All About It". Transitions happen at lightning speed, with 180 degree swings from the verse to the hooky chorus. The intro passage reappears briefly (a nod to Cream's "White Room") before the quick, stinging solo from Rundgren. The quiet, keyboard-centric breakdown is a masterstroke. Van Osten excels, with roller-coaster bass runs throughout. All of this action is packed into three and a half minutes.
If you haven't got time to rest, then take the record off now
"Not Wrong Long" follows. Short and sweet with piano and organ sitting prominently together in the mix, there is a hint of Big Pink era Band here, if only in feel. Pulled from the pack as the taster single this one (surprisingly) didn't score on the charts at the time, though it is more than worthy.
Ride my chariot, baby!
Keeping the energy high, "Rain Rider" is another stunner with great harmonies. Highlighted by Antoni's dexterous work on keys, the performance is tight and punchy. The first side then takes a detour down a softer alley. "Gonna Cry Today" points toward the solo work that Rundgren would soon be indulging in and wouldn't sound out of place on Something/Anything?. Out of left field is the best descriptor for the multi-part "Meridian Leeward", with quirky lyrics, complexity in arrangement and a creepy vibe. Must be heard to be believed, though it is fantastic as it is strange. The closer to the first half of the program features Mooney inserting short bursts of solo fills, at dentist drill speed, on the proto-metal "Under the Ice". These guys were an exceptionally tight band and they pull out all of the stops in flame-thrower fashion. This should have been sequenced as the last track, as it kills everything that comes after.
Which brings us to the second side. Solid, blues inflected rock sums up "Hang On Paul", "Kiddie Boy" and "Featherbedding Lover". All have requisite gunslinger solos and showcase the players well, though they lack the innovation of their predecessors. Rumor has it that Rundgren was pushing for this to be a double album, including more esoteric compositions in which he took inspiration from the work of Laura Nyro. His colleagues and the record company disagreed, choosing to boil the sessions down to a single disc. This would lead to his departure shortly after Nazz Nazz was issued. Coincidentally, the compromise may well have been the inclusion of the final two cuts. "Letters Don't Count" is as beautiful as it is concise. Closing in grand style is the sprawling, "A Beautiful Song", which clocks in at nearly twelve minutes and veers from instrumental riff-fest to a soft, harmony driven section before bowing out on an "everything WITH the kitchen sink" ending. If you listen closely, Todd even provides Pink Floyd with a guitar figure that they would deploy a decade later, midway through "Hey You". Wrapping up on a majestic note, this would, sadly, mark the end of their activity as a group. 1971 saw the record label put out Nazz III. Comprised entirely of the songs recorded during sessions for Nazz Nazz (but excised from the LP), it was merely a postscript as opposed to a new project.
As mentioned earlier, their chief songwriter bailed out. The resulting album, fine as it is, didn't find the massive audience that it was rightly deserving of. Whether it was the lack of a hit single, failure on the part of the record company to properly promote Nazz Nazz or a low band profile, with Rundgren gone all of these factors would be moot.
The great shame in all of this is unfulfilled promise. Production standards were top class, the songwriting and playing first rate. In an alternate reality, this compelling work should have struck gold and allowed for at least another recording by the quartet. Every bit the equal of the work that was being turned out by their contemporaries, Nazz Nazz should be treated to a 50th anniversary repackaging, with bonus cuts and liner notes that loudly sing the praises of this underappreciated gem. Spinning this now, it's remarkable to hear how fresh it sounds. All a testament to the wizard and true star behind the board. For those who are already initiated, you get it. If you aren't acquainted with Nazz Nazz, seek out a vinyl copy and crank it up.