Saturday, April 29, 2017

Review of Procol Harum's "Novum"

I (sadly) posted this review on the Sputnik Music Website earlier tonight. Wish I liked the album better.

Review Summary: The second half of the 2010's is where the great bands of the '60s and '70s go to die.

For fans of the great bands of the '60s and '70s, these are sad times. Our heroes are dying out. Many of them are literally dying, from old age and/or questionable lifestyle choices. Some are no longer able to sing or play their instruments capably. And for the bands still able to produce marketable music, most are a shadow of their former selves. Just earlier today, I read some good things about the new Deep Purple album, and that's great. But these days, for fans of the musical giants of the last century, we receive each new album with a mixture of excitement and dread; we hope that our former idols still have something left in the tank, but we fear that they'll embarrass themselves. And each release is bittersweet -- it could mark their last goodbye.

If I'm being honest, the last true Procol Harum studio album was their 1977 release, Something Magic. It was mediocre at best, but it was legitimate Procol Harum. The Procol I loved was a band that put epic fantasy to music. Wizards and swordplay, and strangers in space, this was the meat of Procol Harum. Although they had some amazing and creative musicians over the years like guitarist Robin Trower and organist Matthew Fisher, the two indispensable band members who made Procol Harum Procol Harum were songwriter/vocalist/pianist Gary Brooker and lyricist Keith Reid. Brooker provided the band's distinctive sound, while Reid brought the poetry. There really wasn't another band like them, and when they broke up in 1977, it was the end of an era.

The band has re-formed for several albums since then, including 1991's The Prodigal Stranger and 2003's The Well's on Fire, but while both Brooker and Reid were present for those albums, as was Fisher (and Trower was also back for Prodigal Stranger), they weren't really Procol Harum albums. The sound was different, and more importantly, the lyrics were mundane. Gone were most of the tall tails of gods, salty dogs and winged horses that gave the band their unique flavor, replaced with commonplace songs about aging and social issues. Don't get me wrong, both of these albums had some fine moments. But although I didn't want to admit it at the time, they weren't really Procol Harum. So now we have Novum

The most important thing you need to know about Novum is this: Brooker is the last man standing. Gone is Keith Reid, replaced as a lyricist by Pete Brown, best known for his collaborations with Cream and Jack Bruce. Fisher and Trower are also long gone. True, most of the other musicians on the album have been official members of the band for years -- just not the classic years. The lyrics here are once again about more earthbound topics than those of the vintage Procol Harum -- stories of businessmen and adulterous lovers have replaced those of reanimated corpses and conquistadors. As for the music, it's a pretty basic R&B style of rock, occasionally softened by Brooker's piano. This has always been a part of Procol's sound -- just not the best part. If you're a long-time Procol fan, think more along the lines of "Wish Me Well" and "Butterfly Boys" than "In Held 'Twas in Eye" or "Whaling Stories". There are also a variety of other elements mixed in here, including things that sound like Jim Morrison and the Doors, Steely Dan, Sting (instrumentally, not vocally), and even Johann Pachelbel. It's a bit of a hodgepodge.

I've got to be truthful here -- the first four or five listens, I couldn't hear anything memorable at all about Novum. The pluses of the LP are these: Brooker is still in amazingly good voice for a man of 72; and the band is definitely proficient -- there's nothing lacking in terms of musicianship. The problem is that most of the songs themselves are only average. Initially, I would have even said they were uninspired, although I now believe that's unfair -- Brooker is clearly inspired by them. I'm the one who isn't. I was hoping for a true Procol Harum album, and this just isn't it.

I will say, however, that when I listened to Novum on its own terms, there's more there than I initially heard. As a Procol Harum album, it rates no better than 1-1/2 to 2 stars. But as just an album (or as a Gary Brooker solo album, if you like), I'd give it a solid 2-1/2 stars. You might even add an extra 1/2 star if you're more of a fan of R&B than I am. 

The two tracks I came to like the best are a lighthearted keeping-up-with-the-Joneses song called "Neighbor" (which features some whimsical accordion), and a more serious number sung from the viewpoint of God called "The Only One". The music on some of the more topical songs like "Soldier" or "Businessman" is pretty good. It's just the lyrics that are a little paint-by-number. The album closes on a poignant note with a track highlighted by Brooker's wistful piano called "Somewhen".

Odds are this will be Procol Harum's last album. Maybe that's for the best. I guess that Novum adds a little extra luster to their legacy, although it's not even in the same stratosphere as albums like Shine on Brightly or A Salty Dog. Clearly, though, the second half of the 2010's is where the musical giants of yesteryear go to die. One can only wish there's some truth to lyrics of Novum's closing song: "And when we're gone/We'll meet again/Some way, somehow, somewhen."

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Review of Dexys Midnight Runners' "Too-Rye-Ay"

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

Review Summary: This album is a mostly-forgotten classic that blends Celtic rhythms and lyrics with tasty soul and R&B sounds.

When most people bother to think of Dexys Midnight Runners at all, it's usually as one of those one-hit-wonder '80s bands. There's more to it than that, though. The truth is that in a musical era known more for its singles than its LPs, Dexys' Too-Rye-Ay is actually one of the stronger albums of that decade, as well as one of the more atypical ones. An English band that mixed Celtic phrases and rhythms with soul and R&B influences, Dexys Midnight Runners eschewed the synth-pop style so fashionable in the '80s. In the process, they not only scored a huge international hit single with "Come on Eileen", they also created a unique and powerful LP.

Following their moderately successful debut album, 1980's Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, co-founder Kevin "Al" Archer and several other band members quit the Dexys, leaving lead singer/multi-instrumentalist Kevin Rowland and trombonist Jim Patterson (who sometimes referred to themselves as the "Celtic Soul Brothers") to remake the band. The new band ended up at 11 members strong, and included a pair of violinists (the idea of which had been one of the key bones of contention that caused some of the previous band members to bolt). Dexys then left EMI for Mercury Records, and released the first single for their new label, "The Celtic Soul Brothers", which only got as high as #45 on the British charts. However, their second Mercury single, "Come on Eileen", propelled them to stardom.

It's hard to overstate just how big a hit "Eileen" was. A playful seduction song wherein the saucy protagonist tries to convince the object of his affection to come back to his place and "take off everything", the song reached #1 in the charts in the UK, and the U.S., as well as in Ireland, Canada and a number of other countries. With its pronounced Celtic fiddling and a chorus that included the lyrics "Too-ra-loo-ra, too-ra-loo-rye, aye" (which hearkened back to a 1913 Irish-American song later made popular by Bing Crosby in the film Going My Way), "Eileen" was something of a novelty number that became even more popular thanks to having its video placed in constant rotation on MTV. It became a mega-hit, and deservedly so. Even now, 35 years later, it's instantly recognizable to most music fans, and in fact it's currently being featured prominently in a commercial for the new season of the American television series Preacher.

What most music fans probably don't know, though, is how substantial the rest of the album is. The original release of Too-Rye-Ay featured ten songs total (including "Eileen" and "Celtic Soul Brothers"), and although subsequent versions of the LP have included a variety of bonus tracks, those original 10 songs were more than enough to create an exceptional album. There are high-energy numbers ("Celtic Soul Brothers", "Let's Make This Precious", and "Plan B") and slower numbers ("Old" and "All and All (This One Last Wild Waltz)"). There's even a cover of the Van Morrison classic "Jackie Wilson Said (I'm in Heaven When You Smile)". The music includes some smoking hot brass pieces and some poignant string and piano sections. Rowland's voice is a little wild and high-pitched, and it does have a somewhat whiny quality to it. He's supported by a trio of backup singers who tend to ground him a little, though, and to his credit, he's got a certain charisma -- he knows how to use what he has effectively. His vocal sound won't satisfy everyone, but it works well with this material. Also, the band is so tight and proficient that it gives him room to be a little looser.

In its own time, Too-Rye-Ay was a fairly successful album, reaching #2 and eventually going Platinum in the UK, as well as hitting #14 in the U.S. Nowadays, with the exception of "Come on Eileen", it's a mostly forgotten classic. This is lamentable. As unfashionable as its blend of blue-eyed soul and Irish phrases and melodies might be these days (much as they were in the '80s when the album was first released), there's an integrity to the music that deserves to be heard. If you listen carefully, you can even hear Kevin Rowland himself inviting you: "Won't you join me in this one last wild waltz?"

Rating: 4/5 stars

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Review of Said the Whale's "As Long as Your Eyes Are Wide"

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

Review Summary: If you liked the 2013 version of Said the Whale ... well, I have no idea if you'll like this album.

I've been writing a lot of album reviews for this site over the last 6 months or so, and I have to admit, sometimes I think about what I'm going to write way in advance. This usually isn't a problem, because most of the reviews I've written are of albums I've been familiar with for years -- I've had a long time to figure out what I think of them. Lately, though, I've been reviewing more new stuff, and that's when thinking ahead can get you in trouble. In this case, I knew probably two months ago that a new Said the Whale album was coming out, and I guessed that it was a pretty safe LP to review -- the likelihood was no one else on Sputnik was going to review it if I didn't. So I started getting ideas about what I might write even before the album was released. In this case, most of my ideas were centered around the word "pop". Because that's what I was expecting. Popping poppy popped up mother-popping pop. Sentences came into my head full-blown, such as "Imagine if Kellogg's fired Snap and Crackle from the Rice Krispies box, and hired two of Pop's brother's, so it would be 'Pop, Pop and Pop.' This album is kind of like that." That's what I was expecting to write. Because that's what would have fit their last album. Then I saw some promotional material from the band about how the new album was so much more than empty, banal pop songs, and I knew it was back to the proverbial drawing board.

The truth is, in spite of the anti-pop promos, on my first listen to As Long as Your Eyes Are Wide, I was stunned. I'm only familiar with this band from their 2013 EP I Love You and their full-length follow-up LP later that year, Hawaii, and this album doesn't even sound like it was made by the same band. It's not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. I liked I Love You and Hawaii, and I also like ALAYEAW, but in entirely different ways. I Love You and Hawaii are for me the essence of what I'd call alternapop. They're fun, they're energetic and they have some great pop hooks. The songs are full of youthful exuberance (even though I know this band has been around for awhile), and while they're not the deepest things I ever heard, they're not totally empty calories either. The subject matter of the songs ranges from male-female friendships ("Barbara-Ann") to reacting to your Dad telling you that you a have a brother and sister you never knew about ("I Love You") to trying out your adult wings for the first time, and trying to keep it from your mother that you're kind of screwing up ("Don't Tell My Mother").

As I said earlier, though, As Long as Your Eyes Are Wide sounds as though it was recorded by an entirely different band. I researched whether there were major changes in personnel, but while they did lose their drummer early this year, that really doesn't account for the change. (They also lost their bass player in 2016, but I think he recorded at least part of the album with them before he left. I can't tell for sure, though, because whoever the genius was that designed the album art thought it would be a great idea to set all of the credits on the CD's inner fold in white type on a mostly light gray background, so the only words you can actually read are the ones that run across lead singer Ben Worcester's black shirt. Way to go, Einstein!).

In any event, after multiple listens, I think I may have figured it out. The clues are the actual changes to the style of music itself, plus a song called "Miscarriage". The difference between the music on ALAYEAW and their earlier material is that the songs here are slower, a little more somber, and built around more mature themes than is their output from 2013. And "Miscarriage", which is the slowest track on the new album, tells a story of grief. The song's protagonist is singing directly to his lover, and remembering the previous Thanksgiving with her. The story seems to be that she was pregnant with his child but lost the baby. The song talks about how they put on a "brave face" and didn't tell his family right away so as not to spoil the holiday, and how happy his mother seemed at the thought he was going to be a father. So my theory is that the change between 2013 and 2017 is simply this -- as it will do sometimes, life has just slapped the perkiness right out of these guys.

Don't get me wrong -- this isn't a depressing album. While the songs are mostly slow or mid-tempo, and laced with some beautiful synth work and nicely harmonized vocals, it's not all gloom and doom here. Even "Miscarriage" isn't completely sad. Yes, there's grief, but it seems to be healthy grief, not bitter or despairing. In the song, the singer is trying to comfort his lover, reassuring her he still loves her no matter what, and that they'll get through this. So the difference between this album and Hawaii is the replacement of that manic, effervescent energy that ran through that album with a newfound refinement and maturity. In the end, we are still dealing with a form of pop on As Long as Your Eyes Are Wide, but it's pop of a more sophisticated kind. Or to put it another way, stylistically, it's less young Blink-182 and more Vinyl Theatre or Miike Snow. There are fewer driving guitars here, and more keyboards, electronic effects and even synthetic string sounds.

The first single from ALAYEAW is particularly fetching, and seems to reinforce my theory. Fittingly, it's called "Step Into the Darkness". On this track, the singer hears his lady love singing a song about "Live long for the sweet light." He starts to sing with her, but it feels wrong, "Singing that song when the darkness feels so right." 

Other lines of interest throughout the album include "Nostalgia .../Heaven must be made of it" in a song called "Heaven", and "Even though we are born innocent/It doesn't take too much to *** it up" in "I Will Follow You". "Emily Rose" is another song about loss. On this track, the singer laments "Sometimes good things don't last long enough". Nevertheless, he lives in hope: "I'm gonna leave a light on/For Emily Rose/I'm gonna leave a light on/In case you come home." As for "Miscarriage", whether the story it tells is literally true or not (and I suspect that it is ... the emotions feel pretty genuine), it fits right in with the theme of the loss of innocence and the embrace of darker emotions that permeate the rest of the album. 

I don't know what the future holds for Said the Whale. Maybe they'll continue to explore these pitchy soundscapes, maybe not. All I can tell you is, if you liked the 2013 version of Said the Whale ... well, I have no idea if you'll like As Long as Your Eyes Are Wide. I like them both, but you should go in knowing that Said the Whale 2013 and Said the Whale 2017 are two very different mammals.

Rating: 3/5 stars

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Review of Aimee Mann's "Mental Illness"

The way the Sputnik Music website works, anyone can write a review, but they only choose a few reviews of new albums to make their featured reviews, the reviews they highlight at the top of their web page. Because I mostly review older albums, I haven't asked to have a review featured there before. But because this album just came out within the last few weeks, and because I liked the way this one came out, I requested the moderators to consider featuring this review, and they were nice enough to agree. So this is my first-ever featured review on their website:

Review Summary: If Joni Mitchell somehow made a bouquet of her folk legacy, and tossed it over her shoulder to a row of her would-be successors, Mann wouldn't be the tallest or the fastest competitor in the crowd. But she's the one who'd make the catch.

Aimee Mann is known by most music fans for two things. The first is as the lead singer of the '80s band 'Til Tuesday, where her feathered, platinum blonde hairstyle graced the screens of MTV video fans practically 24/7 with her band's best-known song, "Voices Carry". The second, known by fewer fans than the first, is as the solo artist who contributed 9 strong songs to the soundtrack of the beloved chick flick Magnolia. Mann, however, has actually carved a solid career for herself beyond 'Til Tuesday and Magnolia, as perhaps the premier progeny of the great folk singers of the '60s and '70s such as Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez. She's not political like Joan, and she doesn't do the vocal acrobatics of Joni. What she offers instead is a rich, refined singing voice and songwriting skills that combine unexpected chord progressions with understated but intense lyrics.

Mental Illness is Mann's ninth studio solo album, or her tenth if you count the Magnolia soundtrack album, which I do. It differs from her two most recent projects, her 2012 solo album Charmer and the 2014 self-titled LP by her two-person band (with Ted Leo) The Both, in that both of those are brighter sounding projects. In contrast, Mental Illness is quieter, more stark, described by Mann herself as the "saddest, slowest and most acoustic" album she's ever released. Oh, and one other thing -- it's beautiful.

There are 11 songs on the album, and they tell 11 sad stories, painted mostly with acoustic guitar, piano, strings and Mann's own expressive voice. The topics vary from homesickness to empty love relationships to poor life choices. There's even a song about the actor Andrew Garfield, who Mann met at the onset of his stardom, before The Amazing Spider-Man franchise came crashing down around his ears ("Patient Zero"). The tone throughout is almost as hopeless as that of a Stephin Merritt album. The only thing that keeps it from being out-and-out bleak is Mann's gentle and often self-deprecating sense of humor; e.g., in the LP's closing number, "Poor Judgment", she explains to her lover that falling for him was like "a dream of a car with the brake lines cut," and muses that he stays with her because "The hammer's nothing without the nail." Ouch.

The most compelling song on Mental Illness (and the first single) is the album's opening track, "Goose Snow Cone". Told with lightly finger-picked guitar, soft strings and a tambourine that sounds like sleigh bells, it's a simple song about feelings of loneliness and isolation written after receiving a photo of a friend's cat while Mann was on tour far from home. "I just wanted a place but I ended up gone," she admits.

If there's a weakness to the album, it's this -- as much as I like "Goose Snow Cone", I'm not sure it's a standout. While Mental Illness is amazingly consistent throughout, it doesn't have that one unforgettable "Voices Carry" moment that will keep people coming back to it for years to come to rediscover the LP's other many subtle charms. 

Still, it's an album of delicate artistry, cathartic in its sorrow and vaguely ennobling as we watch its characters endure in painful and/or impossible situations. It's the mature work of an artist at the height of her powers. When I look at other current singer/songwriters working in a similar genre, I find that while Mann might not be as clever as Regina Spektor, for example, or as serene as Julie Byrne, her music surpasses all of the others in both writing craftsmanship and depth of emotion. If Joni Mitchell somehow made a bouquet of her folk legacy, and tossed it over her shoulder to a row of her would-be successors, Mann wouldn't be the tallest or the fastest competitor in the crowd. But she's the one who'd make the catch.

There's certainly nothing flashy about Mental Illness. It doesn't rock, it doesn't roll, it doesn't bowl you over with amazing instrumentals and feats of vocal derring do. So far, though, it's the best new album I've come across in 2017.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Review of Allie Bess & Hannah's "Allie Bess & Hannah Sing"

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

Review Summary: Harmonies, harmonies, harmonies. Did I mention harmonies?

Allie Bess & Hannah is a new side project by Allie Moss, Bess Rogers and Hannah Winkler, a trio of folk/pop divas from the New York metropolitan area, all of whom are part of an extended group of young musicians who are associated in one way or another with folk artist Ingrid Michaelson. Moss and Rogers are both former members of Michaelson's touring band, and Winkler sang with the band Storyman on a tour where they were Michaelson's opening act. Rogers and Winkler are also members of the band Secret Someones, whom Michaelson once described as being "like Weezer, but with boobies". Basically, there seems to be this whole musical cult going on in Brooklyn these days, possibly involving human sacrifice and chicken blood, with Ingrid Michaelson as its high priestess. Well, OK, I totally made that whole last sentence up, but you get the gist of it.

The Allie Bess & Hannah project is all about one thing: harmonies. All three of them love them, they can't get enough of them. So they decided to come together for a series of live shows and a recording that focuses on "as much three part harmony as possible". Consequently, this 7-song EP (consisting of five covers and two original songs) is as sparsely orchestrated as possible, so that there's nothing to get in the way of the vocals. The final product is a little bit of a mixed bag, but overall, it has a lot to recommend it.

The EP starts with an a cappella version of The Beatles' song "Because". I can see why they decided to try this, and why they put it first, but it's a little bit of a misstep. The pluses are, it's a great song for harmonies, and all three artists have lovely voices and harmonize together beautifully. The problem is the song itself. There's a reason The Beatles didn't record it a cappella -- the song has some long-ass pauses in it, especially around the "ahh-ahh"'s. It sounds great when they're singing, but suddenly you're left with these mind-numbing blank spots. It's kind of like the episode in the original Star Trek series where the guy in the interstellar loony bin has Captain Kirk strapped to a chair and floods his brain with these beta waves and Kirk has to do whatever he suggests, but then later the guy ends up in that chair himself, and the machine just wipes his brain clean because nobody gives him any suggestions, and he just dies because his brain can't handle all of that blank, empty space. Like that. Well OK, actually it's nothing like that, but hopefully you get what I mean -- the song is going great guns, but then it really slams on the brakes when you hit the blank spots. 

The second song is a cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams", recorded with a single acoustic guitar and a piano. This one is OK, but there's nothing special about it. Anyone with a pretty voice and a guitar could record a version just as good.

So up to this point, ABH's little experiment seems to be falling flat. Then abruptly, things start looking up, beginning with the third song, an original credited to all three women. Again, it's a simply orchestrated song, just 3 grrls and an acoustic guitar. This one clicks, however, especially when they hit the chorus: "With hearts awake/We feel the break/We're face to face/Staring at the truth like we are not afraid." Suddenly they're not just three gals singing around the campfire, they're artists, and they're demanding your attention. It gets better.

The fourth track is a cover of a song by band that's been getting some love (and a little bit of hate) on Sputnik lately, The Beach Boys, and their classic "God Only Knows". Here the musical backing consists of a single piano, but oh, those vocals! I acknowledge that our heroines maybe get a little too cutesy with some of the "doo-doo"'s, but the lead vocal is pure and rich (I think it's sung by Rogers, but I don't know Moss and Winkler's voices well enough to swear it's not one of them), and when they all start singing together, nailing harmonies and then trading vocal lines, the album hits a whole new level. And this isn't even their best song.

The next one is. For the fifth song, the ladies chose a cover of David Bazan's song "Hard to Be". Again, backed by a sole acoustic guitar, ABH bring the harmonies big time, and this time they don't even bother to wait for the chorus, they wade right in on the second line of the song. I have no doubt that when they first conceived of this project, this was the kind of thing they were aiming for. Well, target nailed! So long, and thanks for all the fish! (OK, I have no idea what that last line means in this context, I just got a little excited. Sorry about that.)

The rest of the EP doesn't quite maintain the heights of the aforementioned 3-song arc, but by then, it's fine, because I as a listener am already happy. "Day After Day" is an original credited to Rogers and Chris Kuffner (who previously played with Winkler on that Storyman/Michaelson tour -- say, maybe this is a cult!). It's a decent song, and the closing is particularly strong. The final song, "Losers", is a Belle Brigade cover. It's a solid treatment, but I'm not crazy about the song itself on this one.

On the whole, I think this EP does what it set out to do -- it highlights the beautiful voices of three talented young artists. Hopefully, people will hear it and want to check out some of their other work, both as solo artists and in their various side projects such as Secret Someones. I'm more familiar with Rogers than I am with Moss or Winkler, and I can promise you her solo stuff is really good. I'm definitely going to check out Moss's album, and while Winkler doesn't seem to have released too much solo work yet (except for one single), I'll be keeping an eye out for her future projects as well. Maybe I'll even go to Brooklyn and sacrifice a chicken or two to the great goddess Ingrid. Or maybe I'll just settle for writing this review.

Rating: 3/5 stars

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Review of Eurythmics' "Touch"

The following is a review I posted on the Sputnik Music website earlier this morning:

Review Summary: "Here comes the rain again/Falling on my head like a memory/Falling on my head like a new emotion"

When last we left Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart (collectively known as Eurythmics), they had survived a stint in the failed British band The Tourists and a mostly-ignored debut album (In the Garden) (1981) to release Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) (1983), the LP that put them over the top. Touch, released late in 1983, was the album that would make sure they'd stay there for the next decade and beyond. It was a #1 album in the U.K. and a #10 album in the U.S., and was eventually certified as Platinum in both countries, also going Double-Platinum in Canada and Gold in Germany. Additionally, it was named as one of Rolling Stone magazine's Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time in 2003, and again in 2012 when they revised their list. Touch made Eurythmics international superstars.

The sound here is a continuation of the direction they moved in on Sweet Dreams, mixing Lennox's dominating R&B voice and her various yips, grunts and vocal sound effects with Stewart's textured synthesizers, programmed drums and understated guitars. When I reviewed Sweet Dreams, one Sputnik reader commented that that album was "bereft of soul, devoid of depth", and while I wouldn't state it that harshly, he has a point. Eurythmics as a band was a triumph of form over feeling. Stewart wanted to take advantage of the new technologies of the time to reimagine and remake pop rock music, while Lennox was in many ways as much an actress as a singer, trying on personas and characters the way a young girl might try on the clothes in her mother's (and father's) closet. When the band toured in support of Touch, Lennox had herself carried onto the stage on a litter by several burly men like a modern Cleopatra, and during the course of the show, she engaged in various wig and costume changes, her singing all the while supported by a pair of impressive female backup singers. The music on Touch is fun and interesting. What it isn't is packed with emotions, or with big thoughts, unless we're talking about thoughts regarding instrumental structure and expression.

There are only nine songs on Touch, but three of them were hit singles, all of which are still pretty well known today almost thirty-five years later. "Here Comes the Rain Again", the first track on the LP, is one of my favorite Eurythmics songs. It opens with swirling synthesizers that somehow evoke the feeling of rain, and contains one of Lennox's best, if most understated, vocals, as she continuously pleads with her lover to "Talk to me/Like lovers do". Of the three singles, "Here Comes the Rain Again" was the most successful in the U.S. However, the highest charting single in the band's native Britain was the one exception to that "form over feeling" thing I talked about, "Who's That Girl?". While the video for the song was playful, featuring Lennox portraying both male and female characters while Stewart cavorts around with a gaggle of beautiful women on his arm, the lyrics tell the story of a woman deeply hurt by her lover's insincerity and infidelity: "Dumb hearts get broken/Just like china cups/The language of love/Has left me broken on the rocks". (I don't know if the lyrics were written from personal experience or not, but it's worth noting here that Lennox and Stewart were once a couple, although by this time, they had been broken up for several years.) The third single was the most whimsical of the three, "Right By Your Side". This one features a calypso music background, complete with synthesized steel drum and marimba sounds, as Lennox whistles, tweets, barks and plays the jungle girl who needs to "swing from limb to limb" as she explains to her lover how much she needs "to be right by your side".

Most of the other tracks are pretty solid as well. "No Fear, No Hate, No Pain (No Broken Hearts)" is one of Eurythmics' most underrated songs. It's a slow, ominous number that really lets Lennox cut loose with those powerful tonsils of hers. "Paint a Rumour" and "Cool Blue" are also particularly strong tracks. The first features some of Stewart's most interesting synthetic percussion, as Lennox plays call and response with herself: "I have heard a whisper/(What did it say?)/I have heard a whisper/(Make it go away)". "Cool Blue", on the other hand, boasts a higher-pitched synth pattern layered over some nice bass, and even gives Stewart a chance to showcase some popping guitar and bass during the break. 

Touch was one of the more preeminent albums of the 1980s. It was also the culmination of Eurythmics' synthesizer period. Although they would continue this experiment for one more album, 1984's 1984 (For the Love of Big Brother) soundtrack album, that LP was less successful and less consistent than either Sweet Dreams or Touch. Having established themselves as one of the most successful bands in the world by then, their sound evolved to more of a straight R&B sound on 1985's Be Yourself Tonight. But that's a tale for another day. In any event, if you are someone who likes their music steeped in emotional depth, chances are that Touch will leave you cold. But if you can live without that, there are a lot of treats to be had in this album, ranging from Lennox's compelling vocals and theatrical presentation to Stewart's various experiments in musical architecture. Touch continues to be Eurythmics' highest-rated album on this website, and for good reason.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Pretenders and Stevie Nicks

Denise and I saw The Pretenders and Stevie Nicks last night at the new Coliseum in Uniondale. It was only the second night the Coliseum was open -- the first event there was the night before, featuring Billy Joel in concert with a special surprise appearance by Joan Jett.

There was a very strange vibe there last night.

First, about the new Coliseum:

1. The outside is a metal nightmare. The old Coliseum was a little boring, but somewhat classy. This is more of an idiot's idea of modern art. On the plus side, I guess you only look at the outside for the 5 minutes it takes you walk from your car to the building, so it's not that big a deal.

2. Parking for the concert was a criminal $30 a pop. Last week, I saw Lisa Loeb with free parking and $40 for the ticket. Here, the parking alone was three quarters of Lisa Loeb's ticket price. (And my understanding is for the opening night Billy Joel concert, parking was $40!). Someone needs to be hung for this. Preferably in the parking lot, dangling over the cars, as a warning to facility owners to come. Could be anyone on the Coliseum management team. Pick one at random, I'm easy.

3. They have at least put handrails on staircases inside the arena. I've been told they had put some in before they closed it down in 2015, but the last time I was there, they didn't have any. When I was 20, it was no big deal either way. But as I get older, the possibility of plunging down a staircase to a painful (and embarrassing) death seemed a real possibility. I'm glad somebody had the sense to put some handrails in.

4. The seats are still pretty narrow. The seats at the Boulton Center last week were way more comfy.

5. The inside looks pretty nice. Nothing special, but OK.

6. The sound was better than expected. The last concert I saw at the old Coliseum was R.E.M., and it sounded like they were playing under water. For a fairly large arena, I thought the sound was pretty good.

7. They need to train their staff better. I know it was only the second night, but our usherette spent half of the Stevie part of the concert standing out on the midway platform, watching the show, enjoying the music, bopping her head and having a wonderful time while those of who paid $100 a ticket got to watch the back of her head. Not good.

8. They have two "large" screens on either side of the stage, but from where we were sitting on the opposite of the arena lengthwise, the screens weren't nearly large enough. (And again, the usherette was blocking the one that was closest to us). There was a larger screen in the middle, but it was mostly used for special effects (and I'm pretty sure it belonged to Stevie's tour, not to the Coliseum).

Would I go back there for a concert? Maybe, but  I'd think twice about it. It would have to be to see somebody amazing. Would I go for a hockey game if they bring back the Islanders? Probably, at least once, but the parking had better be a lot cheaper if they want me to come back. Would I go there for minor league basketball (the new Long Island Nets team)? Probably not, unless they make everything dirt cheap. 

Now to the concert. Like I said, it was a weird vibe in the building last night. I've seen The Pretenders twice before (Denise has seen them more often than that). I've never seen Stevie solo before, although I did see her once with Fleetwood Mac.

The crowd was younger than I expected, and at least 60% female.

It was the last night of a fairly long tour together for both bands. Both Chrissie Hynde and Stevie said it was the best tour they ever had, and even though bands say things like all the time, I actually believed them. It probably wasn't an ideal closing show for either of them, though.

Chrissie started fighting with the fans in the first song of her set. I was too far away from the stage to see exactly what was happening, but something about the people in the front holding up their cell phones to record her was freaking Chrissie out, and she wasn't shy about letting them know it. (For those readers who are old-time Long Island Music Coalition members, she was channeling her inner Fleischmann). Don't get me wrong, she was in great voice last night -- a couple of times she really cut loose and showed you how long she can hold a note, and I don't think I've ever heard her better.

But whatever was throwing her off with those cameras, she never fully got into a groove. And in between songs, she would argue with herself, like "It's my fault, I know you guys paid good money to be here. But you're just really freaking me out," and "Does anybody want to come up here and dance? You guys probably all hate me now," and my favorite: "It's a love/hate relationship -- you love me, and I hate you".

Compounding her problems, I had a few of my own. I always like to sit on the aisle, so I can stick my long legs out a little. But there was a 7 o'clock scheduled start time (the show actually started at about 7:20), and for most of The Pretenders set, I got to watch the people who were either too stupid or too inconsiderate to get there on time stand on the stairs and block my view, waiting for the usherette to seat them (which is probably the only reason the usherette wasn't standing on the platform and swaying to the music during most of Chrissie's set, too). So the band sounded good, they were basically playing their greatest hits, and Chrissie's voice was solid. But between Chrissie's fighting with the crowd and my having to try to watch the set through the heads of the late stragglers and people coming up the stairs with their snacks, I didn't really enjoy the set as much as I wanted to. (I'd say I'm getting too old and cranky to go to concerts, but as Denise can testify, I was pretty cranky even when I was young).

It didn't help that I was starving, too. (We didn't have time to eat before the concert, and when we got there, the lines at the concession stands were long so we just went right to our seats). I considered stretching my arm out and grabbing the handrail, forcing each person who was going up the steps to pay a toll from their snack plate before I let them through ("Mmm, excellent nachos. That will be one piece from your soft pretzel, ma'am. I can't believe how under cooked these fries are!"). I would have been like the Coliseum's own bridge troll. Unfortunately, the handrails aren't continuous, they're a series of individual curly rails spaced a couple of steps apart from each other, so the people would have just looked at my funny and gone up on the other side.

Now for Stevie. For Stevie, this was her tour in support of the 24 Karat Gold: Songs from the Vault album, an album made up of old, previously unused songs from various points in her past. I saw a video of a concert that Stevie did one night on the last night of one of her previous tours, so I know she can get a little emotional on those last nights. So her concert was meant to sprinkle some of her hits in with some of the 24 Karat Gold album, and to tell stories about how the various songs she was singing came to be.

This proved to be difficult in a large venue. And it proved to be even more difficult since apparently, about a quarter of the crowd suffered from Attention Deficit Disorder. The more Stevie talked, the more restless the crowd grew, especially in the far-off wilderness where we were sitting. So these yoyos's booed and heckled Stevie. And then the rest of the crowd, who wanted to hear the stories, got mad and started yelling at the hecklers. And through all of it, Stevie seemed to remain (or at least pretended to remain) mostly oblivious, going on with her stories ad infinitum. (At least she was oblivious until at one point, she said "I don't have a story for this next song," and a large part of the crowd cheered sarcastically. She didn't talk as much after that.)

On the plus side, I took advantage of one of her more obscure songs to scoot down the stairs, run to the bathroom, and get some pretzels from the now-lineless snack bar. On the minus side, of course, as soon as I stepped up the snack counter, she finished the obscure song and instead of telling a story, went right into "Gypsy". Figures. But again on the plus side, about that sound system -- the sound was even pretty good in the bathroom and at the snack counter.

My only disappointment as far as the song selection goes was she didn't play one of my favorites from her solo stuff, "Rooms on Fire". But on the other hand, she did play some of her best Fleetwood Mac songs, which I wasn't sure she would during her solo tour, including "Gypsy", a smoking hot version of "Gold Dust Woman", and an encore composed of "Rhiannon" and "Landslide", so I guess it evens out. (And Chrissie came and joined her for the Tom Petty part of "Stop Dragging My Heart Around", which was pretty neat).

I think Stevie had a good time, which I'm glad of (there's something I've always really like about Stevie. I was actually kind of embarrassed about behavior of the Long Island crowd on her behalf).  I know that Chrissie didn't have a good time, but she's tough -- she'll get over it. As for the crowd, I think most of them found it to be a mixed bag -- I know Denise and I did. (I had to laugh -- at the end of the concert, while I was waiting for Denise to come out of the ladies room, there was an angry woman with a young girl and an old woman in tow, complaining about the crowd at the customer service desk. She was telling them people were cursing and she brought a child and her mother because she thought it would be a family-friendly venue. She had seen the same concert at Madison Square Garden, and they didn't behave like that! Lady, what were they supposed to do? Fire the crowd?

Anyway, interesting night of music. And at least i got to see Stevie Nicks solo once in my life.

'Til next time, good people.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Review of Black 47's "Home of the Brave"

I posted this review on the Sputnik Music website 2 days ago:

Review Summary: "Hey big fellah ... Where the hell are you now/When we need you the most?"

After the release of Fire of Freedom in 1993, the world seemed to be Black 47's for the taking. Even though a record company misstep had cost the band the chance to sell way more copies of the album than they actually did (namely the fact that by the time the album was released, the two singles, "Maria's Wedding" and "Funky CĂ©ili" were both several months past the height of their popularity), Fire of Freedom was clearly a triumph, and there was no reason to believe that the follow-up album wouldn't be as well. So flush with success, the band prepared to record what lead singer/songwriter Larry Kirwan later referred to as "the most difficult album I have ever been involved with," Home of the Brave.

Home of the Brave is a first-rate album, showcasing all of the elements that Black 47 has come to be known for over the years. Musically, the album mixes traditional Celtic rhythms; elements of rock (in particular, the kind of big band rock that is usually associated with artists of the Jersey Shore like Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes); the occasional reggae beat; and several spoken-word, hip-hop influenced vocals. The band is tight, which gives Kirwan the freedom to be a little more loose with the vocals. There are also a number of female guest vocalists on the display, plus one song done rap-style by Seanchi (aka Chris Byrne), the band's uilleann pipe/tin whistle player.

As for the songs, they're a mix of several Black 47 staples as well. You have political songs ("Big Fellah", "Paul Robeson (Born to Be Free)" and "Time to Go"), humorous songs of love and lust ("Oh Maureen", "Losin It" and "Different Drummer"), and songs that create vivid characters in order to tell you stories ("Voodoo City", "Blood Wedding" and "Black Rose").

The two tracks that stand out the most for me are "Big Fellah" and "Voodoo City". "Big Fellah" is a rousing rock anthem that tells the story of Michael Collins, the revolutionary leader who was a main figure in the struggle for Irish independence in the early 20th Century. Collins helped to push the UK to the negotiating table for the Anglo-Irish Treaty that split the country into the Irish free state and Northern Ireland. The "big fellah" is described as "a towering mighty man" who'd crucify an informer or an English spy without thinking twice, but one who is so softhearted that "every widow, whore and orphan could always turn to you." The song is sung from the perspective of a longtime follower of Collins who serves under him in the fight for freedom but turns against him in horror after the signing of the treaty, because "we couldn't betray the republic like Arthur Griffin and you." "Big Fellah" has always been one of the band's most popular live songs, and for good reason -- it's a fast-paced and inspiring track, all the more so because the song's protagonist still obviously admires and respects Collins, even though he is part of the group that eventually ambushes and kills him. 

"Voodoo City" is a reggae number that continues the saga of Paddy and the Iceman begun in the song "Banks of the Hudson" from the Fire of Freedom album. This time around, Paddy has fled New York City after ripping off a vicious mobster, and is hiding in New Orleans under the protection of a beautiful Voodoo priestess named Marie Laveau. But "New York is not scorned so easily," he explains. So naturally the Iceman eventually tracks him down. What happens next? I won't spoil it for you. You need to listen to this steamy track for yourself. 

The album was produced by former Talking Heads member Jerry Harrison (who also adds some supporting keyboards), and while Kirwan found the recording process to be grueling for this one, he was ultimately pleased with the result, saying "Home of the Brave, song for song is one of the best albums released in 1994 and it still stands up." I have to agree with him.

Sadly, it didn't meet the fate it deserved. For starters, the recording process used up most of the funds EMI had laid out for the album, leaving little money to actually pay the band. Then, three days after Home of the Brave was released, the band's point person at the label was fired. It got some airplay in a few cities for the first two or three weeks, but when the radio stations learned that the label had no intention of putting any money into promoting it, they decided not to put it into their regular rotation. This essentially shot down Black 47's chance to ever make it truly big, although they remained a hard-working and much respected touring and club band for another twenty years.

Come to it with fresh ears, and Home of the Brave has a great deal to offer. From the comic ramblings of the obsessed would-be lover who tries vainly to win back his lady love in "Oh Maureen", to the melodramatic and violent tale of murder and revenge in "Blood Wedding", to Black 47's barely recognizable version of the maudlin classic "Danny Boy" (Danny is a gay construction worker in this one who splits his homophobic foreman "from his jaw to ear" with a two-by-four), this album is full of musical treats. I still enjoy listening to it twenty-plus years after its release, and I can't say that about too many '90s albums. It might not be quite as consistent an album as Fire of Freedom, and it might not have launched the band to the heights that they hoped that it would. But as Kirwan said, "It still stands up." It does indeed.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Review of Joni Mitchell's "Ladies of the Canyon"

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

Review Summary: Joni plays the piano.

I admit, I've always loved the piano. The organ has always been a little harsh for my taste. I enjoy the harpsichord, but nowadays, it really only fits in period-piece songs, or maybe in songs with a slight gothic twist to them. I like guitars OK, especially acoustic ones. But keyboard instruments hold a special place in my heart, which is one one of the reasons I came to love progressive rock music over hard rock. And if you add some keyboards, especially some piano, to folk- or pop-style songs, I'm right there and loving it. All of which helps to explain why Ladies of the Canyon has been one of my favorite Joni Mitchell albums for many years. Because on Ladies, Joni brings her piano to the forefront for the very first time.

There is no denying that artistically, Mitchell had one hell of a run from 1969 through 1974. After the promise of her debut album Song to a Seagull, Mitchell went on a tear, producing Clouds (1969), Ladies of the Canyon (1970), Blue (1971), For the Roses (1972) and Court and Spark (1974), and adding her exceptional live album Miles of Aisles as the cherry on top of the sundae near the end of 1974. Even today, most people would concede that these are some of the finest folk-pop albums ever produced. On Clouds, Mitchell showed just how much she could accomplish with mostly just her voice and her guitar. However, on Ladies, she opened up a whole other dimension to her music by making piano the prominent instrument on six of the album's twelve songs.

I'll talk about some of the weaknesses of the album first, just to get them out of the way. For starters, let's discuss the vocals. This LP still features a relatively young Joni, with a voice still falling somewhere in the mezzo-soprano range, years before it began to lower to that of a contralto. Consequently, on Ladies, she's still capable of some impressive trills and vocal gymnastics. Not everyone loves her voice, although I've always found it to be exquisitely beautiful. So when I read that the famous music reviewer Robert Christgau criticized Mitchell's vocal performance on this album, my first reaction way annoyance. However, to a certain extent, I understand what he meant. Mitchell experiments with her voice and at times pushes it to its limits on Ladies of the Canyon, and while I think she's mostly successful, there are times when it seems to completely slip its leash and run amok. This is particularly true at the ends of the songs "Willy" and "Woodstock", where some of the notes she hits reach a painful level, and also on the choruses for the title track "Ladies of the Canyon".

The one other weakness I see here is that there are a few throwaway songs on Ladies. I've never been too impressed by "Willy", her tribute to her then-boyfriend Graham Nash, or by "The Arrangement", a fairly clumsy portrait of a man selling out his life for corporate success (although the piano intro to this one is pretty good), and "Ladies of the Canyon" is something of a guilty pleasure -- it's the kind of song where I actually like it myself, but if I drove up to a drive-through window while it was playing, I'd turn it off because I'd be embarrassed to let anyone else hear me listening to it.

Needless to say, though, I didn't rate the album at 4 out of 5 stars because of its weaknesses. For me, the album's assets far outweigh its liabilities. Many previous reviews of Ladies have emphasized the second half of the album (Side 2 of the original vinyl LP), and for good reason. However, several of my favorite songs occur fairly early on. "Conversation" is one of Joni's guitar-based songs. It's sung from the viewpoint of a woman stuck permanently in the friend zone with the man she loves, playing the role of the confidant as he pours out his heart about the many ways his current lady mistreats him. "She speaks in sorry sentences/Miraculous repentances/I don't believe her", Mitchell practically spits, as she soothes her would-be lover by bringing him apples and cheeses. This song features one of her strongest vocals on this album or any other. Her acrobatics on the chorus are especially impressive, and there's a particular feat of vocal derring-do on the last chorus where she repeats the line "He knows that's what he'll fiiind," with a few altered notes for emphasis, then brings it home by repeating the line one more time with a return to the original notes. This is one of my favorite vocal moments in any song anywhere.

"For Free" is the first piano-dominant song on the LP (the album-opening song "Morning Morgantown" starts with guitar on the verses and only features piano on the choruses), and it's also one of Ladies of the Canyon's strongest tracks. This song features Joni at her most self-effacing, as she compares herself unfavorably to a street musician who is playing his heart out on a street corner while people ignore the quality of his music because he isn't famous. "I'll play if you have the money," she admits, "Or if you're a friend to me," while this fellow is giving it his all for free. She considers going over to join him for a song. However, at that point, the light turns green, and she continues on her way and forgets about him. The song ends with the sweet sounds of his clarinet playing unaccompanied.

As for the much-heralded second side of the album, there are a number of treats here. "Big Yellow Taxi" is the first charting single Mitchell ever had as a performer, and the song has since been covered by many artists over the years. I still like the song, but I have to admit it's lost some of its luster for me over the years. Likewise while I admire the simple heartfelt presentation of the song "Woodstock" (which Mitchell wrote largely because of her disappointment that a previous television commitment kept her from attending the actual Woodstock festival), given the choice, I'd take the sublime harmonies of the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young version of the song any day. Nevertheless, when you add those two songs to numbers like "Rainy Night House", "Blue Boy" and "The Circle Game", the other tracks that made up Side 2 of the original Ladies album, you have a very powerful album side of music indeed. (And even "The Priest", the one song I didn't previously mention from Side 2, isn't too shabby).

"Rainy Night House" and "Blue Boy" both feature some of Joni's best piano. "Rainy Night House" finds Joni falling "into a dream" on her wealthy lover's mother's bed, causing him to get disinherited when Mom finds out. So he leaves all of his worldly goods and runs off to Arizona with her. "Blue Boy", a particularly strong number, is a cautionary fable about what happens when you idealize your lover. In this mystical tale, our protagonist falls in love with a statue, who comes to her bedroom each night to make love to her, only to return to his place in her garden the following morning: "Lady called the blue boy, love/She took him home/Made himself an idol, yes/So he turned to stone." No matter how much she loves him, he still won't open up. So in the end, she protects herself by turning into a statue too. 

"The Circle Game", on the other hand, is an acoustic guitar song in the mold of "Both Sides Now." It was written as a response to Neil Young's song of a few years earlier, "Sugar Mountain". Young's song was written after he had aged out of being allowed to perform at his favorite local music hangout. It's basically a lament about things we lose from our youth that we can never get back. Mitchell's song turns this idea around and looks at it from a more positive perspective. Although the dreams of the boy in "The Circle Game" may have "lost some grandeur coming true," she promises him that "There'll be new dreams, maybe better dreams, and plenty." It's a very upbeat note on which to end an album.

Shortly after Ladies of the Canyon, Mitchell's relationship with Graham Nash ended, and she took a break from performing. Soon thereafter, she took up with James Taylor, but that relationship also ended in heartbreak. All of this led Mitchell to record her 1971 masterpiece Blue, which has been regarded by many as one of the greatest albums of all time (it currently sits at #149 on the Sputnik Music "Best Albums of All Time" chart). But while Mitchell's painful relationship experiences doubtlessly added mightily to the emotional depth of the Blue album, Ladies of the Canyon likewise contributed by allowing her to continue her growth as a musician, a singer and a songwriter. Ladies also stands as a powerful musical achievement in its own right. It's not a perfect album, by any measure, but it's still a very good one. And it will always be one of my favorites.

Rating: 4/5 stars