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THE BEATLES: GET BACK

(DISNEY PICTURES/APPLE CORPS LTD/WINGNUT FILMS (468 minutes; Rated PG-13); 2021)

You can’t really argue that GET BACK, the new three-part documentary directed by Peter Jackson about a pivotal month in the life of the Beatles during their last year together, isn’t THE cultural media event of Fall 2021. It’s been talked about for months, Paul McCartney himself did an NPR interview in which he discussed it, and it aroused the emotions of Beatle fans everywhere when the pandemic caused the project to morph from an intended theatrical film to a much longer documentary to be streamed exclusively on Disney+, the company’s streaming service, for three nights over the Thanksgiving holiday. Speculation in advance was intense, as one contingent of fans feared it would “whitewash” the long-discussed tensions of the Fab Four in their final days (which the previous LET IT BE documentary certainly left one with knowledge of), and another contingent waited for validation of long held beliefs: that Yoko broke up the Beatles, that Paul was a dictatorial tyrant in those last days, that George Harrison had simply had enough and stormed out in anger, and that the lads were simply incapable of working together creatively anymore after the many pressures of being the most successful and influential rock band in history.

THE BEATLES: GET BACK (John Lennon, Peter Jackson) (publicity still)

Well, then. New Zealand’s legendary director Jackson, never having been shy about tackling enormous, “impossible” projects (remember that LORD OF THE RINGS thing?) has a mega documentary for YOU! And guess what? You can put everything you thought you knew about the Beatles’ final days aside, and marvel at the intimate scope and cumulative effect of this roughly eight-hour saga and the many revelations it contains. First, some clarity: This is not really a film about the “final days” of the Fabs. What we have here is a cinema diary of just over three weeks from January 1969, when the band was working on a planned project that became LET IT BE, intended to be a film, album and concert that would capture their intention to “get back” to a more youthful, spontaneous atmosphere that’d harken back to… well, when they were more youthful and spontaneous. A look at the ACTUAL last days of the Beatles would focus on the ABBEY ROAD recording, the massive tensions created by Allen Klein being hired to manage their financial affairs (a pivotal decision supported by all but McCartney, who fought it tooth and nail and had to sue the other three to put an end to Klein’s shady practices), and John Lennon’s increasing desire to be with Yoko and do his own thing instead of being wrapped up in the monstrous machine that was THE BEATLES. You see all the seeds of this stuff in Jackson’s doc: Klein is introduced in the latter half of it, Yoko is seen at John’s side throughout most of the footage, and songs that later appeared on ABBEY ROAD are indeed rehearsed and talked about in many segments. But no, this is NOT an investigation of what broke up the Beatles. Jackson was given access to 60+ hours of unseen video and roughly 150 hours of unheard audio, and from this massive trove, he culled together a day-by-day record of what John, Paul, George and Ringo were doing during those fabled days first at Twickenham Studio (where they were under pressure to get stuff done before the movie THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN was to take over the place, starring Ringo and Peter Sellers), and later at #3 Saville Row, home to the Beatles’ own Apple Records label. The band had a reasonably interesting project in mind; you can’t fault their intentions, and all seemed eager to dive in and work after a fairly long break following the White Album. But things did NOT go smoothly, and we see quite clearly that they were in over their heads, unable to figure out WHERE to stage a live performance, WHICH songs to record and HOW to carry on efficiently without a “daddy figure” (as McCartney refers to Brian Epstein, who’d previously sheltered the boys to some extent from the worst tensions brought on by fame and industry pressures). Jackson had an absolutely daunting task here: All this footage has been buried in a vault for half a century, and the Beatles clearly had NO taste for delving into a pile o’ stuff that would, rumor had it, show them in their worst moments, unable to cooperate with each other long enough to simply record a new album and go on about the business of being the world’s biggest band.

THE BEATLES: GET BACK (Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, George Harrison) (publicity still)

Except, that is not what happened. The story was WAY more complex than that, and not nearly so bleak. This amazing documentary allows us to travel back in time and be “flies on the wall” at the daily recording sessions, where the four lads discuss various songs and impulses, jam spontaneously, and gradually shape the compositions that would eventually become the songs most of us know like the back of our hands by now. Repeated segments showing the evolution of songs such as “Get Back,” “Don’t Let Me Down” and “Two of Us” are fascinating, and from a songwriting point of view, the insight into the process is invaluable. You may get sick of some of the repetition, but I’m pretty sure most committed Beatles fans won’t mind at all. To see how “Get Back” evolved from being a “protest song” about immigrants to a more aesthetically vague pop/rock tune that the boys agreed should be the next single, is captivating. And “Two of Us” has layers of resonance about the close relationship between Paul and John, both in the actual lyrics of the song (“You and I have memories/Longer than the road that stretches/Out ahead… “) and in the discussions we are privy to about the arrangement, in terms of whether it should be a simple acoustic song or something more sonically dense, with many scenes showing the two most famous songwriters working closely together to try to get it right. They ALL want to do that, and these things take TIME. Plain and simple. We see them getting impatient, making fun of themselves, and trying various things over and over. It could and does get tedious at times. The infamous exchange between Paul and George where the latter mutters that he’ll “play anything you want, or I won’t play at all if it will please you… ” that was a focal point in LET IT BE, occurs here with much greater context, that primarily being that Paul was trying to be the taskmaster and keep the group focused, not only on specific arrangements but on getting things DONE in a timely manner. With the full backdrop of the proceedings on display here, it’s pretty reasonable, and George’s impatience is understandable, not because McCartney was a jerk, but because “it’s all too much” at times. Plain and simple.

THE BEATLES: GET BACK (Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, John Lennon) (publicity still)

George, of course, does walk out for a while; every essay about this documentary has talked about that. In 1969, Harrison was truly coming into his own as a songwriter, and there are two pivotal scenes that deal with this. A remarkable private conversation between Paul and John is captured on audio. John declares, “It’s like George said, he didn’t get enough satisfaction anymore because of the compromise he had to make to be together… it’s a festering wound that we’ve allowed to… and yesterday we allowed it to go even deeper, and we didn’t give him any bandages.” Paul is listening, clearly, and responds: “Yeah, we treat him a bit like that. See, because he knows what we’re on about. But I do think that he’s right. That’s why I think we’ve got the problem now, the four of us. You go one way, George one way, and me another… “

THE BEATLES: GET BACK (George Harrison, Ringo Starr, John Lennon) (photo credit LINDA MCCARTNEY/APPLE CORPS LTD)

The revelatory conversation continues with John openly stating he’s intimidated at times by Paul’s insistence on certain arrangements, and how he’s sometimes given up speaking out in favor of his own thing. He admits that “sometimes you’re right” to Paul, but that other times he has disagreed with the final results. In the context of all we know about the Beatles, this is just groundbreaking, to have this inside look at a tension-packed time. Meanwhile, we’re all aware of what was coming next for George Harrison. He was writing tons of new songs, including numbers like “All Things Must Pass,” “Isn’t It a Pity” and a little tune called “Something.” A much talked-about scene shows George struggling with the line to follow “Something in the way she moves/Attracts me like… ” Lennon comically suggests singing anything at all until a good fit is found. “Attracts me like a cauliflower,” he suggests, and a different scene shows George singing “attracts me like a pomegranate.” This is all pretty amusing, but when you step back for a moment and realize you’re seeing one of the greatest songs ever written in its infancy, a song that was obviously one of the highlights of the Beatles’ soon-to-be final studio album, ABBEY ROAD, you can’t help but be totally caught up in George’s place in music history right here. There’s a separate conversation between John and George where the latter tells John he’s written about “20 new songs” and that it would take ten more Beatle albums to get them all out there at the current rate of “two George songs per album.” George suggests he may just have to do a solo album, something which at first surprises John, and then seems to turn a light bulb on in his head. We all know what actually happened, and it’s simply another revelatory moment. So is seeing George being the pragmatic one through most of this documentary. While the others are brainstorming ludicrous ideas like doing a performance at an ancient historical site in Libya, or taking a selected group of fans on a large ship across the ocean to be the audience for whatever they’re gonna do, George wryly declares “We can’t even get Fender to send us a free amp.” This documentary will almost certainly increase your respect for George Harrison and his importance to the Beatles…

THE BEATLES: GET BACK (Billy Preston, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, George Harrison, Yoko Ono) (photo courtesy: THE BEATLES)

Does the film show Paul McCartney as a raging egomaniac? No, because they ALL clearly were. Remember, they were already the most famous group in the world with endless expectations heaped upon them everywhere. We get to see various members reading their own press at the time, richly entertaining, including George reading a bit about him and John coming to physical blows, an event that did NOT actually happen. Paul is definitely shown paying the most attention to specific song arrangements, and the reality of trying to meet their deadlines, but he is about collaboration all the way. It’s amazing to see him and John working together closely; you really WANT them to figure everything out and keep making remarkable music. Songs that never became official Beatle songs are given bits of time, such as McCartney’s “Teddy Boy” and “Another Day” and Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth” and “Child of Nature,” which would in a couple of years morph into “Jealous Guy.” And wow, is there some fun seeing early versions of ABBEY ROAD tracks like “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” (showing Beatles road manager Mal Evans banging a device gleefully), “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” and “Polythene Pam” enter the picture. Everything is a question mark in this film: WHAT songs will they record? WHAT songs will they play for whatever live concert they are going to do? How can they possibly deliver when they feel they only have maybe half a dozen songs with fully developed arrangements?

THE BEATLES: GET BACK (Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison) (photo courtesy DISNEY PICTURES)

But what is NOT yet truly a question: Are the Beatles going to break up? NO, that is not yet obvious. There are no “fights” in the conventional sense here; the lads are having a good time, they clown around, they crack jokes. It’s surprising in particular to see how good-humored Lennon is most of the time. He’s happy to have Yoko around (SHE, by the way, is almost continually a gentle presence, never intrusive, and even defended by Paul in a couple of scenes (“they just wanna be together, you know… “). With remarkable foresight, Paul declares in one scene, “Wouldn’t it be funny if in 50 years people say, ‘Oh, Yoko broke up the Beatles because she sat on an amplifier?'” So there’s plenty of myth smashing in GET BACK. When this footage was being shot by original LET IT BE director Michael Lindsay-Hogg (looking more youthful than you’d think and probably a bit in over his head), there were still several possible futures for the Beatles. That is crucial, because this film is NOT a breakup film. It’s about ambition, mega fame, the ups and downs of collaboration, artistic egos stretched to the limit, and problem solving on a grand scale. Watch the happy look on John Lennon’s face when keyboardist Billy Preston enters the scene and shows effortlessly that he can spruce up the arrangements on some of these new songs. “You’re IN the band!” Lennon tells him. Watch a fetching Linda Eastman and her energetic young daughter Heather, respectively, holding hands with Paul and taking photos (Linda and Paul were two months away from their fabled wedding at the time of this footage) and dancing around the studio gleefully, exuberant as a young girl could be. And watch, for the first time, the legendary “rooftop concert” in its entirety, the Beatles’ final live appearance, which of course was filmed on top of Savile Row, to the delight of some on the street below and the consternation of many others, including the British bobbies, who amusingly try to shut things down because of complaints. People on the street are interviewed and shown in effective cross cuts as the Beatles play, reflecting a reasonable cross section of opinions. This is music history, folks. But it’s told in a fresh, fascinating manner that changes what we thought we knew about the Beatles. And Peter Jackson wisely avoids any present-day interviews… he stated his desire to avoid that sort of thing. Nope, this is time capsule stuff, our unique opportunity to experience what the Beatles were going through in January of 1969.

THE BEATLES: GET BACK (Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison) (photo courtesy: APPLE CORPS LIMITED)

It’s amazing, honestly. What was to follow was the group throwing up their hands in despair at their inability to complete the planned album (in a still controversial move, the whole thing was handed over to Phil Spector, resulting in an album that almost no one would be completely happy with), a stunning decision to record a brand-new studio album that would give George Martin one more chance to fully produce the band, George Harrison a chance to show he’d finally equalled the others in songwriting prowess, and give McCartney a chance to spearhead perhaps the greatest medley ever featured on a rock album; a furious legal battle over Allen Klein and the failure of the other three Beatles to stop McCartney from releasing his debut solo album BEFORE the release of LET IT BE (the accompanying press at the time appeared to show McCartney “officially” announcing the end of the Beatles, even though that isn’t quite accurate), a disbelieving fan kingdom unwilling to believe it was “the end,” and of course, lots and lots of nasty comments and bad feelings. But that was what would FOLLOW the events in GET BACK. It is NOT what we see on screen, which is in fact an energetic, lively, mostly upbeat look at an intense collaborative period by four of the most famous musicians in history and their handlers, all trying to respond to the immense pressure of gargantuan fame. GET BACK really is a treat, if sometimes a patience-testing experience, that will be richly rewarding for dedicated Beatles fans. You won’t forget it if you watch it with focus and attention. There are scenes that are simply stunning in what they tell us, all these years later. And it’s invaluable as a detailed look at the creative process itself. Sure, it’s a pain to have to find a way to get Disney+ in order to watch this thing. But do it. Really. There has never been a documentary as insightful and surprising, in musical terms, as THE BEATLES: GET BACK. We owe Peter Jackson a debt of gratitude for pulling this off, and let’s be happy for Paul, Ringo and the wives of John and George, for seeing a critical record set straight at last.

UPDATE: Since this review was written, a DVD of the film was scheduled for release in February 2022. Apparently, a few copies managed to make it into the hands of some lucky fans, though once Amazon’s stock was depleted, the Disney Company pulled the package from its schedule and in April announced that the title has been delayed indefinitely due to “authoring challenges.” It now appears that the DVD and Blu-Ray editions will be released, at least in the UK, on July 26. The three-part docuseries is still streaming at Disney+.

HEADHUNTING FOR FUN AND PROFIT: THE KENTUCKY HEADHUNTERS LIVE PREVIEW

They’re a little bit Donny and a little bit Marie… and a little bit James Brown and a little bit McKinley Morganfield… maybe even a little bit Woody Guthrie. The music of the Kentucky Headhunters is permeated with an amalgam of everything that is American music. The boys from the heart of Kentucky are a lean and not-too-mean Rock and Roll machine, hitting on all four cylinders. Like the rest of the world, Greg Martin, Fred Young, Richard Young and Doug Phelps found themselves with jobs that they couldn’t go to and, in a couple of cases, they were put low by the virus that held us all prisoners for nearly 30 months. Guitarist Martin said that the band was just “crawling out of the wreckage” in 2021, reconvening in February to record what became the album THAT’S A FACT JACK! and somehow managing to play about forty-five dates through the end of the year. Now, the Headhunters are back on the road and coming to the Effingham (Illinois) Performance Center, just a few hours up the road from Greg’s adopted home of Glasgow, Kentucky. With opening act Confederate Railroad in tow, he has guaranteed a good time for all. When asked what can be expected on April 2 in Effingham, Martin said, “It’s gonna be like somebody opened the corn crib and let a bunch of hogs in. It’s gonna be a frenzy of Rock and Roll, Country and Blues. Naw, man… we’re gonna have a great time. We always love playing that part of the state; it’s always a blast. We got a lot of fans. Yeah. I think you’re gonna see some guys just happy to be out playin’ music again.”

THE KENTUCKY HEADHUNTERS (Greg Martin) (photo credit: CHRISTIE GOODWIN)

As excited as the guitarist was to get back to playing live, he was just as excited to tell us about his other career and, naturally, our conversation eventually ambled into a discussion about Greg’s LOWDOWN HOEDOWN program on WDNS radio out of Bowling Green. The three hour Blues-intensive show airs Monday nights beginning at 7:00 Central time and streams at wdnsfm.com. Brother Greg is a true musicologist and traditionally delves into the roots and the seedy underbelly of the beast we call Rock and Roll… don’t expect any type of genre segregation with this show as the man was raised on AM radio when it didn’t matter what kind of music was being played as long as it was good. You can expect the same type of show from the Headhunters. What a great way to spend a Saturday night! For ticket information, head over to the Performance Center’s site, the-epc.org.

MARTIN BARRE: LEFT OF CENTER

Martin Lancelot Barre is one of the unsung heroes of Rock and Roll. As Tony Iommi’s replacement in Jethro Tull, he created and played some of the most recognizable riffs in the history of the electric guitar. I mean, who hasn’t marveled at the power of his opening salvo to “Aqualung” or the monstrous crunch of his work on “Locomotive Breath?” And, who can forget the epic, bone-crushing CREST OF A KNAVE, which won the first Grammy awarded for Heavy Metal Album? Standing stage left with Jethro Tull for more than 43 years, Mister Barre was Ian Anderson’s “left-hand man” and so much more. As Anderson was moving more toward a solo career in the early ‘90s, Martin branched out as well, finally having the chance to display his songwriting prowess on such albums as A SUMMER BAND (1993), STAGE LEFT (2003), and BACK TO STEEL (2014), alongside several live albums.

MARTIN BARRE (publicity photo)

Now, Martin Barre is bringing the music of Jethro Tull – AQUALUNG in particular – to the magnificent, intimate Wildey Theatre in Edwardsville for two nights, January 21 and 22. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Tull’s most well-known, most successful album (AQUALUNG, if you weren’t paying attention; actually, the record was released in 1971 but, you know… lockdowns and pandemics and such) and, since no one else was taking advantage of such an event, Martin and his band decided that they would. And, they aren’t coming alone… original Tull drummer Clive Bunker is appearing on (at least) the Midwest leg of the tour; keyboardist Dee Palmer, who was an integral part (as David Palmer) of the Tull machine for many years as an arranger, conductor and writer before having an actual “player” credit on SONGS FROM THE WOODS, has opted out of this tour due to health concerns amid the ongoing COVID scare. Martin declares that he and his group (vocalist Dan Crisp, bassist Alan Thomson and drummer Darby Todd) are more than up for the challenges presented by Ms Palmer’s absence. Clive, Dee and the Martin Barre Band can be heard (and seen) in all their glory on the latest release, a DVD called LIVE AT THE WILDEY, recorded during their 2019 tour. As far as other surprises this time around, Martin promised this writer – over a cup of tea and a telephone call – “Oh, there’s definitely surprises. Well, let me think… one, two, three, four… certainly four pieces of music that we’ve never played before. We swap it around… I mean, I always love throwing in something that’s really left of center. I really enjoy people being in shock.” It sounds like a great night of Rock and Roll,with plenty of Tull and an ample sampling of tunes from the Martin Barre Band, to boot!

TARANOYA: BECOMING

(SOUND AS LANGUAGE; 2021)


I have been writing about ambient music for many years, as it is the still under-appreciated genre I MOST find myself able to get immersed in. From those heady early days decades ago when Brian Eno contextualized a new sound that could function as either foreground or background and that would serve as “a tint, an atmosphere,” as he put it, rather than something you had to experience in a traditional listening mode, to the myriad of variations the genre sprouted in the modern age (Ambient Jazz, Ambient Classical, Ethno-Ambient, Dark Ambient, space music, et cetera ad nauseum), I’ve been riveted by the endless universe of sound that the misleading term “ambient” can encompass. I honestly can’t think of another musical banner, excepting maybe “indie rock” or “art rock,” that will accommodate so many types of music. It’s because of how the music is supposed to FUNCTION for the average listener, the fact that it needs to be workable as background music, but also to reward close listening, that helps it to live up to Eno’s definition.

TARANOYA (promotional image)

Imagine my delight, then, to come across the Iranian born, Portland-based female composer/vocalist/producer Taranoya (Taraneh Schmidt), whose new release
BECOMING is just about the most enthralling thing I have heard this year. It’s all dreamy, drifty, ethereal soft vocals, most of it essentially wordless although there ARE some intended lyrics, floating through beds of gentle droney synthesizer. Reference points don’t immediately come to mind… some of Liz Fraser’s aesthetic on the Cocteau Twins’ VICTORIALAND disc in particular would be one door in. I also was reminded here and there of a Kranky label artist named Jessica Bailiff, as well as scattered tracks from other ambient artists who’ve utilized feather-soft female vocals in the background. But what we have here is an entire album’s worth of this sumptuous sound, and it’s pretty singular in my view. And singularly PRETTY, without ever being vacuous or saccharine. That’s no mean feat, and it speaks wonders for Taranoya’s soulful, deeply contemplative vibe. I am almost shocked at how blissfully haunting this recording is, and how it manages to avoid nearly every cliche of the genre. Releases in this sonic terrain can sink rather rapidly if the lyrics are too upfront and take you out of the dreamy web you want to get stuck in, or if the instrumentation veers too much into the “new age” realm. Without wanting to irritate fans of new age (and I have some records that would fall under that banner myself), I am experienced enough with this kind of stuff to be able to tell the difference between New Age and Ambient, something that connoisseurs used to argue about on the net, back when these things were viewed as more consequential. What many of us viewed as new age seldom stood up to late-night scrutiny, as it aims for the lightest and most undemanding of moods while being generally quite restricted in its ambition, with some exceptions. Taranoya’s BECOMING, my friends, is very definitely AMBIENT music, and that’s a compliment. It’s lush, lulling, pastoral dream music conjured by a woman who seems to intuitively know that heading right for your subconscious, the place you inhabit when your intellect is turned off, makes for a far more satisfying sound experience than adhering to the parameters of the more typical offerings in this ballpark.

TARANOYA (promotional photo)

I personally LOVE music that appeals to a sort of “half asleep” state, and has a quality of being totally removed from mundane or stress-induced concerns, the kind we all battle daily. “Accidents” is eight minutes of beautiful keyboard drone that invites you to get comfy, serves you a fruit-infused beverage like nothing you’ve imbibed before, and then puts you at rapt attention as your charming host murmurs things to you that you can’t quite hear but you don’t care… her voice hypnotizes you and pulls you right into a place you would be happy to just never leave. “Heavenly” is an overused adjective in the ambient world, but… this IS heavenly, mes amis. What Taranoya’s voice does between 4:27 and about 4:43 on this track may be the single most beautiful moment I’ve experienced in a piece of music this year. The whole track is a wonder, really. A little bit of spoken word at the end adds to the feeling you’re in a partial dream state sitting in a cushioned chair at the airport or something. “You’re Only Breaking Down” is an even longer track, commencing with a Cocteaus-style flourish before Taranoya goes full feminine vocal allure in the middle of the mix. It’s like hearing your favorite cat purring happily, with neither one of you inclined to move even a smidge from where you’re currently located. And I was awestruck by the artist’s discipline to keep the keyboard sounds so subtly in the background, never showing off for even a moment. The dream state rules here, aesthetically. Works for me!

“Thinking About You” does get a shade more familiar initially, with the main synthesizer being not too far removed from the odd Tangerine Dream release or even early Pink Floyd. But from about the two-minute mark on, the sort of “otherly” ambient strangeness we fans always hope for kicks in, and Taranoya proves once again she’ll opt for originality and the sonic multi-verse over any formula or “non-genre” tenets. I was fully spellbound by the time this track was over, and knew I’d be a fan of this gal from here on out.

TARANOYA (promotional photo)

On “Let the Air,” the vocals are the most “conventional”; you can just about hear some actual words and there’s a touch more normalcy if that’s what you prefer (love the ending, though). And “Do I Return” has what is clearly a piano, not some obscure synth setting stumbled across in the wee hours of the morning when otherliness rules in the studio. It’s still very pretty. But the long track “Wake Me Up Rush” returns to the killer combo of Taranoya’s ethereal voice and the airy synth settings she tends to favor, with a low-frequency drone entering stage left at about the four-minute mark that adds some unexpected gripping energy. Subtle variety in a tapestry of sound that is uniformly lulling, is what makes this set something of an ambient classic, ethno-femme division (“fembient”? “womenbient”? What moniker should we give, exactly, to characterize the sub-genre of ambient where a deeply compassionate and yes, angelic female presence, is at the center of the sound? And is that even worth pursuing?). I’m in love with this music, and I thank this spellbinding artist for truly forging some new territory on BECOMING. Taranoya strikes deep… into your life it will creep, if you decide to check this out and float away among the clouds of bliss that this very visionary and wondrous artist has to offer.

TARANOYA (promotional image)

(BECOMING is currently available as a limited edition of 100 cassettes, as well as the obligatory digital download)

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!