Thursday, August 21, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SPOON - THEY WANT MY SOUL

Spoon has been at it so long, I don't know if the group knows what it does anymore.  Whatever it is the band decides to do each release, or each song, it's done smart.  Twenty years in the alt-rock field gives you the experience to go with the flow.  Early on the group was keen on experimenting with oddball numbers and electronic whatevers.  Now Spoon seems content to mix it up with styles, but play it safe overall.  Everything is catchy, hip, high-quality but oddly soulless.

So that makes enjoying an album like They Want My Soul difficult.  Do You is a wonderful-sounding tune, and the lyrics no doubt mean something to the author, but you also have the knowledge that they worked hard making this a particular sound, something different from before, grabbing different bits and pieces and sounds from all over.  They like something this other band did, they try this beat, they program that, meticulously reproduce elements; what I can't get is an overall feel for what Spoon is, or at least what it's become.  And that's probably why I enjoy listening to each individual song, but come away underwhelmed and unsatisfied.  I really did want to like this a lot.  But give me Fountains of Wayne instead, they are proudly pop and don't mess about.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: YES - HEAVEN & EARTH

It might surprise you that 70's prog giants Yes still exist.  In fact, apart from an initial split in the early 80's, and a hiatus in the 2000's, the answer to the question "Are they still functioning?' has always been Yes.  The members have come and gone at alarming rate however.  You never know who's going to be on stage when they start a new cycle.  These days, the line-up consists of guitarist Steve Howe III, the illegitimate grandson of their former guitar hero; Alan White, not the former drummer, but another guy named Alan White who they trained to play drums; lead singer John Davidson, the former host of TV's Hollywood Squares; the ghostly, severed hands of keyboardist Rick Wakeman; and naturally, original member Chris Squire on bass.

Oh, I jest.  But believe me, given the many, many lineup's they have employed, and the complicated machinations that have gone on to keep the cash cow in action, my choices aren't that ridiculous.  Now, it's Squire for sure, the long-serving Steve Howe, another classic vet in Alan White, and former Buggle Geoff Downes on keyboards, who had first joined in the early 80's.  On vocals is Jon Davison, a Jon Anderson sound-alike, who actually replaced a real Anderson impersonator in 2012, a Canadian named Benoit David who sang in a Yes tribute band.  It's Davison's first time on a disc as singer, but he probably isn't planning on a long run;  Anderson has a standing invitation to re-join the group, if his health concerns clear up.

The first time I saw Yes, it was in 1980, one of those In The Round, rotating stage extravaganzas, after The Buggles had joined.  Trevor Horn was singing, and everybody said he sounded more like Anderson than Anderson did.  When Yes rolled through Canada in 2012, that was what they said about David as well.  On disc, you can certainly hear the similarities Davison brings to the table.  I know Yes-heads have been loving the shows, as the group rolls out entire classic 70's albums such as Close To The Edge and Fragile.  They've stopped trying to fight for relevance with new forms, and even turned their back on the 80's sound of the group, the Owner Of A Lonely Heart synth-rock that took them to #1 again.  Instead, it's back to the prog of the 70's, dramas and such, since that music is hip again for many.  The trouble is, in all the comings and goings of members over the years, what's become obvious is that they have no leader or core, just rotating members in endless negotiations.  They usually look to new blood to inspire the tired franchise, such as Trevor Rabin or Horn/Downes in their times.  Now they've let Davison write on seven of eight cuts here, drafting in one other member each time. 

Sadly, these are not inspired or inspiring songs.  They are mild, rather lifeless cuts with gentle tempos, adult contemporary prog.  Where are the grand guitar solos, Howe?  What's with all the burbling keyboards?  These people used to play big, exciting licks, no matter what your feeling was towards prog.   Only the closing track, Subway Walls, offers any energy.  It's a nine-minute suite, with an orchestral beginning, a jazzy instrumental middle and finally some Howe fireworks.  Honestly, it pales compared to Roundabout, but thanks for trying at least.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ELVIN BISHOP - CAN'T EVEN DO WRONG RIGHT



Bishop forged a distinctive style for himself in the 70's, putting out funky blues with lots of good humour and a crack band, and he hasn't had to change the plot much at all since. Coming out of the original Paul Butterfield Blues Band ranks, he had the chops, reputation and connections, and even scored a big hit mid-70's with Fooled Around And Fell In Love. But that was a one-off fluke, and since then Bishop has been a solid trooper in the blues world, and seems to have genuinely enjoyed the life.


This new one sees Bishop come up with a few more fun tunes, alternating with sparkling instrumentals and some choice covers. He's got this down-home voice, and wisely sticks to speak-singing his tunes, and playing up the good ol' blues guy image. The title cut is a shaggy dog story about an inept crook, played for laughs. Old School, with guest Charlie Musselwhite on harp, is the old codger complaining about new technology. Bishop got his old vocalist Mickey Thomas (Jefferson Starship) to come back to sing Let Your Woman Have Her Way, but it isn't a desperate attempt to have another pop hit, it's too basic a blues, this is just mutual respect.


I like all the good-natured fun, but the best stuff is the playing, and the instrumentals shine for that. At 71, Bishop is still a grand player. Hearing him with his guitar foil Bob Welsh doing twin leads is a joy, especially on the old Jimmy Reed number, Honest I Do. Sometimes you just don't need to sing, to sing the blues.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND - THE 1971 FILLMORE EAST RECORDINGS





There is a bit of an issue with all the bonus tracks and special editions that have come out over the years, the ones collectors especially love. With all the expanded versions out there, sometimes the integrity of the original album is getting lost. A lot of discs now have extra stuff stuck on the end, b-sides, demos and filler material, so that the original, beloved set is diluted as a listening experience. Some are wisely refusing that practice. The Beatles, for instance, have not tacked on bonus material to those famous albums. Instead you find it on such extra sets as The Anthology Series or the BBC collections.


At Fillmore East was the album that made The Allman Brothers in 1971. The glorious interplay of the band, the righteous jamming, and especially the terrific guitar playing showed how tremendous they could be on the right night, and how their two studio albums had failed to capture that live spark. It set the tone for the group's whole career in fact, as they have always been more appreciated for their live concerts and recordings.


The original set was a huge hit, making the band true stars. A double album, it was recorded over three nights of shows at the Fillmore East in New York in March of 1971, although nothing from the first night was usable thanks to a wrong-headed decision to invite a horn section along, who were under-rehearsed and weak. The other two nights proved excellent, but due to the length of some of the jams, including You Don't Love Me, In Memory Of Elizabeth Reid and Whipping post, only seven cuts were spread over the four sides. So there was lots left. The group immediately started milking the recordings, with their next album, the double Eat A Peach, more than half made up of more Fillmore.


There have also been two major reissues in the CD years, The 1992 double disc The Fillmore Concerts had alternate takes of some of the songs on the original album added, and more previously unreleased tracks. In 2003 came the At Fillmore East Deluxe Edition, which restored the original album versions from Fillmore and Eat A Peach, and added yet another element, a cut from the June 1971 closing night of the Fillmore East set, Midnight Rider.


And now we get this monster. It's made of up six CD's, which is the entirety of the March 12 and March 13 nights, both first and second shows. The final CD has the Fillmore East's closing show from June 27, 1971, something that's already been released as the extra disc on the deluxe version of Eat A Peach. So with all these variations, you can see how the actual, original At Fillmore East is now a bundle of confusion, unless you just stick to the old-fashioned vinyl.


Now you get the shows as they happened chronologically, and with much repetition. Statesboro Blues starts all five shows here, Don't Keep Me Wonderin' is in four of five, so are Elizabeth Reid, and Whipping Post. By the fourth show, they were starting to loosen up a bit, and it includes Stormy Monday and the mammoth Mountain Jam, the one featured on Eat A Peach. But this points out the problem once more; the original album was made by picking the best cuts and versions, and you have to be a true Allman fan to want to hear the warts. Not that they are too awful, but that sax player they did allow to stay after the first night's debacle never did gel with the group. There are a couple of useless solos in the first couple of shows. The band weren't immune from it either; Dickie Betts botches his lead on One Way Out on the fourth show, which is why Eat A Peach featured the June 27th take. It all gets too repetitive and complicated.


So here's where I stand on this. Get the $60, 6-CD if you are that big Allman fan, but keep your original album around. Enjoy the various versions at some point, while reading the very good and lengthy notes. The rest of you, grab a still-available single CD set, or maybe the reissued vinyl or some old guy's used lp's.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY - STAN GETZ & JOAO GILBERTO - GETZ/GILBERTO 50th ANNIVERSARY EDITION

1964, the year of the great musical invasion of the U.S.  Ah yes, you're thinking, the British Invasion, The Beatles and all that.  Bah, that was nothing.  The real invasion came from Brazil.  That was the year the inventors and stars of the bossa nova landed in the U.S., the new wave of music stars including Sergio Mendes, Joao Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim.  Bossa nova was their new style, based on the samba rhythm.  It was already a favourite among jazz players in the States, but now the musicians who made it had landed right in their midst, ready to play.

Sax player Stan Getz was no stranger to the samba, and had even made the hit album Jazz Samba with guitarist Charlie Byrd in 1962, who had been to Brazil.  It had been a surprise #1 album on the pop charts, igniting the public interest in the laid back, warm sounds.  Getz was now paired up with the brilliant but reclusive guitarist/singer Gilberto to make an album in New York, and Jobim was along for the ride, to provide authentic piano.  The songs were almost all Jobim's after all, and the key Brazilian rhythm section of bassist Sebastiao Neto and drummer Milton Banana came along too.

Getz's sax fit in perfectly with the easy swing of the bossa nova stars.  He played brilliantly, smooth and warm and understanding the gentle touch needed.  On this wonderful remaster of the album, you can hear the clack of the keys, the force of his breath, the microphones turned up so much to capture the quiet playing.  Jobim weaved his magic in and around the players, choosing only the most pleasing notes, leaving great spaces for the music to breath.  Gilberto's delicate plucking providing the vision of Rio found in the music, not the wild carnival times but the languid pace in the heat, the beauty of the tropics.

And then, a stroke of luck.  Gilberto had been singing most of the lyrics, in Portuguese.  But producer Creed Taylor, who was the mastermind of the session, had hired Norman Gimbel to write English lyrics to one of the songs, in case a way was found to record them.  Setting up for the sessions, Taylor heard Gilberto's 22-year old wife Astrud singing the original Portuguese.  She was familiar with English, and was able to handle the job.  It was a smash.  Her subtle, shy take, the first professional vocal she had ever done, captured the imagination of the world, and the song The Girl From Ipanema was a huge hit.

How big?  Remember that British Invasion?  Silly pop music, said the Grammy voters.  Instead, The Girl From Ipanema won Record of the Year, Getz/Gilberto took Album of the Year, and Getz himself won Best Instrumental Jazz Performance.  Sorry, Beatles.  Blame it on the bossa nova.

Friday, August 8, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE MACKENZIE BLUES BAND - SLAM! BAM!

Far too many blues albums feature playing and performing as the priority, while actual content is secondary.  The lyrics especially can just be a run of cliches, the ideas no more than a single phrase expanded into three verses and ten solos.  Beats me why some feel that's okay; all the originators had tons to say, and inventive ways to do it.  Even when they were stealing songs, they were rewriting them in their own style.  But there are few current blues lyricists who are celebrated.

Words are one of the several strengths of Owen Sound, Ontario's MacKenzie Blues Band.  That job in the group falls to lead singer Tara MacKenzie, who takes the job very seriously.  Blues music has changed a lot since 'you done me wrong' was the chief theme, but it's still blues, and hard times and feelings drive the stories.  MacKenzie has invested a lot in the words, which are personal stories, tough times and confusion, things she's experienced or watched others go through.  I Feel A Storm Coming On is a major song, an epic at eight minutes, and a powerful, dark confession that builds over the course of the song.  Whipping everything into a frenzy is the scary guitar of Trevor MacKenzie, Tara's husband.  His playing isn't the usual blues chords and solos; instead there's big noise, feedback, funky leads, and general nastiness.  Tara has a big voice with lots of range, and Trevor plays to her vocals, each driving the other on, with Joel Dawson on bass and Mike Weir on drums keeping the flow going.

The MacKenzie Blues Band won the Maple Blues Award earlier this year for Best New Group for their debut disc, Back Road Revolution.  Slam! Bam! shows they've picked up a lot of confidence in a relatively short time, and have the smarts to do it their way as well.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: TOM PETTY & the HEARTBREAKERS - HYPNOTIC EYE

When Tom Petty announced his new album with the Heartbreakers would hearken back to the group's glory days, the late 70's and the Damn The Torpedoes years, lots of ears perked up and lots of fingers were crossed.  Although his albums have always been strong, and his live shows very exciting, it's been awhile since there's been a hit for Petty, and his loyal fans would love to have something new to celebrate.  It's felt like he's coasting down the same path as R.E.M. went, gradually being more and more ignored.  Of course, lots of A-list bands from earlier decades have been going through that for years.

I know Damn The Torpedoes inside and out, and can assure you this isn't like it. That album was full of short, sharp songs that fit in with the New Wave times, such as Refugee and Don't Do Me Like That.  Petty has become a much more sophisticated writer since then, and such a comment sounds like a bit of spin Petty is happy to indulge.  No doubt he finds some similarity to the 1979 sound, but it isn't the overriding feel of Hypnotic Eye.  The old Petty in his 20's was blustery, with not much subtlety.  These songs have power but more dynamics.  There's certainly something to be said for a song that simply beats you over the head with brash rock and roll, like the best of Torpedoes, but we all know its folly to try to recapture that.  So let's let the 63-year old Petty have his say, instead of looking for another 29-year old's effort.

Springsteen has always spoken for the little guy kicked by the system, and Petty has subtly done the same as well, sometimes losers, and sometimes a little of himself gets in there, too.  Petty a little guy?  Well, if you look at the stuff live can throw at you, we all suffer in our own way.  As he sings in Fault Lines, "I've got a few of my own, fault lines, running under my life."  In opener American Dream Plan B, your classic citizen of the U.S.A. still has a dream he wants to fight to get, but doesn't seem to realize that's getting a lot harder to do in his country.  Several of the songs have that failed America theme, as seen through the individuals hurt, including Petty:  Forgotten Man, Sins Of My Youth, Burnt Out Town.

As for the music, they are just a better band, maybe the best rock band standing, still taking it completely seriously, coming up with new parts and licks, and secret weapon Mike Campbell still the best guitar player nobody ever remembers.  This is a guitar album too.  Most of the flourishes and fills are from Campbell, Benmont Tench more of a colourist on keys this time out.  Every song is drenched with splashes and slashes, different sounds and effects, spread over eleven cuts, none of which sound alike, or much like past Heartbreakers.   Maybe that's all Petty meant, that this is a guitar album, and a band album, like Torpedoes.  Works for me, very well.