JON ANDERSON: SONG OF SEVEN; CHRIS SQUIRE: FISH OUT OF WATER

(ESOTERIC RECORDINGS/CHERRY RED RECORDS; 2020; 2018)

When Jon Anderson and Chris Squire first formed Yes in 1968 in London, they talked about their vision for a new style of music: melodic, layered and poppy like some of the major groups they loved – The Beatles, Byrds and Simon and Garfunkel among them – but perhaps more expansive somehow, more dynamically rich. I seriously doubt they had anything like CLOSE TO THE EDGE in mind back then, as that sort of leap only became possible with the incredible level of musicianship brought to the group by Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman, et al. But yeah, they were thinking big. And their flair for melodic, commercially appealing classic rock was always present in their sound, no matter how Topographically expansive it got. These two solo reissues (we’re rather tardy getting a review up for Squire, but hey, it allows us to do this informative combo piece right now!) are terrific illustrations of the kind of diverse sonic stylin’ each musician felt free to do outside their mother group. They’re filled with craftsmanship, imaginative arrangements and an obvious love for romantic yet far-reaching pop rock ‘n roll.

JON ANDERSON, circa 1980 (uncredited photo)

SONG OF SEVEN was NOT Anderson’s solo debut; he’d already released the ethereal and somewhat esoteric OLIAS OF SUNHILLOW during a Yes break when all five members made solo albums. That album was sort of what you might have expected from ol’ Jon at the time… cosmic, spacey, drifty. Not so with SoS, though. What are fans of epic Yes to make of Jon singing lines like “Don’t forget I always want you by my side/Baby, by my side/Oh yeah, yeah, yeah… ”? Is this really the same guy that wrote “Dawn of the light lying between a silence and sold sources/Chased amid fusions of wonder…” etcetera? One and the same, yeah, yeah, yeah. Jon seemed to at least partially rebel against his “out there” image on some of the tracks here. He wanted to get straight to the “Heart of the Matter,” the title of the most conventional rocking song here. If not for that instantly recognizable high voice, this could be the kind of mainstream rocker, complete with breezy backing vocals, that any number of today’s more formulaic male artists might serve up. It’s upbeat to the max, and our hero even talks about getting his baby in the “back seat of my car,” which is sort of beyond belief if you stop to think about it. This ain’t Yes by a long shot! “Everybody Loves You” sounds a bit like Trevor Rabin-era Yes, with a normal chorus (“Everybody loves you/But I just love you a little bit more”) and an airy, sweet arrangement. The real gems, though, are “Take Your Time” and “Days.” The former is contemplative and relaxed as Anderson warns against rushing around too much and losing sight of the simple pleasures of love and enjoying each day. It’s short and agreeably low-key, making for one of his most enjoyable solo songs ever as a result. And there’s a nice keyboard bit and some fetching bass also, courtesy of John Giblin. Then comes the gorgeous “Days,” a Yes song in all but execution. It’s up there with “Wonderous Stories,” a recitation of nature imagery and the art of soaking up the beauty to be seen all around you, perhaps on a perfect spring day. There is no one better than Jon Anderson at this type of thing; you can just see him standing outside watching swallows circling, young deer sauntering through ferns in the mist, the aroma from the garden filling your nostrils… “The days are blessings,” he sings, and who would challenge the sentiment? Beautiful, and it’s followed by a harp solo, perfectly executed. This leads into some lush strings and the title epic, which is in a whole nother league from the earlier trifles I mentioned. In a piece that crosses the 11-minute mark (arguably a few minutes too long), with lyrics about how “everywhere you look you release parts of your senses/And everywhere there’s purpose and answers to all your dreams” as well as the line “starlight… telling me there’s something else to cling onto,” you get the trippy Jon most of us have come to cherish (or not)… he builds and cycles ever upward towards some lofty realization of the meaning of it all. There’s also a dazzling Clem Clemson guitar solo or two that sound like Steve Howe a bit, and some childlike voices joining in. This stuff isn’t for everyone, mind. Anderson’s core music requires you to lose your cynicism to fully enjoy it. But at least two thirds of this record is truly winning, and shows our prog hero loosening up quite a bit and demonstrating he can let his hair down when he wants. Sure, Anderson can be cloying here and there but damn, this guy loves music and life, and with his staggering body of work he’s earned the right to do whatever the hell he wants. And on this record he wants to just sing odes to the beauty and ultimate goodness of it all, including gettin’ down with your baby (and perhaps BABIES). You got a problem with that, head elsewhere, pal… This reissue does NOT offer much in the way of extras, though, just a couple of US single edits of “Some Are Born” and “Heart of the Matter.”

JON ANDERSON and CHRIS SQUIRE with Yes, 1977 (photo credit: RICHARD DREW/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Chris Squire’s 1975 opus, FISH OUT OF WATER was his only major solo release, and as such earned plenty of attention. It’s a solid, compelling five-song disc showcasing both his legendary bass playing skills and his thin but pleasingly sincere vocals (Squire’s ability to serve up harmonies that perfectly complimented Jon Anderson made for part of that trademark Yes vocal sound). “Hold Out Your Hand” was a fairly popular single, balancing Squire’s fluid bass runs, some Wakeman-style organ (from Barry Ross and Wakeman’s replacement/predecessor, Patrick Moraz) and a bracing melody and arrangement. “You By My Side” is more pedestrian; a Yes veteran shouldn’t be writing stuff like “You know I love ya/I can’t be without ya/When I’m alone, I still feel this way about ya.” T’aint “Roundabout,” that’s for sure. To be fair, some lush orchestration later in the song improves things, and there is no doubting Squire’s melodic flair. As on Anderson’s disc, Squire also has an 11-minute opus for us after that, and it’s a doozy. “Silently Falling” opens with a gorgeous bit of old-fashioned classicism, with keyboards, flute and the like. Squire sings with a kind of achingly romantic tenderness, and his bass surges underneath the whole thing in that familiar Yes manner. Indeed, this whole thing sounds like Yes although without Anderson’s mystical tendencies. There’s a long keyboard-driven section that rocks but gets a tad repetitious, although you won’t mind if this aspect of the Yes sound is your thing. But Squire’s band cooks up a storm, that’s for sure. About halfway through, there’s a nice quiet passage, then a different section where Squire mostly sings “silently falling” over and over. You can picture him being lost in the majesty of the proceedings here, and it’s indeed substantial in that prog rocky way. “Lucky Seven” adds a bit of funk, introducing horns (not all that transcendent in my view), a nice Bill Bruford performance on percussion, and a decent string arrangement. Squire again sings mostly in a low key manner, which helps, since the music here isn’t always subtle. “Safe (Canon Song)” is the 15-minute magnum opus that rounds out the record, and it’s the most meaty and adventurous Squire solo track to date. Let me just say that the first minute and a half of this song struck me, when I first heard it long ago, as among the most beautiful passages on any rock record ever. The strings and piano are simply gorgeous and Squire’s plaintive vocal, opening with the phrase “When your savior lets you down… ” achieves an understated perfection. The music swells and flows, revealing the kind of powerful sense of purpose that Squire brought to many a Yes album. I simply love the verse where he sings “When you’re faced with all those doubts/Have no fear/When the changes come about/I’ll be here/I’ll be waiting beside you/To shelter your heart/Like a ship in a harbor… You will be, safe with me.” There is something so transcendent about this part of the song; it may well be the most soaringly romantic moment on any Yes solo album so far. It’s followed, then, by a particular series of notes that is repeated over and over on different instruments, including the string section. Squire plays one of his patented bass riffs to contrast with this semi-classical arrangement, squeezing out multiple variations of the same two or three ideas. Kudos to fine keyboard work by Moraz, Rose and Andrew Pryce Jackman as well. The piece lumbers along, taking no prisoners, and your own patience level will determine if you’re still digging it by the 10-minute mark or so. Myself, I am in awe of the sheer moxie it took to arrange this densely orchestrated beast, especially since Squire began it with such delicate beauty, and then gleefully allowed it to become this gargantuan epic of sonic razzle dazzle. It’s musically rich, and it helped FISH OUT OF WATER become one of the most popular Yes solo albums, one that still holds up nicely.

CHRIS SQUIRE, 1975 (photo credit: LAURENCE BERNES)

Disc 2 of this reissue includes the one-off Squire and Alan White collaboration “Run With the Fox,” which turned up on one of those Yes box sets sometime back. It’s a charming but unlikely Christmas song, full of seasonal exuberance and whimsy. Appearing with it is the seldom previously heard instrumental version called “Return of the Fox,” the B side of the original 1981 single. Although interesting if you like this sort of thing, it doesn’t really add much in terms of enjoyment. But the track with Squire’s vocal is undeniably a charming little ditty. You also get edited single versions of “Lucky Seven” and “Silently Falling,” although that latter piece is substantial enough that cutting it down to single size is a bit of an aesthetic insult. Still, Squire at least gave us one classic solo album before he died, to go with all the masterful, groundbreaking Yes compositions he had such a huge role in helping to create. Any true Yes fan probably should have this in their collection if they don’t already.


PRETENDERS: HATE FOR SALE

(BMG MUSIC GROUP; 2020)

When I heard that there was new music coming from Chrissie Hynde and Pretenders, I must admit I was pretty happy! HATE FOR SALE was released this past July, their first album of new music since 2016’s ALONE. There are a couple of new faces in the band’s studio make-up (a couple have been part of the group’s live line-up for quite awhile): James Walbourne on guitar and keyboards, Nick Wilkinson on bass, Stephen Street on keyboards and percussion, plus the studio return of original drummer Martin Chambers, who hadn’t recorded with the band since LOOSE SCREW in 2002. Of course, the linchpin, the main star, band architect and leader, Chrissie Hynde, sounds incredible; her songwriting, guitar work and readily recognizable harmonica blasts are feisty and ready to rock. Her voice, it almost goes without saying, is wonderful.

HATE FOR SALE isn’t very long… just a little over 30 minutes, but you certainly get your money’s worth with every song. Those songs flow well as the band moves flawlessly from one to another. Though I really do like all ten tracks here, I think my favorites are “Turf Accountant Daddy” and “Didn’t Want To Be This Lonely,” which just rock with reckless abandon. There’s an interesting kinda Reggae thing called “Lightning Man” which moves directly into “Turf Accountant Daddy” that manages to mix things up a bit. The record ends with a nice little tune, a beautiful piano ballad called “Crying In Public,” an emotional side that we rarely see from Chrissie.

PRETENDERS (James Walbourne, Nick Wilkinson, Martin Chambers, Chrissie Hynde) (uncredited photo)

Martin Chambers sounds great throughout and I’m so glad he’s back, but this is obviously Chrissie’s album and she makes the most of it. She’s been in the business for over five decades and I have certainly enjoyed her work. Having lost track of what Ms Hynde and her band had been up to in recent years, I was curious when I heard they had new music out. I was totally happy and surprised when I finally got to hear it. I’ve seen the group in concert a couple of times, once right after their debut album came out in the States, opening for the Who and once on a package tour with ZZ Top and Stray Cats. Both good shows (though they were nearly “Who’d” off the stage during the first one!) and I’ve always liked their music, but this new one, HATE FOR SALE, has become one of my favorites of this year. Stephen Street did an excellent job producing and mixing, giving the music a very clean sound. The entire record hits you right in the gut… in the best way possible! Pretenders were scheduled to tour with Journey earlier this year but, like countless others, those plans were put on hold due to the pandemic. So, even though we didn’t get live Pretenders this year, we did get an absolutely incredible record from them. For that and for decades of musical brilliance, I say, “Thank you, Chrissie Hynde!”


WILLIAM SHATNER: THE BLUES

(CLEOPATRA RECORDS; 2020)

William Shatner has been an icon of pop culture pretty much since the concept itself emerged: He needs no summary at all for his influential role as Captain Kirk on the original STAR TREK series, after which he went on to TJ HOOKER, BOSTON LEGAL and an increasingly eccentric series of recordings (the first of which, 1968’s THE TRANSFORMED MAN, is now legendary). Shatner has been satirized, imitated, mythologized and, by certain former colleagues, dismissed as arrogant and self-centered. He’s bigger than life, this guy, and everything he does, just about, commands attention. Not long ago he recorded a Christmas album that sold pretty well, and that must have planted the seed to start exploring other genres. Thus, we now get THE BLUES, an unlikely and potentially controversial collection of Blues standards and Blues-flavored rockers that find Shatner absolutely being himself, for better or worse, in a style of music that would seem to be light years from his comfort zone. How does a privileged white Canadian icon insert himself into a mostly black, angst-laced genre that is all about authenticity and down to earth emotions? Well, he hires a bunch of legendary players to back him, for one. Thus we get guys like Steve Cropper, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, James Burton, Sonny Landreth, Ritchie Blackmore and others to power the legend through classics like “Smokestack Lightning,” “The Thrill Is Gone,” “I Can’t Quit You Baby” and the Muddy Waters classic “Mannish Boy,” among many others. Let’s start with that last song, which really does work, astoundingly. The groove is a timeless blues template, but Shatner has no trouble at all delivering lyrics like “Now I’m a man, way past 21/Want you to believe me, baby/I have lots of fun.” The recontextualization of such a famous tune is kind of a hoot, and when Shatner sings “I’m a natural born lover’s man/I’m a hoochie coochie man” late in the song, he lets out an energetic “Woo!” that lets you know he’s having fun. Someone will put this on at a party somewhere, and people will be laughing and wanting to know who it is. Same with “I Put a Spell On You,” a timeless chestnut that was already a bit demented in the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins original, so having Shatner here trying to play it just slightly unhinged works fine. The musicians throughout are playing with fierce, bottom-anchored chops as on “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Born Under a Bad Sign” and “Crossroads,” which in a recent interview Shatner said he was fascinated by regarding the apocryphal Robert Johnson story about a minimally talented guy selling his soul to the devil to perform at a much higher level. You wanna be the one to write an entertaining essay comparing Robert Johnson to William Shatner, go right ahead. But Shatner digs in here, and although many will scratch their heads, this stuff isn’t boring. You gotta wonder, though, with the sterling musicianship on “Smokestack Lightning,” isn’t it a disservice to have a hokey, jokey vocal that draws your attention away from the groove? That “Chicago” song, “I Can’t Quit You Baby” and a few others are a bit hard to take; Shatner bellows, screeches and over-dramatizes the words (non-singing, technically) in a manner that can truly annoy. “You hear me moanin’ and groanin’/It hurts… ” go the lyrics, and yeah, that’ll sum it up for many. Shatner’s shtick is more palatable when he’s doing his patented “talk singing,” as on “Sunshine of Your Love,” a highlight here. Shatner’s sense of fun and self-awareness is almost palpable in this performance; he’s winking at the listener, and well aware of the unlikeliness of what he’s doing. “The Thrill Is Gone” is also “Shatnerized” effectively (that word should be in the dictionary by now), as ol’ Bill keeps a sort of subtle mockery in the mix when he tells an unknown woman “Oh yeah, oh yeah/I’m free, I’m free from your spell now… ” with unique vocal tics adding to the impact.

WILLIAM SHATNER, August 2019 (photo credit: GABE ZINSBERG/GETTY IMAGES)

Fans of George Takei will find irony in Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Work Together,” which features Canned Heat. If this one doesn’t make you smile, face it, you aren’t destined to be a fan of Shatner’s music. The pauses, the enunciation… pure Bill! If hearing him say “Let’s make life worthwhile” and repeat that title over and over can’t tickle your funny bone, hey, no biggie. Shatner surely won’t care. But if you’re the big picture sort, you may even find poignancy in “Secrets and Sins,” the relatively drowsy closing track here, and the most personal song. I was always moving forward/Was always saying ‘yes’/A thousand little triumphs… ” Shatner chuckles audibly after a few more lines, then says “You may not like this answer/I do everything the same.” Yes and no, actually. Shatner does approach every project in life with the same sense of confidence in his own worthiness, and the same sense of pure fun. But he finds many different ways to BE William Shatner, and to serve up surprises both big and small. Sure, he can be insufferable, and you have every right to think he’s somehow desecrating the real spirit of the Blues on this album. But you gotta admit, he’s got panache… and he enjoys the hell out of his life, now in his late 80s. Personally, I think that makes this album some kind of wacky landmark. Shatner’s still moving ahead at Warp 7.


JON ANDERSON: 1000 HANDS, CHAPTER ONE

(BLUE ELAN RECORDS; 2020)

Jon Anderson has one of the most instantly recognizable voices in the world; as lead vocalist for prog rock titans Yes for the bulk of their storied career, his pipes became the vocal signature on dozens of vibrant rock classics such as “And You and I,” “Roundabout” and “Heart of the Sunrise.” Why Anderson is not still with Yes can best be left to another discussion, but the man still has a commanding, healthy sounding voice; he hardly seems to have aged at all despite his nearly 75 years of age. 1000 HANDS, Anderson’s latest opus, has been gestating for a number of years and earned its title at least partly from the exaggerated number of individuals who contributed to it. That includes former Yes associates like Steve Howe, Alan White and the late Chris Squire. So it stands to reason this dense new album will be of interest to Yes fans, but it’s also just a solid musical offering that anyone into lush, upbeat pop with classical leanings should be able to appreciate. It’s filled with spritely melodies, Anderson’s lyrical optimism and plenty of engaging instrumental interplay.

JON ANDERSON (photo credit: DEBORAH ANDERSON)

The album is bookended by two versions of a simple mostly acoustic song called “Now” in a brief into, then “Now and Again” as the fuller light rock song that ends the record (Howe guests on guitar here). “Ramalama” is a fun little piece that Anderson has said emerged from vocal exercises he was in the habit of doing. While one Anderson sings a repetitive “Dit di da,” another sings some lyrics about light, togetherness, finding your center and other standard Anderson concerns. The piece may remind some of Yes’ album 90210, especially the Rabin-penned “Leave It,” which I thought was extraordinary, myself. I’m hearing a banjo on this number, I believe, and that is kinda cool. By the time this song ends, it has thoroughly grabbed you and demonstrated Anderson’s absolute love of sheer sound, a real trademark of this iconic composer. “First Born Leaders” is an unlikely marriage of calypso and gospel stylings, featuring Larry Coryell guesting on guitar, a small choir and Anderson opening with a burst of smooth a cappella. “Everybody wants what they cannot have/Everybody needs what they cannot see/Everybody wants what they haven’t got at all,” goes the repeated chorus, and that’s pretty dang down to Earth for ol’ cosmic Jon. This is a melodic, upbeat tune that should please most music fans.

JON ANDERSON, 2016 (photo credit: JOE KLEON)

“Activate” features classical guitar and flute (by none other than Ian Anderson) and is one of the two tracks Chris Squire guests on, but at nearly 9 minutes is slightly too new agey for my taste. Anderson can’t stop his searchingly humanistic lyrics from simply pouring out in this song, and truthfully, they resonate quite well for the most part: “In accordance with the facts of life, we resolve to show the truth,” goes one lyric; “Don’t get in the way of the light that shines” is another. But I especially love this directive: “All you gotta do is mesmerize my heart and soul,” something I wish more artists would keep in mind. And the very poignant verse “And the only way we have of contacting you for sure/Is the melody of music and the harmony of love.” Although Anderson has voiced such sentiments countless times, I love the context here and it really moved me as a fellow musician. I only wish the song itself had contained more of the delicate beauty Anderson has been known to effortlessly conjure at times.

JON ANDERSON with ANDERSON PONTY BAND (photo credit: ROBIN KAUFFMAN)

“Makes Me Happy” and “I Found Myself” are sugary pop truffles, the former a ukulele-featuring melodic rush that could get the kiddies dancing; it has uncommon musical efficiency and a genuine spark of joy. The unlikely guests here include Rick Derringer, the Tower of Power Horns and, golly, the “human beatbox,” Michael Winslow. Clearly Anderson kept the sonic palette wide open for this outing. The latter is a romantic love song that features acoustic guitars, violin and (I think) a double-tracked vocal by Jon, before a woman’s voice responds in pure affirmation of his loving expression. If you’re into birds, you’ll notice the prominent call of an Eastern Phoebe throughout, so either Anderson had his windows open when he recorded this, or he made it a point to include sounds of nature in the mix. Again, it’s worth noting the simplicity and directness of tunes like this; no cosmic couplets needed to be transported somewhere special.

JON ANDERSON (photo credit: TAMI FREED)

The next three songs represent a sort of climactic and Yes-influenced sequence, with “Twice in a Lifetime” featuring instrumentation that evokes “Turn of the Century” a bit, and “WDMCF” (“Where does music come from?”) featuring lovely harmonies, a piano showcase by Chick Corea, and the kind of celebration of MUSIC that Jon Anderson has made a career out of (see “Awaken” and “Sound Chaser” among others). If you’re a fan of Yes, go straight to this track and turn it up loud; it’s the best song here. There is something riveting about hearing Anderson sing “Music, music/Music… come up, music come up” that hits the bulls-eye of Anderson’s many thematic targets. He’s the right guy to ask “Where does music come from?” and although he might take 20 minutes or more to answer such a question in conversation, here he does it in a sublime five and a half minutes. Stellar, man. “1000 Hands (Come Up)” is the second song in a row to repeatedly use the phrase “come up,” and here we get some overtly jazz stylings (Billy Cobham joins the ensemble), some fancy keys (Corea again) and a sharp bit of violin by Jean-Luc Ponty. Not to mention Squire again making a welcome appearance. Anderson sounds more casual and circumspect on this 8-minute-plus track, and it feels like slightly new territory for him. The whole intricate arrangement comes over like the work of a composer/sonic architect who has been around for a long time and is still searching for sparkling new sounds.

Which Anderson HAS been, and clearly IS. When he sings “Come up with me” on that previous song, it’s not just an invitation to listen, it’s a plea to move your entire vibration to a higher level in life. That’s sound advice, no pun intended, for this era in particular. Anderson may sometimes be cloying, and the overall success of his solo work (and even some Yes recordings) depends on how organically his aesthetic and lyrical explorations nestle into those intricate proggy sound beds his band is known for. When everything gels, the results are transcendent (stuff like “Awaken” and “Heart of the Sunrise,” and at least a couple of tracks here). When it doesn’t, or if you ain’t in the mood, the love-peace-togetherness vibe can get a bit tiresome. But it’s immensely reassuring to have a good Jon Anderson album out there right now, and to hear him sounding happy and caring about humanity as only he can. High vibration, go on… indeed. This enduring musical soul is more than worth listening to on these matters, and would that EVERY legendary musician could still sound so focused and healthy at his age.


JOE OLNICK: WINK OF AN EYE

(SELF-RELEASED; 2020)

You gotta have patience to appreciate straight drone music. You know that expression people commonly use where someone talks too much? They’ll say of the party in question, “Oh he just drones on and on… ” In other words, someone is making a repetitive noise that someone else quickly gets tired of. Many listeners would say that about a lot of ambient music, especially the sub-genre that is primarily drone-based. But as a devoted ambient acolyte, I appreciate a good immersive drone, and Joe Olnick offers three of them on this here self-released outing. Olnick is a guitarist and producer mostly known for a sort of rock/funk/jazz hybrid that his Joe Olnick Band traffics in (“Funky Traffic” and “Downtown” earned spins on college radio). But he also digs ambient, and has been exploring the possibilities of what the guitar can do when, well, you process the shit out of it so it doesn’t hardly sound like a guitar anymore. WINK OF AN EYE apparently began as brief sections borrowed from an earlier ambient recording called BRIGHT PAINTINGS, and Olnick used what he calls “advanced processing techniques” to conjure up some layered space music.

There are only 3 pieces on this disc, curiously titled “Slow Funky Buildings,” “Slow Bright Buildings” and “Slow Modern Buildings.” All three are, you got it, slow. These are drones that can work as background ambience, and they are pleasant and captivating enough to hold your attention should you choose to pay it. But you won’t be suddenly bombarded by rude sonic bursts of weirdness, either. The “Slow Funky” track is most assuredly NOT funky… it’s made of subtly changing soundwaves that might remind you of a wild seashore, where the water comes into shore dramatically and then recedes. “Waves” is really the best word to describe this stuff. Not that much happens, but it’s still hypnotic. At 26 minutes, the “Slow Bright” track is longest, and it starts off more abrasive and metallic than its predecessor. I was reminded of Fripp and Eno’s “An Index of Metals,” only not as ominous as that opus. Olnick is not out to unnerve anyone; this really seems to be an exercise in how ambient a guitar can get when you manipulate the output very thoroughly. The answer? VERY ambient. You could possibly drift off to sleep with this one, although I wouldn’t call it “serene” or anything. “Slow Modern Buildings” does approach a kind of serenity, though. It’s a modest 11 minutes long, and turns the “evocative” dial up to at least “7.” You could take chunks of this piece and use ‘em in some arty indie film or documentary about wild places. Without any such context? You basically get a Joe Olnick ambient drone trio, which will be enough for some of us. No less than the legendary Robert Rich mastered this recording, which should tell you two things: One, it sounds terrific and enveloping, and two, Rich thought highly enough of the sonic excursions here to put his name on them.

JOE OLNICK (publicity photo)

You could say of virtually ANY ambient disc, “it’s not for everyone.” And this may bore non aficionados, for sure. But there is something very comfortable and unassuming about Olnick’s relaxed space music; he offers it up with the confidence that some folks will find it worthwhile. Olnick is NOT one of those artists who simply “drones on and on” without purpose. He’s got plenty of other things on his plate, but knowing he is into at least the occasional drone-fest makes WINK OF AN EYE rather special. I was a contented participant in the conversation that Olnick started with this release.


JOHN 5 AND THE CREATURES: INVASION

(SELF-RELEASED; 2019) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULT

John William Lowery, better known as John 5, currently plays guitar for both Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie and even logged time with David Lee Roth in the late ‘90s. His solo spans some fifteen years and nine studio albums, beginning with VERTIGO in 2004. His latest release with his band, the Creatures, INVASION is the topic of this review.

JOHN 5 AND THE CREATURES (John 5, Logan Miles Nix, Ian Ross) (publicity photo)

The album’s title track opens with some percussion and the eerie sound of wind whistling through the darkness; the creepy vibe almost reminds me of a Rob Zombie project, with its dark, percussion-fueled sound. A filtered guitar with a phaser slides over the top, playing a simple melody ‘til the end. All in all, the tune sets a good tone for the album. “I am John 5” starts with a robotic voice repeating “I am John 5” over and over again before the blistering lead kicks, something we’ve all come to expect from John 5. The tune shifts to the chorus, then into another solo section, even faster than the first and up an octave. The song breaks into a really groovy clean section with a funk feel and back into another phenomenal solo, extremely clean and distorted. This song is incredible! John does instrumental songs and albums as good as, if not better than some of the accepted greats (Satriani, Vai, Gilbert, Malmsteen). A badass riff kicks off “Midnight Mass.” The drumming on this one is also not to be overlooked… Logan Miles Nix is a monster on the kit. The song is an incredibly good metal track, even looking past the soloing (which, as always, is brilliant and super technical); it sounds like a cross between groove and extreme metal. The second half of the tune has the best riff and best soloing, as John breaks up the shred style for a minute, adopting a blistering Blues style that’s definitely killer. “Zoinks,” the only song I’d heard from the album before I sat to listen to the whole thing, is my favorite John 5 song to date and is VERY close to my favorite instrumental guitar piece of all time. It has everything you could possibly want: It begins with an amazing, slapping bass riff from Ian Ross that has enough pop and funk to make Flea jealous before moving into a section that sees John incorporating shred and sweeps and tapping into the overall melody; repetition of this part throughout the song is what won me over. About two and a half minutes in, the number breaks as the slapping part comes back heavy before John tears into a high speed solo with a really cool ascending and descending lick and a ridiculous sweep at the end before heading back to the original melody shortly before the end of the track. “Howdy” explores John’s “chicken pickin’” abilities. For those that are unfamiliar, chicken pickin’ incorporates your middle finger, ring finger and pinky finger, as well as a pick in your strumming hand to play extremely complex (usually Country or banjo-style) licks on the guitar. It’s extremely difficult and there are only a couple guitarists within the world of metal music who can do it well. As an avid banjo player, John 5 is one of the few. Along with the chicken pickin’, John adds some “traditional” Country licks over the two-step Country beat, very reminiscent of Les Paul and Chet Atkins. The tune also features a harmonic section in the middle that is really cool. About two minutes in, we’re hit with a VERY Les Paul-inspired section of licks that is beyond cool. After, the beat speeds up extremely fast and John breaks out an actual banjo! What a cool song!

JOHN 5 AND THE CREATURES (John 5 playing with Rob Zombie, 2016) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The album’s second half kicks off with “Crank It”/“Living With Ghosts,” which has a very strange sound indeed, sort of metal mixed with EDM at the start; when the melody/solo comes in, it’s just an absolute showcase of 5’s abilities. He does such a good job bringing the solo to you in a way that doesn’t feel excessive. It is incredible! The middle section between the two tunes slows things down with a clean section leading into a heavy, dirty rhythm guitar as John goes into a slow melodic solo with a wicked two guitar harmony section. There’s more insanity as the soloing heats up. The song ends after one more round of the dark, slower part. “Cactus Flower” opens with a quote from the Stephen King movie CARRIE and goes into a very different direction than anything we have heard so far on this album: The guitar sound is cleaner, the pace slower. It’s a great song for allowing yourself to drift away… super moody and great at evoking emotions, making you feel what John was trying to convey. The opening salvo of “I Want It All,” an arpeggio sweeping lick into a very intricate sliding lick, just shows how absurdly talented and amazing John 5 really is. The song dropped my jaw a couple times; as a guitar player, I’m in shock… it definitely showcases John’s abilities. Nestled toward the end of an album of killer music, “I Want It All” is a must listen. John throws a talk box in throughout the song, intoning the track’s title whenever there’s a break from the soloing. The main riff is full of everything you could want: Emotion, shred, distortion, unbridled technical prowess… just a killer track, an absolute GEM for any guitar player or fan of guitar instrumentals. To this reviewer’s ears, “I Like the Funk” almost sounds Tom Morello-inspired, FULL of that man’s emotion and undeniable groove. It’s got plenty of wah, pop and slapping, with some moments of absolute killer shred and insane bends that just make you… move. There’s a really awesome section at about 2:50 in, a call and response with a sample of a female singer (Lisa Forman) saying/chanting “I like the funk” and 5 just RIPPING licks afterwords. As a point of interest, Cinderella’s Fred Coury plays drums on the cut. The last song on the album is “Constant Sorrow,” a cover of the folk classic “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” written by Dick Burnett in 1913 and first recorded by Emry Arthur in 1928; it’s the song that George Clooney’s character sings in O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?. Side note: My favorite version comes from a 2002 live Alison Krauss and Union Station. If you’ve never heard of Union Station, PLEASE PLEASE go check them out; they play Bluegrass and Country and are incredibly talented and woefully underrated. The song’s appearance here is John 5 paying tribute to the tune’s message and staying power. As always, John’s version is full of technical wizardry and skillful playing. I don’t know what more I can say about it; it is a solid instrumental cover and a really cool way to close out this album.

JOHN 5 AND THE CREATURES (John 5) (publicity photo)

If you have the time, sit yourself down and give the whole thing a listen. There is not a bad song on this album. I loved it! Every second is something worth hearing. If there is a complaint, it would be this: I would have liked to hear him slow things down just a bit more; I feel like those slower moments are the ones that make it original, setting it apart from other people. All in all, though, a solid 9 out of 10 and one of my favorite guitar albums ever. If you ever had any doubts about John 5’s talents, this record goes a long way in showing that he really is an incredible musician, one of the best guitarists on planet earth. He’s made great progress with these solo albums, with his playing maturing and changing, while still maintaining his original style. So, what are you waiting for? Check it out!


SCOUT DURWOOD: COMEDY ELECTRONICA, VOLUME ONE

(EP; BLUE ELAN RECORDS; 2020)

There are a few ways to be funny in a song. One is to do a straight-up parody, a la Weird Al Yankovic or, in the old days, Spike Jones. Another is to offer a song packed with wryly humorous observations about human life and behavior, which John Prine and Harry Nilsson did quite often. And you can generate laughs with complete bizarre vocals and instrumentation, too… I have plenty of examples of that in my record collection… Ween comes immediately to mind. But to make electronic pop music with silly, often riotous lyrics that you have to pay attention to in order to fully enjoy, well, that’s a bit different. And for actress/writer/comedian/singer Scout Durwood, the sheer panache needed to produce something like COMEDY ELECTRONICA, VOLUME ONE, a 5-song digital EP that is undeniably entertaining, is worth pausing to appreciate. Durwood can count TAKE ONE THING OFF, a 22-episode digital TV series which got plenty of attention (and her debut recording of the same name) among her previous accomplishments, and a stint on the Oxygen Channel’s FUNNY GIRLS. She’s also done at least one comedy special. Born in Kansas City but based in LA these days, Durwood seems to be an unstoppable bundle of energy. With many different talents already on display, it’s curious that she wants to record goofy original songs. But she’s done just that here.

SCOUT DURWOOD (photo credit: SCOUT DURWOOD)

Durwood lures you in subtly, by starting this EP with “Steal UR Girlfriend,” an infectious, synth-driven rocker that sounds commercial and catchy from a distance… something that no one would object to casually. Start listening to the lyrics, though, and you realize something different is going on here. It moves real fast, but I caught lines like “I’ll take your princess home and I’ll ‘Leia’/You thought you’d have a threesome, but you left with your Han solo.” There was also a reference to Justin Bieber and a recurring phrase about a “predatory lesbian.” Durwood can sing and manipulate words and she’s a hottie, so there are plenty of ways she can get attention. To make you tap your feet and laugh a bunch seems genuinely ambitious to me. “I Don’t Want to Hold UR Baby” is next, and you gotta watch the YouTube video to fully appreciate this bit of nuttiness. Surrounded by dancers of both genders clad in ridiculous pink swimming attire, Durwood speaks assertively for the contingent of folks who, that’s right, have ZERO interest in holding your cute little infant. “”You’ve always wanted to be a mom/So you know, so you know, so you know/I’ve never even wanted to be an aunt/Maybe I could handle like a distant aunt, like a once a year aunt/Who drops off a gift and gets high in my car/Cuz babies freak me out.” This is zany stuff period, but coming from a woman, the comedic impact is undeniable, and Durwood wrings every bit of mockery the topic clearly inspires, from both the song and the video.

For those of us who are writers and musicians, “Sad Ukulele” is some kind of classic, though, with endlessly quotable lyrics. “Sad songs are inappropriate when you sing them on a ukulele,” Durwood begins, playing said instrument almost guiltily. The simple theme here touches on unsatisfying relationships, a sad tale of a sick old man in Durwood’s building and his cat that may need care, and random bursts of existential dread that eerily come close to actual conversations I’ve had with one of my own musician friends. “Sometimes I wake up in the dead of night/Having a panic attack that sexual slavery exists… what dark part of humanity can possibly explain it?” After many lines of this sort, Durwood can only conclude “It’s hard to acknowledge social justice on a ukulele.” To hear such sentiments sung in this context is somehow both bold and blackly comic, underscoring how, in many cases, laughter may be the ONLY remedy for some of us. “Sky Dancer” is a kind of exaggerated dance song with raps included… Durwood’s musical approach does allow her to explore this kind of musical setting, but the arrangement feels a bit frantic and cluttered to me. Much better is “Sexually Implicit,” a creatively ribald wordplay exercise that’ll having you listening close to catch everything. Mostly the listed words either SOUND sexual or are sex-related in nature. But Durwood mixes it up for maximum silliness. “Nut butter, Oedipus, oral, panties, peacock, penal code, pendulous, penultimate, pounding… pro bono,” one section goes (not totally sure about a couple of those). This is actually, by my reckoning, a pretty ambitious song, and a listenable one. Maybe Durwood will inspire some listeners to look up a few words, or to just get in the mood. But she’s doing something fun, witty and even literate here, and it’s been a while that I’ve been able to say that about a pop offering.

SCOUT DURWOOD (photo credit: SCOUT DURWOOD)

I haven’t heard Durwood’s previous full-length recording, so I can’t make comparisons. I can only say that, as a newcomer to her kooky, upfront talents, I was truly entertained by both the music and the two videos I watched. Anyone likely named after a beloved character in Harper Lee’s classic novel immediately puts me in a certain frame of mind. And this “Scout” is doing some “mocking,” all right – birds, babies, business and a whole lot more. Well worth your time if you want to giggle at life’s absurdities and enjoy a fresh, bracing new talent.


SHE GIVES ME FEVER

A LOVE-NOTE TO PEGGY LEE, ONE OF THE GREATEST SINGER/SONGWRITERS OF THE RECORDING ERA (by STEVE WAGNER)

A tip of the top hat and genuflection to Miss Peggy Lee, today celebrating the centennial of her birth. Peggy has long been one of my very favorite singers, from the day a friend turned me onto her album SUGAR ‘N’ SPICE in 1984. In the years since, I have delved deeply into her catalog, which is truly a gift that keeps on giving. Peggy was a towering figure in 20th century popular music. A singer for the ages, she was also one of the most accomplished lyricists in music history, and mostly at a time when very few women were songwriters, much less singer/songwriters. She was an innovator throughout her six-decade career, and, like most great artists, was restless, experimental, uncompromising, and a perfectionist. It is said she ran her sessions with no patience for lip, or amateurs. One simply did not question Miss Lee’s taste, or decisions, if one wanted to stay on her record.

PEGGY LEE, 1946 (photo credit: RAY WHITTEN PHOTOGRAPHY/MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES)

As someone who really values great vocals, I find Peggy’s oeuvre to be an indispensable primer on what makes a great singer a great singer. Frankly, most current singers leave me cold – I’m distracted and irritated by the faux emotion, self-indulgent delivery, calculated moans, endless vocal gymnastics at the expense of melody, and puzzling lack of awareness of what THE SONG is asking for. Peggy never exhibited such rookie behavior; she accomplished what every song called for with the exact opposite approach – rich tone, perfect pitch, intuitive timing, impeccable phrasing, and thoughtful understatement. She was a master of the “less-is-more” style, which I find much more moving than the egoic wailings we are frequently inundated with now. Peggy’s voice flourished across so many styles and genres – pop, jazz, cabaret, torch, blues, and comedy/novelty – while always remaining utterly singular and instantly recognizable.

PEGGY LEE on THE FRANK SINATRA SHOW, 1957 (photo credit: WALT DISNEY TELEVISION/GETTY IMAGES)

It would be impossible to summarize her long career here, suffice to say it is very telling that it closely mirrored that of Frank Sinatra’s throughout the decades. They both had their introductions as singers fronting the top big bands of the swing era – Frank with Tommy Dorsey and Peg with Benny Goodman – with both quickly becoming breakout stars on their own. Both dominated the charts as solo artists in the 1940s. Peg scored over twenty Top 40 songs in that decade, with her “Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me)” the number one song of 1948, and Capitol Records’ top-selling single for sixteen years, until the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in 1964. Both branched into acting in the mid-50s with Oscar-nominated performances (Frank for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, Peg for PETE KELLY’S BLUES), and both also pioneered the concept album during this period (Frank with IN THE WEE SMALL HOURS, and Peg with BLACK COFFEE). Both managed to survive the explosion of rock and roll, maintaining a consistent chart presence throughout the ‘60s – indeed, they were really the only two singers from the big band years to remain commercially viable through that decade, even recording songs that are now considered amongst their best work. And both were ultimately defined by seminal songs late in their games – Frank for the testimonial “My Way” and Peg for the existential “Is That All There Is?” – which finally garnered her a Grammy for Best Vocal Performance in 1969, at the height of the classic rock era.

PEGGY LEE on stage (photo credit GEORGE RINHART/CORBIS HISTORICAL/GETTY IMAGES)

As a songwriter, Peggy is up there with the greats. She collaborated with many giants of the form – Harold Arlen, Mel Tormé, Victor Young, Cy Coleman, Sonny Burke, and Duke Ellington. Her songs graced numerous films, among others THE JAZZ SINGER (1952); TOM THUMB (1958); ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959); THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING (1966); WALK, DON’T RUN (1966); THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER (1968); and, of course, Disney’s LADY AND THE TRAMP (1955), for which Peg composed the songs, and sang and voiced the parts of the female characters, not to mention two very devious Siamese cats. So many of her songs are timeless standards: “It’s a Good Day,” “Golden Earrings,” “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” “Johnny Guitar,” “Don’t Smoke in Bed,” “Mañana,” “He’s a Tramp,” and “I Love Being Here with You,” just to name a few. And while her career-defining hit “Fever” was originally penned by Eddie Cooley and John Davenport, Peggy added two original verses (“Romeo loved Juliet… ” and “Captain Smith and Pocahontas… ”) for her definitive version, and also came up with the idea to transpose the key up a half-step for each verse, which perfectly communicated the “rising temperature” motif. When the dust settled, her songs had been recorded by the cream of 20th century crooners and canaries: Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Nat “King” Cole, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan, June Christy, Mose Allison, Della Reese, Jack Jones, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Junior, Annie Ross, Elvis Presley, Nina Simone, Mark Murphy, Dionne Warwick, Michael Feinstein, kd lang, and Madonna.

PEGGY LEE with PAUL MCCARTNEY, 1976 (photo credit: JAMES FORTUNE)

If you’ll indulge me a few anecdotes I feel speak to Peg’s unique impact: She gave Quincy Jones a commercial biz leg-up in the early ‘60s, hiring the jazz wunderkind to arrange and produce for her. She gave her longtime lover Robert Preston singing lessons in preparation for his role as Harold Hill in THE MUSIC MAN. She was a favorite of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, charting one of their gems, “I’m a Woman” in 1962, which stands with Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” as a proto-feminist anthem. Jerry and Mike claim that a few years later she threatened to have their legs broken if they didn’t give her “Is That All There Is?” (which also became the first hit to feature Randy Newman, who was arranger). She was the inspiration for “Miss Piggy” on THE MUPPET SHOW and essentially the genesis of the Jessica Rabbit character in WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, her immortal “Why Don’t You Do Right” the song Jessica breathlessly sings to a mouth-agape Bob Hoskins. In addition to cutting nearly every substantial tune from the Great American Songbook, she recorded songs by rock/pop innovators Burt Bacharach, Carole King, Jimmy Webb, George Harrison, John Sebastian, Buffy Saint Marie, and Ray Davies. Paul McCartney, a huge fan, specially wrote the song “Let’s Love” for her in 1973, one of her last singles. kd lang, one of today’s most acclaimed singers, considers Peggy to be a primary influence. Peggy’s nightclub performances are the stuff of legend – extended residencies at Basin Street East in New York in the early ‘60s attracted a veritable who’s who of show business glitterati nightly. The Beatles were said to have wanted to attend when they first came over to do the Sullivan Show, but knew that Beatlemania would overwhelm the club and respected her too much to disturb. And finally, Peggy sang at Louis Armstrong’s funeral. Mic drop.

PEGGY LEE at the first Grammy Awards, 1959 (photo credit: WILLIAM CLAXTON/courtesy: DENMONT PHOTO MANAGEMENT

If you have the time (and who doesn’t, these days?) I implore you to explore this incredible artist. Recommended albums: BLACK COFFEE (1956); DREAM STREET (1957); BEAUTY AND THE BEAT (1959); BASIN STREET EAST (1961); and MINK JAZZ (1963). Below, please find several songs and videos that I hope bring Peggy’s brilliance into deeper perspective.

Enjoy, and HAPPY 100TH BIRTHDAY, PEGGY!

First, here is an amazing film of Peggy at Basin Street, performing “See See Rider” with a presence that is, in a word, riveting. Tell me she doesn’t have the most expressive face this side of Elvis.

Peggy’s celebrated score for Disney’s LADY AND THE TRAMP in 1955 remains among her best known and most beloved work. It’s easy to hear why. Both the lyrics and vocal delivery are laced with lighthearted humor and cleverness. The two most famous songs from the movie – “He’s a Tramp” and “The Siamese Cat Song” – easily rank with the very best in the entire Disney animated film canon.

“He’s a Tramp”

“The Siamese Cat Song”

A wonderful example of Peggy’s singular approach to the blues, “I’m Looking Out the Window” is a simple sad chord progression in no hurry whatsoever to reach its destination, and only becomes a blues number because of the way Peggy interprets it. She takes what would be a straightforward melody and bends it into a poignant lament on waiting for a love that never arrives. Note that her take on this tune uses the same structural trick as her version of “Fever,” bouncing the key up a step with every other verse. This would normally produce a sense of hopefulness, or at least growing excitement. Peggy tempers this expectation by phrasing the lines more and more languidly as the song progresses.

One of the great, and still mostly overlooked, tunes from the standards era, this longing ballad (written by THE WIZARD OF OZ composer Harold Arlen in 1941) was recorded by nearly everyone, but never became a sizable hit for anyone. Among those who cut “When the Sun Comes Out” were the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, June Christy, Tony Bennett, Mel Tormé, and Nancy Wilson. Notably, it was one of Barbra Streisand’s earliest recordings, the B-Side of her first single, 1962’s “Happy Days Are Here Again” (later re-recorded for THE SECOND BARBRA STREISAND ALBUM in 1963). But to my ears, Peggy’s version is the best of them all. She never strays from the melancholy feeling the lyrics demand, never falls prey to affecting a “big finish” beyond allowing her voice to become more emotional as the narrative builds. The arrangement rightly follows suit. This is a song that is meant to evoke, not entertain, and Peggy’s version does just that, perfectly.

A great example of how to subtly turn a jazz number into relatable pop, “I’m Gonna Go Fishin” is a co-composition by Peggy and Duke Ellington featured in the classic Jimmy Stewart courtroom drama ANATOMY OF A MURDER in 1959. Peggy’s lyric masterfully matches the jazzy intervals while winking at the listener throughout. She’s out to “catch me a trout,” alright, and her vocal supplies all the needed innuendo even if one can’t discern the barely concealed true intent in the lyric.

Paul McCartney loved Peggy, and composed this soft nugget for her in 1973, where it became one of her last singles and the title of the album on which it was featured. “Let’s Love” is unmistakably a McCartney melody, but Paul clearly strove to create a song that would allow for and accent Peggy’s personal style. This is one that every Beatle fan should know and serves as both love letter and testament to Peggy’s bedrock influence on the pop artists and songwriters—at least the respectful ones—who followed in her footsteps.

Peggy should absolutely be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and not just as an influencer, but as a singer who deftly made the transition from easy listening into the more hard-edged styles of the rock era. This recording alone should be enough to deem her worthy. Written by the great songwriting team of Leiber and Stoller, “I’m a Woman” ranks with their best, and Peggy simply hits it out of the park.

Peggy’s two most famous songs show the wide range of her talent as a vocalist, bringing precisely the right emotion to the needs of each. “Fever” is the quintessential torch song, and Peggy sings it with a brusque beguile that is always on the verge of boiling over while maintaining a shrewd detachment. This wise woman schools us on sex as she works us into a lather. Conversely, “Is That All There Is?” is the ultimate world-weary take on life and loss and the eternal question of “to be, or not to be.” I remember being stunned, at the age of nine, by the directness of this song, as I realized what Peggy was really singing about. This is one of the most unique songs to dominate the 20th century pop charts, and Peggy sings it like someone who has lived it. Because she had.

“Fever”

“Is That All There Is?”


A FRAGILE TOMORROW: MAKE ME OVER

(MPRESS RECORDS; 2015) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULT

South Carolina four-piece A Fragile Tomorrow features the brothers Kelly – Sean and Dominic, two of a set of triplets (the third passed away several years back), and their non-multiple sibling, Brendan – and bassist Shaun Rhoades. MAKE ME OVER is the group’s fifth studio album and first for indie label Mpress Records; lead vocalist Sean Kelly is the primary songwriter and his glam rock tendencies drive the sound, so… fans of Marc Bolan, David Bowie and, for the power pop-minded amongst you, Cheap Trick, strap in for one heck of a fun ride!

A FRAGILE TOMORROW (Brendan Kelly, Dominic Kelly, Sean Kelly, Shaun Rhoades) (photo credit: TOM MOORE)

The album kicks off with Sean’s paean to the legendary Slade vocalist and glam rock icon, “Make Me Over (Noddy Holder).” Actually, the track is Kelly wondering if pursuing the rock and roll lifestyle is really worth all the trouble: “Maybe we can start all over/Change our name and make me over.” Now that I see that in writing, that happened to Holder and his band before glamming up their image and purposely misspelling key words in song titles. The song features a pulsing, hard rock undercarriage, courtesy of drummer Dominic Kelly and the double whammy of bassist Shaun Rhoades (he of the standard electric variety) and guest musician, Ted Comerford (he of the twelve-string version). And, just that quickly, this record is off and running. “Tie Me Up Again” slows things down a bit, though it is equally as introspective as the first song. There are guitars aplenty from Sean and his non-wombmate brother, Brendan; I’m reminded of the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” (in a very jangly and precise way) and very early psychedelic Alice Cooper (via a sped up guitar freakout, a la Glen Buxton). The number also features a string quartet (cellist Ward Williams, violist Rachael Jones and violinists Diana Brewer and Lyais Hung, who crop a few more times later on), quite a nice addition. Musically speaking, “Billion” is sort of Beatlesque thing which quickly morphs into a spry little Power Pop affair that could very easily have outstayed its welcome; as is, it kinda ended at the perfect time. A ton of cool guitars keep things interesting, as does the bouncy drumwork. Another lush, jangley, pop tune, “One of Two, Two of Three,” hearkens back to such 1960s psychedelic-pop acts as the Jefferson Airplane, Roy Wood’s (and, later, Jeff Lynne’s) the Move, PET SOUNDS-era Beach Boys, as well as early ‘60s Phil Spector produced “Wall of Sound” records. Even the “trippy” title and the lyrically vague implications are drawn from that same general time period and fertile asthetic; the words still ring agonizingly true today: “One of two, two of three/Everything is as it seems/It’s not black and white, cut and dry.” Next, we have “Kissing Games,” a heartbroken power pop ballad that SOUNDS far happier than the words imply. It’s actually more of a self-empowering note that this person is finished being used and is taking control of his own life for once. The string quartet returns and is more upfront than on “Tie Me Up Again.” Rachael Sage offers up some very nice piano and bassist Rhoades delivers one of his best performances here. “Tell Me How To Feel” is shiny, poppy and pretty with a definite “Then He Kissed Me” vibe during the intro and with the drums throughout. It’s one of the few tracks here to feature the group’s four core members alone; only the odd guitar signatures save it from being the most disposable song on the record. The first lines of “In My Mind” says everything you need to know about A Fragile Tomorrow and MAKE ME OVER: “Oh, unrequited love/It’s kind of my thing.” Shimmery and solemn, the number is another “everything PLUS the kitchen sink” kinda thing with sleigh bells, timpani, guitars of varied stripes and, of course, the string quartet. Even though it seems like the song is about to take off a couple of times, it remains in first gear all the way… Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

A FRAGILE TOMORROW (Brendan Kelly, Dominic Kelly, Shaun Rhoades, Sean Kelly) (photo credit: TOM MOORE)

Hit Parade” is about the ultimate search for that ever illusive “Hit Single.” Unlike most of the rest of the album, the song features the four band members exclusively along with an actual guitar solo; it’s very catchy, in an XTC sort of way with lyrics that include: “Same old turn of phrase/Here’s your chord change/Please make way for the hit parade/All my dignity’s gone.” That pretty much sounds like every musician I’ve ever met! “Interlude” is an odd little ditty that features absolutely none of the actual band members, with samples by Michaelangelo, drums by Russ Broussard (even though I really didn’t hear them) and, naturally, the by-now obligatory string quartet. “Siouxsie” is obviously a song about X-Ray Spex singer Poly Styrene. With vocals by Dominic and guest artist Mark Hart (of Crowded House fame) providing organ and lap steel, it is actually a tune extolling the (many) virtues of Siouxsie Sioux and her undeniable influence on – not only punk and Goth – but popular music in general. It’s fun and bubbly and you may catch yourself humming along to the melody… in a totally anarchic punk kind of way, of course. John Cowsill and the Bangles’ Vicki Peterson add their voices to “Everybody Knows,” another wicked swipe at stardom. The track is sort of a lo-fi avant-surf masterpiece with a guitar/trumpet (the latter provided by Clay White) interplay that’s echoey and (maybe) backwards; that alone makes the song, at the very least, quite interesting. “Can’t You Hear Me” is another cool power pop thing that features, of all things, a singing saw performed by the multi-talented Clay White. Everything is hitting on all cylinders on this one; it’s a definite favorite on what is a fairly solid record. I think that the term “bonus track” may have been applied to “One Way Ticket (Coda)” simply because it features Joan Baez (THE!) and Indigo Girls Amy Ray (on mandolin) and Emily Saliers (on banjo). I mean, those are some heavyweight names right there! Did I forget to mention that the cut also features White and his saw? This song alone makes MAKE ME OVER worth owning. Yeah… it is THAT good. Of course, you get the additional bonus of the first twelve songs, too. So, what are you waiting for? Pick up your very own copy from your favorite dispenser of fine music… now!


NYAH: DISCONNECTED

(EP; INRAGE ENTERTAINMENT; 2020)

InRage Entertainment is a Los Angeles-based artist development company formed by Grammy-winning producer/songwriter Bruce “Automatic” Vanderveer as sort of a proving ground for up-and-coming talents. Hailing from Florence, Oregon, sixteen year old Nyah Vollmar is the first non-Californian signed to their roster. One listen to Nyah’s debut EP, DISCONNECTED, tells you why. The multi-talented teen (she sings, she writes her own music, she dances, she acts) is light years ahead of many singer/songwriters who’ve been in the game for more years than she’s been alive. Are there moments throughout the five tracks that highlight the fact that she is only sixteen (fifteen when the tracks were recorded and, in many cases, younger when the songs were written)? Sure. But, her vocal prowess more than makes up for any cringe-worthy teenage moments.

NYAH (photo credit: JEREMY DAVID CREATIVE)

The opening tune, “Midnight,” is a pumping, ethereal piece of Pop confection with a slight Middle Eastern vibe, particularly in the percussion. Nyah’s vocals are strong and confident, while maintaining a rather wispy quality… kinda like early Stevie Nicks. The number starts strong and finishes the same way. “Empty Spaces” features some nice acoustic guitar and keyboards, lending a more rocking sound to the proceedings. Producer Vanderveer’s multi-layering of Nyah’s voice bolsters the already hefty sounding lead vocals. A brief return after a full stop presents a whimsical, 16 year old’s idea of a “wild” remix (vocals sped up to a chipmunky squeal and otherwise manipulated). Yeah, I know it sounds weird, but it does work.

A Thousand Wishes” is a love story to a best friend, a family member, a planet misunderstood and hurting. The lyrics convey a very mature concept for someone who just turned old enough to drive. A very cool Middle Eastern/Asian vibe in instrumentation and vocal melody lines inform “Legends In the Stars,” a girl-meets-boy narrative, unfortunately hampered by standard-issue Pop-production tropes. The tune, thankfully, is saved by Nyah’s lyrics and flawless vocal performance. Undoubtedly, my favorite track on the unfortunately short EP is “Flowers On My Grave.” An ebb and flow of piano-driven orchestration on the verses and a throbbing Pop Punk intensity on the choruses is the perfect combination for the dark sentiments of the song: “Would you care to be so kind as to lay flowers on my grave/Let them wither, let them fade so I don’t die alone.”

NYAH (photo credit: JEREMY DAVID CREATIVE)

As with any collection of songs, DISCONNECTED is not without flaws. Those flaws, however, are minor and in no way detracts from the whole of the work. Nyah appears to be on the verge of something wholly spectacular and I am definitely excited to see where she goes from here.