Thursday, December 29, 2011

2012 Music Collaborations

It is always interesting when musicians of a different stripe get together. They all seem to try it at one point or another. The big news in 2011 was the Lou Reed/ Metallica album Lulu. It was fantastically awful in all the right ways. These old geezers trying to shore up their exhausted “rebellious” credentials together was doomed from the start. But who doesn’t enjoy a spectacular disaster? It was entertaining, if nothing else.

Some collaborations have worked beyond all expectations. Remember Santana’s Supernatural album back in 1999? It was a huge hit, and the song “Smooth” with Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20 still sounds great all these years later. Before that there was Frank Sinatra’s Duets (1993), which even though the “duets” were recorded separately, still sounded great. And speaking of duets recorded separately, there was the huge Natalie Cole/ Nat “King” Cole version of “Unforgettable” that topped the charts in 1991.

Here then is a list of the collaborations I would like to see happen in 2012:

1. ELO and ELP - "ELOPE"

2. Lil Wayne and Earth, Wind & Fire - “Riker’s Wonderland”

3. Adele and Keith Richards - “Some Junkie Like You”

4. Rihanna and Buster Poindexter - "We Found A Martini"

5. Florence and The Machine and Kraftwerk - "Enuff Z’nuff"

6. Ian Anderson and The Weather Girls - “It’s Raining Aqualung”

7. Taylor Swift and The Jerky Boys - “Sparks Fly (Outta My Ass)”

8. Humble Pie and Lady Gaga - "Buy It!"

9. Kate Smith and Katy Perry - “Hello Everybody (Gonna Eat You Up)”

10. Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse - "Pills, Thrills, and Bellyaches"

So there you have it, the pairings I would like to see in 2012. Sorry Amy and Michael fans, but I heard they were both Happy Mondays fans.

Happy 2012!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Music Review: Rammstein - Made In Germany 1995 - 2011

While it was Nine Inch Nails and Ministry who first brought the combination of industrial and metal to the masses in the late eighties, Rammstein took things to a whole new level. Their live shows are legendary, and their music remains as explosive as their name suggests. Being a German band, one might logically assume that they hail from Rammstein, hence the name. In fact, they are actually from Berlin. The name is a shortening of their original moniker; Rammstein Air Show. It is a reference to the worst air-show disaster in German history, at Rammstein in 1988. Have they no shame? In a word, no. Rammstein have done it their way for nearly 20 years now, and show no signs of letting up in the slightest.

For a group who have enjoyed huge worldwide success from the very beginning, it is a little surprising that they have waited so long to put out a retrospective collection. Made In Germany 1995-2011 is a 16-track “greatest hits,” which also features one brand new track, “Mein Land.” The song shows that the band have lost none of their outrageousness, and the beach-party video for it is hilarious.

For whatever reason, the band have chosen to heavily focus on two of their six studio albums here. Of the 16 songs included on the single CD edition of Made In Germany, nine are from Mutter (2001) and Reise, Reiese (2004). That leaves but six songs from the four remaining albums. I’m not complaining though, this is as solid a collection as anything we could ask for.

When Rammstein’s debut album Herzeleid was released in 1995, German critics tripped over themselves to give a name to the music. What they eventually came up with was the awkward Neue Deutsche Harte - which translates to New German Hardness. It kind of reminds me of the even worse one the guys at Kerrang! created to describe bands like Def Leppard and Iron Maiden. Anyone remember the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal?

Made In Germany only includes one track from Herzeleid, “Du Riechst So Gut,” and it rocks hard. The album was not even released in the US until 1998, after Sehnsucht had broken the market wide open. 1998 was a long time ago, but I still remember how much of an impact that record made. It was huge, and crossed all the boundaries. One cool bit of trivia is that Sehnsucht is the only album sung entirely in German to ever reach platinum status in the United States.

Given all of this, I was a little surprised that Made In Germany only includes two songs from Sehnsucht. You certainly cannot argue with the choices though. Both “Engel,” and “Du Hast” show early Rammstein at their very best. “Engel” in particular became something of an anthem, and for years was their set-closer. The first time I saw them, it blew me away. There was plenty of pyro throughout the show, but they pulled out all the stops for “Engel.”

In the four years between Sehnsucht and Mutter, the band toured relentlessly, and released the live Live aus Berlin album. They came back as hard as ever though with the stuido albums Mutter and Reise, Reise. Five great tracks from Mutter are present here, and four from Reies, Reise.

For this fan, Reise, Reise is the band’s finest moment. There a number of themes running through the album. The overall concept is based on another airplane tragedy, that of the Japanese Airlines Flight 123 in 1985. It was the largest single-plane disaster in history. Of the 524 passengers aboard, only four survived. In addition to tracks such as “Mein Teil,” and “Keine Lust,” in which the band put themselves into the frames of mind of the passengers, there is “Amerika.” The song is a scathing indictment of George W. Bush’s America, especially our policies abroad.

Many of the songs on Rosenrot (2005) were initially recorded during the sessions for Reise, Reise, but in the final analysis did not fit the concept the band had in mind. They are not inferior in any way, as the title track itself clearly indicates. The most recent Rammstein studio release came in 2009, Liebe is fur alle da, German for “Love is there for everyone.” The video for “Pussy” once again set the censors into a tailspin, and featured the band simulating sex, among other delightful treats.

Finally we come to the new “Mein Land,” which is weirdly retro. Not so much a return to mid-nineties Rammstein, as much as a visit to the eighties industrial sounds of KMFDM or Die Krupps. It is an excellent nod to the past, which retains all the power and crunch the band are so renowned for.

Besides the 16-track “basic” edition of Made In Germany 1995-2011, there are two expanded versions. The Special edition includes a second CD of remixes done by friends and fans such as Faith No More, Laibach, and even the Pet Shop Boys. The mondo Super Deluxe package features the two Cds (fix), and three DVDs - with tons of footage and all of their videos. The set comes in a steel box, and includes a 240-page book. This one is limited to 1200 copies in the US, making it the ultimate Rammstein item for those who just cannot get enough of these Neue Deutsche Harte heroes.

Article first published as Music Review: Rammstein - Made In Germany 1995 - 2011 on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Music Review - Dome 1-4+5 Box Set

Although Wire are a relatively well known group, whose debut Pink Flag was released in 1977 - Dome remain something of an enigma to many. When Wire went on hiatus in 1980, Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis began recording as Dome. Their music was very different from the “art-punk” of Wire, but no less fascinating by any means.

Between 1980 and 1983, Dome released Dome 1, Dome 2, Dome 3, and Dome 4: Will You Speak The Word. When Wire reformed in ‘84, it was Dome’s turn to go on hiatus. Their silence was finally broken in 1998, with the release of Yclept. The five albums that constitute the Dome legacy may not have set the charts on fire, but they all contain some amazing material.

One big fan is Peter Rehberg, founder of the Editions Mego label. In the five short years of the label’s existence, EM have released an impressive array of new and re-released material - but nothing quite like the Dome 1-4+5 box set. EM are known for issuing what is loosely defined as “electronic” music, but showing a remarkable eye towards symmetry, the Dome set is in the old-school LP box set. While there is a downloadable version available for those addicted to such nonsense - the big, beautiful vinyl package is the one that counts.

Once upon a time, the cover art was a major component of a record. In some cases, the artwork was better than the music it held. This is certainly not the case with Dome, but the amount of care EM put into the packaging is impressive to say the least. The set includes newly-designed artwork by David Coppenhall, reproductions of the original Atelier Koninck posters which accompanied Dome 1 and Dome 2, an insert with sleeve notes by Howard Jacques and Neil Martinson, as well as unseen photos from the era. An inspired touch is the old-fashioned match-box to put wooden matches in, to shake along to the tunes of Dome.

Extravagant packaging or not though, we eventually must set it aside and consider the music though. And what Gilbert and Lewis put together as Dome is a different animal than Wire, to be sure. But for those who enjoyed the artier side of Wire, Dome is a must. I suppose you could call it post-punk, but in all candor - Dome sound like nobody else I have heard.

“Cancel Your Order” is the opening track of Dome 1 (1980), and it does evoke some of the edginess of early Wire. They very quickly veer off from the familiar with “Cruel When Complete” though. This, and much of the rest of the album are spookily meditative, and suggest some strange things afoot in the studio. And the studio itself functions as the third member of Dome. Both Gilbert and Lewis have mentioned how much time they spent in the studio recording. In fact, they seem to have lived there for the better part of a year. Their first three albums were all recorded during one 12 month period, leading one to wonder if they whether they ventured out into the grey English outdoors at all during that time.

From the opening notes of “The Red Tent I,” which leads right into “The Red Tent II,” Dome 2 (1980) feels like a perfect continuation of the first album. Then we come to side two, which is the closest anyone had come to the icy perfection of side two of David Bowie’s Low yet. In fact, I think the Bowie homage was (ital) blatant, although Gilbert and Lewis would probably vehemently denounce it.

Side two of Dome 2 opens with “Ritual View” which is as bright a tune as Dome ever wrote. It is for all intents and purposes “Rebel Rebel” as heard through a distant, extraterrestrial’s AM radio. From there we are plunged into incredibly clear, and unforgivably cold tones via “Twist Up,” and most especially the 7:20 “Keep It.” If anyone ever wonders why there is a longing for the days of albums being programmed specifically as separate side-long entities, this one should explain it.

Dome 3 (1981) is something else again. By this point, Gilbert and Lewis had well and truly lost it. They don’t even pretend to relate to the outside world anymore. They were like the living embodiment of Eraserhead at this point. The music is mostly atmospheric, with some chanting. An idea of how removed they were at this point can be provided simply by listing some of the song titles; “Ar-Gu,” “An-An-An-D-D-D,” and “Ur-Ur.” Dome 3 is a masterpiece on a level I cannot even begin to understand.

Dome 4 - Will You Speak This Word (1983) upped the stakes considerably. Side one consisted of one song, the 18:15 “To Speak.” This was dangerous, Topographic Oceans territory, but the duo were fully aware of what they were doing. The track is built in sections, the opening of which reminds me of nothing so much as Frank Zappa’s fusion-influenced “Big Swifty” from Waka/Jawaka (1972). From there they utilize a number of various elements, and chant is incorporated to a much larger degree.

These four albums represent a musical vision that is unbelievably powerful, original, and impossible to replicate. I think the titling of the box set reflects Peter Rehberg’s understanding of this. Dome 1-4+5 is a pretty clear indicator that the 1998 Dome 5 - Yclept is a different animal completely.

After Dome 4, Wire reformed - and even had something of a hit in 1988 with “Kidney Bingos.” As far as anyone knew, Dome were done - and had left quite a legacy with those four albums in their wake. Honestly, Wire didn’t have much to say after A Bell Is A Cup, Until It Is Struck (which hosted “Kidney Bingos”) anyway. Anyone remember the god-awful Manscape from 1990?

Prior to this box-set, Yclept was the rarest of the Dome recordings. Mute had kept the first four in and out of print for years, but Dome 5 came and went like a flash. The album’s appearance here marks its first-ever vinyl release as well. The music was very obviously recorded piece-meal over the 14-year gap between Dome 4 and 5.

As one might expect, it is a mixed bag. What sounded fresh and exciting on Wax Trax! In (fix) 1988 sounds horribly dated now. Remember a;GRUMH anyone? If not, “Virtual Sweden,” and “Because We Must” will put you right back there. In contrast however, “Making A Meeting,” and “Gebar” sound like classic Dome. There was a trendy drum-machine sound that even Dome fell into for a moment, but by the time of those later recordings, they had gotten their wits back, and were back to making music of depth and substance that defy the era they were recorded in.

So yes, it is a mixed review for Dome 5, but the music speaks for itself. Dome 1-4 is indescribably essential. Dome 5 a bit of a bonus. The box set is not exactly budget priced, which is in line with so much of that wonderfully snobbish one of a kind appeal that albums like these, and those of The Hafler Trio and others had back in the day. My guess is that anyone who owns the original 12-inch aluminum film-canister version of PIL’s Metal Box already owns this. But if ya don’t - you should.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Music Review: Gianluigi Trovesi & Gianni Coscia - Frere Jacques: Round About Offenbach

I don’t know if I have heard a more pleasant sounding record this year. The combination of Gianluigi Trovesi’s clarinet with the accordion of Gianni Coscia is simply marvelous. Their latest collaboration, Frere Jacques: Round About Offenbach has just been released by the always reliable ECM label, and it is really something special. I am certainly not alone in this opinion, as the liner notes were written by none other than the famous author (and fellow Italian) Umberto Eco.

One of the joys of this album is in the humor the duo bring to the project. The title itself is a play on the old French children’s song “Frere Jacques,” coupled with the jazz-inspired Round About Offenbach. The nineteen tracks are more of what I would consider a tribute to Offenbach than anything else. Sixteen are credited to Trovesi and Coscia, but the inspiration is Offenbach, especially his famously unfinished operetta Les Contes`d’Hoffman (The Tales of Hoffman).

There is a great deal of fun being had by all here. For one thing, Offenbach’s work has always been looked down upon by music snobs, primarily because he so enjoyed parodying other composers. Fortunately for all concerned, his reputation has grown enormously since his passing in 1880. The approach Torvesi and Coscia have brought to their recording is varied, to say the least. The operetta form is certainly present in the Offenbach pieces, but the duo add a great deal of their own personalities to the project as well.

One of the more surprising elements they have added is jazz. You hear it most especially in the clarinet of Gianluigi Trovesi, but the accordion of Gianni Coscia is no mere accompaniment. In fact, the eighty year old Coscia seems to be playing at the height of his powers. By the way, the “young” Trovesi is 67. While mentioning the ages of the respective musicians in the context of a review of their album may seem a bit out of place, I just can‘t help myself. In our youth-oriented culture it is so refreshing to hear artists who absolutely dismiss the relevance of any age considerations.

All of the context and age considerations aside though, in the end, the only thing that matters is the music itself. And Frere Jacques: Round About Offenbach delivers one of the most entertaining, and enjoyable listening experiences I have had in some time. After over 40 years in the business, the taste of ECM founder Manfred Eicher is impeccable - and as usual, he also produced the album.

Frere Jacques: Round About Offenbach is highly recommended, one of the finest records ECM released in 2011.

For anyone interested in seeing Trovesi and Coscia at work, the recently released DVD Sounds And Silence should not be missed. This documentary about ECM, Manfred Eicher, and a number of the label’s artists is extraordinary, and features some fascinating footage of Trovesi and Coscia in various settings.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Music Review: Rufus Thomas - Do The Funky Chicken

Rufus Thomas was a veteran performer by the time he scored his biggest hit single, “Do The Funky Chicken.” In fact, he was 53 years old when the song went to number one on the R&B chart in 1970. He called himself “the world’s oldest teenager,” and was entertaining audiences right up until his death in 2001, at the age of 84. As part of the Stax Remasters series, Rufus’ Do The Funky Chicken album has just been re-released, and it is one hell of a party record.

Rufus specialized in something of a one-man soul review format, with horns blaring, a funky beat, comical lyrics, and plenty of shout-outs. To this end, Do The Funky Chicken is definitive. Leading off with the title track, the record is non-stop fun in a way that was quite unlike the typical radio fare of the day. “Let The Good Times Roll,” “Lookin’ For A Love,” and “Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown,” all have that tight, in-the-pocket swing that had not been heard on vinyl since the glory days of the late fifties and early sixties. Think “Shout,” or “Soul Man,” and you will get an idea of what Rufus was all about.

He was first and foremost a showman though, and there is plenty of “show” on this album to be sure. His two-part re-imagining of “Old McDonald Had A Farm” is a case in point. "Part 1 is done as a slow, gospel inflected introduction, while Part 2 goes for the funky jugular. Rufus also revisits his own past with a new version of “Bear Cat,” which he originally recorded for Sun in 1953. The song was an “answer” to Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog,” which later became a massive pop hit for Elvis.

In addition to the eleven tunes contained on the original 1970 album, the CD includes eight bonus tracks. These run the gamut from his 1968 “Funky Mississippi,” to his final Stax single in 1974 “Boogie Ain’t Nuttin’ (But Getting’ Down).” Rufus Thomas was a one of a kind performer, old school before such a thing even existed, and Do The Funky Chicken finds him in top form.

Music Review: Buck Owens - Bound For Bakersfield 1953-1956

Buck Owens became famous for what came to be known as The Bakersfield Sound. He hit big after signing to Capitol Records, but Buck had been kicking around southern California for quite a while before that. The new Bound For Bakersfield 1953-1956 collection contains 24 tracks recorded for various labels before he hit with Capitol. Although some of the material is pretty raw, Buck’s innate talent still shines brightly.

The set opens up with “Blue Love,” complete with some amusing studio chatter. This song was recorded in Hollywood, sometime in 1953, and is pretty primitive. Still, that high-lonesome voice of Buck’s is right on target. The rest of the material was recorded for release as singles, and for his debut album Buck Owens on the La Brea label. The sound quality of these later recordings is much improved over that of the original “Blue Love.”

Whether for historical record, or maybe just to pad things out a bit, a number of alternate versions of the tracks are included. These are invariably inferior takes, however their presence can be justified for the sake of including everything.
The singles he released for labels such as Pep, New Star, and Chesterfield certainly speak for themselves. No wonder Capitol signed him right up. Buck’s rockabilly “Hot Dog” (from 1956) is a classic, even though he released it under the pseudonym Corky Jones out of fear of alienating his country audience. Hearing his wailing guitar solo midway through is a thing of beauty.

“Rhythm And Booze” is even harder rockabilly than “Hot Dog." Showing his true roots though is “There Goes My Love.” This single really captures the Buck Owens Bakersfield sound he became so famous for. His voice is front and center, with a lyric (inevitably) bemoaning a lost love, with classic country elements such as pedal steel proudly on display.

One of the reasons Buck Owens has always been held in such high regard by country music fans is the fact that he turned his back on the “country-politan” style that became so prevalent in the sixties. Buck was having none of it, and it was not just an act of rebellion. Listening to “Sweethearts In Heaven” one could argue that some sweetening would improve it, in fact there are moments that practically cry out for strings. But what makes it so great are the unabashed cornball lyrics and melody, played with as uncompromising a twang as one could imagine. It is the perfect combination, and shows that Buck knew exactly what he was doing all along.

A few years later, Buck Owens received the ultimate “hip” validation when The Beatles covered his “Act Naturally.” Perversely enough, he squandered that by hosting Hee-Haw with Roy Clark a few years later. For a lot of people, it took Dwight Yoakam’s unabashed idolatry of the man to restore his cachet as a true country music pioneer. I am truly happy that his contributions to music had been fully appreciated by the public at large by the time of his death in 2006.

These early recordings show that he had it from the beginning, and are a must for fans of his music, and of the whole Bakersfield sound.

Music Review: Grateful Dead - Dick's Picks Number 34

It seems like they were being called “The Good Old Grateful Dead” from day one. The moniker was perfect, because no matter what the conditions, the band always delivered. And seeing them play was only part of the reason one went to the concerts anyway. The cultural baggage that sometimes threatened to completely engulf them was always present. But with the passing of Jerry Garcia back in 1995, it all came to an end. We were left with the music, and what they left behind was an amazing body of work, especially live.

I am not a Deadhead by any stretch of the imagination, but I have certainly come to respect what they were all about. There have been a huge number of live recordings released over the past few years, and the Dick’s Picks collections are some of the best. Chosen by archivist Dick Latvala, the 36-volume Dick’s Picks present some of the Dead’s finest performances.

Dick’s Picks Number 34 concentrates on 1977. The three-CD set contains their full performance at the Community War Memorial in Rochester, NY on November 5, 1977, plus some tracks from Seneca College in Toronto on November 2, 1977.

By this time, the band had been touring for ten years, and even though there had been some changes in the lineup, they were a well-tuned machine. The replacement of original organist Pigpen with Keith Godchaux had come in 1972, and Keith’s wife Donna later joined in a backing vocal capacity. One of the knocks against the group was their lack of a strong singer. Well, that’s just the way it was, but Donna Godchaux’s backup vocals definitely helped.

The year 1977 also heralded one of the best albums the Grateful Dead had released in some time, Terrapin Station. Unfortunately they do not play the sidelong “Terrapin Station” suite, but they do pull out versions of the reggae-inflected “Estimated Prophet” and the traditional “Samson and Delilah” from the record.

Jerry Garcia’s guitar playing was always one of the highlights of a Grateful Dead show, and he did not disappoint the Rochester audience. Notable examples include the lengthy “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo,” “Eyes Of The World,” and “The Other One.” Phil Lesh gets a chance to step out with his “Phil Solo,” which leads into a marvelous version of “Eyes Of The World.” The most universal aspect of the Occupy movement has to be the ubiquitous drum circle, and we can credit or blame (depending on your point of view) Bill Kreutzmann and Micky Hart. Their relatively brief “Rhythm Devils” makes for a great introduction into the classic “The Other Ones.” The laconic “Good Old” Grateful Dead sound is also present, in crowd favorites such as “Candyman,” and “It Must Have Been The Roses.”

While the Rochester show provides the majority of the material on the set, there are also seven tracks from the Ontario concert they performed two days previously. The second version of “Estimated Prophet” is a powerhouse, and the crowd is obviously thrilled when the band pulls out “Truckin’.”

Jerry Garcia left us much too early, and his - and the entire band’s vibe is sorely missed. This 1977 concert is a prime example of what made them so special, quite apart from any of the “floating party” atmosphere that surrounded them. These guys could play, and when they were really inspired, were one of the best bands going anywhere. Dick’s Picks Number 34 captures one of those magic nights in 1977, and it is a welcome addition to their legacy.

Article first published as Music Review: Grateful Dead - Dick's Picks Number 34 on Blogcritics.

Book Review: The Beach Boys FAQ by Jon Stebbins

The FAQ series of books from the Hal Leonard Publishing imprint offer a unique slant on the rock biography genre. By taking established artists such as The Beatles and Neil Young, and providing little-known facts, the FAQ books are able to add something constructive to our understanding of these artists, rather than simply repeating tried and true stories.

With The Beach Boys, this is a particularly effective approach. As much of a “genius” as Brian Wilson was, we have heard the stories endlessly. Yes, his father was abusive; yes, there was a sandbox underneath his piano; yes, Smile was an aborted masterpiece for decades. Blah, blah, blah. Author Jon Stebbins does repeat these tales — I guess no Beach Boys book is complete without them — but he adds a great deal more to the typical narrative.

My favorite chapter is “Sail On Sailor” which discusses in depth the albums made during the “lean” years. This would be the post-Smile period, from late 1967 to 1973. Albums that were consigned to the cut-out bin almost immediately upon release are finally given their due here, and it is a welcome reassessment. I must admit to a (former) willingness to go along with the crowd in regards to records such as Friends and Carl And The Passions Present “So Tough,” but The Beach Boys FAQ has convinced me to go back and listen with a more open mind to these efforts.

Stebbins has found a number of other intriguing avenues to explore besides the “forgotten” works of the group. The chapter titled “Rhonda, Wendy, Caroline…Who Were Those California Girls?” is pretty self-explanatory. Then there are “No Go Showboat: The Beach Boys' Image Problems,” and “The Fun Of Hating Mike Love.” Again these are self-explanatory titles, but the subject matter is not something generally found in other Beach Boys biographies. “The Fun Of Hating Mike Love,” in particular, is hilarious and deadly accurate.

As expected, there are whole chapters devoted to Pet Sounds and Smile, and the book even includes a press release about the release of the original Smile which was issued in March 2011. The Beach Boys FAQ contains a great deal of trivia, such as chapters about their most important live dates, solo albums, and their appearances in TV and film. This is not necessarily the most exhaustive Beach Boys book one will find out there, but it does contain a great deal of information that is not normally present in such accounts. As such, the Beach Boys FAQ is a welcome addition to the canon.

Article first published as Book Review: The Beach Boys FAQ by Jon Stebbins on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Throbbing Gristle - D.O.A.: The Third And Final Report Of Throbbing Gristle

How far can one stretch the concept of avant-garde before it snaps? When it comes to art, specifically music, what is the final breaking point of “extreme?” Of course the answer is highly subjective, possibly philosophical, and most definitely pointless. And yet…

Those are the types of thoughts I have when listening to Throbbing Gristle’s second album, D.O.A.: The Third And Final Report Of Throbbing Gristle. Nobody who enjoys such “nails-on-chalkboard” fare as Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music or John Coltrane’s Ascension ever admits it, but I will: Part of the fun of listening to this type of music is the sheer macho madness of it all. How much can you take is definitely a part of it. Another is the hilarious over-reactions it inspires in others. The fact that the perpetrators are likely laughing their asses off, as well (while maintaining the straightest of faces), only adds to the overall amusement factor.

All of this is to say that of the three TG studio albums proper, D.O.A. is the most…well, the most. It is not music as noise for the sake of noise, however. There is a method to the madness, and as a musical entity the band show definite growth from their previous Second Annual Report.

Artists to the core, there is a definite symmetry to D.O.A. Lucky 13 is the number of tracks, of which four are solo efforts. I am reminded of Ummagumma by Pink Floyd, which was broken up in a similar fashion. Although there is nothing quite as brilliant as “Several Species Of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together And Grooving With A Pict,” the attempts are still admirable.

Let us begin with the late Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson’s “Valley Of The Shadow Of Death.” It is to the memory of “Sleazy” that the deluxe, two-disc reissues of all five of TG’s original Industrial Records’ releases are dedicated after all. “Valley” is a brutal, spoken-word, tape manipulated piece, which more than lives up to its title.

“Weeping” is Genesis P-Orridge’s starkly terrifying contribution, one which I would advise even the vaguely depressed to avoid for the sake of their own sanity. The subject matter is reportedly his breakup with fellow TG member Cosey Fanni Tutti, and it is a harrowing account. Cosey herself delivers “Hometime,” possibly the most disturbing track on the record. Finally we come to Chris Carter (who Cosey left Genesis for), and his “AB/7A.” The tune reflects his love for both Kraftwerk and ABBA, the latter of which (in their own way) may be the most “extreme” band ever.

The remaining nine tracks are group efforts, recorded at various locations. “Death Threats” is a bit of frivolity from a deranged female “fan,” who seems quite convinced that the British Empire would be best served by the collective murder of TG. The band’s sense of humor remains intact on “United.” This was the single released between the first and second albums. Usually in a case like this, a group would include the single on their next record. TG bowed to convention by putting “United” on D.O.A., albeit in a speeded-up, 16-second version.

“Hamburger Lady” was inspired by a letter describing a burn victim (absolutely gruesome both musically and lyrically). The title track, “Walls Of Sound,” and “Blood On The Floor” stretch the boundaries of what is or is not “pop” music more than anything the band recorded before or since.

The second CD in this special reissue package contains live material recorded in 1978, the year D.O.A. was originally released. Two live versions of album tracks are included, “Hamburger Lady” and “I.B.M.” There is also a treatment of Second Annual Report’s “After Cease To Exist,” titled “New After Cease To Exist Soundtrack.” Other onstage highlights include the powerful tracks “Industrial Muzak” and “Cabaret Voltaire.” The 11-cut second CD closes with their non-LP single of 1978 “We Hate You (Little Girls)” b/w “Five Knuckle Shuffle.”

The five Industrial Records albums that have been reissued as special double-CD editions are The Second Annual Report (1977), D.O.A. (1978), 20 Jazz Funk Greats (1979), Heathen Earth Live (1980), and Greatest Hits (1981). Of these, their second (perversely subtitled Third And Final Report) is the most harrowing and powerful (not to mention disturbing) of the bunch. Although at the time, TG were mistakenly lumped in with the punk movement, they never had anything in common with the safety -pin set.

Their agenda was simultaneously more serious, and more amusing than anything their so-called peers issued that year. D.O.A. has also proven to have a lasting impact, and is a crucial chapter in the development of one of the most influential and important acts of the latter part of the 20th century.

Article first published as Music Review: Throbbing Gristle - D.O.A.: The Third And Final Report Of Throbbing Gristle on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Throbbing Gristle - The Second Annual Report Of Throbbing Gristle

“Industrial music for industrial people” went the slogan. In 1977, everybody had a slogan. “No future” was a good one; in fact, it was a great one. “Music From The Death Factory,” accompanied by a picture of what looked to be an Auschwitz chimney, was not such a good one. “God Save the Queen,” an anti-royals hit single during the Silver Jubilee, was a hilarious stroke of marketing genius. Releasing a single that same year about the Zyklon B gas used to fuel the Nazi gas chambers—“Zyklon B Zombie"—was not, shall we say, hip, savvy marketing. And the music itself was no prettier.

Throbbing Gristle was the band, and their debut album The Second Annual Report came out on their own Industrial Records in 1977. TG were never remotely “punk” or even what came to later be defined as “industrial,” but they were one of the most important groups to come out of that whole time period. TG really were Artists with a capital “A,” and their vision was unrelentingly dark.

Thirty-four years later, Second Annual Report seems to have seeped out from Eddie Hazel’s guitar strings, and the incantation of George Clinton is evoked in the opening of “Maggot Brain”: “Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time, for you all have knocked her up. I have tasted the maggots of the earth, and was not offended.”

Genesis P-Orridge, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Chris Carter, and Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson found each other in the more extreme strands of the “legitimate” art world. A 1976 show they mounted, titled Prostitution and performed under the rubric of Coum Transmissions, completely scandalized the nation, and led to them being labeled by one paper as “Wreckers Of Civilization.” Check Simon Ford’s book Wreckers Of Civilization for an in-depth study of this event.

It was out of all this that TG was born.

So with all of these bona-fides in place, what exactly were the 785 original purchasers of Second Annual Report in for? Side one of the album opens with “Industrial Introduction,“ a 1:02 aural-oscilloscope which leads into three live versions of “Slug Bait.” Through the magic of editing, the takes from the I.C.A. London, Southampton, and Brighton all blend together as one piece. The four parts of “Maggot Death” begin with a studio version. We continue on with live recordings from the Rat Club in London, Southampton, and Brighton. Side two was the 20-minute soundtrack of the Coum Transmissions film After Cease To Exist. Think of some of the stranger post-Syd Barrett Pink Floyd moments from albums such as Ummagumma or Atom Heart Mother, and you have a starting point for this unexpectedly ambient excursion.

For many years, Mute Records had licensed the TG Industrial Records catalog for release, but that agreement came to an end last year. In honor of the late Christoferson, the surviving members of the band have remastered and reissued the original albums in deluxe packages. These include booklets featuring ephemera from the time period and full liner notes.

Each release also includes a second CD with live material and any singles from the era. In the case of Second Annual Report, there are seven live tracks, recorded between 1976-77, as well as both sides of their 1977 single.

“No Two Ways” was recorded live at the Hat Fair, Winchester in 1976. It is a raw, driving lo-fi journey into noise, and is representative of what these sound-terrorists excelled at. The remaining six live cuts were all recorded in 1977, at various locations. “Tesco Disco,” and “Urge To Kill” are particularly noteworthy.
The non-LP single released at the tail end of the year, “United” b/w “Zyklon B Zombie,” is another example of TG’s penchant for the unexpected. “United” is a surprisingly radio-friendly bit of early synth-pop. It would have been a beautiful thing if the football team of Genesis’ hometown (Manchester United) had adopted it as their theme song. “Zyklon B Zombie” is as ugly as its subject matter.

TG’s example and influence have been enormous over the years. They were prime movers in what RE/Search Publications called Industrial Culture, which includes SPK, Monte Cazazza, and Survival Research Laboratories, among others. These uncompromising artists may not have originated confrontation as a method of expression, but they carried on the tradition in a remarkably effective way.

Second Annual Report is where it all began.

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Book Review: If You Like The Sopranos: Here Are Over 150 Movies, TV Shows, and Other Oddities That You Will Love by Leonard Pierce

Of all the classic takes on the Mob, be them in the movies or on television - The Sopranos holds a special place. The show revolutionized both the way the Mafia is presented, and the very nature of TV itself. If You Like The Sopranos: Here Are Over 150 Movies, TV Shows, and Other Oddities That You Will Love is part of the If You Like series from Limelight Books. As the title suggests, this is book contains a number various films and shows that fans of The Sopranos may be interested in.

That description is the short version of what this book is all about. What If You Like The Sopranos really provides is something of a timeline, which traces the evolution of the media’s treatment of the Mafa through the twentieth century and beyond. We begin with the early movies such as Little Caesar (1931) and the original Scarface (1932). Author Leonard Pierce draws the parallels between Tony Soprano, and the characters played by Edward G. Robinson, and James Cagney in these pre-Code films.

The rise of Film Noir is next discussed, and as Pierce points out, the show had plenty of Noir-ish moments - especially in the dream sequences. The code of an outlaw family was the next big development, played out in movies such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and of course The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), not to mention GoodFellas (1990).

The developments in television are also scrutinized, from the obvious The Untouchables, to the rise of the nighttime soaps. The rise of the running “story-arc” of such hits as Dallas and Dynasty in the eighties was a huge factor in establishing the format of The Sopranos. Perhaps most importantly was the development of HBO itself, without which - a series like The Sopranos would never have existed. As Pierce sees it, a perfect storm came together to spawn the show, and the timing of the debut in 1999 could not have been better.

After a discussion of The Sopranos itself, Pierce goes on to explore serial television post-Tony. These include such critical favorites as Deadwood, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad. The final chapter is titled “Welcome To America: Crime Drama For A New Millennium.” This intriguing section concerns other media, such as games (Grand Theft Auto), music (A Prince Among Theives by Prince Paul) and even books (the Underworld USA trilogy by James Ellroy).

As advertised, If You Like The Sopranos talks about a great number of films and TV shows (for the most part) that fans of the program should find interesting. There is a lot of good information packed into this relatively concise book.

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Music Review: Phil Spector - The Essential Phil Spector

When all has been said and done, and you wonder if there really was anything there in the first place, just go back and listen to the music. It’s all there, just as he left it. For a few short years, Phil Spector managed to catch lightning in a bottle. He was a genius in the studio, without question. He was also quite mad, as we found out later.

As hard as it is to separate the man from the music though, we must. And with the new two-CD Essential Phil Spector collection, the full power of the mad genius in his prime comes flooding back. The set distills 11 years of recording down to 35 indispensable tracks. In contrast to the comprehensive seven-disc box set Phil Spector Presents The Philles Album Collection, The Essential contains not a hint of filler.

We begin in 1958, with The Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is To Love Him.” The trio consisted of Marshall Leib, Annette Kleinbard (later Carol Connors), and the 17 year old Phil Spector. It was recorded (appropriately enough) at Gold Star Studios - which he would put on the map as the hottest studio in L.A. In the early years, Spector also spent time recording in New York, where he co-wrote and arranged (uncredited) Ben E. King’s majestic “Spanish Harlem.”

Great things were happening for Phil on both coasts, but for many fans, the ultimate expression of his talent was found when he combined the two. When Spector brought The Ronettes out west to Gold Star, they created one of the greatest rock ‘n roll songs of all time with “Be My Baby.” It is a teenage pop symphony, and captures Spector at an all-time peak. From what I understand, it haunts Brian Wilson to this day.
Spector had a way with “girl groups.” His work with The Crystals on “He’s A Rebel” is another major highlight, as is everything he did with Darlene Love. Then he turned his sights toward the blue-eyed soul of The Righteous Brothers. “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” and “Unchained Melody” are both included here, along with the slightly lesser known “Ebb Tide.”

Legend has it that the relative failure of Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High” was the final nail in the coffin of the fragile young Spector’s ego. Who’s to say? It is a fantastic production, and the fact that the track never caught on commercially is just one of those inexplicable things. That was in 1966, but contrary to popular belief, Phil kept at it. The final track on The Essential is from 1969, “Black Pearl,” by Sonny Charles And The Checkmates Ltd.

Obviously a great deal has gone on in Phil Spector’s life since 1969. He famously recorded The Beatles, and John Lennon solo - not to mention The Ramones’ End Of The Century in 1980. Then there were the guns, the terrorism of Ronnie Spector…the stories are frightening, sad, and ugly.

Then you go back and listen to The Essential Phil Spector again, and just marvel at what once was. It was an amazing run.

Article first published as Music Review: Phil Spector - The Essential Phil Spector on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Ray Charles - Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles Box Set

There was a period of time in the late seventies when Ray Charles was “on the shelf,” so to speak. Just about every major artist goes through a period when they are out of favor for a while, it’s just the nature of the beast. Ask Johnny Cash, Springsteen, or U2 for that matter. While preparing to review the new Ray Charles box set, Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles, I had a look at what Dave Marsh had to say about Charles in 1978. In essence, his opinion was that Ray had committed virtual artistic suicide by leaving Atlantic Records for ABC-Paramount in 1959.

Wow. Maybe the guy was suffering from some form of rock-crit inferiority complex or something, because nothing could be further from the truth. The set contains 106 tracks, laid out over the course of five CDs, and presents a pretty convincing case that Ray’s time with ABC-Paramount Records was one of the strongest and most productive associations of his career.

Almost immediately, Ray recorded (one of) his signature songs with “Georgia On My Mind” at ABC. In fact, “Georgia” reached number one in the U.S. in November of 1960, just a year after he signed with the label. Granted, “Georgia” is far more middle of the road than the rollicking R&B numbers such as “What’d I Say,” or “Mess Around” he laid down at Atlantic. But Ray never abandoned that material either. See “Hit The Road, Jack” (1961) for starters.

There was so much more to what Ray Charles accomplished on ABC though than just the hits (although there were plenty of those). This is where both volumes of his landmark Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music were recorded, for one thing. Maybe more significantly, in that era of massive civil rights unrest, Ray Charles was treated as a major artist by the label. He was one of the first (black or otherwise) musicians to be given artistic control by his record label. Even The Beatles had to fight hard for that right.

Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles is brilliant in its simplicity. It contains every 45 RPM single (both A and B sides) released by the label from 1960 - 1972. What a way to follow a man’s career. Arguments can be made that there were interesting LP-only tracks that are omitted, but who cares? That is not the point of this set. The point is that this collection holds 106 absolutely prime Ray Charles songs, and that is good enough for me.

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Music Review: Keith Jarrett - Rio

Greek philosopher Heraclitus is credited with stating; “The only constant is change,” some 2500 years ago. Although Ancient Greece is a far cry from Allentown, PA - it would seem that pianist Keith Jarrett has lived by Heraclitus’ dictum since he began playing professionally in the mid -sixties. After an acclaimed stint with Miles Davis, Jarrett began recording for the ECM label, and it is there that he has enjoyed his greatest success.

Beginning with the enormously popular The Koln Concert in 1975, Keith Jarrett’s uncanny ability to improvise full solo concerts has been remarkable. There really is nobody else in music working like this. Rio is his latest, a souvenir of the concert he gave in Rio de Janeiro in April 2011.

This two-CD set commemorates the first time Mr. Jarrett had appeared in the region in over two decades. The nature of performing a 100% spontaneously improvised set is so unique that it can never be duplicated. Interestingly enough, where Keith’s hands took him that April day in the wonderful acoustics of Rio’s Theatro Municpal, is to a series of 15 relatively short spaces.

While the times of each track vary, they average around six minutes. This is a far cry from 30-minute plus pieces on Sun Bear and other seventies-era recordings, but in line with something like his relatively recent Paris/London: Testament.

His compositions at the Theatro were nothing if not inclusive. We find Keith Jarrett exploring a wide variety of styles throughout the 15 cuts. These include excursions into what some may consider a more “traditional” jazz sound, as well as forays into other, more personal realms. As a listener, I find it fascinating how Keith can remind me one moment of the intense lyricism of a Bill Evans, then quickly move into a dissonance worthy of Ornette Coleman. And in keeping with his all-inclusive musical approach, Jarrett seems to highlight everything in between, even at the same time.

Rio is like the ultimate soundtrack to what Keith Jarrett was thinking/feeling that April day in Brazil, just a few months ago. It is beautiful, challenging, rewarding, and most of all just a very enjoyable two hours of music to listen to. The fans on hand made their appreciation obvious, and I will too. This is another wonderful document of one of the great musical minds of our era, hard at work.

Absolutely recommended for fans of Keith Jarrett, solo acoustic piano music, or both.

Article first published as Music Review: Keith Jarrett - Rio on Blogcritics.

Music DVD Review: The Definitive Miles Davis at Montreux 1973-1991

Since Miles Davis’ passing in 1991, there have been a great deal of compilations and box sets released. The ultimate CD version has to be Sony’s 71-disc The Complete Columbia Collection. On the DVD front however, there has never been anything quite like the new Definitive Miles Davis At Montreux 1973-1991. This limited edition, ten-DVD collection of performances at the venerated festival is incredible, and an absolute must for every serious Miles fan.

The first disc is from his 1973 appearance, and captures Miles at a very interesting point in his ever-changing musical progression. After defining fusion with Bitches Brew in 1970, and A Tribute To Jack Johnson in 1971, Miles had moved into a very deep rhythmic arena. On The Corner was the title of the album, and was completely misunderstood by just about everyone for years.

One of the tunes that did not make the LP, but was later issued as part of the compilation Big Fun was “Ife.” Davis and his band work out a powerful 27-minute version of the tune here. It is a fascinating performance, full of surprises for everyone - including Miles himself at times. Nearly 90 minutes of interviews with such colleagues as Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock, Charlie Haden, and Stanley Clarke (among others) follow, bringing the DVD up to a good two hours worth of content.

As his fans know, the following years were difficult ones for Miles Davis. He was in a serious accident, and while recuperating from that he went into a heavy period of drug use. It would be 11 years before he returned to the Montreux stage.

On July 8, 1984 Miles played two full sets. A glance at the song list reveals two very similar shows, but with Miles Davis, no two appearances were ever the same. Most of the tracks hail from his recent albums Decoy and Star People. In both the afternoon and evening concerts, “Star People” is an early highlight. Miles also performs the Cyndi Lauper tune “Time After Time,” which would be a key track of the forthcoming You’re Under Arrest LP. His version of the pop song was controversial in some quarters, but such concerns had little affect on Miles. The ballad remained in his set for the rest of his life.

The Montreux Jazz Festival had a standing rule that the same artist would not be booked for consecutive years. This was thrown out the window in the case of Miles Davis. He not only graced the stage on July 14, 1985 - he would again play twice on the same day. He was enjoying a peak period in his resurgence, both live and in the studio. This year also saw the recording of two albums, You’re Under Arrest, and Aura. He and the band burned up the Montreux stage during both concerts that day as well.

The opening medley alone is worth the price of admission: “Theme From Jack Johnson; One Phone Call/ Street Scenes; That’s What Happened.” The group then swings into “Star People,” a version of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” John McLaughlin’s “Pacific Express,” and many others over the course of this over two hour performance. The evening’s set is just as powerful. It would also be the last time Miles played twice on the same day at the festival.

Although they only performed once on July 17, 1986 - the band Miles Davis assembled that year was one of his most memorable. For this show, Miles brought in guitarist Robben Ford, keyboardist George Duke, and alto saxist David Sanborn. The results are a spellbinding two-hour concert.

For the 1988, 1989, and 1990 shows, Miles and his band were as strong as ever. It is clear that the Prince of Darkness had found his muse at Montreux, it is a place that clearly inspires him. All three of these appearances highlight material from his final phase, when he was recording for the Warner Bros. label. His interest in keyboards, and collaborations with Marcus Miller are the driving forces.

What is likely Miles Davis’ single most famous concert was his performance at Montreux on July 8, 1991. This is one of his last shows, as he would pass away a mere three months later. For the only time in his career, Miles looked back - to honor the memory of the late Gil Evans. With Quincy Jones conducting the orchestra, Miles played tunes from the classic Evans-arranged albums Birth of the Cool, Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches of Spain. It was a one of a kind night, and Miles is in amazing form, even in his obviously frail state.

When the 20-CD collection The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux 1973-1991 box was released in 2002, it created quite a stir. The music he made at every festival appearance was superb, and the 1991 Gil Evans tribute was rightly hailed as a one of a kind performance. But to see the Master at work onstage is something else again. And to now have a set containing all ten Montreux concerts is unbelievable.

The Definitive Miles Davis at Montreux 1973-1991
DVD box is a magnificent tribute to the man with the horn, and one that is not likely to be topped anytime soon.

Article first published as Music DVD Review: The Definitive Miles Davis at Montreux 1973-1991 on Blogcritics.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

DVD Review: Brideshead Revisited - 30th Anniversary Edition

It has been thirty years now since Brideshead Revisited originally aired on the British ITV network. The landmark Granada mini-series was big in every sense of the word. The production took a full two years to be realized, and featured an amazing cast, including Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Gielgud, Clair Bloom and Jane Asher, to mention a few. It also launched the career of Jeremy Irons, in his role as Charles Ryder. Brideshead originally aired in 11 parts, and had the country spellbound for the duration of its run. The response was similar when later shown in Canada and the United States. To this day, Brideshead Revisited is considered one of the greatest British series of all time.

The first thing one notices about Brideshead is the pace. This is a big story, told on an even bigger canvas, and nobody is rushing anything. The titular estate, Brideshead is enormous, and absolutely beautiful. Even today, it feels like such a privalige to be able to bask in the sumptuous landscapes and buildings of the property. You truly feel as if you have been transported to a different world.

The series is based on the book by Evelyn Waugh, first published in 1945. The opening scene finds us with Army captain Charles Ryder in 1944, who is establishing a secret Brigade Headquarters at Brideshead. It is a place he had not been to in years, and holds great significance for him. While gazing at the rolling lawns and enormous buildings, Captain Ryder is transported back to 1922, when he first met Sebastian Flyte, whose family owned the home.

Sebastian and Charles became great friends while students at Oxford all those years ago, and the series proceeds from 1922 all the way up to 1944, following their lives and those around them. It is a story of deep love and respect, for Charles became a surrogate brother to Sebastian, and virtual member of the Marchmain family.

Through Charles’ eyes, we see this family of great wealth living the aristocratic life, seemingly without a care in the world for many years. Of course, there are so many deceptions, and disappointments along the way that it takes a seventeen-hour mini-series to do the story justice. An underlying tenet of the book was the Catholicism of the Marchmains, which is shown to be a source of hope, pain, hypocrisy, and finally something in which Charles Ryder is unable to grasp. The simple leap of faith that happens at the end of the patriarch’s life, and an event nobody but his daughter believed would ever happen.

Brideshead Revisited was unlike any previous mini-series or “soap.” In fact, the care and expense that went into each episode is so deep, that they come across as individual films rather than chapters of a TV series. Although the subject matter is quite different, what it reminds me of in many ways is a show that came along 20 years later, The Sopranos. The quality really is that high.

Having never read Waugh’s Brideshead, I can only say that I was spellbound by the adaptation. Quite frankly, I did not realize that anyone was working this hard, and this well in British television 30 years ago. Brideshead really and truly is a magnificent accomplishment.

Included in this Acorn Media 30th Anniversary package of Brideshead Revisited are a wealth of extras, including a wonderful 2006 documentary on the making of the series, titled Revisiting Brideshead. There are also commentaries, photo galleries, and a viewer’s guide.

In the end, Brideshead Revisited won a total of 17 international awards, including an Emmy for Sir Laurence Olivier. It has also been voted the tenth greatest British program of all time. Frankly, it is about the best one I have ever seen. Do yourself a favor and take the journey to Brideshead, it is a world unlike any other, and a deeply satisfying series.

Article first published as DVD Review: Brideshead Revisited - 30th Anniversary Edition on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Bachman-Turner Overdrive - Not Fragile (24K+ Gold CD Edition)

This may be my ultimate “guilty pleasure” album. Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s Not Fragile was one of the first LPs I ever saved up my allowance to buy, down at the old Pay ‘N Save drugstore. It was a tough choice between this and Road Food by The Guess Who. “Clap For The Wolfman” rocked, but it was no “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet.”

At the time, I had no idea that Randy Bachman used to be in The Guess Who; I just liked BTO better. Looking back however, it is a little strange. Reportedly, Bachman left TGW because of his Mormonism - evidently they partied too much. Yet Not Fragile was one of the hardest rock albums of 1974. And you know what? It still sounds great.

With the replacement of Tim Bachman by Blair Thornton on second lead guitar, the five-piece completely gelled. Both Randy Bachman and Fred Turner wrote some of their finest material for this album, which went all the way to number one. Thornton proved his songwriting mettle right off as well, with “Free Wheelin.” It was the instrumental B-side to “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet,” and is credited with giving the single a second life. The song had fallen to number 34 after hitting number one, then rose to number eight when disc jockeys began playing the flipside. On the album, “Free Wheelin” is listed as “Dedicated to Duane.”

In another bit of BTO trivia, I gotta say I love the origins of the title. Not Fragile is a blunt, blue-collar response to prog, as in being “Not” Fragile by Yes. The crate of gearshifts on the cover makes it pretty clear that these guys are no panty-waist art rockers anyway, and BTO fans call themselves “Gearheads” to this day.

With cuts like the title track, “Roll On Down The Highway,” and “Blue Moanin,” Not Fragile was Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s finest moment. To put it into context, I would compare it to Def Leppard’s Pyromania, which came out in 1983. Both were state of the art hard rock, perfect for radio and one of the few that both men and women agreed on without hesitation. Listening to the album today, it sounds effortlessly clean all the way through. Yet that was an illusion. BTO had a couple more hits later on, but they would never repeat the success of this one.

I think I need to take back that “guilty pleasure” distinction. There is no guilt in digging Not Fragile; it’s a classic. To that end, it is the latest 24K + Gold Edition CD from the Audio Fidelity label. In this process, the top layer of the CD is made out of real gold, rather than the standard and often imperfect aluminum. The end result is a remarkably clean and “warm” sounding disc, with the original analog depth intact.

I find it to be a delicious irony that a record which probably sold more on 8-Track tape than any other has been given this audiophile treatment. But Not Fragile is certainly as deserving of the approach as any other, for it was one of the best albums of that era. Now if we can just get those folks at Audio Fidelity to work on Road Food, we’ll really have 1974 covered.

Article first published as Music Review: Bachman-Turner Overdrive - Not Fragile (24K+ Gold CD Edition) on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Stefano Battaglia Trio - The River of Anyder

The Anyder River is the largest river in Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, and provides pure water for the island’s inhabitants. It also provides an evocative title for Italian pianist Stefano Battaglia’s latest collection of music, as the compositions themselves have a purity all their own. As Battaglia states, “I set myself the task of writing songs and dances uninfluenced by the sophistication of contemporary musical languages, striving to shape pieces that might have been played on archaic instruments a thousand years ago. I think of it as a kind of music before the idioms.”

Along with Salvatore Majore (double-bass) and Roberto Dani (drums), Battaglia has indeed reached into a mythical past for the ten compositions that make up The River of Anyder. There is a timelessness to a piece such as “Arayat Dance” that is undeniable. In the opening segment, Majore’s bass is played to sound as exotic as a sitar, while Battaglia and Dani hang back. Later Stefano’s piano comes in to take full command of the song, with Roberto’s crashing cymbals in seeming full acquiescence.

The titles come from mythical places such as Tolkien’s Minas Tirith, Sir Francis Drake’s Bensalem, and legendary lands such as Ararat. Each piece evokes a particular sound, very different from the other. Battaglia seems to have a wealth of textures at his disposal, which serves him well. There are far too many musicians who have only one way of playing. This is not to condemn anyone’s “signature” style; it is just to say that on The River of Anyder, Battaglia manages to continuously find different inspirations which render the various titles a special significance. The names serve a deeper purpose than as simply randomly chosen imagery.

The prevailing mode of the River of Anyder is that of a jazz trio, although that is a very trite description. Like most of what ECM releases, there is so much more going on in the music than these simple descriptive terms are ever able to convey. The River of Anyder is as much a spiritual journey as it is a CD of great music. Battaglia underscores this in the included booklet by presenting excerpts from such beautiful minds as Rumi, Rimbaud, Hildegard con Bingen and the Black Elk of the Oglala Sioux. We are offered an eclectic mix of philosophy and literature, which perfectly mirrors the blend of musical styles that fill the record.

On a quiet autumn day like today, there is a magic to this music, and to the words that accompany it as well. If the River of Anyder provided pure water for the Utopians, Battaglia’s River of Anyder provides a purity of sound for the rest of us.

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Music Review: The Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble - Music of Georges I. Gurdjieff

George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (1866-1949) was born in Armenia, and set out to explore the mystery of human existence at a young age. His search took him from Armenia, to the Middle East, Central Asia, India, and North Africa. The folk music, sacreds, rituals, and dance he absorbed on these travels would come to serve him well. Settling down in the 1920s, Gurdjieff dictated some 300 melodies to his pupil Thomas de Hartmann.

Gurdjieff’s most prolific writing period coincided during the biggest upheavals of modern times, World Wars I and II. Drawing from a variety of world religions, his constant quest was to find a way for man to coexist in a peaceful manner. But maybe all of his writings were for naught, because what he achieved musically seemed to render this goal plausible by itself.

Nowhere can this be better heard than on The Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble’s Music of Georges I. Gurdjieff. The thirteen-piece ensemble is led by director Levon Eskenian, and play a wide variety of non-traditional instruments. Although Gurdjieff’s music has been recorded by various artists over the years, including Keith Jarrett’s Sacred Hymns in 1980, most have been piano recitations.

The Music Of Georges I. Gurdjieff is much more “authentic” sounding with the use of such traditional instruments as the duduk, blul, oud canon, kamancha and others. All 17 tracks on this album are relatively short, and work in a variety of capacities. For one, there is just the pure enjoyment of hearing many of these ancient, soothing hymns, chants, and songs played as they were meant to be played. There is a “world music” element to this, but not in the pretentious manner that term often connotes. Rather, the pieces are heard in a much more organic way. You see, when Gurdjieff was traveling, he was memorizing these tunes, then having them transcribed later. So none of these ever feel like field recordings.

The second manner in which this Music can be heard is as a wonderful accompaniment to the writings of Gurdjieff. While he loved music and travel, the true quest for him was a spiritual one. It seems his hope was to find either the “one true answer” or construct it out of the various religions he studied.

In any case, he music he returned with, and has been recorded by the Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble is fascinating, and a great introduction to one of the true Renaissance men of the early twentieth century.

Article first published as Music Review: The Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble - Music of Georges I. Gurdjieff on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Chick Corea / Stefano Bollani - Orvieto

Chick Corea has long been a master of improvisation. Whether in a solo or group context, his abilities to create magic out of thin air have never failed to impress. He also pioneered the relatively recent development of two-piano improvisation, by working with players such as Herbie Hancock, Friedrich Gulda, Nicolas Economou, and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. For his first ECM recording in 27 years, Corea was teamed with Stefano Bollani for an advanced class in two-piano improvisation.

The two have been playing together since 2009, mostly at Italian jazz festivals. The performances captured on Orvieto are from the Umbria Jazz Winter Festival, where the duo played several nights of concerts. The musical program they have chosen reflects their eclectic roots. Between such Corea/Bollani originals as the opening “Orvieto Impression No. 1” and closing “Blues In F,” the pair cover a great deal of stylistic ground.

The first of these is the bossa nova king Antonio Carlos Jobim, and his “Retrato Em Branco E Preto.” Corea and Bollani’s fingers seem to dance around each other in the first few bars of the tune, then settle in for a riveting display of the melody, all the while never losing sight of what the other is doing. The near-telepathic interplay between the two is fully on display here. As Bollani has stated, “It is as if one mind were controlling four hands.”

An early highlight comes when the two tackle Fats Waller’s classic “Jitterbug Waltz.” The tune has always been a great piano showcase, and in this environment, both Corea and Bollani give it their all. Another universally acclaimed jazz legend is Miles Davis, and he is honored here with a rendition of “Nardis.”

Both Chick Corea and Stefano Bollani seem to have been looking toward South America a bit this night. They include a second Antonio Carlos Jobim track here, “Este Seu Olhar,” as well as a Corea original, “Armando’s Rhumba.”

With their concluding “Blues In F,” the two finish as they began, with some wonderfully inventive improvisation. Their styles run the artistic gamut and are on display not only on this final piece, but throughout the 75-minute concert. Chick Corea and Stefano Bollani are both outstanding improvisers, and the proof of it is right here on Orvieto. Here’s hoping they get out of Italy for a bit, and bring some of this magic to a US tour soon.

Article first published as Music Review: Chick Corea / Stefano Bollani - Orvieto on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Ricardo Villalobos & Max Loderbauer - Re: ECM

There have been plenty of unusual releases this year, but so far nothing has surprised me as much as Re: ECM. Berlin-based Djs Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer have reimagined 17 tracks from the acclaimed label, to create a truly unique set. They use the term “sound-structures” rather than “remixes” to describe their work, but the terminology is academic. What the duo have achieved with these jazz and new music compositions is to cast them in a whole new light. The results are a striking blend of tape loops, minimal beats, instrument sounds, and silence.

“Immersing oneself in the productions of ECM, one learns a lot about the optimum sound experience. We too have the paramount rule of making no compromises where sound is concerned.” say Villalobos and Loderbauer.

Of the seventeen tracks contained on Re: ECM, I certainly do not hear any compromises. What the mixmasters have fashioned here could never be mistaken for dance music, but Re: ECM is quite possible the ultimate chill-out record.

This is by no means the first ECM album to utilize electronically manipulated sounds to achieve a goal. Nils-Petter Molvaer’s remixed Khmer from 2007 comes immediately to mind. There are are also catalog releases by the Music Improvisation Company and Karlheinz Stockhausen to be considered. But Re: ECM is the first to take a various artists approach, and to allow outside Djs to do as they please with the original takes.

The duo were careful in their choices. “We chose specific ECM productions that offered parts where instruments, voices/choirs, and atmospheres were self-sufficient and isolated in the room,” they say. The use of ECM as source material could not have been more logical then, seeing as how one of producer Manfred Eicher’s stated goals with each recording is to fully utilize the dynamics of sound and silence in the studio.

To this end, Re: ECM becomes far more than just an assemblage of doctored tracks, but rather a journey unto itself. Whether initially planned this way, or the result of happy coincidence, the two-disc set has a definite structure about it.

The minimalistic approach of the first track, “Reblop” (Christian Wallumrod) sets the stage nicely. This begins with an interesting piano loop, morphing into a great, stand-alone piece by the end. This introduction to the record works perfectly as it shows what Villalobos and Loderbauer are working towards, without being so radical as to completely derail the project.

From there we venture into ambient territory for a time, and are slowly introduced to some minimal beats. These are used as tastefully and discreetly as any other element, and add a great deal to pieces such as “Rensenada,” (Bennie Maupin), and “Reblazhenstva,” (Alexander Knaifel). As the set continues, things become a bit darker. The ever-present ambient tone takes on a more sinister character during “Retikhiy,” (Alexander Knaifel), and “Rekondakiom,” (Arvo Part).

The works of composers Christian Wallumrod and Alexander Knaifel seem particularly suited to the method of Villalobos and Loderbauer, as they utilize five and four songs from each respectively. Placing the two composers back to back to conclude the set seems to wind things up in a suitably perverse fashion. Knaifel’s “Resole” has a soothing, almost transcendent tone which eases ones mind in a satisfying way. The duo clearly did not wish for the experience to end on such a note however, as their treatments of Wallumrod’s “Redetach” display. My nickname for this one is “ECM Nervosa.”

Re: ECM is another unexpected release from the people at this endlessly intriguing label. It is definitely one worth checking into for fans of ambient music, chill-out, and most especially of the label itself.

Article first published as Music Review: Ricardo Villalobos & Max Loderbauer - Re: ECM on Blogcritics.

DVD Review: Sounds And Silence: Travels With Manfred Eicher

The ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music) record label is now in its 42nd
year, and remains as mysterious and uncompromising as ever. This is primarily due to the fact that ECM is a nearly total reflection of founder Manfred Eicher. In fact, there has never been a label that has enjoyed such long-term success, while retaining an owner's hands-on approach as ECM.

In an attempt to understand this enigmatic music figure, filmmakers Peter Guyer and Norbert Wiedmer followed Eicher across Europe, and to South America, capturing him working with a number of artists. Their film Sounds And Silence: Travels With Manfred Eicher is a fascinating glimpse of life behind the curtain.

The movie begins with rehearsals in the medieval St. Nicholas church of Tallin, where Arvo Part and Manfred are working to achieve the optimum sound for an upcoming performance. Their association dates back to 1984, when ECM’s New Music series was launched with Part’s Tabula Rasa.

From Estonia, we follow Manfred to rehearsals in Athens, then to The Prince Regent’s Theatre in Munich, and then to the Serassi Cinema Theatre in the Italian town of Bergamo. Mr. Eicher then boards a plane to Argentina, where we are introduced to a very different world. In all of these encounters, Manfred Eicher is seen studying, listening, and offering quiet suggestions as to how the sound may be perfected. At times, this may be through the use of silence even, which is where the film gets its title.

In the midst of these travels, Manfred also ventures home to Munich and the headquarters of ECM. The austere offices are striking for their sterility. For a company that specializes in music as passionate as that of ECM, it is a bit of a shock. The building seems better suited to a meeting of the Politburo than to a creative endeavor. It seems to be an integral part of the ECM enigma however, appearances aside.

Among the many artists Manfred works with over the course of this 87-minute documentary are Marilyn Mazur, Jan Garbarek, Dino Saluzzi and Anja Lechner. Each of these musicians have very unique sounds, yet as Greek composer Eleni Karaindrou notes, “Wherever Manfred works, he is one hundred percent involved. That is the nature of his passion. He devotes himself to the moment and is entirely committed to the artist he is recording.”

The recent DVD release of the film includes some bonus materials. These feature a video (of sorts) for Manu Katche’s “Playground,” and the original theatrical trailer.

For those who have followed this remarkable label, and have been as curious as I have about the man behind it all, Sounds And Silence is indispensable.

Article first published as DVD Review: Sounds And Silence: Travels With Manfred Eicher on Blogcritics.

Peter Koppes: Australia’s Cinematic Master Of The Guitar

Peter Koppes is a founding member of one of Australia’s finest rock bands, The Church. Over the course of their 31 year career, the group has experienced their fair share of ups and downs. One thing that has never wavered however, is their dedication to the music. To this end, in addition to his work with the band, Koppes has recorded two EPs and five albums of solo material, and is presently hard at work on his sixth.

The recent two-disc Misty Heights & Cloudy Myths collects 33 tracks of Koppes' solo work, and serves as a handy introduction to some of his best material. The music is of a much more personal nature than his collaborative efforts with The Church. One thing that is immediately noticeable is the incredible variety of atmospheres and textures that inform these songs.

What I found striking was just how suitable so many of his recordings seem to be for use in television and film. When asked about this this, Koppes says, “my publishers have always asked me to send my instrumentals in to be presented that way, which is something I am finally beginning to do.”

His instrumentals would definitely do the trick. Take “Grasshrooms” for instance. Described as “a testament of the ingredients alluded to by the title, especially the crossing over chromatic movement in the middle section,” it is fairly trippy, but not in an off-putting way. Koppes' pop sensibilities are far too deeply ingrained for anything like that to ever happen.

More to the point would be the cinematic quality of songs such as “Caravan” and “Arabia” off the Water Rites album. The time he spent in Morocco in 1978 apparently had a lasting effect on him. Both of these tracks exude a haunting whiff of Middle Eastern intrigue. In fact, nearly everything on Water Rites has a larger than life element that practically cries out to be paired with celluloid.

What he seems most excited about today is a new guitar device he has been using, which apparently is very similar to the one Neil Young employs on his latest album Le Noise. “It is a special harmonizing effect that produces something of an orchestral sound,” says Koppes. “I am using it in a very folk-music direction, and adding this modern guitar/orchestra sound to it. It sounds something like a Mellotron, in fact.”

Koppes’ devotion to music has been a nearly life-long pursuit. In addition to guitar, he plays bass, drums, piano, mandolin, and is now learning bass recorder. He is also teaching music on a one-on-one basis, which seems to give him a great deal of joy. “It is one of the most beautiful things I have done,” he says, “teaching music to children.”

Even with The Church off the road for the moment, he is still gigging. His most recent “show” was as his kindergarten-aged son’s school, where he performed Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ’N Roll” for a rapt audience of youngsters.

This is not to imply that he has lost his interest in more adult oriented music. He plays drums for Psychedelia, a side band. They stick to small gigs in and around his hometown in Australia, playing a mix of classic psyschedelic music such as the legendary phased-out “The Real Thing” by Russell Morris, a huge Aussie hit in 1969.

It was songs like those that prompted Peter and Steve Kilbey to form their first band in 1974. They called themselves Precious Little, and were something of a glam-rock affair. But psychedelic music was never far away from Koppes’ mind, as evidenced by his continuing development of a guitar sound that added much more to the music than simply notes and chords.

I have been a fan of Koppes’ since first hearing “The Unguarded Moment” on the local college radio station way back in 1982. His playing is incredibly expressive, and is an essential component of their sound. While The Church are anything but a “formula” band, their music is by definition collaborative. This is one of the reasons why many of us are such fans of his solo material; it allows him complete freedom to indulge a virtually unlimited sonic palette.

Maybe Hollywood will one day take notice of this. Based on his huge body of work over the past 31 years, I think Koppes could have an extraordinary second career making music for television or film. For now though, we have Misty Heights & Cloudy Memories. It is a fantastic glimpse into the musical soul of one of Australia’s finest musicians. And its remarkable Technicolor qualities are designed to take you just about anywhere you wish to go.

Whether Koppes is eventually accepted by the Hollywood film community or not, he is living well on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. Between kindergarten gigs, small shows with Psychedelia, and teaching guitar to young students, he appears a happy man. Of course if all else fails, he can always go back to The Church, who are second only to AC/DC as musical ambassadors from the land down under.

Article first published as Peter Koppes: Australia’s Cinematic Master Of The Guitar on Blogcritics.