BLOUSE: IMPERIUM

(CAPTURED TRACKS; 2014)

blouse-imperium

Three-piece band from Portland, Oregon, a town that produces great bands consistently. Vaguely lumped into a category called “dream pop” cause it’s, well, dreamy and sometimes evocative and features an alluring female voice (in this case, that of Charlie Hilton). Catchy hooks, lyrical phrases that jump out of the mix and sometimes stick with you (like the repeated refrain “Are you one of us?”on the title track and “I’ll give you something for the pain” from “1000 Years.”

Blouse (photo credit: TonjeThilesen)

Blouse (photo credit: TonjeThilesen)

That’s a lazy short review of Blouse’s second release so far, and probably as much as most people would want to know about this trio. But actually, it’s worth elaborating just a little. It’s worth saying that Blouse are sounding good to me on a sunny afternoon when I’m loaded down with worries, with my attention divided, and decisions that I don’t feel like making. Cue the sonic narcotic! IMPERIUM hits me as a kind of pleasant, melodic, vaguely nostalgic jangle pop that doesn’t make me work too hard. Sometimes I don’t MIND when a record challenges the shit out of me, and I have to think about what its intentions are. And other times, damn it, I just want the thing to sound good right away, to quickly justify its existence, in other words. Hilton, producer/multi-instrumentalist Jacob Portrait and bassist Patrick Adams have obliged with a rather lush (reminiscent, actually, of the BAND Lush), shiny sound on these 12 tracks that is unpretentious and sometimes downright stirring. I pretty much instantly took to the off-kilter ’80s-retro psych-out of “Eyesite” and especially the Scandinavian-style emotional immediacy of Hilton’s voice on “1000 Years,” the melancholy “Capote” and the straightforward love plea, “Trust Me.” See the Swedish bands Club 8 and the Concretes for reasonable corollaries.

A Feeling Like This” gives you, or at least it gave ME, a feeling like that… a memory of some past new band I liked and got excited about when I heard them for the first time. Hilton half sings, half speaks some of her lyrics in a most beguiling way on this track, and you can only hope to be the inspiration for this sort of feeling in a significant companion sometime in your life. The rockingest song is “Arrested,” which is all REM-style forward motion, with a layer of shoegaze woven in organically. Hilton sometimes sounds a little detached on tracks like this (not that it doesn’t feel right for the music), and maybe even somewhat samey if you’re seeking cafeteria catharsis. But in their own way, Blouse manage to diversify the sound from track to track – an unexpected bit of echo here, some discordant mixing flourishes there. And “Happy Days,” one of the most atmospheric, compelling tracks, hints at the eccentrically majestic heights this band might be capable of. “I have stars in my eyes,” sings Hilton, and this kinda thing might land her on the soundtrack to an arty European film. But vulnerability and worry are underneath this swirl of sound somewhere. “There is no shelter from this storm/Nothing in nature can keep my body warm,” our chanteuse complains on “No Shelter,” and although she offers a temporary solution in the next verse, she’s definitely all up in her mind here. But that’s okay, the music is still kinda soothing, and it got me out of MY mind. Blouse ON, angst OFF. A little IMPERIUM can’t cure what ails ya, perhaps, but it can push it into the distance. That’s more than most records do, so thanks, kids!


GREAT LIVE ALBUMS (19)

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, here’s number 19, the next in a series of reviews presenting 20 live albums that you should check out:

(19THE SENSATIONAL ALEX HARVEY BAND: LIVE

(ATLANTIC RECORDS; 1975)

the_sensational_alex_harvey_band-live

To say that Alex Harvey was a haunted, damaged soul may be an understatement. It has been well documented that he never really recovered from his brother Les’ onstage electrocution while a member of Stone the Crows. Alex blamed himself because he introduced his younger brother to Maggie Bell, which led to the two forming that band. Alex hid his pain with alcohol and by becoming the jokester, leading his new band, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, as it winded its way to success via their high-powered, glam-tinged Vaudevillian stage show. I came to the show late, as far as SAHB (as they were called, because… well, their full name does not exactly roll trippingly off the tongue) was concerned… three albums into their joint career (Alex had been performing in various bands since the late ’50s; the other guys – of which, more later – were a band called Tear Gas, who released two albums before hooking up with Harvey). The very first time I heard (and saw) the group was on some late night concert thingy some time in 1974. I was, to say the least, blown away! I remember going on the hunt for anything by the band and, living in Podunk USA, the best I could do was special order a copy of the then-new album, THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM. And that brings us to the fabulous LIVE album, recorded on May 24, the last night of the group’s 1975 English tour. LIVE was, unfortunately, a single record (around 45 minutes in length; about half of the actual show), at a time when double live albums were de rigueur. But, oh, what a record it was!

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band (Chris Glen, Hugh McKenna, Zal Cleminson, Alex Harvey, Ted McKenna) (uncredited photo)

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band (Chris Glen, Ted McKenna, Zal Cleminson, Alex Harvey, Hugh McKenna) (uncredited photo)

The record starts with a brief “Fanfare (Justly, Skillfully, Magnanimously)” followed by a creepy, Glaswegian voice welcoming the audience, “Good evening, boys and girls. It’s a gas to be here… I would like to take this opportunity to introduce you to my band. The Sensational Alex Harvey Band.” Way better, in my mind, than, “You wanted the best, you got the best!” A pumping keyboard (organ, synthesizer or… ?) and shaker from Hugh McKenna introduces the lascivious “Faith Healer,” before Ted McKenna (Hugh’s cousin), Chris Glen and Zal Cleminson join in, on drums, bass and guitar, respectively. This is as good a place as any to mention that Cleminson is an exceptionally gifted and expressive guitar player with a style and tone that – like Queen’s Brian May and REO Speedwagon’s Gary Richrath – is immediately recognizable; the mime face paint and modified jester’s outfit alongside his rubbery facial expressions only add to the effect. When Alex growls the first line of the song, “Let me put my hands on you,” it is evident that his motives are far from noble. While the focal point of the stage show may rest more on the antics of Zal and Chris, it is quite obvious that this is, in fact, Alex’s band. Hugh introduces the next tune, as well, with a pretty, soft electric piano. As Harvey steps to the mic, he introduces “Tomahawk Kid” as a song “inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson.” The TREASURE ISLAND and KIDNAPPED pirate references abound as the percolating rhythm leads to a great harmony duet between synthesizer and guitar; I’m not really sure that I’ve ever heard anything like it, but I do know that I like it! Zal doesn’t do a whole lot of soloing (which, of course, one would expect from a lead guitarist… especially live), but his lead, rhythm and fill work are masterpieces nonetheless. With the band adding “Yo-ho-ho” backing vocals on the chorus, the song catches fire and draws you into the story. The first side ends with the “Vambo” section of “The Hot City Symphony,” complete with Alex reading from “The Book of Vambo,” delivering a litany of heroic deeds that Vambo Marble-Eye, a being who is “like a cross between Santa Claus and Spider-Man,” is responsible for. There is a manic middle section, which features Alex spray-painting “Vambo Rools!!” on a brick wall to the back of the stage (if you’re unfamiliar with SAHB’s live show, you’ll have to trust me on that) and, yes… that is a frenzied guitar solo from Cleminson. It is a masterful performance, a touch above the studio version from THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM, but Alex and his boys saved the best for side two.

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band (uncredited photo)

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band (uncredited photo)

The band was promoting a new album, TOMORROW BELONGS TO ME and, while a few tunes from that release were played on the 1975 tours, only one made the LIVE record: “Give My Compliments To the Chef.” It’s an ominous tune with a heavy bass riff and a moody piano leading to the first line, delivered in a sad and resigned fashion: “Mother, dear, did you hear/How they are teaching me to do the goosestep?” The song is a wicked, veiled reference to a certain menu item… SOYLENT GREEN, anybody? The tune starts slow but, by the second half, Alex has worked his band into a lather, driving them hard to the finish. If you listen closely, you can hear him panting during the applause after. The Sensational Alex Harvey Band were always known for their use of the well-chosen cover tune. The point is proven on a wild, waltz-like take of the Tom Jones hit, “Delilah.” The version used on LIVE was so powerful that it was released as a single itself and became the group’s biggest chart success. Again, Hugh’s keyboards seem to lead the band, though the others, especially Zal, do have their moments. The slow middle section features (again, you’ll have to take my word… no… wait… just check the video evidence!) Cleminson and Glen prancing across the stage in an approximation of a waltz, leaving Alex to his own devices amid a pile of mannequins. His vocals are weird and menacing, made more so by the backing vocals by the others. The album finale is another cover, the Leiber-Stoller chestnut, “Framed.” Harvey’s intro, while sticking fairly close to the original, is classic: “I’m walking down the street, minding my own affair/When two policemen grab me and I’m unaware/They said, is your name Alexander/ And I said, well, why sure/They said, well, you’re the cat that we been lookin’ for/But I was… FRA-MUH-DUH!/I never done nothin’!” SAHB’s version has a hard rock/glam feel, with some great boogie piano running through it and… guess what?… another awesome solo from Cleminson. The second “monologue” from Alex is a garbled mess… mostly because he’s wearing a pair of panty hose over his head. As the band kicks it back into high gear, Mister Harvey begins to plead his case to the audience. He asks them if they believe him, if they are on his side. “Do you believe me? No? You don’t believe me? The concert is canceled!” He pits the audience against the band, blaming them for all of his woes and emerges victorious, slamming into one of the more bombastic finishes ever recorded. I would certainly like to hear the complete, uncut concert but, I find it hard to believe that they could ever improve upon the sequencing and pacing of this one record; it’s that good! And, that’s why it sits at number 19 on my list of great live albums.


WISHBONE ASH: BLUE HORIZON

(SOLID ROCKHOUSE RECORDS; 2014)

Blue Horizon

All through the 1970s – my formative years as a music lover – my brother managed a trucking terminal a few miles from an MCA Records pressing plant. Naturally, all of their product shipped through that terminal. And, just as naturally, there were instances where some of that product was damaged. This product basically fell to my brother to do with as he saw fit. So, what does that story have to do with Wishbone Ash? Well, Wishbone Ash’s US label was Decca, an imprint of MCA. The first time I heard the Ash was when my brother brought an impressive stack of vinyl for my consumption: The Who, Elton John, Budgie, Neil Diamond, Blues Project, Blue Mink, Mose Jones and… the first three Wishbone Ash albums (just to name a few). Holy Batcrap, Commisioner Gordon! I had slipped into my own blissful state of musical Nirvana! Thanks to my brother, Mike, I eventually owned every Ash record up to THERE’S THE RUB (they jumped ship in the States to Atlantic Records for two albums before returning to MCA) and I loved every one! That kinda makes me a “lifelong fan.”

Wishbone Ash (Joe Crabtree, Andy Powell, Bob Skeat, Muddy Manninen) (photo credit: TIM ASSMANN)

Wishbone Ash (Joe Crabtree, Andy Powell, Bob Skeat, Muddy Manninen) (photo credit: TIM ASSMANN)

Like those two Atlantic releases and all but a select few since, this new Ash album is a hit or miss affair for me. It ain’t horrible… in fact, once you tally the points, there are more hits than misses. “Take It Back” opens the proceedings. A track that is very much in the vein of the Laurie Wisefield era, it features the trademark harmony guitar sound, a solid vocal from Andy Powell and fiddle from longtime associate, Pat McManus. Reverting to the band’s blues roots, “Deep Blues” has the aggressive sound of the group’s first album. The song has a great blues riff and some finest-kind soloing from both Andy and Jyrki “Muddy” Manninen. “Strange How Things Come Back Around” is another Laurie-sounding tune with some odd, Frippian guitar synchopations. I’m not too sure about those backing vocal “la-la’s” during the slower bridge sections… they seem to drag the whole thing down. There’s a fade in/fade out right before the instrumental break leading into the solos that completely transform the number into a kind of Tommy Bolin era Deep Purple funk thing. While there is certainly an air of the familiar, this is not your standard Wishbone Ash song and, actually, is rather enjoyable because of it.

One of the few misses, “Being One,” sees the Laurie Wisefield love-fest continuing. Unfortunately, Powell delves into two of the group’s weaker albums (NEW ENGLAND and LOCKED IN) for inspiration. The song has a slow, funky sort of groove which, eventually, morphs into a progressive jazz piece… with all of the trappings that the term connotes. Powell’s silky voice provides a welcome tension to the rough riffs and hard edges. “Way Down South” is a lazy, laconic (as the name implies) Iain Matthews/Fairport Convention style folk number. The tempo picks up during the instrumental section, with Bob Skeat’s deep, emotive bass leading the way into another nice solo. The tune isn’t awful but, at well over six-and-a-half minutes, it’s just too long for it’s own good. Next up is “Tally Ho!” Now, this is more like it! This is the Wishbone Ash I fell I love with way back when, the progressive folk banner flying high. There are moments that recall “Leaf and Stream” from the legendary ARGUS and, the solos in the middle section are quite effective in context. My only complaint is this: Andy’s vocals are a little weak here; this is one instance with the latter-day Ash where the vocals of either Ted or Martin Turner would have worked better. Speaking of vocals, Manninen makes his debut on lead with the dirty blues of “Mary Jane.” His voice is a little rough but, a welcome change from Powell’s (I really am a fan of Andy’s voice… it’s just that over the course of ten tracks… well, you know, variety and spices and such). The tune features some very nice harmony guitar work and a couple of slide solos.

Wishbone Ash live, circa 2009 (uncredited photo)

Wishbone Ash live, circa 2009 (uncredited photo)

After mentioning the refreshing change of pace from Andy’s vocals on the last track, he delivers what may be his two best vocal performances on BLUE HORIZON. “American Century” features an aggressive “FUBB” like intro before settling into a PHOENIX or ARGUS progressive groove. The drums of Joe Crabtree keeps a mid-tempo rhythm going, while Skeat’s charging bass propels the tune forward at a faster pace, creating a brilliant musical dichotomy. “Blue Horizon” is definitely a “song” in the strictest sense, with powerful lyrics and atmospheric vocals on display over the pure musicianship of the players (the hallmark of Wishbone Ash). That isn’t to say that the musicianship is sub-par; far from it! The guitars seem a little louder and each solo sends the tune into a different place, stylistically. The first has a James Bond/mystery vibe happening while others have a majestic, almost Floydian feel. Eventually, everything kicks into a more Ash sounding instrumental section, with Tom Greenwood adding some nice organ flourishes. The ARGUS song, “The King Will Come,” is evoked with “All There Is To Say.” It’s another pretty, Cletic folk tune, with guitars and lyrics reminiscent of that earlier number. Pat McManus adds some very nice fiddle and bazouki for a more folky feel. If you’re a long time fan, BLUE HORIZON will fit comfortably next to the rest of your Wishbone Ash albums, though it may not get as much play; if you’re new to the band, I think that you’ll find the album a refreshing change from a lot of today’s music and will, ultimately, lead you to seek out those earlier albums.


CABARET VOLTAIRE: #7885 (ELECTROPUNK TO TECHNOPOP 1978-1985)

(MUTE RECORDS; 2014)

Cabaret Voltaire album cover

In the days of our youth (to quote that Bob dude from the New Yardbirds), we were continually in search of the next new and exciting sound (thankfully, unlike our hairline, that hasn’t changed!). Somewhere around 1980, we became enamored of an English synth-pop group called Cabaret Voltaire (after the famous Zurich night spot), via their excellent second album, THE VOICE OF AMERICA. In the next couple of years, they also released the exceptional RED MECCA album and an equally impressive double 12” set called 2X45. We thoroughly enjoyed (and continue to do so) these three slabs of influential music, at the forefront of a genre that also included Throbbing Gristle, Soft Cell, Depeche Mode and others but, as is our wont, we were soon off, exploring new musical boundaries once again. Now, thanks to Mute Records and founding Cab (and sole remaining member), Richard H Kirk, we have a purposely concise collection, highlighting the prime years of the band’s output. With #7885 (ELECTROPUNK TO TECHNOPOP 1978-1985), Kirk has taken a backward glance at some of the shorter recordings (in fact, the longest track, “Animation,” clocks in at around 5:40) from the band – compiling single tracks, radio edits and well-chosen album tracks – to give old fans and newcomers alike a taste of the growth and diversity experienced by the Cabs during that six year period.

Cabaret Voltaire (publicity photo)

Cabaret Voltaire (publicity photo)

The set starts with two tracks from the first Cabaret Voltaire release, the four track EXTENDED PLAY. Both “Do the Mussolini (Headkick)” and “The Set Up” feature industrial beats, a heavily processed vocal and stinging guitar, a sound that was instrumental in ushering in the post-punk era of rock music. The next three tunes exhibit the punk side of the Cabs: “Nag Nag Nag” is one of the great punk singles of all time; “On Every Other Street” is a killer track from the original trio’s first full-length, 1979’s MIX UP, a primitive punk stomper with snarling vocals; “Silent Command” is a dancey, jangley, dubby, happy single release from the same year… kinda like “This Is Radio Clash” or any of the other dub offerings from that band. A track from THE VOICE OF AMERICA follows. “Kneel To the Boss,” is an oddly minimalist dance track with moody, disjointed vocals. The single, “Seconds Too Late,” is slower, moodier and more repetitive than anything presented so far and, it’s the better for it. “Landslide,” from the RED MECCA album, has a slinky Eastern European or Asian feel that is very appealing (you can check out the entire RED MECCA release, too, as Mute has recently reissued it in a new vinyl edition). 1982’s 2X45 gives us the hard funk of “Breathe Deep,” complete with horns and a guest appearance by drummer Alan Fish.

The second half of the disc is mostly 7” mixes or radio edits, starting with “Just Fascination.” It’s got a creepy Aphex Twin sort of vocal thing going on… kind of breathy and menacing. The synth and bass are particularly menacing here. Following is a radio edit of “Crackdown,” which features a repeating, syncopated drum pattern and almost whispered vocals. The synth and bass are more spongy on “Animation,” a mood lightening dance track. The next two songs, “The Dream Ticket” and “Sensoria,” feature a rather hyper dance club vibe, reminding me of Thomas Dolby’s brilliant “She Blinded Me With Science.” From 1984, “James Brown” is exactly what you think it should be: A sweaty groove with horns and a funky wha-wah guitar thing happening down in the mix. DRINKING GASOLINE featured four tracks, each running over eight minutes. Two tracks, “Kino” and “Big Funk,” were whittled down for radio consumption. They’re both suffering from disco overload but, as the name implies, the latter is funkier and more adventurous, sorta like “Rockit” by Herbie Hancock from a couple years earlier. “I Want You” is a stylistic hybrid. Think Spandau Ballet meets Duran Duran. The final cut, “Warm,” comes from the 1985 record, THE COVENANT, THE SWORD AND THE ARM OF THE LORD (retitled, simply, THE ARM OF THE LORD for obvious reasons in the US). It is a rather unremarkable tune from a rather unremarkable release. We understand that Mister Kirk wanted to be representative of every phase of this period in the group’s career, but #7885 could have done without this last one. This really is a good introduction to Cabaret Voltaire. After checking it out, we strongly suggest that you delve further into the three releases mentioned in the first paragraph, as well as EXTENDED PLAY. They are, indeed, the pinnacle of experimental, post-punk bliss from the group.


ANTI-MORTEM: NEW SOUTHERN

(NUCLEAR BLAST RECORDS; 2014)

COVER ART

The members of Anti-Mortem are, on average, 21 years old. That’s really nothing special… rock and roll has always been a young man’s (or woman’s) game, even though some of those youngsters have grown up and continued to excel at their chosen craft. What is special is that, on their debut release, these five Oklahomans have the sound and the chops of a much more experienced band. We can, perhaps, give a nod to veteran producer Bob Marlette for the sound but, the music and lyrics are all Anti-Mortem. And, even though there is a certain cohesiveness to the record, these guys wear their influences like a badge of honor: Classic 1970s hard rock, late 1990s new American metal, Southern Rock and dirty Blues all have played a part in making this band what they are. “Words of Wisdom” kick-starts the album with some nu-metal downtuning and a Classic Rock vibe. Toss in liberal doses of snotty Alice Cooper style vocals and a touch of Molly Hatchet Southern Rock arrogance and that, my friends, is what Anti-Mortem is all about. The title track cements the sound. It has a chugging Rob Zombie-like Southern stomp with a swampy Zakk Wylde kind of guitar thing happening. The chorus, “New Southern, I live this way/Going straight to Hell on a rainy day/New Southern, cuz I live this way,” is the basic theme of the album and credo for the band. “100% Pure American Rage” sounds like it coulda been an outtake from Alice’s BRUTAL PLANET album… about a bunch of kids saying “enough is enough.” There’s a line that goes something like, “This devil’s going to make you pay,” which sounds like a warning shot to those who seek to do us harm, all in the name of their “God.” But, the message is actually a quite different and very simple one, as highlighted in the video for the tune: “Choose your weapon!” The next song, “Hate Automatic” offers a similar sentiment, this time directed at a more homegrown kind of terrorist: The bullys, the kids that bring assault rifles to the playground and the classroom.

Hitting like a more intense Shinedown, “Black Heartbeat” is a vicious break-up song with a definite Southern groove dominated by Levi Dickerson’s solid drumming. “I Get Along With the Devil” is a rampaging, Metallica-on-steroids groover, highlighted by some awesome guitar work throughout, provided by Zain Smith and Nevada Romo. A Black Label Society kind of slow-cooker, “Path To Pain” features another onslaught of grinding, stinging guitars and what may just be Larado Romo’s best vocal performance. “Wake Up” is more of a mid-’70s hard rock thing, filtered through the grunge of Alice In Chains and the swamp boogie of Black Label Society’s early stuff.

Anti-Mortem (Levi Dickerson, Navada Romo, Laredo Romo, Zain Smith, Corey Henderson) (photo credit: CLARK DEAL)

Anti-Mortem (Levi Dickerson, Navada Romo, Laredo Romo, Zain Smith, Corey Henderson) (photo credit: CLARK DEAL)

Ride of Your Life” has a horror feel… musically, it falls somewhere between Rob Zombie and the Michale Graves era Misfits. The tune features one of the more memorable riffs I’ve heard in a while and a really cool breakdown leading into a buzz saw of a guitar solo. I’m not exactly sure how to read “Stagnant Water.” It’s either about a murder or a suicide, revenge or blessed relief. The over-all lyrical message is, “Everybody has demons to face and a breaking point that sends them over the edge.” It definitely has some of the best imagery on the album. A “life on the road,” hookers ‘n’ musicians in heat song, “Truck Stop Special” kinda reminds me of SCREAM DREAM era Uncle Ted. The guitar even has that sweet tone that Ted is known for, especially on the solo. Finally, everything that you love about ’70s Southern Rock and late-’90s alternative and metal music is encompassed in one killer four-minute-and-fifteen-second track called “Jonesboro.” It is the perfect closer to a very strong debut album. (There’s also a bonus cover of Mister Big’s “A Little Too Loose,” which I haven’t heard… I’m not real sure which version it’s on.) I’m expecting great things from this group in the future. I’ve said this many times before and it bears repeating here: “Go ye forth, mine brethren (and sisterns?) and consume!”


FROM A DARK PLACE: THE PAUL HOUGH INTERVIEW

PART 1: AN INTRODUCTION

The Human Race

The son of director John Hough, Paul Hough, like his father, has a rather dark palette from which he works. This rather frightening visionary focus has given life to some of the most depressing (and bloodiest) world views in the past decade plus. From the plight of a suicidal amputee in the music video, “The Enemy,” by Fozzy to the brutal reality of extreme backyard wrestling in THE BACKYARD to the new movie, THE HUMAN RACE, Paul has taken the universal themes of suffering and man’s inhumanity to man to new heights. Yet, in all of this pain and misery (and exploding heads), there is a subtle beauty that focuses on some of the more enjoyable aspects of the human condition. These aspects – unquestioning friendship, love, hope, belief in a higher calling, religion in all of its varying forms (Muslim, Christian, et cetera) – tend to make the grotesquerie more palatable… even enjoyable.

The school, the house, and the prison are safe. Follow the arrows, or you will die. Stay on the path, or you will die. If you are lapped twice, you will die. Do not touch the grass, or you will die. Race… or die.” That is the startlingly simple premise of THE HUMAN RACE. Eighty people, all who were unlucky enough to be occupying the same city block, are struck by a blinding white light (was it God? A priest, who is seen offering comfort to a homeless – junkie? – woman believes that they are in Purgatory) and transported to an undisclosed area and given the instructions above. Through two flashback vignettes, we meet three of the 80, survivors of their own personal hells: Veronica (Brianna Lauren Jackson), a young woman who has lost her family to a particularly aggressive form of cancer only to find out that she, too, has been stricken. She curses God for his cruelty. Flash forward to her doctor’s office where Veronica is told that her cancer is in total remission. She looks to the heavens and gives thanks, only to find herself a part of this macabre race; Eddie and Justin (Eddie McGee and Paul McCarthy-Boyington), two soldiers who meet for the first time on an Afghan field of battle. Eddie has, basically, been blown apart, his left leg is gone and Justin is determined to save him. Justin drags Eddie into a cave and using his own body, covers him to keep him warm until they can be rescued. Back in civilian life, they both work with underprivileged or disabled youth. Other “racers” include a pair of deaf friends (Trista Robinson and T Arthur Cottam), a Tour de France bicyclist (played by Cinderella drummer Fred Coury), a pregnant woman, the priest and homeless woman mentioned earlier, a Korean War (?) Marine vet with a walker, three vicious BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD types, a self-absorbed, Better-Than-Thou yuppie type, a young girl and her little brother… in other words, people from every walk of life, representing every facet of the social, racial, political and religious spectrum. Any more information than what I’ve already given would ruin the movie for you; let’s just say that, “THE HUMAN RACE takes more twists and turns than I thought possible for a film of this kind, especially one that runs less than 90 minutes.” The plot, script, acting and visuals all work together perfectly to present a stunningly moving look at the foibles and fallacies that make up the human condition. The following interview with writer/director/producer Paul Hough offers insights into his career, his journey to make this movie and the film itself.

PART 2: AN INTERVIEW

Director Paul Hough (uncredited photo)

Director Paul Hough (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: Hey, Paul, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions about your new project.

PAUL: You’re welcome, Darren, it’s a pleasure.

THE MULE: So, let’s start at the beginning. Your father is famed director, John Hough, who had a penchant for the gruesomely horrible… maybe the only person to ever work for both the legendary Hammer Studios and Disney. How has his work influenced you, particularly in the making of this brutal new film, THE HUMAN RACE?

PAUL: My dad has a career that doesn’t focus on one particular genre but got those Disney films because of the horror movies he made. Disney wanted someone who could bring something dark to Disney. He taught me early on to make sure I said something when making a film, to have a point of view. Not necessarily overtly but to bring something that was me to it. He taught me also to try and make everything as interesting as possible when shooting and taught me how to cover things from the best and most unique angles.

THE MULE: This isn’t – so to speak – your first rodeo, but it is your first feature length, scripted endeavor. Can you give us the breakdown of your short films and the extreme wrestling documentary, THE BACKYARD?

PAUL: I did a short called THE ANGEL, which can be found on YouTube with Eddie McGee and Celine Tien (both from THE HUMAN RACE) and did a music video, also with Eddie, for Chris Jericho’s band, Fozzy (called “Enemy” – also online). In that, you can see quick glimpses of Fred Coury and Luke Y Thompson, who also appear in THE HUMAN RACE. I met Luke after he wrote a good review of THE BACKYARD (he is a film critic, currently working for THE VILLAGE VOICE). THE BACKYARD was about kids who wrestle in their backyards, using weapons such as barbed-wire baseball bats, staple guns and nails. The documentary focused also on their parents, who were more than often supportive and were high school teachers, principals, doctors and nurses.

THE BACKYARD poster

THE BACKYARD poster

THE MULE: THE BACKYARD is every bit as violent and as bloody as THE HUMAN RACE, but everything was real. Did that make things harder for you, knowing that these guys were really hurting themselves and each other? Did their brutality, in any way, affect the way you approached THE HUMAN RACE?

PAUL: It didn’t really make it hard because I wasn’t the one getting hurt. And they were going to be doing this whether I was there or not. While I was shocked at a lot of what I saw, I found it an amazing sub-culture which I enjoyed being immersed in. There was an incident in Modesto which was scary because these really tough guys (presumably from a gang) had seen some of the kids fighting in the street and lighting each other on fire – and were super unhappy about it. It was very unexpected and there was a lot of tension. I thought it could have got really ugly – but, luckily didn’t. And there was another incident in England, where a 15 year old blades and cuts himself with a razor blade. He wouldn’t stop bleeding as I’m doing the interview and it was hard then, as to whether I should keep filming – but I did, since there were other adults off-camera who attended to the situation. It’s funny – in THE HUMAN RACE, there is a lot of blood. And in THE BACKYARD there was a lot of blood. And the reality is, when I see someone bleed, it makes me ill. I hate the sight of blood in real life. But I was comfortable with the blood in THE HUMAN RACE because I knew it was movie blood, and comfortable with the blood in THE BACKYARD because it, too, seemed like movie blood to me because I was watching it from behind a camera.

THE MULE: You wear many hats for this project: Producer, director, writer… I understand that you even had a hand in the visual effects end of things. Do you have a favorite part of the creative process? How does writing for yourself differ from writing a script for another producer or director?

PAUL: I wore many hats out of necessity – not out of desire. If I had my choice, I would only direct. Maybe write and direct – but my main focus is on taking a compelling story and making it happen on camera. Unfortunately, due to circumstances, I had to produce this, edit this, do FX for this. I had to write something that was practical enough for me to shoot. When writing for someone else or for a budget, I think you have more freedom.

THE HUMAN RACE (Brianna Lauren Jackson) (publicity still)

THE HUMAN RACE (Brianna Lauren Jackson) (publicity still)

THE MULE: The title of the movie works on – at least – three different levels. The first two are quite obvious from the beginning; the third is revealed in the final 15 or 20 minutes of the film, with a twist ending that kicked the whole thing up a notch for me. Without giving anything away, when you came up with the idea, did you start with one level and find that the others played well into what you wanted to say, or was it a simple case of coming up with a great play on words for the title and working from there?

PAUL: I started with the ending of the movie before anything else – and the knowledge that I wanted Eddie McGee in it. I think the idea of running then came next since I love to torture Eddie in everything we do together – and what better than to put him (a guy with one leg) into a marathon-type race. The title of the movie came then, as I was writing other aspects of the movie and just fit perfectly.

THE MULE: Aside from the obvious horror/sci-fi aspects of the film, there are also several underlying themes that are woven into the fabric of THE HUMAN RACE: Religion is a big one; racial and economic divides; sex, I guess, is unavoidable in any circumstance. Was the purpose of introducing these themes to draw the audience away from the larger theme, allowing for a greater impact at the end of the movie?

PAUL: A lot of the movie is from the characters’ points of views and you don’t really know where you are – along with them. They are people from all walks of life who express their different views. Certainly, because of the blinding white light it gave a path to introduce Christianity. Once I had that in – I wanted somewhat balance by introducing a Muslim. Overall, however, all of these themes and the conflict of these themes is both a reflection and representation of the human race and the struggles it has with itself.

Side note: one of my favorite critical reviews of the movie is this one: www.myhorribleidea.com/the-human-race-2013

THE HUMAN RACE (Gabriel Cullen) (publicity still)

THE HUMAN RACE (Gabriel Cullen) (publicity still)

THE MULE: Making this movie was a very slow process. Can you take us through the various stages and give us a little insight into why it took so long to complete?

PAUL: It took over four years to make. We started to shoot for seven days, then stopped due to lack of money. A few months later, I saved up some more money, so we could shoot for two more days. Then we’d shut down again until I could raise more money – so months would go by until we could shoot for a few more days. I’d never recommend to someone they shoot a movie this way but… it was the only way I could get this movie done.

THE MULE: Given the time lapses between shooting, was it hard for you to maintain continuity? Most of the cast are adults, which may cause some small problems (weight change and the like), but there are two children who play small but important roles. How did you handle those growth spurts and physical changes that kids go through?

PAUL: The kids’ stuff wasn’t a problem at all – all of their stuff was shot at the same time. But otherwise, it was difficult, but I made all the actors responsible for their own continuity. There is one scene, however, that I had to shoot before I lost a location and Eddie’s hair was super short compared to the rest of the movie, so I had to shoot it from a super low angle just to disguise his haircut. It’s weird having to make choices like that – but when you’re making a movie you can’t anticipate or plan everything and have to adapt as you go along.

THE MULE: The set-up for the first death was ingenious. It was one of many unexpected swerves throughout the movie. It was so unexpected that I have to ask: Was it planned from the start or did other factors – scheduling and budget issues, perhaps – cause a change in direction?

PAUL: No, this was planned. I wanted a character that you really like – and then kill her off – in the same way Hitchcock killed off Janet Leigh in PSYCHO.

THE MULE: Obviously, with 80 people forced to participate in this “event,” you couldn’t possibly flesh out the character of each and every one but, the several that were more than just extras all seemingly had a back story, allowing the audience to identify each with a label: Hero, Villain, Victim. How did your vision of each main character play into the casting? Did any one audition cause you to rethink any of those roles and adjust the script accordingly?

PAUL: One of my favorite characters in the original script was a huge guy called the Blob. I just couldn’t find someone large enough for this role – and then when I did find an actor who was close – right before filming, he (inexplicably for the movie) went on a diet and… didn’t look like a Blob anymore. His part then got cut from the movie when he no showed on a particular day. That was incredibly frustrating but, again, is something I just had to deal with. I wrote the movie around a lot of actors I actually already knew and some were friends who started off as extras and then got promoted into bigger roles as the movie went along.

THE HUMAN RACE (Fred Coury and Paul McCarthy-Boyington) (publicity still)

THE HUMAN RACE (Fred Coury and Paul McCarthy-Boyington) (publicity still)

THE MULE: One of the primary characters is played by Fred Coury. Even though you’ve worked with musicians before, on videos by the bands Pitbull Daycare and Fozzy (the latter also featured Eddie McGee), Fred is more out-front in an acting capacity here. How was he to work with? Was this his first acting gig?

PAUL: He was actually fantastic to work with – and a really amazing actor. Being a rock star, he has a great confidence that shows through on screen. After the shoot, he told me he had quit acting but I hope one day he’ll return to it.

THE MULE: You worked with Eddie McGee and Celine Tien, one of the youngsters, previously on the short, THE ANGEL. Were their parts for this movie written with them in mind or was it just a lucky coincidence that they both ended up in the cast?

PAUL: Both written with them in mind. In THE ANGEL, the Grandma was Celine’s real Grandma. In THE HUMAN RACE, her brother character is actually her real brother. I hadn’t seen her for a few years s,o while I wrote the role for her in mind – I still needed to audition her. Originally, there was only one kid in the script – but when she came to the audition, she turned up with her brother – who I thought was fantastic – so I made the role two kids rather than one.

THE MULE: Honestly, I wasn’t familiar with Eddie McGee, but when I found out that he was a cast member of the game show BIG BROTHER during its first season, I didn’t hold out much hope for this movie. I’m happy to say that I was wrong. The guy’s got chops… leading actor, action/adventure/sci-fi/horror chops. How did you become acquainted with Eddie and, based on a few things that I’ve read elsewhere, how did he become the “go-to” guy on your projects?

PAUL: Yeah, his being on BIG BROTHER has not been a good thing for his acting career. The only good thing is that he didn’t become a “reality star” per se – since his season happened before the whole reality boom. I’m hoping, going forward, that he’ll become Eddie McGee from THE HUMAN RACE and that his BIG BROTHER past will become that – a thing of the past. I met him while I was looking for a double-leg amputee for the Fozzy video. I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to do the role – since most people found the character I wanted (ie: a disabled suicidal person) not suited for them. Eddie shared the same philosophy and beliefs of myself and taped an audition for me. He got the role and… I hope to work with him now on everything I do. He is an amazing actor and we’ve gone through a lot together. When you find someone as good and as brilliant as he – then he does certainly become your “go-to” guy.

THE HUMAN RACE (Trista Robinson) (publicity still)

THE HUMAN RACE (Trista Robinson) (publicity still)

THE MULE: Speaking of projects, what’s next up for Paul Hough? In a bit of a spoiler, THE HUMAN RACE left itself open for a sequel. Will there be one?

PAUL: I’d love to do a follow up to THE HUMAN RACE and already have a script written – but it will depend on how successful this film is first. I’m off to Korea in a month, working on a new dark thriller which I hope will be my next project…

The film debuts in limited theatrical release and on Video-On-Demand and iTunes on June 13, 2014. Comparisons to the apocalyptic Japanese bloodbath, BATTLE ROYALE and the Young Adult book/film series, THE HUNGER GAMES (among others) are unavoidable but, THE HUMAN RACE is, in my humble opinion, not to be missed.


SAVING GRACE B JONES

(NEW FILMS INTERNATIONAL/ARC ENTERTAINMENT (115 minutes/Rated R), 2014; Original Theatrical Release, 2011)

Saving Grace B Jones_2D

The instant I saw the title, I knew that SAVING GRACE B JONES was going to tug at the heart strings. It does. The first thing that usually comes to a guy’s mind when he sees those words is: “Chick Flick.” However, I gotta tell you, that definitely is not the case with this movie. Actress Connie Stevens (HAWAIIAN EYE and a butt-load of TV and movie appearances) acts as director, executive producer, co-writer and narrator on what turns out to be a thrilling – and, yes, heartbreaking – tale of a perfect Central Missouri family driven to the brink of desperation by a confluence of events that they have no control over. Without giving away too much, here’s the plot of the “inspired by a true story” film:

SAVING GRACE B JONES: Tatum O'Neal (publicity still)

SAVING GRACE B JONES: Tatum O’Neal (publicity still)

Set in 1951, Rylee Fansler portrays 10 year old Carrie (Stevens narrates as the adult Carrie). Already traumatized by the death of her mother, she becomes even more withdrawn and noncommunicable after witnessing a brutal stabbing. Her father makes the decision to send her to a small rural town called Boonville to spend the summer with an old Army buddy and his family. As Carrie settles in with Landy and Bea Bretthorst (Michael Biehn and Penelope Ann Miller) and their free-spirited daughter, Lucy (Evie Louise Thompson), she seems to be putting the gruesome memory behind her. She and Lucy even tag along when Landy travels to Oklahoma to bring his sister, Grace (Tatum O’Neal), home to live with the family. Grace had suffered horrible injuries when she was hit by a truck on her wedding day in 1935. The grueling recovery process drove Grace over the edge and she had spent the past sixteen years in a mental institution or, as they were commonly called then, an insane asylum. An underlying concern, hinted at throughout the movie, is a seemingly Biblical rain that constantly threatens the town, close to the Missouri River.

There are also hints of the abuse that Grace has had to withstand as a patient in the institution… all in the name of healing. Piper Laurie appears, in a delightfully wicked turn, as the asylum’s director, Marta Shrank. She is of the opinion that anyone ever admitted to such a place can never be released, as they are a threat to themselves and those around them (a sentiment, by the way, shared by most of Boonville, including the pious Reverend Potter): “… the best doctors and judges we have said that people who come here will never be right again. Maybe the doctors are smarter than you and me.” She isn’t very fond of her charges or of the two children that have accompanied Landy Bretthorst to bring Grace home and, with one of the best lines in the movie, she declares: “Tommy, it’s been so many years since I’ve seen children. They’re almost like little people, aren’t they?”

SAVING GRACE B JONES: Evie Louise Thompson and Rylee Fanser (publicity still)

SAVING GRACE B JONES: Evie Louise Thompson and Rylee Fansler (publicity still)

Grace’s homecoming isn’t the smooth transition that Landy envisioned. Things are complicated by the fact that her groom lives across the street from the Bretthorsts with his pregnant wife. The rains continue to fall intermittently adding to the feeling of isolation, as Landy is constantly called away to help with sandbagging at outlying areas. However, both Lucy and Carrie have found a kindred spirit, as they grow close to the troubled woman. In one particularly poignant scene, Grace and Lucy are sitting on the roof of their porch (apparently, a sanctuary for both). Grace opens up a bit about her life, saying, “I wonder if anyone will ever know why I existed? I am crazy, you know.” She tells her niece about some of the things she did in her youth, concluding with the insightful line, “It’s funny… the hard thing about being crazy is, you don’t get to do crazy things anymore.” This tender moment, of a completely lucid Grace interacting with one of the few people in her life that doesn’t judge her, is – literally – the calm before the storm. She’s still fighting her demons but, the one person who may be able to help her is too busy to see how much she needs him. Everything comes crashing down for Grace and the family after a tragic accident that…

SAVING GRACE B JONES: Connie Stevens, Evie Louise Thompson, Rylee Fansler and Tatum O'Neal (publicity photo)

SAVING GRACE B JONES: Connie Stevens, Evie Louise Thompson, Rylee Fansler and Tatum O’Neal (publicity photo)

But, that would be telling! From this point forward, the narrative takes on a considerably darker tone. Relating the events of the last half of the film would ruin an excellent movie if you haven’t seen it. So, just let me add these few thoughts: The acting throughout is top notch and – I could make some crack about her family and upbringing here – Tatum O’Neal displays, for the first time in a long while, the skills that made her the youngest person to ever win an Academy Award (Best Supporting Actress for 1973’s PAPER MOON). Penelope Ann Miller, as the harried sister-in-law, also delivers a solid, low-key (for the most part) performance. SAVING GRACE B JONES skillfully addresses the stigma that the mentally ill continue to face today, with a forthright depiction of the patient, as well as the problems and decisions faced by the family that loves them, while still managing to incorporate an exciting secondary story. Guys, don’t be afraid of this flick; it will actually hold your attention to the end. You may want to have a box of tissues handy, though.


NIKKI LANE: ALL OR NOTHIN’

(New West Records; 2014)

NikkiLane-AllOrNothin-ADA

On her sophomore release, Nikki Lane steps up her game with the help of producer (and primary songwriting partner for ALL OR NOTHIN’) Dan Auerbach. The record is filled with plenty of girl power tunes, a couple of “get-even” tunes and even a submissive, “Stand By Your Man” kinda tune; all of them with a sense of fierce urgency that tells you that Ms Lane is not to be trifled with! In short, this ain’t no Taylor Swift fluffy pop country; she’d kick Taylor’s butt! Heck, she’d probably win an over-the-top-rope wrestle royal with Lucinda, Courtney, Miranda, Christina, Neko, Exene, Beyonce and just about any other Diva you could name (except those Blues ladies… nobody messes with them!) That estimation is borne out on the opening track, “Right Time,” a snotty (in a good way) girl power song with a twang and a pedal steel guitar. There’s no doubting who’s in charge with lyrics like, “It’s always the right time/To do the wrong thing.” “Good Man” is a cowgirl group thing, with Spector-ish “Wall of Sound” drumming and glockenspiel a-plenty. It features a more refined vocal twang and restrained pedal steel. The girl group comparison continues with “I Don’t Care.” The song comes off the starting block like “London Calling,” but the vibe quickly coalesces into something closer to the early, angry Elvis (the only Elvis that matters, not the dead fat guy). The organ, acting as more of a percussive instrument, propels the song forward as much as the bass or drums.

You Can’t Talk To Me Like That” is a languid, plaintive country ballad. Aside from a great vocal from Nikki, the track also features an organ part that reminds me of Al Kooper’s work on Dylan’s HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED. And, there ain’t nothin’ wrong with that. With a PETER GUNN or a private eye movie soundtrack kinda vibe and a cool Tijuana Brass horn chart, “Seein’ Double” is all atmosphere, something rare for that kind of music. On “Love’s On Fire,” producer Auerbach joins Nikki for a real live, honest-to-goodness June and Johnny, Tammy and George, Dolly and Porter country duet. The song begins with minimal accompaniment but, a little over a minute in, it turns into a full blown country barn burner. “All Or Nothin’” is what the First Edition would have sounded like if Thelma Comacho or Mary Arnold sang lead instead of Kenny Rogers. It has a chugging rhythm with great percussion, organ and guitar, particularly the psychedelic solo that plays through to the fade. A driving rock beat and plenty of drawl and twang make “Sleep With a Stranger” a good “get-even” tune, with snark-laced lyrics like, “This would be a good night/To sleep with a stranger.” Lucinda and Neko would definitely approve. The snaky guitar and pedal steel leads add to the snide charm of the track.

Nikki Lane (photo credit: CHUCK GRANT)

Nikki Lane (photo credit: CHUCK GRANT)

Man Up” is another hard-edged empowerment song: “You better get off your ass/You better man up/Or I’m gonna hafta be/The one that gets tough.” It’s kinda like the traditional country that was making the rounds and gaining popularity in the late ’70s and the early ’80s, but with tougher lyrics and more adventurous instrumentation. Jason Pierce (J Spaceman of Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized) is the co-writer on “Out of My Mind.” The tune has more in common with Pierce’s Spacemen 3 work, but with a solid pedal steel lead and a plaintive vocal from Nikki. Fiddle, piano and acoustic guitar add to the lilting country feel. The next track, “Wild One,” would not sound out of place on the first New Riders of the Purple Sage album, with the pedal steel referencing Jerry Garcia’s playing on that record. The rolling bass and nice organ sound highlight an understated vocal performance… a performance which is almost staid compared to the rest of the record. “Want My Heart Back” is a great update on the early ’60s pop sound, with piano, guitar and echoey drums (requisite tympani included) that are reminiscent of the Cascades’ “Rhythm of the Rain.” While ALL OR NOTHIN’ is an upgrade over her excellent WALK OF SHAME debut, the best material here is the stuff she co-wrote with Dan Auerbach. Hopefully, this is a creative team that will stay together for a while. With Lane and Auerbach together, I’m not sure how much better we can expect record number three to be, but I sure can’t wait to find out!


THE WHIGS: MODERN CREATION

(New West Records; 2014)

whigs-modern-creation

The Whigs are back! Five albums and three bass players into a twelve year career, the Athens, Georgia trio are showing no signs of slowing down; in fact, they rock as hard (or harder) than they ever have. “You Should Be Able To Feel It” kicks off MODERN CREATION in fine fashion. It is, quite simply, the best kind of power pop/punk with a little dose of twang thrown in for good measure… think Artful Dodger or the Replacements. Julian Dorio’s drumming is powerful and rock steady, while Parker Gispert offers up enough chunky power chords to fill an hour on any Classic Rock radio station. The chugging, percolating “Asking Strangers For Directions” has a more menacing vibe with Clash-like drumming propelling the song forward. The track has a very bottom heavy feel and the guitars are featured more as texture than anything else, until a wicked sounding phased-out solo. Not as radio friendly as the opener, but it’ll definitely show up on plenty of personal playlists. The guitar on “The Particular” has a definite metal tonality, while the whole thing has a rather minimalist, stripped down feel. Timothy Deaux’s bass playing in this setting is particularly intriguing. For comparison’s sake, imagine Tony Bourge-era Budgie filtered through early Everclear (Gispert’s vocals even sound a bit like Art Alexakis).

The Whigs (publicity photo)

The Whigs (Julian Dorio, Parker Gispert, Timothy Deaux) (publicity photo)

Hit Me” is a funky, jangling hybrid of everything that made you love music in the first place. It’s the first single from the album and one listen will tell you why. If handled right, “Hit Me” could become a sleeper radio hit for the summer. In a similar vein, the chiming guitar, vibrant production and elastic bass of “Modern Creation” makes it another radio friendly number. The witty lyrical content is of a type that would make the studious gents from Eve 6 envious. “Friday Night” is a snotty punk song, with vocal nods to Billy Idol and the aforementioned Everclear frontman. Alternating between a plodding drone and a pop metal charge, “She Is Everywhere” has me contemplating a joint writing effort by Pete Townshend and the Oakland, California post-metal tribe, Neurosis. While that may seem like an odd combination, the Whigs pull it off spectacularly.

Too Much In the Morning” sounds like one of those late ’90s alternative rock songs that may have prompted Dorio and Gispert to say, “Let’s start a band.” It’s a neat ballad with a charging bridge and chorus section that really elevates the song to another level. With a bouncey melodicism, “I Couldn’t Lie” is the kind of gently rocking song that Phil Lynott would sneak onto every Thin Lizzy album, a bit too heavy to be called a ballad and a little too poetic for a hard rock workout. One of the highlights of MODERN CREATION is the literate, well-conceived lyrics. “The Difference Between One and Two” continues the exceptional wordcraft, enhanced by powerful performances from the rhythm section and an almost stately guitar part, which is quite reminiscent of a Link Wray stroll. The band’s schedule has them delivering an album every other year and, while I would certainly like to have more, if the wait between releases continues to yield music of this quality, I’m happy with that. The guys are currently touring in support of MODERN CREATION. Upcoming dates can be viewed at www.thewhigs.com.


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.