Friday, December 25, 2009

DVD Review: The Best Of Spike Jones

The Spike Jones Show aired from 1954-61 on both the NBC and CBS networks. It remains one of the most manic, and hilarious programs ever. The Best Of Spike Jones is a three-disc set, and marks the first time any of this material has appeared on DVD. It is little wonder the man is held in such high esteem by those in the know, the frenzied song take-offs really are one of a kind.

Spike is just all over the place, beginning and ending songs with his starter’s pistol, using various-size milk bottles as percussion instruments, as well as his trademark “horn-tree.” Plus the band is superb. To be able to play music this complex, while performing the bits included in each tune takes a rare talent.

I had only previously seen short excerpts of these shows on certain "Golden Age Of Television" compilations, so seeing the programs in their full glory has been a real treat. Right from the top, with the uproarious opening segment, the fun never lets up. One of Spike’s most famous hits was his take on “The William Tell Overture,” presented as the radio play-by-play of a horse race. The addition of visuals to this piece just makes it all the funnier.

Comedian Billy Barty was a regular on the show, and his send-up of Liberace, as “Spikowski,” is indelible. Another classic features a guest appearance by Eddy Arnold. He runs into Spike on the sidewalk, and they decide to perform an impromptu duet, Eddy with his guitar, and Spike with his ever-present pistols. They are immediately arrested, and the next scene features them in a jail cell. Spike’s jailhouse “stripes” have a fur-collar, and Eddy is in some sort of striped tuxedo. There is also a slot-machine in the cell, and somehow the rest of the band have joined them. The whole thing is wonderfully ridiculous. Other great guest stars appearing on this compilation include Howdy Doody and Zasu Pitts, although neither match the surrealism of the Arnold appearance.

The first two DVDs of The Best Of Spike Jones contain three and a half-hours of classic entertainment. Disc three consists of two unaired pilots, which do not differ much from the format that was eventually bought, and add some nice historical context to the set.

All three DVDs are in black and white, and while the quality is not perfect, the prints seem to have been fairly well-preserved, and have been digitally re-mastered.

Artists from “Weird Al” Yankovic, to Frank Zappa have cited Spike Jones as an influence, and even the legendary comedian George Carlin sung his praises. If you have ever wondered what all the fuss was about with Spike, this Best Of DVD set is the perfect way to check out his unique sense of humor. I swear, even all these years later, the material remains as outrageously funny as ever.

Music Review: Count Basie Orchestra - Swinging, Singing, Playing

When the Count passed in 1984, the jazz world lost one of its final remnants of the Big Band era. Could he have possibly imagined that 25 years later, an orchestra bearing his name would still be out there? Probably so, as he put the wheels in motion for The Count Basie Orchestra to live on long after his death. Still, it is an unusual experience to hear such a modern take on the music he had such a tremendous role in forming.

The history is important in relation to Swinging, Singing, Playing, because the subtitle of the record is The Count Basie Orchestra Salutes The Jazz Masters. The Orchestra’s reverence for the history of jazz is almost the entire point of this disc. I say almost, because there also happens to be some damned fine music contained here as well.

The opening track, “Too Close For Comfort,” is a case in point. The original 1956 version by Ella Fitzgerald was so indelible that it became something of a standard, covered by Sammy Davis Jr., and his buddy Frank Sinatra, no less. The Count Basie Orchestra’s version pulls in the brilliant Nnenna Freelon for vocals. Freelon was an excellent choice, as she is totally in her element singing against the prominent, and very swinging horns.

Janis Siegel (of The Manhattan Transfer) is probably the better-known vocalist on this set, and her three performances are outstanding. Her scat-singing on the Ella classic “Like Young” is sublime. Her other two appearances, “I Have Waited So Long,” and “Close Your Eyes” are first-rate too. The presence of the renowned pianist Hank Jones on “Close Your Eyes” may have been an additional inspiration for her.

Although Swinging, Singing, Playing is primarily a vocals-infused recording, there are some noteworthy instrumental performances as well. I am particularly fond of “Naiomi’s Blues” in this regard. James Leary opens the tune with some fine bass work, followed by (the unfortunately named) Tony Suggs’ piano, then the palpable trombone of Mr. Clarence Banks. A nice tune all around.

In this context, it is somewhat disconcerting to hear John Coltrane quoted a couple of times, but it was specific, and intentional. What is unsurprising is the fact that the best tune (for me at least), “Naiomi’s Blues” was written, and dedicated to Count Basie himself.

Smiling down from that Big Band In The Sky, I imagine that Count Basie would enjoy what his Orchestra is doing these days.

Music Review: Easter Monkeys: Splendor Of Sorrow

Easter Monkeys may be one of the most obscure bands I have ever reviewed, and also one of the finest. They came out of the fertile scene of Cleveland, Ohio in the early 1980s, and are yet to receive their proper due. With the release of Splendor Of Sorrow, Smog Veil Records hopes to rectify this slight.

It is strange how these music scenes work. London, San Francisco, New York, and Seattle have all been acknowledged as “hip“ centers. But Cleveland played host to one of the coolest ever from about 1975-85. The “big” names are fairly well-known: Devo, Pere Ubu, and The Dead Boys. But as any local denizen can tell you, there were probably ten better bands that were never heard outside of town.

Easter Monkeys were one of them, and Splendor Of Sorrow holds an appeal that resonates to this day. “Take Another Pill” kicks things off in a rollicking, drug-addled style. The Easter Monkeys’ punk-rock meets Captain Beefheart-thing is apparent immediately. Another highlight for me is “Heaven 357,” a tribute to Ubu, in the guise of a painful lament.

Easter Monkeys were a ground-breaking amalgam of punk and jazz, yet nowhere near as hokey as that description sounds. The tradition Easter Monkeys share with both punk, (or just plain rock), and jazz, is the DIY mentality. Listening to the workout the band gives both live, and in the studio of “Nailed To The Cross,” one has to wonder how it played later on.

There is a certain amount of satisfaction in coming across such a great package as Splendor Of Sorrow. In addition to the audio-disc of Easter Monkey’s one and only LP, plus a couple of singles and demos, there is also a DVD of a live performance, shot in 1982. Raw and unprofessional as hell, the DVD seems exhumed from someone’s garage. The night was obviously fun for everyone involved.

25 years on, do Easter Monkeys really matter? I would say yes. They combine the best of the Albert Ayler-inspired frenzy of The Stooges Funhouse, with the cool Midwest-branded thing of Husker Du and The Replacements. This is a great, if unknown band.

All in all, Splendor Of Sorrow is a very nice find.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Music CD/DVD Review: X-Ray Spex - Live At The Roundhouse London 2008

Poly Styrene’s vocals are still as brilliant as ever. Thirty years on, she sounds as vital as she did in 1977. I miss Lora Logic on the sax, nevertheless Live At The Roundhouse - London 2008 is every bit the great anniversary show one would hope for.

Germ Free Adolescents has taken its deserved place next to the first Clash LP and Never Mind The Bollocks as one of the most vital initial salvos of British punk. Unfortunately, when the record was originally released, it was only available in the US as an expensive import, which limited things considerably for the band.

By the time X-Ray Spex disbanded in 1979, they had recorded a mere 16 songs. 12 appeared on Germ Free Adolescents, with the remaining four spread out on various singles. All of these, save “Plastic Bag,” are performed on Live At The Roundhouse, plus four later numbers.

Poly Styrene (Marian Joan Elliott), wrote and sang all of the songs, so it is no surprise that when she left in 1979 to join the Hare Krishnas, the band fell apart. Over the course of the past thirty years, X-Ray Spex have re-formed in various guises, most notably with their 1995 record, Conscious Consumer, which promptly went to the cut-out bin.

So it was a bit of a revelation to hear Poly on this 30th anniversary live celebration of Germ Free Adolescents. The lady still rocks! Not only that, but she can still hit the notes as strongly as ever, which is a pretty impressive feat in itself.

The show opens with the classic “Oh Bondage, Up Yours,” and the pace never lets up. Particular favorites are from Germ Free Adolescents, such as the title song, the aforementioned “Oh Bondage, Up Yours,” "Warrior In Woolworths," and “Art-I-Ficial.” Special mention must go out to one of the later tunes, as well—the ballad “Crystal Clear” is a great one.

As cool as Live At The Roundhouse is, the record is obviously geared towards a specific market: nostalgic old punkers like myself. But I honestly believe that the packaging and presentation of this disc could be a real possibility for the nearly comatose record industry.

Live At The Roundhouse includes the basic CD of the concert, a DVD of the show, and a 24-page booklet entitled “Poly Styrene’s Diary Of The Seventies,” which is hilarious. It is a first-class collection of material, priced at what a regular retail CD would go for.

The professional band Poly Styrene has assembled behind her for this anniversary of the defiantly punk Germ Free Adolescents is somewhat discombobulating. It just does not fit with the memories of the young punk chick who first recorded “Oh Bondage, Up Yours” in 1977. Reportedly, the song was originally intended as a screed against Sex Pistols svengali Malcolm McLarenen's "Sex" clothing store.

But it makes a weird sort of sense at the end, when Poly brings out not only her daughter, but also her granddaughter for a reprise of her anthem. Whether the song was ever intended to have had the reach it has had is irrelevant; "Oh Bondage" is one of the greatest blasts of punk ever.

Noted curmudgeon John Lydon (Rotten) certainly felt this way. Of X-Ray Spex, his comment was, “They came out with a sound and attitude and a whole energy—it was just not relating to anything around it—superb.”

Music Review: Steve Kilbey & Martin Kennedy - Unseen Music, Unseen Words

The distinctive voice of Steve Kilbey comes in, and I am immediately transported to one of the best concerts I saw this year. The Church managed to release one of the best records of their career with Untitled #23, not to mention the fact that their 2009 tour of the US was one of their most successful ever.

Ever since Kilbey's first solo record, The Slow Crack, I have always known that he keeps the personal stuff for himself. In all honesty, though, I think just about everything he has done as a solo artist would have fit within the context of The Church. Unseen Music, Unheard Words certainly backs up this impression. There is not a song on here that would have sounded out of place on Untitled #23.

Apparently, the disc was recorded in an interesting manner. Martin Kennedy of All India Radio and Pray TV created the music, then mailed the tracks to Steve Kilbey, who then wrote lyrics to fit. Kind of an Elton John/Bernie Taupin situation in reverse. What the two of them managed to come up with, though, is quite extraordinary. Leading off with “Eyes Ahead,” Kilbey sets a tone of solitude, longing and loss that pervades the album throughout.

Depressing? Yes.

Beautiful? That too.

Like Mark Lanegan’s first solo LP, The Winding Sheet, or Chris Bell’s I Am The Cosmos, Kilbey reaches into his own heart of darkness. The results are as deeply moving as anything I have ever heard.

The pain of “Stretch Into The Stars” is so real, it is difficult to describe. Kilbey presents a break-up on Valentine's Day that obviously destroyed him. The song is followed by the more upbeat “Maybe Soon,” which balances the previous hurt with a dose of new possibilities.This is the brilliance of the perfectly titled Unseen Music, Unheard Words.

I cannot deny the contribution of Martin Kennedy’s music, because all of it fits so incredibly well. But this is a record that delves deep into the soul of a true poet, Steve Kilbey.

He is an amazing talent. Right up there with Van Morrison and Nick Drake, as far as I am concerned. Like Neil Young's On The Beach, this is a record that speaks to people who may not be so impressed with the latest Pop thrills.

Music Review: Kurt Rosenwinkel Standards Trio - Reflections

Having put time in with both Gary Burton and Joe Henderson’s bands, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel has certainly earned his chops. The fact that his latest recording, Reflections, is his eighth as bandleader does not hurt either.

Kurt may be best known for his previous recording, The Remedy - Live At The Village Vanguard, from 2007. On that powerful disc, he was able to let his inner Mahavishnu run wild on a slew of original tunes. On Standards, Rosenwinkel takes a very different approach. Along with bassist Eric Revis (Branford Marsalis Quartet), and drummer Eric Harland (Charles Lloyd Quartet), Rosenwinkel interprets a number of famous ballads.

The disc opens up with a nice take on the Thelonious Monk classic, “Reflections.” Kurt’s guitar leads follow the original faithfully, and it is a wonder to hear such a great song updated in this fashion. But the bass solo by Eric Revis is even more memorable. This is a player destined for great things.

Song five is another Monk tune, “Ask Me Now.” The trio’s adaptation is just as effective as it was on “Reflections,” right down to another great bass solo from Eric Revis.

Rosenwinkle’s trio also tackles a couple of Wayne Shorter compositions, both “Ana Maria” and “Fall” by the former Miles Davis saxophonist receiving a nod. It is a sign of a true master to hear Kurt go from the hard-bop of Monk’s piano, to the elegant sax lines of Shorter without ever missing a beat.

The only Rosenwinkel original among the eight tracks on Standards is “East Coast Love Affair.” Although this song is basically a ballad, Kurt is able to show off his nimble guitar-playing ability to excellent effect throughout, especially in the introduction.

Reflections certainly lives up to it’s title. While the tempos are for the most part relaxed, the level of musicianship is top-shelf. There is never a sense of any of these three men laying back. In a trio format, everyone is right out there, front and center. It generally falls upon the bass player to hold things together, and Eric Bevis does an excellent job.

After listening to Standards a few times though, I have found that the unsung hero is actually drummer Eric Harland. His rhythm is as spot-on as it gets. I love the fact that he never feels the need to get showy. The guy can certainly keep time, but more importantly, he knows that in this context, he does not need to “prove” himself.

Reflections is a disc well suited to those times of the day that one may feel “reflective,” such as late at night. But truthfully, this music is done so well that it suits my listening habits any time.

Music DVD Review: Guided By Voices - The Devil Went Home And Puked

Like the career of Guided By Voices itself, the DVD The Devil Went Home And Puked is a beautiful mess. The footage comes from the archive's of GBV main-man, Robert Pollard, and is assembled in roughly chronological order from 1994 to date.

Guided By Voices were initially regarded as leading exponents of the lo-fi movement, popular in the early Nineties. The DVD reflects this low to no-budget approach, with most of the material seemingly originating from friends' camcorders. It suits the music perfectly, as GBV really were dedicated to the DIY aesthetic.

What becomes a little frustrating is the “video collage” manner in which the DVD was put together. There are segments in here that are simply confusing for the casual fan such as myself. For example, what is the significance of the newscast segments about the Boston University hockey team? I am sure there is a reason this material is included, but it is beyond me. And watching the perky news team’s banter adds exactly zero to my enjoyment of Guided By Voices.

Fortunately, that type of stuff is kept to a minimum, and is a minor quibble. Far more exasperating is the snippet format itself. There is so much tantalizing footage, from live appearances to actual produced video, that you just want to see them all the way through. I realize that The Devil Went Home And Puked is Robert Pollard’s project; and who am I to criticize the master’s artistic choices? But still.

This situation is somewhat rectified in the bonus section, which features nine full-length videos. Particularly effective are the ones for the classic “Best Of Jill Hives,” and also “Shadow Port.”

There is a performance piece inspired by the GBV song “Gold Star For Robot Boy,” included as well. Your tolerance level for anything calling itself "a performance piece" should tell you whether you will love or hate this. Finally, there is a section titled “Loving Memories” which reflects on all of the members who passed through Guided By Voices over the years 1983-2004.

The Devil Went Home And Puked is definitely geared toward the serious Guided By Voices fan. I am not sure how much a novice will get out of this. The music is great, as always. But the format is a little tough to follow unless you already know the material. As a vision straight from the head of Robert Pollard though, The Devil Went Home And Puked is a worthy curio.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Music DVD Review: Voivod - Tatsumaki

It has been a busy year for Canadian prog-metal titans Voivod. After suffering the loss of founding guitarist Denis “Piggy” D’Amour in 2005, the band almost packed it in completely. But after a period of mourning, they decided to stay together. At first they went back into the studio to finish the final tracks Piggy had played on, which were released last summer as the Infini album.

To get their chops back in shape though, Voivod did a tour of Japan in 2008. And that is where the live DVD Tatsumaki was recorded. The first order of business became finding someone to play guitar at anywhere near the level of Piggy. Fortunately, the band did not have to look far. They found Dan Mongrain in Quebec, and he has slotted in nicely.

The show opens up with a super-charged take on their anthemic song “Voivod,” and never lets up. Right off the bat, Mongrain shows what he is made of with a smokin' hot solo. The pace never lets up as the band rip through great live versions of “The Unknown Knows,” “Overreaction,” “Panorama,” and “Nothingface,” to mention a few highlights of the 12 song set.

Their finale has to be seen to be believed though. Since I have never seen the band live, I can only speculate that they have been performing this tune for a while in their set, but in any case, it is incredible. They pull out the great, acid-drenched “Astronomy Domine.“ The song was written by the late Syd Barrett, and comes from the classic first Pink Floyd LP, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn.

Voivod just tear this song apart. It is an awesome spectacle, and worth the price of the DVD alone.

As for bonus materials on Tatsumaki, there are some pretty good things. First is a cool interview with Dave Grohl, who has been a fan for years. There is also a three song mini-set recorded in July 2009 in Quebec City. The songs the band performs to this rabid crowd are “Panorama,” “Treasure Chase,” and “Tornado.”

Finally, they have included the unreleased mini-documentary Panorama: Seeking Voivod. The dialoge is spoken in French, with English subtitles.

In sum, Tatsumaki is an excellent DVD document of their Japanese tour, and a great way to see the band, and their new man onstage.

Music Review: Irmin Schmidt - Filmmusik Anthology Volume 4 & 5

As a founding member of the legendary CAN, (which reportedly is an acronym for Communism, Anarchy, Nihilism), Irmin Schmidt’s credentials in the rock avant-garde are unimpeachable. CAN’s influence seems to grow with each passing year, but Schmidt’s true passion seems to have always been soundtrack work. Over the past 35 years, Irwin Schmidt has composed music for over 40 films and TV programs.

A three-CD collection of his music was released in 1995, titled Anthology: Soundtracks 1978-1993. The new two-disc set Filmmusik Anthology Volume 4 & 5, is devoted to the years since the original collection.

CAN’s early-Seventies albums such as Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi, and Future Days have been compared to the contemporary records Miles Davis was making. On the surface, CAN’s music had little in common with In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew, or Jack Johnson. But dig a little deeper, and the recording techniques were nearly identical.

Davis would assemble his band in the studio and improvise literally for hours, recording everything. This material was then edited down to create the final LPs. CAN’s music of this era was created in exactly the same way. I bring all of this up because the first eight tracks here are strikingly reminiscent of another Davis classic, Sketches Of Spain (1959).

Palermo Shooting is a Wim Wenders film from 2008. It is a film I must admit that I have not yet seen. Based on the music, and Wenders’ excellent credentials, it is one I will be seeking out. One of the more fascinating aspects of the music Schmidt recorded is the man he chose to fill the “Miles” role on trumpet, Markus Stockhausen.

As most CAN fans know, Irmin Schmidt and Holger Czukay formed the group after meeting as students of the famous musique-concrete pioneer, Karlheinz Stockhausen. Markus is his son. His appearance with Schmidt on the Palermo Shooting tracks completes a very poetic 40-year circle.

Volume 5 of this collection is dominated by Irmin Schmidt’s work for television, with ten of the 18 tracks devoted to the series Bloch. Much of this material reminds me of another truly groundbreaking composer in TV, Angelo Badalameti. While I have not had the privilege to see Bloch, the music evokes such a similar sensation to what Badalamenti did for David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, I feel that this is a program I need to look for as well.

There is a world-wide vocabulary to music and film that has transcended efforts of restraint for many, many years. The career of Irmin Schmidt is a testament to this. While Filmmusik actually works as background music one could play for anywhere, it is quietly subversive as hell.

Music Review: Bryan Lee - My Lady Don't Love My Lady

They call her NOLA. The acronym for New Orleans, Louisiana has come to stand for many things over the years. It is a town full of mysteries so deep that even the most devastating of floods cannot wash them away. Birthplace of the blues, jazz, and riverboat dreams, New Orleans has always been the home of dangerously attractive legends.

The current blues legend in NOLA is Bryan Lee, who has been a local fixture for nearly 30 years. I really thought that his excellent 2007 album, Katrina Was Her Name, would have broken him big nationally. But maybe, with a little luck, the rest of the world will hear his new one, My Lady Don’t Love My Lady.

My Lady is old-school, roadhouse blues, the type you just do not come across much of anymore. Once in a while, guys like Stevie Ray Vaughan or Robert Cray will come along and light up the charts, but they are rare. Bryan Lee’s talent is right up there with both.

My Lady Don’t Love My Lady features a couple of pretty heavy hitters in the blues field paying tribute to Mr. Lee. Both Buddy Guy and Kenny Wayne Shepherd make brilliant appearances on the record, but neither detract from the overall power of the main man.

The album opens up with a nice turn on an old Dr. John tune, “Imitation Of Love,” and right from the start you know you are in for a good time. While Bryan Lee’s guitar is unquestionably the prime attraction, the first thing I noticed is just how good his band is. The horns are as tight as they get, and pianist David Maxwell is amazing.

This is shown over and over again throughout the album. The title cut is a nice example of this. Like B.B. King’s beloved Lucille, Bryan’s guitar is his “other” lady, to which the song pays tribute. When he lets fly with a solo straight out of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads,” you know he ain’t lyin’.

Young guitar-slinger Kenny Wayne Shepherd is a NOLA native, and was mentored by Bryan Lee. He has always acknowledged the master, and even had Lee appear with him on The Tonight Show in 2007. His solo on “Let Me Up I’ve Had Enough” is luminous.

Anyone who saw Buddy Guy in The Rolling Stones’ Shine A Light knows that he was the highlight of the concert. Watching him and Keith play off of each other was fantastic. Listening to him here on “Early In The Morning” evokes a similar impression. Although no verification is needed, the appearance of Buddy Guy on this record certainly confirms the respect Bryan Lee is afforded.

There is a fact about Bryan Lee I did not really want to mention in a review of such a great record. But based on the fact that he goes by the nickname Braille Blues Daddy, I guess I have to. The man has been blind since the age of eight. What that has to do with the commanding music of My Lady Don’t Love My Lady is left up to you.

All I can say is that this album is as powerful a blues record as you are likely to hear in this or any other year.

Music Review: Tin Huey - Before Obscurity: The Bushflow Tapes

Tin Huey are the embodiment of every rock-critic cliché imaginable. They came out of the same mid-Seventies Akron/Cleveland scene that produced Devo, Pere Ubu, The Dead Boys, The Bizarros, and Rubber City Rebels. After wooing Village Voice lifer Robert Christgau, they were signed to Warner Brothers, who released their Contents Dislodged During Shipment LP in 1979.

It was a brilliant debut, full of quirky songs and wild time changes, all done with a sense of humor not unlike that of NRBQ. It went nowhere, and sealed their fate as a critics band forever. Chris Butler moved on and formed The Waitresses with Patty Donahue, and the rest of the group made their own way through the music business jungle. In 1999, Tin Huey got back together for a second album, Disinformation. It sold even less than Contents.

And now we are presented with a collection of leftovers and live tracks, with one of the best titles ever: Before Obscurity. Actually, the full title is Before Obscurity: The Bushflow Tapes, Bushflow being the name of the studio of the late founding member of Tin Huey, Mark Price.

I use the term “leftovers” facetiously, because a hell of a lot of bands would salivate at having material this good as remnants. From the opening track “Heat Night,” (which later appeared on The Waitresses debut Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?) through their live take on The Stooges’ classic “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” Tin Huey just flat-out rock.

As Christgau states in his liner notes, “This is not the kind of band I usually like.” It is a point well taken, because as Tin Huey’s career showed, they are not for everyone. But for those who choose to partake, Before Obscurity contains a wealth of clever music.

My first thought on hearing their previously unreleased version of “Heat Night” was of Steely Dan. Not the Dan that we are familiar with though. More like if Becker and Fagen had returned to New York after Pretzel Logic, and gotten involved in the then burgeoning CBGB scene.

And just as quickly as that fantasy materialized, we were into a live version of “Slide,” frat-boy rock of the highest order. The next thing you hear is the distinctive voice of Patty Donahue, she of “Christmas Wrapping,” and “I Know What Boys Like” fame, fronting the band. This live recording of “The Comb” is billed as the first live appearance of The Waitresses.

The 14 tracks that make up Before Obscurity proper all maintain this level of greatness. The surprises are endless. Whether a weird time-change, or a completely out of place lyric (or so it seems), Tin Huey never seem to falter. They really are that great bar band you just know will some day make it, against all the odds.

I know it is somewhat ludicrous to consider tracks 15-18 as bonus cuts in this context, but the fidelity is so poor, I think they are intended that way. As the sleeve notes warn: “Best listened to if a longtime fan, musicologist, or flirting with unconsciousness.” The four songs were recorded live at The Townhouse in Kent, OH in 1973.

Christgau sums things up by mentioning that the only appropriate music to follow Tin Huey is Captain Beefheart. I understand where he is coming from, with the complexity and humor and all. But my choice is pretty simple, I’m just going to get the rest of their albums, and listen to Tin Huey all night long.

Music Review: Pugwash - Giddy

When Andy Partridge of XTC decided to launch his Ape House record label, there was really only one band in the running. They were a group from Ireland, yet named themselves after a fictional pirate hero of English children’s stories, Pugwash. While the trio have flown under the radar for the past ten years in the United States, Pugwash have become a pretty big deal in both the Irish and English music presses.

They have released three albums since their inception: Almond Tea (1999), Almanac (2003), and Jollity (2005). Their fourth, Eleven Modern Antiquities is due out in 2010. Giddy is a 13 song compilation of Pugwash's work over the past decade, including two songs from Antiquities.

Andy Partridge hedged his bets pretty well, because if Giddy gets any airplay, Pugwash could find a big audience in the United States.

The disc opens up with “Apples,” a glorious symphonic pop tune on par with classic later period XTC. From there we move on to the defiantly naïve track, “It’s Nice To Be Nice.” The only way I can describe this song is Rubber Soul era Beatles, met with classic Beach Boys harmonies.

The Beach Boys effect is no surprise, as one of the many guests to appear with Pugwash is Nelson Bragg of The Brian Wilson Band. Other notables who pay tribute include Andy Partridge and Dave Gregory of XTC, Michael Penn, and Glen Tilbrook of Squeeze, among a host of others.

Thomas Walsh is the leader of Pugwash, writing and singing all of their songs. He claims to have grown up on a steady diet of Beatles, Kinks, and ELO.
The influences are certainly apparent on Giddy. “The Season Of Flowers And Leaves,” seems to channel “She’s Leaving Home,” while “Cluster Bomb” features Jeff Lynne-style strings a-plenty.

The Ray Davies connection is a little more subtle. Walsh's tribute to his hero gets to the heart of the matter, and is great fun as well. "My Genius" states Walsh's claim right from the beginning, “You fell, for my genius, but my genius, is out of a bottle.” Sounds sad, but this is an ode to inebriation, as only an Irishman can put it. “Where would we be…with sobriety?” is a celebration of getting loaded, Ray Davies style.

Schoolboys in disgrace, always.

The song is done to a swinging bossa-nova beat that Mad Men’s Donald Draper probably would have dug. It then careens wildly into classic English music-hall territory. “My Genius” is as overt a Kinks tribute as you will ever find.

Although they are never mentioned in any of the press materials, and Walsh would probably deny it, the effect of Oasis is overt. Both “Finer Things In Life,” and “Two Wrongs” would have slotted in perfectly on (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?

“Two Wrongs” segues in a beautiful way into the final track here, “Anchor.” For me, “Anchor” is the most XTC sounding track on Giddy. Coincidentally, it is my favorite song as well. Walsh’s innate lyricism allows him to impart a wonderful sentiment that a lesser talent would have ruined.

To me, the lyrics of “Anchor” evoke those of something like “Surf’s Up,” or a lost XTC song from English Settlement, “Jason And The Argonauts.” It is really, really good. I hope that with the launching of Ape House, and the Andy Partridge connection, more people will hear this band.

On my end, I am looking forward to the release of Eleven Modern Antiquities. Pugwash seem to have a lot to offer the music world.

Music Review: Cluster - Curiosum

By the time Cluster’s sixth album Curiosum was released in 1981, much of the music world had caught up to them. Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius had been recording together since 1970, beginning with Conrad Schnitzler’s seriously avant-garde Kluster. After three records, they split off and recorded together as a duo under the rubric of Cluster.

Along the way, they managed to exert quite an influence, most notably on Mr. Brian Eno. There were three collaborations incorporating Cluster and Eno released in the mid-1970’s. They were to have a profound impact on later generations of musicians. Harmonia (1976), Cluster & Eno (1977), and After The Heat (1978) contain the DNA of the entire “ambient” genre that was to fully flower in the coming years.

What had always set these two pioneering Kraut-rockers apart was their embrace of all things experimental. Curiosum is no exception. Opening up with the strangely childlike bells of “Oh Odessa,” the seven tracks comprising this record show a continued growth in their musicianship.

“Proantipro,” and “Tristan in der Bar” are the most rhythmic tracks the duo had yet recorded. “Proantipro” in particular reflects a newer approach, with a dirge-like stomp closer to the tribal sounds Eno and David Byrne were working with on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts.

The synths Cluster were using at the time sound pretty dated today, but I remember this as being the epitome of cutting-edge in 1981. “Seltsame Gegend,” and “Charlic” both represent a kind of look to the future, while acknowledging their past sounds and visions.

Fans of the classic ambience of Cluster & Eno will not be disappointed with Curiosum either. The two tracks that are my personal favorites hearken back to those soothing tones, “Helle Melange,” and “Ufer.”

The eight-minute miniature ambient suite “Ufer” is outstanding. This is the sound of two men who had explored this type of music long enough to know what works, and what does not. It is a reminder of just how much Cluster had already contributed to the underground musical vocabulary. Listening to “Ufer” today, some 28 years after it’s initial release is a great experience, as it remains as poetic now as it was back then.

The same can be said for all of Curiosum. For many groups, album number six is far removed from their initial inspiration. For Cluster though, this is just another step in the journey.

This is a well-titled disc, because Curiosum should appeal to anyone curious about a wide variety of music. Ambient, electronic, world, early Eighties, chill-out, and Krautrock, are just a few areas Curiosum touches on. It is nice to see such an obscure gem back in print.