Thursday, January 28, 2010

Book Review: Under The Neon Sky: A Las Vegas Doorman's Story by Jay Rankin

“What causes so many people to have a love affair with Las Vegas? Is it the casino gambling, drinking, restaurants, or the lack of boundaries? Maybe it’s all the above. You’re free to be whatever or whoever you want to be.”

Author Jay Rankin has delivered a Vegas story unlike any other with his memoir Under The Neon Sky. He worked the graveyard shift as doorman at the MGM Grand Hotel for six years, from its opening in 1993 until 1999. By the end of this wild ride, you feel as if he barely escaped with his life.

I have only visited Las Vegas a few times in my life, but at some point on each trip, I have a daydream. What would it be like to just chuck it all, and stay? To just leave all of the stress and responsibilities at home behind, and disappear into the milieu of casino life? People do it all the time, but nobody has ever written a story about it as well as Rankin with Under The Neon Sky.

For one thing, Jay Rankin was not escaping anything when he and his wife came to Vegas. He had a Master’s degree in psychology, and had worked as a probation officer previously. A big factor in his being hired over 1500 other applicants was his previous experience as a local Vegas TV personality, who had hosted a business affairs program.

The position of “Guest Ambassador” at the largest hotel in the world meant an income in the region of $300,000. The sheer numbers of people he dealt with insured constant excitement, and he began to inhabit the hidden underground of those who live and work in town.

Rankin’s degree in psychology serves him well as an author. One of the more effective aspects of the book is the author's ability to dissect what he was doing, while admitting that he was powerless in stopping the inevitable flow of events.

By the end, I had come to root for the people who populated Rankin’s life, even though most of them were past the point of no return. It is a cautionary tale to be sure, but it is also a fabulously voyeuristic view into a world most of us will never know.

For anyone who has ever thought about just disappearing into the netherworld of a Vegas casino, I would recommend reading Under The Neon Sky first. It is an excellent first effort from a man who was fully immersed in the lifestyle.

Music Review: B.J. Thomas - Most Of All/Billy Joe Thomas

The fourth, and final collection of B.J. Thomas’ Scepter Records catalog on Collector’s Choice contains both Most Of All (1970) and Billy Joe Thomas (1972) on one CD. The set reflects some new directions for Thomas, after the massive success of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” in 1969.

His artistic breakthrough is represented on the previous two-fer, Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head/Everybody’s Out Of Town. Both albums were recorded in Memphis, with the redoubtable Chips Moman producing. But after recording some of the tracks that would be used on Most Of All, Moman and Thomas had a falling out. B.J. left American Studios for Studio One in Alabama, with the house band that later became famous as The Atlanta Rhythm Section.

Most Of All was then completed in New York City. Taken as a whole, the ten songs mirror the various locations they were recorded in. The album is something of a mixed bag, and did not produce any hits. But like all B.J. Thomas’ recorded works, there are some very worthwhile songs here. “Raindrops” composers Burt Bacharach-Hal David contribute “(They Long To Be) Close To You,” although it was The Carpenters who took the song to the top of the charts that year.

Another interesting choice was “Rainy Day Man,” from James Taylor, the artist's overlooked 1968 debut on Apple Records. My personal favorite is B.J.s version of “Brown Eyed Woman,” from Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill. The singer invests himself fully here, and the back-up vocals take the song into a territory largely unmatched on the rest of the record.

B.J. Thomas’ final album for Scepter is the most adventurous one he ever recorded, Billy Joe Thomas. The conceit here was to use the actual songwriters of each tune as backup vocalists on their tracks. It took some time to get all 12 cuts recorded, but the results were worth it.

The set kicks off with “That’s What Friends Are For,” written by the diminutive Paul Williams, who went on to open for Thomas in concert. Some of the other notables to appear on Billy Joe Thomas include Carole King, Jimmy Webb, Mark “Hooked On A Feeling“ James, and John Sebastian.

The hit was “Rock And Roll Lullaby,” from the great Mann-Weill team. Stevie Wonder’s “Happier Than The Morning Sun,” is another treat, as it features not only his vocals, but his inimitable harmonica playing as well.

With this collection, B.J. Thomas’ tenure at Scepter Records came to an end, with a total of nine albums released between 1966-72. Collector’s Choice have now reissued all but number three, Sings For Lovers And Losers in the following configurations:

I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry/Tomorrow Never Comes, On My Way/Young And In Love , Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head/Everybody’s Out Of Town, and this one, Most Of All/Billy Joe Thomas. Every one of these sets contains two original LPs and a number of bonus tracks on one CD.

Listening to the discs chronologically, I have found something to recommend about each and every one. For anyone looking to explore the early years of a somewhat overlooked artist, the B.J. Thomas reissues are a terrific find.

Music Review: Joe Locke - For The Love Of You

Vibraphonist extraordinaire Joe Locke has returned with one of the most remarkable collections of his storied career. Locke has recorded over 20 albums, including the critically acclaimed Henry Mancini tribute Moment To Moment in 1995. His latest, For The Love Of You, features the sleek vocals of Kenny Washington, and is his first non-instrumental record in many years.

The ten songs that comprise For The Love Of You are an interesting mix. Leading off with the tasteful classic “Two For The Road,” Locke immediately pays tribute to hero Henry Mancini, and gets in a nice vibe solo as well.

Moving into somewhat different terrain, the group then tackles an old Isley Brothers tune with the title track. Kenny Washington's vocals are used to great effect here. Although he has been compared to Nat King Cole and Donny Hathaway, on “For The Love Of You” his phrasing reminds me more of the great Stevie Wonder.

Continuing the artistic sweep, Locke includes an arrangement of Neil Young’s “Birds.” This may be the most unique Neil Young interpretation yet, and provides a nice opportunity for the piano talents of Geoffrey Keezer. The counterpoint between the piano and vibraphone at the heart of the song is particularly effective.

Another track that benefits significantly from the vibes-piano interplay is “Pure Imagination.” This gorgeous tune was the theme to the 1971 film Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, starring Gene Wilder. The group give it a wonderful treatment, and Washington’s vocals are highlighted again.

Three of the cuts are instrumentals. In keeping with his eclectic interests, Locke features a later Ennio Moricone composition, the theme to Cinema Paradiso. He himself wrote the other two, “I Miss New York (When I Been Gone Too Long)” and “Bright Side Up.”

Joe Locke has received the “Mallet Player Of The Year” award from the Jazz Journalists Association for three of the past four years. To celebrate the release of For The Love Of You, he and the band will be undertaking a week-long engagement at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York from January 26 to January 31.

It should be a great gig, but if you cannot make it, I suggest picking up For The Love Of You, one of the finest vibraphone-led recordings I have heard in some time.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Book Review: I Am Ozzy by Ozzy Osbourne with Chris Ayres

I am a little surprised that Sharon, er - I mean Ozzy, waited so long to put out the authorized story of rock’s “Prince Of Darkness.” Seven years after The Osbournes debuted on MTV, and became the most famous family on the planet, I Am Ozzy has been published.

The basic story of John Michael “Ozzy” Osbourne (born December 3, 1948), is familiar to most rock fans. He grew up in the heavily industrial city of Birmingham, England with little options besides the factory floor, or a life of crime. Somehow, he and the other three members of Black Sabbath managed to rise above their surroundings though, to become one of the most popular bands in the world.

With all of his dreams having come true before reaching the age of 25, there was nothing to do but indulge. This was the Seventies, after all. It got so bad that the band fired him in 1979. Then Sharon Arden came into his life, and one of the great career resuscitations of all time occurred. Ozzy and young guitar phenom Randy Rhoads wrote and recorded most of the material that would become Blizzard Of Ozz, and Diary Of A Madman. Then Rhodes’ life was tragically taken in a helicopter crash.

Ozzy persevered though, scoring a few more hits, doing a lot of drugs, and eventually headlining Ozzfest. But with the debut of The Osbournes in 2002, things went absolutely insane. He and Sharon were even invited to the White House that year.

Like most people, I assumed that Ozzy was relatively clean during the filming of the program. His manner seemed to be that of someone who done a few too many drugs over the years, maybe lost more than his fair share of brain cells. A man who had a rich family life though, which was something that would always sustain him, no matter how many F-words were uttered.

According to I Am Ozzy, he was pretty much stoned out of his mind for the entire series. I am usually not the biggest fan of autobiographies, because they tend to gloss over the less than savory aspects of the person’s history, but Ozzy tells it all here.

He talks about the failure of his first marriage publicly for the first time, and takes full responsibility for it. His account of the robbery he pulled, which sent him to prison for a few weeks, is heartbreakingly funny. And the early days with Black Sabbath are worth the price of the book alone.

Ozzy's description of the events surrounding their first LP, Black Sabbath are pretty incredible. They recorded the songs over the course of a couple of days, then went on a tour of Northern Europe. The record company came up with the cover, and everything else. Before they knew it, the album was in the UK and US charts, and the band were rich and famous.

I imagine “co-author” Chris Ayres had to do a bit of tweaking with the raw material to get the tone of the book as conversational as it is. But it was certainly worth it. I Am Ozzy is a fascinating story, even if you think you know everything about him, there are most likely still some surprises here.

The most charming thing about the man is how down to earth he has always seemed to be, despite the massive success he has enjoyed over the years. That quality comes through loud and clear on every page of I Am Ozzy, making it one of the better ‘tell-alls” I have read in a while.

Music DVD/CD Review: Sid! By Those Who Really Knew Him

“…But that’s what the Pistols were all about. One of them had to be a casualty to make the myth work, and Sid was only too willing to do it.”
— Steve Severin (Siouxsie And The Banshees)

So many rock lives have ended prematurely that we seem to take it for granted anymore. The headline seems to be written before the body is even cold:

Michael Jackson: "Tragically taken on the eve of his great comeback."

Kurt Cobain: "The price of fame was just too great."

Jimi Hendrix: "Flew too high."

What we tend to lose sight of with the glare of fame is that these were real people, who lived real lives. There were parents, siblings, childhood friends, and more who all cared about them. Try telling a grieving mother that her 27 year-old son “died for rock and roll.” How ridiculous.

Sid! By Those Who Really Knew Him is the least exploitative document of the life of Sid Vicious (Simon Ritchie) that I have seen. Featuring interviews with Severin, Jah Wobble (PIL), Vivien Westwood (SEX clothing shop), Malcolm McClaren (Pistols manager), Dave Vanian and Rat Scabies (Damned), and Viv Albertine (Slits) among others, this is a documentary that gives a lot more background to the legend than is customary.

Jah Wobble tells a chilling story of walking into the Ritchie house and finding Sid and his mother “banging up” speed together. There are also a number of respondents who allude to his intelligence, although that is something Vicious certainly downplayed publicly.

Sid! does not break any real new ground, as the story of his life is pretty basic: Punk rock poster boy joins the Sex Pistols, the most infamous band in England. After they break up on their only US tour, he kills his girlfriend (accidentally or not), then overdoses at the age of 21. It is a sad and tawdry tale, but a lot of people have made a lot of money off of it over the past 30 years. So don’t expect the canonization to go away any time soon.

Sid! By Those Who Really Knew Him gets it right thanks to the cooperation of people who were actually there. And who actually cared about him.

In addition to the DVD, the package also includes a ten-song live CD, recorded on September 30, 1978 and featuring Arthur “Killer” Kane and Jerry Nolan of the New York Dolls backing Sid up.

There is also a nice biographical booklet from author Mark Paytress included.

In comparison to all of the fast-buck products available out there concerning the life and death of Sid Vicious, this is one of the better packages I have come across.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Music Review: B.J. Thomas - Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head/Everybody's Out Of Town

The third release in Collector’s Choice’s reissue program of the B.J. Thomas catalog is probably the one most anticipated by fans. The CD features the original LPs of Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head and Everybody’s Out Of Town plus five bonus tracks for a total of 25 songs on one disc. Not a bad deal at all, as the original Scepter recordings have been out of print for ages.

After the well-deserved success of “Hooked On A Feeling,” Scepter management were eager to get Thomas into the studio with the red-hot songwriting duo of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. They struck gold with “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head.” According to the liner notes, though, the song had been pitched to both Ray Stevens and Bob Dylan before presenting it to B.J. Thomas.

Imagine Bob Dylan as the the voice of Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid.

With the runaway success of the single, an album needed to be assembled quickly, and Thomas found himself in the studio with a batch of top material. Surprisingly, Raindrops does not open with the title song, but rather a strong version of “Little Green Apples,” with full orchestration.

“Raindrops” is followed by another fine Bacharach-David tune, “This Guy’s In Love With You.” There are also a couple from Jimmy Webb, “If You Must Leave My Life” and “Do What You Gotta Do.” Old friend Mark James (who wrote “Hooked On A Feeling”) contributes “Mr. Mailman” and “Suspicious Minds.”

Things were done a bit differently in the studio back in 1969. Elvis had already hit big with his version of “Suspicious Minds.” Still, it is a little surprising that for B.J. Thomas’ take on the song, permission was given to use Elvis’ backing track, with his vocals replaced by those of Thomas. If you listen closely you can even hear The King’s voice bleeding through the mix a few times.

1970 saw the release of Everybody’s Out Of Town. Some of my earliest musical memories are of this album, as it is one of the two or three records my decidedly un-hip parents bought that year. It is still my favorite B.J. Thomas record of all time.

Everybody’s kicks off with an excellent version of Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin'.” I have actually always preferred Thomas’ interpretation of this song to that of Nilsson. Better voice and arrangement in my opinion. The Bacharach-David title track comes next, and it is another indelible combination of song, arrangement, and voice.

Brill Building pros Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill contribute what is, for me at least, the high point of the record: “I Just Can’t Help Believin'” What a great lyric and performance. The strings and chorale underscore the heartbreaking tale in a way that is impossibly gorgeous.

Wrapping things up with a warm rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” B.J. Thomas’ skills as an interpreter are without question. Everybody’s Out Of Town may be a sentimental favorite, but listening to it 40 years later, it remains a marvelous example of just how glorious popular music can be.

B.J. Thomas was at an absolute career peak with these two albums.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Music Review: The Red Krayola With Art & Language - Five American Portraits

I have been a Red Krayola fan since accidentally discovering them in the late Seventies. There was a great magazine called Zig-Zag back then, and one issue included a flexi-disc of “Hurricane Fighter Plane.” A year later I found the Soldier-Talk LP gathering dust in my local Tower Records import bin, and my conversion was complete.

Back in those prehistoric, pre-Google days, getting information about a band as willfully obscure as the Red Krayola really took some effort. I later found out that my “Hurricane Fighter Plane” flexi was a re-recorded version of a song from their debut album, Parable Of Arable Land (1967).

The group hailed from the same acid-drenched mid-Sixties Houston scene as the 13th Floor Elevators, whose own Roky Erickson helped out on organ. I also found out that the name was more or less a pseudonym for Mayo Thompson, the band being whoever he happened to use at the time of recording or performing.

I had not heard much from the group in some time, though, and was pretty excited to find out they had a new CD coming out. Five American Portraits sounded like a wild concept, its basic premise being to take five iconic American figures and “interpret” them musically.

The five Americans the group chose were an intriguing lot: Wile E. Coyote, President George W. Bush, President Jimmy Carter, John Wayne, and (artist) Ad Reinhart. Given Thompson's history, I figured it would be interesting. True to form, Five American Portraits is a fascinating conceptual piece.

I expected each cut to be instrumental, given the subject matter, and was surprised to find that there were lyrics. But the “lyrics” are not really lyrics at all, just physical descriptions. Take these, from “Wile E. Coyote”

The lower region of the inner surface of the left ear,
The iris of the left eye.
A bit of fur at the extreme upper right of the cheek,
A highlight on the nose
Of Wile E. Coyote.

Funny? Cute? Sure. But the real action is in the music The Red Krayola and British collaborators Art & Language came up with. By taking the motifs of various well-known compositions and adapting them, Five American Portraits does a nice job of capturing the essence of each subject.

For Wile E. Coyote they use Bo Diddley's “Roadrunner.” President George W. Bush gets a whole bunch of Texas tunes, such as “The Eyes Of Texas.” President Jimmy Carter is represented by (what else?) “Georgia On My Mind.” Big John Wayne’s theme is adapted from the Max Steiner score to the classic film The Searchers.

Finally, artist Ad Reinhart is subjected to a bit of an inside artistic joke as his portrait consists of Mozart’s “Piano Sonata No. 6,” incorporating the signature riff of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.” For those familiar with Sixties avant-garde art, Reinhart was (in)famous for painting his canvasses in strict shades of black.

Of the five tracks, I found the fifteen-minute “John Wayne” to be far and away the most compelling. In addition to Steiner’s score, “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” and “Dixie’s Land” are incorporated into the whole. The song also features musical whirlwind Jim O’Rourke on bass.

Five American Portraits is an absorbing slice of artistic fun from a master prankster, one who has been at it for over four decades now. As the title of their second album put it, God Bless The Red Krayola And All Who Sail With It.

Music Review: Martin Rev - Stigmata

It is hard to imagine a less likely moniker for a band in 1971 than Suicide. The duo of Martin Rev and Alan Vega were tremendously influential among the nascent “downtown” scene in New York during the mid 1970s, but their music never caught fire with the general public. It is unfortunate, because their self-titled debut (1977) is an absolute classic.

The duo never looked back though, continuing to release groundbreaking records both as Suicide and as solo artists for the next three decades. The latest from keyboardist Martin Rev, Stigmata, is another bold leap into the future.

The disc is almost all instrumental, except for a couple of instances of chants being incorporated. It also reflects a remarkable new interest for the artist. While the first three tracks, “Laudamus,“ “Te Deum,“ and “Jubilate,“ are all Martin Rev compositions, they share titles with an unlikely compatriot. As a founding father of the Baroque movement, Handel published pieces with these very names back in 1713.

In fact, nearly every song on the 14-track collection features a Latin title. There is “Dona Nobis Pacem,” (Give Us Peace), “Sanctus,” (Holy), and “Magnum Mysterium,” (Great Mystery), to name just a few. Except for the brevity of the individual tracks, the music of Stigmata does have a bit in common with the Baroque and chamber works so identified with the Catholic church.

But the sound Rev evokes is much too futuristic to be identified with the old masters. And not all of it is as soothing as “Gloria” either. “Exultate” is a very nervous-sounding three minutes of music, as is “Spiritus.” “Sinbad’s Voyage” is the most adventurous cut on Stigmata, reflecting the title’s conceit, I suppose.

There is an interesting dedication on the sleeve: “Angel Mari, spread your wings in joy and fly to the loving arms of the Divine.” “Mari” was the title of the first song on Martin Rev, his first solo album (1980). Although he is not offering any concrete clues, Stigmata seems to be addressing a significant occurrence in the world of Martin Rev.

For the rest of us, the record stands as a fascinating glimpse into the present state of mind of one of the most interesting musicians to emerge from NYC in the past 40 years. Stigmata may be a mystery wrapped in an enigma, but it is a most enjoyable puzzle to delve into.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

DVD Review: The Simpsons: The Complete Twentieth Season

It is difficult to imagine the television landscape as it existed on December 17, 1989, the night The Simpsons debuted. The era of The Big Three networks was still in full swing, with the upstart Fox considered by most to be a hopeless venture. But there was some original programming on Fox, and back in those basic cable days, there was an audience looking for any alternative to the bland choices being offered by the networks.

The vast majority of the Thursday night TV audience were tuning into NBC though. The Cosby Show led the way, followed by the spin-off A Different World, then Cheers, Night Court, and LA Law. It was against this powerhouse block of programming that Fox decided to make its stand.

The debut episode of The Simpsons went head to head at 8:00 pm against Cosby. It was about as gutsy a move as was possible at the time, and generated tons of press. One of the biggest problems the upstart Fox had back then was coverage. In 1989 there were still a great many markets that did not have a Fox channel.

Obviously, this had a huge impact on the overall ratings. I have heard that The Simpsons’ debut beat Cosby in a number of key cities. In any event, what is now the longest running prime time series in television history was on its way.

With the advent of the full-season DVD box-set, fans have been able to argue the merits of various years, ad infinitum. I am partial to the first decade of the series, probably because it was so ground-breaking at the time.

Having said that though, there is some great stuff on the Complete Twentieth Season DVD set. The season opener, “Sex, Pies, And Idiot Scrapes” is hilarious. Through a typically random series of events, Homer decides to become a bounty hunter, and brings in Ned Flanders as his partner. The episode features a classic Simpson’s homage to the original 1960s Batman series fight scenes, among other great moments.

Another fine parody concerns Apple’s guru, Steve Jobs in “Mypods And Boomsticks.” And The Da Vinci Code comes in for some well-deserved satire in “Gone Maggie Gone.”

Season 20 saw a couple of firsts in Simpson’s lore. The tenth episode of the season, “Take My Life, Please” (February 15, 2009) was the first to be broadcast in HD. It also featured a new opening sequence, with a billboard gag added. The recent release of Season 20 on Blu-Ray also marks the first appearance of the series in the format.

I have noticed a lot of online griping about the absence of bonus features on this set, and the complaints are valid. Let the buyer beware: there are no commentaries, deleted scenes, or the customary introduction from Matt Groening. In fact, the only additional material to the 21 episodes is a “20th Anniversary Special Sneak Peak” with Morgan Spurlock.

For me, the attraction has always been the programs themselves. After a few seasons that just seemed a little tired, the writing on The Simpsons has improved dramatically. Even without all of the bonus material, The Simpsons: The Complete Twentieth Season is well worth it for fans like myself.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Music Review: Eberhard Weber - Colours

The release of Eberhard Weber’s box-set Colours could not come at a better time. Set for January 19, the collection will appear just three days prior to his seventieth birthday. For those of us who have been rooting for Eberhard since his stroke in 2008, this collection is a wonderful reminder of a particularly fertile time in the renowned bassist’s career.

Colours is the eponymous title of this three-disc affair, and consists of the original three ECM albums by the Weber-led quartet. The first Colours album, Yellow Fields, appeared in 1975. It was followed by Silent Feet in 1977, and the final Little Movements album in 1980.

The name Colours is a nod to the seminal solo album Eberhard recorded in 1973, The Colours Of Chloë. This was a stylistic breakthrough, not only for Eberhard Weber, but for the nascent Edition of Contemporary Music (ECM) record label as well. Combining elements of the emerging European new music, the minimalism of composers such as Steve Reich, and his own interest in jazz, Weber delivered a landmark LP. With The Colours Of Chloë, Eberhard virtually defined what came to be known as the “ECM Sound” for many years to come.

When Eberhard decided to form a permanent quartet in 1975, he chose Colours as the moniker. The group originally consisted of Charlie Mariano (sax), Rainer Brüninghaus (keyboards), and Jon Christensen (drums). At this point Weber was playing an ingenious, modified stand-up bass that he called the “electrobass". Coupled with his remarkable dexterity and madly inventive playing, the addition of another C string gave his instrument one of the most unique sounds ever.

This is apparent in the opening moments of “Touch,” the lead track from Colours’ debut, Yellow Fields. It is a very inviting tune, and a great introduction to the band. But it is “Sand-Glass” that best shows the strengths of this group. Clocking in at 15:31, the song provides multiple opportunities for individual members to shine. They certainly do not disappoint. The composition tells an engaging story, journeying down multiple musical paths, and yet never meandering into irrelevancy.

Side two of the original LP consisted of two pieces: “Yellow Fields” (10:04) and “Left Lane” (13:37). As may be deduced by the extended times, there is again ample room for the group to branch out. “Yellow Fields” is the most traditionally “jazz” cut on the record.

“Left Lane” is something completely different. It is an amazing collaborative effort. The musician’s comments on each other’s playing throughout this song is so organic, you lose sight of who is playing what. It becomes an absolutely brilliant conversation

When it came time to record Silent Feet in 1977, John Marshall had replaced Jon Christensen in the drummer’s chair. Marshall had previously played with Soft Machine, and brought a bit of a rock flavor to Colours. It helped, because the group were facing the formidable task of following Yellow Fields.

They succeeded brilliantly. Opening up with the longest Colours track ever, “Seriously Deep,” (17:48), the band are firing on all cylinders. Weber’s bass solo is stunning, one of his best ever as far as I am concerned. The aggressive change of pace Charlie Mariano’s sax solo employs is exemplery as well. He really gets into it, even venturing into Coltrane territory for awhile.

Listening to Silent Feet, there is something I never would have believed. In fact, I am a bit reluctant to even bring it up, but here goes. Those rabid anti-sampling perfectionists Walter Becker and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan seem to have lifted one of the main changes in the song “Aja” wholesale from the title track. It may be a coincidence, but listen to the tune, starting at the 7:51 mark and see if you disagree.

Overall, Silent Feet is in every way a worthy successor to Yellow Fields. But by 1980, things had changed. The final Colours album, Little Movements was considerably different from its predecessors. The songs were shorter, and much more direct than those of the earlier records. Still, there is some fascinating music here.

The only non-Eberhard composition to appear on a Colours album is “Bali,” written by Rainer Brüninghaus. The tune consists of two fairly distinct parts, and is a real showcase for the composer’s sax and flute skills. One of the most unique cuts on any Colours album is Weber’s “Little Movements.” Employing a simple, repeated piano phrase, with various “Cage-ish” elements randomly tossed into the mix, this is a strangely absorbing slice of music.

From 1980 to 2008, Eberhard Weber played with numerous performers, both in the studio and onstage. His versatility never wavered, at least until that fateful day. But in many ways, his work with Colours remains some of his finest.

It may be the tangible feeling of discovery these discs evoke, or it may simply be that nobody makes music like this anymore. But the beauty of the three records Colours recorded is absolutely transcendent at times.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Music Review: Antonio Ciacca Quintet - Lagos Blues

When pianist Antonio Ciacca made the decision to study at the Bologna Conservatory in Italy, he had no idea how fateful this choice was. Tenor sax giant Steve Grossman had settled there in the 1970s, and became Ciacca's mentor. The honor of being mentored by the man who replaced Wayne Shorter in Miles Davis's band during the recording of A Tribute To Jack Johnson was not lost on Ciacca.

The strongest piece of advice Grossman gave him, though, was to go to New York, to fully immerse himself in jazz culture. Ciacca did just that, back in 1993, and the experience had a profound impact on him. Lagos Blues is his sixth release, and falls hot on the heels of his US label debut Rush Life (2008).

Lagos Blues is similar to Rush Life in that it features a mix of standards and originals, all arranged by Ciacca. The big difference between the two is the fact that Steve Grossman accepted an invitation to come to Lagos and join the group for recording. The regular quartet of saxophonist Stacy Dillard, bassist Kengo Nakamura, drummer Ulysses Owens, and Ciacca's own piano became a quintet for Lagos Blues with Grossman bringing along his tenor sax.

The genius of this collaboration was in the early decision for both Dillard and Grossman to play tenor, recalling such groundbreakers as Coleman Hawkins playing with Ben Webster, and Albert Ammons and Sonny Stitt. Lagos Blues was intended to be something special, and it is.

Ciacca's own "Lagos Blues" opens up the record, and features the full band playing with a rare fire. The very next cut is from Grossman; with "Take The D Train," he explores the type of blues John Coltrane was working on with Prestige on albums such as Lush Life and Soultrane.

Legendary bassist Paul Chambers was featured on both of those Coltrane albums, so his "Whims Of Chambers" makes a great choice for the group to cover. It also provides a wonderful showcase for the bass playing of Kengo Nakamura.

Probably the best example of Grossman and Dillard's tenor sax duels on the album is their version of "Body And Soul." Theirs is a powerhouse take; according to Ciacca's liner notes, this arrangement is influenced by both the Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins classic recordings.

The final track is a medley of "Reflections In D"/"In A Sentimental Mood," by Duke Ellington. Ciacca is a big fan, as is reflected in this great eight-minute rumination. Track for track, Lagos Blues makes an excellent introduction to the music of Antonio Ciacca, and the addition of Steve Grossman makes it even better. If you are looking for something with the traditional fire of old, tempered with some lovely, modern-day piano work, this is a disc to look into.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Book Review: Sarah Palin's Secret Diary by Joey Green

Former Miss Wasilla Sarah Palin is officially the newest member of the Fox News Team, and the timing could not be better for the publication of her Secret Diary.
While the cover says “Is it a spoof? You Betcha!” I do not believe it. These entries are much too good not to be the real deal.

Judge for yourself::

June 8, 2008:
“When I told my staff to make sure that Todd gets copies of every e-mail sent from my office no matter how confidential, I didn’t mean for him to get so much spam about penis enlargement! Sheesh! The idea is to make him feel big, not small!”

August 28, 2008:
“Senator McCain told me to call him John, but I said I wasn’t comfortable doin’ that, so he asked me what I’d be comfortable callin’ him. 'Gramps,' I said. 'Okay, then Gramps it is,' said McCain.”

September 8, 2008:
“I’ve got my own campaign RV called the No Talk Express because it’s set up like a big classroom on wheels, and my prep team doesn’t want me doin’ any interviews with the press until they’ve finished with our tutorin’ sessions.”

See what I mean? They must have called it a spoof, so that Sarah could not sue for invasion ofprivacy. As her supporters and Fox News know, Palin is one smart cookie. In addition to diary entries, she also makes occasional lists, I guess to keep track of things. Here are a few items from one she compiled in late August 2008:


-Persuades the President to start wars.
-Works behind closed doors with neo-con groups and oil companies to think up cool energy policies.
-Declares “Executive Privilege” whenever Congress starts askin’ nosy questions.

Sarah Palin’s Secret Diary covers the period from April 18, 2008 to the day she became a grandmother, December 28, 2008. These were some of the most significant eight months of her life, possibly only out-shined by her third place showing in the Miss Alaska Pageant 1984.

Liberals may find her diary a hilarious bit of fiction from former National Lampoon contributing editor Joey Green. But it sounds pretty genuine to me. Who else but Sarah, after boarding the Straight Talk Express, would call Barack Obama’s bus the “Gay Talk Express?”

Thankfully Caribou Barbie has found a home (for a while at least) on the most fair and balanced TV network ever, Fox News. At last she will be able to burnish her image, and promote her dream ticket:

Sarah Palin and Joe The Plumber 2012!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Product Review: GG Allin "Throbblehead" Extra Filthy Bloody Edition by Aggronautix

When the Aggronautix company introduced its very first “Throbblehead” dolls last summer, they created quite a stir. The limited-edition bobblehead figures of notable punk-rock legends GG Allin and Tesco Vee (of The Meatmen) were big collector’s items right out of the gate. Allin’s 2,000-piece edition Throbblehead sold out almost immediately.

So it is probably no big surprise that Aggronautix have honored Allin with a second Throbblehead. The Extra Filthy Bloody Edition exists in a limited run of only 500. The figure is similar to the original, at 7 inches tall, and features GG clad only in his “Eat Me” jockstrap. The extra blood and filth are rather pronounced though.

As a big fan of the series, I have had ample time to compare the two figures, and the new one flatters the legacy of Allin in every way. There is much more blood than previously, which is an improvement as GG never left a stage without copious amounts of blood being spilled. There is also plenty of what Aggronautix calls “filth,” which anyone who knows about GG’s onstage antics knows is mainly his own feces.

Of course the doll comes complete with all of the great original details, such as faithful duplications of Allin’s tattoos. These homemade beauties include such thoughtful statements as “Life Sucks,” “Scum Fuck,” and my personal favorite, “Vomitose.”

The packaging of the Extra Filthy Bloody Edition differs significantly from that of the previous Throbbleheads. Both the original GG Allin and Tesco Vee figures came out in tri-windowed boxes, encased in a plastic clamshell, which worked as an excellent display case. The new Extra Filthy Bloody Edition Throbblehead has no windows and is in an oversized “splatter” box, with the doll protected in a molded styrofoam container.

No matter though. If you are like me, you will take GG out of the box and place him on top of your speakers (I now have one for each). Next thing to do is pull out a copy of Freaks, Faggots, Drunks & Junkies. Turn up either “Sleeping In My Piss” or “My Bloody Mutilation” and watch the Throbbleheads throbble-out. It is a great way to start your day.

The best place to order the Extra Filthy Bloody Edition GG Allin Throbblehead is directly from Aggronautix.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Music Review: Fast 'N' Bulbous - Waxed OOP

Captain Beefheart's active period in music (1965-1982) was one of intense experimentation met with almost total commercial indifference. Since his abandonment of music to pursue a career exclusively in art, his 12 albums have gained enormously in stature. One reflection of this is the band Fast 'N' Bulbous. Their latest recording, Waxed OOP, is their second Beefheart tribute, following Pork Chop Blue Around The Rind (2005).

Fast 'N' Bulbous is a seven piece group led by saxist Phillip Johnston and former Magic Band guitarist Gary Lucas. Before forming Fast 'N' Bulbous, Johnston was best known for his work with Microscopic Septet, which have also contributed drummer Richard Dworkin and saxist Dave Sewelson to Fast 'N' Bulbous. Lucas' time with Beefheart's Magic Band came in the latter era. He was in the Magic Band for Doc At The Radar Station (1980) and Ice Cream For Crow (1982).

Fast 'N" Bulbous' approach is somewhat similar to that of Cuneiform label mates The Ed Palermo Big Band and their recent Frank Zappa tribute, Eddy Loves Frank. Waxed OOP takes a jazz approach to the work of the good Captain, with plenty of searing guitar from Gary Lucas.

The opening track, "Sure 'Nuff Yes I Do," is an interesting choice, as it is the first song on the very first Captain Beefheart album, Safe As Milk (1967). It is a solo interpretation by Lucas, played on his historic National Steel guitar, and sounds as authentic a deep-blues piece as an old Tampa Red field recording.

After this superb introduction, the band gets busy with a fine version of "Trust Us," which contains a spot-on horn arrangement, and a fine electric solo from Lucas. The arrangements of these songs go in a number of directions; one of the more intriguing ones is "Dropout Boogie," which is played as something akin to a high-school marching band composition. It would be a pretty hip marching band, though, with the serious trumpet solo action of Rob Henke coming in midway through the track.

Kicking off with that hilarious Beatlemania-era Paul McCartney quote "To the toppermost of the poppermost," the "Click Clack/Ice Cream For Crow" medley is another highlight of the set. Gary Lucas' guitar just rips throughout these songs.

There are two cuts here from Beefheart's most famous work, Trout Mask Replica. The first one, "Well," features one of the trippiest arrangements on Waxed OOP. The other Trout Mask track was recorded live at the Knitting Factory on April 8, 2008. It features none other than Robyn Hitchcock sitting in on vocals for a version of the classic “China Pig.”

Waxed OOP is a great tribute to the music of one of the Twentieth Century's most iconoclastic performers. Fans of Captain Beefheart and modern-day jazz will not be disappointed.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Site Review: Viddler Video Hosting Online

Since going into business for myself last year, I have been looking for a reliable place for my customers to access my video presentations. I have tried a number of different options. Then one day a friend mentioned Viddler to me. I have to say that video hosting gets no better than it does with Viddler.

My business is small, providing goods and services to other businesses worldwide via the Web. I can only say how truly grateful I am to have found the perfect video for small business solutions on this site. Viddler has everything I need. They have tons of features, including items that I had never even considered before. And yet many of them have proven to be invaluable in helping me with my business.

Viddler is about every aspect of video hosting though. In fact, fans of Music Videos on MTV can even find a spot here. All in all, this is a site that I highly recommend for anyone looking to use video in a profitable manner online. is a one-stop solution for all of your video hosting needs. Check it out.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Music Review: Captain Marryat - Captain Marryat

1974 was a banner year for what has become known as progressive heavy rock. Bands such as Lucifer’s Friend, Beggars Opera, and Wishbone Ash were all in their heyday. The heavy organ and guitar sound was all the rage. Deep Purple had just scored with “Woman From Tokyo,“ and Uriah Heep with the great “Stealin.“ Even Iron Butterfly were still in the game, with the underrated Scorching Beauty LP.

Enter Scotland’s Captain Marryat. They took their name from a London author, and associate of Charles Dickens, Captain Frederick Marryat. It is interesting that they chose a friend of Dickens for their moniker, as the character of Uriah Heep comes from the Dickens novel David Copperfield.

In those heady, post-hippie days, a band like Captain Marryat could make a living on the Scottish pub circuit. When they felt they were ready, the band recorded and self-released their one and only LP. It was done as a demo to drum up interest from the majors more than anything else.

With only 200 copies of Captain Marryat ever pressed, the original album is a highly valued collectors item. Copies have reportedly changed hands for over 3,000 Euros recently. While the original is obviously a rare and attractive piece for vinyl fetishists, what about the music itself?

I am happy to report that the Captain Marryat record is as faithful to the genre as anything I have ever heard. From the opening, Phantom Of The Opera-type keyboard trills of “Blindness” all the way through to the prog-mania that is “Dance Of Thor,” Captain Marryat are brilliantly of their time.

The second song on the record, “It Happened To Me,” is the band’s tour-de-force. At eight minutes, it is also the longest track here. They needed that amount of time to get the full guitar and organ solos in though, and I for one am very grateful.

The guitar solo followed by an even lengthier organ solo is the format Captain Marryat holds to pretty consistently in the instrumental sections of their songs. Until we come to “Changes” that is. The tune seems to be their bid for airplay, as it is certainly the most radio-friendly cut on the record.

“Gonna be changes come someday, gonna be changes come your way.”

Truer words have never been spoken.

The six minute instrumental “Dance Of Thor” closes Captain Marryat out, and it is a thing of beauty. On top of a driving drumbeat comes the power-organ of Allan Bryce, followed by Ian McEleny’s searing guitar work. Last but certainly not least are the sounds of thunder, in honor of Thor, the original god of thunder.

There is not a lot of middle ground with Captain Marryat. You either love this type of early-Seventies European progressive hard rock, or hate it. I totally dig it, and will be filing this disc between Banquet by Lucifer’s Friend, and Uriah Heep’s The Magician‘s Birthday.

Right where it belongs.

Product Review: Milo of The Descendents "Throbblehead" by Aggronautix

It was only a matter of time before legendary Descendents vocalist Milo Aukerman would be enshrined as a Throbblehead. The Throbblehead dolls are limited edition bobbleheads of renowned punk rockers. So far, the Aggronautix company has honored GG Allin (twice), Tesco Vee (Meatmen) and Blag Dahlia and HeWhoCanNotBeNamed of The Dwarves (an unprecedented double-headed Throbblehead).

The choice of Milo for the latest edition makes sense, as the Descendents were hugely influential in their time. They were one of the first Southern California bands to fuse unabashed pop hooks to the speed and fury of punk rock. Songs such as “Myage,” “I’m Not A Loser,” and “Catalina,” have been copied many times over the years, but never bettered.

While the Descendents hail from the second wave of punk, based largely in SoCal, the music they were playing was very different than that of Black Flag or The Circle Jerks. Their punk-pop sound can be heard in the music of a multitude of bands, including Nirvana, Green Day and Blink-182.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Descendents’ story is Milo’s parallel career. The 1982 album Milo Goes To College was no joke. The band went on a three-year hiatus while he went to school. Milo eventually received his Ph.D. in biochemistry in between stints with the band.

The packaging and presentation of the the Milo Throbblehead is a little more deluxe than previous editions. The doll itself is 7 ½ inches tall, and features a T-shirt, shorts, and nerd-glasses-clad Milo in his classic onstage pose. The oversized, tri-windowed box it comes in is an excellent display case, and features the iconic Milo drawing from Milo Goes To College.

The Milo Throbblehead is limited to 1000 figures, and if the past is any indication, they will probably sell out pretty quickly. The best place to order is directly from the Aggronautix site itself.

Music Review: Irmin Schmidt And Inner Space - Kamasutra

Fans of the legendary German band Can are pretty excited about this previously unreleased soundtrack from 1968. Although the disc is credited to Irmin Schmidt and Inner Space, Kamasutra is actually the first Can album. It has been in the vaults for the past four decades, and is now finally being released.

When Schmidt was commissioned to score the soft-core film Kamasutra, he assembled what became the original lineup of Can. Guitarist Michael Karoli, drummer Jaki Leibezeit, and vocalist Malcolm Mooney joined keyboardist Irmin Schmidt in the studio to lay down the various tracks that ended up being used on this soundtrack.

One of the things that makes Kamasutra so interesting is that you can hear everything Can were to do later here in condensed form. The soundtrack is almost a blueprint for the ideas they would fully explore on landmark albums such as Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi, and Future Days.

The 16 pieces that make up Kamasutra break down into four categories. There is the six-part “Indisches Panorama,” the three-part “In Kalkutta,” three songs with vocals, and four miscellaneous cuts. Of the vocal tracks, fans should be delighted to hear the voices of both Michael Karoli and Malcolm Mooney appear here for the first time.

Karoli sings “I’m Around,” (which is exclusive to the CD version), and Mooney takes “There Was A Man.” “I’m Hiding My Nightingale,” is sung by Margareta Juvan. All three tunes are time-capsule material, sounding as groovy and far-out as one can imagine.

Much more to the point are Schmidt’s remaining 13 instrumentals. Just for fun I programmed my CD player to play all six sections of “Indisches Panorama” in a row, to see if they played as a whole. As befits soundtrack music, they really are not parts of a whole, just brief musical interludes. Parts 1-4 are very bucolic, while parts 5 and 6 are a little more musically adventurous.

The same holds true with the three sections of “In Kalkutta,” which are extremely disparate. “In Kalkutta I” seems to point in the world-music direction Can would one day pursue. The track that is probably closest to the Can of Future Days, and beyond is “Im Tempel,” very minimalist, and very forward-looking. “Mundharmonika Beat” is probably the oddest song on Kamasutra, as it is almost a Paul Butterfield Blues Band carbon.

The liner notes are exclusively about the film, which I guess is appropriate, this is a soundtrack after all. And for all I know, Kamasutra may actually be a lost classic. What I do know for certain though is that the release of this music is a welcome treat for those of us who consider ourselves Can-addicts.

Music Review: The Gilded Palace Of Sin - You Break Our Hearts, We'll Tear Yours Out

Naming your group after one of the most influential albums of the last 40 years is a pretty gutsy move. Although The Gilded Palace Of Sin’s moniker comes from the Flying Burrito Brothers’ debut album, the music shares very little with the genre that record birthed. What the two bands do share is a fascination with the fabled darkness of an America that exists on the fringes of respectable society.

The fact that an English band has been able to absorb our Wild West mythologies so completely, and reenact them so convincingly should not be surprising. Gram Parsons old buddy Keith Richards has been doing it with the blues since his teens. But in the climate of 2010, where the 1990s seem to be ancient history, You Break Our Hearts, We’ll Tear Yours Out is revelatory.

“The weight of my soul’s a heavy burden on my shoulders, the river Jordan is too wide…”

This line is from one of the most powerful songs on the record, “Rubbing Up.” You have to hear the song to really feel the impact though, the minimalism of the music plus the repeated, near-hypnotic chant is crushing.

The very next track “There Is No Evil, There Is No Good,” is another one that commands your attention. The song is an exercise in less is more, with only an insistently strummed guitar and drums, some glorious sound effects, and a very murky lyric to hold the listener in place. It is a song that is simply mesmerizing.

The most musically inventive track on You Break Our Hearts is “Vony & The Plynths.” What is it that the British have about plynths? It seems like every band worth their salt has to write a song about them. The one The Gilded Palace Of Sin have come up with is pretty wild. Musically it is unlike most everything else on the record, near industrial-strength beats coupled with some great melodic interludes.

Nobody has encapsulated the British vision of a fabled America better than Chris Rea with his amazing The Road To Hell (1989). The latter part of You Break Our Hearts evokes the same sentiment. “Bones Of The Saints,” “Wedding Rice,” and especially the closing tune, “Home Because Your Here” all reflect that peculiar English vision of an America that never really existed.

The phrase “gilded palace of sin” is so elegant that you hardly even realize you are talking about a whorehouse. The British trio who have taken the term as their name know exactly what they are talking about. You Break Our Hearts, We’ll Tear Yours Out is as sleazy, and as unapologetically romantic as any excursion on the Gold Coast can ever be. It is also one of the most striking debuts I have heard in years.

Music Review: Univers Zero - Relaps: Archives 1984-1986

Belgian band Univers Zero are the originators, and sole practitioners of a style of music that has come to be known as “chamber rock.” Combining the driving rhythms of rock with classical of an extremely dark vintage, they have come up with a sound that is incredibly unique. Since their debut, 1313 was released in 1977, Univers Zero’s personnel shuffles have been nearly constant, and they took most of the 1990’s off. But like some sort of malevolent creature from the underground, they keep coming back.

Relaps: Archives 1984-1986 captures the band onstage at a fascinating point in their career trajectory. Having exhausted the somewhat acoustic and gothic influences of their early work, Univers Zero was really into amplifying their sound in the mid-Eighties. There is also a marked progressive and fusion influence in the music.

The eight tracks contained on Relaps were recorded at various sites in Germany and Belgium from 1984-86. All of the songs come from two albums, UZED (1984) and Heatwave (1987) except for “Ligne Claire.”

Relaps opens up with three songs from UZED, recorded in Hannover, Germany in 1984. From the beginning notes of “L’Etrange Mixture Du Docteur Schwartz,” we are in for an interesting ride. The sax opening gives way to a complex arrangement with time changes galore. The combination of saxes, clarinet, and cello, with the more rock associated bass, drums and keyboards is compelling.

The ten-minute “Presage” follows, and reminds me more of King Crimson or Magma circa 1974 than anything else. The third track from this concert, “Parade” sounds like an extension of “Presage,” with the addition of a brilliant clarinet solo from Dirk Descheemaeker towards the end.

The other three-song set on Relaps was recorded in 1985 at a Belgian concert. At this show, Univers Zero previewed tracks that were to later be included on Heatwave. The song “Heatwave” begins the set, with a much more modern sound than previously heard. The drums are right up front, and the introductory sax leads into a song that would not have sounded out of place on an early Utopia album.

At 18:10, “The Funeral Plain” is the longest track on Relaps. The hometown crowd seems to adore this one, even though the studio version had yet to be released. It is no wonder, the song has a very foreboding introduction, which just gets darker as the song progresses. The rhythmic drive that emerges is relentless, and is as arresting as the “Supper’s Ready” segment “Apocalypse in 9/8” by Genesis. The frenzied latter part builds to a monumental crescendo, then slowly resolves itself in a most satisfying manner. It is little wonder that the crowd gave them such an ovation at the end.

The other extended track, “Emanations” (12:34) was recorded at the Frankfurt Jazz Festival in Germany, 1986. Reflecting its venue, this is the most jazz- oriented track on the set. I hear snatches of fusion masters such as Jack Johnson-era Miles Davis, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and even Tony Williams Lifetime here. All were undoubtedly influential, but there are also some excellent classical segments reminiscent of Bartok, and even Stravinsky.

Univers Zero are a difficult band to pigeon-hole. They are relentlessly experimental, and this set captures a glimpse of them at one of their many musical peaks. On one level, Relaps is an amazing juxtaposition of some very disparate musical genres. More importantly however, it is a record that is thoroughly engaging, at times stunning, and absolutely fascinating all the way through. It is one of the rare ones that rewards repeated listens.

Music Review: Moebius - Tonspuren

By 1983, Dieter Moebius was already a legend in Krautrock circles. His first appearance on vinyl was in 1970, as a member of Kluster (later Cluster). In the intervening 13 years he had recorded with the elite of the European avant-garde, including Joachim Roedelius, Conny Plank, Mani Neumeier, and Brian Eno. The only thing remaining was to release a solo album, which he did with Tonspuren.

Tonspuren translates from German to English as “soundtrack.” It is the perfect title for this ten song collection, as each piece really does tell its own story. Take the opening track, “Contramino,” for example. The song features an upbeat melody interspersed with peculiar blips and bleeps that seem to suggest that something is not quite right. Underneath it is an insistent drumbeat strangely reminiscent of the one Phil Collins used for “In The Air Tonight.”

The vaguely sinister “Hasenheide” follows, and confirms that Tonspuren will not be an easy-listening walk through the electronic park. Things get truly dark a couple of cuts later with “Transport,” and “Etwas." “Transport” really does suggest an uncomfortable late-night excursion, while “Etwas” puts Moebius’ ultramodern musical vision front and center.

If anything, the remaining five songs are even stronger. “Nervos,” is a particular favorite, exactly corresponding to a nervous, paranoid feeling, as do “B 36,” and “Sinister.” The closing track, “Immerhin,” which roughly translates as “after everything else,” is ideal. The song neatly encapsulates the album, summing it up and closing the door on this fascinating bit of German experimentalism.

is minimalism taken almost as far as it can go. Certainly at the time, nobody in the rock world was doing anything this stripped down. It is as if all of the lush and adventurous work Moebius had done over the years needed a little pruning for once. What he came up with on his own is a fascinating record, one that sounds as outside of time today as it did back in 1983.

Tonspuren is a minor jewel that somehow slipped through the cracks of the early Eighties. It is one that is well worth hearing for anyone with an interest in music that exists outside of the ordinary.

Music Review: Soft Machine - Live At Henie Onstad Art Centre 1971

Along with Pink Floyd, Soft Machine were one of the most imaginative bands to emerge from the acid-drenched UFO club scene in the late Sixties. The music Soft Machine created at their peak (1971) was incredibly rewarding, the most complex of their career.

Live At Henie Onstad Art Centre 1971 is an amazing document of this period. The two concerts Soft Machine played at the Norwegian museum/concert hall in February 1971 were recorded on reel-to-reel tape, then promptly filed away in the library. They remained there for 28 years, until somebody stumbled upon them and realized that the tapes might have some worth to the outside world.

For fans of the band, this is an enormous find. The concert contains nearly all the material that appeared on the group’s two finest albums, Third and Fourth. While Soft Machine’s LP titles may not have been very imaginative, their music certainly was.

They are basically the only band I know of who were able to navigate the distance from psychedelia to jazz and make it work. Groups such as The Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd were doing the improvisational freak-out thing onstage in 1967, but both had grown into much different bands by 1971. Soft Machine developed into an improv powerhouse, with a take on the burgeoning fusion movement like no other.

In fact, in the very first set of the concert, Soft Machine sound closer to “Pharoah’s Dance” from Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew than anything else. And the energy never lets up. While I have been a fan of this band for years, nothing in their studio repertoire comes close to the visceral strength they display in this live setting.

The two performances are presented as one continuous track on each of the two CDs. The first clocks in at 39:20, the second at 55:18. The notes list the individual songs, but they flow together as one evolving, large-scale composition in concert, and fast-forwarding to a particular favorite is hardly the way to listen to the shows.

The notes I referred to are actually contained on a third disc, which is in the CD-ROM format. There is a wealth of information contained here about virtually every aspect of the recording. There is also an extensive photo gallery, featuring pictures of not only the band, but of the venue itself.

The name Soft Machine was taken from the 1961 William Burroughs book, which was the first of his to use the “cut-up” method of writing. It was a format the quartet appreciated very much, and one which is used in many of the extended compositions that appear on Live At Henie Onstad Centre 1971. This recording also represents the last tour with drummer Robert Wyatt, who was to leave the band and form Matching Mole soon afterward.

History and context aside though, this live recording stands as an incredible 90+ minute excursion into some of the best electronic jazz ever. The early Seventies were a time of great experimentation, and Soft Machine were at the forefront in every way. The wonder is that what they laid down those nights nearly 30 years ago sounds as fresh as ever. Live At Henie Onstad Centre 1971 is much more of a jazz record than anything else. Fans of what Miles, Mahavishnu, and even Santana were doing at the time should greatly appreciate this music. It must have been thrilling to sit in the audience that night, but this rescued recording is a nice consolation for the rest of us.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Music Review: The Ed Palermo Big Band - Eddy Loves Frank

Eddy Loves Frank is the third collection of Frank Zappa songs to be recorded by the Ed Palermo Big Band, and it certainly lives up to the high standards set by the previous installments. Palermo’s commitment to the music of Zappa is no minor affair. Since 1994, his 18-piece big band has devoted the majority of their performances to Zappa’s compositions, and during that time, Palermo has arranged nearly 200 Frank Zappa tunes for them.

Eddy Loves Frank is an understatement, to say the least. What makes Palermo’s arrangements really work though is the sense of fun he brings to the music. While his previous efforts, Plays The Music Of Frank Zappa, and Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance both displayed playful tendencies with the songs, Eddy Loves Frank really swings.

Take the first track, “Night School,” originally released on the 1986 Jazz From Hell album. FZ’s LP was interesting, as it was his first completely solo effort since Hot Rats (1969). Jazz From Hell was recorded exclusively on Frank’s favorite toy at the time, the Synclavier. One of the difficulties some of us had with that record was the sometime “gimmicky” sound of the instrument. Here, all of that is stripped away immediately, revealing a song with a beautiful melody. Ed’s alto sax solo midway through is a revelation as well.

Palermo never goes for the obvious in choosing tracks to arrange. Of the seven FZ tunes Eddy Loves Frank contains, two hail from the relatively obscure Live At The Roxy And Elsewhere (1974). Both “Echidna’s Arf (Of You,)” and “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing” were concert staples, but were never released as studio recordings. It is fascinating to hear an 18-piece big band recreate these classic mid-Seventies pieces, as they are prime Zappa-fusion.

Another song that has flown under the radar over the years is “Regyptian Strut.” Indeed, the whole album, Sleep Dirt (1979) has never been given its proper due in the Zappa canon, but this is probably the best track on it. The way Palermo has approached it is something of a wonder, and the trombone solo by Joe Fiedler puts everything completely over the top.

Eddy Loves Frank ends with a (somewhat) straight-ahead reading of “America The Beautiful,” which seemed completely out of context to me at first. Then I read Palermo’s liner notes, where he explains his reasons for including it here. There is no way I can argue with his decision, and the version his band plays is really special as well.

Speaking of the liner notes, they are hilarious, and really added to my enjoyment of the record, and what went into making it. Even better is the cover artwork by Nancy Palermo, but you have to see both sides of the CD to get the joke.

Jazz and big-band fans should find a lot to like about Eddy Loves Frank. But the Zappa fan who enjoys a really well-done take on his music will probably take the most pleasure in it. I know I certainly do.

Music Review: Michael Hurley - Ida Con Snock

Michael Hurley’s quirky, acoustic folk songs are practically a genre unto themselves. His first album, First Songs was released a mere 45 years ago, in 1965. Since then, his status as a legend on the outskirts of music has never diminished. For those of us in thrall to the cult of “Snock,” listening to Ida Con Snock is like saying hello to an old friend.

When it comes to Hurley, “new” is a relative term. Ida Con Snock was recorded over a two-year period, from 2005-07 at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, NY. Apparently, further fermentation was required, as the 12 tunes comprising the record took yet another two years to see release.

But that really is par for the course with Michael Hurley. This is the guy who gives a whole new meaning to the idea of laid-back. From Ida Con Snock’s opening song, “It Must Be Gelatine,” through the final “Any Ninny Any,” it feels as if we are sitting in on Hurley’s back porch on a warm summer night.

There is an intimacy to songs such as “Going Steady,” “The Time Is Right,” and “Hoot Owls,” that just does not seem to exist anymore. Actually, I know that there are others out there attempting to do what he does; I just don't listen to them. The reason I like Hurley so much is that the rural sound of acoustic guitar, fiddle, pedal-steel guitar and vocals rings true. I could care less if Hurley’s “good-ole boy” thing is an act or not; he does it better than anyone. And his records are as warm and inviting as any I have ever heard.

Probably Hurley’s best-known song is “Hog Of The Forsaken,” which originally appeared on his 1977 LP, Long Journey. The tune has gained a measure of notoriety by being used in the great HBO series Deadwood. A new recording of this classic appears on Ida Con Snock.

One of the more left-field fans of Michael Hurley is the critic Robert Christgau, who has said that Hurley’s music seems to come from “some mythical hippie-utopia.” I think it is a close as anything to describing the feeling one gets when listening to Ida Con Snock. To be honest, having spent a fair amount of time in Hurley’s adopted hometown of Astoria, OR, I think Christgau may have completely nailed it.

Maybe this summer I will go back and listen closely for that fabled back porch of his. Until then, though, I will keep listening to Ida Con Snock, a record which stands up to the very best of Michael Hurley’s 45-year musical legacy.