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 (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: .

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

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Waterparks, Tonight Alive, State Champs and Sleeping With Sirens plus Leonard Cohen R.I.P.

For anyone who actually reads my mad ramblings on this blog, you might remember that earlier in the year, I was going through a period where I was just dying for live music. I was particularly craving some live music by some new and modern bands I've never seen live before, as opposed to an old favorite band from the seventies and eighties. After keeping my eyes open to see who was coming around, I noticed that Tonight Alive was coming to the Paramount in Huntington. They were actually playing a 4-band show in what was billed The End the Madness! tour, headlined by a band called Sleeping With Sirens.

I'd heard of Sleeping With Sirens before, but wasn't really that familiar with them, but I figured what the hell. The tickets were relatively inexpensive, so being a large person who likes the extra space, I bought 3 of them, planning to take my wife and keep an empty chair between us so I could stretch my legs. But when I told her about the show, I sensed a distinct lack of enthusiasm on her part. In fact, her expression looked a little like that of a deer that has accidentally gotten caught on a barbed-wire fence. So I asked my kids if maybe they'd want to come instead, and much to my surprise, I learned that my daughter in particular was kind of into Sleeping With Sirens. (A few years ago, neither of them listened to anything but hip-hop, so I've been happy to see them both expanding their taste).

Now my favorite band of the previous decade was Paramore. I love their brand of high-energy pop punk, and I particularly love their lead singer, Hayley Williams, for her powerful voice, her frenetic performances and her distinctive and heartfelt lyrics. (Paramore was actually the first live concert we ever took our kids to). I got into Tonight Alive a few years ago because they're a band highly influenced by Paramore, with a charismatic female lead singer of their own named Jenna McDougall.

We arrived in Huntington about a half hour early, only to find a line of kids around the block. So we grabbed some pizza across the street and waited for the crowd to filter in.

Now 3 or 4 weeks ago, Denise and I saw The English Beat and Squeeze at this same venue. And right away, I noticed some big differences between this show and that one. A few of the more prominent ones were:

1. The age of the crowd. The Squeeze crowd had an average age of about 50. They were a pretty lively 50, but they were still 50. At this show, I'm thinking the average might have been 19, and that was only because there were some other parents in the audience dragging the average upwards.

2. At the Squeeze show, the Men's room had one of those bathroom attendants who stands around and hands you your paper towels after you wash your hands so feel guilted into tipping them. I'm guessing that the venue has learned from hard experience that with a crowd this young, they shouldn't even bother because the tips won't be a-flowing. So no bathroom attendant.

3. The Squeeze show crowd was mostly older married couples. At this show, the girls outnumbered the boys about two to one. Every time the crowd screamed in approval, the pitch was painfully high.

4. Security, security, security. I'm sure there must have been a security person or two at the Squeeze concert, but I don't remember seeing any. Here, the bright-yellow shirts were everywhere, and I soon learned why.

5. My wife is a lot more fun at a concert than my kids are. Denise is an 80's gal who used to hit Malibu and all of the other big Long Island dance clubs regularly. During English Beat and Squeeze, she was bopping up and down like crazy, and if there had been room at the seats, she'd have been up and dancing. My kids are way too cool for that. Even when they're enjoying themselves, they kind of sit there impassively, although if I don't let her see me watching her, my daughter will almost imperceptibly start to nod and tap her foot to the music.

6. Crowd surfing and mosh pits. Surprisingly, there weren't any at the Squeeze show. This is probably because we'd have all gone home with broken hips, etc. But for this show, particularly during the last two bands, little mosh pits developed like vortexes in different parts of the floor, while wave after wave of crowd surfers were passed towards the stage.

Now at this point, I have to say a word about the security. I've been critical of the Paramount in the past for it's sound system (which still wasn't that great last night) and for some of its prices. But these security agents last night were doing God's own work.

Bear in mind that a lot of these guys looked like they belonged in one of those Three Brothers Moving commercials ("What are cul-de-sacs?" "Dead ends for rich people.")  But unbeknownst to me, apparently it's become the job of security personnel at these kinds of concerts to line the front of the stage and save the crowd surfers from sexual assault, (more) brain damage and maybe death. All night long, as I watched with a gasp from my seat upstairs, teenagers and young twenty-somethings were lifted into the air and passed tenuously from the back of the crowd towards the front, legs sprawled every which way, in lurches so sudden I was sure one of them was about to get dropped head-first onto the hard floor below. And all night long, these security guys would wade forward into the crowd, put out their arms, cradle these kids to safety and set them gently on the ground, so they could run around to the back of the crowd again like little children at a water park slide to surf the ride again. Meantime, their brother guards placed themselves on the perimeter whenever a mosh pit broke out, giving the kids room to have their fun but making sure no one got killed in the process. These guys were as patient and professional as any security I've ever seen at a concert or stadium event. I can't say enough kind words about them.

I tried to prep myself for the show by watching YouTube videos from all three of the other bands besides Tonight Alive. I found that I liked Waterparks a lot, and subsequently bought their EP Cluster. I found that the videos for State Champs and Sleeping With Sirens just kind of washed over me. They weren't terrible, but they just weren't grabbing my attention.

My kids both knew Sleeping With Sirens a little, my daughter more than my son, and my daughter was a little familiar with Tonight Alive through videos I'd shown her. Tonight Alive has a song on their newest album called "Waves," and my daughter decided it's the kind of song where you sit on the floor of your little padded cell and rock back and forth to, desperately mouthing the chorus "Your love comes in waves, your love comes in waves," after a nice, relaxing episode of shock therapy.

Anyway, the show was very high-energy. All four of the bands received a lot of love from the crowd which was nice. I always feel bad for an opening band when the crowd just ignores them.

My daughter branded all three of the opening bands as "angsty teenage bullshit." I tried to tell her that the music actually sounded pretty happy and upbeat to me, but you know kids ... they never listen.

Waterparks only got to do five songs, but they made the most of it. They have kind of a bright pop-punk sound, even though their closing number was about feeling "Mad All the Time".

Tonight Alive was up next. Jenna McGougall was sporting a crew cut -- I have a feeling maybe she just did one of those things where you shave your head in solidarity with kids being treated for cancer. I was familiar with all of their songs. "Waves" and "Drive", another song off of their new album, were arguably their two best numbers. After the show, my son told me he'd liked Tonight Alive best out of all four bands.

State Champs got to do a pretty full set. They're a pop punk band from upstate New York. I liked them better live than I did watching their videos, but I can't say they really grabbed me. The rest of the crowd loved them, though. The crowd surfing really got started during their set.

Sleeping With Sirens tore up the house. They're another pop punk band with a singer named Kellin Quinn who has a somewhat high, but very powerful, voice. Their music made more sense to me live than on video. I thought some of their highlights were a fast-paced song from their latest album called "Go Go Go", an older slow power ballad called "Fire", and a song that they described as being about zombies, called "Dead Walker Texas Ranger". My kids were kind of disappointed they didn't perform their favorite SWS song, "Roger Rabbit", but they at least both knew the new single "Kick Me".

Anyway, I'm glad we went to the show. At least I got my new music fix for awhile, and it was nice to do something different with my kids.

Finally, just a quick R.I.P. to Leonard Cohen, one of the great songwriters of our age, who passed away a couple of days ago. He wrote a number of classics, particularly "Suzanne" and "Hallelujah". I have many happy memories of listening to Neil Cavanagh and Mary Ann Leone team up to perform "Hallelujah" at the old Pisces Cafe in Babylon. I think the first time the song really made an impression on me was when the show West Wing used the Jeff Buckley version as a background to a scene where the CJ character's boyfriend was shot to death during a grocery store robbery. It was a pretty haunting scene, made all the more poignant by the song.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Cohen.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Review of Squeeze's "Argybargy"

I posted this review earlier this morning on the Sputnik Music music site.

While the '70s were a decade where rock music became increasingly complex, much of the '80s was about simplifying music and returning to the pop rock roots of the early '60s. This was especially true in Britain, where bands seemingly focused more on creating catchy (and sometimes silly) singles than on complicated songs and concept albums. Synthpop bands like Erasure, Duran Duran and Culture Club prospered. So did pop bands that were more guitar-based, like The Smiths and Squeeze.

Although Squeeze was actually formed in the mid-1970s by singer/songwriter/guitarists Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook, it wasn't until the late '70s and early '80s that they really hit their stride. Hailed in England as the successors to Lennon and McCartney, Difford and Tilbrook took their inspiration from 60's bands like the Beatles and the Kinks. After releasing a pair of albums that produced a number of successful singles in the UK, they released Argybargy in 1980 which gave them their first taste of success in the United States and Canada.

While some Squeeze fans would choose 1981's East Side Story as Squeeze's best album, I'd opt for Argybargy. For me, no one makes pop like the Brits, and Argybargy plays like an 80's new wave radio station's greatest hits collection. Filled with unusual song structures (sometimes the songs sound slightly inside out) and lyrics that tell simple stories, the album is 11 songs worth of pure pop heaven.

It starts out with a bang with two of the band's most popular songs, "Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)" and "Another Nail in My Heart." The first is a deceptively simple tale about life at a holiday beach resort, but it's memorable both for its catchy chorus and for the unforgettable images the lyrics give us of things like those "Two fat ladies" window shopping and buying a panda for their "sweet little niece", or of "Maid Marion on her tiptoe feet." And the music makes it sound like there might be something dark and dangerous going on behind the chalet, even if the only activity the lyrics will admit to are those mussels getting pulled from their shells. "Another Nail in My Heart", meanwhile, is one of those songs I was talking about that sounds a little inverted, especially in the chorus, where every line has its emphasis on the last word: "And here in the bar/The piano man's found/Another nail for my heart". We can't feel too sorry for the singer, however, as he's merely getting his comeuppance for cheating on his girlfriend.

Two of my favorite songs on the album are both tales of young love. "Vicky Verky" is the fast-paced story of a couple of middle schoolers who fall in love and get split up by their parents. She finds out she's pregnant, he gets sent to reform school, she has to get an abortion, but love triumphs in the end. In the hands of lesser lyricist than Difford it could come off as creepy, but somehow his words and Tilbrook's voice combine to make it kind of charming. Likewise "Separate Beds", a slower song about another young couple who run off together to stay at some kind of beachfront boarding house owned by a Mrs. Smith, is innocent and cute, as they spend their nights together but in separate beds.

There are a number of other worthwhile songs here, too. "If I Didn't Love You" was a moderate hit in the U.S. (especially in the northeast part of the country), and "Farfisa Beat" was also released as a single. And "Wrong Side of the Moon", the only song on the album where the music was written by keyboard player Jools Holland, is frivolous but fun, while "I Think I'm Go-Go" is weird and psychedelic.

The music is carried along throughout the album by Difford and Tilbrook's clean guitar lines, by Tilbrook's somewhat angelic voice, and by Holland's keyboards, which lean more toward traditional piano and organ sounds than they do toward the synthesizers that were popular with so many other '80s bands. 

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that one of the more enjoyable aspects of this album for an American like myself is Chris Difford's use of so many distinctively British words and phrases. The boy in "Vicky Verky" is sent off to borstal because he'd done his mother's meter; the girl in "Separate Beds" is resented by the boy's mother because she wouldn't peel the spuds; the coachdrivers in "Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)" stand about looking at local maps. These little gems proliferate throughout the album, adding flavor to the songs and making the characters and places being sung about feel more realistic.

In short, Argybargy is one of the finest British pop rock albums of the 80's. A full review of it on this music site has been long overdue.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Review of Priory's "Need to Know"

I posted this review yesterday on the Sputnik Music site.

I first caught Priory about two years ago, opening for Halsey and The Kooks. I wasn't impressed with Halsey at all, but I liked these guys right away. I bought this album last year, and it was one of my favorite albums of 2015. Strangely enough, even though I saw them live and played the album repeatedly for a year, it wasn't until last month when I set up a band page for them on the Sputnik Music site and looked up their bio that I realized they weren't British. They seem British somehow. But they're actually a 2-member electropop group from Portland, Oregon made up of Brandon Rush and Kyle Sears, although when they play live shows, they use a full band. Their sound falls somewhere between Twenty One Pilots (minus the hip hop), Passion Pit and Kaiser Chiefs. Need to Know is their second full-length album -- they also released a self-titled album in 2011.

The single from the album, "Weekend", reached #15 in the U.S. on the Billboard Alternative songs chart, and #30 on the Rock chart. It also charted in Australia. It's kind of a slow, slightly dreamy song about how we all come to life on the weekend, safely out from under the thumbs of our day jobs. There's no profound message here, but the song works nicely on its own terms. For me personally, I've got to love a song where the lyrics make casual use of the word "proletariat" (as in "This right here is the deal, proletariat.") And although it's technically outside the scope of reviewing the album, "Weekend" also has a nifty little official video that takes place in a rollerskating rink.

Need to Know is a fairly lean album. There are only 10 tracks here, but in this case, less is more, as all of the songs are pretty good. Most are in the slow-to-mid-tempo range -- this is more of a cerebral band than one that looks to rock out. Several songs are quiet and elegant, such as "Lost Gold", a simple number about a couple running off together to look for better life, and "Mother Mary", a song whose aged and tired protagonist just looks to lay down his burdens and find some peace.

Even a song like "Put 'Em Up", where the singer is willing to fight you if you can't accept that "boys will be boys who like boys who dress like girls, and that's alright" and "girls will be girls who like girls who dress like boys and start a fight", has a fairly leisurely pace. Probably the most upbeat song tempo-wise is "New Thing", where the singer explains that "Kids gonna do what those kids gonna do", so just accept it.

Odds are that if you enjoy bands like Foster the People, Kaiser Chiefs, Passion Pit and The Kooks, you'll enjoy Need to Know.

Rating: 4/5 stars