Saturday, December 15, 2018

Review of William Shatner's "Shatner Claus"

I posted this review a few minutes ago on the Sputnik Music website:


Review Summary: Christmas: The Final Frontier; or The Year Captain Kirk Brought the Holiday Cheese

OK, this is awful. But it's also a little bit wonderful. I mean, by any objective measure, this is a putrid LP, an offense to the very notion of music itself. And yet, as I write about it, there's a smile on my face. It's that kind of album. 

We all know William Shatner. Many of us love him. His portrayal of Captain James Tiberius Kirk in the original Star Trek television series and the movies that followed was iconic. He later went on to star in such shows as T. J. Hooker and Boston Legal, to name a few. And if his overly emotive acting style didn't exactly win him any Oscars, it did make him an instantly-recognizable celebrity. His over-the-top interpretations of such classic songs as "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" and "Mr. Tambourine" on his 1968 foray into the world of music The Transformed Man only added to his reputation. No one was really sure if he was in on the joke or not -- he seemed to be, but he never admitted it. Nevertheless, if you ever heard any of the tracks from this LP, one thing is for sure -- you never forgot them. (His 1978 cover of Elton John's "Rocketman" at a science fiction film award ceremony was equally memorable.)

To best of my knowledge, Shatner's first attempt at Christmas music occurred on a compilation album called The Sounds of Christmas 2009. The LP presented artists such as Huey Lewis and the News, Stephen Bishop, and Styx's Dennis DeYoung, flaunting holiday tunes alongside Shatner's characteristically spoken-word-style version of "Good King Wenceslas". Shatner's entry ends the album, probably because there was nowhere to go after that. I have to admit, though, that this effort has been one of my favorite holiday-music discoveries of the last decade. All I can say by way of description is that he really brings the character of The Page Boy to life.

So now it's 2018, and we have a whole LP full of Shatner Christmas music. I can see why the record company took a shot at this. (Well, money.) And they even threw in a bonus by having guest appearances on almost every track. Henry Rollins, Brad Paisley, Todd Rundgren, Rick Wakeman and even Iggy Pop join Big Bill to spoof some of the most famous Christmas carols of our age. How could you go wrong?

The main problem with Shatner Claus, though, is that it's overkill. Where one Shatner Christmas cover is kind of funny, a whole album's worth is painful. It's the kind of LP you might bring to your relatives' house just to torture them. They'll laugh through the first song, grimace through the second, and by the third, they'll be ordering you to "Turn that crap off!"

Some of the songs here are just forgettable. A couple are truly heinous. This might be the worst version ever recorded of "Little Drummer Boy" (and that's saying something). And "Feliz Navidad" sounds like it's being performed by a Mexican drug lord, as played by a Damon-Runyanesque Chicago gangster. (I think it's that little pause between the "Feliz" and the "Navidad" that produces this effect.)

The musicians, and many of the guest stars, play it straight throughout, but there's only so much they can do. Shatner is Shatner, and a ham sandwich is a ham sandwich. I think the reason that "Good King Wenceslas" worked where many of these tracks don't is because the former allowed Shatner to play against himself. "Wenceslas" is actually a dialogue between two characters, the King and the Page Boy, and although there's still plenty of hotdogging going on there, our hero actually did create two pretty distinct characters. The songs on Shatner Claus, however, mostly just end up with Shatner chewing the curtains, the scenery and most of the recording equipment, with his guest stars either playing it as straight as possible, or going over the top with him (I'm looking at you, Henry Rollins!)

As an added complaint, with a mixture of greed and general disinterest, this is another one of those albums where the order of the songs listed on the CD back cover is wrong. It reverses the order of "White Christmas", featuring Judy Collins, and "Feliz Navidad", featuring Dani Bender and Malicopa, in an unforgivable gesture of "What do we care, you already paid for the album!"

So yeah, this is a pretty terrible LP. And yet, I'm still wearing that grin that I just can't wipe off. So I've rated it 2.5 stars -- zero because it's so absolutely dreadful, five for the awesomeness of Shatner and all of the joy he's given us over the years, (which averages out to 2.5 stars), minus a half-star for Cleopatra Records just not giving a ***. Merry Christmas, everyone!


Rating: 2 of 5 stars


Sunday, December 9, 2018

Review of Robyn's "Honey"

I posted this review on the Sputnik Music website about twnety minutes ago:

Review Summary: She's a human being.

As a general rule, most of America's pop divas leave me cold. I could care less about Beyonce, or Ariana Grande. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's that a lot of them are more R&B based, and their style just doesn't speak to me. Instead, I find myself more drawn to international stars, such as Australia's Sia. And I'm particularly fond of the Swedish electropop queen Robyn.

I'll admit, I'm a relatively late passenger to the Robyn train. I don't even know how I first became aware of her. I do remember somehow picking up a copy of her 2010 album Body Talk (the full version that combines the two smaller EPs), and it became one of my favorite albums of that year. I also bought her 2014 EP with Royksopp (I like it to think of them as Robyn and the Robots), Do It Again, and I thought the song "Monument" was one of the best songs of that year. I was less impressed with the EP she did with La Bagatelle Magique in 2015, Love Is Free. But it would be fair to say that I've become quite an admirer of this artist. So when I heard that Robyn had a new album coming out, I was naturally quite interested.

I'll tell you right off the bat that Honey is a totally different animal than Body Talk. It's quieter, and much less pop-oriented. There's a muted quality to it, and an air of something akin to desperation. The vibe throughout much of the LP is similar to that of a dance club (or a strip club) at 3 AM. There's a longing to the music, and some kind of an emotional hole that you just know can't really be filled.

Robyn has a genuinely pretty voice, but she holds back a lot here, appropriately, given the material she's working with. "Human Being", which is my favorite song on the album, is slow and a little droning, with a strange electronic percussive pattern to it. It's almost as much spoken as it is sung. "Beach 2k20" which has a more upbeat mood, is still muffled, and largely spoken-word. The closest thing you'll find on Honey to the music on Body Talk would probably be the last song on the album, "Ever Again". This is a mid-tempo song with a prominent bass pattern, which finds Robyn asserting herself to her lover, demanding "Come on, let's have it out," and declaring, "That shit's out the door". The verse features a vow, both to him and to herself: "I'm never gonna be brokenhearted/Ever again." So I guess that while there's an air of dejection throughout much of the LP, it all works out in the end.

It's worth noting that the album art for Honey is intentionally garish, and kind of ugly. It features an uncomfortably close-up photo of Robyn's face and shoulders, as she gazes directly into the camera while sprawled in an awkward-looking position, belly down on a bed. The color scheme for the background is a bright, gaudy mixture of reddish-orange and neon green. It's all in keeping with that glitzy dance hall/strip club atmosphere.

I don't love this album as much as I do Body Talk, and it's probably not going to be one of my Top Ten LP's of 2018. But it's still a damned fine album, and it won't miss my Top Ten list by much. Robyn continues to interest me as an artist. I'd recommend Honey to anyone who finds themselves drawn to slow, electronic dance pop music.


Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Dennis DeYoung and the Music of Styx

I saw Styx this past summer at Jones Beach, playing with Tesla and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. (See my post about it from 7/1/18 at https://longislandmusicguy.blogspot.com/2018/07/tesla-styx-and-joan-jett-and-blackhearts.html). It wasn't the best show I ever saw -- Tesla didn't do much for me, Joan Jett was set up as the headliner, and struggled to stretch her eight-or-so hits into like an eighteen-song set, and the sound for Styx wasn't great -- it was pretty muddy. But I was glad I'd at least seen Styx, and gotten them off of my bucket list.

Then I started watching some of the more classic-rock-oriented channels on YouTube (the Grumpy Old Men, if you will), who had some pretty strong opinions about the band. The gist of the Styx drama is this - at some point a number of years back, the two guitarists, Tommy Shaw and J.Y. Young, essentially threw lead singer/songwriter/keyboardist Dennis DeYoung out of the band. (It's more complicated than that, but we don't need to go into it.) They've continued to tour over the years, but because they see themselves as raucous guitar guys, there are a few big Styx songs they've been leaving out of their setlists over the years, including "Mr. Roboto" and "Babe".

Now I've always been a casual fan of Styx. I've always owned a copy of The Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight, but I had no idea about any of this history. I did notice that when they came to Jones Beach two years ago, their setlist for the tour didn't include "Mr. Roboto", which was enough to make me pass on the show. (Well, that, and the fact they were touring with REO Speedwagon, who I wouldn't see if they were playing for free in my backyard.) But this year, due to intense fan pressure (and, if you can believe some of the stories, pressure from the promoters), Styx put "Mr. Roboto" back into their setlist, so I bought a ticket and went to see them.

Then I learned about this whole controversy. And the really interesting thing was, much like Yes, there was an alternate version of Styx also touring the country, billing itself as Dennis DeYoung and the Music of Styx. And just like the YouTube community seems to lean very heavily toward the ARW version of Yes over the Steve Howe/Alan White version, the consensus opinion seems to be that the Dennis DeYoung version of Styx is the better version (even though he's playing much smaller arenas). There's a lot of derision towards Shaw and Young for refusing to reunite with DeYoung, who wrote most of Styx's big hits. So when I learned that DeYoung was coming to the Tilles Center, I bought a ticket so I could go and see for myself.

A couple of things about Styx. I've always liked them, without necessarily loving them. There are two bands I always think about when I think about Styx. The first is Yes. I know it's a stretch, but for some reason (maybe because of their upbeat nature), I've always kind of seen Styx as America's answer to Yes. It's not a great answer -- Yes is by far the better band. (Compare Styx's best album, The Grand Illusion to the album most people would consider Yes's best, Close to Edge, and you see that Yes blows them out of the water. Grand Illusion is a fine album, but it does have some dead spots. Close to the Edge is a masterpiece from beginning to end.) But there's enough similarity of vibe for me to see Styx as Yes's lesser, shallower American cousin.

The other band I tend to associate with Styx (and this is probably a fairer comparison) is Kansas. They're both American, they're both prog-rock-oriented bands from the same time period, etc. Here again, I think Styx comes in second best, but it's closer. I think Kansas wins on the strength of two nearly perfect albums (Leftoverture and Point of Know Return), but at least in this battle, Styx gets some serious shots in. "Come Sail Away" is an absolute classic, "Mr. Roboto" is fun as hell, they've got a pair of seriously strong love ballads in "Lady" and "Babe", and a number of other top- or near-top echelon songs.

So anyway, with the YouTube hype ringing in my ears, I was looking forward to this show, especially as I'd been a little disappointed with the sound at the Jones Beach Styx concert earlier this year.

Now it wasn't the ideal day to see the show. Some family shenanigans had kept me up much later than I'd wanted to be up on Friday night. (Sometimes, I'm an experiment in sleep deprivation.) And unfortunately, the show ended up being on the same day as one of my early-Saturday-morning staff meetings for my job. (Somehow this always seems to happen -- I don't even want to count all of the Saturdays the staff meeting wound up on a day where I've had concert tickets for that night. And because I'm not an early morning person, getting up early and driving into Queens tends to knock me out for the rest of the day.) But I got home from the meeting and managed to grab a nap, so I was in relatively good shape for the show.

This was another solo show for me. Denise would rather have root canal than see Styx in either of their manifestations (unless maybe Eric Cartman was going to be doing a guest vocal on "Come Sail Away"). So I got to the Tilles Center and settled into my seat about twenty minutes before showtime all by my lonesome.

Being a rather portly gentleman, I always buy an aisle seat, and when I can, I often buy myself an extra seat so I'm comfortable for a show. On this occasion, though, the tickets were just a little too pricey (about 80 bucks) to buy an extra seat. And as luck would have it, right before the show started, a trio of concertgoers settled in next to me, and the fellow in the next seat was only slightly less large than myself. So I wasn't as comfortable as I like to be. And I'm sure he wasn't comfortable at all. (They were also beer drinkers, which is always fun, because it means that I'll have to keep getting up to let them out of the row every so often when it's time for a refill. Fun for the people seated behind us, also.)

I pretty much knew the setlist ahead of time, because DeYoung and his band have been doing the same one every night. Because the tour is celebrating the 40th Anniversary of The Grand Illusion, the show was scheduled for two sets. The first set was a beginning-to-end performance of The Grand Illusion album. The second was most of Styx's greatest hits from their other albums.

The lights went down, and DeYoung and his band hit the stage. A few facts about and initial impressions of DeYoung and the band: 1. DeYoung is in damned good shape for a 71-year-old man. He's trim, and quite active, and his voice is still in very good shape. 2. The band consisted of DeYoung and six other people. 3. One of the members of DeYoung's band is his wife Suzanne, who stood behind him as a backup singer. Now my seat was close enough to see the band pretty well, and my first thought was, "Hmm. Trophy wife." This is because as good as DeYoung looks, I thought she was twenty or so years younger. But no, it turns out they've been together 40 or 50 years, and she's a fine-looking 72 year old. (I'm not sure she's musically the most vital part of the band, though. I couldn't really hear her voice all night, except for a little bit on "Babe", and maybe for a little on "Renegade". She's kind of Laurie Partridge without the tambourine.) 3. Re/the two guitarists, August Zadra and Jimmy Leahey -- DeYoung has taken some kidding for getting two guys who look, and sound, a lot like Tommy Shaw and J.Y. Young for his band, which he bristled at a little during this show. I can see his point, but I can also see how you can't really avoid the comparison. 4. When he introduced the band, his drummer, Michael Morales, got some of the best applause of the night, simply for being a Long Islander, and for proudly wearing a New York Islanders jersey. A few yoyos tried to get a "Lets Go Rangers!" chant going in the background, but they were thoroughly drowned out.

Anyway, the show was pretty good, although I'd heard so much about how great a version of Styx this was that it was a little bit of letdown. DeYoung wore a boat captain's jacket for the performance, and was lively throughout. Unfortunately, he's also a little bit corny. He's funny at times, but he does a lot of Chaplinesque, physical humor, knocking his (very skinny) legs together, and physically leaning on the other musicians often while he pretends to play their instruments. There's an interview that Tommy Shaw and J.Y. Young did with Dan Rather that's up on YouTube that they've taken a lot of heat about, because when Rather asked them if they'd ever perform again with Dennis DeYoung, they indicated that they'd rather play for less money without him for the sake of their own mental health. Nothing against DeYoung, but I kind of get it. He's very manic, and I can see where he'd be annoying to work with day in and day out. (And yes, as a pretty annoying guy myself, I feel qualified to recognize another annoying guy.) Of course, he's been able to hold onto the same wife for decades without annoying her into leaving, but it's probably a chemistry thing. But I can understand how if Shaw and Young felt miserable working with him, they'd rather not do it again, even if it would make all of them a lot of money.

The setlist for the show was excellent. The only song that I wished they'd have played that they didn't was "Sing for the Day", but you can't have everything. DeYoung obviously had no problem playing "Mr. Roboto", or "Babe" for that matter, which was great. And they played solid versions of songs like "Come Sail Away", "Fooling Yourself" and "Lady".

At one of the deader points in the first set, the beerly trio got up for refills, and when they came back, they had rearranged themselves so the woman, who was the smallest of the trio, was sitting next to me. This was more comfortable. But at the intermission, when I found a whole bunch of open, cushioned pullout chairs that were unused in the back, I asked an usherette, and with her permission, moved into it. So for the second set, I was further back, but more comfortable. (And I'm sure my former row-mates were more comfortable as well).

From my seat further back, I could see that the house was about three-quarters full, maybe a little more, and that the crowd was loving it. Two of the college-age usherettes sat down in my section also, and they both seemed to be enjoying the show as well. One of them was obviously quite familiar with Styx's music, and was singing along and clapping away like crazy (although she was, sadly, just a little rhythm challenged. But at least she was having fun.) I felt that (perhaps due to DeYoung's personality), the show had a little bit of Vegas lounge feeling to it (which isn't necessarily the worst thing. I can enjoy a Vegas lounge show sometimes.)

So overall, I was entertained, and I enjoyed the show, although I don't feel it fully lived up the hype I heard about it from some of the YouTubers. It's a little less spectacular than the other Styx's show (DeYoung's replacement Lawrence Gowan does somersaults off of his keyboard, and there some pyrotechnics at their outdoor shows), but DeYoung and his band also work hard to be entertaining. If you ask me which is the better Styx, I'd say it's almost a tie. I have a vague notion that the rest of DeYoung's band lacks the charisma of Shaw, Jones and Gowan, although DeYoung does have (almost too much) charisma himself. DeYoung definitely wins out on setlist -- he's willing to do any song in Styx's catalog (and the current Styx band performed a lot of material off of their latest album, The Mission, which isn't the greatest album). So it's kind of six of one, half a dozen of the other. Both versions are decent representations of Styx. Neither version is as good a representation as it would be if DeYoung, Shaw and Jones performed together again, but that's probably never going to happen.

I felt that this show was worth my money, though, and if you're a Styx fan, it would be worth your time to see it if you get the chance.

You can find the full setlist at TrysomedecafDennis.com.

I've got some tickets coming up for some more nostalgia-type concerts in the months to come, so I'll keep you informed.


I Missed Out

Two or three months ago, Denise asked me if I wanted to go to the Alt 92.3FM Not So Silent Night show at the Barclay Center in Brooklyn. Apparently, the old K-Rock frequency, having gone down the tubes since their heyday when Howard Stern ruled the airwaves, is now an alternative rock station. The show was scheduled for Thursday, December 7, and the lineup was scheduled to be (in alphabetical order) AJR, Bastille, Chvrches, Death Cab for Cutie, Florence + The Machine, Foster the People, Muse and Mike Shinoda.

I'd really have liked to see this lineup. But at the time she was getting the tickets, I was responsible for driving my son back and forth to his Thursday night classes in Islip. (My daughter takes night classes as well, but she can drive herself. My son is working on it, but doesn't have a license yet.) So being the responsible parent I am, I sucked it up and said no. Denise still wanted to go, so she bought a ticket for herself and her friend Tim.

By the time we got closer to the event, my son had stopped taking his Thursday night class, so I actually could have gone. There were still some tickets available, so I seriously considered buying one late. I would have had to sit on my own, but that's no biggie to me -- I go to concerts on my own all the time. And at least we could have traveled back and forth together.

About a week before the show, I asked Denise how she planned to travel, car or Long Island Railroad. She still hadn't decided. So at that point, I made the decision to stay home. I did it for a few reasons, including the notion that it's best, when possible, if one of us is at home these days (as bad things sometimes happens when we're not), and also because I was pretty sure the bands I wanted to see the most were only going to get two or three songs apiece. But the main reason was really that the show was at the Barclay Center. Driving there really isn't too practical, as there's little-to-no parking in the area. (Denise has managed it -- when she and her sister went to see Queen there last year, they drove, and parked in Oshkosh somewhere.) But it's a pain. And taking the LIRR is a bit torturous -- it's a long night, riding from Ronkonkoma to Brooklyn and back.

As it turns out, it was for the best I was home. There were some logistical problems that came up, so it was good that I was able to help get my daughter get from where she works in Nassau back home, so she could drive to her night class. And the concert was almost backwards, for my taste. The two bands I wanted to see the most, Chvrches and Foster the People, were on towards the beginning of the night. And the two headliners were Muse and Florence.

Now I have mixed feelings about Muse. I have several of their albums, and Denise and I saw them live the summer before last at Jones Beach. They put on a great live show, for sure -- lots of video effects and pyrotechnics. But I find them kind of -- well, silly, at times. Matt Bellamy has a powerful voice, but it sounds like he's not always taking the music seriously -- he's always playing around and singing falsetto, and he's very melodramatic and over the top, like a singing version of William Shatner. A lot of people who loved Queen like Muse, but I always felt the same way about Queen -- I liked some of their stuff, but they were just too goofy to be one of my top bands. ("Flash! -- Oh Oh! -- Savior of the Universe!") My sister-in-law would kill me for saying that, as they're her favorite band ever, but it's how I really feel. Anyway, I'm sort of a fan of Muse, but a very casual one. (Also, I've got their new album in my car right now, and while this might change, right now it's just not doing anything for me.)

As for Florence, while she has a kickass voice, it's maybe just a little harsh for my taste -- more powerful than it is beautiful. Florence + The Machine is another band I'm a very casual fan of. There are usually maybe two songs on every album that I really like, and the rest I'd happily throw away. And on their latest album, there aren't even those two songs -- it's their worst album yet. Florence has a voice that's best suited for basic R&B rock, which isn't close to my favorite style. To me, she's Annie Lennox in desperate need of a Dave Stewart.

SO in terms of my wishlist bands, Chvrches and Foster the People are the two bands I wanted to see most, followed by Bastille and Death Cab. The first three are bucket list bands for me -- bands I've never seen live, but would like to before I die -- and Death Cab is close. As for Muse, I've already seen them, so I don't need to see them again (although I wouldn't mind it.) And I don't care if I ever see Florence, although I'd be fine with seeing her if she was playing with another act I really wanted to see. Mike Shinoda and AJR are right out. (In fairness, I saw Shinoda with Linkin Park at Jones Beach a few years back with my son and his friend. But of course, that was when Chester Bennington was alive.)

In any event, Denise reported back to me after (and a little during) the concert. She had a great time. Her favorite band of the night was Muse (she likes them much better than I do). She's not really a huge fan of Florence + The Machine either, but she said she liked them more than she expected to. She was very impressed with the power of Florence's voice. She enjoyed Chvrches, and liked Lauren Mayberry's voice as well, but she said that because they were the opening band and the arena hadn't filled out yet, the sound wasn't that great for them. It was very echoey, with all of the empty seats. (The show ran from 7PM until midnight.)

She was thrilled to see Bastille. (I like them a lot, but didn't like their second album anywhere near as much as their first one. Denise liked the second album a lot more than I did). She enjoyed them a lot (although I note that they didn't perform "Things We Lost in the Fire", which is my favorite song of theirs.) She also liked Foster the People, who seemed to perform their main hits ("Pumped Up Kicks", "Lotus Eater" and "Sit Next to Me".) She was thrilled that Death Cab for Cutie played the two songs she most wanted to hear from them ("Soul Meets Body" and "Cath"), and she enjoyed them a lot, although she said that some people were complaining they were too low key. (But to me, they're that kind of band -- more quiet desperation than loud, raucous rock.) As for AJR and Mike Shinoda, she didn't have much interest (although she did send my son a short video clip of Shinoda, as he's a big Linkin Park fan.)

All in all, I'm sorry to have missed the show. If it had been in the Nassau Coliseum instead of the Barclay Center, I'd have definitely gone. I hope that at some point, I get to at least see Foster the People and Chvrches. (I also hope that someday Florence finds her Dave Stewart.) But we'll see.


Sunday, December 2, 2018

Review of Transcend All Negative Energy's "Transcend All Negative Energy"

I posted this review a short while ago on the Sputnik Music website:


Review Summary: Psychedelic-tinged alternative rock from Southern California.

Transcend All Negative Energy is a 3-piece band from Lake Forest, California. According to their bio, they started out in 2014 as a garage rock band with metal and funk influences. Nowadays, they describe themselves as more about psychedelic rock, with influences that include Radiohead, Tame Impala, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard and Phantogram, among others. On this, their debut LP, I'd describe their sound as more alt. rock with a dash of psychedelic.

Transcend All Negative Energy has a pleasant overall vibe to it -- the music is a little dreamy. I notice that on this LP, as well as on their 2017 EP Chiaroscuro, the album art contains a lot of purple, and this seems appropriate -- the music somehow sounds purple. (And in fact, the second song on the album, which is one of the best, is entitled "Purple Smoke"). There are a lot of keyboards and/or synthesizers, the drums are occasionally electronic (and there seems to be an occasional use of drum machines), and the pace is usually slow- to mid-tempo. There are also a few short instrumental tracks to help keep the laid-back mood going. Even though it's not as pop oriented as a lot of his music, I think it's the kind of thing that would make Syd Barrett smile if he was alive today.

My favorite tracks, in addition to "Purple Smoke", are "Chill Society" which features a chunky, circular underlying synth pattern (and seems lyrically obsessed with calling the cops), and "Suicidal Saturday", the album's opening number, which seems a little dark for a band with a name like Transcend All Negative Energy. But then again, I guess there has to be some negative energy there in the first place in order for you to transcend it. So I guess the song fits after all.

Overall, I liked this album, enough so that I'll definitely go back an check out some of this band's earlier work. Transcend All Negative Energy gave me a clear sense that these guys are really in it for the love of the music. I look forward to their next project.


Rating: 3 of 5 stars


Saturday, November 24, 2018

Review of The Good Rats' "Play Dum"

I posted this review a few minutes ago on the Sputnik Music website:


Review Summary: The best album from The Good Rats' Marchello-and-sons period.

The Good Rats had two fairly discreet periods to their career. The first was their rise and fall as a burgeoning national band era, which ran from the mid-1970s through 1981. To the extent that they are known and remembered by rock fans in general, it was for their albums released during this period -- including Tasty (1974), Ratcity in Blue (1976), From Rats to Riches (1978) and Birth Comes to Us All (1979) -- and for their corresponding live shows during this decade. This was when the Good Rats performed with -- and often headlined over -- bands such as KISS, Rush, Aerosmith and Journey, all the while playing in some of the larger arenas in the US. 

Beginning in the mid-1990s, though, The Good Rats re-formed and reinvented themselves as something of a family business, with singer/songwriter Peppi Marchello fronting a new version of the band that featured his now-grown sons Gene and Stefan (and often found his middle-son Spencer selling merch) in shows at clubs throughout the New York Tri-state area. The Rats released a number of albums independently during this period of their existence, the best of which, arguably, was Play Dum.

Play Dum is hard to classify. It contains re-recorded versions of several songs first recorded by earlier incarnations of the band, including "Beethoven", "Joey Ferrari", "Mr. Mechanic", and "Mean Mother"; a few songs originally released on their 1996 Tasty Seconds album ("Thunder Rocks My Soul", "She's Stayin' Home Tonight" and "Football Madness"); and some songs that had first been placed on a very limited release (mostly to radio stations) LP called Let's Have Another Beer (2000). The album is also something of an anomaly, in that it was originally put out under the band name "Dum", in an experiment to see if they could attract a younger crowd by dispensing with the "Good Rats" moniker. 

For Good Rats fans, and rock fans in general, there's a lot to love about Play Dum, whether you consider it to be more of a studio release or a compilation album. Specifically, there is a troika of songs that are absolutely among the best tracks the Rats ever recorded, and a second-tier of very good songs just a level or so below these.

The aforementioned trio of honor includes "Ashes to Ashes", "World Party Anthem" and "The Springer Singalong". Think of the classic hard rock groups of the 1970s -- bands like Rush, AC/DC, Aerosmith, Mountain and even Led Zeppelin. "Ashes to Ashes" is a rock anthem in the same league as many of these bands' top works. It's a song about the cycle of life, and in typical Good Rats fashion, it's sung from the point of view of those of us who strive every day, but always feel we're somehow playing a losing game: "You play the wheel/You lose on black, so you switch to the red/Your horse was good/But he breaks down the stretch." It's a hard driving, dramatic track that features some of Gene Marchello's best guitar work.

The other two top songs on Play Dum are both of a more comedic nature. "World Party Anthem" (also sometimes known as "Let's Have Another Beer") is a mid-tempo number that advocates for massive alcohol consumption as the only real balm for life's many indignities. "Close their eyes and in a flash/Bills and wives have all their cash/And their sons are lazy boors/And their daughters all are whores". It shares a lot thematically with Jethro Tull's "Too Old to Rock 'N Roll: Too Young to Die", and maybe with the TV show Married With Children, except that this is more the drunkard's version of each. The other novelty number, "The Springer Singalong" has some fun with the Jerry Springer show, and other daytime television programs of the same ilk. It captures the essence of the kind of human train wrecks who populate these programs and make us all feel better about our own lives: "You sleep with your wife/You sleep with your dog/You sleep with your sisters, your cousins, and brothers-in-law/You're just a loser with no shame/Who needs his fifteen minutes of fame/Your time is now, you got the call!"

The second-tier numbers include several more good ones, including "Elbo", which pokes fun at some of the old blues singers who are much-revered in certain circles, in spite of the indifference of the public at large, and "6000 Days" which pays tribute to a young woman who passed away much too young. (I thought at first it was about Joan of Arc, but the lyrics make reference to her lovers and passions of the flesh, so I guess not.) It's also nice to have newly recorded versions of tracks such as "Beethoven", which had only previously been released in a live version, and "Joey Ferrari", which was one of the only worthwhile tracks on The Good Rats' primitive self-titled debut album in 1969. 

There are some misses here as well -- "Football Madness" was really nothing but an attempt by Marchello to try to market his way into a deal with the NFL -- and all told, I prefer the original versions of "Mr. Mechanic" and "Mean Mother" -- but this is nitpicking. In general, Play Dum is a very strong album. If you're a fan of the classic version of The Good Rats, you'll want to give this a listen. And if you're a devotee of 1970s-style hard rock who somehow wasn't previously familiar with The Good Rats, while I'd suggest that you start by listening to some of their classic albums like Tasty and From Rats to Riches, you're probably going to enjoy Play Dum as well.


Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Monday, November 19, 2018

Review of Procol Harum's "Procol's Ninth"

I posted this review this morning on the Sputnik Music website:


Review Summary: Procol Harum meets Leiber and Stoller = Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein.


The Universal Horror film franchises of the 1930s followed a predictable arc. They'd release a movie like Frankenstein, and it would be cutting edge. The story would be strong, the characters would be well-defined, and the monster would be terrifying. Then they'd make a sequel or two, and that would be fine. In some cases, such as Bride of Frankenstein, people would consider the follow-up even better than the original. But inevitably, as the novelty wore off, it would be hard to keep the monster frightening. Soon, Frankenstein would be teaming up with other fading horror icons, like Dracula and The Wolf Man. There was fun to be had in these films, but let's face it -- the scares were growing more and more infrequent. And finally, sadly, when there wasn't any other way to make money on the franchise, where would it end up? Playing straight man to Abbott and Costello. 

You see where I'm going here. Procol Harum, in the beginning, was a weird and wonderful band. The music was frequently strange, Gary Brooker's voice was musky and unique, and Keith Reid's lyrics were like Greek and Roman legends. By their middle period, say around the point of Grand Hotel and Exotic Birds and Fruit, they were still making a lot of excellent music, but some of it was maybe a bit of a self-parody. And especially because Exotic Birds and Fruit didn't sell nearly as well as the band's previous LPs, by the time they starting making Procol's Ninth (which was actually their eighth studio album - it was their ninth counting the live album), they were looking for fresh ideas. Enter Leiber and Stoller.

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were one of the most popular songwriting teams of the 1950s. Between them, they wrote or co-wrote over 70 charting singles, including several of Elvis Presley's best-loved songs. By the 1970s, they had reinvented themselves as successful record producers. In a way, it made sense that when Procol started looking for a fresh approach, they'd look to these two songsmiths for help, as there was actually some history between them - The Paramounts, Procol Harum's precursor band, had their one hit single with a cover of the songwriting duo's classic, "Poison Ivy" (originally made famous by The Coasters).

Unfortunately, it wasn't a great fit. While Procol had always had some powerful blues-rock roots, the band's real strength was in their oddness. Leiber and Stoller's instincts were to move them back in a more basic direction. The result wasn't a total disaster, but it wasn't really a success either. 

Far and away, the highlight of Procol's Ninth is the first track, "Pandora's Box". This one is a slow, cool jam with lyrics that encompass Snow White, flying horses, the composer Handel, and pirates crossing the Spanish Main. It was, to date, the band's last charting single. It was also their last truly great song.

Beyond that, you have to take your pleasures where you find them. One of mine is the LP's final song, a cover of The Beatles' "Eight Days a Week" that finds Brooker singing the song's counter-melody every other line or so. Some critics have complained that it throws off the album's general vibe, and feels out of place, but I see it more as a breath of fresh air on a project that just isn't that consistently interesting. I also like "The Final Thrust", which is kind of like a bizarre military march, and "The Piper's Tune", which was the B-side of the "Pandora's Box" single. Of the more basic rock fare, "Fool's Gold" and "Typewriter Torment" (the latter of which is Reid's fairly amusing take on writer's block) seem to me to be the most interesting efforts.

Procol's Ninth is probably best seen in retrospect as an effort by a band that was running out of steam, but still had a few tricks up its sleeve. In comparison to previous Procol albums, it's kind of colorless (as exemplified by the cover art - a basic photo of the band inserted against a plain gray background). But sadly, it's still better than the LPs that were to follow. It's the Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein of Procol Harum albums.


Rating: 3 of 5 stars