Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Music Review: If By Yes - Salt On Sea Glass

If By Yes is the unlikely name of four mixed race alternative rockers who have pooled their efforts for an exceptional debut, Salt On Sea Glass, to be released on Sean Lennon‘s Chimera Records label. Vocalist Petra Haden and keyboardist Yuka Honda first crossed paths as members of That Dog and Cibo Matto, respectively. Lennon (as you may know) was also in Cibo Matto. The remaining two members of If By Yes are Yuko Araki (drums), and Hirakata “Shimmy” Shimizu (guitar), whose other band is Cornelius, which (as they say) is big in Japan.

The hip credentials are certainly in place, and if there is any doubt, the ultimate arbiter of all things cool, David Byrne, is present as well. Byrne joins in on “Eliza,” just one of 11 extremely cool pop dreams collected on Salt On Sea Glass.

The unlikely effervescent tone of the record is established right off with opening track “You Feel Right.” The early '80s organ sounds of Yuka Honda perfectly accent this breathy evocation of a long gone pop sound. I am thinking of a particular favorite forgotten one-hit wonder group from 1982 who called themselves Eye To Eye.

Byrne’s appearance on “Eliza” is scaled back nicely. Rather than loudly announcing his presence and dominating the tune, he sings a strong backup vocal, which allows the others to shine brightly. The saxophone that closes the tune out is a sweet touch.

The incredibly polished MOR of Sade or Hooverphonic is the starting place for “Imagino,” but the jazzy sax takes it in another direction as well. “Still Breathing” is a true highlight of this wonderfully low-key disc. Petra Haden’s vocals soar during the chorus, while the rest of the band feels more freely to indulge their avant-garde sides in accompaniment. The kaleidoscope of sounds mix with an almost Zen-like bass to propel this song forward into an unforgettable state of awareness.

“Out Of View” continues this indescribable blend of dream as viable reality, with musical beauty existing side by side with disconcerting imagery and effects. Haden’s vocals are exactly right for the tune, and lovely as ever.

The various motivations of If By Yes come together in a remarkable fashion during the closing “Adrift.” With all of the overtones of an epic, the song opens very quietly, and slowly builds momentum towards the inevitable big bang. The music then evolves into some wildly experimental sounds recalling at times some of Yoko Ono’s work. The latter half of the piece resolves itself with a delicate four-note melody which again gives way again. This time it sounds as If By Yes have been momentarily hijacked by King Crimson. This leads to the fiery guitar solo—Robert Fripp eat your heart out—which closes Salt On Sea Glass.

If By Yes’ blend of sleek pop with muted obscurantism is a sweet and sour pop delight, wrapped in a very shiny package. Devour at will, but be aware that they are highly addictive.

Article first published as Music Review: If By Yes - Salt On Sea Glass on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Bambi Kino - Bambi Kino

Bambi Kino are something of an alt-rock supergroup. The four-piece features Ira Elliot (drums) from Nada Surf, Eric Paparazzi (bass) of Cat Power, Mark Rozzo (guitar and vocals) from Maplewood, and the guitar of Doug Gillard of the mighty Guided By Voices. Their unusual nom de’ plum is in honor of the very first lodgings of The Beatles in Hamburg back in 1960.

Bambi Kino is devoted to The Beatles in Hamburg, Germany 1960 - specifically their very first gigs at the Indra Club. Yes, even before the legendary Star Club appearances, The Beatles played the Indra. Amazingly, the Indra is still around, 50 years later. Our aging hipsters in Bambi Kino came up with the brilliant idea to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ German debut with a four-day residency at the Indra, playing the same sets The Beatles played way back then.

What emerges on the 12 performances collected on Bambi Kino is a profound understanding of the music. The arrangements are immaculate recreations of the sound of the (very) early Beatles. The modest bass and drums of Paul and Pete Best are perfectly matched with John’s straight up rhythm guitar, while George always picked appropriate lead guitar lines.

Listening to Bambi Kino is almost ghostly. It is not as if Mark Rozzo sounds like McCartney or Lennon at all, but the way these songs are played, plus the stellar harmonies, make for a distinct evocation of the era. You can close your eyes (pardon the steal) and imagine yourself in a bar 50 years ago, catching a set by a better than average English combo. No thoughts of the past, and certainly no inkling of the worldwide impact these lads would have over the next decade, just a good time tonight. It goes without saying that The Beatles held an incredible concentration of talent, but Hamburg was their trial by fire - they literally sang for their supper.

I have to trust Bami Kino’s word for it that these were the actual songs The Beatles sang each night, ‘cuz I wasn’t even born yet. There probably exists a setlist on the Internet among the one million and counting Beatles site out there.

But in truth, kicking off with the great Lieber/Stoller tune “Some Other Guy” makes the point irrelevant. You know this is not The Beatles, but the heart and soul is there, and that is what matters.

Right after the rockabilly stomp of “Some Other Guy” comes the outlandish showbiz ballad “Besame Mucho,” insisted on by (from all accounts) Sir Paul. It sounds as wonderfully out of place here as it undoubtedly did back in the day.

Bambi Kino probably relished the idea of putting out a “warts and all” set, but they quickly recover, as I am certain The Beatles themselves did. No more sticky-sweet covers, thank you very much - just good old four-on-the-floor rock. Johnny Kid And The Pirates wrote one super-sized Nugget with “Shakin’ All Over” and Bambi Kino’s version of The Beatles’ version is one mighty fine highlight of this set. “Ramrod” follows, and keeps the energy up in an excellent way.

The dangerous genius of Phil Spector is given tribute with “To Know Her Is To Love Her,” and you know Paul was the crooner here. Finally we come to “Clarabella,” and this shot of R&B is pure John. The song rocks, and the harmonica just brings the house down.

At least, that is what one senses. If there is one flaw in Bambi Kino, it is the fact that the tunes come from the soundboard - and we lose the “live” ambience. I mean, that was the whole point to me - to reproduce those halcyon days. People whooping and hollering in the middle of your set adds immeasurably to the overall feel. But maybe that is just nitpicking. Bambi Kino do a marvelous job of getting The Beatles circa-1960 sound down.

Not only is this a great tribute to the band, but it is actually just a straight-up great rock and roll record. Bambi Kino are one hell of a lot of fun on any level, and definitely worth looking into.

Article first published as Music Review: Bambi Kino - Bambi Kino on Blogcritics

Book Review: Led Zeppelin: Easy Guitar Anthology by Alfred Publishing Staff

The Led Zeppelin: Easy Guitar Anthology from the Alfred Music Publishing Company is just about the perfect gift for the budding guitar player/ Led Zeppelin fan in your life. The Anthology contains words and music to 20 classic Zep tunes. Better than that however is the fact that besides being given in the traditional form, the songs are also broken down into the easily read diagrams called tablatures.

Standard sheet music consists of the notes of a song represented on the score - which one needs to know how to read for it to make any sense. The upside to this is that no matter what instrument you are playing - be it guitar, piano, sax, etc., the sheet music applies. All the player needs to do is transpose the notes to their particular instrument.

Guitar tablature features the notes written out in relation to their exact placement on the string and fret of the guitar. Rather than the five lines on a standard bar of music, with tablature we have six lines - one for each string. Tab also gives the chords that one is playing, which makes it even more convenient to pick the individual notes from. All the player has to do is memorize the positions, and get the rhythm down, and suddenly they are Jimmy Page.

For example, the famous opening strains of “Stairway To Heaven” are plucked to the A minor chord. This is established by placing the index finger over the first three strings on the fifth fret, and the ring finger on the fourth string, seventh fret. Once in position, the Tab diagram tells us to pluck strings four, three, two, and one in order, then switch to an E+/G# chord and continue in this fashion.

It actually sounds much more complicated than it is. When you are holding a guitar and being shown exactly where the notes are, it makes perfect sense. In fact, it is quite empowering to the new guitar player (especially) to be able to work out a classic Zeppelin melody in this way. People have varying success learning to play guitar - but nobody ever said it is a particularly easy instrument to learn. Being able to play something recognizable is a bit of a treat, and should translate into a desire for further study for anyone serious about learning to play.

With a group like Led Zeppelin, picking just 20 songs to reproduce in this format is hard. I think the people at Alfred chose well, although every Zep fan is going to have their favorites which did not make the cut. Besides “Stairway,” some of the others featured include, “ Whole Lotta Love,” “Kashmir,” “Immigrant Song,” “Black Dog,” and “Rock And Roll.” Total classics to be sure.

The final page has a “Guitar Tab Glossary,” which completely explains how to read tablature with examples that make perfect sense. Besides the notations of which strings at which frets to play, there are also descriptions of how and in what manner to bend notes, to articulate notes, to use harmonics, and at what rhythms one is to play.

In short, Led Zeppelin: Easy Guitar Anthology contains everything you need to know to play those great songs. Now get your Jr. Robert Plant, John Bonham, and John Paul Jones guys together — and get with it. The age-old siren song of the garage is calling, and this Anthology holds the magic key.

Article first published as Book Review: Led Zeppelin: Easy Guitar Anthology by Alfred Publishing Staff on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Thelonious Monk - Monk's Music

Even though Thelonious Monk had been recording for over a decade already, 1957 was the year he was finally accepted by the mainstream jazz audience. Peers, hipsters, and writers “in the know” had been into Monk from the beginning. But the pianist’s dissonant, sometimes broken rhythms had been a tough sell to the general public. Monk’s Music changed all of that for good.

There were a myriad of reasons the album broke through. For one, Monk assembled an awesome array of talent for the sessions. His septet included John Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins (tenor saxophones), Gigi Gryce (alto saxophone), Wilbur Ware (bass), Ray Copeland (trumpet), and Art Blakey (drums). There was also the fact that majority of the tracks were practically a greatest hits collection of Monk’s compositions. Finally, producer Orrin Keepnews allowed take after take of each tune to be recorded, to insure the greatest possible results. In that era, when jazz albums were routinely recorded in a single afternoon session, this was unheard of.

Monk’s Music announces that it will be a departure from the standard fare with the opening track, “Abide With Me.” This is a 19th century hymn and features the four horns exclusively. It is a statement from Thelonious that this album is his vision, and his alone. Like it or not, this is Monk’s Music.

“Well, You Needn’t” follows, and is as powerful a track as any the jazz world had heard. The song was originally recorded by Monk for the Blue Note label in 1947, but it sounded nothing like this. John Coltrane steps up first with one of the most blistering solos he recorded yet, and is followed in turn by each member of the band. Blakey is especially notable, not only for how hard he anchors the tune, but for his inspired solo.

After such a furious onslaught, Monk reaches back to a ballad he composed as a teen for girlfriend Ruby Richardson, titled “Ruby, My Dear.” The great Coleman Hawkins digs deep with his rich playing, to evoke those passionate emotions only young love can evoke.

“Off Minor” is an example of how dedicated Keepnews was in regards to getting the perfect take. The recording that made the cut on the original LP is the group’s sixth version. As one of the CD bonus selections, the septet’s fourth attempt is included. They both sound great to me, although Coltrane and Gryce are noticeably absent.

The mighty “Epistrophy” was co-written by Monk and legendary bop drummer Kenny Clarke in 1941. Coltrane and Copeland burn the chrome off their horns with the solos they take upfront. Later, the rhythm section of Ware and Blakey vamp along in a most agreeable way—until Hawkins takes it home with his powerhouse blowing.

The original LP ended with “Crepuscle With Nellie,” which is practically a solo ballad by Monk. The title is actually French for “Twilight With Nellie,” Nellie being Thelonious’ wife. Again, multiple takes were recorded—number six was used for the album. Versions four and five have been edited together to provide the second of the three bonus tracks and offers some interesting points of comparison.

The third extra is a lengthy jam titled “Blues For Tomorrow.” At one point during the sessions, Monk bailed out, leaving the band in the studio with tape running. Gigi Gryce introduced a blues arrangement he had been working on, and the pros went to work. What emerged was a hot blues improv, minus Thelonious Monk. The song eventually appeared as the title track to a Riverside Records compilation later that year.

Without question, Thelonious Monk made some of the most influential, and greatest recordings of the golden age of jazz. Monk’s Music was his first unqualified masterpiece and is recommended unequivocally

Article first published as Music Review: Thelonious Monk - Monk's Music on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Kaleidoscope - Kaleidoscope

All hail the mighty Farfisa! Kaleidoscope’s one and only album Kaleidoscope (1967) has been fully restored, with three bonus tracks added. It is deservedly legendary, and until now - impossibly rare. The five-piece band recorded the tracks in the Dominican Republic, and the record was issued by a tiny Mexican label called Orfeon. Only 200 copies were pressed, which for the past 41 years have constituted the sole legitimate release of the LP.

Opening track “Hang Out,” is a garage-rock classic. Substitute guitar for lead organ and you have the very essence of punk. These guys know how to rock, and top off the tune with what sounds like an atomic-bomb blast. “P.S. Come Back” is next, and is sheer attitude. I always loved the way Frank Zappa parodied the song “Hey Joe” as “Flower Punk” on We’re Only In It For The Money. I may be wrong, but it sounds as if the precursor to “Hey Joe” was this little gem.

One wonders if Jimmy Page ever got one of those original 200 copies. The eight-minute “Once Upon A Time There Was A World” sounds much more like the blueprint for Led Zeppelin than any of those late-period Yardbirds albums do. Likewise with Iggy Pop, in fact more so in the Ig’s case - his vocals sound exactly like those on the disc. Beyond that, if you substitute guitars for the Farfisa, you have a punk rock manifesto.

The Kaleidoscope album has been bootlegged many times over the years, but the reissue label Shadoks did right by the band. Amazingly, they were able to track down all of the original members, plus the album cover artist - to get proper permission, and the true story of this wild set. There are two bonus studio tracks appended, plus a raunchy live version (from 1969) of Donovan‘s “Season Of The Witch.”

If you thought Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets collection was something special, wait until you hear Kaleidoscope. This is absolutely mind-blowing psychedelia - that sounds as great today as it did back in 1967. It is an album that lives up to and beyond its reputation. A true classic.

Article first published as Music Review: Kaleidoscope - Kaleidoscope on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Phil Manzanera - Diamond Head

Although it took the music world a little while to catch up with what Roxy Music were up to back in the early seventies, by the time of Stranded (1973) they were acknowledged as true rock innovators. Of course any band that spawned both Bryan Ferry, and Brian Eno would be recognized at some point. Strangely enough, it took the departure of Eno before the public really woke up to the beautifully subversive music of Roxy. Sadly, one of the prime architects of their sound - guitarist Phil Manzanera was never really given his due at the time.

It is a shame, because along with other guitar-players extraordinaire of the era, such as Bill Nelson (Be Bop Deluxe) and Mick Ronson (David Bowie), Manzanera defined the British sound that has come to be known as glam. Manzanera’s peers certainly understood however. His debut solo album Diamond Head (1976) is a star-studded event that sounds very much like the great lost Roxy album of the time.

While Ferry and Company were on hiatus, preparing for a North American tour, Manzanera invited some friends to join him in the studio to work on Diamond Head. Vocalists included Brian Eno, John Wetton, and Robert Wyatt. Additional musicians included fellow Roxy-ites Eddie Jobson, Andy Mackay and Paul Thompson, plus Iain MacDonald, Dave Jarrett, Bill MacCormack, and many others.

Diamond Head opens up on a surprising note with Soft Machine founder Robert Wyatt singing (in Spanish) “Frontrera” (which he co-wrote with Manzanera and Bill MacCormick). There is a familiarity to the tune, primarily through Phil’s instantly recognizable guitar solo, as well as a bit of a foreign feel. A very nice way for the artist to carve his own space from the outset.

The title track is the first of five instrumental tracks on the album, and it sheds a lot of light on the project. Manzanera is a brilliant guitar player, but in the context of Roxy - that fact was too easily overlooked. Rather than showing off, Manzanera plays the same clean, economical leads he is so well-versed in. The main difference is in this context we do not have the distractions of Ferry’s all too often affected voice to contend with.

There is also a track included from Phil’s earlier group Quiet Sun, which was recorded around the same time. “East Of Echo” is an instrumental - and very “All The Young Dudes,” in the beginning, until the band stretches out into some Pink Floyd-ish experimentalism.

The final track is a CD bonus - another instrumental credited to Manzanera alone. “Carhumba” reaches out in a number of directions. You hear many of the stylistic influences that have touched the artist over the years, a bit of surf/spy, some Caribbean sounds, definite Spanish overtones, even some classic Nugget’s-style psyche/garage rock.

It is no surprise at all that the cognoscenti of the time embraced Diamond Head upon release. It holds up beautifully 36 years later as a matter of fact. For Roxy fans who were never quite satisfied with the direction Bryan Ferry took the band later, or who occasionally got lost in Eno’s experimentations, Diamond Head is something of a missing link.

If (like myself) you find yourself thoroughly enchanted by Manzanera’s solo work, you may want to look into his two-CD, single-DVD collection titled The Music: 1972 - 2008. This moderately priced set is a fantastic overview of the man’s career. To recycle an overused phrase: Phil Manzanera is a guitar player’s guitar player. Without a doubt he is one of the most underrated musicians of the modern rock era. I recommend anything by him without reservation.

Article first published as Music Review: Phil Manzanera - Diamond Head on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Various Artists - Disney Jazz Volume One: Everybody Wants To Be A Cat

The relationship between the Disney film studios and that of the music world has been a long and rewarding one. Walt Disney himself was a big jazz buff, which may be one of the reasons jazz-bos have been interpreting Disney songs for decades now. Some of the more notable names are Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane.

Walt Disney Records have just launched a new imprint, Disney Pearl, to focus exclusively on this type of material. Their initial foray, titled Disney Jazz Volume 1: Everybody Wants To Be A Cat, is a fine start. This thirteen-song collection features brand new recordings of Disney classics, from a stellar contingent of contemporary jazz players.

The disc kicks off in fine style with the great Ray Hargrove’s solid bop take on the title track. From there we drift into a dreamy cocktail lounge with a breathless vocal rendition of “Chim Chim Cher-ee” from Mary Poppins (1964). In his later years, John Coltrane laid down his version of this cut, and it was a free-flowing powerhouse. Here, Esperanza Spalding brings it back home in a marvelous way.

Next up is the seemingly indestructible Dave Brubeck. Back in 1957 Brubeck cut a full album of Disney songs titled Dave Digs Disney. He obviously still feels the same way, as is shown with his lovely “Someday My Prince Will Come.” Incidentally, Miles Davis also recorded “Someday My Prince Will Come” for his album of the same name in 1961. Brubeck returns with his Trio plus vocalist Roberta Gambarini a short time later as well, for an enchanting version of “Alice In Wonderland.”

Another unusual highlight finds the great saxist Joshua Redman inhabiting Randy Neman’s classic “You’ve Got A Friend In Me” from Toy Story (1995). “The Bare Necessities” has always been a fan favorite, and Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez gives it his own uniquely tasteful twist

Finally, we come to the biggest “hit” a Disney film ever produced, the Tim Rice/Elton John composed “Circle Of Life,” from The Lion King (1994). It is hard to imagine this song as anything other than the jungle-chorale piece we have come to know it as, but that is the beauty of jazz. With talented musicians, anything is possible. In this case, Mark Rapp and his quartet completely deconstruct “Circle” and present it as a hot-fusion piece — straight out of a 1975 Weather Report album or something. There is certainly nothing sacrilegious about this, just incredible musicians having some fun with songs written so well, they can stand up to any type of treatment.

Based on Everybody Wants To Be A Cat, I would say that the new Disney Pearl label has a bright future in store. This is an outstanding tribute to Disney, to jazz music in general, and to all the people who participated. Well done.

Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Disney Jazz Volume 1: Everybody Wants To Be A Cat on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Mani Neumeier & Kawa Makoto - Samurai Blues

Quite literally, Samurai Blues represents a two-man supergroup “on acid.“ Mani Neumeier founded Krautrock legends Guru Guru back in 1968. He is a master drummer, and is as renowned for his antics as for his playing. Kawabata Makoto is the founding guitar player of Acid Mothers Temple - the premiere Japanese psychedelic band of our time.

In 1996, when Neumeier first toured Japan with Guru Guru in Japan, he was honored with a figure in the Tokyo Wax Museum. Mutual friends introduced Acid Mother Makoto to Mani, and the two have toured as Acid Mothers Guru Guru since. Taking things a step further, the drummer and guitarist went into the studio.

Acid Mothers Temple have developed one hell of a reputation in the post-Millennial psych-scene. But Makoto has incredible respect for Neumeier. Although the guitar player gets into some fine freakiness, he allows the drummer to lead these improvisations.

This is evident from the start. At eight-and-a-half minutes, “Samurai Blues” allows the old German the opportunity to kick solid ass. Not that Makoto is any slouch either. The next cut, “Mushi,” provides ample illustration of this. This tune is fifteen minutes of pure energy, the pair seem to be everywhere at once. “Another Romance” is not the love song one might expect from the title. No, not unless you dig the drone, which is heavy enough to teach Sleep or OM a thing or two.

The centerpiece of the album is “Spinning Contrasts.” This twenty-minute exercise reminds me of Interstellar Space by John Coltrane and drummer Rashied Ali. “Spinning Contrasts” is not easy-listening by a long shot, but it certainly is exhilarating. Both the drums and guitar (substitute for Coltrane’s sax) go “out there” as far as they possibly can. Each take serious solos midway, and sound fantastic.

We wind up with “Tomorrow Twist,“ a three-minute Free Jazz freakout. The ghost of Albert Ayler seems to be hovering over these proceedings. Samurai Blues is serious improvisation between two incredibly talented performers - Mani Neumeier and Kawabata Makoto. Look for it.

Article first published as Music Review: Mani Neumeier & Kawabata Makoto - Samurai Blues on Blogcritics.