THE MONKEES

(June 5, 2014; THE FOX THEATRE, Saint Louis, MO)

The Monkees Fox Theatre ad

Any band that was a significant part of your youth is one that you tend to make allowances for, years later, if they continue to make music. The memories you associate with their songs, the deep familiarity of their music and personas, means you are predisposed to love their show and surrender to the excitement as you did all those years ago. Such is the case for me with the Monkees, a band second only to the Beatles in their pervasive impact on my life in the mid to late ’60s. The first riff I ever played on a guitar was that of “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone.” The album PISCES, AQUARIUS, CAPRICORN AND JONES, LIMITED was on constant rotation in 1967 in my circles. “Pleasant Valley Sunday” was no less than an anthem. And my favorite Monkees song of all, a Mike Nesmith tune called “Tapioca Tundra,” could very well serve as the soundtrack for my childhood, those peak carefree days of fun TV shows (THE MONKEES among them), innocent crushes, bicycle rides and, always, neighborhood games with my pals. A whole slew of memories are conjured by the spectacle of seeing the Monkees live in concert, and for this tour, with the previously MIA Mike Nesmith leading the charge, things were bound to be interesting. And they were, definitely.

The Monkees, 1966 (Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork, Michael Nesmith) (publicity photo)

The Monkees, 1966 (Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork, Michael Nesmith) (publicity photo)

This isn’t the space to discuss the many reasons why Nesmith came aboard only after the band’s heartthrob, Davy Jones, passed away unexpectedly in 2012. It can certainly be said that Nesmith was always a champion for the Monkees’ musicianship and control over their legacy, and perhaps he felt both needed to be reasserted and “freshened up” after the Vegas-style theatricality of several previous Monkees tours that were certainly Jones-centric. Having seen at least half a dozen previous Monkees shows, I can say with confidence that the goofing around and animated stage patter the band is known for was dramatically lessened at their Fox show, relegated to continuous clips from their TV show that screened both during and between their performances. Sometimes these clips were hysterical, sometimes they were monotonous, but they reminded you of where these four guys came from and what they were called upon to do, at least from 1966 until their disastrous (commercially speaking) movie, HEAD, ended one phase of their career. Nesmith, with thinning hair and wearing a dapper white jacket over a Sun Records t-shirt, was a quietly commanding presence at this show. He didn’t say that much, nor did the expression on his face change much, but he was authoritative and he meant business, musically speaking.

The Monkees, 2014 (Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork) (uncredited photo)

The Monkees, 2014 (Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork) (uncredited photo)

After a slightly tame “Last Train to Clarksville” got things under way (Micky Dolenz sings that one), Nesmith took the mic for quite a handful of tunes: “Papa Gene’s Blues” (an early country-ish outing; Nes was a pioneer of what came to be known as country rock), “The Kind of Girl I Could Love,” “Sweet Young Thing,” “You Told Me,” “Sunny Girlfriend” and more. Fans hadn’t gotten to hear these songs performed live, for the most part; with Davy’s stuff out, with rare exceptions, the set could be reconfigured to accommodate Nesmith’s many fine compositions. If Nes didn’t move much on stage, however, the same can’t be said of the amazing Mister Dolenz, dressed sharp in gray hat and suit, and always ready for his closeup. Dolenz is acknowledged as the finest singer in the band, and he is a consummate entertainer, involving the audience, shimmying from one side of the stage to the next, and belting out classics like “I’m a Believer,” “She” and the utterly peerless “Goin’ Down” with dedication and real joy. He’s clearly happy to be doing this, all these years later, and he always hits those high notes, sometimes to shivery effect. On “Shades of Gray,” a tender ballad where Dolenz shares the vocal duties with Peter Tork, he wryly grabbed a tuft of Peter Tork’s hair as the “shades of gray” chorus came up for the third time; not everyone saw this, but it was a more subtle brand of goofiness than what we’ve seen before.

The Monkees, circa 2013 (Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork) (ncredited photo)

The Monkees, circa 2013 (Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork) (uncredited photo)

And speaking of Tork, fans were NOT cheated out of seeing him in the spotlight; there was “Your Auntie Grizelda” (a weird song, even now), “For Pete’s Sake” (which featured Tork introducing the song with a speech about how badly the group wanted to make and play on their own records in the ’60s; Tork declared that the band “were guilty only of NOT being the Beatles, also true of 6 billion other people”), and a rousing “Can You Dig It,” among others. Hits such as “I’m A Believer” and “ …Steppin’ Stone” naturally thrilled the audience, but in terms of musical ecstasy, it was the tunes from HEAD that delivered the biggest impact. “The Porpoise Song” was transcendent, preceded by clips from the infamous film, then easing into a thrilling Dolenz vocal and all the psychedelic layering a fan could reasonably expect. What Monkees fan doesn’t get a shiver from that “Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye” refrain? Even better was “As We Go Along,” a truly beautiful song featuring clips of band members wandering through serene landscapes and Dolenz nailing the vocal to the wall in a perfect sonic picture frame. Fun fact: this tune in its recorded version is one of four the Monkees recorded with a young Neil Young adding guitar to the sessions. “Circle Sky” was a chance for Nesmith to rock out more than usual, but I thought he was even better on “The Door Into Summer” and the classic “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round”. The band wanted a big, well-adorned sound for this show: on “Mary, Mary,” four pairs of shakers were utilized by the added musicians on the tour (an ensemble that included Micky’s sister Coco and Nesmith’s son Christian). Female harmonies insured a properly lush vocal sound when needed, and though Mickey played drums fairly often, most of the percussive duties fell to a second drummer that was added.

The Monkees (Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork with the late Davy Jones on screen behind) (photo credit: JEFF DALY/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The Monkees (Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork with the late Davy Jones on screen behind) (photo credit: JEFF DALY/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Some other highlights included a vibrant “Randy Scouse Git,” the Jones gem “Daydream Believer,” in which, touchingly, all three remaining Monkees took a verse (encouraging the audience to belt out the chorus), and a poignant clip of Jones effectively punctuated the tune, and the closing encore of “Listen to the Band” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” I was disappointed that “Tapioca Tundra,” while played, seemed to get short shrift in the arrangement department; it sounded tossed off here and lost the eerie melancholy of the original. Some of the vocals here and there were also hard to understand (Tork didn’t always intone his lyrics clearly), and the sound was almost subdued at times. It wouldn’t have killed the band to turn things up here and there and just madly rock. But professional? Yes indeed. Musically diverse? Check. Generous with serving up both hits and deep album cuts? You betcha. There’s no doubt that Mike Nesmith added a whole new dimension to this version of the Monkees onstage, and he’s a crucial balance to the madcap antics that sometimes went overboard in the past. There’s also no doubt that Micky Dolenz is an amazing singer and the real focal point of this band. He just IS. A real BAND was on stage at the Fox Theatre, playing and singing their hearts out, and offering more classics than most bands have in their entire repertoire. How amazing that the Monkees can still surprise after all these years. They’re the old generation. And they got something to say!


GREAT LIVE ALBUMS (20)

Live recordings have been a part of the music industry since day one of the crude technology of the earliest devices. In fact, since there were really no studios available for recording purposes, all of those early “records” were “live recordings” in the strictest sense. However, the live album, as we now know it, is a completely different animal. That animal came into its own in the rock era and exploded with the release of ALIVE, a 1975 album by KISS, (a career making release with an overabundance of what has come to be known as “studio sweetening”), and FRAMPTON COMES ALIVE in 1976 (also hurtling “the face” and former Humble Pie guitarist to superstardom). With the unprecedented success of Peter Frampton’s fifth solo release, everybody and their brothers were releasing these documents of their latest tours (sometimes used as stop gaps between studio albums; sometimes used as a means to gain an artist’s release from a record label contract, commonly referred to as the “contractual obligation” record).

A lot of people don’t like live albums. I’m not one of those. Some of my favorite records were recorded on the road. Here’s a list of 20 live albums that I think are the best. These records are all official releases, not bootlegs… that’s a whole other list (and one you may see somewhere down the line, as well). I had a hard time keeping this list to 20 (it started out as a “Top10”) and, I’m sure that your list would look very different from this one. But, that’s what makes these things so much fun, right? So, starting with number 20, here’s the first in a series of reviews presenting 20 live albums that you should check out:

(20) WINGS: WINGS OVER AMERICA

(CAPITOL RECORDS; 1976)

wings over america

To say that the original release of WINGS OVER AMERICA was a behemoth may be overstating things… but, just barely! It was a beautiful thing to look at and – in a time before gargantuan box sets were an industry norm – the three record set (enclosed in a true masterpiece of design by Hipgnosis) was one of the biggest (and, at nearly two hours, one of the longest) releases ever.

WINGS OVER AMERICA inner gatefold painting by JEFF CUMMINS

WINGS OVER AMERICA inner gatefold painting by JEFF CUMMINS

The band (drummer Joe English, guitarists/bassists Jimmy McCulloch and Denny Laine, keyboardist Linda McCartney and her husband… I think his name might have been Lester, but I’m not sure… wonder whatever happened to him?) comes out of the box rocking hard with a medley of “Venus and Mars,” “Rock Show” and “Jet.” Despite the many comments regarding Linda’s musical and vocal abilities, she was – in my humble estimation – just as integral a part of the group as Laine, McCulloch or English… heck, I even like the songs she sang lead on! Anyway, with the aid of a four man horn section, Wings proved from the get-go that they were there to play. Following a great take on “Jet” is another track from BAND ON THE RUN, the bluesy “Let Me Roll It.” Then it’s back to the VENUS AND MARS material with “Spirit of Ancient Egypt” and McCulloch’s “Medicine Jar,” a pair of tunes that had me reevaluating the merits of said album. Side two opens with a stunningly effective version of McCartney’s solo song, “Maybe I’m Amazed,” featuring some awesome, tasty guitar from McCulloch. Another slow blues – and another tune from VENUS AND MARS – follows. “Call Me Back Again” features more solid guitar work and a nice horn chart. When Paul announced this jaunt (as part of the Wings Over the World tour and his first live dates in the States since 1966), the burning question was, “Will he play any of those old songs?” The rabid fans got their answer very early in the set, as a pair of lesser (by comparison) Beatles tunes – “Lady Madonna” and the dreamy “Long and Winding Road” – were given the Wings treatment. The hyper-kinetic theme to 1973’s James Bond flick, LIVE AND LET DIE closes out the second side of the set, with McCartney pulling every cliché from every musical genre he could access at the time he wrote the song.

Wings: Linda and Paul McCartney (photo credit: BOB ELLIS)

Wings: Linda and Paul McCartney (photo credit: BOB ELLIS)

The second album (side three, by the way things were figured way back then) starts off slow, melody wise, with one of the gentler tunes from BAND ON THE RUN, the French dancehall vibe of “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink To Me),” coupled here with a nice, lilting cover of Paul Simon’s “Richard Cory,” itself an adaptation of a late nineteenth century poem about a suicide. Vocalist Denny Laine changes the last line of the first chorus to “I wish I could be… John Denver.” The acoustic set continues with another song from BAND… , “Bluebird” before dipping into Paul’s back catalog once more, with a trio of classics: the country-tinged “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” a rather funky “Blackbird,” and what may just be the perfect ballad, “Yesterday.” A record flip (yes, kiddies, to get from side three to side four, you actually had to physically turn the thing over!) and it’s back to the electric stuff and another dose of VENUS AND MARS music, with the ragtimey “You Gave Me the Answer,” which is followed by McCartney’s paean to a few of Marvel Comics’ oddest villains in “Magneto and Titanium Man.” Denny is back on lead vocals reprising his hit with the Moody Blues, “Go Now.” It’s a nice, bluesy number enhanced by the horn section. It’s rather unfortunate that the best song on the RED ROSE SPEEDWAY album was “My Love.” It’s even more unfortunate that McCartney deemed the slow schmaltz worthy enough to perform live. Side four closes out with the rollicking “Listen To What the Man Said,” highlighted by Thadeus Richard’s clarinet.

Wings: Jimmy McCulloch and Paul McCartney (uncredited photo)

Wings: Jimmy McCulloch and Paul McCartney (uncredited photo)

Side five introduces the new album, WINGS AT THE SPEED OF SOUND, starting with the goofy pop of “Let ’em In,” one of two big hits from the record. Laine’s sinuous “Time To Hide” kicks up the rock ‘n’ roll again before the other big hit, “Silly Love Songs,” gets an early airing. I know that a lot of people cite this song, in particular, as proof that McCartney’s post-Beatles work was schmaltzy pop crap, but I’ve always liked it. So sue me, ’cause I think this version is pretty darn fun! Rocker Paul returns on “Beware My Love,” one of his more muscular forays into the realm of hard rock. Throughout WINGS OVER AMERICA, Paul, Jimmy and Denny had been switching back and forth between guitar and bass (and, occasionally, piano) but, the imaginative bass work (and the tone) on this side is all Paul and, for that reason alone, is the highlight of the set. Paul continues on bass on the final side with “Letting Go” another VENUS AND MARS rocker. “Letting Go” is followed by what is probably McCartney’s most well-known post-Beatles tune, “Band On the Run.” The bass (McCartney again) is quite prominent and the guitars, drums and Linda’s synthesizer cut through at times, but the song sounds thin somehow. It’s still a great rocker. The encores, “Hi, Hi, Hi” and “Soily,” sound better. The guitar interaction between McCulloch and Laine is possibly the strongest of the entire album, with McCulloch on slide and Laine playing a double neck. Paul McCartney wanted to prove that this wasn’t just his Wings, but a cohesive unit of five very talented musicians. I’d have to say that they definitely proved his point with the Wings Over the World tour and the WINGS OVER AMERICA album, which is why it’s one of the 20 best live albums ever.

The most recent release of WINGS OVER AMERICA came in 2013, with standard two CD and three LP versions, a Best Buy version with an extra CD of eight songs recorded at San Francisco’s famed Cow Palace and a sprawling box set featuring all three CDs, as well as a DVD of a television special called WINGS OVER THE WORLD and four books.


MACEDO: PAPER DOLL

(MOONGOLD RECORDS EP; 2014)

Macedo Paper Doll

Twin sisters Michelle and Melissa Macedo have released a 6-song EP that aches of sincerity and hours spent contemplating life and love, something that hardly makes them unique. What DOES is that their tunes are growers, plaintive ballads and unpredictable rockers that insinuate themselves gradually into your psyche. PAPER DOLL follows a couple of previous releases the Pasadena, CA sisters put together (including 2011’s FLAGS AND BOXES), and seems intent on neatly encapsulating their strengths for a slowly growing audience, those strengths being dual vocals that are similar but which create a pleasing tension throughout, strong lyrics that reflect a high degree of emotional authenticity, and mostly sterling arrangements that feature piano, organ and violin in a swirl of energy that is pulled towards art song in one direction and Alanis Morissette-type love snarls in another. There’s something very familiar about the Macedo sound, and I swear this is the last time I’ll EVER mention the Indigo Girls in a review of ANYTHING, just on general principle, but the EP’s first couple of songs do bring that group to mind actually bettering them in many ways. These tunes manage to NOT be self-indulgent, something the Indigos were convicted of long ago, and if a few Alanis-y moments draw attention to themselves, well, that’s okay. Everyone’s gotta sound a little like someone else, right? Vocals are upfront throughout and the piano is mixed with sparkling clarity. So the verses tend to stand out: “Do you remember when we found that fortune teller/You thought they for sure knew me better/There is only time that’s taken/There’s only time that takes,” the girls sing, seemingly sharing a private conversation that we get to be in on, and we want to know more. There are effective pauses here and there, which shows that either the Macedos or their producer is paying attention to arrangement and overall flow. It’s nice stuff.

Macedo (photo credit: SHANNON M WEST)

Macedo (photo credit: SHANNON M WEST)

Your Skin Brims” gets its Alanis on rather overtly, although the tempo shifts are unexpected. And the demands of the lyrics are more subtle: “Remember when we talked about the warning signs?” goes one refrain, and the whole song appears to be about a relationship that is in trouble, trying to figure out where the blame lies. As the music surges with organic intensity, our protagonist starts damning things in the lyrics: “Damn, I’m a cynic/Damn, I’m about to kiss my worst critic,” a Macedo gal intones, a great lyric that serves up a whole platterful of angst truly universal and easy to empathize with. By this time, they’ve pretty much GOT you, these girls; whatever might be missing in originality is certainly THERE in focused self-awareness, always important on introspective platters such as this. So the final track, “Amazing,” just SLAYS. It’s a potent composition which makes quite a convincing case for Macedo as an act to be reckoned with. I’m guessing it’s Melissa on lead vocal, telling us in an effectively nasally voice something that positively hurts to hear: “Amazing always, no one can stay that way/But will you still love me when I fade away/There’s a child inside me/Who functions out of fear/Though you shouldn’t come closer/You should still stay here.” Having been in relationships where this kind of sentiment would’ve been a welcome burst of honesty, I felt chills listening to the song. The piano is stark and lovely, the violin comes in just at the right time to create haunting musical devastation, and there’s some background organ that only serves to heighten this song’s contention for “classic” status. It’s the kind of tune that you just KNOW would hold a crowd at rapt attention in some tiny little lounge lucky enough to have Macedo on the bill that night. “I’m amazing next to you, it’s true/Just your presence pulls me through/And inspires my desires/When you’re gone, my heart breaks on and on and on,” the girls sing, with an understated power that few could possibly resist. There is something truly authentic about Macedo that a whole slew of other similar acts could only hope to achieve. Whether it’s the sisterly bond placed front and center, the sometimes tart vocals that make almost every word clearly audible, or the clean keyboard-driven arrangements, these six songs have a cumulative effect that is hard to shake. PAPER DOLL is not thin or passive in any way; it’s the work of two women who are living, breathing advocates for speaking up, facing the contradictions and anguish of true love with honesty and self-respect, and setting it all to musical compositions worthy of any attentive listener’s attention. I can’t shrug this one off, and that’s a compliment, folks.


LAKE STREET DIVE: BAD SELF PORTRAITS

(SIGNATURE SOUNDS; 2014)

lakestreetdive2013

The four-piece Lake Street Dive would be as comfortable on-stage at a big Country show as they would be at a small Jazz club; they would fit in equally well with old-school Soul or Rock ‘n’ Roll and would even find (or gain) ardent fans on a Warped Tour stage. On their latest release, BAD SELF PORTRAITS, the immediate point of distinction – as with everything that has come before – is the voice of Rachel Price. While Price is the obvious focal point, the musicians behind her are responsible for putting words in her mouth: drummer Mike Calabrese; guitarist, trumpeter and founding member Mike “McDuck” Olson; bassist and primary songwriter (at least on this album) Bridget Kearney. The diverse sound of Lake Street Dive can most easily be traced by the geographical history of the four members: Olson hails from Minneapolis (home of Prince and Husker Du); Calabrese calls Philadelphia home (Philly Soul, anyone?); Kearney is from Iowa (as was/is Big Band leader Glenn Miller and metal extremists Slipknot); Price comes from just outside Nashville (the one in Tennessee… you know… “Music City”). This huddled mass melted into the New England Conservatory pot in Boston.

Lake Street Dive (Mike Calabrese, Bridget Kearney, Rachel Price, Mike Olson) (publicity photo)

Lake Street Dive (Mike Calabrese, Bridget Kearney, Rachel Price, Mike Olson) (publicity photo)

BAD SELF PORTRAITS kicks of with the title track, a very cool Motown vibe and vocals that have a throwback appeal – think Norah Jones channeling Ronnie Specter… kinda thick and sultry. “Stop Your Crying” is very much in the same vein: girl group pop for the next century with backing vocals that are best described as… uh-hum!… “Supreme.” The next tune, “Better Than,” has a distinct Buckingham-Nicks/Fleetwood Mac groove, with a syncopated percussion pattern, a medley line and backing vocals that are quite Stevie-esque (Nicks not Wonder, in case you didn’t get the previous reference), and a very churchy sounding organ. Bridget Kearney (who wrote this one, the equally infectious title track and three more of the 11 songs here) also adds a very nice acoustic bass line. “Rabid Animal” is a wicked girl group/Carole King-Brill Building tune with a punchy rhythm and a tack piano driving toward its abrupt end.

Lake Street Dive (Mike Calabrese, Rachel Price, Bridget Kearney, Mike Olson) (photo credit: JARROD MCCABE)

Lake Street Dive (Mike Calabrese, Rachel Price, Bridget Kearney, Mike Olson) (photo credit: JARROD MCCABE)

You Go Down Smooth” is a kind of dirty blues, featuring a standard George Thorogood guitar riff. There’s a great horn chart that gives the number a grand, Big Band feel, which is accentuated by some jazzy, charging drums and excellent backing vocals on the chorus. The funky soul of “Use Me Up” features a snappy percussion pattern but, it’s the slapping bass line, with just enough resonance, bounce and spring in the strings to give it a nifty ’30s Jazz vibe. “Bobby Tanqueray” is a cool mix of modern alternative rock guitar parts, loopy, out-of-left-field bizarro stage production lyrics and an odd sci-fi/fantasy siren (the mythological chicks, not the noisey, wailing warning devices) sound (is it a synthesizer thingy… is it a theremin… is it a human voice?) that really kicks this one up a notch on my “like-o-meter.” Believe it or not, “Just Ask,” reminds me of something from Paice Ashton Lord (a Deep Purple off-shoot), with a heavy organ sound, a beefy guitar sound and a funky groove.

Lake Street Dive (Bridget Kearney, Mike Calabrese, Mike Olson, Rachel Price) (publicity photo)

Lake Street Dive (Bridget Kearney, Mike Calabrese, Mike Olson, Rachel Price) (publicity photo)

Seventeen” is probably the rockin’est track, with a driving, crisp Southern Rock guitar sound and almost tribal drumming from Calabrese. The male/female duet vocals adds another dimension, reminiscent of the sound Dale Krantz and Barry Harwood brought to their duets with the Rossington-Collins Band. The chorus and the rhythm of the track are of the variety that gets stuck in your head, on perpetual rewind. A loose, random feel permeates the percussion heavy “What About Me,” giving it a funky, rollicking late ’60s feel. The church choir chorus and New Orleans-style guitar and drums adds to the almost sloppy party atmosphere, kinda like a Big Easy funeral procession during Mardi Gras. The final track, “Rental Love,” clocking in at just over two-and-a-half minutes, is as close as this record gets to a ballad. The instrumentation is – once again – crisp and imaginative but, Price’s vocal performance raises the track to another level… something more than a standard Rock/Pop/whatever ballad.

BAD SELF PORTRAITS is short by today’s standards, a few seconds shy of 40 minutes. You get so lost, however, in the little nuances (lyrically, vocally and instrumentally) of the album that you don’t realize the brevity… you just know you want to hear more. I’m well aware that we’re barely a quarter of the way through the year, but I’m gonna be hard pressed to find many more deserving releases for a spot in my “Best of 2014” list.


FIREHORSE: PILLS FROM STRANGERS

(SELF-RELEASED EP; 2013)

Firehorse - Pills From Strangers

Firehorse is, essentially, the vehicle which singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Leah Siegel uses to drive her tunes. This short (seven songs in less than 27 minutes) release is an odd conglomeration of indie rock and pop excess – think Lady Gaga channeling Liz Phair with a dash of Pink for just the right dose of snottiness and a dollop of Tom Waits for just the right amount of strange. All of this is over a new wavey, synth-fueled bed that brings to mind the good (Gary Numan) and the bad (Peaches, referenced here just to keep the band honest and making a concerted effort not to swerve in that direction) of the genre.

PILLS FROM STRANGERS is the follow-up to the band’s 2011 debut, AND SO THEY RAN FASTER… and features the same players (Siegel, drummer Brian Wolfe, bassist Tim Luntzel and guitarist Steve Elliot) with the addition of keyboardist/programmer Mendeley Wells, whose presence is felt immediately on the quirky opener, “Bloodstream,” with its bizarre, blippy synthesizer coda that could be majorly annoying. Toss in a delivery of the line “Get in my bloodstream” that immediately conjurs up visions of Mike Myers and “Get in my belly!” and the song comes very close to tanking in a disastrous, Peaches kind of way. But, you know what? It works, thanks in part to several other attributes, including the lyrics. A fun way to kick things off!

Firehorse's Leah Siegel (photo credit: WILL O'HARE)

Firehorse’s Leah Siegel (photo credit: WILL O’HARE)

The new wave synth pattern and drumming are the real highlights of the throwback sound of “Good,” a nifty little number that has that certain something that makes it immediately appealing, if not exceptional. “Wave” is the first song on the disc that would actually prompt me to buy the thing. Again, a bouncy new wave vibe turns into the perfect setting for Leah Siegel’s Siouxsie Sioux-cum-Kate Bush vocal delivery. The first two and a quarter minutes of “Any Other Day,” with Leah’s soulful gospel inflections and a choir behind her totally makes the tune work. When the full instrumentation is introduced, the transition to the rather menacing final minute is quite a fine piece of musical structuring. Really nice!

The metallic clang and sparse percussion of “Scarecrow” transforms the tune into a minimalist nightmare. Siegel’s lyrics and voice are perfectly menacing. Without a doubt, this is the single most impressive song on the record! Though not as overtly ominous as the previous track, “Walls” keeps the quality high and the instrumentation stripped to a bare minimum, with a nice acoustic lead driving the tune. “Fool” maintains the minimalist feel going with a strange funk vibe, evoked more than anything by Leah’s vocal performance… kinda like a soulful Nikka Costa thing filtered through Prince at his most funky purpleness. I do like this record, but… I can’t help wondering what an entire album of material like the last three… make that four… songs, ’cause “Any Other Day” has the same less-is-more ambiance that seems to propel Leah’s vocals to whole new level. PILLS FROM A STRANGER is available at the usual download places and at the band’s website, thisisfirehorse.com. Physical copies of AND SO THEY RAN FASTER… are also available from their site. Go ye forth and consume, my brethren and… uh… sistren!


BILL NELSON: GETTING ACROSS THE HOLY GHOST

(COCTEAU DISCS/ESOTERIC RECORDINGS/CHERRY RED RECORDS/PORTRAIT RECORDS; reissue 2013, original release 1986)

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I fell in love with Bill Nelson, his songwriting, his voice and his guitar playing in 1977, with LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE, the fantastic live release from his then-current band, Be Bop Deluxe. In the early ’80s, I rediscovered Bill through a pair of commissioned works for the stage – DAS KABINETT (THE CABINET OF DOCTOR CALIGARI) and LA BELLE ET LA BETE (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST), both for the Yorkshire Actors Company – and 1982’s THE LOVE THAT WHIRLS (DIARY OF A THINKING HEART); the second commissioned piece was released as a bonus record with THE LOVE THAT WHIRLS… and stands in stark contrast to the album proper’s poppy New Romanticism. I eventually discovered Nelson’s Red Noise project during a trip to the used record bins at a local shop; I initially passed on those releases as virtually every review I read at the time called it – and I’m paraphrasing here – “A disappointing attempt at electronic dance music.” Anyway, after Red Noise, finding a new Bill Nelson record in the hinterlands of Illinois became an effort in futility; now, nearly thirty years after Red Noise, comes the expanded edition of one of the man’s most well-received records, GETTING ACROSS THE HOLY GHOST (called ON A BLUE WING in North America and Australia). The new edition features a remaster of the original ten-song UK version of the record, as well as a second disc featuring the two EPs culled from the same recording sessions: WILDEST DREAMS and LIVING FOR THE SPANGLED MOMENT.

Bill Nelson (photo credit: SHEILA ROCK)

Bill Nelson (photo credit: SHEILA ROCK)

There seems to be a vague theme running through …HOLY GHOST… , a theme that reminds me of Sunday mornings in a small country town or village. “Suvasini” is a short, introductory ambient piece with a nice jazzy guitar running throughout; it leads into “Contemplation,” which features a snaky kind of guitar, some mid-’80s poppy keyboards and a slinky bass line (courtesy of Iain Denby). Bill’s voice has always been sort of an acquired taste; here, he straddles the stylistic line that falls somewhere between David Bowie and Bryan Ferry. The song itself is very poetic and lyrically dense (as in, a lot of words). The only part I find objectionable is a sax part that tends to ruin the feel of the whole track. “Theology” is closer to the esoteric near-rock of some of Be Bop Deluxe’s more experimental stuff. The number rather reminds me of solo John Foxx or, maybe, a type of Enoesque Ambient rock. Preston Heyman adds an industrial (as in, machinery) percussion thing that is very cool. There’s more of that industrial sound happening on “Wildest Dreams,” a happy kinda tune that also tosses marimba into the percussion mix. You know, I really like Nelson’s more experimental pop stuff but, I gotta say… I really miss his exceptional guitar playing on some of this material; 1980’s style keyboards just don’t do it for me, though there is a great violin solo from Peter Greeves. “Lost In Your Mystery” could have been an outtake from Bowie’s LET’S DANCE sessions. The music has a very Asiatic (in reference to the Continent, not the band) and pre-programmed (it all sounds synthesized) texture and feel; it’s a very laid back song with an equally laid back vocal from Bill.

In its original form, you could listen to those first five songs before being forced to flip the record over to hear the rest of the music. That’s the way I’ve chosen to review the first disc of this reissue, picking up here with the music on Side Two. “Rise Like a Fountain” comes across as an Adrian Belew/King Crimson kind of thing… if Crimson were an ambient band. Iain Denby chimes in with a great (fretless?) bass part, plus… there’s an actual guitar solo (short though it is). There’s an unfortunate BEVERLY HILLS COP/Harold Faltermeyer synth vibe (sorry, folks… great movie, horrible theme song) happening on “Age of Reason.” Nelson’s vocals are pretty good but, I’m not sure they actually save this thing, especially once the Clarence Clemons-like sax bleats (provided by William Gregory and Dick Morrisey) come in. Simply stated, the tune comes off as nothing more than dance music for left-footed mathletes. “The Hidden Flame” continues the dance floor goofiness, though some nifty processed piano and some funky lead guitar somewhat negate the damage. As always, Bill’s vocals are a highlight, as is the stinging guitar solo toward the end. “Because of You” is up next. Now, this is more like it: Great guitar, great lyrics (“Nailed to the cross of love/Because of you”), funky bass; this number could easily have worked as a Power Station song. The album ends with “Pansophia,” a very short (less than a minute) nylon-string guitar solo laced with minimal processed piano and ambient noises. So, in the harsh reflective light of nearly three decades, the first half of GETTING THE HOLY GHOST ACROSS fares much better than the second half, though there’s enough meat on the bones to enjoy this rather dated blast from the past, mostly because… well… Bill Nelson!

Bill Nelson (LIVING FOR THE SPANGLED MOMENT)

Bill Nelson (LIVING FOR THE SPANGLED MOMENT)

And, so, we’re on to the second disc of this collection as we ponder the question: What would a “Deluxe Edition” (or reissue of any kind, really) be without “bonus material?” That material usually manifests as a vault-clearing effort to delve into the artist’s psyche at the time of the recording of the feted release. Thankfully, the minutia that practice entails is eschewed for a more slim-lined package that includes the two EP releases associated with the 1986 album… a total of eleven tracks. Even though the sequencing here is kinda wonky, for the purposes of this review, our exploration will begin with the music from the first of these releases, LIVING FOR THE SPANGLED MOMENT. Following the first cut from the later WILDEST DREAMS record, the seven tracks from …SPANGLED MOMENT – five of which were issued as part of the original English cassette version of the …HOLY GHOST,,, record – follow in sequence. It should be noted that this release is more of a “mini-album,” clocking in at a little less than a half hour. “Heart and Soul” is another synthesized, mid-tempo dance tune, featuring sax and clarinet solos from Ian Nelson. This is probably as stuck-in-your-head catchy as you’re likely to hear from Bill Nelson. Nelson’s minimalist approach to guitar-playing is once again the touch point for the title track, which is awash in various keyboard texturing, a slinky bass part from Denby and another Morrisey sax solo; the track is… okay… just not great. Though brighter in tone, “Feast of Lanterns” comes off feeling like an extension of the main album’s “Pansophia.” This longer investigation of that tune’s themes features some backward guitar alongside some well-placed harmonic guitar swells and ambient keyboard for a little added atmosphere. The result is quite a pretty piece of music.

Bill Nelson (publicity photo)

Bill Nelson (publicity photo)

Illusions of You” has a nice band vibe, very happy and bright. Bill’s guitar is more prominent here than elsewhere, which is a welcome sound; everything seems to come together on this track… except for Ian Nelson’s sax solo, which somehow seems terribly out of place here. With an almost somber kinda Peter Gabriel feel that belies a sprightly Denby bass line and Nelson’s vibrant vocal performance, “Word For Word” is a slow-build non-ballad. A neat Spanish guitar solo gives way to one of Bill’s trademark ambient electric guitar solos. “Finks and Stooges of the Spirit,” besides having one of the greatest titles ever, is quite possibly the best tune from this period of Nelson’s career. It’s an electronic rocker, with a dense instrumental bed menacing just below vocals that border on the dispassionate (think Gary Numan). Since I’ve been a little hard on him, I must compliment Ian Nelson’s woodwinds; they are an integral part of this wall-of-sound production. Bill’s reverb-drenched solo leads into a short duet with Ian’s clarinet, which really adds to the (intentionally) disjointed feel of the number. Like the closer to Side One of the original LIVING FOR THE SPANGLED MOMENT release, “Nightbirds” closed out Side Two – and, indeed, the entire record – in similar fashion: It’s another short ambient soundscape, this time featuring Iain Denby on bass. For pure atmospheric effect, it certainly does a nice job, as it leaves the listener yearning for just a bit more.

Bill Nelson (WILDEST DREAMS)

Bill Nelson (WILDEST DREAMS)

Now, back to the top, with the “Wild Mix” of the WILDEST DREAMS’ title track. You know how I feel about remixes… don’t like ‘em. However, this one seems to have a little more of that industrial percussion that Preston Heyman brought to the original album version, as well as a more prominent bass line and… wait! Is that an extended violin solo from Peter Greeves? Okay… I may actually prefer this version to the one found on GETTING THE HOLY GHOST ACROSS. “Self Impersonation” (or, “Self Impersonisation,” as it was originally titled), which crops up after “Nightbirds,” is another ambient thing with some heavy percussion aspects (this time, by Bill himself, who plays everything on this cut) and just enough soloing and noodling throughout to remind us that Bill Nelson coulda been a big shot rock star guitarist. Up next is another version of “Wildest Dreams.” The single mix is basically the album track cut by a few seconds and featuring a more vibrant high-end (for airplay, doncha know?). It doesn’t sound too bad, removed, as it is, from the entirety of the album. “The Yo-Yo Dyne” is another keyboard and percussion piece, with a cool pipe organ thing happening. Once more, this is all Bill, all the time. The song has an odd, Reggae feel to it – not that Reggae is odd, just in this setting. A nice way to end the record, I suppose, but a tad too repetitive to be allowed to go on for five minutes. As mentioned above, this may not have been my favorite period in Bill Nelson’s career, but there is enough meat on the bone to intrigue.


WHEN PIGS FLY – SONGS YOU NEVER THOUGHT YOU’D HEAR

(A2X RECORDS/XEMU RECORDS/AORTA RECORDS; 2002) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULT (UPDATE BELOW)

 

When Pigs Fly

“Hey… let’s make a record!” “Yeah! Awright! Let’s get some really cool songs to put on it! How about Peter Gabriel’s ‘Shock the Monkey?’ That song rocks!” “But… we can’t afford to stick a Peter Gabriel song on there with our budget. Unless… ” “Okay. I hear what you’re saying. Don Ho rocks!”

“Huh? Run that one past me again? Don Ho… ‘Shock the Monkey’… I don’t get the connection, dude,” you say. Well, Slappy, give a listen to this hipper-than-hip collection and get yourself a clue. WHEN PIGS FLY… takes a bunch of really cool tunes and a bunch of really strange performers, dumps ’em all into a blender and gets… well, some strangely cool covers! They ain’t all masterpieces and, truthfully, a lot of ’em aren’t even that big a stretch to imagine the couplings. A lot of people may be upset to find that, though the collection was done with a nod and a wink, these versions are – for the most part – dead serious artistic restylings.

Ani DiFranco (publicity photo)

Ani DiFranco (publicity photo)

On the first track, “Unforgettable,” the unlikely duo of Ani DiFranco and Jackie Chan (yup… THAT Jackie Chan) displays chops that will surprise more than a few folk. Now, seriously, we all knew that Ani is in possession of an ample set of pipes, but her vocals on this American standard are amazing! And… who knew that Jackie could croon? Well, apparently the vast majority of his homeland, as he is one of Hong Kong’s biggest musical stars. He will probably never be confused for Nat “King” Cole, but he can certainly hold his own. We’re only one tune into this eclectic array of singers and songs and the pigs have definitely left the runway!

Devo (uncredited photo)

Devo (uncredited photo)

Devo deconstructs Neil Young’s “Ohio” next. Here’s one of those tunes that really isn’t a huge stretch: The guys of Devo are Ohians (from Akron, of course) and, if memory serves, a couple of them may actually have been enrolled at Kent State in 1970. This version belches, whistles, and throbs, in typical Devo style. Though Mark, Jerry, and the others never step out of character, the tune’s original vehemence and anti-war sentiment still comes through. “Call Me,” by the Box Tops is… different. Blondie’s huge electro-dance hit is turned into… well… a Box Tops song, with funky Memphis horns and a patently dispassionate Alex Chilton vocal. What can be said about the Connells’ version of Cypress Hill’s “Insane In the Brain,” especially while I’m rolling on the floor in hysterics? First of all… Holy crap! I hate this song! However (and you knew that there was gonna be a “however,” didn’t you?), these North Carolinians make the song palatable, in a repugnant sort of way… i.e.: Like a train wreck or a gruesome accident, you just can’t turn away. I guess that’s what Cypress Hill’s all about, anyway. And the Connells capture that perfectly.

Don Ho (photo: BEN MARGOT-ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Don Ho (photo credit: BEN MARGOT-ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The centerpiece of this collection is Don Ho. As mentioned above, the Hawaiian of indeterminate age covers the improbable “Shock the Monkey.” You wanna laugh… I know you do. And that’s alright, but I’m betting that once you hear the track, you won’t be laughing anymore. The man who brought us “Tiny Bubbles” delivers a dead-on version of the classic Peter Gabriel tune. His voice is surprisingly strong, rich, and raspy, with just enough creepiness to sell the song. Maybe it’s time for a Rick Rubins career makeover for Mister Ho. I’m not suggesting that Rubins could recreate the success that he experienced with Johnny Cash or Donovan, but I would certainly like to hear what he could do with Ho. Though 75% of these tracks are homespun creations, the brainchild of executive producer Cevin Soling, the next track is more than a decade old. The criminally over-looked Roy Clark turns in an amazing vocal performance on a song made famous by the one and only “Satchmo,” Louis Armstrong. While no one can possibly hope to come close to Armstrong’s funky growl, Clark’s smooth-as-silk voice lends a sense of pathos to “What a Wonderful World.”

Oak Ridge Boys (publicity photo)

Oak Ridge Boys (publicity photo)

Billy Preston approaches Duran Duran’s “Girls On Film” like he approaches anything he does: He attacks it and makes it his own. The thumping bass and funky guitar and drums probably has the guys in Duran Duran saying, “See… that’s what we wanted it to sound like!” Preston’s pumping organ and throaty vocals add to the vibe, stamping the tune with the “Official Cool People’s Seal of Approval.” Cy Curnin delivers a creepy, David Bowie like vocal on the Fixx’s version of “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.” The song, originally performed by Nancy Sinatra, is about empowerment; this version turns it into a misogynistic song about control. One of my favorites from the collection. Another one of those pairings that really isn’t that far of a stretch is the Oak Ridge Boys covering Kansas’ mega-hit, “Carry On My Wayward Son.” The religious overtones of the tune plays well with the Boys’ gospel roots, and the harmonies are so tight that you can totally forgive lead singer Duane Allen for his shortcomings (minimal, though they are) in delivering a rocker like this.

T Rex gets the garage treatment with the Neanderthal Spongecake’s version of “Bang a Gong (Get It On).” The Spongecake is fronted by our erstwhile leader, Cevin Soling and their deliciously trashy version is the best since the Power Station covered the thing somewhere in the final quarter of the last century. I’ve done a little checking and, as far as I can tell, these guys had a full-length release in 1996 (or there-abouts) and have been quiet on the recording front until this solitary track. Hey, Cevin… we all love Spongecake, dude! How ’bout some more? And, now, we’re 11 tracks into a 12 track collection and we finally run into a duffer. Herman’s Hermits take a whack at Billy Idol, offering a rather tepid version of the former Gen-Xer’s “White Wedding.” Now, I have nothing against Peter Noone and, in fact, his vocals actually hold up fairly well. However, having said that, I’m not real sure who the other Hermits are, but I’m guessing that they’re a group of studio musicians… and it sounds like it. The music is as sterile and lifeless as anything that Toto (a group of professional studio musicians, in case you didn’t know) ever recorded.

Lesley Gore (publicity photo)

Lesley Gore (publicity photo)

If Don Ho didn’t shock you (no pun intended), then the final track will. Like most music lovers, I know that you’ve lain awake at night, wondering whatever happened to pop princess Lesley Gore. Well, sleep well tonight, my friends… she’s been laying low, waiting for just the right song for her comeback. And that song is… “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.” That’s right… Lesley takes one of AC/DC’s most infamous tunes and, adding her own special touches, turns it into a rollicking pop ditty, complete with horns, handclaps, pumping organ, dirty piano, and a slutty “girl group” chorus. This is, without a doubt, the coolest AC/DC cover I’ve ever heard (yeah… I know there aren’t that many, but even if every album ever released featured an AC/DC cover, this would probably still be at the top of the heap)! If you wake up screaming and in a cold sweat remembering Celine Dion’s horrendous version of “You Shook Me All Night Long,” this one will cure the night terrors… at least until that evil Canuck opens her trap and yodels again!

UPDATE: WHEN PIGS FLY… is still available at all the usual download places, like iTunes and, if you’re looking for a physical copy, the original web-site, www.pigsflycd.com is still up and running. You can also listen to individual tracks there.


SCORPIONS: COMEBLACK

(LEGACY/SONY; 2012)

Comeblack

At the tail-end of a 40-plus year career, German rockers Scorpions offer COMEBLACK, a cover album. Kinda. Seven of the 13 tracks are actually re-hashes of some of the band’s best known tunes, including ”Wind of Change,” one of the top five worst songs ever written – if not THE worst! I guess, now that there are two versions (not counting live) of this suck-fest on record, it officially drops “Born In the USA” out of the top five. No… wait. That’s really not fair, is it? Actually, it is a top five non-Springsteen turd. So, figure up how many songs your Boss (he ain’t mine… if he were, he owes me a heck of a lot of back pay!) has written and THEN you start counting from there. Which means that this second version of “Wind of Change” has, in reality, knocked Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” out of the top five non-Bruce stinkers. Of course, “Wind of Change” has competition right here on this album with “Still Loving You” and “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” although neither stoops to the levels of heiniousity that particular ditty reaches. But, I guess hammering these things out on a nightly basis during the endless “farewell tour” has kept James Kottak gainfully employed for the last four or five years.

Scorpions (Marc Theis)

Scorpions (photo credit: MARC THEIS)

Alright, having gotten that off my chest, I must say that I used to really like Scorpions, at least ’til MTV found them. Two of my favorite Scorps songs, “The Zoo” and “Blackout” are both here, as well. So, it ain’t all bad! Plus, the other six songs are pretty okay. The cover of Soft Cell’s cover of Gloria Jones’ “Tainted Love” is a fun, if rather odd, choice. But it works. There are also covers of Marc Bolan’s T Rex track, “Children of the Revolution” and “Across the Universe” by the Beatles. Steve Mariott’s Small Faces get play with “Tin Soldier.” “All Day and All of the Night” by the Kinks and the Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” finish the set. These Teutonic takes on some of the most well-known songs of the rock era don’t add anything special to the originals, but then, I don’t think they were intended to. Like so many other bands who’ve been in the game for a good long while, Klaus Meine, Rudolf Schenker and the rest just wanted to say “thanks” to some people who inspired and enabled them to do what they love. I guess that’s one of the most confounding things about COMEBLACK: If you wanted to do a covers album, why revisit your own career (the originals are on several hits packages and feature prominently on a few live albums) for over half of the album? I would have liked to hear the guys cover the Who, the Doors and, for some reason, I think that they would have tore things up with a version of the Amboy Dukes’ “Journey To the Center of the Mind.” And, hey… “Dancing Queen” by ABBA! That would have been AWESOME!

If you just have to own versions of the seven “original covers” by the current band of Scorps and want a fun second half’s worth of “inspirational covers,” then, by all means, COMEBLACK is for you. I just wanted (and expected) a little bit more.


AMBROSIA PARSLEY: I MISS YOU, I DO

(SELF-RELEASED DIGITAL EP; 2012)

imissyouido-01

This is what Elvis (the dead, fat one) would sound like if he were a lot younger, a lot hipper, a chick and not dead. The latest from former Shivaree front-woman Ambrosia Parsley, I MISS YOU, I DO, offers a divine taste of her next full-length, WEEPING CHERRY. Listening to the five songs, it’s easy to understand why the thing was originally going to be called FOUR FUNERALS AND A WEDDING.

The first track, “The Other Side,” features a teen-angsty ’50s kinda vibe, but with bigger drums (think Phil Specter’s Wall of Sound) and a fuzzy, tremelo-laced guitar leading the charge. Ambrosia’s sweet voice almost gets lost in the bigness of the musical backing. Nonetheless, a great opener!

A gloomy, plaintive minor key piano backs Ambrosia to start “Whispering Pines,” an elegantly doom-laden little number. Eventually, a church organ, bells, acoustic guitar and bass join in. As a male counter-vocal enters at about the 2:30 mark, the song hits a third, separate feel – somehow more crushing and claustrophobic than the first two.

Ambrosia Parsley (publicity photo)

Ambrosia Parsley (publicity photo)

Nighttime” is a duet of sorts, featuring the same male voice (sorry… wish I had names to go along with voices and instruments, but all I have is music!) from “Whispering Pines.” Even though the music (featuring guitar – both acoustic and electric, piano and eventually, drums and bass) and vocals sound breezy at the start, by the time Ambrosia sings “Get me outta here/Get me outta here/I hate it here/Get me outta here,” a phobic paranoia settles in. The creep factor is high on this one which, even at only two-and-a-half minutes long, makes it an instant favorite around here.

With more loud guitars and drums, “Losing the Holiday” offers a more “modern” feel to the proceedings. Again, Ambrosia’s vocals are nearly lost in the din during the chorus. She does shine through brightly on the verses, in which a sense of hopelessness and loneliness and a certain tired resignation are evident. The fact that these songs are presented with an almost lighthearted airiness makes the underlying tone of despondency that much more ominous. This is GOTH music without the black backdrops and eye-makeup.

The Answer (Tim and Becky’s Wedding)” is supposed to be the happy song, but with lines like “When my hands are tied and my hair’s a mess” and “There’s no chance at all, I confess/The answer’s yes,” the picture painted is of a victim succumbing to her tormentor (rapist?). The song again hearkens back to that ’50s teen drama sound (almost a doo-wop feel, except for the presence of instrumentation).

I MISS YOU, I DO has definitely whetted my appetite for more. Bring on WEEPING CHERRY!