Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Review of Blondie's "Ghosts of Download"

I  posted this review this afternoon on Sputnik.com. It will probably be my last review of 2016.

If you live long enough, you start to see cycles and patterns repeating themselves. It certainly happens within the music world. The biggest consumers of popular music of any genre tend to be teens and young adults. Each generation finds its own sounds, and picks its own idols. More often than not, those idols tend to be bands and musicians near their own ages, or just slightly older. An artist hits a certain high and maintains it for three or four albums. If they have enough staying power, they have some ebbs and flows. Meanwhile, their audience grows a little older, and other concerns start to take priority over music. Before the artist knows it, they're past their musical prime, at least as far as the size of their fan base goes. If they're good enough, they keep a certain percentage of their old fans. Maybe they even make some new, younger ones, although usually not enough to replace all of the fans they lose to such concerns as jobs, children and mortgages. They become an artist out of time -- they were big once, but their best days have passed them.

Once in awhile, things cycle around enough that an artist who has been terminally uncool for decades suddenly becomes cool again. I've seen this happen with Santana, whose popularity started sliding after their third album in the early '70s, then suddenly grew again with their Supernatural album in 1999. God help me, I've even seen it happen to Tony Bennett, who was considered a laughable old relic by the kids of my generation, then inexplicably staged a comeback in the late '80s and early '90s, becoming everybody's favorite lovable singing grandpa. And there are a precious few bands, like The Who and The Rolling Stones, who are both continually respected and prestigious enough to still sell out decent size arenas even in their golden years. (I'm fairly sure that for The Stones, part of the reason is that pact with Satan Jagger and Richards made back in the '60s, but I could be wrong). Most of the time, though, in pop culture, when your time is up, your time is up. Bands have a shelf life, and those who have gone beyond their expiration date won't be taken seriously by younger generations, regardless of the quality of the music they continue to create.

Which brings me to Blondie. Blondie is a band out of their time. In their prime, in the late '70s and early '80s, they were one of the heavy hitters of the pop world. In 1976 and 1977, they were up-and-comers, a band with a sexy and charismatic front woman in Deborah Harry and a ton of potential. In 1978, they crashed down the gates with Parallel Lines, as perfect a pop album as any band has ever made. It bridged the gap between pop punk and new wave, and threw in a little disco as well on their huge hit single "Heart of Glass". The next year, they had another smash single with "Call Me" from the soundtrack of the American Gigolo movie. They had two more solidly successful albums, and then it all came crashing down with 1982's poorly received The Hunter. Following that, guitarist/songwriter Chris Stein became seriously ill, the band broke up, and after 3-4 short years at the top, it was over. Unlike a lot of bands, they did get a bit of a second bounce in 1999, with decent reviews for their comeback album No Exit, and a minor hit with the single "Maria". But 1999 was a long time ago.

Fast forward to 2014, fifteen years later, to the release of Ghosts of Download. Packaged as a two-fer with Greatest Hits Deluxe Redux, a re-recording of their greatest hits, in a package called Blondie 4 (0) EverGhosts of Download is Blondie's 10th studio album. So how did they do?

It depends on how you measure it, but I'd say pretty well all things considered. From a commercial point of view, Ghosts was their most successful album since No Exit, easily surpassing 2003's The Curse of Blondie and 2011's Panic of Girls. The album at least made the Billboard charts, and although it topped out at #109 in the U.S., it got as high as #16 in the UK charts. The packaging with the greatest hits album might have helped this a little, but I suspect that it was the studio album that did most of the heavy lifting.

Here's the thing, though -- other than Parallel Lines, I'd rate this as the best album that Blondie ever made, and it was my favorite album of the year for 2014. Unfortunately, because Blondie is a band out of time, a collection of musicians most of whom are in their late sixties, the average music fan won't give them the time of day. On the Sputnik website, the album is currently rated as a respectable 3.4 out of 5, but the catch is that's with only 8 votes. Compare this with the 261 vote total for Parallel Lines, or even more relevantly with the almost 300-400 vote totals of some of today's pop stars like Ariana Grande or Carly Rae Jepsen, and you can see that it it could be the best album ever recorded, but the average music fan of today would never give it a listen. 

Enough kvetching, though, let's talk about the music. As they did so many times in the past, Blondie offers a variety of sounds and genres on this album, and as a special bonus, there are a multitude of guest stars, too. My favorite track is a song called "A Rose by Any Name". Deborah Harry shares the lead vocals on this one with Beth Ditto of Gossip. The song features swirling synthesizers and vocal effects as Harry and Ditto extol the virtues of gender fluidity and pansexuality with a chorus of "If you're a boy or if you're a girl/I love you just the same." It's a lighthearted number, and a catchy one at that.

On the other hand, "Sugar on the Side," the album's first song, presents us with some Latin dance rhythms of the cumbia variety. Here, Blondie is joined by the Colombian hip-hop band Systema Solar, returning the favor for her guest appearance on their 2013 song "Artificial". This is another song heavily dominated by synthesizers, keyboards and various other electronic sounds. 

"Mile High" goes to show that even her sixties, Harry is still a randy little devil, as she looks forward to joining the mile high club and experiencing some loving "between earth and sky". "Winter", on the other hand, is about a totally different kind of relationship, as Harry complains "You're so cold, I don't want you near/It's always winter when you're here."

As previously mentioned Ghosts of Download features various musical styles on different songs, including rock, reggae, light hip-hop and electronic dance pop. Other guest artists featured on the album include the Panamanian hip-hop duo Los Rakas on a mischievous song called "I Screwed Up", the lead singer of the New York band Toilet Boys, Miss Guy, on a slightly darker electro-pop number called "Rave", and a trio of singers, Keilah Baez, Felicia Baez and Keisha Williams on a (mostly) slow cover of Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax".

Overall, the mood of Ghosts of Download is one of playfulness and joy. The band obviously had fun making this album, and their mood is infectious. If Blondie had released an album like this in their heyday, there's no doubt in my mind that it would have been a huge hit. On the other hand, they probably couldn't have released something like this while still in the midst of the struggle to get to the top and stay there. The album's vibe could only have come from a band confident enough of their past accomplishments to follow their musical whims, and, as Frankie would have said, "Relax!".

The word is that as we head into 2017, Blondie is gearing up to record another album. I only hope that it's anywhere near as good as Ghosts of Download, and that people open their minds up enough to give it a listen. Blondie my be a band out of time, but as this album shows, they can still make some damned fine music.

Rating: 4.5/5

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Review of Blackmore's Night's "Winter Carols"

In the spirit of Christmas, I just posted this review on the Sputnik Music website a few minutes ago.

There's something about Medieval and Renaissance music that feels naturally connected to Christmas. It's probably the combination of the flutes and recorders, the gentle acoustic strings, and the tambourines and bells. Whatever the reason, it's definitely true that Christmas songs and albums seem to come more organically to folk rock bands such as Jethro Tull, Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention, who already have one foot in the Renaissance world, than they do to most of their harder-rocking brethren. So sooner or later, it was inevitable that Blackmore's Night, a band that was conceived specifically to pay homage to the Renaissance era, would try their hand at a Christmas album.

Blackmore's Night, for the uninitiated, came into being when British guitar legend Ritchie Blackmore, known for his work in such bands as Deep Purple and Rainbow, met former radio deejay Candice Night, and they discovered that they had a mutual affection for the days of knights and fair maidens. They released their first album, Shadow of the Moon, in 1997, and have since gone on to create ten studio albums and various live and compilation albums, all to a greater or lesser degree heavily influenced by music of the Renaissance period. Winter Carols, their sixth studio album, was released in 2006. 

So how did they do? Pretty damned well, in my opinion. I rated the album 3.5 out of 5 stars, which according to the big book of Sputnik means "Great". And although David Letterman is no longer on the air (and to be honest, I wasn't that into him when he was), here is my Top Ten list of the Top Ten Reasons for why I gave Winter Carols a "Great" rating:

1. I love Christmas music. Always have and always will. I have an extensive collection of Christmas albums, and inevitably, I play some more than others. This is one I make sure I listen to every holiday season.

2. The clear, beautiful voice of Candice Night. I just can never say enough about her vocals. Yes, her voice is powerful, but it's also exquisitely lovely and precise. Even during live performances, she tends to be note perfect, so naturally her recorded work is always spot on, and oh so appealing.

3. The magical instrumentation of Ritchie Blackmore. He plays a variety of (mostly acoustic) stringed instruments on this album, including guitar, mandola, nyckelharpa and hurdy-gurdy, and he even provides some of the percussion. Here's a guy who is a genuine rock guitar god who obviously loves to demonstrate that he's as proficient on quieter acoustic numbers as he is playing heavy rock riffs.

4. Night and Blackmore have a fine backing band on this album, including both Pat Regan and Bard David of Larchmont (aka David Baronowsky) on keyboards, Sir Robert of Normandy (Robert Curiano) on bass, the Sisters of the Moon, Lady Madeline (Madeline Posner) and Lady Nancy (Nancy Posner) on harmony vocals, Sarah Steiding on violin, Anton Fig (who used to play in David Letterman's band, see, I knew we'd make a David Letterman connection somewhere) on drums, Albert Dannemann on bagpipes (God, I love bagpipes!), and Dannemann, Ian Robertson and Jim Mannguard on backing vocals.

5. Beautiful cover artwork by Karsten Topelmann. The picture is an adaptation of a snow-covered street in Rothenburg ob dur Tauber, Germany, and you can practically feel the warmth of the fireplaces emanating from die Häuser idyllisch (that's "the picturesque houses" in English. I think. Hope you're impressed, because it took me twenty minutes to look that up).

6. Being old school (or at least middle school, since I replaced most of my original vinyl), I tend to own most of my albums on CD, keeping only the ones I like best on my iPod. For Winter's Carols, I've currently got eight of the 12 songs from the original CD release on it. Two-thirds likes isn't too shabby.

7. A nifty original Christmas song in "Christmas Eve". It's nothing too fancy, just a catchy little ditty, but as a lover of Christmas music, I can tell you that I love it when someone adds a decent new song to the twenty or so classics that get played repeatedly every year. And unlike, say, that wretched country song about buying Mama some shoes so she'll look pretty when she meets Jesus, this one is actually respectable. Plus, as an added bonus, they throw in "Winter (basse dance)", one of those graceful little instrumental originals that Blackmore's Night seems to tack on to each of their albums.

8. A slow, poignant cover of "Emmanuel" with a quiet, elegant vocal by Night, who also adds some shawm (a medieval woodwind instrument) to the mix, plus some dandy acoustic stylings by Blackmore.

9. A few unusual covers, including "Ding Dong Merrily on High", a traditional song that isn't one of those twenty or so usual Christmas songs that I mentioned earlier, and a medley of "Lord of the Dance", which you usually only hear on albums of Celtic music (even though it's based on an American Shaker hymn) and "Simple Gifts", which is an old Shaker dance song. And finally, the tenth reason why I rated Winter Carols a three-and-a-half out five: 

10. I love eggnog. OK, I admit it. This has nothing whatsoever to do with the album. But you can't have a Top Ten list with only nine points, so cut me some slack here.

Anyway, if you hate Christmas music, this album obviously won't do anything for you. However, if you love Christmas melodies like I do, and you also tend to enjoy folksy, Celticy, Renaissancy types of music, you should really add this to the mix of stuff you listen to while putting up your tree and hanging up your stockings. Just ask David Letterman!

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Review of Black 47's "Fire of Freedom"

I posted the following review on the Sputnik Music website earlier this afternoon:

The story of Fire of Freedom is one of those "coulda, woulda, shoulda" cautionary tales that parents use to talk their children out of becoming musicians. The gist of it is this -- after a couple of independent releases, celtic rock band Black 47 signed with EMI Records. Because the band was not only unknown but also not the typical kind of group that was being played on the radio at the time, the label decided (and the band agreed) they should introduce themselves to the public by recording a limited-release self-titled EP before they recorded the full-length Fire of Freedom. They brought Ric Ocasek of The Cars in to produce it, and released the first single, "Funky Ceili (Bridie's Song)". Then Murphy's law (the adage, not the band) took over, and much to everyone's surprise, "Funky Ceili" took off like Usain Bolt. Alternative radio played the hell out of it. MTV played the hell out of the video. The band, still gigging at relatively small Irish bars in New York City, started packing them in at their live shows. Time magazine was even writing about them. Unfortunately, when the song was at its hottest, most people couldn't buy it. By the time Fire of Freedom was finally released in March of 1993, the song's highest point of popularity was already several months past. "Maria's Wedding", the planned second single, had also run its course with radio airplay. The album still sold decently, but nowhere near as well as it would have if it had been released when the singles were still hot. 

It's unfortunate, because Fire of Freedom is an excellent album. It tells a series of stories, the common theme for most of them being the experience of the young Irish immigrant in New York as seen through the eyes of Black 47 singer/songwriter/poet/multi-instumentalist Larry Kirwan. Hard working, hard drinking and music-loving characters abound, some involved in shady business, others just trying to get by while working at menial jobs and living with perpetual homesickness. Kirwan tells you their tales in a series of sometimes humorous and sometimes tragic sound paintings. The band brings them to life in their own unique style, mixing traditional Irish jigs and reels with rock, reggae and hip-hop.

While "Funky Ceili" and "Maria's Wedding" were the big singles, the heart of the album, or maybe more accurately its spine, is the powerful closing number "Livin' in America". It's a maybe-love story, between a nameless young woman (superbly sung by Mary Courtney of the band Morningstar) and man (sung by Kirwan) who each describe their mad lifestyle while wrestling with whether or not to begin a relationship. The song is given added emphasis by two shortened versions that precede it, the album's first track "Livin' in America (Fordham Road 8 AM)" and the eighth track "Livin' in America (Bainbridge Avenue 2:00 AM)". The first starts off slowly and quietly, as the girl travels to her job in the morning, musing over the play her would-be paramour made for her the night before. The second, also slow and introspective, takes place as she watches him in the bar later that night, weighing the pluses and minuses before making her decision. By the time the full-band, faster version of the song kicks in at track 14, we're familiar with the music and anxious to hear how the story plays out. She's babysitting and doing menial housework in spite of her education, he's working at a lousy manual labor job, they're both hitting the bars and drinking most nights, and he has a reputation as a player. Clearly, the odds are against them. In the end, hope wins out as she decides "What the hell, nothing ventured, nothing gained." It's an optimistic song -- we know they're going to have some hard times ahead, but by the time the album ends, we're rooting for these two people to make it work somehow, in spite of the desperation of their everyday lives.

"Funky Ceili (Bridie's Song)" is another vignette, and a humorous one. In this one, Kirwan gets fired from his job at the Bank of Ireland the same day he learns that he's gotten his girlfriend Bridie pregnant. Her father gives him two choices: "Castration, or a one-way ticket to New York." The song serves as a letter to Bridie back in Ireland, as he describes his life as a usually-drunken celtic rock musician in New York, and tries to cajole her to take the baby and move to America, where he swears he has the "biggest bed in New York". The song is structured around a smile-inducing Irish jig played on Chris Byrnes' uilleann pipes. Kirwan acknowledged it might be slightly autobiographical. (A little fun fact for you here -- if you haven't guessed, a "Ceili", is a type of social gathering with music and dancing). 

"Maria's Wedding", the album's other single, is another amusing song sung by yet another drunken ne'er-do-well character to his ex, as he apologizes for wrecking her wedding to another man and tries his best to win her back. He promises that he loves her so much that "I'll even go out and get a job for you!" The music here sounds more South Jersey than celtic, as it's built around Geoffrey Blythe's saxophone and Fred Parcells' trombone.

There are a number of other really good songs here. "James Connolly" is a rousing tribute to the Irish Republican leader who was executed by the British for his role in the Easter uprising of 1916. It's the first in a series of musical eulogies to various Irish labor leaders and rebels that Kirwan has penned over the years. "Banks of the Hudson" is the first of two songs written about the (presumably fictional) characters of Paddy, a loser who makes love to his girlfriend even as he knows he's about to abandon her, and the Iceman, the mobster he ripped off who relentlessly pursues him. (Their story continues on the 1994 Home of the Brave album in the song "Voodoo City.") Meanwhile, "40 Shades of Blue" is a story of depression, homesickness and self-loathing built around yet another traditional Irish reel.

A few words are needed here about Larry Kirwan's vocals. Kirwan's voice is one of those acquired tastes, like that of Bob Dylan or Tom Waites. It's kind of high-pitched and more than a little whiny, and half the time he speaks his lyrics more than sings them. His greatest attribute, however, is that of a storyteller, and for all of his vocal deficiencies, he has a way of inhabiting the characters he's created that usually more than compensates for his lack of vocal beauty. In truth, I can't imagine anyone else singing these songs and doing them justice.

As for the music, Black 47 at the time of Fire of Freedom was a tight, club-tested 6-piece outfit, with Ocasek helping out on the album with some guitars and keyboards, and various guest background vocalists adding their skills to the mix. Most of the songs are dominated by the uilleann pipes, the saxophone and the trombone rather than the traditional rock band emphasis on the electric guitar.

Sadly, Black 47 never reached the heights that they deserved. Fire of Freedom's singles being already past their prime at the time of its release, the label decided that instead of releasing a third single, the band should just move on to record their next LP. Three days after their follow-up album Home of the Brave was released, the band's point man at EMI was fired, taking with him any serious label support for the new album and costing the band their shot at the big time. They spent the next 10 years as a successful and respected club band, playing New York bars and occasionally out-of-town venues and Irish festivals, before disbanding in November of 2014. Nevertheless, Black 47 has left behind a fine body of recorded work, with Fire of Freedom being arguably the strongest album in their discography.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Monday, November 28, 2016

Review of Dexys' "Let the Record Show"

I posted this review earlier this morning on the Sputnik Music website.
Every year, I choose my new music in a variety of ways. Sometimes, I'll read something about a band I haven't previously listened to, and the description will interest me enough to buy the album. Sometimes I'll hear a song I like, and it will get me to check out the album. As often as not, I'll just see that a new album has come out by an artist I've previously enjoyed, and I'll be inspired to pick it up. It's kind of like checking in on an old friend. It usually works for me.

So when I saw that Dexy's Midnight Runners (now calling themselves simply "Dexys") had a new album out, I thought "Great!". Even though I hadn't heard the band since the '80s, I thought it was a reasonable bet. I loved their 1982 Too-Rye-Ay LP. It was a solid album of Celtic-influenced rock and soul. Yes, it had the song "Come on Eileen", which had gone #1 in both the U.S. and U.K. (the video for the song was being played almost every 10 minutes on MTV), but it also had so much more than that. It had a first-rate cover of Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said". It had some great Celtic violin. And even if Kevin Rowland's voice was a bit of an acquired taste, in context, it worked. It was a damned fine album. Hell, I gave it 4 out of 5 stars on this site. Even their previous album, Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, was decent. I don't know how or why I lost track of the Dexys after Too-Rye-Ay, but I figured 2016 was as good a time as any to get reacquainted.

In retrospect, the cover art for the new album should have been a warning sign. The photo shows an old codger wearing what almost looks like a riding outfit, with his pants hiked up nearly to his armpits, flanked by a woman dressed like a gangster's gun moll and another old dude less than stylishly dressed. Weird that these guys look so much older these days, because I look exactly the same as I used to (cough, cough), but whatever. The title was a mouthful: Let the Record Show: Dexy's Do Irish and Country Soul. Not a great title, to my mind, but God knows you can't judge the quality of the album by its moniker. The song selection made me raise my eyebrow a little, but we'll get to that.

It was Thanksgiving Day, and we had plenty of time before we had to get ready to go out, so I plugged my ipod into my speakers and hit "play". The first song was a mostly instrumental version of "Women of Ireland", a song played to great effect throughout the Stanley Kubrick film Barry Lyndon. Not bad, kind of pretty actually. The next song was a cover of the old Bee Gees song "To Love Somebody", and this one made me squirm a little. Not very Celtic. Not very country or blues, for that matter. And what the hell happened to Kevin Rowland's voice? It was way deeper, and older sounding, than I remembered. Still, "It's only one song," I thought. Then, it all went horribly wrong.

The third song was a cover of the old Jerome Kern song "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes". I thought it was a strange choice when I saw the track listing, but sometimes you hear an artist do an interesting modern take on an old chestnut, right? Right?!!! ... Wrong. There was nothing modern or especially creative about the presentation, and it was about here that I noticed he was doing this weird thing with his vocals, singing every word in this strange, very distinct way, like Ian Anderson started to do a few years ago me when he had blown his voice out. It was also about here when I heard my wife asking from the kitchen "What the hell are you listening to?"

It got worse. Much worse. It turns out that somewhere along the way over the course of these last 30 years, Dexys changed from being this tight Celtic rock and soul band into a Las Vegas-style lounge act. Half of the songs are done with schtick, so that when the lyrics say something about pain, Rowland is in the background screaming "Ow! I've got this pain!", and when he turns the song over to his co-singer Sean Read, it's with these little cheesy comments in between, like "Tell the people!" and "Yes he does!" At one point, during their cover of the beautiful and poignant song "Carrickfergus," he even breaks into a mock sob. (At least I think he does. I can't swear 100% that it isn't a cough instead of a sob, which raises a whole different set of issues.)

By the fourth song, my whole family was howling in pain and berating me viciously. I'm used to the idea that my children will never admit it if they like something I'm listening to, but this was genuine. There was a sad, desperate quality to their comments: "Make it stop!", "Oh God it hurts!", things like that. I felt so bad for them, I almost turned it off. But it was like an aural train wreck -- I couldn't take my ears off of it.

In the end, this might actually give that godawful Corey Feldman album a run for its money for worst album of 2016. I'll never know for sure because the song he did on The Today Show was enough to scare me off listening to any more of that album. But at least Feldman seemed to sincerely be trying, which is more than I can say about most of the songs on Let the Record Show. "Women of Ireland" was pretty good, and "The Town I Loved So Well" isn't too bad -- at least Rowland is playing it straight with that one. Most of the rest of the album is unsalvageable, though. Sputnik lets you rate an album as low as 1 star. I gave this one an extra half star, partly for "Women of Ireland" and partly as a nod of respect to the memory of Too-Rye-Ay. As for my 4 recs, I've chosen albums that do Celtic rock the way it should be done instead of trying to name comparable disasters to this one.

It actually hurt me to write this review. Not as much as it hurt my family to listen to the album, but almost. I hate trashing a band that's given me pleasure in the past. But consider this to be like one those signs: "Warning! Land Mines!," and tread carefully with this one. You'll be sorry if you don't.

Rating: 1-1/2/5 stars

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Review of Sick of Sarah's "Anthem"

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

As someone from the baby boomer generation, my musical journey has been long and fruitful. I grew up on the rock and progressive rock groups of the '70s, and many of them are still among my favorite artists. Never losing my love for these bands, I embraced the less complicated, more pop-friendly music of the new wave years. In more recent times, I've found that my favorite artists of the modern era tend to be from the alternative and indie rock genres. And while I appreciate certain male vocalists like Anthony Raneri of Bayside or Andy Bierstock (aka Andy Black) of the Black Veil Brides, whose voices are both distinctive and pleasing, in general, I find myself drawn to bands with female vocalists. From the '90s on, about 50% of my yearly Top Ten lists have consisted of female-fronted bands like The Cranberries and Garbage, and in more recent times Paramore and Candy Hearts, a pretty high percentage since I'd guess that maybe only 20% or so of the bands out there have female lead singers. So when I hear of an indie rock band with a female lead singer that has been getting some good reviews, I tend to seek them out more frequently than I do a band with a male singer. This is how I found Sick of Sarah.

Sick of Sarah is an indie rock band from Minneapolis, MN that first formed in 2005. Their current lineup includes official band members Abisha Uhl (lead vocals) and Jessica Forsythe (drums and vocals), plus Ari Applewhite (guitar), Jack Swagger (guitar and vocals) and AJ Stone (bass). They have an interesting history, having somehow arranged for their 2010 LP 2205 to be automatically downloaded whenever anyone downloaded BitTorrent software. This made them one of most the most torrented bands of all time, and also caused some to disparage them as a spam band. According to Wikipedia, they got their name from a former roommate of Uhl's named Sarah who had grown tired of her name, hence "Sick of Sarah". To date, they've released two full-length albums and six EPs. I think I first came across them on the website for the 2012 Vans Warped Tour, and their description sounded right up my alley. I bought a CD version of 2205, and I liked it enough to follow them ever since.

Anthem, their most recent EP, was released in 2015. It consists of six driving rock songs in a similar vein to those on 2205. Here's the good and the bad: On the plus side, they have a great sound. Uhl is an excellent vocalist, with a voice that is appealing, powerful and emotionally expressive. Also, there's nothing wimpy about their music -- it's dynamic, laced with fast-paced guitars and driving drum beats. There's a potential for something great here.

My only complaint is that I feel the songs aren't quite there yet. Don't get me wrong, they're okay. They definitely have some strong hooks, and as I said earlier, the music is robust. I like this EP, and I'd buy it again in a heartbeat. However, while none of the songs on Anthem are bad, I can also say that none of them came close to making my Top 20 list for 2015. The potential of the band is there, you can just feel them waiting to break through. But unlike a band like, say, Against the Current, who made a huge step forward from last year's Gravity EP to this year's full-length, In Our Bones, I feel like Sick of Sarah is kind of stuck in drive. 2205 was good, and five years later, Anthem is still ... good.

The best song of the lot is probably "Bars Full of Strangers". It's a mid-tempo number about someone who is leaving their home town (to go on the road with their band, perhaps?), because, as the singer explains, "I'm trouble/That's what they made me believe". The mood of the song is more celebratory than sad, though, as Uhl exults "Here's to guitars and bars full of strangers!". Other worthwhile songs include "Stereo", a lively song that kicks off the album, "Beautiful", another upbeat number that advises you to see the beauty in the world around you, and "Contagious", where the singer compares her friend's ignorant opinions to a dangerous epidemic.

If you like female-fronted indie rock, you should definitely check this album out. I'm happy to have these songs on my expanded 2015 playlist. Nevertheless, I'm holding out the hope that sometime soon, maybe in 2017, Sick of Sarah is going to take that next step forward and just blow me away.

Rating: 3/5 stars

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Good Rats and the lousy tummy

Caught the first set tonight of an acoustic version of The Good Rats at Rudi's Bar & Grill in Patchogue. I think when they play in this formation, they bill themselves as The AcoustiRats, although they weren't actually scheduled to play acoustic tonight -- their drummer took ill. It's the first time I've seen them without Peppi, so it was a bittersweet experience.

For the unfamiliar, Peppi Marchello was the singer/songwriter/main driving force behind The Good Rats from 1964 until his death in 2016. Back in the days when they became a national act, the classic lineup of the Rats consisted of Peppi, John "The Cat" Gatto on guitar, Peppi's brother Mickey Marchello on guitar and backing vocals, Lenny Kotke on bass and Joe Franco on drums. In the mid-'90s, Peppi and his sons Gene Marchello and Stefan Marchello reformed the band as a local bar band, playing pubs throughout the Tri-State area. The classic lineup would usually reform for one or two reunion gigs a year.

I used to catch the Rats a lot in the '90s and '00s, but once Denise and I adopted the kids, I really didn't get out to shows anymore. I always felt bad when Peppi passed in 2013 that I hadn't been to see the band in a few years. We had become friends, starting somewhere around 1995 where he gave me a lift home from one of his gigs. I think he liked me because he knew that I believed and still believe that The Good Rats should have gotten as big or bigger than bands like Rush and Aerosmith, but bad luck and record label politics shot them down.

Gene hasn't played with the Rats since 2008 except for a memorial reunion show, but Stefan continued playing with Peppi until Peppi passed away, and it's Stefan who continues to front the band today.

Like I said, it was a bittersweet experience to see the band without Peppi for the first time. It was even more bittersweet because this past week was the my own father's birthday, the first since he passed away this last summer, so all my feelings about him were mixed together with my feelings about Peppi.

These days, Stefan and the gang mix together classic Good Rats material with covers of bands like Journey and The Foo Fighters (they were still doing this while Peppi was alive). They just released a new album, and while I don't have it yet (it's on order), I think it contains a mix of material that Peppi wrote and never recorded and some things that Stefan wrote himself. I assume when they play a full band show, they probably play some stuff off of that as well.

The set that I did hear sounded good. They opened with "School Days", and played a number of other Rats tunes like "300 Boys" and "Does It Make You Feel Good". They also played some Foo Fighters, some Journey and (God help us) some Whitney Houston (really some Dolly Parton, since she wrote the song and hers was actually the superior version imo).

Now that I've actually gone ahead and seen them for that first time without Peppi, I expect I'll go out again and try to catch the full band sometime soon. I didn't stay last night because a frozen Paula Dean breakfast sandwich wasn't sitting well in my stomach. (Curse you, Paula Dean!). I was also hoping to take my own son with me last night, be opted for the new Harry Potterish movie with his Mom, his sister, his aunt and his cousin instead. Maybe next time.

Review of The Good Rats' "From Rats to Riches"

This is a review of the classic Good Rats album From Rats to Riches. I posted it last night on the Sputnik Music site.

Whether or not it's their personal favorite among Good Rats albums, most Rats fans would acknowledge that Tasty is the band's masterpiece. It's the album that has garnered the most airplay over the years, and to the extent that the Rats are remembered on classic rock radio, the song "Tasty" is the one they're most remembered for. Ask what's the band's second-best effort, however, and you're likely to find that opinions are split. Many would choose Ratcity in Blue, the Rats' 1976 follow up effort to their tour de force. It has much to recommend it, as songs like "Advertisement in the Voice", "Reason to Kill" and "Boardwalk Slasher" all received some FM radio airplay back in the day. For my part, though, I'd have to go with From Rats to Riches.

From Rats to Riches was released in 1978, at the height of the band's popularity nationwide. Building on the FM radio acclaim the Good Rats had already achieved with Tasty and Ratcity, it came at a point when they were playing the largest rooms and opening (or sometimes headlining) for bands like Aerosmith, Rush, Journey and Meat Loaf. It's probably the album that has the highest number of hard-rocking songs on it, containing numbers like "Taking It to Detroit", "Mr. Mechanic", "Let Me", "Don't Hate the Ones Who Bring You Rock & Roll" and "Local Zero". In short, Rats to Riches catches the Rats at their pinnacle, just when it seemed that lasting fame and fortune was within their grasp.

While bands like Rush wrote epic songs about future dystopian societies and civil wars among the trees, the Rats typically focused on topics a little less grand. Singer/songwriter Peppi Marchello often targeted his lyrics around two central themes: music and the music industry, and trying (and usually failing) to pick up women.

While Tasty featured a pair of songs focused on this first theme ("Back to My Music" and "The Songwriter"), Rats to Riches adds three of its own. The first is "Taking It to Detroit", the song that opens the album. Building slowly with heavy guitar riffs, it's a simple song about following the paths of acts like KISS and Bob Seger to fame and fortune in the Motor City. The song became so popular in its native Long Island that it was used for bumper music and radio commercials for years after this album's release. In contrast, "Dear Sir" is more of a ballad. This song takes the form of a musical letter to a record industry executive, as Marchello struggles to find the balance between craving success and not selling out. "I am nothing but some red ink of black," he admits. "I'm demotion or a second Cadillac." On a lighter note, we also have "Don't Hate the Ones Who Bring You Rock & Roll", which finds Marchello pleading with that angry drunk in the bar who's jealous of the glamorous rock lifestyle, "Hate your mommies, hate your daddies/Hate the lousy little brats who call you fatty," but please, don't hate your friendly neighborhood rock band.

As for that second theme area, The Good Rats were always a working man's band. While guys like Mick Jagger might have been able to just walk into a room and have the ladies under his thumb, Marchello wrote songs for the guy who had to screw up his courage just to approach a woman, and the guy who nine times out of ten walked away from the encounter empty and humiliated. There are no less than five songs on the album that cover this topic. "Let Me" is a simple seduction song that features one of guitarist John Gatto's strongest solos. "Coo Coo Coo Blues", in contrast, sounds a little like the music that closes Saturday Night Live every week, with a humorous story about a pickup attempt that goes horribly wrong when the lady in question's boyfriend shows up. "Could Be Tonight" is a lighthearted number about staying hopeful you're going to find that special someone, "Even if you haven't made a point all night/And your natural beauty's fading in the morning light". "Just Found Me a Lady" is a happy little ditty written about that oh-so-rare successful hookup. Finally, "Mr. Mechanic" is arguably the strongest of the lot. In this fast-rocking number, the singer compares his body to an old junker car with a busted heater and bald tires. Musically, the song sounds a little like Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir", as played by a band on amphetamines. Clearly, the Rats had some fun with this one.

There are a couple of other highlights on From Rats to Riches that don't fall into these two theme areas. The first, "Victory in Space" features Marchello's warped sense of humor, as he recruits for an interstellar prostitution ring. "Ladies of the universe," he promises, "Ladies of the world/We'll treat you all like goddesses, and when you get back home/You'll have your memories of victory in space." It's a song meant to bring a smile to Captain Kirk's face.

The climax of the album is it's powerful closing song, "Local Zero." On this one, the Rats show their blue collar roots, as they take on the collusion between the companies and the unions who are supposed to be sticking up for the little guy. "If we sit back and let them ride," Marchello wails, "Then we'll be dead tomorrow/'Cause the longer we let 'em slide/Means the deeper we borrow." The gist of his message is this: "Up the local unions/Up the bosses too/Scratching each other's backs and laughing/At you." Of course, this is the RIAA-approved clean version. In his live shows, he didn't sing "Up".

From Rats to Riches cemented the Good Rats reputation as a powerful hard rock band. It also sealed their identity as a middle class band for a mostly male audience that knows that the system and everything else is rigged against them, but still keep their sense of humor, never give up, and take delight in the little victories, even if they're few and far between. The band did put out some worthwhile songs and albums after this, but they were never again as close to making it to the top of the mountain as they were here.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Friday, November 18, 2016

Review of One True Thing's "Finally ..."

I posted this review earlier today on the Sputnik Music site:

This is a very aptly titled CD. Once upon a time, way back in the late ’90s, there was highly praised band by the name of Scarab. They were the darlings of the alterna-pop set, they had crossover popularity with punk fans, and among other achievements, they made it into the prestigious South by Southwest Music Festival without sponsorship, not an easy thing to do. Their future was extremely bright.

Then along came that most hideous of band killers, the bad record contract. Scarab signed a contract, and recorded a CD that they weren’t happy with. Unfortunately, they lost the rights to the recording, and even the rights to use the name “Scarab”. It looked as though they would never be heard from again.

Happily, in 2002, former Scarab members vocalist Melanie Wills and guitarist Milan Millevoy joined together with bass player Kris Hanssen and drummer Ray Greene to form a new band, One True Thing. And finally, joyously, the CD so long-awaited by former Scarab fans came into being. And it was good. In fact, very good.

Finally... combines well-written, edgy pop-rock songs with the uncanny vocals of the aforementioned Ms. Wills to create a highly enjoyable and yes, well-worth-waiting-for first effort. 

Throughout the mid-to-late '90s, Wills was one of the top vocalists on Long Island, leading to favorable write-ups in most of the local music papers and even to several guest appearances on albums by the respected Long Island metalcore band From Autumn to Ashes. Her voice is high and pure, yet very powerful, and with an unbelievable range. There was a time when her old band leaned too heavily on this asset, and every song insisted on stretching her voice as far as it would go. On this CD, though, One True Thing has learned not to force the issue – Wills’ voice can still take off when it’s called upon, but they don’t make her do it on every song, which lends it that much more power when she does let her voice soar.

There are actually two different versions of the album out there, the original release in 2002 and the more widespread 2004 version. The latter version reorders the songs, and loses two songs from the original, "Everything I Am" and "Homecoming", replacing them with "Monster" and "Who's Amazing". This is a little unfortunate, as "Homecoming" is a decent song, and "Everything I Am" is as beautiful and touching a love anthem as ever came out of the Long Island music scene. "Monster" does make up for it somewhat. It's a power ballad that allows Wills to let loose on the chorus, as she blasts out "I am the monster/Beneath your bed/And I am the skeleton in every closet!"

There are two other songs that dominate Finally .... The first is "Dearest", a devastating portrayal of an abused daughter. The music for this one is slow and creepy, befitting the subject matter, as Wills pours her heart into lyrics filled with shame and loathing: "There's a picture on the wall,/Father's arms around his daughter./Her eyes brim with tears,/But nothing mutes the hate inside." Although there have been a number of songs written about physically and sexually abused children over the years, "Dearest" does a better job than any I've heard of expressing the hurt and rage of the victim in first-person terms.

The other album highlight makes a 180-degree turn from the emotional wreckage of "Dearest". Entitled "Change", this mid-tempo number is about hope in the face of pain and depression. Written almost 10 years before Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" project, which seeks to help potentially suicidal LGBT teens see that life can improve after the savagery of high school, "Change" finds Wills singing a simple message to those who feel hopeless: "Well I don't even know your name./I don't even know your name,/But I wanted to tell you things change./Things change." While the lyrics here are modest, Wills' dynamic voice drives them home in a way that lends them authenticity, as she does her best to give comfort, first to a sad old man who feels that his life is over, then to a heartbroken young girl. The song is a great example of the growth of One True Thing, as here, they have saved their strongest weapon, the power of Wills' vocal cords, for a spot where it can make its maximum impact.

One True Thing continued to play together for several years after the release of Finally ..., dropping one more 3-song demo before breaking up in 2007. As unfortunate as it is that the band never broke on a national level, at least we'll always have this album to remember them by.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Barns Courtney, Fitz and the Tantrums, and a quick R.I.P. for Leonard Russell

So after seeing no live music for most of the year, last night was my fourth concert in about 5 weeks, and the third at The Paramount (which I guess is a credit to their booking people).

A few things about last night's show -- for one, I guessed right that the average age of the audience would be about midway in between those of the audiences for Squeeze and Sleeping With Sirens. I guessed wrong that there would be a men's room attendant, like SWS and unlike Squeeze. Not sure if it says anything about the audience, or if maybe men's rooms attendants are just rare happenings at the Paramount. Also, it was a pretty good crowd, but not quite as packed to capacity as it had been for Squeeze and SWS.

Denise and I got there right before the opening band went on. When they led us to our seats, it turned out that Denise had accidentally bought two seats on bar stools, not good for either of our backs. Making it worse, mine was right at the top of the staircase. I asked the young fellow acting as usher if we could be moved, and he said he'd check with his manager. A few minutes later he returned, and told us that we and the middle-aged guy in the Ramones shirt sitting next to us could all sit an unused luxury box, which was incredibly kind of them. So instead of at some point in the night hurtling down the staircase to certain injury or death, I had to make due on some soft cushy seats with plenty of room on both sides. It's a rough life, but somebody has to live it! (Many thanks again to the Paramount management staff).

Now, this was a concert Denise had picked out and bought the tickets for. She's a big fan of Fitz and the Tantrums. She loves funk, and music you can dance to.  I like them OK, but not as much as she does. I didn't love "The Walker", their big hit from their last album (you know, the whistle song, the one that starts with the guy whistling?), but I liked most of the rest of the album. I'm so-so on their new album, but it does have a few songs I like, particularly a song called "Complicated".

The opening act was someone I had never heard of before last week, a singer/guitarist named Barns Courtney. He's allegedly a Brit, but one with no trace of a British accent. (I looked him up on Wikipedia before writing this blog entry, and it turns out that while he was born in the U.K., and went back their to live at age 15, he spent most of his childhood and his early teen years in Seattle, so I guess that's why). He was backed up by a bass player and a drummer. (Barns, btw, is short for Barnaby. I've only ever heard of three Barnaby's in my whole life: The Long Island band Barnaby Bye, the TV character Barnaby Jones, and the mustache-twirling villain from March of the Wooden Soldiers. Just a little trivia for you).

Courtney's set was loud (I could feel the bass vibrating through my body), but good. His voice reminded me of David Bowie's when he's singing in his lower range, and maybe a little of Springsteen when he takes it up a little. Denise felt that he was a mix of Chris Isaak and local favorite Neil Cavanagh. I can see it, but he's much higher energy than Chris Isaak. He did a full set of pretty strong material, including a decent song called "Glitter & Gold" and a song called "Hobo Rocket" that he said was about being so poor that he had to eat sardines everyday (which sounds like it's still going on for him). He closed his set with the song I'd seen him do on YouTube when I checked him out this past weekend, a quick-and-steady number called "Fire".

I liked him enough to hit the merch stand after his set, but it turns out he doesn't have an album out yet. Which is probably why he's still eating sardines everyday. Barns, dude, get with the program -- you had a room full of people psyched up and ready to buy your music, you've got to have some music for them to buy. These kids!

By the time Fitz came on, the dance floor below was pretty full and ready to rock. Unfortunately, I was a little distracted in the first part of their set, texting on my cell phone to make sure my daughter got picked up from her night class. (It's usually my job, but last night she was supposed to get picked up by a friend who bailed. Luckily, we had her aunt ready as a backup plan. But I couldn't really relax and enjoy the show until I knew she'd been picked up and was safely on her way home.)

Anyway, Fitz and the gang did a high-flying set. Denise was bopping like a madwoman the whole time. She pulled her chair right up to front of the V.I.P. box for maximum exposure (we were sitting upstairs on the right side of the stage). I won't bore you with all the details, but someone posted their full setlist on setlist.fm (a pretty nifty little site, by the way, especially if you've got a concert coming up and you want to catch a sneak peek at what the band's been playing during their current tour). Here's the page address: http://www.setlist.fm/setlist/fitz-and-the-tantrums/2016/the-paramount-huntington-ny-3fa01c7.html .

The setlist above should give you the idea. Basically, they did all of their hits, and the crowd dance. A lot. The two front people, Michael Fitzpatrick and Noelle Scaggs, are incredibly energetic. (Denise was impressed at how well Ms. Scaggs can dance in some very high heels). And special props go out to their sax player, a little short dude named James King who plays a big sax.

Naturally after a set like that, the band got called out for an encore. They opened it with their current single, "HandClap", went into a song called "6AM" and closed with "The Walker".

Now here's one other point of interest. They're rocking along on "The Walker". Everybody in the house knows it's their last song. So they get within about 15 seconds of finishing out the song, and Boom! Cannons on both sides of the stage shoot off, firing thousands of little white papers about the size of gum wrappers into the air, and as the band finishes up and takes their bows, these little papers flutter back to earth.

Now I like pyrotechnics as much as the next guy. Sleeping With Sirens had some nice fiery pyrotechnics shooting out of cannons behind the singer at several points during their set. But as I'm watching these little gum wrapper papers float back to the ground, I'm thinking of how I'd feel if I was the cleanup crew. I mean, the show was all but over. Everyone had been entertained, the band was happy but exhausted, we were at the very last stage of closing the deal, and some clown has to make an extra hour or so's worth of work for the cleanup crew just to have a little bit of a bigger finish. And I just know that the guy who shot off the cannons isn't going to be pushing a broom around after the show. And I know the crew is sitting there thinking, "You mother___er!"

And as Denise and I traipsed down the outer stairs down to street level, somehow even those stairs were full of those little white gum wrapper papers that must have gotten stuck to people's shoes. So instead of thinking about the great show I just saw, all I can think about is that poor cleanup crew.

Oh well.

So anyway, that should be my last show for the year, at least as far as national acts go. So between Squeeze, The B-52s, Tonight Alive and Fitz & the Tantrums, it turned out to be a pretty good year for live music after all.

Just very quickly, Leon Russell died this week. I don't have too much to say about him. I did like his song "Tight Rope" a lot. I guess we're just at a point now where that whole first wave of '60s and '70s rock stars are going to start leaving us one after the other. Sad to say, but man how they changed the face of popular music. I think that in most ways, music changed more from my parents' generation of crooners in the '50s and early '60s, to the rock revolution these guys started, than it has from the '60s until now.

So to Leon and all of the rockers of his generation who have already left us, and those still to leave, R.I.P. buddy. My life would have been so much less fun without you all.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Review of Procol Harum's "Home"

I posted this review of the 1970 Procol Harum album Home on the Sputnik Music site earlier today.

As someone who came of age musically in the late '60s and early '70s, this album had a profound effect upon my life. I got my first transistor radio when I was about 12, and for a few years, Top 40 radio was all I knew. I was the oldest child in my family, and my parents were from a pre-rock generation, so for awhile, I had no one to teach me that there was more out there. Luckily enough, I became best friends with someone who had two older brothers, and everything that they exposed him to, he shared with me. Favorite bands like The Monkees and The Guess Who were gradually replaced, as I began to experience albums like Tommy by The Who, In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson, We're Only in It for the Money by The Mothers of Invention, and Shine on Brightly and Home by Procol Harum.

Procol Harum has always been a unique band. They were formed out of the ashes of the English beat group, The Paramounts. Their vocalist, Gary Brooker, possessed a distinct and immediately identifiable voice. For their first five studio albums, they had a guitarist, Robin Trower, who is recognized as one of the all-time greats, yet many of their songs were heavily dominated by Brooker's piano and the organs of Matthew Fischer (on their first three albums) and Chris Copping (thereafter). They were known as a progressive rock band, but unlike bands like Yes or Emerson, Lake and Palmer, their music was influenced as much or more by the blues and R&B than it was by classical music. Finally, to the best of my memory, they were the only rock group of their time to name someone whose sole job was to write lyrics, the ever-poetic Keith Reid, as a full-fledged member of the band.

Home was Procol Harum's fourth album. After the release of 1969's A Salty Dog, Fischer and bass player Dave Knights left the band, and were replaced by former Paramount member Chris Copping, who doubled on organ and bass. For this reason, while Home contains all of the epic fantasy/sci-fi/horror imagery the band was beloved for, the music veers into more of a bluesy direction than some of their previous work.

I think that to a certain extent, Home has become a somewhat overlooked album in the Procol Harum catalog, possibly because it's the first not to be identified with one standout track as were each of the previous three records ("Whiter Shade of Pale" on Procol Harum, "In Held 'Twas in I" on Shine on Brightly, and the title track on A Salty Dog). Nevertheless, it's a solid album throughout. 

The first song, "Whiskey Train", was released as a single, but it never charted, and in comparison to the rest of the album, it's a case of "which doesn't belong and why". Unlike most of Home,"Whiskey Train" is the one track totally dominated by Trower's guitar. A fast-paced song about the despair of alcohol addiction, in some ways, this is Robin Trower's "Mississippi Queen", as he is allowed to completely cut loose while the rest of the band just backs him up.

From there on, Procol moves back into the reign of dark epic fantasy, with songs of death, adventure and horror. My personal favorite as a teenager was "Still There'll Be More", a gleeful revenge song wherein the protagonist plots the many afflictions he will inflict upon his nameless enemy, vowing "I'll blacken your Christmas/And piss on your door/You'll cry out for mercy/Still there'll be more". Something about the sheer elation of the singer as he recounts all of the outrages he's planning can't help but put a smile on your face. This contrasts nicely with the song immediately following it, a slow, sad number called "Nothing That I Didn't Know". On this one, the protagonist laments the sufferings of his 26-year-old friend Jenny Drew who has just died from some sort of horrible progressive disease.

Throughout the album, imagery of death prevails. "About to Die" is Reid's vision of the last moments of Christ, as the crowds applaud him, all the while seeing him as more of a symbol than an actual person. "Dead Man's Dream" is reminiscent of an Edgar Allen Poe story, as the singer recounts a strange and frightening dream. Even "Barnyard Story" touches on the subject of death, as an old man recalls his many fantastic adventures in life and quietly looks forward to his own eternal sleep.

The one track from Home that seemed to get the most FM radio airplay back in the day is "Whaling Stories". A classical adventure with an incomprehensible narrative, this one reminds of "In Held 'Twas in I", although its running time of 7:06 minutes makes it less than half as long. All I can tell you about the story here is there's some sort of plot to rob a village, and there's a violent and horrific battle, as "Lightning struck out - fire and brimstone! Boiling oil and shrieking steam". Thankfully, in the end all is triumphant, as "Shalimar! The trumpets chorused." Is it any wonder that my teenage self loved this album?

Shine on Brightly first made me a Procol Harum fan, but after Home, they became my favorite band for many years to come. Although time eventually led me to other bands and new favorites, I've always retained a special love both for Procol Harum and for Home. All in all, I think the album still holds up pretty well today.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars