Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Modern English: A Viable Resurgence

It has come to my attention recently that this month marks the 30-year anniversary of The Joshua Tree, U2's game-changing album that, with a little help from MTV, became a watershed moment for four unassuming lads from Dublin, and would forever inform the musical landscape of 80's rock'n'roll. And so here we are, three decades later - and besides feeling the ravages of time and space, we are also bearing witness to a resurgence of many of the innovative bands ushered in by the era of  The Buggles' "Video Killed The Radio Star" releasing new music for a new generation.

Two such artists in particular, Depeche Mode and Modern English, have given us new albums in 2017 - Spirit, DM's fourteenth CD, comes out at the end of the week. And only weeks earlier, Modern English (best known for the new-wave hit, "I'll Melt With You") quietly dropped the engaging Take Me To The Trees, marking the first new music by members of the original group in nearly three decades. My reviews of those albums are forthcoming, but let me just say in passing that Take Me To The Trees is surprising on several fronts - least of which is how much the new album wears like a sonic postscript to ME's auspicious AD label debut, Mesh and Lace - bearing a musical kinship to early Cure and Joy Division rather than the pop-accessibility of 82's After The Snow.

I sat down with frontman Robbie Grey prior to their appearance at the iconic South By Southwest festival (where you'll find them this week) as they embark on a North American tour that will make stops in Boston, Seattle, Denver, New York City and Toronto - to talk about the band reunion, the new album, the miracle of crowdfunding, and the current political landscape:

                                                 © Mike Hipple

DG: What was the impetus for you guys to get back in the studio and record after so many years? After all, the original lineup hadn't done anything in decades.....

RG: That's a good question (laughs). What happened was, the bass player (Michael Conroy) moved close to my home in England, and he dropped me a line via email. Shortly after that, we met up and talked about old times and such, and he suggested getting the band back together. After I stopped laughing, I asked him, "Are you sure? You're talking about all the original members?" and he said, "Yes." So over a period of several months, we tried to get in touch with everybody. Initially, the idea was to see if we could create some new music together - and we put a tremendous effort into doing just that. This all happened about six years ago in terms of us reuniting - the only person from the original lineup that we couldn't get was Richard Brown, our drummer.

DG: Did the new album emerge as a result of those jam sessions? Sort of as an outgrowth of how well you were all getting on?

RG: Yeah. It was definitely a nice moment when we started rehearsing in a ring together, and realized that nothing had really gone away as far as our chemistry goes. And as we began putting pieces together and writing songs, we found ourselves working in the exact way that we had always done. It became a really satisfying creative process that we all enjoyed. At the same time, we started going back out and doing gigs again - in the back of my mind I suppose I had been thinking about us coming up with a new album.

DG: What is the significance behind the album title, Take Me To The Trees? Ecological subtext, maybe?

RG: I wouldn't necessarily call it a 'conceptual album.'  After the Snow was probably our biggest record, commercially-speaking, and was a more controlled approach to our songwriting than its predecessor Mesh and Lace, which was more about atmosphere and sound. Nature plays quite a big part in where I've been living: we all grew up around London, which is very cosmopolitan, and now the majority of us live outside of a bustling city. I also have a home in Thailand, where I'm surrounded by birds and nature and abundant sunshine. And trees. I think Nature is our link between the past and present, so perhaps I'm suggesting a return to something almost spiritual - the track "Moonbeam" I wrote while I was at my home in Thailand, and that environment certainly contributed to the song, lyrically-speaking.

DG: I find it interesting you note similarities between After The Snow and Take Me To The Trees - in fact, you tell me you see the new album as sort of a companion piece to ATS. Yet for me, I don't hear anything reminiscent of the poppish overtones of "I'll Melt With You." Did you feel as if there were any pressure or expectation to reprise your biggest selling tune when making this recording?

RG: Oh no, not at all. That's one of the good things about the album - it doesn't have the pressure of a record company pushing us to drive the sound in a certain direction. The album was funded by a PledgeMusic campaign, so it's our fans who rallied behind us to make the record happen. They allowed us the freedom to do what we wanted to do. There was never any pressure on us to write another "I'll Melt With You", which frankly, we wouldn't be able to do anyway. If we turned around and tried to write "I'll Melt With You" again, let's face it - it wouldn't work. That isn't to say that other tunes on the album don't have a more commercial appeal to them, "Moonbeam" certainly qualifies - it's being picked up on major market radio stations in England, while the song "I Feel Small" is now getting airplay in the States.

DG: Previewing tracks on your Soundcloud page, I was particularly taken by the single, "You're Corrupt." Upon first listen, it hearkened to the mood and feel of "A Viable Commercial" from Mesh and Lace...

RG: Yay! It's funny that you mentioned "A Viable Commercial" - you caught us in the middle of rehearsals, and we were just practicing that song to be part of the setlist on tour. We'll be playing a bunch of Mesh and Lace tunes when we hit South by Southwest: "Commercial", "Sixteen Days", "Moving Lights", "Swans On Glass."It's gratifying to me that you picked up on us wanting to get back to the urgency that you can hear on those songs with the new disc.

DG: Getting back to "You're Corrupt" - I also sense a little political subtext lurking beneath the surface of that tune. Given the current political climate, globally speaking, I'm wondering if any of that found its way, either directly or covertly, into that song, or the album as a whole?

RG: I'd have to say that this album has no 'agenda', per se - what was of utmost importance to us was that we write and record songs we could feel good about, and that it be recorded in a live setting, versus getting caught up in overdubbing and multi-tracking stuff. I think the energy of that process is what you're hearing on the album - we miked a lot of the tracks in an art gallery setting with us all playing together. Lyrically, I was reconnecting to a lot of the anger and disillusionment I used to feel in the early days when we were starting out, and sadly very little has changed in terms of the social landscape.

When we first toured America in the 80's, you had Ronald Reagan as your President. And now, we're coming back to the States - where the clown known as Donald Trump is your President. So in that respect, there's very little difference - if anything, things have taken a considerable nosedive. What happened to the "Great Black Hope" of Obama? What happened to the "Clinton Years" of the white middle-class? It's unbelievable what a joke it's turned out being....and I'm not just singling out America here. Europe is no better, really - I mean, we've got the thing with Brexit, where you have the underclass who are fighting to be heard - but no one listens anymore. Politics has always been about jobs, about money, about power, about favors. It's never been about helping people.

DG: Then would you say on some level, "You're Corrupt" is a rebuttal to those things, or am I being a typical journalist who's reading too much into it?

RG: Oh no - it's absolutely about that. It's about everything we've been discussing in terms of what's going on in the world today. And for some reason, the majority of modern musicians don't seem to be addressing these things. Looking back, in my time - that was something musicians always addressed.

DG: And how much of that complacency is abetted by the music business? I mean, I can go to Billboard.com on any given week, listen to the Hot 100, and virtually every single tune there is musically indistinguishable from one another (Robbie laughs). Does it make things harder for artists who use outside means and more alternative avenues to get their message to the people?

RG: I think we have a variety of demographics in our audience - there will always be that segment of the audience that we know is just waiting for us to launch into "I'll Melt With You", and probably came looking forward to hearing that song. And then there's a segment loyal to Mesh and Lace who will be waiting on us to do "Sixteen Days" and "Gathering Dust." But as a captive audience, at least you can expose them to other tunes that they'll come to appreciate. In terms of what's 'hot' these days, I really don't listen to what they're doing. When the era of X-Factor and The Voice came along, I pretty much gave up on the contemporary music scene. Because I've got some money, I can afford to do what I want - not meaning to sound high and mighty, it's just that I have the freedom to pursue my creativity and not have to worry about things. Modern English is no longer a business - we're just a bunch of guys doing what we love, and that's making music.

The dates for Modern English's "Take Me To The Trees" US tour can be found at the link below:

The new album is available through iTunes and most digital outlets:

Friday, February 3, 2017

Hanging On The Telephone With.........Mike Watt

My conversation with Mike about "Ring Spiel Tour, '95", politics, music and.......Happy Days?

                                                     © Kevin Mazur

DG: Hey Mike, I wanna thank you for sharing some of my work with the blueprint conspiracy (including the collaboration with Morphine's Dana Colley) on your podcast, The Watt From Pedro Show. I'm thrilled to be included with other eclectic artists on your playlists....

MW: Well, I dig the stuff you're doing, man. But I guess we should be talking about the Ring Spiel album right? I'm a little tight on interviews today. Whaddaya want to know?

DG: Correct me if I'm wrong, but the album captures a leg of your tour in 1995 in support of your solo debut, ballhog or tugboat?

MW: Yeah. That tour and album turned twenty-one last year. I guess that makes it legal now. But I mean, you can't call it a solo album.....not really. There's 48 musicians working with me on ball hog or tugboat?. Even if it's "your own band", there's still this sense of working with others, so it's not just about me, anyway. And I like that.

DG: That being the case, what was the impetus then to step out as "Mike Watt" instead of fIREHOSE or creating another band?

MW: After logging in about eight years with fIREHOSE, I thought it was time to put another project together, with a different group of guys. That evolved into working with 48 musicians from 17 different bands - that's the kind of thing you can make happen in the studio, not in real life. So what I did was set up sessions in Seattle, New York and L.A., and I used the metaphor of the 'wrestling ring' to say, "Come on down.......I got a song for you - show me what you got!" The way I see it, if the bass player brings the tune, then anyone can join in on guitar, drums, vocals, whatever. And that's always been the way I look at my role as a bass player - am I there to aid and abet the other musicians, or am I gonna just be a 'glory hog' and just mess everything up. It's sorta like a petri dish, where you put these elements together in the same environment, and see what it congeals into.

DG: And so how long did the entire recording process take?

MW: Well, we laid down tracks in New York, L.A. and Seattle - a couple of days in each. So I'd say about a week, give or take a day.

DG: Really? That quickly?

MW: I just wanted to 'hit and run' - being in that moment with these guys in studio, including Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters, who had just gone solo with his band), Pat Smear (The Germs), and Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam), whose side-project Hovercraft, opened for me during the '95 tour. Sometimes they would coax me onstage during their set - I'd be standing in the middle, listening to what they were laying down, and just jam on it.

                         © Kevin Mazur

DG: Speaking of Eddie, I just gotta say it's amazing what he brought to your tune, "Against the 70's." I mean, how someone can express so brilliantly the punk energy of a movement he was too young to take part in at the time just blows my mind...

MW: Eddie nailed it. That's Carla Bozulich singing the background harmonies with him on it. That's Dave Grohl on drums. Dave's an incredible rock'n'roll drummer, I think.

DG: Forgive me in advance for how I'm about to phrase this question.........but what was the broader message you were trying to convey on "Against The 70's"?

MW: Actually I was thinking back to my childhood, and to a much earlier decade......the one of Happy Days and American Graffiti I remember once my Dad and I were watching that show with Fonzie and Potsie and the gang, and him leaning over to me and saying, "Boy....those were NOT happy days!" (laughter). That's sorta what I was relating to there - it's the marketing of sentimentalism (song lyric: "The kids of today should defend themselves against the 70's/It's not reality, just someone else's sentimentality/It wont work for you"). I wasn't really pointing at any one generation in particular - it's like the Credence (Clearwater Revival) song "Looking Out My Back Door" (Mike begins singing): "Tambourines and elephants are playing in the band/Wont you take a ride on the flying spoon?/Do do do.....Bother me tomorrow, today I'll buy no sorrows." Culture always gets co-opted to make it more palatable. Little Richard once said Pat Boone sang his tune "Tutti Fruitti" for the living room, but he sang it for the bedroom! But who sold more copies? Pat did.

DG: Some would say, judging from the current political/culture climate, we yearn to return to that sentimentality, whether it serves the greater good or not. Do you see within that a resurgence of DIY, anti-establishment ethos ushered in by the punk movement?

MW: Oh, it goes back much further than that. I was talking with a buddy of mine, and he reminded me that there is always a counterculture, an insurgency lurking beneath the surface of all societies - you saw it during the speakeasy days of Prohibition in the 20's.....heck, it goes back further than that. What about Walt Whitman? He was self-publishing back in the 1860's, railing against the civil war. I think he was even idealistic enough to believe his poems could put an end to the war, if folks would just listen.

DG: It seems to me, art affords us the opportunity to introduce subversive ideas and opinions in a manner that makes it more accessible, much more so than any other avenue of expression.

MW: I totally agree with you. A lot of times you have to 'code' your message. John Coltrane conveyed that in his tune, "Alabama." That tune is a powerful instrumental that grabs you by the heart, and there are no words. But as you listen, you have no doubt where the cat was coming from (editors note: Coltrane wrote "Alabama" in response to the infamous bombing of a black church in Birmingham in 1963). That's a perfect example of what you're talking about: it's a haunting melody that kinda forces folks to think about something heavy. How come I never hear guys talk about Walt Whitman and his DIY spirit? People wanna put everything in boxes.....it sells easier. You talk about 'letting your freak flag fly" man, and it's too scary.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Ten Albums That Mattered In 2016

A Heart Shaped Pool • Radiohead -

2011's King of Limbs album felt like Son of Eraser (too much minimal techno beats, not enough gravitas) - in other words, a solo Yorke disc, accompanied by the rest of the band. Luckily, what transpired in the interim was drummer Philip Selway's extraordinary Weatherhouse (which ended up on my Ten Albums That Mattered list in 2014) and much of that record's stately, baroque beauty informs A Moon Shaped Pool. Jonny Greenwood's nuanced orchestrations unveil the affectivity lost from Limbs, the guitars shimmer and strum, their sounds augmenting other instruments, imbued with sonic detritus that instead of overwhelming the songwriting, seasons the overall mortality-gazing angst of Thom Yorke, who was in high Sea Change mode following the dissolution of his longtime relationship. And yet, A Moon Shaped Pool transcends its "breakup album" pathos to become a larger meditation on the fragility of life, ambiguity, regret and consolation. "Dreamers, they never learn/Beyond the point of no return/And it's too late, the damage is done/This goes beyond me/Beyond you" Yorke laments on the cinematically-informed "Daydreaming" before proclaiming "We are just happy to serve..........you." That's Radiohead - the band that keeps on giving, even when all seems hopeless.

Talk • Daniel Johns -

This album earns the trophy for Most Unexpected Career U-Turn. The former lead singer/guitarist for Aussie grunge-pop turned alt-rock auteurs Silverchair delivers an impassioned, soulful debut that not only deserves inclusion on any playlist featuring Frank Ocean, John Legend and Justin Timberlake, but contains a singularity of vision and sentiment to make even the most Silverchair-hating critic sit up and take notice. From opening track "Aerial Love" (the consummate, finger snapping R'n'B slow jam) to John's wispy falsetto on "We Are Golden" and the piano-driven hip hop ballad "Preach" ("I find it hard to breathe the truth/I don't want a broken heart, I admit I'm living just inside my home...") and the electro-pop trappings on "Dissolve" and "Too Many", John bares his demons and desires with a voice that is by turns, angelic, seductive, weary yet cautiously optimistic "We are here with open arms..../you dangerous boy, we don't wanna feel 'cause we don't wanna hurt anymore." While part of me longs for a return to the Brian Wilsoneque trappings of Young Modern (and I hope this solo disc is just a momentary genre detour), Talk is an introspective odyssey of one man's very personal struggle with fame, addiction and recovery.

Blackstar • David Bowie -

If there's one thing we critics get off on, it's when an artist releases a swan song of an album, then suddenly dies days later. Heck, Ziggy - we didn't even know you were sick. Apparently you did, which is what adds to the mythology of Blackstar: the album is no subtle meditation on mortality: "I'm up here in heaven/I've got scars that can't be seen" are the opening lines on "Lazarus", the accompanying video a David Lynch-like cinema verité showing Bowie slowly wasting away in a hospital bed, with buttons taped to his face bandage, suggesting he's merely a dead man walking. Similarly, the title track can't be taken as anything less than a self assessment/critique of a long and storied musical career: "I'm a blackstar, I've got game/I want eagles in my daydreams...I'm not a pop star, I'm not a gangstar." Accompanied by Donny McCaslin's acid-jazz ensemble, there's a marvelous amalgamation of genres ("Blackstar" could easily have been a page from the Dead Can Dance playbook), mirroring the aural chameleon David Bowie has always been. But even in a work of this magnitude, the most heartfelt moment comes by way of the smooth jazz ballad "Dollar Days", which speaks of "cash girls" (read: hookers) "survivor sex" (read: post-HIV America), oligarchs and Social Security, while Bowie pretends not to miss "the English evergreens I'm running to" and the loaded refrain "I'm dying to......I'm dying, too" takes on an added poignancy.

Good Times! • The Monkees -

For going on 50 years now, The Monkees have been better than music critics give them credit for, and better than a pop-rock combo needed to be, and yet, driven by a hunger to prove something, they have given us some of the 60's best music - something even the hypocrites who deify Madonna at the RNRHOF can't take away from them. In commemoration of their Golden anniversary (are you really up to prognosticating where Madge will be 30+ years from now? I didn't think so), surviving members Dolenz, Tork and Nesmith get high with a little help from their newfound friends in Weezer, XTC, The Jam and Fountains of Wayne (Adam Schlesinger serves as producer), and the result is as much a love letter to the band, as it is to their fans. Unreleased sessions from their heyday are combined with new tunes written by Andy Partridge ("You Bring The Summer"), Rivers Cuomo ("She Makes Me Laugh"), and Ben Gibbard ("Me And Magdalena"), a strategy evocative of 1967's watershed Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd. Sunny harmonies (Dolenz's voice has lost none of its luster or charm), chiming guitars, singalong choruses and good vibrations abound - even on the dark, cryptic "Birth Of An Accidental Hipster" (which cross-pollinates "Writing Wrongs" with Pink Floyd's "Mathilde Mother") where Nesmith confesses, "Old friend say, "Oh, he's lost his way"/But they don't see what I can see/No, I'll never come back." Wrong, Nez - this is the comeback.

Monolith of Phobos • The Claypool/Lennon Delirium -

Now, this is what cross-generational protest rock should be all about: Cibo Matto lynchpin Sean Lennon teams up with Primus's Les Claypool, and the result is a brilliant debut, filled with musical ideas, lyrical heft, entrancing vocals and a playful dose of pop-sike experimentation that would make mentors like the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band proud. Lennon's sincere appreciation for one of the 60's most dismally overlooked outfits comes across in both the musical eclecticism and weary world-view expressed in Sean's takes on prescription addiction ("Oxycontin Girl"), the perversions of fame ("Bubbles Burst"), and life's existential questions (the title track.) Few folks would dare subvert Paul McCartney's walking bass line from "Taxman" (Claypool) into the tale of a peeping-Tom landlord electronically spying on his young tenant ("Mister Wright"), or create a Zappa-informed waltz vilifying our dystopian society, but Claypool/Lennon dare to go where even so-called hipster alt-rockers fear to tread. "We're reading your mail, and tapping your phone/If you don't like it, we'll send in the drones!" Sean warns on the acerbic "Ohmerica", "Oh say, can you see the twilight's last gleam?/The land of the free, the home of the naïve...." Fans of Beck and the Flaming Lips, run, don't walk to your nearest music outlet and pick this up, stat.

Stranger To Stranger • Paul Simon -

Leave it to the venerable Mr. Simon to deliver an album whose title is not only a thought-provoking double-entendre, but whose sonic trappings continue his appropriation-as-inspiration modus operandi. Here, the 'inspiration' comes by way of abstract composer/musician Harry Partch (Simon can actually be heard performing on several of Partch's innovative instruments), as well as electro-flamenco trappings courtesy of Christiano Crisci, aka: Clap!Clap! The latter's handiwork enhances the metaphorical "Wristband" (a song about exclusion, written apparently about a true incident where a bouncer at a club had the audacity not to recognize Simon for the star that he is), while echoes of the Chromelodeon and cloud chamber bowls mingle with Peruvian drums and gopichan on tracks like the impressionistic, Rhythm of the Saints-ish "Proof Of Love" (which reveals in five minutes precisely everything Simon gleaned from Sting during their On Stage Together tour).  Those quibbles aside, there is no mistaking that Simon's voice has never sounded as haunting, evocative or searching since ROTS, and it is nice to know he can still turn a phrase like "the riots started slowly, with the homeless and the lowly" with the matter-of-factness one would expect from an investigative journalist. Subversively political in its own way, Stranger To Stranger offers a much needed dose of social critique that goes down that much easier amidst a one-world beat manifesto.

American Band • Drive By Truckers -

I think it no cosmic coincidence that the eleventh studio album by Southern-rock saviors Drive By Truckers shares its name with a tune by Grand Funk Railroad - the anthemic, arena-rock aesthetic is one these guys have not only embraced, but perfected. And yet, whereas folks like Tom Petty merely allude to sociopolitical subtext, American Band finds DBT holding a mirror up to contemporary America - and they're not necessarily digging what they're seeing. "Ramon Casiano" wastes no time exposing the seedy underbelly of illegal immigration policy - "He became a border agent, and supplemented what he made with 'creative deportation'" Patterson Hood sings with an anguished drawl that occasionally hearkens to that Athens, GA boy, Michael Stipe. Indeed, on a purely musical level, this could be viewed as a feel-good, Southern tailgate party of an album - and that is what makes the lyrical zingers almost breeze past, if not for how Hood wears an egalitarian heart on his sleeve in tunes like "Surrender Under Protest" ("To the lonely, fragile minds of angry youths"), "Kinky Hypocrite" ("Hot-blooded, bible-thumping, cash on the barrel, honey") and the wrenching ballad "What It Means" (which unlike Springsteen's earnest-but-preachy "American Skin" plaintively inquires why cops who kill unarmed black men walk free: "There's just two sides calling names out of anger and fear/If you say it wasn't racial, I guess that means you aint black." Ouch!) And seeing as how this gem of an album was passed over for even a Grammy nod next month,  I guess even the liberal-minded members of NARAS can't handle the truth, either.

Acoustic • Simple Minds -

Hearing the sheer magic of Jim Kerr dueting with KT Turnstall on Simple Minds' 80's new-wave club hit "Promised You A Miracle" is enough to put this album on my list: their harmonies and interplay, along with her signature acoustic guitar filigrees is what all updated cover versions should aspire to, and is a refreshing aural update on the original. Of course, the fact that this is not a strictly acoustic affair is also enough to make my fellow music critics (who fall into two camps: latchkey kids stuck in a timewarp, and just plain haters) pooh-pooh the supposed lack of effort to reimagine hits from a catalogue by a band who least imaginative chart-topper ("Don't You Forget About Me") I still blame for their general lack of acknowledgment and respect. But if you listen without any awareness of the band and their MTV/Breakfast Club-backstory, you can truly appreciate the labor of love that is on display. Simple Minds was always a guitar-driven band (go listen to Sparkle In The Rain's "Book of Brilliant Things", and tell me U2 don't owe them a debt of gratitude) - but without the arena bombast, the songs come across in a more lilting and delicate manner, and without belting, Jim Kerr still knows how to sell a tune as a singer. On "See The Lights" and "New Gold Dream", the shimmering acoustic guitars propel Kerr's vocals to heights that, while not aiming for the cheap seats, pour every ounce of emotion from each lyric, accentuated by gentle female support vocals that chime in like some angelic chorus. And while I would certainly like to forget about "Don't You Forget About Me", the simple, low-key arrangement here nearly redeems it, and reminds me that the onus should be placed at the feet of songwriters Keith Forsey and Schiff - I mean, the fact that Billy Idol, Bryan Ferry and Cy Curnin of The Fixx all passed when the tune was initially offered to them was a big-ass red flag waving.

4 ½ • Steven Wilson -

February 2015 saw the release of Wilson's highly-conceptual Hand. Cannot. Erase CD, inspired by none other than my heroine and yours, Kate Bush: taking its cues from Bush's long-misunderstood The Dreaming, the entire disc is written and sung from the perspective of a beautiful, popular young woman who dies alone in her apartment, but is essentially considered MIA by her family and friends for an astonishing three year period....yep, that would totally be up Kate's street, as we say in the UK. Gentle, piano-driven melodies and ethereal background vocals transform the journalizing detailed in "Routine" into a thing of Ninth-Wave beauty, while the stately "Transience" frames Wilson's tenor against a lilting acoustic guitar and an ominous-sounding synth line ("Save The Life Of My Child" perhaps?) So how do you top an album like that? Maybe the strategy should be to complement, rather than eclipse that artistic watermark, and Wilson certain achieves that on . Recorded between the sessions of Hand and his as-of-yet untitled album proper (which should see release sometime this year), Wilson nonetheless can't help but put a conceptual spin on his song-cycles, and while I would be hard pressed to expound on the narrative here, there is no denying an ebb-and-flow and lyrical foundation that make tracks like the prog-infused "My Book Of Regrets" (with a sly musical nod to Neil Young's "Down By The River") and the poppish but no less caustic "Happiness III" ("Tired of burning up the time on my PC/I only end up downloading the same old pornography....") blend into a cohesive whole. Forgive the analogy, but if Hand. Cannot. Erase is Wilson's Kid A, then is certainly his Amnesiac - in other words, a compilation every bit as conceptual as its predecessor, and equally engaging.

Toy • Yello -

You know, I'm really starting to think that product placement in a John Hughes film is the kiss of death for any artist seeking aesthetic validation - first we have the Simple Minds/Breakfast Club debacle, and now, reflecting on the career of Swiss electropop wunderkinds Yello, I realize their so-so 80's novelty "Oh Yeah" would have quietly creeped off into the corner, if not for Ferris Bueller's Day Off. And that's a shame, because in the thirty or so years that followed, Boris Blank and Dieter Meier have consistently recorded an admirable body of work, but with the exception of die hard fans (and maybe a handful of critics) the fruits of their labors have gone mostly unnoticed. Here's hoping these guys are just one A-list DJ remix away from having Toy become a much-heralded comeback, because this album is like, totally awesome. The instrumental opening "Frautonium Intro" instantly affirms how forward-thinking Blank/Meier were from Day One, not to mention the plethora of artists who they have clearly inspired. Then they launch into the lovely Euro-tech vibes of "Limbo", and its as if time had literally stood still - or more accurately, details how everything 'new' is really old again. The advancement of technology at the possible expense of human interaction is the overarching theme on Toy, as if to suggest all the gadgets we have come to rely on for our amusement might turn on us sooner than we realize. Meier's baritone growl has grown sexier over the years, and when he plays that against equally sexy female support vocals, it's hardons on the dancefloor time. Special props go to the simply irresistible "Blue Biscuit"- a fantastic amalgam of technopop and pop-sike that deserves immediate video promotion and could become the "Let Forever Be" of the new millennium.

Listen and share my exclusive "Ten Albums That Mattered" Spotify playlist below:

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Weekend Dispatch: Underwhelming Grammys, Orpheus (Re)Ascending

DISCLAIMER: The following article on the 2017 Grammy Award nominations contains sentiments of a disgruntled nature, which some may find disturbing. Reader discretion is advised.

This week saw the announcement of the nominees for the 59th annual Grammy Awards (airing as usual on the CBS television network - date: February 12th, 2017), by former trophy-holder (and Berklee school grad) Meghan "All About That Bass" Trainor. Needless to say, anyone who's spent time in a vehicle with Sirus XM radio over the past year has heard the artists and/or songs who received a nod for their contributions to the musical landscape: from pop heavyweight Adele's ubiquitous "Hello" (nominated for Record of the Year), to the battle-royale between Adele's 25, Beyoncé's pop/crossover hybrid Lemonade, country newcomer Sturgill Simpson's A Sailor's Guide To Earth and chart-idol Justin Beiber's Purpose for Album of the Year. 

Surprisingly, releases by Radiohead and glam-rock icons Iggy Pop and the late David Bowie somehow wound up sharing space on the "Alternative" album category, particularly when you consider that musically speaking, even the constructs on Radiohead's baroque-pastoral A Moon Shaped Pool and Bowie's pazzjop/goth farewell Blackstar seem less experimental or avant-garde than the majority of contemporary radio's stalwarts. Frankly, I'm inclined to think Bowie will get the posthumous nod over Radiohead, especially given the critical canonization the (somewhat uneven) album received by the music press. And it's an even tougher call to say who will win in a grudge-match between Queen Bey and Adele. If it's Adele, let's hope Kanye West is still recuperating from his post-hospitalization burnout/breakdown. 

Sturgill Simpson: No, I don't know what it means...
[pic courtesy Atlantic Records]

Sturgill Simpson's Sailor's Guide To Earth is one of those albums that folks with a short-attention span will glom onto as being something fresh and unique, despite Simpson's smells-like-Randy Travis croon and his seemingly 'daring' country ballad cover of Nirvana's "In Bloom", but novelty notwithstanding, I've yet to hear anything that speaks to me of creative or aesthetic promise: certainly not any of those perfunctory clichés that name-check Johnny Cash songs or highway metaphors, or his Joe 6-pack by way of American Idol image. It may sound harsh, but I've gotta call 'em as I sees 'em. Sorry, but there's something fundamentally fucked-up when Sturgill Simpson is the household name for what's great about new music today, while true geniuses like Drive By Truckers (whose American Band is clearly one the bright lights of 2016) can't even register a blip on the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences' radar. Add having next year's show hosted by the so-obnoxious-may-he-be-kidnapped-by ISIS James Corden, and you couldn't pay me enough to care.


When speaking to Bruce Arnold, songwriter and frontman for the iconic 60's band Orpheus from the West Coast the other day, I was tempted to open up our conversation by saying, "Bruce.....I AM YOUR FATHER!!" How could I not avoid such a silly pun after being informed that he and the other members of the band are currently working on a new album at George Lucas' legendary studio and soundstage, Skywalker Ranch - located in idyllic Marin County, CA. For Arnold, it was a welcome return to the place which birthed the sessions for 2010's Orpheus Again - a locale that not only inspires his creative juices to flow, but provides the ideal setting for his laid-back, mellow, mellifluous songcraft.

John and Bruce Arnold outside Skywalker Ranch studio
[pic by John Arnold]

Two years ago, when the band celebrated its Boston Homecoming show at Berklee Performance Center with a full orchestra supporting the band through classic tunes like "Can't Find The Time" and "Congress Alley", Arnold surprised us with an intimate set of new tunes featuring just him and his acoustic guitar. One of those songs, "I Dreamed I Dreamed" has been included in the sessions for Opheus' as-yet-untitled studio album, scheduled for a Spring 2017 release, if all goes well. While Arnold appears to have adopted the work ethic of winemakers Ernest and Julio Gallo, vowing not to release any new music "before its time", band mate and progeny John Arnold is determined to give fans an infusion of the feel-good and tuneful melodies that have made Orpheus one of those lesser known though no less prominent voices of 60's pop. 

After all, this is the band that shared bills with such legends as Janis Joplin, The Who, Cream, Led Zeppelin (yes, I said, Led Zeppelin), Vanilla Fudge, Spencer Davis Group, Ten Years After, and others; a band that experimented with psychedelia on such tracks as "The Dream" and "Just Got Back"; that ushered in the sound of "soft rock" and "baroque pop" before the terminology ever existed. And with guitarist/singer John Arnold eerily replicating the sanguine, signature vocals of his dad, it's almost as if time has literally stood still. So what can we expect from the upcoming return of Orpheus? Will the new album spark the same kind of resurgence and critical affirmation which greeted this year's Good Times! release by The Monkees? For the answer to these and other burning questions, check out my exclusive interview with Bruce Arnold, coming soon.

Bruce Arnold at work in the studio
[pic by Jonathan Frieman]

Friday, November 11, 2016

WEEKEND RECAP: Mike Watt And Lady Gaga - Two Kinds of Spiel

Well folks, the most historic Presidential election in recent times is now one for the history books - still many music and film stars haven't taken the loss of Hillary Clinton well. Example A: Lady Gaga, who took it upon herself to stage a vigil/protest directly outside NYC's Trump Tower, owned by you-know-who.

Brandishing the iconic (and over-simplified) "Love TRUMPS Hate" sign, and positioning herself on top of a NYC sanitation truck, Gaga has spread her message and barely-concealed outrage on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and most recently, Instagram to bring that message home. Anti-Trump sentiment has also been echoed pre and post-election by everyone from Sean Penn to Bruce Springsteen to Beyonce, Jay-Z, Mary J. Blige, Robert DeNiro (who didn't stand by his own ideologies when his Tribeca Film Fest premiered Vaxxed and was met with similar outrage), Ugly Betty's America Ferrera, Neil Young, Miley Cyrus and Adele.

"I want to live in a #CountryOfKindness #LoveTrumpsHate. He divided us so carelessly" Gaga claims, before ending with "Let's take care now of each other." In a related story, Gaga antecedent and unacknowledged mentor Madonna likely cost Hillary a segment of the popular vote when she rescinded an offer she made publicly at one of her concerts, promising oral sex to those who would vote for Clinton. Poor Madonna - girl, get back into the studio and work on a techno-protest CD.

Speaking of spiels, the original spielmeister himself, Mike Watt (of Minutemen and fIREHOSE fame) celebrates the 21 year anniversary of 'The Wrestling Album' (aka: ball hog or tugboat?) with the never-before-released live album, "ring spiel" tour '95, which chronicles one of the earliest gigs Watt did in support of the record that garnered accolades for the stellar roster of musicians who co-conspired with him to make the album happen, including The Germs' Pat Smear, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, and off on his own solo career with Foo Fighters, ex-Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl.

Anyone who's ever attended a Minutemen or fIREHOSE gig can tell you, Watt is most in his element in a live jamming environment, and this new release is no different. Recorded at Chicago's The Metro venue, the frenetic energy, wildly-veering eclecticism, and genre-bending gymnastics of ball hog or tugboat? is brilliantly captured here: from the opening cover of Daniel Johnston's "Walking The Cow" (which was featured on the understated fIREHOSE release, Flying The Flannel, to his achingly plaintive "Drove Up From Pedro" (a musical shout-out to his Minutemen singer/guitarist d boon, who died in a roadside accident a decade earlier) to an off-the-wall cover of Madonna's (see how I tie these things together? Scary!) "Secret Garden" spoke-sung by Smear, you gotta give the man credit - he is a lover of all things musical, and isn't afraid to put his own spin on tunes he likes.

I mentioned to Mike during a recent interview (to run soon) that, although the nearly 48 musicians who appeared on ball hog...? each brought their A-game, the MVP award would have to go to Vedder - his lacerating guitar work and fierce vocals owned "Against The 70's" - and made Watt lyrics like "forcing youth away from the truth of what's real today" as powerful as anything Vedder has orated from the PJ pulpit. And of course, since Watt and me are on the same wavelength on so many other things (to be revealed in the upcoming interview piece), he was more than inclined to agree.

("ring spiel" tour '95 is out today, November 11th, Veteran's Day [I'll try not to wax emblematical about it's significance], released on the Sony Legacy imprint.

Monday, October 17, 2016

iPod Confidential: My Top Ten Tunes In Heavy Rotation

Expect to see this on best albums of 2016

"Birth of an Accidental Hipster" by The Monkees

First off, let me say that I am still astonished this album was ever made: a band that had nothing to prove proving yet again what a-holes the folks at that unmentionable-hall-of-fame are. Their new album Good Times! feels like a post-modern postscript to 1967's Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd: a combination of originals by surviving members Mickey Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, and Peter Tork with contributions by contemporary tunesmiths. And while there are some gems provided by songwriters from Death Cab and Fountains of Wayne, this collaboration between Oasis' Noel Gallagher and The Jam's Paul Weller sums up both their musical career and their personal trajectory brilliantly. Dolenz again demonstrates his is one of the finest voices the 60's ever produced; psychedelic trappings that pay homage of both Pink Floyd and Nesmith's "Writing Wrongs" and the harmonic interplay between Dolenz and Nesmith is nothing short of a revelation.

"Drawn" by De La Soul

"What's this? An upright bass jazz lick intro that signals angelic voices "watching the snow"? This is the opening track to And The Anonymous Nobody, and validates all the praise bestowed upon them for their long-awaited and welcome return. This song unfolds slowly, with bass dancing between a playful hi-end piano trill and a mournful string section, then goes full-bore into a cinematic thing of beauty. The song laments about a lost love before hitting us with social critiques, via a serviceable (though not entirely necessary) rap by Little Dragon. But as the backdrop dissolves and LD whispers "Time's a-wasting, quit squandering" you're reminded that with De La Soul, the music and the message are one and the same.

"The Honeymoon Killers" by Magazine

You would think a band that was no less an influence on one of alternative's biggest heroes (Radiohead) would get more credit than is given them; the absurd critical admonishments of sounding too much like Roxy Music (Hello! Psychedelic Furs!) were undeserved, and lead singer and bard Howard Devoto has definitely acted as a vessel for Thom Yorke. This was their final studio album, and the first album without guitar virtuoso John McGeoch (who defected to Siouxie and the Banshees) taking center stage, but on the plus side, we gained a guitarist and violinist in one Ben Mandleson, and Dave Formula gets to add layer after layer of brittle and sinister keyboards, of which this track is a perfect example. Sounds like a lost spy theme from a cult movie, and Mandelson's cascading guitar riff propels John Doyle's rolling thunder drumming perfectly.

"Desert Island Disk" by Radiohead

Speaking of Magazine, the latest outing from Radiohead, A Heart Shaped Pool is brimming with the kind of dissociate angst that Devoto made poetry from, but instead of painting a desolate landscape, the band finds them taking an ornamental route. Radiohead have dived into the deep end of baroque-pop here: acoustic, folky guitar, orchestral swells and majestic piano filigrees complemented by Yorke's fragile but no less haunting vocals ("...my open heart, an open ravine/waking up from a thousand years of sleep"). "Desert Island Disk" is mainly acoustic, with sonic detritus floating in and out of the background - musically it's one of the sparsest they've recorded, but by the time touches like a twinkling electric guitar and strings find their way into the mix, its already over, with Yorke chanting "All things are possible." So why does the ending feel more like a cliffhanger than a resolution? That's Radiohead for ya.

"Good Morning Kaia" by BT

Not sure how this disc avoided my radar for the eclectic, but DJ/Musician BT released Electronic Opus a year ago this month, and I only discovered this track after paying due diligence at a men's retreat in the Summer. So basically, this is a remix album, with BT reimagining tunes from his catalog with the help of a full-fledged orchestra. There are some interesting pieces on this compilation, but the one that I heard (and am still moved by) is the instrumental, "Good Morning Kaia". When you begin a track with a wistful piano line, you've already got my attention. Awash with film score nuance and ambient underpinnings, the piece builds slowly in intensity before making the grand orchestral gesture, yet instead of sounding rote, it feels precisely where the tune was headed from the beginning, then dissolves back into a forlorn piano coda. Mr. Transeau's opus is indeed a triumph - well done, my friend.

"Mr. Wright" by Claypool/Lennon Delerium

It takes real chutzpah to write a song whose bass line not-so-vaguely references The Beatles' "Taxman", much less make it funky - especially when half of the duo is the progeny of John Lennon, but that's what makes the debut by Sean Lennon and Primus bassist Les Claypool so unbelievably cool. It's obvious there is a meeting of twisted minds here, and it's refreshing to hear Claypool stretch himself to keep up with the genre-defying antics of Lennon. Unlike his dad, Sean has real musical scholarship and can bounce between guitar and keyboards so effortlessly, one can't help but be impressed. Oh by the way, did I mention this song is about a landlord who is electronically eavesdropping on a female tenant as she dances, sleeps, and pees? And with lines like "He sets up little cameras 'cause he likes to watch you shower/Such a pretty little flower..." I am reminded of the West Coast Pop Art's "Roger The Rocket Ship" and Markley's socially inappropriate lyricism ("Look out for nude girls in showers.............with your father"). Which is why coming to learn that Sean is a fan of that obscure psychedelic 60's band seems well, appropriate.

"Pretty Song From Psyche-Out" by Strawberry Alarm Clock

When it comes to misunderstood, underrated 60's bands, WCPAEB and The Strawberry Alarm Clock are kindred spirits: while the Alarm Clock scored a major hit with oldies chestnut "Incense And Peppermints", most of their catalog is assessed as uninspiring, when nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, if you contrast the politically tinged "Incense" with this sweet ballad, which was featured in the film of the same name (do I really have to tell you it's a psychedelic cult flick, and that they're in it?), it becomes clear this band had a lot more going for them. Opening with the prettiest harmonies this side of The Association, the song marries beat poetry ("Dancers, the ball scenes/The gay colored children of happiness/Waiting, the artists surround it with flowers and holiness") with a waltzing middle eight and a message of love and hope. Looking at the state of the world today, I'm inclined to think the hippies had it right all along: "The white dove is a prophecy/And the faraway is near....."

"Common Sense" by Wilco

Some critics might argue if Wilco had some, they wouldn't have recorded Wilco Schmilco and to be frank, their new album is as inscrutable as it is outside the box. Others have pointed out that, at least it didn't suck like Sky Blue Sky did, but it aint no Yankee Hotel Foxtrot either. But this tune feels weird in a good way. A minimalist hip-hop beat accompanies an acoustic guitar and female-sounding harmony vocals, and musically, they throw everything but the kitchen sink at you - xylophone, electric guitar shrieks, hand claps, a bass that appears to be practicing scales or something, time signature changes, you name it. The end result is a 'beautiful mistake.' I couldn't help scratching my head and thinking "What the deuce are they trying to pull?" upon first listen, but then repeated listens allowed me to make more sense of this experimental pop song, sorta like how people come to appreciate composer Harry Partch. But not nearly as innovative. Sometimes, being allowed total creative freedom is a two-edged sword.

"I Can't Stop Thinking About You" by Sting

The Last Ship, Sting's exceptional oratorio (and short-lived Broadway musical), deserved to be better received by the listening public and his fan base. Have we become so inundated with cookie-cutter radio fodder we can't distinguish between art and garbage? What do you want from a man who has evolved from the post-punk he ushered in, and has become a more sophisticated musician and composer? A new Police song?  Well, you asked for it - you got it. "I Can't Stop Thinking About You" bolts out of the gate with Synchronicity-esque, unbridled energy, a jangly guitar lick and Sting belting out like the rocker he still is. And while Sting can testify to high heaven that the last Police reunion had absolutely nothing to do with the material on his forthcoming 57th and 9th album, I find it interesting that the drummer in the music video bears a slight resemblance to Stewart Copeland. This definitely sounds like a Police song, (albeit with belletristic lyrics and medieval references) and since word from Rolling Stone is that the album will be a return to rock form, can you blame us for name-checking the band that put you on the map, not to mention the RNRHOF? Lighten up, Sting.

"The Veil" by Peter Gabriel

Coincidentally, Sting and this man just got off of a dual-bill concert tour, and his musical contribution to the largely ignored (because, to paraphrase Nicholson, "we can't handle the truth") Snowden soundtrack hits the bullseye. Gabriel has no problem undermining the official narrative of Edward Snowden as a traitor and a spy, instead he sings "You let the whole world see/Exactly what is going on/Exactly who was looking on/There's no safe place to hide." Lyrical allegories to a "sea of data" that the average American finds himself adrift in, Gabriel reminds us of who made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom: "In the heart of the free world/In the home of the brave/You gave up everything to bring down the veil" - as only Gabriel can do. I would place this tune alongside his "Biko" as a rallying cry for justice, and I bet he does, too.

Listen to the full Spotify playlist here:

Saturday, November 14, 2015

iPod Confidential: My Top Ten Tunes In Heavy Rotation

Here are the top ten songs in heavy rotation on my iPod this month:

this man's identity has been shielded for his own protection

"Selling Out" by Duncan Sheik:

Duncan Sheik's new album, the by turns mesmerizing and acerbic Legerdemain opens with this Coldplay-tinged commentary on contemporary music thats both lyrically spot-on (sample lyric: She says her night begins when the DJ spins/As if I don't know/You bought it all.....even when I was selling out") and catchy as all get-out. Love the Dave Evanseque guitar filigrees.

"Ready For Love" by Bad Company:

I recently discovered that Mick Ralphs brought this Mott The Hoople song to the band for their self-titled debut on Led Zeppelin's Swan Song label. While I am not familiar with the original, this "cover" is the best example of a blues-rock ballad. As the flip-side to the cocksureness of "Feel Like Makin' Love", "Ready For Love" sounds like the last futile plea of a man who gave his body to a lover, and now regrets not sharing his heart. This tune will never grow old on me.

"Seaside" by Arovane:

First time I heard this tune, it was on SomaFm's "Drone Zone" ambient station. At 3:45 in the morning. I love its continually-cycling guitar line and the sound of the ocean gently washing over the reverse-engineered loop  - that sounds like it could be either a guitar or piano, I'm not sure. Hypnotic, melancholy, yet transcendent, I actually find myself so immersed that when it begins its nearly sudden fade-out, I feel compelled to hit the repeat button. And I do.

"Pressure Off" by Duran Duran (featuring Janelle Monáe and Nile Rodgers):

1986's Notorious album, produced by Chic's Nile Rodgers (featuring his signature guitars to great effect) may not be Duran Duran's strongest album, but I still think "American Science" is the most underrated pop protest song ever recorded ("A little megalomania becomes you/There aint a thing you can't acquire - with your cling-wrap plaything......") Its good to hear Rodgers reunite with these guys, and Janelle Monáe's soulful vocals and rap passage keep things current and fresh. 

"Blazing Gentlemen" by Robert Pollard:

"The sun alarm sounded/We escaped to Phoenix, with ostrich feathers in our skullcaps/And the wrong choice of photographic memories...." Now, that's beat poetry. The title track to Pollard's 2013 release (his # umpteenth solo outing) is equal parts Pete Townshend and William S. Burroughs: loud, concise, strident and unapologetic. I mean, who else but Pollard could end a stream-of-consciousness rant with the mantra, "What can I do? I like you!"

"Lavender" by Ray LaMontagne:

Of all the songs on LaMontagne's Supernova disc (overshadowed by the heavy hand of Dan Auer-Black Keys) not only is this opening salvo the most uncharacteristic tune he's ever written, it has all the coolness of Beck, and that's speaking volumes. A marvelous slice of lysergic pop-sike, this is the direction I plead LaMontagne continues to explore. We don't need another blue-eyed soulman, however satiny and haunting your voice is.  I say, bring back the Summer Of Love!

"When I Was A Boy" by Jeff Lynne's ELO:

Considering the only member of the original line-up of ELO on this album is Jeff himself, either hubris or copyright ownership (or both) dictates he include the moniker of the band that defined both the 70's and 80's pop landscape. Regardless, on an otherwise hit-and-miss affair, Lynne nails it with the opening number, "When I Was A Boy" - a rock ballad of introspection and sadness that lovingly informs ELO's mentors, The Beatles. And dammit if Lynne doesn't sound like ol' Mac himself.

"Little Neutrino" by Klaatu:

Albums I absorbed in my high-school years always hold a special place in my heart, and Beatles-hype/scam aside, the debut album by Canada's Klaatu was a brilliant pop album. And frankly, even here, their influences expand beyond the Fab Four. Take this futuristic, vocoder-laden piece of prog-rock, for example. Atmospheric, well-constructed, with just a tinge of Moody Blues for good measure. And the ending is one of prog-rock's best interludes - beautifully bombastic and trippy.

"Dream Within A Dream" by Spirit:

Musically, Spirit was light years ahead of their time - too bad the average person (if he knows at all) associates them with their 70's ecology PSA, "Nature's Way." But these guys were much, much more than that. I love the fuzz guitar-meets-orchestral feel of this paean to suicide ("Stepping off this mortal coil will be my pleasure") that sports gorgeous harmonies and expressive grand piano. When I feel the way that lyric suggests, listening brings me a sense of tranquility and peace. 

"Another Distant Star" by Elysium:

Eight years to the day I first started an ambient side-project with producer Rutger Holst and bassist/programmer Paul Christensen, I am relieved and saddened that our latest is the last in the Elysium trilogy. Relieved, because of how long it took to bring to fruition, sad because I think we created something special. For reasons I can't explain, this track, "Another Distant Star" gives me hope that future celestial travels await.