Friday, June 22, 2012

Book Review: The Cusp of Everything by Laura Huntt Foti

The big line on Laura Huntt Foti’s debut novel, The Cusp of Everything is that it is the first book to come with its own soundtrack. The idea is for Kindle Fire, iPad, and other online device readers to simultaneously stream the music from while they read the book. It is an intriguing proposition, as music infuses the novel. In fact, to be honest, the references are almost overwhelming. The author says that she got the idea while reading Keith Richards’ autobiography, Life. I understand completely what she is saying, I too found myself putting on various Stones albums while reading his remembrances.

In the interest of full disclosure, I did not read the book as Foti envisioned though. I simply read it as a novel. The book takes place during the year between July, 1975, and July, 1976. Many (but not all) of the songs cited were big radio hits. So, sorry — but since I was close to the age of the protagonist at the time, I was intimately familiar with most of the songs anyway. For example, the very first one mentioned is “Love Will Keep Us Together,” by The Captain and Tennille. I wonder if there a person who was alive in the mid-seventies who does not have that particularly annoying ditty tattooed on their brain?

Evidently Laura Huntt Foti has worked in and around music for most of her professional career, so her choices are pretty hip, where appropriate. It’s kind of like what Steven Van Zandt had to say about the music of The Sopranos. Considering that Tony and Carmela were in high school in the late seventies, early eighties, their classic-rock has to reflect that. Unfortunately, this meant stuff like REO Speedwagon and Journey. Sopranos guru David Chase said that the show had to be true to what (they) would have listened to, and Van Zandt’s response was basically, “Yes, but that means a lot of crappy songs.” As the “Love Will Keep Us Together” citation shows, it was definitely a similar situation in the mid-seventies as well.

So let’s table the music portion of the novel for now, and discuss the story itself. The Cusp of Everything is the perfect title for a book which takes place in the mid-seventies. For those of us coming of age at that time, we really had no idea of the huge societal changes ahead of us. The use of the word “everything” is important though, because the changes ahead are very, very personal as well.

I had kind of a strange feeling while reading this book. It was as if I were reading an interesting diary, from someone who had a lot to say, but never expected anyone else to read it. In a way, the feeling I had was almost “naughty,” as if I were eavesdropping on an inner conversation I should not be hearing. This is certainly to the author’s credit, as she quite obviously delved deeply into her own emotions to express the inner life of Karen Walsh.

When we meet Karen in July, 1975, she has just graduated high school, and is headed toward her first year of college. Talk about a “cusp” period in life, I remember it well. Her parents are divorced, and while civil towards each other, the situation is not great. Like most 18-year olds, her hormones are getting the better of her, and she is infatuated with a couple of men over the course of the story. To put it delicately, none of these situations work out too well, as is also the case with most 18-year old romances.

While I do not really wish to give away too much of the story here, I would describe it more as a “slice-of-life” tale than anything else. Karen lives on the “bad side” of wealthy Westchester County, outside of New York City. She longs to move to the City, and will the following year, to attend NYU. For now, however, she is enrolled at SUNY, living at home, and is not exactly thrilled about any of it.

I grew up in the boonies outside of Seattle, so there is one aspect of The Cusp of Everything that I cannot relate to, and it is an important one. Karen interacts with a number of “out” gay men over the course of the story. In the Northwest, things were still much more closeted than they were in the Northeast. Or so I am guessing. Of course, I really cannot relate to being an 18-year old female in 1975 either, so there you go.
In any event, what I, and any other reader can relate to is the heartbreaking emotional turbulence of life at that age. While the world has changed dramatically in the past 35+ years, the teen-angst that Karen goes through probably never will.

We wind up at a Bicentennial celebration outside the Statue of Liberty on July 4, 1976. The final song cited is (appropriately enough), “America Tune” by Paul Simon. Over the course of 232-pages, we have gotten to know Karen Walsh so well, it is unavoidably depressing to say goodbye to her. I want to know what follows, and hopefully Laura Huntt Foti’s sequel will arrive soon enough.

While I did not read the book online, with the soundtrack streaming, I did get prompted to put on some of the great songs that she mentions. For anyone reading the old-fashioned way as I did, any of those Rhino Best of the 70s collections will do in a pinch, as well as The Best of The Ojay’s. She cites over 200 songs throughout the text, and not all of them are radio hits. Notable “oddities” include the Close To The Edge album by Yes, and “I Think of You” from Renaissance. For those Kindle-impaired like me, the author has helpfully included “The Soundtrack,” which lists every song, artist, and film mentioned (by chapter) in the text.

I applaud the forward-looking setup of The Cusp of Everything, but in the end, it really is the story that counts. The inner-life of Karen Walsh is a fascinating one, as it reflects a very self-aware, albeit conflicted young woman. There is much to applaud in this first effort, and I enjoyed the book immensely.

Article first published as Book Review: The Cusp of Everything by Laura Huntt Foti on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Joel Frederiksen and Ensemble Phoenix Munich - Requiem for a Pink Moon

From conception through execution, Requiem for a Pink Moon is a nearly flawless recording. Pink Moon (1972) was Nick Drake’s final fully-realized album, and has reached something of a mythic status among his fans. It is indescribably elegant, mainly featuring only Nick and his guitar performing 11 songs. Pink Moon is only 28 minutes long, yet in those 28 minutes he breaks our hearts over and over. There were more sessions in 1974, recorded just prior his death by suicide, but Pink Moon remains his definitive work.

Enter lutenist and Elizabethan music scholar Joel Frederiksen. He came about his interest organically, having started out as a guitar player. While in college he attended a live lutenist performance, and as he puts it in the liner notes, “Realized I had to have a lute!” The idea of Requiem for a Pink Moon took a long time to come to fruition, as his interest in recording and performing Elizabethan-era music became all-encompassing.

What tipped his hand was a Volkswagen ad from 2000, which utilized the song “Pink Moon.” In this serendipitous moment, the thought of uniting English music written some 400 years earlier, with that of Nick Drake, began to form.

The resulting Requiem is the most adventurous album I have heard (and likely will hear) this year. One of the many courageous decisions Fredericksen made in the construction of the record was to not follow any structure other than his own. Thus the 24 song, 65:53 set is as personal a requiem as possible. When I first heard the title, I assumed that Requiem for a Pink Moon would be the Pink Moon album simply played in a classical motif. And frankly, that alone was enough to intrigue me.

But the Requiem is so much more. First of all, not all of the songs from Pink Moon are included, only six. Joel has taken the liberty of adding tracks from Nick’s previous two albums, Five Leaves Left, and Bryter Layter, as well as a couple from those final 1974 sessions which were eventually released as Time of No Reply. Interspersed with these are pieces by John Dowland, Michael Cavendish, and Michael Campion, which date all the way back to at least 1597.

Hearing these songs played side by side is revelatory. Knowing that Nick Drake took an overdose of pills at the tender age of 26, forever casts Pink Moon as a haunting, final missive from a doomed soul. Hearing these baroque pieces, with Gregorian texts next to “Road” or “Which Will” is a testament to the brilliance of Joel Frederiksen, for nobody else would have come up with such a thought, or dared see it through.

The most perfect combination for me comes during something of a medley of John Dowland’s “His Golden Locks” and Drake’s “Place To Be,” especially in the second half of “Place To Be” when the two songs are sung simultaneously, further stressing their lyrical connectedness. It is the first of many transcendent moments.
There is much more to come however, as another Dowland composition, “Time Stands Still,” shows. Published in 1603 in The Third and Last Booke of Songs or Ayres, the text is credited to both Anonymous and Joel Frederiksen. His additional lines again draw explicit lines between Nick Drake and these centuries-old lyrics.

Referring to the liner notes again, Joel says that his inclusion of his own “Ocean” was the ultimate “dare” in realizing the Requiem. The song “comments on Nick’s songs and life, and completes a kind of circle,” Joel writes. “Nick uses the ocean frequently as an image and metaphor in songs like 'Time Has Told Me' and 'Voice From The Mountain.'"

For those (like myself) who have always felt that nobody but Nick Drake could sing his songs, there may be a bit of a shock in hearing Joel Frederiksen sing them. His deep voice is so contrary to the fragile, at times barely there vocals that Nick Drake imbued his music with that it takes some getting used to. Again though, the inclusion of the Elizabethan music works to Joel’s great advantage, as his strong voice is the only way to effectively express the sentiments of those pieces. What was initially somewhat disconcerting becomes perfectly natural as the album progresses.

Another genius conceptualization Joel came up with for the Requiem was in allowing Nick’s blues-based 4/4 beat to be the template for the album. It simply would not have worked if there had not been a uniform tempo, and I again applaud the choice he made.

In my effusive praise for what Joel Frederiksen has accomplished with Requiem for a Pink Moon, I have neglected to mention the excellent performances of his Ensemble Phoenix Munich. The contributions of Timothy Leigh Evans (tenor, drum), Domen Marincic (viola da gamba) and Axel Wolf (theorbo, arch lute) provide a wonderfully sympathetic accompaniment to Joel’s voice and lute.

I seriously doubt that I will hear another recording this year which will come close to matching the power and grace Requiem for a Pink Moon. In my opening sentence I called this a “nearly flawless recording.” I should remove the qualifier, for if there is such a thing as a flawless album, this Requiem is certainly it.
Let us give Joel Frederiksen the final word on the recording, in the form of his dedication:

                                                            This CD is for Nick.
                                                      Thank you for the inspiration.

Music Review: Dean Martin - Collected Cool Box Set

“Live, direct from the bar - Dean Martin,” went the introduction for the King of Cool. Really, was there a cooler guy out there than Dean? Sinatra maybe, but there was always an element of volatility with him. In contrast, we never saw Dean lose it. The drinking thing simply would not fly in today’s world, but it was all an act anyway. It didn’t matter, we loved him no matter what. The new, four-disc Collected Cool box-set celebrates Dean Martin’s career with three-CDs and a DVD of a rare concert performance in London. It is hard to believe that it has taken this long for a career-spanning collection of his to appear, but the good news is that it has finally arrived.

The first CD is subtitled “Memories Are Made of This: 1949-1961,” and contains 19 songs. One of the difficulties in presenting an all-inclusive Dean Martin set has been the fact that he recorded for different labels over the years. The first disc is culled from his work with Capitol Records. The songs included feature classics such as “That’s Amore,” “Volare,” and his duet with Nat “King” Cole, “Long, Long Ago.”

The second CD is “Everybody Loves Somebody: 1962-1985,” and contains 18 tracks. These were recorded for Sinatra’s Reprise Records. This second disc includes his biggest hit, “Everybody Loves Somebody,” as well as a number of other greats. Just as an aside, “Everybody Loves Somebody” replaced The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” at the number one spot upon release. This is the original, stripped-down jazz quartet version of the song, which initially appeared on the Dream With Dean album. Another definite highlight here is his duet with Sinatra on “Guys and Dolls.” Some of the other brilliant performances include his version of “Welcome To My World,” and another of his signature tunes, “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You.”

The third CD of the set is pretty self-explanatory, “Live In Lake Tahoe.” This fifty-minute, 24-track disc was recorded July 27, 1962 at the Cal-Neva Lodge. The concert contains plenty of “Show Banter” (seven tracks) of which Dean was a master at. He opens with “Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes,” and proceeds through fine versions of “Almost Like Being In Love,” “Beautiful Dreamer,” and “You Made Me Love You,” among quite a few others. It was a great night to see a show for those folks who were lucky enough to be at the Cal-Neva that evening.

The final disc is a DVD of Dean “Live In London.” This concert was filmed at the London Apollo Victoria Theatre in 1983. It was shown on cable a couple of times, then disappeared into the vaults, where it has remained until now. The former Dino Paul Crocetti still had it in 1983, and was cool as could be in front of this most appreciative London audience.

Although the Rat Pack were the epitome of hip in 1960, by the end of the decade, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin were seen as terminally unhip. It’s a shame, because even though they were considered “your parent’s music,” all three were still in their prime. I think their ill-advised rejection of rock and roll (both Dean and Frank in particular) really worked against them. It took a long time for the Boomer generation to come around to the Rat Pack. I belong to what has been termed “Generation X,” and never had that generation gap thing against them, but unfortunately was too young to ever get the chance to see the guys (or Dean in particular) perform live.

So the Live In London DVD holds a little extra special attraction for me. I have seen some old black and white footage of the Rat Pack live in Vegas previously, but never a full Dean Martin concert. And as previously mentioned, he was still “Mr. Cool” in 1983. The concert is a veritable greatest hits, and includes songs such as “That’s Amore,” “Everybody Loves Somebody,” and “Welcome To My World.” Dean’s version of the Ray Price hit “For The Good Times” is quite nice, and a bit of a surprise comes with his rendering of Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.”

The box-set itself is so well-done, one wishes other labels would look to it for inspiration when it comes to items like these. They certainly got it right with Collected Cool. The package is an 8” x 8” book, with the discs inside. It features 62-pages of rare full-color pictures and text detailing the life, songs, and career of Dean Martin. I found the discussions of the individual tunes to be the most informative aspect of it. The notes were written by James Ritz, who was clearly allowed full access by the Dean Martin Family Trust to tell the various stories behind the recordings.

Collected Cool is by far the finest anthology of Dean Martin’s music to ever see the light of day. This one is a keeper, no question about it.

Music Review: Various Artists - Personal Space: Electronic Soul 1974-1984

The first question I had when listening to Personal Space: Electronic Soul 1974 - 1984 was, where in the hell did Rob Sevier find this stuff? Sevier is the researcher behind the Personal Space: Electronic Soul 1974-1984 collection from Chocolate Industries. Every one of the 17 tracks on this compilation sound like voices from another world. And in a lot of ways, they are.

When affordable home recording equipment began to appear in the '70s, a lot of people were inspired with the whole D.I.Y. ethic. For some strange reason, I had previously associated this phenomenon with mostly white New Wave acts such as The Flying Lizards or A Flock of Seagulls. I must say, I have never been happier to report just how wrong I was on that assumption.

“Do it yourself” was embraced by Black America just as strongly as it was by everyone else. And it had been going on long before the recordings of Grandmaster Flash or Afrika Bambaata became famous. It was about as underground as possible though. The songs that Dante Carfagna compiled for this album were originally released on tiny independent labels with names like New Detroit, C-Wind, and Preston, to name just a few. One of the most impressive aspects about this anthology is the range of music included. Just about every form is represented in some way it seems.

The lead track is the instrumental “Excerpts From Autumn” by Jeff Phelps, which is a perfect choice. It is sort of a “smooth” number, albeit one with plenty of “spacey” elements. Listening to this 1:40 excerpt just whets the appetite, and really makes me want to hear the whole tune. Maybe I’ll get lucky and find the album it comes from, Magnetic Eyes on e-Bay or somewhere. Magnetic Eyes is also where “Super Lady,” comes from. This track shows a very pronounced early New Wave influence. I have a feeling that Jeff Phelps had listened to a couple of Kraftwerk or Gary Numan records in his time.

Despite what one might expect from the title though, Personal Space is not just primitive synth music. The subtitle of Electronic Soul is well-chosen. Whether it is the low-down funk of “A Man” by Key & Cleary, or the Curtis Mayfield groove of “All About Money,” from Spontaneous Overthrow, or even the Isaac Hayes-style “rap” from USAries, this anthology is the real deal. Speaking of USAries, they are the only other artist (besides Jeff Phelps) who have more than one song on Personal Space. Their 45 rpm single “Are You Ready To Come? (With Me)” was a two-part affair, “Part One” on the A-side, and “Part Two” on the B-side. Both are included here. Interestingly enough, they are presented separately, with the first part comprising the seventh cut, while “Part Two” comes at track 15.

I used to think “out there” in funk meant the various works of George Clinton’s P-Funk brigade, such as Funkadelic, Parliament, Bootsy’s Rubber Band, and The Brides of Funkenstein. And as “far out” as a lot of that stuff was, there are some cuts on Personal Space that might even blow Dr. Funkenstein’s mind.
“Master Ship” by Starship Commander Woo Woo is one of the greatest jams ever. This one of the most spaced-out, stretched-out, funked-out, deep in the groove parties ever laid down on wax. My only regret is that it is only a 6:22 excerpt, from the Master Ship album - another one that I am going to have to seek out.
I mentioned “All About Money” from Spontaneous Overthrow earlier, but there is much more to it than just the Isaac Hayes “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” type of “rap” in it. The vibe of this one is so perfectly old-school it is unreal. In fact, my mind went to a weird place while listening to it.

There was an amazing scene in The Hughes Brothers classic Menace II Society (1993), involving one of the character’s father. You may remember it. In a flashback, the boy witness a card game that goes bad in the family living room. The time is sometime in the early '70s, and “Just Be Thankful,” by William DeVaughn is playing. When one of the guys accuses the other of cheating, the guns come out. The scene served a couple of purposes. It showed that deadly violence can come up anywhere, even in a “friendly” game of cards, and that the kid was born into “the life.“ Even though “All About Money” does not really sound like “Just Be Thankful,” it would have fit that scene perfectly.

A few of the tracks are purely instrumental. “Disco From a Space Show,” by Guitar Red is one, and it sounds exactly like its hilarious title. What kills me is why this performer is calling himself Guitar Red? It sounds like some old blues guy or something. Believe me, “Disco From a Space Show“ is a hell of a long way from the blues. Add the album it comes from, Hard Times to my ever-growing want-list after hearing this one.

“My Bleeding Wound” is another monster. Head back to Funkadelic’s “Wars of Armageddon” (from Maggot Brain) to begin with. Then head into the place where Miles ran the voodoo down, and you will start to get an idea of the total headtrip vibe in the song. Add some heavily orgasmic feminine groans, and you have a track that is almost impossible to describe. The only “straight” element here is the unflappable bassline, which somehow keeps it all from flying apart.

The album ends as perfectly as it begins. The closer is “Time To Go Home,” by Otis G. Johnson. But this is not Marvin Gaye singing “Lets Get It On.” Otis is singing to God, and how it is time to go home to Him.
Believe it or not, these are just a few of the highlights of this brilliant set. There is much more, but hopefully I have gotten my basic point across. Personal Space: Electronic Soul 1974-1984 is one of the greatest collections of “lost” music I have ever heard.

Music Review: Neu Gestalt - Weightless Hours

There is a remarkable beauty in the music of Les Scott, aka Neu Gestalt, over the course of his extraordinary new release Weightless Hours. Three years have passed since the debut of Neu Gestalt, the nearly pure electronica of Altered Carbon. With Weightless Hours, Les Scott has created an album of almost indescribable beauty. His use of field recordings, such as that of the rain and other elements, in conjunction with more traditional instrumentation, puts Weightless Hours squarely in the realm of what is generally referred to as “electro-acoustic” music. It is a recording with a haunting ambiance that I find myself returning to over and over again.

Weightless Hours begins with the sound of water flowing downstream, interspersed with various sounds that eventually resolve themselves into a wonderfully poignant piano. The title of this opening track, “Toxicology” is unusual to me, as the sheer, pristine quality of it brings to mind just about anything but something ugly and toxic. One of the greatest elements of instrumental music is that it really is in the eye of the beholder, and frankly, whatever Les Scott chooses to title his compositions is in a lot of ways irrelevant to me as a listener. I hear what I hear, and the tones evoke moods and emotions in me that may have very little in common with the composer’s intent.

As the above paragraph shows, the music of Weightless Hours is in many ways very difficult to describe. The simple reason being that mere words are not really sufficient to explain the various feelings that this recording evokes in the listener. The good folks at Alex Tronic Records were kind enough to send me a copy of Weightless Hours a month ago, and I have listened to it dozens of times already. And I still find something new in it every time I play it.

As the press release mentions, “There is a singular obsession with detail and surface [in Weightless Hours].” This is absolutely true. The 12 tracks run for just about one hour, and rather than a “mere” collection of songs, they serve to tell a story. It is as if they are chapters in a book, each moving the basic plot forward, but all in service of the overall tale.

Certain tracks do stand out however, for various reasons. For example, the low-key, yet thoroughly engaging melody of “Cold Wave” is underscored with a perfectly-pitched sense of rhythm in the drums. This is a motif that is repeated often throughout the course of the disc, especially during “Saturn Park” and “On Haunted Shores.”

To these ears Weightless Hours first slips into the fascinating world of electro-acoustic music during “Winter.” The various elements that Les Scott brings into play are so perfectly meshed, it is hard to know where the “electro” gives way to the “acoustic.” Actually, the term “electro-acoustic” is a relatively new one, and is used to describe many different forms of sound. My litmus test is simplistic at best, coming down to that old saw, “I know it when I hear it.”

The mix of field recordings with both electronic and acoustic instruments could be reduced to a formula I suppose. But that is never the case here. “Sub Rosa” is yet another example of what Neu Gestalt does so well. It has the feel almost of an overture, yet concludes with a sort of a synthesizer-wash “cleansing ritual.”
“Aerial Eleven” contains the most foreboding of all intros, then relaxes into the beautifully spaced notes of Les Scott’s keyboards. The musical palette is soon enlarged with some of the most prominent effects on the album. Somehow the mood of mystery is maintained throughout the track, no matter which direction it turns. For some reason I am reminded of Ultramarine’s classic Every Man and Woman is a Star. Not in any overt way mind you, just in the emotional frame of mind it puts me in.

“Metaline” carries on in this manner most effectively, managing to evoke both the pastoral and the chaos of infinity somehow equally. With “Sheltering Skies,” the beauty remains, but like the earlier “Cold Wave,” an underlying beat is present as well. Earlier I mentioned Ultramarine, which was a reference intended for those who are familiar with some of the finest electronic music of the past 20 years or so. During “Sheltering Skies” I would like to mention another long-time favorite, again more for the sake of being a “signpost” rather than a direct “pinch.” This would be the unforgettable Fire and Water from 777.

Weightless Hours concludes with “We Who Walk Through Walls.” The haunting quality of the album as a whole is summed up in this title, again with a perfect sense of both irony and truth. It is as if the music of Neu Gestalt is an apparition, and a transcendent one at that.

I looked up the English translation of "Neu Gestalt," and discovered that it roughly means “New Shapes.” Although the music is very different, I could not help but to think of Einsturzende Neubauten, which in English means “collapsing new buildings.”

Certainly Neubauten’s debut Kollaps did sound like the destruction of what came before. In contrast, Weightless Hours is the sound of new growth. It is as if the apocalypse has already occurred, and we hear the “sound” of flowers blooming out of the rubble. No matter what terms are applied to describe Weightless Hours, there is one aspect to it that overrides everything. That would be the positive energy surrounding the entire affair. There is no ugliness to be found here.

Weightless Hours is not the sound of what should be done to make for a better tomorrow. It is the sound of that better tomorrow, or at least the beginnings of it. Besides being such an admittedly “abstract” discussion of the album, I cannot help myself in indulging in a philosophical soliloquy about it as well. This, in essence, is the power of the 12 songs that make up the record. It is the result of listening to an extraordinarily moving hour of music. In the end, Les Scott has given us song titles, and even descriptions in the booklet of his inspirations for the various tracks. I have intentionally chosen to ignore as much of this as possible however, for what Weightless Hours means to me ultimately is what I wish it to mean.

For an album to allow one to take the listening experience that far is an amazing achievement, and Weightless Hours is well worth seeking out.

Book Review: Rotting In The Bangkok Hilton: The Gruesome True Story of a Man Who Survived Thailand’s Deadliest Prison by T.M. Hoy

As the title Rotting In The Bangkok Hilton: The Gruesome True Story of a Man Who Survived Thailand’s Deadliest Prison indicates, this book is not for the faint of heart. Author T. M. Hoy made what he now terms “A tragic mistake” in not reporting a murder that a friend of his committed in 1995. For this, he was given a life sentence. Before he was given a treaty-transfer and remanded to a Federal prison in the United States, he spent five years in two Thai prisons, the Chiang Mai Remand, and Bang Kwang.
I guess in a way it was a morbid sense of curiosity that led me to pick this book up, wondering just how bad life in a third-world prison would be. As Hoy describes it, it was sheer hell. I do not think I would have lasted more than six months there.

The book plunges right in to just how bad it was with the first chapter, “My Death Haiku.” The haiku was composed at a point when Hoy had completely given up, and accepted the fact that he would die in the prison. There is no preamble, no “I was framed” excuses; we are instantly put into the mind-set of a man who truly feels as if he will not survive much longer, and there is literally nothing he can do about it.
It is a powerful beginning, but then Hoy describes the Thai prisons in fascinating detail. For one thing, there is the strange class system. At the very lowest end of the spectrum were the “Hill People.” These are Thai peasants whose lives were worth less than nothing. Most are illiterate, poverty-stricken men (the women were housed separately), who were caught as “mules” transporting heroin.

They are offered (what was to them) big money to smuggle the drug out of the Golden Triangle, but these people are completely out of their league in this game. Customs agents spot them as if they had bulls-eyes on their backs. They are nervous, and totally out of place traveling in first-class with their shabby clothes. It sounds as if it were like shooting fish in a barrel for the agents. Inside, the Hill People are treated as literal slaves. Their family has no money to bribe the guards to get them any preferential treatment. So they are assigned the hardest jobs in the prison until they drop dead.

According to Hoy, bribery and graft are the name of the game, and for prisoners who have access to any money, life is a little easier. They are able to purchase edible foods, and other basics. Their existence is slightly mitigated by this, but is by no means pleasant.

Then there is the curious case of whites, either Americans or Europeans. It is a tricky game the Thais play in these situations, because there are embassy officials involved, and the treatment of these prisoners is “supervised” to varying degrees. From Hoy’s account, the fact that there was an element of “accountability” involved is what saved his life. The man from the embassy who oversaw his case would bring him pre-packaged foods and various items, which at least kept him alive.

The prison food was so bad that the huge rat population would not even eat it. The inmates were fed twice a day some rice and “soup.” The rice was boll-weevil infested, and the soup was made out of remnants from a local slaughterhouse that were so hideous I will refrain from even describing it. Allow my previous mention of the fact that rats would not touch it to suffice as explanation of just how decayed and horrid the stuff was. All of the available water was basically untreated sewage.

Add to this the variety of tropical insects that festered in this environment, and you get an idea of how unbearable life must have been. Unless you had the money or the connections to acquire antibiotics, your time in a Thai prison was a slow, torturous death sentence.

Rotting In The Bangkok Hilton is “only” a 200-page book, which I thought would make for a quick read. Not so. I think what I have described so far makes it clear that the circumstances described are as unpleasant as one could possibly imagine. But there is another factor.

T. M. Hoy does not waste words. With almost every sentence, he slams home the points he has to make. The absence of long-winded paragraphs detailing the various situations completely works in this context. It is almost as if one of the most enduring maxims of prison life, “Save your energy,” has been applied to the writing of this book. The text is very tight, very raw, and very real.

After five years, Hoy was miraculously transferred via treaty to Federal prison in the United States, where he served another 11 years before release.

The publication of Rotting In The Bangkok Hilton will probably not change the conditions of Thai prisons, nor was it intended to. But it is without a doubt an eye-opening account of what actually goes on there, and an incredibly absorbing read.

Music Review: Morning Parade - Morning Parade

Is it still considered an insult to mention Oasis in the course of a record review? I hope not, because I actually liked (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?, or at least parts of it. And when I put on the new self-titled album by Morning Parade, and “Blue Winter” blasted out, I was sort of reminded of those '90s fave-raves. That is only on the surface though, and only for a few moments. Morning Parade have a lot to say, and say it in their own way. They manage to do it in a most effective manner as well, I might add.
While there is a very '90s feel to Morning Parade, this is meant in the most complimentary fashion. I love the big, jangly guitars of the album’s single, “Headlights,” and “Carousel” has a similar feel. The pace slackens a bit by the fourth track, “Running Down The Aisle,” although the electric break puts this song in a class all its own.

Morning Parade was definitely programmed the old school way, with the power tracks up front, and the more reflective moments coming later. One of the better mid-tempo tunes is titled “Close Your Heart.” One of the elements that make Morning Parade such a good band are the harmonies. The back-up vocals during “Close Your Heart” are a great example of this.

To complete the whole 2012-meets-1996 thing, Morning Parade make a side trip to lonely hearts land. Yes, I hear the dreaded “E” word, and it don’t stand for Ecstasy my friends. As we get further into the album, I have to say I hear a bit of emo in the music. Check out “Us & Ourselves” and “Born Alone” for starters. It is probably “Monday Morning” which is the hews closest to what we knew and loved as emo.

All of these comparisons are offered to illustrate this band’s versatility. The music of Morning Parade is much more brash and original than I may have given it credit, however. This album is actually a great collection of songs. Somehow they manage to look ahead to the future, while never forgetting where they came from. Morning Parade is one of the better efforts I have heard so far this year.

DVD Review: Civilization: The West and the Rest

The fascinating query that host Niall Ferguson poses at the start of Civilization: The West and the Rest is this; “Are we the generation that Western ascendancy is going to end with?” Somehow, through all the political and social travails I have seen in my (mid) life, I have never really considered this idea. Although pundits often refer to China as something of a “sleeping giant,” the nation just never seemed a real threat to the West. And if I thought about it at all, the same arrogance would apply to what we refer to as “Third World” countries as well.

Stepping outside of the “patriotism box” for a moment though, there are some very compelling arguments to be made for the decline and fall of Western civilization. In the 18th century Edward Gibbon wrote what remains a masterpiece of history with his epic The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Even though Civilization: The West and the Rest was produced by the British BBC, there is very little question that what it has to say absolutely corresponds with what is going on in the United States.
What makes this newly released two-DVD, six one-hour episode set so strong is the way Ferguson takes the long view towards history. The programs are not really about current events, such as the Monica Lewinsky scandal, George Bush’s disastrous presidency, or Barack Obama’s sad performance in his first term. It is about the history of the world, in which the ascendancy of Western civilization is a relatively new phenomenon. And as Gibbon exhaustively showed in his two-volume book, even the mightiest empires can fall.

The episodes are broken up into six specific categories. The titles speak for themselves; “Competition,” “Science,” “Property,” “Medicine,” “Consumerism,” and “Work.” In each he compares the achievements, both past and present, of the West versus the East. In the wrap-ups, he methodically notes the future prospects of both “powers” with (for the West at least), some very unsettling conclusions.

While the question “Are we the generation that Western ascendancy is going to end with?” is deliberately provocative, the underlying thesis is not. In fact, it is quite sobering. The verdict? Obviously unknown. But Civilization: The West and the Rest poses some extremely serious questions. Do not allow that description to color your judgment of the series however. While the subject is serious, Niall Ferguson presents the material in a most intriguing, and even humorous at times, manner.

This is a very interesting and thought provoking series, and one which just might help those of us who have grown complacent in regards to Western civilization’s dominance to take a longer look at out future.
Taken together, the six episodes are educational, challenging, and (maybe most importantly) highly entertaining. Civilization: The West and the Rest is well worth watching for all of these reasons and more. There really is something here for everyone, and I was quite impressed with the entire series.

Music Review: Soulsavers - The Light The Dead See

Ever since their 2003 debut, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, Soulsavers have pursued a singular vision. The duo of Rich Martin and Ian Glover have been on a “quest” of sorts. Not in the sense of trying to find their muse, or even in a spiritual sense. Call it a quest, or a journey if you like, but to this listener, it seems the trip itself is the point, not the destination. In many ways, their fourth and latest recording The Light The Dead See is in some respects a dispatch from their travels thus far.

Soulsavers are a musical collective who will never be accused of repeating themselves. Tough Guys Don’t Dance presented a dance-oriented, electronica infused collection of songs, which they have steadily moved away from with succeeding albums. Their second and third recordings, It’s Not How You Fall, It’s The Way You Land (2007), and Broken (2009) both featured the vocals of the inimitable Mark Lanegan. Since his debut as vocalist with the Screaming Trees, Lanegan has developed a persona as deep and soulful as that of his idol Johnny Cash. The combination of his “whiskey for the holy ghost” voice, with the music of Soulsavers proved to be a truly fascinating one - making their albums together sound like nothing else out there.

For such a (seemingly) private man, Lanegan has participated in a bewildering array of various projects over the past decade or so, including his (excellent) recent solo album Blues Funeral . This may or may not explain his absence (save for a cameo vocal on “In The Morning“) on this latest Soulsavers album. At first glance, I thought their choice of Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan to be a strange one, but as it turns out, it was a stroke of genius.

Whether by coincidence or design, the 12 tracks that make up The Light The Dead See continue the Soulsavers “story” in a most appropriate way. The opening instrumental “La Ribera” sets the tone nicely. While steering away from being pretentious, it nonetheless introduces what follows with a serious, yet quite darkly beautiful motif. The approach perfectly mirrors the tenor of The Light The Dead See.

Unpretentious is indeed the watchword here, as this project could have very easily slipped into that dreaded black hole. Ambition sometimes outstrips talent, and is often disguised by the appearance of “depth.” Fortunately, Soulsavers are much smarter than that. There are serious, and at times emotionally difficult thoughts being expressed here. With the vocals of Dave Gahan, Soulsavers manage to articulate these sentiments, without ever coming across as sophomoric.

The Light The Dead See is quite obviously meant to be listened to as a whole, and it works best that way. There are a few standouts I would like to mention however. For sheer dark beauty, I found “Just Try,” “Take Me Back Home,” and “Bitterman,” to be hauntingly powerful. And lest I am making it sound as if The Light The Dead See is all bleak, it is not. The “big” guitars of “Gone Too Far,” are a great example of ways in which the band “lighten” things up a bit. I also hear a little brighter tone in “I Can’t Stay,” and the closing “Tonight.”

Where it all comes together best for me though is during “Presence of God.” On this track in particular, the vocals and music blend in an almost heartbreakingly beautiful manner. The lyrics and musical tone convey an aura of unmistakable sorrow. Yet there is an almost palpable sense in the way Gahan sings the song, that somehow, through sheer force of vocal will, that he will be able to rise above the challenges he sings of. It is an incredibly mature performance, and one which very few performers would be able to pull off.

Lest there be no doubt, The Light The Dead See contains a wealth of brilliant performances, both musical and vocal. It is a record I will be coming back to many times I believe, as there is a great deal going on in each of these songs. While nobody is saying that Gahan “replaced” Lanegan, or that there was ever to be a single vocalist for Soulsavers, he has done a magnificent job with them on this album. The Light The Dead See is an outstanding piece of work from all participants, and is an album that is every bit as strong as anything Soulsavers have ever released.

Book Review: LEGO Heavy Weapons: Build Working Working Replicas of Four of the World’s Most Impressive Guns by Jack Streat

I have to admit to an initial bit of trepidation in regards to No Starch Press’ LEGO guns series. The first one I came across had the irresistible title of Badass LEGO Guns, and the book turned out to be exactly what it was advertised to be. I even wound up building one of the guns (which shoot LEGO bricks by the way), with my son. So when I heard about the new, provocatively titled LEGO Heavy Weapons: Build Working Replicas of Four of the World’s Most Impressive Guns by Jack Streat, I just had to have it.

The four guns in question here are the Desert Eagle pistol, plus three rifles; the Jungle Carbine, AKS-74U, and SPAS 12. All three of the rifles actually shoot LEGO bricks, and it looks like they could do some damage. They may not be lethal, but I imagine getting shot by one would most likely be a fairly painful experience. The warning on the back says that the models are not suitable for children under 12, which is sensible enough. But the most pertinent warning states “Be particularly careful when handling these models in public, because they can be mistaken for real guns.”

This last little piece of advice is the one to take to heart. For those of us who grew up making various, simple models out of LEGOs, the idea of building a realistic looking gun out of the bricks may seem a bit implausible. But with Mr. Streat’s detailed instructions, these guns really do look like the real deal, and one would be well advised to be to heed his warning.

LEGO Heavy Weapons is an incredibly detailed 356-page book. The author has taken great pains to lay out everything one would need to build these guns. In doing so, he has made it possible for even for the most novice LEGO enthusiast to succeed. Each section begins with a “Design History” chapter, in which he explains the overall “big picture” of just exactly how he came up with the various LEGO configurations used for each component of the weapons. To simplify the building process, he has broken down each gun into “modules,” such as the trigger, pistol grip, magazine, stock, and all the rest.

Thankfully for those of us who are novices in the world of LEGO construction, the book includes a plethora of photographs. These are extremely useful, for they not only perfectly illustrate just exactly what each individual piece looks like, but how it all fits together in a step by step manner. While it is not my intent to compare the previous Badass LEGO Guns book to LEGO Heavy Weapons, I must say that the detailed approach of Heavy Weapons is very impressive.

I would expect nothing less from the No Starch Press publishing house though. Their motto “The Finest in Geek Entertainment” is no mere boast. “Fun” is the best one-word description I can offer for what they do, as a visit to their catalog, amply demonstrates.

For those interested in building some of the most impressive LEGO guns ever, LEGO Heavy Weapons is a must. It is also written in a most inviting style, as Jack Streat brings a very personal touch to his descriptions of the guns themselves, and the entire process he went through in coming up with the finished product. There is also a site listed on the final page for the reader/builder to visit ,for “Updates, errata, and other information.” Click here to check it out.

Although I initially got interested in the whole LEGO gun subculture as something of a lark, I quickly discovered that this is a very real, and very cool scene. LEGO Heavy Weapons is much more than a simple curio, it is an excellently designed, and thoroughly informative piece of work which I highly recommend to anyone with an interest in such things. From one geek to another, I must say that this is a most impressive book.

Book Review: Star Trek FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the First Voyages of the Starship Enterprise by Mark Clark

Just for kicks, I typed in “Star Trek” on Amazon Books, and came up with an astonishing 18,061 titles. The cultural impact of Trek is unprecedented, and just continues to grow. So when I picked up the new Star Trek FAQ by Mark Clark, I wondered just what he could possibly add to the massive amount of literature already available on the subject. As it turns out, turning up hitherto bits of minutiae for the edification of “Those who go to the grocery store wearing Vulcan ears and a Starfleet uniform” was not his goal. The Star Trek FAQ is meant for the rest of us.

As Clark explains in his Introduction, the book is “Primarily a historical account, with some analysis and criticism to provide perspective.” As such, he has done an excellent job of condensing many of the various elements of the original Star Trek series into one easily digested volume.

Just to be clear, the Star Trek FAQ concentrates solely on the first series, which ran for three seasons on the NBC network from 1966 to 1969. As even the most casual Trek fan knows, (Clark studiously avoids the terms “Trekkie” or “Trekker”), the show did not fare well during its original prime time run. Where it really caught on was in syndication during the '70s. But this was just one of the many “second chances” Star Trek was blessed with.

The pilot episode was “The Cage,” and featured (with two exceptions) a completely different cast. The Enterprise was helmed by Captain Christopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter), and the first officer was “Number One,” a female, portrayed by Majel Barrett. The Vulcan Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is present as second lieutenant, but his role is vastly diminished in comparison to what would follow. NBC initially passed, but creator Gene Roddenberry--“The Great Bird of the Galaxy” as Clark refers to him--was so persuasive that the network green-lit an unprecedented second pilot. Out of a pile of possible scripts, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” was selected, and the brass were pleased enough with the results to give the go-ahead to the series.

The rest might be history, but there were trials and “tribble-ations” aplenty ahead for the cast and crew. For all the peace, love, and understanding that the Star Trek world of the future was meant to represent, there was a lot of strife on the set. Apparently Captain Kirk (William Shatner) was none too popular with any of the cast, and there was a great deal of network interference with the series. It seems that the Great Bird of the Galaxy himself was the main offender in regards to rewriting scripts, however. One piece of the Star Trek puzzle that I had never previously considered, but makes perfect sense in retrospect, was how influential Majel Barrett was. She was Roddenberry’s closest confidant (they wed in 1969), and apparently had an enormous amount of impact on the show.

“History” is indeed the watchword here, as the author delves into the pre-Trek careers of all of the major players. Having read a number of the books in the FAQ series, one aspect of them that I particularly enjoy is the format. The design of the books almost encourages the reader to skip around to various topics of interest. For example, who could resist the chapter titled “Private Little Wars: Rivalries and Feuds,” or “Operation Annihilate!: Shows That Beat Star Trek in the Nielsen Ratings”?

The shows that did beat Trek? Get ready to laugh (or cry). In the first season (1966-67) Star Trek regularly lost out to My Three Sons and Bewitched. During the second season (1967-68) audiences preferred the shenanigans of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. to those of James T. Kirk. And in the third and final season (1968-69), a program called Judd for the Defense won out.

My personal favorite section of the book is “That Which Survives: Star Trek in the 1970s.” In this portion, Clark discusses the amazing success of the show as a syndicated property. He also details the life of the little-known animated series, which produced 22 half-hour programs and ran for two seasons, from 1973 to 1974. The chapter “Five Year Mission: The Long Voyage Back, 1975-79” is not to be missed either.
Rounding out this 414-page compendium of Trek FAQ’s are brief descriptions of all 79 original episodes, famous Star Trek quotes, discussions of memorable guest stars and parodies, and much more.

For the casual fan, this Star Trek FAQ hits the mark as a distillation of the vast amount of information available regarding the original series. The book concludes in 1978, with the announcement of the first feature film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In the Introduction, the author informs us that the sequel Star Trek FAQ 2.0 will be coming in 2013. In it, he will explore the films and television shows such as The Next Generation which followed the original.

I am looking forward to it, but am quite happy for now to learn all about the early years of this most “fascinating” (to use Spock’s favorite term) television series.

Music Review: Swimming - Ellipses

Swimming is the nom de plume of Devon Ferruci, and his new Ellipses album is one-man tour de force of an album. As is the case with just about everything I have encountered on the Audiobulb label, I find myself wondering why this music is considered “obscure.” Although there are parts which may be a little more adventurous than others, much of the record is incredibly melodic.

The 13-song set opens with “(Aspirated) Plosives,” which features various percussive sounds, and acts as a sort of introductory piece to the album as a whole. Although the motto of Audiobulb is “exploratory electronic music,” it is the acoustic guitar work of Ferruci which really hooked me. The first instance occurs during track two; “We Fill Gaps.“ The sound of his guitar weaving in and out of the various instrumental backgrounds is mesmerizing.

To hear Ferruci’s guitar surrounded by the gloriously lush atmospherics of “Hourglass With Snow,” and “Ale Study” is to hear him in his element. There is also the cheekily off-center percussion he incorporates during “What Duties (1...2...3)!” and “Body Without Organs,” which serves to keep the listener on their toes.
Never let it be said that Mr. Ferruci does not have a sense of humor when it comes to selecting song titles. To these ears, the track “Pretending To Have A Heart Attack” is the most elegant piece of music on the album. The way the composition steadily builds to multiple crescendos is astonishing.

There is always a bit of a sly wink and nod going on just under the surface, and this is most noticeable during parts one and two of the title track. Preceded by the percussive “Body Without Organs,” “Ellipses Pt. 1” has a strangely echo-laden sound, behind a very crisp acoustic guitar solo. From there “Pt. 2” explores a strangely beautiful terrain akin to that of Jimi Hendrix’s “1983 (A Merman I Should Turn To Be).”

These are really just touchstones to give the potential listener an idea of what they will find in the music of Swimming though. It is an album by turns challenging and beautiful, very often during the same song. Devon Ferruci is a musician of high caliber, and Ellipses is a very rewarding listen.

Music Review: Philm - Harmonic

There is probably no way of saying the following without it sounding like a back-handed compliment, but I’ll try anyway. When I first heard that Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo was putting together a trio called Philm, I did not have high expectations. For one thing, I was unfamiliar with his cohorts: Gerry Nestler (vocals, guitar), and Pancho Tomaselli (bass). And for another, the results of rockstar side-projects have been notoriously hit or miss over the years.

I was in for a huge surprise with Harmonic though, for this is one of the most creative albums I have heard in a very long time. Toss every preconceived notion you might have had right into the dustbin, for these guys deliver the goods in no uncertain terms. Harmonic is like a sampler of the coolest record collection ever, and the trio play it all with a furious sense of purpose.

As would be expected from the drummer with the undisputed kings of thrash, the metal is delivered with no holds barred. “Vitriolize” is the perfect opener, letting us know that these guys mean to seriously rock, and Lombardo’s drums are played at maximum intensity. It is in the breaks where one finds the hidden heart of Philm however. Gerry Nestler leads the self-described “prog-metallists” Civil Defiance, which might explain the unusual musical interludes present not only on “Vitriolize,” but throughout the album.

Prog has gotten a bum rap ever since the first noodlings seeped out of acid-fried brain-pans back in the dinosaur days of the '60s. A lot of this was justified, but there have been some serious exceptions over the years. For example, how about King Crimson’s In The Court of the Crimson King, or Rush‘s 2112?
But prog is by no means the only influence one hears loud and clear on Harmonic. Midway through this 15-song set I was startled by the way things slowed down during “Sex Amp,” and “Amoniac.” This was definitely a different direction, yet one that I was strangely familiar with. Then it hit me. Flipper! For this fan, there has never been an album quite like their classic 1981 debut, Generic, and apparently the men of Philm have listened to it as well.

There are four purely instrumental tracks on Harmonic; “Exuberance,” “Killion,” “Mezzanine,” and the title cut. Although all four have their merits, I was especially intrigued by “Exuberance.” To begin with think classic late-seventies Zappa, especially his insanely complicated Lather project, and the double-album that was pulled out of that fiasco was Sheik Yer Bouti. One of the many gems on that collection was “Rubber Shirt,” and “Exuberance” has more than a little in common with this amazing track.

Enough variety for you? Philm are not through yet. If a visit to the Batcave might intrigue you, try the Bauhaus-inflected “Held In Light.” This band being as eclectic as they are do not just take a Goth detour however. That would be too simple. The track breaks for some hardcore thrash during the chorus, only to flip back to the earlier feel. Back and forth, soft/loud - it is a format that has been done to death. But never like this.

The bass of Pancho Tomaselli is the third element in Philm’s wild musical concoction. It is a powerful force throughout the record, but a couple of standout examples include the deceptively titled “Mild,” and the instrumental “Killion.”

In the strange universe that Philm come from, it only seems fitting that they would close their album with a poem from Baudelaire. “Meditation“ is the one they chose, and it quite naturally is set to the sounds of thrash.

As must be abundantly clear by now, Harmonic is a tour de force of an album, and one of the most inspired endeavors I have heard in quite some time.

Music DVD Review: Grateful Dead - Dawn of the Dead

In addition to being a fairly cleverly titled Grateful Dead documentary, Dawn of The Dead tells a pretty fascinating story. The newly released DVD mainly concentrates on the first five years of the band, and of the San Francisco sound in general during the mid-to-late '60s. If any group epitomizes the whole flower-power, light show, and free-flowing music scene of that era, it is the good old Grateful Dead.

The various members of the group had been kicking around the Bay Area coffeehouse folk world during the early part of the decade. Like just about everyone else though, they were inspired to “go electric” after hearing The Beatles. After some false starts as The Warlocks, The Grateful Dead came into their own during Ken Kesey’s legendary Acid Tests. They became the “house band” for these wild events, which were designed to basically recreate the LSD experience.

For a number of reasons, there happened to be a great deal of very talented musicians drawn to San Francisco during those years. There was also a budding promoter by the name of Bill Graham in town. While the Acid Tests provided the template for what would eventually become a huge industry, it took the entrepreneurial Graham to capitalize on what Kesey and The Dead had pioneered.

Most music fans know the basic hippie-trip synopsis. 1967 was the summer of love. 1968 saw tremendous strife and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. 1969 was the year of Woodstock, followed by the tragic Altamont concert. In 1970, everybody pulled back and began “tending their own gardens,” as it were.

What makes Dawn of The Dead so interesting is not so much the history, but the insider’s view of it that we get to see through the Dead‘s eyes. One very effective ploy is to show how the group’s albums during this period evolved, and reflected the world around them. While their first album, simply titled The Grateful Dead (1967) was not an unmitigated disaster, it is widely agreed that they were simply not ready to enter the studio when it was recorded. They were still in many ways a “street” band, and had not yet defined their music, outside of the jam element.

Their second effort, Anthem of the Sun (1968) was much closer to the avant-garde spirit they embodied, perhaps too much for some. Like the first album, it did not exactly set the world on fire sales-wise. There was still a huge hype around all things related to San Francisco however, so the label green-lit what would eventually become Aoxomoxoa (1969).

As a studio entity, the guys were still finding their way. During one of the interviews, former manager Rock Scully explains that they were about $100,000 into recording Aoxomoxoa, and the pressure was really on. So they struck a deal to release a live double album as a stopgap, which would essentially give Warner Bros. three albums for the price of one. It was a brilliant move for the band, because it not only calmed the executives down, but Live/Dead (1969) was the best representation of what The Grateful Dead were all about that anyone could ask for.

Although there is some interview footage with Jerry Garcia included from as late as 1993, the timeline of the film basically ends in 1970. That year saw them “getting back to their roots” with the release of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. It is an appropriate place to stop, because the band was entering the next phase of what would become a very long and rewarding career. Dawn of The Dead does a fine job of detailing those crucial first years, and is recommended.

Music Review: Strings of Consciousness - From Beyond Love

Strings of Consciousness are the outstanding musical duo HervĂ© Vincenti and Philippe Petit, plus a revolving cast of others. They have managed to bring in some stellar guest stars for their latest release, From Beyond Love. Among those who appear on the record are Julie Christmas (Made Out of Babies), Andria Degens (Pantaleimon/Current 93), Graham Lewis (Wire), Cosey Fanni Tutti (Throbbing Gristle), and a remarkable duet featuring Lydia Lunch and Oxbow’s Eugene Robinson. From Beyond Love is the second installment of Strings of Consciousness’ trilogy of records featuring guest vocalists. It is also a pretty incredible collection of songs in its own right.

As the origins of the various vocalists testify, the musical directions of the group are very eclectic. Each of the five tracks have their own distinct sound and feel, and the use of different vocalists on each amplifies this. They are almost a new band on each cut, although there are certain trademarks which connect the whole thing together.

The title alone of opening track “The Drone From Beyond Love” was enough to give me pause. The amplified cello of Alison Chesley from Helen Money is a powerful force in the spooky, yet brilliant introduction. The portions where the title is delivered as almost a chant and the guitar solos are also outstanding elements to this intriguing piece of music.

As mentioned, there are many directions that the musical collective pursue, but it is when Andy Diagram (Spaceheads / Pere Ubu) adds his trumpet which really made me stand up and take notice. This first happened on track two, “Sleepwalker.” Imagine if you will, Miles Davis taking a trip to Manchester back in 1980 to record for Factory Records. The combination of his signature sound with the brilliant post-punk of Joy Division or Crispy Ambulance are what this cut brings to mind for me. Pretty amazing stuff.

Both “Bugged” and “Finzione” are very atmospheric, but in different ways. Besides another appearance from Andy Diagram‘s trumpet, “Bugged” has a strangely appropriate early-80’s effect. It is almost as if The Fixx’s nuclear-fear anthem “Saved By Zero” has been covered in the post-apocalyptic world.

The fifth and final piece will undoubtedly get the most attention. “Hurt Is Where The Home Is” (19:19) features the fearsome duet between Lydia Lunch and Eugene Robinson previously mentioned. It plays out as an extended domestic dispute over some of the most disconcerting tones one could think of. But at nearly 20-minutes, that is certainly not all there is going here. In fact, “Hurt Is Where the Home Is” is structured much like a mini-symphony, with multiple parts.

After about seven-minutes of horror, with Lydia bitching and Eugene moaning, a beat comes in, slowly changing the tenor. When the guitar comes along at around the 13-minute mark, the dominance of it is jarring - while Eugene’s voice has turned into a scream. During the long fade from this climactic moment, Andy Diagram’s trumpet is again featured. By the end, one is well and truly worn out, and happily so.

From Beyond Love is a wildly experimental album, and I mean that in the most complimentary fashion. This musical collective has made it work in many different ways, which is a difficult thing to pull off. The recording is available in both CD and LP formats, from the great Staubgold label. This is one which may be easiest to find by the clicking over to the Forced Exposure site, which is the exclusive North American distributor of the set.

DVD Review: Smithsonian Channel - Aerial America, Pacific Rim Collection

For those who have never seen the Aerial America program on the Smithsonian Channel, they have been missing out on some amazing footage of the United States. For the new DVD, Aerial America: Pacific Rim Collection, the producers have collected four episodes covering the West Coast: California, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii. As a lifelong left-coast resident, I must say that I was quite surprised at how much of this material I had never seen before. And viewing some of the sites from the air is an incredible way to experience it.

The DVD begins in California. On the surface, the set-up may seem a little basic. The show is primarily a 250-mile journey from San Simeon to San Francisco, on the Pacific Coast Highway. The episode is anything but “basic,” however, as it presents some of the most striking footage of the entire set. The view of the famous Hearst Castle is something to see, and other notable stops include the old Cannery Row in Monterey, and the boardwalk in Santa Cruz.
It is the fantastic California coastline which grabs the most attention however. It is little wonder the state’s nickname is The Golden State.

From California, we head 2550 miles across the Pacific to the six islands that make up Hawaii. The first stop is the island of Hawaii itself, the largest in the chain. Besides the glorious scenery are some fascinating facts. One thing I found pretty incredible is that the first humans arrived on the island around 500 A.D., by boat from the Polynesians, some 2500 miles away.

The island of Kauai hosts Mount Kilauea, which is the most active volcano on the planet. It has been spewing lava continuously since 1983, and the lava itself has extended the coastline some 500 acres, with no sign of stopping. We are then off to Maui, home to the remains of the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, who once said “If there is a heaven on earth, it is here.”

Lanai is completely privatized, filled with resorts and high-end hotels. It was there that Bill Gates (then the richest man in the world) was married in 1994. Oahu is home to the biggest city in the state, Honolulu, and for this reason is the most modern looking. We end up on Kuwaii, the sixth and final island, a truly beautiful location.

The following episode finds us back on the mainland, with a visit to Oregon. What I found illuminating about this one was the revelation of just how much of the state is built upon millennia-old lava flows. The program begins in the state’s biggest city, Portland. The mighty Columbia River forms the border between Washington and Oregon, and Portland is located right on its southern edge.

Follow the river west, and it feeds into the Pacific Ocean. This spot is called “The Graveyard of the Pacific.” The surface is surprising placid looking, yet the undercurrent is incredibly turbulent. Over 2000 ships have been lost in this spot over the past 200 years. The former logging town of Astoria sits at this location, and the bridge connecting it to the rest of Oregon is four miles long. It is the longest truss bridge in the United States.
Facts like these, and the obligatory mentions that the Nike company began in Portland, and Google houses the majority of its massive series of servers there are intriguing facts as well. But it is the Oregon scenery that is the real draw. The footage of the deepest lake in the nation, Crater Lake - and its surrounding mountain range is spectacular, to mention just one of many highlights.

The final program takes us to Washington, and it is structured in much the same form as the Oregon one. While there is a fair amount of focus on nature, there is also lot of information about big businesses as well. This seemed a little unnecessary to me. I mean, doesn’t basically everyone know that Starbucks and Microsoft began in Seattle? At least they didn’t go off on a grunge tangent.

As I think I have made clear, Smithsonian Channel: Arial America - Pacific Rim Collection appeals the most to me when they focus on natural wonders. The air views of Mount St. Helens are especially interesting. The volcano famously exploded in May 1980, and caused an incredible amount of destruction. It is eye-opening to see how much life has returned to the area 32 years later. The federally protected Olympic National Forest is something to see as well. It is one of the only spots in the country with centuries-old timber remaining (by law), and the forest is a pretty spectacular sight.

The four episodes of the single-DVD Smithsonian Channel: Arial America - Pacific Rim Collection total just over 200 minutes, with no bonus material. For fans of stunning vistas, and intriguing stories, these programs are well worth watching.

Music Review: Daphne Oram - The Daphne Oram Tapes: Volume One

Although the BBC Radiophonic Workshop is not very well-known, even in a lot of electronic music circles, the work they did was extraordinary, and known or unknown, the Workshop has had an enormous impact. The most recognizable use of their music is probably the wonderfully hypnotizing theme from the long-running Dr. Who show. The Radiophonic Workshop was responsible for so much more though, and is just now beginning to be recognized for their contributions to the music at large.

Studio Engineer Daphne Oram (1925-2003) was primarily responsible for the formation of the Workshop. Yet under the yoke of the Beeb, she soon began to strafe at what she felt were the creative limitations imposed on her. She left the Radiophonic Workshop in 1959, to set up her own shop called Tower Folly. Her interest in electronic sound was an abiding passion, and stayed with her all her life. While many effects and the like were used by the BBC, she created a great deal more music which is just now coming to light.

If Daphne Oram represented one thing more than any other, it was a willingness to experiment. The Young Americans label has just issued The Daphne Oram Tapes: Volume One, and the two-disc set contains some brilliant examples of her work. As the title indicates, this is only the first volume of what promises to be a multi-part series. When Daphne passed in 2003, she left behind an enormous archive of reel-to-reel tapes, over 400 according to the Daphne Oram Trust which is administering them.

One of the quirks, or maybe just artistic drive of Daphne Oram was the fact that while she saved all of this material, she did not catalog it. So the chronology of the various pieces has been nearly impossible to sort out. Therefore, what the producers have done is to present the various pieces (39 in all), in a narrative more focused on an emotional flow than anything else.

There are numerous treasures here, including excerpts of her work for Stanley Kubrick’s classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Another fascinating element of the set is the illustration of how Daphne Oram worked. Rather than submit written proposals to secure commissions, she would offer up tapes of her works in progress. Some of these are included in the package, complete with her audio explanations of what they represent, and where she intended to take them. This offers an intriguing way to hear just how this musical magician worked.

The two-hour collection features numerous highlights, among these are the 13-minute “Oxford,” her famous Anacin commercial (excerpted), and a number of works of her “Pulse Persephone” piece. Obviously there is a great deal more on these CDs to immerse oneself in, and I have only scratched the surface here. But to pick out individual tracks is not really the point. As the notes indicate, the set was not only programmed to follow an internal logic all its own, but as a listening experience it most definitely works best that way.

The packaging is also notable, as it is great example of a way around the limited artwork and liner notes of most CDs. The set comes in a six-panel oversized digipak, and includes a lengthy essay about Daphne’s life and work.

There are a number of sources that I recommend to learn more about the amazing life and music of Daphne Oram. The first is the Daphne Oram website itself. For ordering information, a great place to go would be the Young Americans distributor, Forced Exposure.

TV Review: Johnny Carson: The King of Late Night

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Johnny Carson’s reign as host of The Tonight Show, and the 20th since his retirement. His tenure as the King of Late Night was one which will likely never be approached by any of his would-be successors, and it is a little hard to believe that so much time has passed since he graced the airwaves. The excellent PBS series American Masters is premiering the two-hour Johnny Carson: King of Late Night on Monday, May 14, 2012. It is a show which should not be missed.

One of the most insightful comments comes early on from Jerry Seinfeld. He recalls that among his fellow up-and-coming comic friends, the subject of who would eventually replace Carson often came up. Various names would be bandied around, but as Seinfeld puts it, “Nobody realized that Carson was taking it with him.”

Indeed, as much as we may like Jay Leno, David Letterman, or even Conan O’Brien, nobody comes close to the magic Johnny Carson delivered night after night. What one notices again and again in the various clips is just how effortlessly Carson made it all look. Of course, it was anything but - yet somehow Johnny Carson pulled it off.

While Johnny Carson: King of Late Night is quite naturally a celebration of his career, the show is balanced. The man had his share of troubles, most notably in his personal relationships. There is a heart-breaking story of a Time magazine writer who was working on a Carson feature, and watched a show with Johnny’s mother. She watched his monologue, then dismissed it as “Not very good,” and walked out of the room. This type of behavior very likely contributed to his own estrangement with his children.

Carson also had trouble staying married, as his three divorces attest. Bob Newhart tells a story of being invited over to Johnny’s house to visit just after his third divorce, as Johnny was feeling particularly blue. The most devastating event of Carson’s life was the death of his son Richard in 1991. As may be expected, and is confirmed through various interviews, Johnny Carson was never really the same afterwards.

The main focus of the program though is positive. With the stellar reputation American Masters enjoys, they were able to interview nearly 50 people for the show. There are a great number of funny anecdotes, and vintage footage of first appearances from Seinfeld, Drew Carey, and others.

What I found especially illuminating is how Johnny Carson spent the years after his retirement. He was never in the news, and turned down all requests for appearances. Rather, he seemed to enjoy his retirement thoroughly, and spent a great deal of time reading in the yard of his Malibu home.

This American Masters biography of Johnny Carson is the best, and most informative one I have seen, and there have been a number of them over the years. This one is well worth tuning into, and does an outstanding job of presenting all sides of the television legend.

Music Review: Nicolas Bernier - Travaux Mecaniques

Discussions of “The soul of the machine” have been going on since at least the time of the Luddites, and probably since the debut of the wheel. This is one of the reasons that I enjoy the new Nicolas Bernier album Travaux Mecaniques so much. On this new DVD-Audio, Bernier explores the subject primarily through the use of electronic music, which makes for a nice bit of irony.

The five tracks that make up Travaux Mecaniques are concerned with the sounds of industry in many different forms. One description of the album would be to call it musique concrete. That term certainly applies, but there is much more to this recording than that somewhat simplified musical categorization would imply. There is no doubt in my mind that each of the five pieces were deeply thought out, yet the overall effect sounds random. This speaks to the compositional talents of Nicolas Bernier, for it must be a very difficult thing to make music that sounds as if the machines are playing themselves.

For this listener, one of the most compelling tracks is “Les chambres de l’atelier” (10:48). As Bernier describes it in his liner notes, the piece is “The workshop. A place of sudden agitation, of ideas both clear and unclear that disappear just as quickly as they surge.” During this track, both electric and non-electric sounds converge to create a mysterious and oddly intriguing ambience.

Even more fascinating to me is “Writing Machine” (15:28). The piece is inspired by the famous “cut-up” writing technique of William S. Burroughs, and “By some similarities between his writing, and electroacoustic composition,” as Bernier again states in his notes. The use of disconnected spoken word elements, along with a great deal of various tonal directions certainly adds up to a very interesting listening experience. It shows just how effective this music can be when a composer of Bernier’s obvious talent treats sound as an all-encompassing ecosystem.

Nicolas Bernier’s Travaux Mecaniques has been released on the Canadian empreintes DIGITALes label, who specialize in some of the most adventurous electronic music currently available. Check out their website for more information about Travaux Mecaniques, and other electroacoustic artists on the label.

Book Review: Frank Sinatra: A Life In Pictures, Edited by Yann-Brice Dherbier

“His name is Sinatra, and he thinks he’s the best voice in the business. Would you believe it? Nobody’s ever heard of him. He’s never had a hit, and looks like a wet rag, but he says he’s the greatest!” So said bandleader Harry James to a newspaper in 1939 about his latest prospect, one Francis Albert Sinatra. Frank Sinatra was arguably the single most influential vocalist of the twentieth century, and definitely the one who lived the most outsized life. The new book Frank Sinatra: A Life In Pictures captures some of the greatest shots of him over the course of a monumental 50-year career.

As the title indicates, this is primarily a book of photographs. I have to give credit to the introductory text however. While this 15-page biography is certainly no Frank: The Voice, it does a nice job of outlining the broad strokes of Sinatra’s life.
Obviously though, the attraction is the pictures, and there are some beauties in here. There are a number of well-known photos, such as the mug shot that hung in Tony Soprano’s office in The Sopranos. Other notable pictures include Frank with JFK and with Ava Gardner. There are also quite a number of vintage movie posters and album covers reproduced.

What I found most intriguing however were the not-so-famous pictures, of which there are a great many. From a candid shot of Frank (on the phone) in the kitchen with first wife Nancy, and daughter Nancy (1943), all the way up to an image captured live in concert in 1984, these photos are the real reason to buy Frank Sinatra: A Life In Pictures.

With so much little-known material, the book is a treasure trove to be sure. The main complaint I have is that I wish there were more Rat Pack pictures, because for a lot of us fans, this was his definitive period. That point is certainly open to debate however, with an artist whose career spanned decades. This is a truly marvelous collection of pictures, and I doubt that any Frank Sinatra fan will be disappointed by it.

Music Review: Tim Berne - Snakeoil

Saxophonist Tim Berne is a remarkably prolific musician, with over 40 albums to his name since his 1979 debut, The Five Year Plan. Over the years, he has recorded for a number of labels, including his own Empire as well as Screwgun Records. His latest is titled Snakeoil, for ECM Records. On it he plays well with such artists as Oscar Noriega (clarinet), Mat Mitchell (piano), and Ches Smith (drums and percussion). Snakeoil is an interesting mix of the avant-garde and the accessible, often in the same song.

Take the nearly 14 minute opening track “Simple City.” For one thing, it is anything but simple. My guess is that it's his ode to his adopted home of New York, and if so, it is a mighty effective one. The track begins with an introductory segment featuring Mitchell’s piano, and some great drum fills from Smith. From there we are into somewhat familiar jazz territory with an accessible (for Berne) melody. The tune closes out with some more piano work, this time minus the drums.

A somewhat similar structure informs the longest piece on the album, “Spare Parts” (14:10). This track opens with Berne’s sax, along with a rolling drum accompaniment from Smith. I actually find that Ches Smith may well be the unsung hero of Snakeoil, he always seems to be in the right place at the right time. The song has a number of segments (if you will), for after this introductory portion we are treated to a very beautiful piano/sax duet, followed by a piano solo, and winding up with a piano/drum duet. An outstanding composition all the way around.

Without a doubt, “Spare Parts” emphasizes what I like best about Snakeoil. The blend of dissonance with the more melodic sounds of Berne’s sax in particular work especially well. My only criticism is in what I consider to be an over reliance on the tried and true “avant-garde” directions he and Mitchell take at times. Varying from the high end to the low end of the tonal palette in rapid succession is an all too obvious choice. Once in a while it is fine, but as practically the only strategy for displaying a willingness to experiment, it becomes a bit tiring.

All in all though, Snakeoil is an excellent introduction to what Tim Berne is all about and as such is recommended.

Music Review: The Billy Hart Quartet - All Our Reasons

The Billy Hart Quartet was originally known as the Ethan Iverson/Mark Turner Quartet when they formed in 2003. When Hart asked if it could be “his” band for a hometown gig in Montclair, NJ, the other members unanimously voted to give it to him permanently. After listening to the Quartet’s latest ECM release, All Our Reasons, it is clear that this group could have been named for any one of the members, as they all contribute mightily to the final product.

Just to make things clear, the members of the Quartet are Ben Street (double-bass), Turner (tenor saxophone), Iverson (piano), and Hart (drums). All four members have been playing together for a long time, and it certainly shows in their work. I have always felt that the quartet setting is the quintessential format for a jazz band, and the Billy Hart Quartet bolsters this opinion immensely here.

Fittingly enough, All Our Reasons begins with a drum solo, on the opening ballad “Song For Balkis.” As often happens throughout the album, Turner’s sax then comes in to lead the piece in an evocative direction. Next is the intriguingly titled “Ohnedaruth,” which as it turns out, was John Coltrane’s adopted spiritual name. Despite the nod to ‘Trane, I actually found Iverson’s piano to be the real star of this track, although Turner’s sax lines are pretty great as well.

As far as a “star” of this set goes, I would be tempted to nominate the piano of Iverson. Maybe it’s just me, but I find his playing on “Duchess” to be incredibly moving. The song is actually a Billy Hart composition, and was originally released on his Oshumare album back in 1985 on the Gramavision label. Both versions are outstanding, and listening to them back-to-back provides an interesting contrast between Hart’s earlier outfit, and the current quartet.

At 1:42, “Old Wood” is an improvisational solo piece by Iverson which works as a nice introduction to the final “Imke’s March.” There is a very personal element to the track added by Hart, as the song begins and ends with a whistled melody that he used to call his daughter in from the playground. There is an interesting, almost fusion-ish quality to the track, and it closes the album out on a definite high note.

Between them, the four members of the Billy Hart Quartet have played with the likes of Miles Davis, Wes Montgomery, McCoy Tyner, Lee Konitz, Paul Motian, and many others. All Our Reasons is testament to their collective talents, and is one of the better jazz albums I have heard in some time.

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

Since their formation in 2009, the Aggronautix company have specialized in some very cool accessories for music fans with their line of Throbbleheads. These are bobblehead dolls, commemorating some of punk rock’s greatest heroes. Their first was the late GG Allin, and it proved to be a big hit, selling out its run of 2000 very quickly. The company never looked back, and since then have released quite a few more Throbbleheads, including ones of Wendy O. Williams, Jello Biafra, “Handsome” Dick Manitoba, and many others. The company’s next most successful doll was that of Milo of the Descendents, which was another instant hit. It did so well in fact, that they have just issued Milo V2, in a limited edition of 2,000.

This second edition of Milo resembles the first one in many ways, although there are some differences. The new Milo doll stands seven inches tall, is made of a lightweight polyresin. The details are great, Milo is wearing his trademark bookworm glasses, and is sporting the classic Milo Goes To College T-shirt. The box art by Marco Palumbo is impressive as well, and is featured on all four sides of the box.

I imagine these Throbbleheads are quite collectible in certain circles, as limited edition items generally are. In the case of the first Milo Throbblehead, it was only released as a 1,000 unit run. As Milo himself states on the Aggronautix website, "You can blame me for the V1 selling out," he says. “I told Aggronautix to only make 1,000, and that they'd be lucky to unload a few hundred."

Milo V2 is actually the fourteenth Throbblehead the company have issued, and they have most definitely carved out an interesting niche in the rock memorabilia market. While there is no shortage of swag devoted to classic rock acts, there is still very little out there for us old punks. Aggronautix is changing that with these Throbbleheads, and they do a great job. I have seen Throbbleheads in local record stores, but they are few and far between. A good bet is the Aggronautix site itself, where they also offer up some cool comic books, CDs, DVDs, and even vinyl. Well worth checking out, and if you missed the first Milo, here is your second chance.

DVD Review: Shazzan - The Complete Series

"Inside a cave off the coast of Maine, Chuck and Nancy find a mysterious chest containing the halves of a strange ring. When joined, the ring forms the word ‘Shazzan!’ and with this magical command, they are transported back to the fabled land of the Arabian Nights. Here they meet their Genie, Shazzan. Shazzan presents them with Kaboobie, a magical flying camel. Shazzan will serve them whenever they call, but he cannot return them home until they deliver the ring to its rightful owner. And thus begins their incredible journey."

So goes the introduction to the long-lost Hanna-Barbera action-adventure cartoon series Shazzan, which ran from 1967-1969. Over the two seasons that Shazzan originally aired, there were a total of 36 episodes made, all are now available on the new two-DVD set, Shazzan: The Complete Series.

This was a surreal cartoon. Being set in the magical world of the Arabian Nights, anything and everything is possible. Every episode finds our young heroes faced with some strange, nefarious creature(s), with only Shazzan to save them. Sometimes the bad guys separate the two though, and both halves of the ring must be brought together to be able to call up Shazzan. This is when Kaboobie often comes to the rescue, flying one of them to the other in order to call up their genie.

The sheer number of evil-doers the kids run into on their journey is pretty impressive. A few of these include The Black Sultan, sea monsters, an evil hunter, a huge one-eyed ogre, and many more. I like how they communicate with their flying camel Kaboobie as well. Two years before Scooby-Doo arrived on the scene, Kaboobie and Scooby voice artist Don Messick was able to hone his talents.

The DVDs are neatly separated into season one and season two, with a total of nine shows on each. Each half-hour show contained two 15-minute Shazzan episodes. The set includes one bonus feature, titled “The Power of Shazzan,” which runs for 5:40.

Shazzan: The Complete Series is a Manufacture-on-Demand (MOD) release, and is available exclusively in the United States.

Music Review: Keith Jarrett - Mysteries / Shades (Impulse 2-on-1)

With over 100 albums to his credit, Keith Jarrett has always been an incredibly prolific artist. But the 1970s were a particularly fertile time for Mr. Jarrett, as he found success as a bandleader, as a sideman, and as a solo artist. Keith started the decade as a member of Miles Davis’ groundbreaking electric band. His solo Koln Concert double-set for ECM became a huge seller upon release in 1975. But some of the most interesting music he recorded in those years is among his most obscure. Jarrett was signed to the Impulse label from 1973-1977, and released seven recordings with what has come to be known as his “American” quartet.

The quartet consisted of Keith Jarrett (piano), Dewey Redman (sax), Charlie Haden (bass), and Paul Motian (drums), plus a rotating cast of percussionists. As part of the new Impulse 2-on-1 CD series, the albums Mysteries and Shades are now available together on a single disc at a budget price. The pairing is perfect, as both albums came out of the same 1975 sessions, and were later released separately in 1976. Guilherme Franco plays percussion throughout.

Impulse is known as “The House That Trane Built,” in deference to the massive impact of the label’s biggest star, John Coltrane. On Mysteries’ 15:19 title track, the quartet acknowledge the ongoing influence of ’Trane, with a piece not unlike some of his finest mid-sixties work. This is Keith Jarrett’s project however, and his amazing piano improvisational work is always present. He states his case most impressively on the opening “Rotation,” and while Redman is offered plenty of opportunities to blow, Keith is always in command.

Shades also contains four tracks, and is much closer to “straight” jazz, than to the avant-garde, at least most of the time. We begin with “Shades of Jazz,” which takes me back to what is often referred to as Miles Davis’ “second great quintet,” and classic albums such as E.S.P. and Miles Smiles. “Rose Petals” has to be the prettiest song of the eight, for Jarrett’s solo alone. If John Coltrane is the template, I would have to compare this one to his beautiful treatment of the ballad “After The Rain.” As one might infer from the title of the closing track of Shades, “Diatribe” is no pleasant stroll through the park. Redman really lets it fly here, and the rest of the quartet are right behind him.

Both Mysteries and Shades present a side of Keith Jarrett that is quite different from the introspective solo works he was recording for ECM during this time. The albums have held up well over the years, and are definitely worth checking out.