Thursday, December 31, 2009

Let's leave 2009 on a positive note

Well, 2009 probably won't go down as one of the best years in recent memory - lots of pain and angst in the world these days. But I came across this video from Take That and it brightened my day. I'm not exactly into "boy bands" (like, not at all) but this is the best Queen-like song I've heard since Mika's "Grace Kelly" (which actually came out a year later, in 2007).

It won't save the world, and isn't likely to change your life, but it makes me smile.

Happy New Year, see you in twenty-ten!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Sloan to the rescue!

I was stuck in nasty traffic tonight due to a surprise snowstorm in Portland, and so took the opportunity to listen to a couple of new albums I hadn't heard yet.

First up was the Twilight Sad, Forget the Night Ahead. Droning and depressing, perfect for a cold and snowy night, but hard to take.

Then, I thought I'd try Fast 'n' Bulbous: The Captain Beefheart Project's Waxed Oop, a collection of instrumental versions of Captain Beefheart tracks across the years. Led by guitar player extraordinaire Gary Lucas, I was excited to hear this, but on playing, found it a bit uninspired. The highlight was a guest vocal appearance by Robyn Hitchcock on one track.

Lastly, I put on a five-track EP by Canadian band Sloan (no relation), Hit & Run, and suddenly everything was going to be alright.

I've been following Sloan since 1992, when their charming major label single "Underwhelmed" caught my attention during the height of the grunge movement. They've been turning out one fantastic album after another ever since, and while most bands start to run into creative lulls after 17 years, these guys just get better and better.

This EP is fantastic and is as good a place to start exploring their catalog as any. Super catchy melodies, wonderful vocal harmonies. Currently only available on their website as a download, but you can stream the whole thing and listen to it on your computer without purchase, as a "try before you buy" deal.

Looking forward to the next full length! (And hoping for an early thaw tomorrow.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Favorite Albums of 2009

Here are my Top 10 albums for 2009. There are certainly some "non-rock" albums in here, but so be it. These are the ones I've felt compelled to play repeatedly over the last year, so it's a personal choice, not (necessarily) a list of popular or critical favorites, although many of these received good reviews.

Os Mutantes
Haih Or Amortecedor

This wonderful and wacky Brazilian band made a splash in the psychedelic 60’s, with fun tracks like “Bat Macumba” and “Rita Lee,” but petered out in the 70’s and didn’t release another studio album until this one. The title, by the way, is not literally translatable: Original member Sergio Dias says “’Haih’ is Shoshone for ‘raven’ [which explains the album cover] and ‘Amortecedor’ means ‘shock absorber.’ If you break down the word ‘amortecedor,’ you have like a hundred different words. Like an interjection, amo, which is I love, amore, which is love, amortece, love weaves, amortecedor, love weaves pain, tecedor, the weaver, and so it goes on, you know, like forever.” So there you go.

The language barrier is no problem, since the liner notes come with English translations, and the humor comes across musically regardless.

They Might Be Giants
Here Comes Science

This one’s for the kids, but great for parents too: Songs about science, meticulously researched, but catchy as all get-out, with TMBG’s typical humor intact. Aside from their 1990 classic, Flood, I actually prefer their kids albums (Here Come the ABCs, Here Come the 123s, etc).

Steve Martin
The Crow: New Songs for Five String Banjo

Yes, this is banjo music from that Steve Martin, the wild and crazy actor/author. I really shouldn’t have been surprised by the high quality of this disc, but I really was impressed. Nearly all original compositions, written over a 40-year span, this is proof that, as Martin once said, you “can’t play a sad song on the banjo.” With guest players like Vince Gill and Earl Scruggs – who don’t overwhelm the great playing of Martin himself – this is top-notch stuff.

I liked it so much I bought the pop-up version of the CD (pictured above in my home office).

The Decemberists
The Hazards of Love

Colin Meloy’s visions just get grander and grander, with this 17-song prog-folk-rock-opera masterpiece. I can’t really follow the storyline without a few more senior year college credits under my belt, but no matter: On a purely musical scale, with its repeating themes and powerful melodies, this is a grabber that demands a full listen each time through.

The Resistance

Muse continues their quest for worldwide dominance. “Resistance” is futile. As a friend of mine put it, we all “like a bit of Sturm und Drang from time to time.” Combine the bombast of late 70’s Queen with a Thom Yorke that didn’t freak out about stardom after OK Computer, and you’ve got a potent combination. I like them even better now that singer Matt Bellamy doesn’t take a huge gulp of air into the mic every time he’s about to sing.

Looking forward to seeing them in concert soon. Check out this performance at Wembley Stadium in 2007. Woohoo!
”Knights of Cydonia”live at Wembley

Rodrigo Y Gabriela

Instrumental virtuosity from acoustic guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela, originally from Mexico but now apparently citizens of the world, as they tour incessantly. (They put on a great show in Portland late this year.) The hooks are indelible, the rhythms insistent and ever-changing, and they push me to redefine rock music as something requiring electric guitars.

The Soundtrack of our Lives

Though I'm afraid TSOOL will never hit the psychedelic heights of their 2001 breakthrough album Behind The Music, this year's double album Communion was a very strong effort, including quite a few anthemic and powerful tracks, such “Second Life Replay,” which builds to an oh-so-satisfying conclusion:

Franz Ferdinand
Tonight: Franz Ferdinand

An album-long song cycle about a debauched night out and its consequences, this didn’t grab me at first, but has gradually pulled me in and has spent as much time on my player(s) as any album of the past year. The lead track is a real grabber:

Robyn Hitchcock
Goodnight Oslo

Hitchcock's compassionate weirdness continues unabated, and thank goodness. I've found his work in the 00’s the most accessible, with this and 2006's fabulous Ole Tarantula espeically enjoyable. He's embracing “music as vehicle for joy” more and more. Check out the great lyrics and beautiful harmonies on this track:

Morton Valence
Bob and Veronica Ride Again

The debut album from this London, UK band is a gorgeous stunner. Bits of dreampop fuzz, French cafĂ© strummings, lush male/female harmonizing make this a relaxing listen that goes well with early mornings or late nights in equal measure. I’ve played this many times and it continues to grow in stature. Initial pressings also come with a 100-page novella, a love story of sorts, with a lovely twist at the end.

(Full disclosure: The album is financed by individual investors, of which I am one. One listen to their first single “Chandelier” and I was hooked.) Here they perform an acoustic version on Radio Eins in Berlin:

There are, of course, hundreds of other great, deserving albums. No slight intended if I left your favorites off. But it's my blog eh, so there you go!

If you like any these already, or give some a try, let me know what you think. I'll be curious to hear if this music is as contagious and fun as I think it is.


A little bit of soul

I've never really gotten into the blues (too much focus on grief), but soul music is just what my spirit needs from time to time.

I love the "Philly sound" that peaked in the early 70's. When songs like The O'Jays "Back Stabbers" or The Spinners "I’ll Be Around" came on the radio, I enjoyed them just as much as the rock songs like "Ballroom Blitz" or “Suffragette City”(back when they were fresh). Matter of fact, the juxtaposition of soul and rock complemented each other quite nicely.

While rock music has continued in one form or another ever since, radio kind of "lost its soul," replaced along the way by disco, rap and hip hop, and soul went underground (i.e. out of the mainstream) for several decades. I got used to missing the comforting grooves of the Sound of Philadelphia, and really thought that golden era had come to a close.

So, when I got a "Pick of the Week" sampler from iTunes recently, I was surprised to hear a great soul track from Lee Fields' new album, My World, "Love Comes And Goes." It sounded like it was cut in 1971! Here's a live version of that track. Fantastic!

I've now listened to the whole album and every track is a winner.

Fields has been on the scene since the 70's but has never achieved mass recognition. I'm glad to see he's keeping the soul torch lit, and I think that his status might rise a bit with the release of this new album and a little push from iTunes. Hopefully it'll also bring exposure to more soul acts I might have missed in the last decade.


If you're looking for a good one-package roundup of great late 60's and early 70's soul, with classic tracks from The O'Jays, Spinners, Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes, Billy Paul, etc., check out the four-disc compilation issued in 2008 called Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia. (Of course, if you're looking for Motown - Temptations, Supremes, Marvin Gaye - head west and north a bit...)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Cannon Song!!

As I was driving home tonight, caught up in pouring rain and congested holiday commuter traffic, I played some of AC/DC's new archival release Backtracks, consisting of previously unreleased live performances from both the "Bon Scott years" (1974-1979; preferred) and the "Brian Johnson era" (1980-present). The final track on the CD was "For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)," which took me back to 1981 when they played Portland's Memorial Coliseum (when it was a grand venue). They were at the height of their popularity and used some of their profits to bring along two large cannons. (The fun starts about 3:50)

As the song played in my car (not turned up to 11, mind you, just a respectable 9 or so), as the cannons kicked in, my mind suddenly flashed back much farther, to when I was a little kid.

I would pull out my favorite album, the 1812 Overture (or, according to the cover, the "Stereo Spectacular") by Tchaikovsky, played by the Morton Gould Orchestra and Band, put it on my parents' living room record player, and stare intently at the bold, vibrant colors of the cover painting while I waited for the cannons to come.

As I prepared for the finale, I would step up on the coffee table, and when the cannons started to go off, I would leap into the air, waving my arms like a madman conductor possessed. Now that was rock 'n' roll!

If you haven't heard this in a while, give this finale a listen (cannons start around 3:15). It's an incredible work.

While a classical music aficionado might turn his or her nose up at such lowbrow rock music, or an AC/DC fan might say that classical is "highfalutin," there is a common word that connects these two works: "Celebratory."


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Hope this sparks your interest...

I was wondering idly recently, "Who holds the title for most studio albums in my music collection?" The Beatles(11)? Rush(19)? Yes(10)? Queen(12)?.

The surprising answer, when I counted them all up, was Sparks, with 21, and a new one's just been released! (More on that in a bit.)

Sparks is essentially two brothers: Ron (keyboards) and Russell (vocals) Mael, originally from Los Angeles, who have added musicians as needed to create an album at an average rate of one every other year, for almost forty years!

What's really interesting is how these guys never quite sound the same from album to album, and somehow find a way to make each new style their own, and keep it interesting. The common thread among all their albums, though, is their Bob & Ray-style subtle sense of humor. And what's even cooler (and encouraging to me as the years roll by), is that they seem to be reaching ever higher creative peaks as they go.

Their first few albums in the early 70's were quirky but tuneful and catchy, always featuring Russell's soaring falsetto. Here's an example from 1974 (and proof that they could 'bring it' live)...

One could already see that though they sounded a bit glam, they never really took it very seriously, so when that movement died out suddenly in the mid-70's, Sparks were ready to move on. They touched on disco...

...and were ready for the MTV generation in the early 80's. They reached a peak of popular success when they teamed with The Go-Go's Jane Wiedlin for this song/video:

Sparks went through the inevitable musical doldrums in the late 80's and were largely forgotten by the mainstream pop buying public, including me. However, in 2000 I came across an Australian import release of Balls and after hearing the title track's lyrics...

You can wait for saviors
Meting out their favors
You can wait and wait
Hope may spring eternal
Sounds a bit maternal
Do you want to wait, or crash the gate

Balls. All you need are,
Balls. To succeed are
Balls. All you need are

...I was back on board the Sparks express.

Since then, quite gleefully contrary to advancing years and the law of entropy, they have continued to develop their sound, surprising my ears by integrating orchestra and choral embellishments, and adding performance-art videos to their live act, all the while deepening their weird and dry humor, which remains mysterious and at times just out of reach. Nice balancing act, that! They seem to know that when humor is too obvious, too easy to get, it loses its power.

A good example from recent years is "Dick Around," (2006), which plays on all their strengths: Striking musical shifts, lyrics that start out simple and silly and grow in complexity and emotion, and interesting visual imagery. And it really rocks out just past the one minute mark:

(Love those cats!)

I'm looking forward to the new album, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, their 22nd studio effort, an English/Swedish radio play, no less! (One blogger's review here.). I'm planning to order the double vinyl off their website. Paying top dollar from a band directly; that's the highest compliment I can give to their enduring art.

Sparks discography

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Smithereens Who?

I first came across the "rock opera" Tommy in 1975 when my friend Ed called me up and said (conversation approximated due to slow memory fade),

"Dave, we have to go see the coolest movie ever!"

"What's it about?"

"It's about this guy who goes through all kinds of abuse and witnesses his father being murdered, and he gets traumatized so he can't hear, see or speak. Then he discovers pinball and becomes a spiritual guru. And the music really rocks."

"Sounds pretty weird. I'm not so sure..."

"Dave! Trust me on this! It's awesome. You're gonna love it."

"Okay, when's the next showing?"

Well, I saw the movie, starring Roger Daltrey as Tommy, Ann Margret as his mother, Oliver Reed as the evil stepfather, and a large cast of stars in musical cameos including Jack Nicholson, Tina Turner, Elton John and a disturbing appearance by Keith Moon as the quite perverted Uncle Ernie. It was a memorable experience, so I bought the soundtrack double album and played it many times over.

In my youthful ignorance I thought it was an original composition just for the movie. Little did I know that The Who had released the classic studio album six years previously! Guess I was just a little too young for such grand rock statements in 1969, where instead I was happy with the Beatles "Yellow Submarine" and The Monkees "Daydream Believer," thank you very much.

I caught up with the original several years later in a record shop and thinking: "What's this? Another version of Tommy? I should check this out!"

I still remember being struck with how quiet it sounded, as it was played mostly on acoustic guitars. Everything was muted but played with real intensity. For several years, I actually preferred the movie soundtrack because it rocked so much harder. (Especially the Elton John track "Pinball Wizard" which was a huge radio hit at the time.) It grew on me over time, however, so that by the 80s I was able finally to
appreciate it for the landmark rock masterpiece that it was. And so it
went, with occasional playings of remastered versions (never sounding
quite as majestic as I thought they could in my head) until I stumbled
across this, just released in 2009:

"Why this?" I wondered. I was especially dubious since the Smithereens' last project was a Beatles covers album, which frankly wasn't all that inspiring. I mean, how many bands have covered the Beatles? Well, Bill Crowley, in the liner notes, explains it best:

"What if the Live at Leeds or Who's Next Who had recorded a proper,
all-out rock studio version of Tommy's best songs, of which there are over a dozen? That's the musical dream that inspired The Smithereens to make this 40th anniversary tribute to one of the bands and albums that inspired their rock dreams of becoming a band in the first place."

Valid enough, and the proof is in the recording. By track 4, "Sparks,"
I was literally shouting "Woohoo!" out loud and grinning while flying
down Highway 26. It, quite simply, kicks ass. Purism aside (they only
recorded 13 of the "best" tracks from Tommy, not the entire double
album), this recording truly accomplishes its goal, a studio rendition
of Tommy with full-on electric bass and guitar and all the mastering
power 2009 recording technology can offer.

Check out the Customer Reviews: The Smithereens play Tommy on Amazon. Not very often you see this kind of enthusiasm for a covers project! Toss in a little of my beloved mellotron on the final track, and I'm in classic rock heaven.

As Roger Daltrey might say: