Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Review of The Buggles' "The Age of Plastic"

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

Review Summary: Are they new wave? Are they pop? Are they progressive rock? Who cares when the album is this entertaining.

There are albums that require repeated listens before they grow on you. You give them a chance, you don't give up on them, and eventually they start to make sense to you. Then there are albums that hit you right away. For me, The Age of Plastic by The Buggles fits into this latter category. I can honestly say that from the first listen, it was nothing but pure pleasure.

The Buggles are a British band made up of singer/bass player/guitarist Trevor Horn and keyboardist Geoffrey Downes. In spite of the fact that their entire recorded output consisted of two albums, including this one and their 1981 album Adventures in Modern Recording, they own a little piece of rock music history: their video for the single "Video Killed the Radio Star" was the first video ever played on a little fledgling cable television network called MTV. They're also somewhat known for the fact that in the middle of their career as The Buggles (in between their two albums), the two of them also joined progressive rock icons Yes and were a key part of that band for the 1980 Drama album. And 31 years later, Downes rejoined Yes and Horn played on and produced Yes's 2011 album, Fly From Here.

This leads to the question of exactly who were these Buggles. Were they fish or fowl? Were they a happy new wave pop band in the carefree '80s, or were they, at least in part, a pair of progressive rockers? Well, the answer to both questions, is ... wait for it ... Yes! (I know, I used that line before in my Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe review, but I believe in recycling). Downes has been quoted as saying that he sees The Buggles as equal parts prog rock and pop. My ears have always heard them as pure new wave. In the end, though, I guess the labels don't really matter. What does matter is, is the music good, and is it enjoyable? And this time, the answer is "Hell Yes!"

The Age of Plastic is a futuristic concept album that demonstrates both an embrace of and a fear of technology. The music is fittingly mechanical throughout -- there are lots of drum machines, synthesizers and vocal effects, as well as several ethereal guest-female vocals, all of which give The Age of Plastic a decidedly science fiction feel. In fact, the album seems to have been strongly influenced by the music of Kraftwerk.

The song that most people know is the aforementioned "Video Killed the Radio Star", a somewhat regretful look at the things we lose as technology drives us relentlessly forward. "We can't rewind, we've gone too far," Horn laments, as he remembers a past of radio dramas that was wiped away by the advent of television. His vocals, which sound far away and dry, as if sung through a megaphone, contrast with the warm female vocals on the chorus, as they hammer home the central observation of the song: "Video killed the radio star/Video killed the radio star." Meanwhile, the song is catchy as hell, which is why it reached #1 not only on the British charts, but also in Australia, Austria, Switzerland and Sweden (although it only got as high as #40 in the U.S.).

As good as the single is, though, the sonic treats don't end there. In fact, from the horrifying opening of the album, which features a man screaming in agony as he gets a facelift from what sounds like some kind of power drill at the beginning of "Living in the Plastic Age" to his final dull moans at the end of the unearthly closing track "Johnny on the Monorail", we find way more wheat than chaff throughout the album's short 36-minute-and-24-second duration.

Once you get past those terrifying opening wails, "Living in the Plastic Age" is actually a somewhat humorous number, featuring some of Downes' jauntiest piano, as Horn laments "Living in the plastic age/Looking only half my age/Hello, doctor, lift my face/I wish my skin could stand the pace." This song sets up the central theme for the rest of the album, the idea that the individual's life gets increasingly out of control as science changes the world around us. It's explored in different ways throughout the album, until in the last track "Johnny on the Monorail", we're given the metaphor of life as a monorail that carries us passively along, the starts and stops completely out of our control: "All we cannot see we call invisible/Tracks that move on pylons through the sky." 

The sci-fi sounds continue throughout, never more so than on one of my favorite numbers, "I Love You (Miss Robot)". Even the vocals are mechanized on this one, as our automated protagonist declares "I love you, Miss Robot/Programmed just to please/I love you, Miss Robot/Electronic tease". Downes has proclaimed that this song is actually about impersonal sex, but I always just took it for what it sounds like -- a mechanical love song sung by one robot to another. Another song, "Astroboy (And the Proles on Parade)", is a slower, more laid back track that always made me think of the half-robot, half-human Astro Boy character from the old animated television show. In this one, the song's protagonist sits back and watches the parade of tourists marching through the city in front of him, but finds them to be somewhat machinelike: "Walking down boulevards, electric eyes/Would gaze at the waveforms and gasp at their size".

In spite of the success of "Video Killed the Radio Star", The Age of Plastic is a mostly overlooked album, never reaching higher than #27 on the British charts, and failing to chart in the U.S. at all. Small wonder, then, that given the chance, Horn and Downes jumped at the chance to join Yes, even if that band was undergoing their own struggles at the time (their most recent album, 1978's Tormato, was less successful both commercially and critically than most of their previous albums). This is unfortunate, though, as to my mind, The Age of Plastic is a mostly forgotten gem -- an album that blends catchy pop and experimental (for the time) music with serious themes, and does it in a fun way. Doubtlessly one day in the future, when Skynet becomes self aware and the machines fulfill their destiny by taking over the planet, the genius of this album will finally be recognized, and cyborgs everywhere will fuel a major resurgence in Buggles music. I only wish I could be there to enjoy it.

Ratings: 4/5 stars

Monday, March 27, 2017

"Ghost the Musical" and CD Baby

Took my daughter and her boyfriend to see Ghost the Musical this past Saturday night at The CAP Center ( in Syosset. This was the first production I'd seen in their Syosset facility. I've been to shows in their old Plainview playhouse, and before that in their Bethpage theater. The Syosset playhouse has a stage that looks roughly the same size as the one they had in Plainview, but the seating area is much larger and nicer.

I was looking forward to the play, as it's not a show that's been done very often around these parts. Wouldn't be surprised if this was its first Long Island production, but I can't verify that. In any event, the show didn't disappoint.

Ghost the Musical isn't a perfect vehicle. It's based on the 1990 supernatural romance film starring Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg. The story is about a young couple in love who live together, Sam and Molly. Sam is killed during a robbery attempt, and for the rest of the film, Sam as a ghost tries his best to solve his own murder and to communicate with the grieving Molly through a psychic con woman named Oda Mae, who is more shocked than anyone to discover that she really can communicate with the dead. The musical opened in London and ran for 500 performances. It opened on Broadway in April of 2012, but only ran for 136 performances. Reviews were mediocre, and for good reason -- while it has its moments, it's a flawed show -- the music is so-so, and it drags in parts.

However, with a good cast and decent staging, it can make for a fun night of entertainment. Happily, that's the case at The CAP Center. All four of the leading actors did a very good job -- Danny Amy as Sam and Alyson Rogers were both extremely likable as Sam and Molly, and both showed excellent voices. Taneisha Corbin, was very quite as Oda Mae, and demonstrated an impressive pair of pipes as well. And Corey Martin as Sam's best friend and co-worker Carl, who might be trying to move in on Molly after Sam's demise, was also sterling. As for the rest of the cast, they did a fine job in various roles, and also in moving the necessary scenery onto and off of the tiny stage. My experience with CAP is that they tend to do a lot with a little, and that was the case here as well.

The show runs for one more weekend, this Friday and Saturday, March 31 and April 1 at 8PM, and Sunday afternoon, April 2 at 3PM. You can get tickets at their website, listed above, or at their box office at 516-694-3330. You ought to give it a shot. You'll be haunted if you don't. (OK, that even hurt me to write that.) Their next production, Sister Act, runs from April 7 through April 30.

Meanwhile, I've been picking up some albums by local artists that I somehow missed last year, including Tom Hood's It's My Black & White World and The Bossa Nova Beatniks' For the Fun. Also picked up a Sonny Meadows album I somehow missed before, as well as Tom Hood's previous album (by Tom Hood and the Tropical Sons), Too Much Sun! God bless for letting me catch up on local music. I'll let you know a little more about these CDs when I get a chance to digest them (although it's going to take a little while, as new 2017 music is now my top priority).

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Review of The Good Rats' "Birth Comes to Us All"

I posted this review last night on the Sputnik Music website.

Review Summary: We never saw the end coming.

I always thought that being a Good Rats fan living on Long Island in the mid-to-late '70s must have been a little like being a Who fan living in London in the early '60s. They were both working-class bands with (mostly male) working-class fans, on the way up, and seemingly destined for glory. Tasty (1974), Ratcity in Blue (1976), From Rats to Riches (1978) -- each new Rats release garnered plenty of FM radio airplay (especially in New York), as the Rats shared the stage with (and often headlined over) a host of '70s bands, many of whom later went on to become rock legends. To a Rats fan, at first, Birth Comes to Us All (1979) just seemed like the Rats' next step on the way to world domination. Then, somewhere, it all went wrong.

It's not that Birth Comes to Us All is a bad album. Far from it. I know that many Good Rats fans would disagree with me, but in some ways, I actually like Birth better than Ratcity in Blue. But although it did receive some airplay, it seemed like it got a lot less than the previous three albums. The following year, the Rats released a double live album, Live at Last, that was still pretty popular on the radio. Unfortunately, that was the last gasp. In 1981, guitarist John Gatto and bass player Lenny Kotke left the band. In 1981, the revamped Good Rats released Great American Music to little acclaim and even less publicity (I never even knew they'd released a new album until several years later). They plugged away for a few years, then disbanded in 1983.

So what was the problem with Birth Comes to Us All? Why was it less popular than the previous three albums, and why did it start a downward slide in the band's fortunes? I believe there are several reasons.

For starters, Birth Comes to Us All feels like a less organized album than the others. It's ironic, because actually, it's probably the most thematically unified album The Good Rats ever released -- most of the songs are somehow tied to the idea of the cycle of life. It feels a little disordered, though, mostly to do with the makeup of the songs. While the Rats were always known as a hard-rocking band, the only real songs of that type on Birth are "Cherry River" and "Gino". Most of the others are either slower and quieter, like "You're Still Doing It" and "Birth Comes to Us All", poppier like "School Days", or quirky character-study type songs like "Man on a Fish" and "Ordinary Man". With so few hard rock numbers, the album didn't feel well paced.

The other thing that I think had a big impact on the album's fortune, though, was the choice of which songs received airplay. "School Days" got a decent amount, and in the ensuing years since Birth's release, it probably became the Good Rats song to receive the most radio play other than "Tasty". "Cherry River" got a little airplay also. When the album was first released, however, the song that was pushed the hardest by the radio stations I listened to was "You're Still Doing It". I don't know whose choice this was -- the band's, the label's (and I think the album was actually released by Uncle Rat Music, so the band was the label) or the radio stations', but regardless, I think this was a huge mistake.

When the album was first released (on vinyl, of course, since it was 1979), "You're Still Doing It" was the first song on Side 1, the song that led off the album. It's not a bad song, and in fact, it has one of lead singer/songwriter Peppi Marchello's best vocals. But it's achingly slow for a single, and more to the point, it's a love song. This wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing for the average band, but the fact is, Marchello was never known for his love songs. He wrote lust songs, mostly about being the average Joe with blue balls who has to work up all of his courage just to make a play for a woman, and who usually winds up with egg on his face, and that was something his blue collar fan base could relate to. But a love song? Maybe if "You're Still Doing It" was a love song about that electric feeling teens and twenty-somethings get when they start a brand new love relationship, it would have opened the Rats up to a wider fan base, even if it didn't score big with their usual fans. In 1979, though, Marchello was a married man with four young children, and he wrote about what he knew. So he wrote a love song to his wife about a mature relationship. "You're still doing it," he sang. I go away on the road, and I play music in front of a bunch of people, and it's great, but in the end, I just look forward to coming home to you. It's a beautiful sentiment, but it made for a lousy single -- it didn't appeal to young record buyers, and his usual audience just didn't relate to it. To me, this was the biggest reason Birth Comes to Us All never took off the way its predecessors did. "You're Still Doing It" was just the wrong song to push. And it's worth noting that a few years later when the album was released on CD, the order of the songs was rearranged so that "School Days" is now the first song, while "You're Still Doing It" was placed seventh.

Nevertheless, Birth Comes to Us All still has a lot to recommend it. "School Days" is a humorous look at ... well, school days, with amusing observations like "Kindergarten playing in some sand box/Next five years they slap your hands a lot" and "I'd better stick my hand up/Before the lady calls on me". It's a nostalgic look back at what Marchello seemed to remember as mostly happy times.

As previously mentioned, the two rockiest numbers are "Cherry River" and "Gino". "Cherry River" follows Marchello through an exhausting hike deep into the woods. He stops at a creek for a drink of water, and suddenly this wild woman appears "in a flash" and treats him to the sexual encounter of his life. Did it really happen? Was there something psychotropic in the water? Was it sunstroke? We never find out, as our hero spends the rest of his life futilely trying to find that place again. Real or fantasy, though, it made for a powerful rock song. "Gino", on the other hand, is one of those songs that never made an impression on me until I saw it performed live. This might have been because of the contrast of hearing an adult Gene Marchello singing the Gino part in a powerful rock voice when the revamped Good Rats performed the song in the '90s, as opposed to listening to little 10-year-old Gene Marchello squeaking "No Daddy, it's not for me" on the record. Now when I listen to the recorded version of this song about a hitman father trying to teach his son about the ways of the world ... "You got to step on them before they step on you, my boy!" ... it comes alive for me in an entirely different way.

"Man on a Fish" is the story of an old man whose world has left him behind. "Like the old movie houses that haven't been sold/I was filled with a warmness that's turned into cold". This has one of my favorite verses that Marchello ever wrote, as the crusty main character brags to his young interviewer, "Look at my face boy -- study it close/Look at my eyes and notice my nose/Are you thinking that I must have been quite a man?/Well it's more than you think, I can still break your hand/If it's pity you're giving -- then I'll have me none/If it's warmth you're expecting -- go out in the sun!" He sounds sort of like Popeye's Pappy. "Ordinary Man", meanwhile, is another character study of a man who doesn't seem to have much of a home life, so he gets his feeling of power and importance from being a citizen patrol officer. "Oh yes!" Marchello croons, "He's volunteered now for six tours a week/Guarding the stores while the merchants all sleep/Isn't he something?" The percussion for this one is very military, and the music starts quietly but builds in volume until it's just a little out of control, much like our protagonist.

The closing song on Birth Comes to Us All is the title track, and it's the gem that ties everything together. Starting with a simple pair of slow bass notes that repeat themselves, this song follows the cycle of life in plain but poignant words, through the various stages that human beings all share ... birth, growth, names, ways (habits), hurt and love. Several of Marchello's songs over the years were about the relationship between fathers and sons, and this song contains one of his most regretful observations: "Isn't it a shame/You never took the time to thank the real Santa Claus/And when you found it out/Too old to kiss his mouth." I'd be lying if I didn't admit that this verse has brought a tear to my eye on a few occasions.

Birth Comes to Us All isn't a perfect rock LP. It's nowhere near as consistent as Tasty, and it doesn't have as many classic rock anthems as From Rats to Riches. If you take it for what it is, though, there are enough treats here to make it more than worthwhile. It was certainly strong enough that when it was released, we Good Rats fans never guessed it would be the Rats' last real chance at making it to Olympus with rock gods like Rush, Ozzy or The Who. The album -- and the band -- deserved a better fate. If you believe in rebirth, though, maybe somehow, someday, they'll get it. And as Marchello sings in character as the man on the fish, "And I'll throw out my arm as I reach for the ring/Life's a merry-go-round -- I'll repeat everything!"

Rating: 3/5 stars

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Review of Future Bible Heroes' "Partygoing"

I posted this review on the Sputnik Music website last night:

Review Summary: "I gave you my heart/You showed me the door/I brought you champagne/We danced until 4/Living/Loving/Partygoing."

Stephin Merritt's main band, The Magnetic Fields, has just released their new opus 50 Song Memoir, and while most Merritt fans are still trying to work their way through it, there are already a couple of reviews for it on this site. So this seems like a good time to take a look back at Merritt's previous release, the 2013 Partygoing album by Future Bible Heroes. 

First, regarding the differences between Magnetic Fields and Future Bible Heroes, while the lines are kind of blurry at times, there are a few. The most important one is that while Merritt is the songwriter for both bands, and his friend, manager, percussionist and sometimes vocalist Claudia Gonson is a member of each project, Future Bible Heroes has from its inception been a 3-piece band that also includes electronic instrumentalist (and Merritt's erstwhile lover) Chris Ewen. For me, Ewen, a former member of the 1980s new wave/techno band Figures on a Beach, gives FBH an extra dimension. Wikipedia describes Future Bible Heroes' music as "electronica-based disco", and while this isn't always the case, it's not far off the mark, thanks to Ewen's contributions.

There are other differences between the two bands as well, even if they're not always consistent. For one, Gonson is oftentimes the lead vocalist for FBH, while in The Magnetic Fields, although she takes the occasional lead vocal, Merritt has been the main singer since 1994's The Charm of the Highway Strip. Also, while this isn't true 100% of the time, I'd say that the songs Merritt writes for Magnetic Fields lean towards being a little more personal, while those he writes for Future Bible Heroes are more often character pieces and tend to showcase his funereal sense of humor just a little more frequently.

Partygoing is Future Bible Heroes' third full-length album, and while it's not as strong overall as their 1997 debut Memories of Love (which I consider practically a perfect album), it's more consistent than their previous LP Eternal Youth (2002). Also, although Eternal Youth found Gonson performing all of the lead vocals, Partygoing returns to Memories of Love's successful formula of having Gonson and Merritt trade leads. This is a plus, and it keeps the vocal sound more interesting. Merrit has described the album as being inspired by The B-52s' Party Mix! EP (1981), only in this case, it's "a party album that only just happens to be largely about drunk suicide, aging, death, loss and despair." Party on, Garth! Party on, Wayne.

Like all of Stephin Merritt's various projects, Future Bible Heroes lives or dies on the strength of his songwriting. If you're looking for complicated music that showcases virtuoso instrumentation, this isn't going to be the band for you. Instead, they're all about songs with catchy hooks, clever lyrics that are often funny and sometimes heartbreaking, and vocals that are effective but unusual -- Merritt has a dry and distinctive bass voice, and while I find Gonson's voice kind of pretty, it always sounds as though she has a bit of a cold. Clearly, this isn't a band for the masses, but more of a niche band with a loyal and dedicated following. So the songs it is, then.

There are a total of 13 tracks on Partygoing, and I'd rate about 10 of them as being in the range of decent to very good. The catchiest number is probably the one that gave the album its title, "Living, Loving, Partygoing". It's one of those songs that as soon as you get to know it, it gives you a bit of rush when the familiar opening chords kick in. There's not much here lyrically -- it essentially follows an emotionally masochistic relationship through an endless string of empty parties over the course of a year -- but the hooks would make Hellraiser's Pinhead character smile.

The song that really jumped out at me when I first heard the album was one of those with a Merritt lead vocal, "Keep Your Children in a Coma". According to all available public information, Merritt has no children, and the lyrics to this one indicate that's probably for the best. In this number, he advocates a unique method of protecting your little angels from the evils of the world -- "You can't let them go to school/For fear of bullying little beasts/And you can't send them to church/For fear of priests" -- so the solution is obvious: "Keep your children in a coma through their teens." I've considered it, but I just can't seem to sell my wife on it.

Another of my favorite tracks is a slow, ominous number called "How Very Strange" which harks back to the Magnetic Fields song "Yeah! Oh Yeah!" from their 69 Love Songs album. As in that song, Gonson and Merritt act out a horrifying relationship call and response style, as she wonders aloud how she ever got involved with him in the first place, and he explains to us it had a lot to do with psychopharmacology: She: "How strange that when you left I missed you"; He: "I put a little heroin..."; She: "I can't think why, I can't think how"; He: " everything you took in." At least in this case, unlike in the Magnetic Fields' track, her character is still alive in the end.

Some of the songs here are amusing but poignant, such as the ode to double suicide "Let's Go to Sleep (And Never Come Back)"; others are about a devotion of a different kind, like "Satan, Your Way Is a Hard One." There's a famous story that when Bob Mould of Husker Du was told that a particular reviewer had labeled him "the most depressed man in rock," Mould's response was "He's never met Stephin Merritt, obviously." So it makes sense that this is Merritt's idea of a party.

I've insisted for years, and I continue to maintain, that while Magnetic Fields is considered to be Stephin Merritt's main band, Future Bible Heroes is actually a superior project. The combination of Ewen's strange little electronic contributions and Gonson's more frequent vocals make FBH just a little lighter and a little more enjoyable. I've got my 5-Disc copy of The Magnetic Fields' 50 Song Memoir on order, and like most Merritt fans, I'll be wading into it and hoping to find him at his best. I'll be pleasantly surprised, however, if it gives me anywhere near as much enjoyment as Partygoing has provided me. So if the thought of plodding your way through a 50-song musical heroic poem makes you contemplate just how smoothly your razor would slice through your jugular vein, I'd suggest that maybe you give this album another look instead. And while you're at it, party on!

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Review of Amanda Jayne's "Strike a Match"

I posted this review two days ago on the Sputnik Music website:

Review Summary: If you like strong female acoustic artists who sing about love and loss, this could be an album for you.

Amanda Jayne is a young acoustic artist from Long Island, NY, who I first became aware of in the most random of ways -- a friend of hers was running for my local school board, and when I checked out his Facebook page to see the platform he was running on, I found a link to her page. Before long, I had picked up her CD, and I'm really glad I did. Strike a Match is Ms. Jayne's first full album, although it's actually about halfway between being an EP and an actual LP -- there are 9 tracks here, and only one of them is longer than 3 minutes. But they say that good things come in small packages, and at least in this case, that's true.

The instrumentation on Strike a Match is fairly minimal. It's mostly just Jayne and her guitar, with a sprinkling of light keyboards and sparse percussion -- this is truly a DIY project. Naturally, this puts most of the focus on two things: Jayne's voice, and her songwriting. Fortunately for her, this works to her advantage -- her voice is both engaging and distinctive, and while there's still some room for her to grow in the songwriting area, her songs are both catchy and clever. True, she's definitely operating in the realm of what my daughter derisively dismisses as "another chick singing about her feelings" (as in, "Ugh! Are you listening to another chick singing about her feelings?" followed by a disparaging shake of the head). But while this is an accurate description, you could say the same thing about Joni Mitchell, Aimee Mann, Tori Amos or Ingrid Michaelson, to name a few, so I'd say that Ms. Jayne is in some pretty good company.

The standout track by far is the album's first number, titled "One". This is an earnest and hopeful song about a new love relationship. The song's protagonist wonders aloud if this is the person who will win her heart, someone she can trust enough to lower her defenses: "Could you be the one, could you be the one/That gets under my skin/Could you be the one, could you be the one/That I finally let in?" The universality of the question makes it easy to relate to -- probably everyone who has ever begun a relationship, male or female, gay or straight, has asked themselves this question at one time or another. The singer's honesty in this moment of vulnerability combines here with an alluring vocal and a nice musical hook to make this a first-rate song. And even though I'm supposed to be reviewing the album here, I'd be remiss if I didn't recommend the video for "One", which takes a strong song and turns it on its head, replacing the sincerity with humor. In it, Jayne and her potential soulmate are seated at a table in a restaurant. Jayne sings her song of hope while wearing a blindfold, so she's unable to see her boorish date ignoring her while he's checking his cell phone, ogling the waitress, stealing food off of her plate, and roofying her wine. Luckily for her, the moron gets distracted while trying to grope the waitress's butt and accidentally drinks the drugged wine himself, dropping to the floor unconscious as the song ends. If you ever needed proof that you don't need a huge budget to make a funny, memorable video, it's right here.

While the rest of the album doesn't quite measure up to the high bar set by "One", it gives it a pretty good shot. "Playing Dumb" finds Jayne wondering if she needs to pretend to be stupid and giggly in order to win over the object of her affection, although she's also "playing dumb for a different meaning", in this case "dumb" as in speechless. "Crazy Bitch", on the other hand, finds her playing the stalker girl -- "This feeling's unrequited/But I refuse to be quiet/I won't be happy 'til I get the last word/Then silence". By the chorus, she's realizing "Maybe I'm the crazy bitch/In this relationship/Maybe I should start to think/About a therapist." You can just tell here it's only a matter of time before she's cutting up his clothes and boiling his bunny. Lastly, "Phone Call" begins as a slow, stark song, as Jayne holds an awkward phone conversation with her ex, congratulating him on his new relationship and repeatedly asking him "Are you happy/'Cause I am?". Finally, she can't take it anymore and cries out "Not!", at which point the guitar bursts loose and the song speeds up while she tells him how she really feels.

As I said at the outset, Jayne is still a very young artist, young enough that her website describes her as looking forward to graduating college in 2018. This means she's definitely got time to grow if music becomes her chosen profession. However, Strike a Match tells me she's got scary potential. As it was, this album made my Top Ten Local Albums list for 2016, and "One" made my Top 20 Songs list overall, not just for local artists. So something tells me that she's just getting started. If you like strong female acoustic artists who sing about what she describes as "love and loss", this is an album that's worth a listen.

Rating: 3/5 stars

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Review of Dia's "Bruises"

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

Review Summary: Dia has released a strong LP of dreamy, ethereal pop, in what might be a make-or-break album for her career.

For a relatively young woman, Dia Frampton (or simply Dia, as she now seems to be calling herself) has had an interesting musical career. At the age of 17, she and her older sister formed Meg & Dia, an indie-pop unit that garnered some buzz and some critical success over the course of four full-length studio albums and a number of EPs. In 2011, she became a contestant on the initial season of NBC's reality talent competition show The Voice, where she was selected by country singer Blake Shelton to join his team. She eventually wound up finishing second overall in that contest. Later that year, she released her first solo album, Red, which shot to the top spot on Billboard's Heat Seekers chart, and also hit #106 on the Billboard Top 200 chart. The next year, her sister Meg officially left the band, so Dia eventually formed a new band, Archis. (I know they liked to stylize the name as ARCHIS, but I don't do all caps). They put out a pretty decent self-titled EP in 2015 that nobody seems to have listened to (it has all of three ratings on this website, and one of those is mine). So now it's 2017, and Dia has just released her second solo album, Bruises, and the way the music industry works, this might be a make-or-break album for her career. Personally, I'm hoping for "make".

Dia has always had a pretty voice, very smooth, and abundantly easy on the ears. She also has one of those eternally young-sounding voices. I was surprised to learn that she actually turns 30 later this year, as she has that permanent teen-pop sound -- if she was an actress instead of a singer, she'd be one of those who'd constantly be playing the role of the smart high-school good girl who successfully escapes the masked pyschopath and gets to live at the end of the movie. One of the pleasant surprises about Bruises, though, is that here, she's doing some different things than she did in the past.

The first track on the album, "Hope", signals a slight change of direction right from the get-go. It's a slow, celestial song that gradually builds in volume, as Dia wordlessly vocalizes to orchestral music. It almost sounds like the intro to the grande finale of a Celtic Woman concert. The feeling here is triumphant, and, yes, "Hope"ful, which sets the mood for the rest of the LP. Don't get me wrong, we're still traveling in the realm of pop throughout Bruises. But compared to the music she's released in the past in her various manifestations, this album is a little more ethereal -- it's softer, quieter, and definitely less inclined towards sugar-pop.

"Golden Years" was the first single released from the album, but it didn't chart at all, and it's not even close to being the best song here. I much prefer "Gold and Silver", another slow, dreamy song that seems to be partly about her youth, and partly about her time making music with Meg. "We'll stay young forever," her sister promises, "We're gold and we're silver/So light." The song manages to convey the sadness the singer feels that those days have passed, while simultaneously celebrating that the experiences ever happened in the first place.

Another strong track is the simple love song "Crave". It's not the first song to compare love to an addiction, but it's catchy, and I like the way she raises her voice an octave midway through the chorus. Weirdly enough, it's one of two songs on the LP (the other is "Dead Man") that reminds me in places of some of the songs on last year's Andy Black album, The Shadow Side, which I also enjoyed a great deal. (It's especially weird since Black's album focused mostly on the darker emotions, while Dia's is wistful in places, but mostly upbeat).

Frampton is backed on Bruises by the gentle sounds of the Hungarian Studio Orchestra, which provides mostly soft string sounds and understated piano music, helping to give the album its delicate atmosphere. As for her singing, it remains consistently agreeable throughout.

As I said earlier, if Dia was a film actress, she'd be the clever, likable horror film girl who ends up surviving everything the killer can throw at her, and we, the audience, would be rooting for her throughout. The music industry can be even more vicious than a celluloid serial killer, and it has a much higher body count. But I think Bruises is a worthwhile pop album, so I'm rooting for her here just like I would be in the movie.

Rating:3.5/5 stars

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Review of Minutemen's "Project: Mersh"

I posted this review earlier this morning on the Sputnik Music Website. I wrote it as part of a special project where 30 or 40 of us each picked an album that we wanted to see reviewed that didn't previously have one on the site, and then everyone was given someone else's pick at random to review.

Review Summary: I don't know that this album interested me enough to go out and explore the rest of Minutemen's catalog, but I definitely liked the EP enough to keep it on my iPod.

Minutemen are considered one of the more historically important punk bands in U.S. history. So imagine my surprise on first listen when the music turned out to be nothing like what I expected. Instead of three-chord minimalism a la The Ramones, I found some cleanly strummed funky guitar and trumpet to go with the fast drums and unadorned vocals.

For the uninitiated, Minutemen were a 3-piece outfit from San Pedro, California, active through the early to mid-'80s. The band consisted of D. Boon on guitar and vocals, Mike Watts on bass and vocals, and George Hurley on drums. Their career was cut short by the death of D. Boon in a van accident on December 22, 1985.

I listened to some of their earlier material in order to have some context for this review, and from what I heard, it sounds as though the band was much more stereotypically punk in their early days, favoring shorter, louder and less structured songs, but that for them, punk was more an attitude than a set of musical boundaries. Consequently, later in their existence, their music evolved to include elements of funk, jazz, psychedelic rock and R&B, and they are even credited as a band that was influential in the inception of alternative rock. They also came to occasionally add other instruments to the basic guitar-bass-drum mix, such as piano, trumpet, and on this album, even a synthesizer. 

Project: Mersh is a 6-song EP that was the immediate followup to the album considered to be the band's masterpiece, Double Nickels on the Dime. The joke here is that this album is supposedly their nod towards a more commercial (or "mersh") sound. The cover features a painting by D. Boon of three somewhat disreputable-looking record company executives having an "Aha!" moment as to which direction they should push Minutemen into for their next record. "I got it!," one of them exclaims. "We'll have them write hit songs."

Having listened to Double Nickels, I can tell you that any move in the direction of commercialism from that album to this one is marginal at best. The songs here might be a little more conventionally structured, and the production slightly more polished, but pop music this isn't. As Watts joked in later years, their "commercial" album (Project: Mersh) only sold about half as many copies as their "art" album (Double Nickels).

My favorite song on this EP is a track penned by Watts called "Take Our Test". It has the best vocal on the album, and some really nifty strummed guitar with simple-but-effective solos. "King of the Hill" and "The Cheerleaders" are both anti-war songs written by D. Boon. "King of the Hill" is the faster of the two, and to my mind, the more interesting. It's another song with some tasteful guitar work and some particularly impressive drumming by Hurley. It harks back to 1960s psychedelic biker music. "The Cheerleaders" is slower, and while there's some nice trumpet work here by guest musician Crane (a.k.a. Richard Alan Krieger), the vocal is more strident. "Tour Spiel" is also a decent song. Another Watts number, it's a somewhat humorous look at the life of the touring musician.

There's also a cover of Steppenwolf's "Hey Lawdy Mama" (for a punk band, Minutemen seems to have an unusual fondness for '60s bands like Steppenwolf and Creedence Clearwater Revival), and a number immediately following "Tour Spiel" called "More Spiel", which just repeats the last line of "Tour Spiel" again and again while the band noodles around instrumentally until the whole song deconstructs itself.

Although I'd heard of Minutemen before, listening to this EP, as well as some of their earlier music, helped me to understand where some later artists that I am familiar with such as New York bands Squirrels From Hell and MediaCrime got their inspiration from. 

On the whole, I liked this album more than not. I don't know that it interested me enough to run out and explore the rest of their catalog, but I'm more than happy to keep Project: Mersh on my iPod.

Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Looking Forward

It's been a while since I just posted a regular post and not an album review, show review or best of list.

I turn 60 this week, and I'm in a pretty good place with it. Last year at this time, my health was terrible, I was depressed, and I was just feeling no enthusiasm for music. This year, I'm in a whole different place. My weight is down, my blood sugar is down, and I'm feeling 100% better. I'm not only listening to and enjoying music, I'm writing about it, almost compulsively, and I feel like it's some of the best critical writing I've ever done. And while last year, I didn't go out for any live music until three quarters of the year was over, this year, I've already been to my first live show, I've got tickets for three others, and I'm planning to buy tickets for another one plus a musical theater presentation at a local theater before the end of the weekend. And while the hours are still pretty sparse at my old job (even now, in what is usually our busy season, it's the slowest busy season I've ever seen), I've started working for the adoption agency we worked with to adopt our children, and it's some of the most fulfilling work I've ever done. So life is good.

I've got my first batch of music for the new year out in my car this week, and that's always exciting. (The artists are Japandroids, Julia Byrne and Dot Hacker, if you're interested). And there are some interesting releases coming up. I've already got the new Eisley CD, a band I really love, and they'll be going into my car in the next batch. The new Magnetic Fields 5-CD set comes out next week, and while it sounds a little overwhelming, hell, I'm game. There's a new Blondie CD coming out in a few months, a new Aimee Mann album coming out at the end of March, and in April, Procol Harum, of all people, will be releasing their first new studio album in 14 years.

On the local (or formerly local) front, I know that Jeremy Gilchrist is working on a new album he hopes to release before the end of the year. And He Bird, She Bird, a project that includes another old friend Todd Evans, is working on one as well. And I'm sure there will be some other surprises this year also.

Last year saw a number of fine albums by local artists, including Rorie Kelly, Roger Siverberg, Hitman Blues Band, White Spider, Lex Grey and the Urban Pioneers, Night Verses, Toby Walker, Amanda Jayne and Miles to Dayton, and those are just the ones I know of. So you can bet that 2017 will be exciting year too.

I plan to enjoy 60. I'm going to listen to a lot of music, write a lot of reviews, and start raking in those senior citizen discounts. (Had my first one last week. Saved a sweet $2.50 at IHOP on breakfast for my son and I). So keep reading to see how it turns out.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Review of Antigone Rising's "Whiskey & Wine Vol. II"

I posted this review on the Sputnik Music website earlier this morning.

Review Summary: "It's a drive up a hill it's a drink on a porch/It's the colors and shapes of old victorian doors/It takes a village and what's mine is yours/And we don't need reminding/Not in my town"

Doubtlessly many Sputnik Music readers have never heard of this group. That's unfortunate, as Antigone Rising is a talented band with powerful vocal harmonies, strong songwriting skills and a following that has been built through many years of hard work and constant touring. The core of the band has always been two sisters from Long Island, NY, Cathy and Kristen Henderson. They first achieved renown in 1998 when they won a contest run by Levi's Jeans to earn a spot on the stage of Sarah McLachlan's Lilith Fair. In 2005, they became the first artists to be promoted in Starbuck's Hear Music Series, selling 450,000 copies of a live album, From the Ground Up, that was exclusively sold in Starbucks stores across the country. The band has a particularly strong following among the LGBT community (and Kristen Henderson has penned a very successful memoir about her marriage to her partner, Sarah Kate Ellis-Henderson, entitled Times Two, Two Women in Love and the Happy Family They Made), and also a strong country music following (with a number of successful videos that have aired on CMT). In their current lineup, their music has evolved to a point where I'd describe them as sounding like an all-female version of The Eagles.

The band has had a number of different lead singers over the years, but with no disrespect meant towards any of their previous vocalists, I'd have to say that their current one, Nini Camps, is the strongest they've ever had. Her voice is not only powerful, but also extremely pleasing. Her first studio album with the band was the excellent 2011 LP 23 Red, followed by the Whiskey & Wine Vol. I EP in 2014. Whiskey & Wine Vol. 2, their most recent recording, was released in 2015.

There are five songs on the EP, and while three of them are in the decent-to-good range, the other two are sublime. "Weed & Wine" is an inoffensive number (unless you're offended by weed, drinking or backseat hanky-panky), but it's a fairly mundane "let's get high and fool around" kind of song, and for me, it's the least interesting song on the album. "Game Changer", the EP's first number, is better. It's based on the true story of a Texas high school girl who successfully fought her school for the right to have her senior "superlative" photo taken showing her holding up a copy of an issue of Time magazine that featured a cover of Kristen Henderson and Sarah Kate Ellis-Henderson in their fight against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). It's a gung-ho song, praising the teen as a "game changer" because she was willing to fight for what she believed in. Finally, "I See You", the best song among the first three tracks of Whiskey & Wine Vol. II, is a basic love song that Camps and Kristen Henderson co-wrote with Kristen Hall, one of the founding members of the hugely popular country music band Sugarland.

Now we come to the two songs that take this EP to a whole different level. "Last Time", the last song on the album, is a powerful country-style breakup song. It's essentially a reaction by the song's protagonist to an argument she's just had with her lover. It seems that her significant other was just caught (and not for the first time) checking out another women, and when confronted about it, compounded her offense by brushing the accusation off, turning her back and just walking away. And this woman (the singer) is pissed about it. Country music, and music in general, is awash with songs where someone threatens to leave their lover, but you just know they're going to wimp out and come crawling back. That's not the case here. "Take a good look, look at my face" she practically spits, "Cause this will be the last time/You ever walk away". The song is as potent an ode to regaining one's self respect by ending a poisonous relationship as I've ever heard, and on most albums, this would be the best song. But not here. Because it gets better.

I don't consider myself an overly sentimental person. Cloying movies like The Sound of Music send me running for the bathroom clutching my stomach, and I generally don't do wholesome. But sometimes, if something is sincere, simple, and doesn't overdo it, it can touch even this sheet metal heart. Such is the case with "My Town", my #1 song of the year for 2015. It's a cycle-of-life song co-written by Camps, Kristen Henderson and popular country songwriter and folk singer Lori McKenna. "My Town" is portrayed on the AR website as having been inspired by the town and people where Camps and Henderson currently live, which they describe as "a community coming together in the face of adversity". And it's heart-achingly beautiful.

The song paints the picture of a beach town winding down after the summer, as the "days are getting shorter". There's a pretty little church, and down the block, a honky-tonk bar with a jukebox playing, because, as the singer discloses, "there's something here for saints, and for sinners like me". The song is quiet and straightforward, carried mostly by the vocals and some appealing acoustic guitar. The singer explains to us that "it's not just the memories of those that I've known/Or the ghosts of the lovers I've had" that always bring her back. There's a community here, and a sense of people helping one another. "In my town/We give second chances/We're hopeless romantics like that." By the last verse, the warm weather is coming again, the beach sign has a fresh coat of paint, and once again "days are getting longer". There's nothing fancy about the song; it's not showy or lushly orchestrated. It's just plainspoken and genuine. If ever there was an example of how less can be more, this song is it.

Antigone Rising doesn't tour as much as they used to, but you can still catch them live from time to time, especially on the East Coast of the United States. If you have any fondness for music in the folk/country rock vein, I'd suggest you give them a listen. Whiskey & Wine Vol. II would be a fine place to start.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars