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