Monday, May 29, 2017

Stuff I Didn't Do and Album Rating System

So over the last couple of weekends, there were a couple of things I considered doing but wound of wussing out of, musicwise.

The first is last weekend, I didn't drive out to catch any of the Montauk Music Festival. I actually looked through the lineup, and there were two artists I was particularly interested in seeing. The first was a young acoustic duo called Lennon and Katie. I'll be honest, I no longer remember exactly where I first heard about them. Well, that's not exactly true -- I heard about them from looking up a band called Youth Be Told who has apparently morphed into Lennon and Katie, and I don't remember where I first heard about Youth Be Told. For some reason, I thought they were from Brooklyn, but they list themselves as a Long Island band. So I'll be on the lookout for when they play again.

The second is another young LI acoustic artist named Paris Ray. In this case, I'm pretty sure I first ran across her on CD Baby. I actually purchased her EP there, but right now, I have such a backlog of CDs it's not even funny, and the ones from 2017 move to the front of the line, so it might be awhile before I actually get to listen to it. But I'm hoping to maybe catch her live this summer.

I think if I could have lined it up so I could have caught both of these artists back to back, it would have inspired me to take the drive. But the times didn't really line up, which would have meant I'd have had to drive out there twice. And with my usual parental duties going on last Saturday, I just didn't get it done, although I very seriously considered getting up very early on Sunday morning to at least catch Paris Ray at a morning bagel shop gig -- I', not that into bars these days, but I still do breakfast.

In any event, I didn't get it done. But these guys are both on my radar now, so hopefully I'll rectify that sometime soon.

The other thing I didn't get done, either last weekend or this one, was to catch a performance of Spring Awakening by the CAP playhouse at their new performance space in their building in Syosset.
The play won the TONY for Best Musical a few years back, and the soundtrack album is excellent. Unfortunately, it's not a particularly happy story, so I wasn't able to tempt my daughter into coming with me, and the timing didn't line up good enough for me to talk my wife into it either. And I find that these days, when left to my own devices, sometimes I just get lazy. If the theater was nearby like The Gateway where I saw Rent the other night, I probably would have gone for it. But I just couldn't motivate myself to drive to Syosset by myself this time. Bad on me.


Anyway, this post at least gives me an excuse to explain the star rating system I've been using on all of these album reviews I've been posting here this year. Because I post these reviews on The Sputnik Music website first, I've been using their rating system, so it occurred to me I ought to explain it. You might look at an album, for example, that I've rated 3 out of 5 stars and think "Oh, only 60%. That sucks!" But actually, that isn't true. Here is the Sputnik Music rating system, which is what I've been using for the Album Reviews I post on this blog:

1 - Awful
1.5 - Very Poor
2 - Poor
2.5 - Average
3 - Good
3.5 - Great
4 - Excellent
4.5 - Superb
5 - Classic

"Staff" members and official "Contributors" can actually go as low as .5 stars when they rate an album, and they can also rate between these numbers (e.g. 3.2). But I'm not one of those, so this is what I'm working with. So as you can see, a "3" is actually "Good" or above average.

I grade pretty strictly, especially at the top.  In the entire history of music, I've only ever given out fourteen "5's", most of them for albums released in the 1970s. They are:

Blondie - Parallel Lines
The Eagles - Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975)
Future Bible Heroes - Memories of Love
The Good Rats - Tasty
Led Zeppelin - Led Zeppelin IV
Meat Loaf - Bat Out of Hell
Paramore - Riot!
Pink Floyd - The Dark Side of the Moon
Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here
Bruce Springsteen - Born to Run
Bruce Springsteen - Darkness on the Edge of Town
The Who - Quadrophenia
The Who - Tommy
The Who - Who's Next

So that's the rating system. Next planned album review is of an album by yet another '80s icon. 'Til then ...

Review of M+M's "Mystery Walk"

I posted this review a little earlier this morning on the Sputnik Music Website:

Review Summary: "Rest my head inside your hands/Cooling the medium/Walk me back to life again/Cooling the medium."

Martha and the Muffins (or M+M as they were calling themselves by the time they released Mystery Walk) were one of Canada's strongest contributions to the category of '80s new wave music. Although their biggest hit both at home and internationally was "Echo Beach" from their 1979 debut album Metro Music, the band had a solid career, releasing six studio albums from 1979 through 1985, then reuniting in 1992 and again in 2010 to add two more LPs to their catalog.

While many groups at the forefront of the new wave movement had their roots at least partially in punk rock, including bands such as Blondie, The Go-Go's and even the Talking Heads, Martha and the Muffins weren't one of these. They were more staid, and more in the mold of bands like The Cars or Tears for Fears, relying on slow-to-mid-tempo songs and seldom letting go and completely rocking out. They mixed elements of synth-pop, dance music and occasional jazzy saxophone or horns to create atmospheric little musical tableau's.

Mystery Walk, released in 1984, was their 5th studio album, and one of their best. It only charted at #56 in Canada and #163 in the U.S., but it did feature their second most successful single ever, "Black Stations/White Stations", which reached as high as #2 on the U.S. Dance charts. Another single from the album, "Cooling the Medium" though less successful, is still an excellent song. By the time Mystery Walk was released, the essence of the band was the husband/wife team of Martha Johnson, who took the lead vocals on three quarters of the songs, and guitarist Mark Gane, who sang lead on the others (hence the shortened name, M+M, for "Martha" and "Mark"). 

In addition to the synthesizer and the intermittent horns, there are a lot of interesting percussive elements going on throughout Mystery Walk, including varied use of electronic drums and hand percussion. "Black Stations/White Stations" is a particularly trippy song, as Johnson petitions for more intermingling of so-called "black" and "white" music on the radio, pleading "Black stations, white stations/Break down the doors/Stand up and face the music/This is 1984", and inviting them to "Dance on the ceiling with us". A later, slower number on the LP, "Come Out and Dance" also recommends the curative effects of dancing, this time as a remedy for heartache. And the somewhat cryptic "Cooling the Medium" extols the virtues of a different kind of movement, as Johnson takes a walk on the spiritual side, asking her lover to "Carry me down into the river" and "Walk me back to life again", before the last chords of the song change to those of the love theme from the 1959 romance film A Summer Place. All the while, the percussion encourages you to move along with it in a manner of your choosing.

The album also features a pair of slow and moody songs that are each, in different ways, exquisitely beautiful. "I Start to Stop" is a well-crafted musical depiction of post-breakup depression. Built largely around three notes that recur repeatedly throughout the track like a stabbing pain, the song is both delicate and occasionally dissonant. It's like a fine porcelain teacup with a slight but ruinous crack running through it. "I dial your number on the phone/I hear a voice, you're not alone/The traffic rips the night apart" Johnson sings with a quiet desperation, but in the end, there's nothing she can do but to keep repeating "I Start to Stop" until the music fades. Moving on is more difficult than it sounds.

On a somewhat happier note, "Garden in the Sky" depicts someone whose reality seems to be slipping away, as he fades into a fantasy world. The song has always made me think of the short story "Silent Snow, Secret Snow" by Conrad Aiken, although here it's lush images of garden paradises and "beaches of ivory" that seduce our protagonist away from the "real" world, rather than thoughts of a frozen tundra. "Garden in the sky/His heart is living in another place/Garden in the sky/The world around him sees a madman's face", Johnson tells us. By the last verse, though, we learn that instead of seeing the thoughts of a "madman", we've actually entered the mind of an artist who sees these images in his head in order to paint portraits of "places that will never die". 

Although the album loses some steam towards the end ("Nation of Followers", "Alibi Room" and especially "Rhythm of Life", while okay, aren't as memorable as most of the earlier tracks), Mystery Walk is still a minor treasure from a bygone decade. Much like the subject of the band's most enduring single "Echo Beach", the album is far away in time, but still close to my heart.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Sunday, May 28, 2017


Denise and I caught a performance of the season-opening show at The Gateway Playhouse in Bellport last night, Jonathan Larson's Rent.

The Gateway describes itself as "one of only three professional theaters on Long Island" and as the "oldest of the three". Every spring through summer season, they present a series of high-quality shows, generally musicals, in professional productions that are probably the closest any LI theater comes to Broadway-level productions.

The downsides of their standing in the LI theater community are that 1) they're (quite reasonably) the most expensive theater on the Island, although they're nowhere near as expensive as a Broadway show; 2) Their choices can be a kind of vanilla at times, because they really have a need to sell tickets, and much of their clientele tends to be a little aged (present author included). So every year, I usually find their choice of shows slightly disappointing, as I wait in vain for some riskier fare (Chess! Chess! Chess! Did I mention Chess?). And 3) Because of their standing as probably the top dog of LI theater, they can sometimes have a little bit of an attitude that makes me want to slap them, which I'm about to do, lovingly, for their ad campaign for Rent.

Rent is being advertised on their website (and other places) as "Featuring Michelle Veintimilla, Star of the Fox TV Series Gotham as Mimi," next to a photo of an attractive dark-haired actress. I saw this, and my first reaction was "Wait a minute. I watch Gotham. Who the hell is Michelle Veintimilla?" I compared notes with Denise, and when we looked it up, the reason we didn't recognize her is that she plays a super villain (sort of) called Firefly who accidentally burnt half of her face off.

Now I want to be careful here not to take this out on Miss Veintimilla. I get that the theater is trying to sell tickets. Furthermore, I also get that, as it turns out, she's one of Gateway's own -- the show's playbill makes it clear that as a teen, she spent a significant amount of time in Gateway's Acting School, and they're understandably proud of her. She's one of their success stories. But by my calculation, Firefly is at best the 7th most important female character on Gotham, and that's only because they killed off Penguin's mother in Season 2. And it's a male-dominated show! So "Star of" my butt!

OK, got that out of my system. So Rent. I have to admit, I probably would have skipped the show if Denise hadn't really wanted to see it. Not that it's a bad show -- far from it. But it's a little depressing. Rent is basically a rock musical reconfiguration of Puccini's La Boheme, which is actually my favorite opera. It's set in alphabet city in Manhattan in the late '80s at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and features a colorful group of characters, many of whom are HIV positive, who are waiting for the virus to kill them. I like a lot of the music, and I saw the film, but let's face it -- on the surface, at least, this isn't exactly a chuckle fest.

Nevertheless, I realized after seeing the Gateway performance that I really didn't know the show as well as I thought I did. It's significantly different than the film, and in spite of its subject matter, more life affirming. Larson does an amazing job of taking the story of La Boheme and pulling it in a logical way into a modern setting. His characters are in no way perfect, which makes them human and very sympathetic.

Furthermore, the young cast of this production does a masterful job of bringing this story to life. The casting is universally excellent -- there really isn't a weak link in the bunch. I was particularly impressed with Jeremy Greenbaum's portrayal of Mark Cohen, the young filmographer who documents a year in the lives (or deaths) of this family of friends. But Denise's favorite was Anthony Festa who plays Roger Davis, an HIV positive musician who is recovering from both heroin addiction and the suicide of his former girlfriend April. His performance is very understated in the early parts of the play, and at first I wasn't sure if he was up to the part. As the play goes on, however, it becomes obvious that this was a deliberate choice on his part, as he plays Roger as someone who has shut off all of his a feelings in self defense until Veintimilla's Mimi Marquez character forces him back to life.

As for Michelle Veintimilla, whose Firefly role I so loutishly trashed at the beginning of this review, she has a strong and attractive voice, and has a great chemistry with Mr. Festa. She is especially impressive during "Another Day", where her Mimi teases, flirts with, and coaxes the Roger character as he tries to push her away, ultimately gripping him with both hands and pulling him back into the living world. It was as good a moment of theater as I've seen in a long time.

A special shout out goes to one of the actresses who plays a series of minor characters throughout the production, Amma Osei, who is given a moment to really break through with her voice during Rent's best-known song "Seasons of Love" and essentially uses it to bring the house down. What an amazing set of pipes!

Now Rent isn't a perfect fit for me. I'm not really a counter-culture kind of guy. As the son and brother of two lifelong police officers (who lost his father last year), I don't much care for the brief portrayal of police officers as evil storm troopers. And the supposedly amusing story where the otherwise sympathetic Angel character commits dog-i-cide is never going to be OK with me. (And I have a lot more sympathy than Larson probably wanted me to have for Kyle Robert Carter's Benny character, who's abhorred by most of the other characters throughout the play for being sellout yuppie scum, but who continually pays the bills so that the other characters can sit around and think noble thoughts.) But these are minor beefs about an otherwise fine production of an excellent show.

And since I abused The Gateway for their slightly overzealous ad campaign for this show, let me say something nice (and true) about them. When our children came to us seven years ago, we took them to a Gateway production of West Side Story that first summer, and we've taken them to a number of other shows there over the ensuing years. Both kids came to that first show just short of kicking and screaming, with my daughter swearing that she and her brother were going to be the only heads in the house not covered in grey hair. My son never really became a musical fan, which is fine, but he did like the show more than he thought he would, and he's come back with us for a few shows since then.

My daughter, on the other hand, who at first couldn't get used to the idea of a show where everybody just stops what they're doing and sings, has grown into a true musical fan over the years, She didn't come with us to Rent because her tastes have developed enough that she knows what she likes (namely upbeat shows with happy endings). But she's come with us to The Gateway to a whole series of shows over the years, including Legally Blonde, Spamalot, Young Frankenstein, South Pacific and The Addams Family to name a few, and she's looking forward to bringing her boyfriend with us to see The Gateway's production of Little Shop Horrors towards the end of the summer. She's also subsequently seen both Phantom of the Opera and Wicked on Broadway, as well as various other musicals at other Long Island theaters. So The Gateway played a significant part in making her a lifelong fan of musical theater, for which I'll be eternally grateful to them. (Just calm down a little with those ad campaigns, OK guys. And Chess! Just consider it, that's all I'm saying.)

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Review of Jethro Tull's "The String Quartets"

I posted this review earlier this evening on the Putnik Music website:

Review Summary: At best, this is a niche album for a very specialized group of Ian Anderson/Jethro Tull fans.

It probably won't come as a shock to many people that in spite of the fact that The String Quartets is being released under the "Jethro Tull" moniker, this isn't really a Jethro Tull album. Instead, it's an LP by Ian Anderson and a classical string quartet, with an occasional assist from Tull keyboard player John O'Hara, performing rearranged versions of a number of Jethro Tull classics. It was released as a Jethro Tull album ... well, to be honest, probably because the label figured it would make more money than it would have if it had simply been released as an Ian Anderson album. And maybe more legitimately, because these are reworked versions of songs that were previously featured on real Jethro Tull albums, even though the names have all been changed (e.g., "Living in the Past" becomes "In the Past", "Aqualung" becomes "Aquafugue", etc.) for purposes of keeping the royalties straight.

The string quartet in question is called The Carducci Quartet, and while I'd never claim to be any kind of an expert in classical music, they do a rather nice job throughout. From what I've read about them, they seem to specialize in performing more modern music -- they recorded an album with composer Philip Glass, for example -- so I guess they were a fairly natural choice for a project like this.

In some ways, the idea of doing this album is logical. As a flautist, Anderson's instrument of choice is a natural for classical music. Several of his solo efforts, especially the all-instrumental Divinities: Twelve Dances With God LP, have certainly flirted with the classical music genre. (In fact, Divinities was released on a classical music label.) Besides, a decent percentage of the Tull repertoire, especially the material from their Songs From the Wood/Heavy Horses period, seems to lend itself comfortably to a classical music treatment. So where does this project go wrong?

Sadly, in a couple of places. Let's start with the vocals. There are twelve songs on The String Quartets. Half are all-instrumental, and half feature vocals. I wish they didn't. It's well known among Tull fans that Anderson's voice has been shot for better than 25 years now. Some sources claim his throat problems began in the mid-'80s during the Under Wraps tour, but they became unmistakably noticeable by the early '90s. He's dealt with them over the years in several ways, including scheduling more instrumental interludes into the band's live sets; singing in a strange, very pronounced way, that often forces him to sing his words just slightly behind the actual music of any given song; and in recent years, by employing a second singer, to spell him when he needs it and to sing the parts he just can't reach anymore. Prior to this album, however, Anderson was always able to mask these deficiencies pretty well on his studio work. No more. On String Quartets, his voice sounds weak and barely on-key. His flute playing is, at times, exquisite here. I just wish he'd chosen not to sing.

The selection of songs on this LP is mostly sensible. Mostly, but not totally. As stated earlier, the Tull material from their Elizabethan/rustic period translates well to a more classical treatment, as do early-period songs such as "Living in the Past", "Sossity, You're a Woman/Reasons for Waiting" and "We Used to Know". (I'm using the original song titles here for clarity). "A Christmas Song" translates well musically, although in this case, I wish they'd done it as an instrumental just because it's always had some of Anderson's worst-ever lyrics. ("So how can you laugh when your own mother's hungry?" Um, who does that, Ian? Name me one person.)

The rearranged "Aqualung" is awful, however, as you might expect when you're trying to translate a hard rock song into an all-strings-and-flute format, and "Locomotive Breath" doesn't fare any better. And while I like the original "Bungle in the Jungle" as much as anyone, this is a song that really gets uplifted by the cleverness of the lyrics. It's so repetitive musically, though, that done instrumentally and in this format, it strays into the realm of elevator music (and poor elevator music, at that).

To make matters worse, the label makes it clear that as far as they're concerned, it's all about sucking a few last bucks out of loyal Jethro Tull fans. They drive this point home by getting the order of the songs wrong on both the back of the CD sleeve and the back of the CD booklet inside, although they do at least manage to get it right on the booklet's inside front cover. Obviously, if they could have grabbed me by my ankles, turned me upside down and shook me to get at my money, they would have. But since my door has good locks, they slapped this album together instead.

I'm not going to say that The String Quartets is completely without merit. If you're a fan of Jethro Tull, and you also like light classical music, it might still be worth your while picking this album up, especially since you never know how much longer Ian Anderson will continue recording and performing. Know what you're buying, though. This is at best a niche album for a very particular kind of Ian Anderson/Jethro Tull fan.

Rating: 2/5 stars

Friday, May 19, 2017

Review of Quarterflash's "Quarterflash"

I posted this review yesterday on the Sputnik Music website:

Review Summary: If Pat Benatar had stepped out on Neil Giraldo and had a fling with Becker and Fagen of Steely Dan, the offspring would most likely have been Quarterflash.

The 1980s was a more varied decade musically than it's often given credit for. Yes, there was new wave music and the beginnings of synth-pop, but there was also so much more. There were hair bands and punk bands. There were arena rock bands, trying desperately to hold onto the relevancy they had established in the '70s. There were various sub-species of metal bands, as Sputnik Music readers certainly know. Then there are those bands that didn't fit comfortably into any of these categories. Quarterflash was one of these.

They weren't new wave. They weren't soft enough to be soft rock. They weren't consistently jazzy enough to be jazz rock. And they certainly weren't hard rock. Largely the project of the wife/husband team of vocalist/sax player Rindy Ross and guitarist/songwriter Marv Ross, they were instead something of a musical hybrid. If Pat Benatar had stepped out on Neil Giraldo and had a torrid affair with Walter Becker and Donald Fagan of Steely Dan, Quarterflash might well have been the resultant offspring. It's not that Ross's voice sounds like Benatar's. It isn't quite as powerful, but it's tastefully smoky and has its own unique quality. Some of the band's songs, though, sound like they'd fit very comfortably in Benatar's catalog. 

Quarterflash, the band's first album, was also their most successful. Released in 1981, the LP charted at #8 on the Billboard charts, and was eventually certified platinum by the RIAA. It was powered largely by a hit single that still gets airplay today, "Harden My Heart". "Harden My Heart" reached #1 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart, and charted #3 on their Hot 100 chart. A well-crafted breakup song, it features a catchy and powerful sax line, and one of Ross's best vocals, especially on the lead-in to the chorus, as she sings "Darlin', in my wildest dreams, I never thought I'd go/But it's time to let you know/I'm gonna harden my heart..." This track was later featured in the 2007 video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories, and was included in the Broadway jukebox musical Rock of Ages as well, doubtlessly netting the Rosses some serious coin.

The rest of Quarterflash also holds up pretty well today, almost 40 years later. There are 9 songs in total, with second guitarist Jack Charles taking the lead vocal on two of them, including "Critical Times", which he wrote, and "Cruisin' With the Deuce". "Find Another Fool", the most Benatar-like song on the album, was also a minor hit, charting at #16 in the U.S. Another track, "Right Kind of Love" was also released as a single, although this one failed to chart.

Other than "Harden My Heart", my favorite track on Quarterflash is a slow, moving ballad called "Love Should Be So Kind." A song firmly in the "love sucks" category, it features one of Rindy Ross's most poignant vocals, as she sings lyrics such as "Love is easier to give at night/Nothing's in the light, nothing in a sight/Reveals the thief we hide." Another high-quality number is the album closer, "Williams Avenue". This is a jazz-rock song immortalizing a famous street in the band's hometown of Portland, Oregon, as they assure us that "The wine is red and the song is blue/High on Williams Avenue."

Quarterflash released a total of three albums in the '80s, then disbanded, reuniting at various times over the next three decades to release three more albums. To the extent they are remembered at all, though, it is largely due to "Harden My Heart" and the Quarterflash LP. Like the wine on Williams Avenue, this single and the album it's contained on have aged nicely. Both are minor gems in the history of rock music.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Monday, May 15, 2017

Review of Blondie's "Pollinator"

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

Review Summary: While the new Blondie album is inconsistent and Harry's voice has frayed over time, it's still a pretty entertaining listen.

The new Blondie album is a bit of a mixed bag. Entitled Pollinator, the LP is more of a collaborative effort than any previous Blondie project. Only two of the its eleven tracks were written by the band's usual songwriting team of Deborah Harry and Chris Stein. Two others were penned by their keyboard player Matt Katz-Bohen and his wife (and childhood sweetheart) Laurel, and one other was composed by Harry and Dev Hyne. The rest of the album was farmed out to the music community in general, so tracks are included that were written by a smorgasbord of other artists, including new wave legend Johnny Marr, pop songstress Charlie XCX, singer/songwriter Sia with Nick Valensi of The Strokes, David Sitek from TV on the Radio, and Adam Johnston from And each of the Harry/Stein tracks features a guest appearance: by Joan Jett on "Doom or Destiny" and by actor/comedian John Roberts (of Bob's Bergers) on "Love Level".

The result is a product that's fairly entertaining but also somewhat uneven. In the pantheon of the band's post-1980s studio output, it ranks far below 2014's Ghosts of Download and 1999's No Exit, and it's also probably a grade below their 2011 Panic of Girls album. On the other hand, it's way better than 2003's The Curse of Blondie.

This next paragraph hurts my heart to write, but it needs to be done. Let's talk about Deborah Harry's voice. I love Ms. Harry dearly for the years of entertainment she's given me, but those years have taken their toll. At 71 years of age, she deserves credit for hanging in there this long, and honestly, she's cheating Father Time to still sound as good as she does. But you can clearly hear that her vocal chops aren't what they once were. Her voice is thinner, and when she's forced to hold her notes, they wobble a bit and then wander off in different directions like a pack of kindergartners scattering in a Toys "R" Us store. She has finally drifted into the territory (and you have no idea how much I hate myself for saying this) of "old lady voice". Think Granny on the vintage TV show The Beverly Hillbillies. (That actually sounds like a much worse insult than it is. Listen to a track called "No Time at All" on the original Pippin Broadway soundtrack album, and you'll find that Granny/Irene Ryan also had a much stronger pair of pipes at an advanced age than she had any right to have. But you get what I mean.) 

You could hear this vocal decay a little on Blondie's previous album, but on that one, the songs were so strong that it was easier to ignore. On Pollinator, there are some weaker tracks like "Best Day Ever" and "Gravity" where you can't help but notice it on the choruses. Even on "When I Gave Up on You" (which I actually like), she double tracks her vocals an octave apart, and you can hear on the high part that she's totally straining her onions to keep from going out of key. Mick Jagger nailed it completely when he wrote, "Time waits for no one/No favours has he".

Nevertheless, you see that I still rated the album 3 out of 5 stars, so let's talk about some of the goodies here. My favorite track on Pollinator is "Already Naked", one of the numbers written by the Katz-Bohens. This track lets Harry use some of her unique vocal stylings, and while I could be out of my mind here, I get the feeling that it was actually written about Harry and Stein -- it's kind of a lusty number about a pair of older lovers reliving the passionate days of their youth. "Doom or Destiny", meanwhile, is a throwback to the type of songs Blondie wrote in their heyday. It's kind of a pop punk anthem that gets extra points for giving Deborah Harry and Joan Jett the chance to sing one together.

Other highlights include the Johnny Marr song "My Monster" (one of the more upbeat tracks on the album), and the synth-pop ditty "Long Time". And "Fun", the 4th track on the album, is a dance-friendly disco number that might just take you back to "Heart of Glass". Both "Fun" and "Long Time" were released as singles, and "Fun" charted #1 in the U.S. on the Billboard dance chart.

Pollinator is an inconsistent album, but it shows that Blondie does have some gas left in the tank. The LP has been pretty well received by critics so far, and it even hit #4 on the British charts. Harry's voice may have frayed some over the years, but she still has technique and plenty of sassy attitude to compensate. So if you've been a fan over the years, don't give up on them yet. Much like the tireless bee, this wily band of pollinators still have some sting in their stingers.

Rating: 3/5 stars

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Review of Yes's "Keystudio"

I posted the following review last night on the Sputnik music website:

Review Summary: Although technically a compilation album, this LP serves as the de facto last studio album by the classic Yes lineup of Anderson, Howe, Wakeman, Squire and White.

There's no question that Yes has one of the more interesting histories in the annals of rock music. The band has had a plethora of excellent musicians over the years, and has generated various spin-off bands as well. After the band's highly acclaimed Union tour in 1991, which merged Yes's most popular offshoot band, Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe with Chris Squire's version of Yes (which included guitarist Trevor Rabin, keyboard player Tony Kaye and drummer Alan White), Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman and Bill Bruford once again left the band. The remaining members released the poorly received Talk LP in 1994. At the conclusion of the Talk tour, Rabin and Kaye departed to pursue other projects, so not surprisingly, the remaining members of Yes invited Howe and Wakeman to rejoin the band. 

This led to two of the stranger albums in Yes history, Keys to Ascension in 1996, and Keys to Ascension 2 in 1997. Both were double albums, and both consisted of a blend of brand new studio tracks and live versions of vintage 1970s Yes songs. This ticked off Wakeman, who felt that the band had basically wasted a perfectly good new studio album's worth of material, so he left the band again. In 2001, however, he won the point in retrospect, when Yes took the two studio tracks from Keys to Ascension and the five studio tracks from Keys to Ascension 2, and belatedly released them together on a compilation album called Keystudio. Of course, by that time, any possible excitement that a brand new original studio album by the classic Yes lineup might have generated was long gone, so Keystudio didn't chart at all (nor was it especially strongly promoted). However, what this means to Yes fans is that not only is Keystudio a de facto Yes studio album, it is, in fact, the last studio work that the lineup of Anderson, Howe, Wakeman, Squier and White ever recorded.

So how is it? It's pretty good. In fact, it's arguably the best album of original Yes material released after 1980's Drama LP, other than 1989's Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe (which isn't an official Yes album). There are only seven songs here, but in typical Yes fashion, the album still clocks in at an impressive hour and fifteen minutes, with two of the tracks ("Mind Drive" and "That, That Is") surpassing 18 minutes each. I find the sound to be somewhere between that of the 1978 Tormato album (but don't worry, it's definitely better than Tormato) and Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe. It's a pretty dense work, although it's not nearly as impenetrable as 1970's Tales of Topographic Oceans. And as you might expect, each of the five band members gets plenty of time to show off his virtuosity. 

My strongest criticism is this: there are seven good tracks here, but not necessarily any great ones. For this reason, opinions vary as to which are the strongest songs on the album. The track that most stood out for me when I first heard the two Key to the Ascension CDs was "Children of Light". And although Keystudio offers a slightly different version of the song with an extended Wakeman intro, it's still my favorite number, followed by "Footprints" and a beautiful instrumental track called "Sign Language". However, a quick poll of two other Yes fans found that for one, "That, That Is", "Be the One" and "Mind Drive" were the top tracks while another cited "Mind Drive", "Footprints" and "Sign Language" as his favorites. So clearly, there is no consensus as to which is Keystudio's best song. 

One thing of note here is that several tracks on the LP find Anderson's lyrics veering away from his usual mysticism to more socially conscious subjects. "That, That Is" in particular starts with lyrics about inner city gang violence, crack addicts and dead children. Anderson being Anderson, however, the lyrics become more abstract and spiritual as the song goes on, finally ending with "Live for the breaking free/Live for the breaking freedom/Just let it come through come through". So even in this song, we're not exactly dealing with Lou Reed's "Dirty Blvd".

Keystudio isn't really an album for making new Yes fans. It's one of their more obscure releases. It wasn't highly acclaimed when it was released (although to be fair, both Keys to Ascension and Keys to Ascension 2, the two albums from which it draws its tracks, were both received positively upon their respective releases), and it actually went out of print in 2010. Nevertheless, it's a solid album of original Yes songs by one of the band's best-loved lineups. If it had been released in lieu of the two live/studio hybrids that drove Wakeman out of the band in 1997, it would probably have received the adulation of Yes fans everywhere. It would certainly be better known than it is today. Like I said, it won't make Yes any new fans. For those like myself who are already fans, though, it's certainly a fine addition to your collection.

Rating: 3/5 stars

Friday, May 5, 2017

Review of Greywind's "Afterthoughts"

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

Review Summary: This album is one of the surprise treats of 2017.

1 out of 1 thought this review was well written

I had the good fortune to spend a night in Killarney a few years back. It's a lovely little place in southwestern Ireland that seems to be a must stop for most of the Irish tours. From what I saw, it's a town full of pubs geared towards tourists where they play traditional Irish music virtually every night. What it isn't, typically, is a launching pad for young musicians who want to create a career in rock music. Nevertheless, Killarney is the starting point for Greywind, a brand new two-piece brother-sister band who just released their debut album Afterthoughts to mostly rave reviews. 

The siblings in question, Paul and Steph O'Sullivan, wanted to form a band that would tour the world, but had a hard time finding like-minded band mates. This held them back for awhile, until a tragic event, the suicide of their uncle, convinced them that life was too short to delay pursuing their dream. The pair subsequently recorded a demo and posted it on the internet, and were immediately inundated with industry interest. Shortly thereafter, they signed with a management company and began working with Grammy-winning producer Jason Perry to develop the album that became Afterthoughts.

The style of music here is heavy alternative rock with powerful female vocals. Several Sputnik staff members and users have posted soundoffs about the album, and they're mostly pretty spot-on. One compared the young band to Flyleaf, which is an accurate analogy, except that I think these guys are starting out on a higher level than Flyleaf ever reached (and also, they're not an overtly Christian rock band like Flyleaf was). Another compared Steph O'Sullivan to Paramore's Hayley Williams. More on that in a minute.

The music itself is mostly created by brother Paul O'Sullivan on guitar, with an able assist on bass and drums from Mark Chapman and Adam Perry, respectively. It's heavy at some points, moody and atmospheric at others, with some pretty well-written songs for a debut album. What sets the band apart from a host of others, though, is the vocals.

For me, the two primary dimensions I rate vocalists on are power and beauty. Singers like Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine or Ann Wilson of Heart, for example, rank pretty high on the power scale, but I don't find their voices particularly beautiful. Candice Night of Blackmore's Night, on the other hand, sings with a respectable level of force, but her real strength is that her voice is just exquisitely lovely. Steph O'Sullivan is that rare kind of singer who ranks near the top of both scales. She can belt it out with the best of them, but even more importantly, she's just really, really, pleasant to listen to. She sings with the emotive style of a Hayley Williams, and while she hasn't yet developed Williams' charisma, her voice might even be prettier.

The LP's best number is the title track, which is also the one that first drew all of the internet attention. It's one of those songs that starts quietly, with an interesting acoustic guitar line and a controlled first verse, then bursts into sonic flames when it hits the chorus. I couldn't tell you exactly what it's about -- it's something of an epic fantasy involving kingdoms and shipwrecks -- but the lyrics are interesting, and contain some unusual phrases for a rock song, such as "Solace will find you," and "I left you with roses grown in hell", and even "Silence ensues". It grabbed me from the first listen, and immediately predisposed me to like the rest of the album.

Running a close second is "Stitch on My Wings". This is a mid-tempo power ballad that comes dangerously close to being one of those sickeningly perky "Wind Beneath My Wings" kind of tracks. Thankfully, the song's hook, powered by Steph's insanely appealing vox, keeps it from falling over that particular ledge, as she blasts out "Stitch on my wings, stitch on my wings/Or let me fall".

I want to take a few words here to point out that the album art for Afterthoughts is especially alluring. The front cover depicts a snow-covered forest engulfed in flames, as a single tiny figure watches from the shore of a lake. Inside, there's a booklet that contains a one-page lyric sheet for each song, and each page has its own picture, with images of oceans, trees and fire throughout. All of these pictures are from paintings by a British artist who really makes an impressive use of rich colors, Daniel Conway. Obviously if the music on the the album sucked, you probably wouldn't buy it just for the art. But given that it's a pretty strong LP anyway, Conway's art is a nice little bonus.

Afterthoughts is one of the surprise treats of 2017 so far. I don't know if Greywind will make it to the U.S. this year, but if they do, I'd definitely like to catch them. They're playing some festival dates in Germany and the U.K. this summer, though, so if you live in the vicinity, I'd encourage you to check them out. This is a promising debut album. I look forward to hearing from this band again in the future.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Just Checking In

I haven't posted anything other than album reviews in more than a month, so I figured it's time I check in.

As you can see from my previous posts, I've been averaging  a couple of reviews a week for the last few months, not a bad pace if I do say so myself. Haven't been out for any live music since The Pretenders/Stevie Nicks show, but I do have tickets for some shows coming up, including a couple at Jones Beach, so somewhere down the line, I'll have some new shows to write about.

One item that caught my eye is the Montauk Music Festival, which is coming up the weekend of May 18-21 out in (can you guess?) Montauk, NY. I won't be able to stay the weekend there, but there are some interesting looking acts scheduled to play, and I live far enough east in Suffolk County to maybe shoot out there for a set or two over the course of that weekend. If I do, I'll write about it. Some of you may want to check out the website at

Have a few new album reviews in the works that I'll write up over the next few weeks, including a review of an album by an exciting new Irish band from Killarney featuring siblings Paul and Steph O'Sullivan. I'll also be writing a review of Keystudio, a compilation album by Yes that kind of operates as a long lost studio album -- it's a compilation of the studio tracks from Yes's two Keys to Ascension albums. And I'll be writing a review of the brand spanking new Blondie album, Pollinator, which comes out this coming Friday. Good times!

For anyone who'd like to check out my User page on the Sputnik Music website, the link is The page will give you access to all of my album reviews (with classy album art for each review) and a few other tidbits.

It's May, and the summer is just barreling in. Hope you guys have some musical plans of your own for the warm weather months.

Review of The Magnetic Fields' "50 Song Memoir"

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

Review Summary: Don't be daunted by the size of this album. While not every single song is a winner, most of it is pretty damned good.

2 out of 2 thought this review was well written

As this album has already been very capably reviewed twice already on this site, I'm going to limit this write-up to either points that haven't previously been made, or to elements I really want to emphasize. 50 Song Memoir, as you probably already know, is a 5-disc, 50-song opus by Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields. It's the band's first LP since 2012's middling effort Love at the Bottom of the Sea, and easily the band's best album since 1999's 69 Love Songs. Something about epic-sized theme albums seems to bring out the best in Mr. Merritt. The concept here is simple -- the album gives us one song for each of the first 50 years of his life.

The first and most important point I want to make about the album is this: Don't be daunted by the album's volume. I'm a huge fan of Merritt's various undertakings, and even my first thought when I heard about this project was "Oh no, not another one." This was partially because working my way through a 5-disc album seemed a little overwhelming, and partly because I feel that his work with The Magnetic Fields has been fairly inconsistent since 2004's i (although his output with Future Bible Heroes has been a lot more even). But not to worry, there are ameliorating factors at work here, and whatever listening labor you have to put in is well worth the effort. 

For one thing, the album isn't nearly as dense as you'd think. 5 discs (for the CD version) seems like a lot, until you realize there are only 10 relatively short songs per disc. The whole thing could have been squeezed into an admittedly crammed 2 discs, but for Merritt's desire to neatly divide each disc into one decade of his life. When you think about it, there are almost 20 fewer songs here than there were on 69 Love Songs, which is usually considered the band's best album. And while I won't try to make the case that every single song is a winner, most of it is pretty damned good. Now you can find more abbreviated versions of the album -- I know that Spotify has posted a 16-song version called Selections from 50 Song Memoir. Nevertheless, I'd advise against going that route. If you do, you're relying on someone else's taste to pick the choicest songs. The Spotify version picks many of the best tracks, including "A Cat Named Dionysius" and "Have You Seen It in the Snow?", but misses several of my favorites such as "Hustle 76" and "A Serious Mistake". Odds are high they've missed some of the ones that would become your favorites too. So don't be intimidated. Dive right into the album, in all of its 50-song glory.

The second thing I want to mention is that for a musical autobiography of an artist known as much for his bouts with depression as for his wry sense of humor and songwriting craftsmanship, this really isn't a depressing album. Yes, there are some quality sad songs -- "Lovers' Lies", "Never Again" and "Till You Come Back to Me" come immediately to mind. But by his own admission, Merritt has mellowed some with age -- he says so right on the album's back cover. So there are a lot more funny songs ("Surfin'), whimsical songs ("London by Jetpack") and even out-and-out silly songs ("20,000 Leagues Under the Sea") than there are songs that will bring you down.

Finally, a couple of things about the music itself. Unlike 69 Love Songs, Merritt himself handles the lead vocals for all 50 songs. You would think that this might get tiresome, but somehow it doesn't. I saw an interview with him recently about why he used Susan Anway as the vocalist for MF's first couple of albums, and he said it was because his present voice sounds like Pavarotti's compared to the way it sounded back then. He's definitely not Pavarotti, but there is something pleasing about his deep bass voice and dry delivery, maybe even something reassuring about it. So for me, at least, his voice never became boring over the course of this super-sized LP.

Instrumentally, the album sounds sparse, but it actually isn't. More than anything, Magnetic Fields has always been primarily a vehicle meant to focus on Merritt's songwriting, so the instruments themselves are usually not in the forefront. There's more going on here than immediately meets the ear, though. According to a video interview Merritt did to publicize this album, each song features seven different instruments (with the exception of the cacophonous "The Day I Finally..." which is done with a Mary Poppins-style one-man band). Many of the instruments are relatively obscure, and from what Merritt said, it sounds as though several of them were falling apart and barely made it though the recording process. In the booklet that accompanies the CD-set (which also contains copies of a handwritten lyric sheet for each song and a nifty little interview of Merritt conducted by his friend and musical collaborator Daniel Handler), the list of instruments that Merritt alone plays takes up half of a page, before you even get to those played by the 13 other contributors. So the musical production is very elaborate and planned out, even when it intentionally presents itself as just part of the atmosphere.

If you are in any way a fan of The Magnetic Fields, or of Stephin Merritt's songwriting or music, I'm going to encourage you to suck it up and plow into 50 Song Memoir. If it feels a little like 50-song overkill, you don't have to do it all at once. They say that the way you eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Take it one disc at a time if you need to. But either way, don't hold back. Because this particular elephant tastes more like steak than chicken. (With apologies for the elephant-eating analogy to the very vegetarian Mr. Merritt.)

Rating: 3.5/5 stars