Friday, July 28, 2017

Kansas, and how angels get their wings

I had a good day at work this past Wednesday. I had what might well be my last visit with a child I've been working with who is about to be adopted by a Long Island couple. And it doesn't get much better than that. As far as I'm concerned, every time a child gets adopted by a good family, another angel gets their wings. (You know, like when a bell rings in It's a Wonderful Life!).

This put me in such a happy mood that I decided to celebrate and treat myself by seeing Kansas at the Westbury Music Fair. (I refuse, on principle, to use this venue's bank name. Most of the time, I can't remember it anyway).

Now I don't even want to tell you how long I've wanted to see this band. I can remember working one of my first jobs, just after (temporarily) dropping out of college. The boss's daughter, a young newlywed woman, was prattling on excitedly about her and her husband going to see Bowie live. "I see that Kansas is playing there the next night," I offered helpfully. "Oh, we only go to see good bands," she responded, her nose high in the air. "Oh, yeah? Well ... well ... eff you, and your useless husband" I shot back. In my heart at least. Actually, I think I just weakly stated "I like Kansas." And I should. Think about it for a minute: "Carry On Wayward Son" and "Dust in the Wind" -- two of the greatest rock songs of all time, both written and recorded by Kansas. (Well, "Dust" might actually be classified as a folk song, but you know what I mean).

And I do. But somehow, even though they come to Long Island once or twice a year, and I always mark it on my calendar, I never wind up going. At least until this past Wednesday. I think it's because Denise, being basically an '80s girl, has no interest in them whatsoever. My son might go with me, but he wouldn't enjoy them. I know his taste. And my daughter would probably go with me. But she really only knows "Carry On" and "Dust", and she'd be bored the rest of the night. She's not really a progressive rock fan either.

In spite of that, I had marked the Kansas date on my calendar a few months ago, and for once, the stars lined up right. I ended my adoption visit already halfway to Westbury, with plenty of time to grab some food and put my fanny in a seat at the arena with time to spare. As I got in my car, I started to think, "Maybe I shouldn't. I've been to a bunch of concerts recently anyway, and I have a few more on my calendar in the immediate future. And we just got back from vacation in Florida, so we still have all those bills to pay. I should be responsible for once, and just save the money." Nah.

I arrived in the parking lot of the Westbury Music Fair about a half hour later. I went to the box office, and as I suspected, there were plenty of tickets available. And wouldn't you know it, one of them had my name on it. (At least it did after I bought it).

On the way in, I ran into the venerable Long Island music scene veteran John Blenn and his wife Joni. We caught up a little bit -- I haven't seen him for at least a decade. I actually expected to run into more people that I knew, but that didn't happen. But it was nice to see John and Joni, anyway.

The Westbury Music Fair is one of my favorite places on Long Island to see a national act. It's always comfortable, and the seats are all close enough to the stage that you feel like you're part of show. Heck, Deborah Harry once accidentally flashed me there, but that's a story for another day. And the sound is usually good. When I was in my 20's, it was a classy venue that basically only showcased old fart music. Heck, I think Eydie Gorme's ghost still sings there with Steve Lawrence's mummified body three or four times a year. But now I'm an old fart, so it's my old fart bands that play there. This aging thing does have some benefits.

Kansas had no opening act. Instead, they went on about 8:15 (fifteen minutes later than advertised) and played without a break until 10. Now I'd say the venue was only a little more than half full, with the band playing in the half round. But I have to tell you, I would characterize the crowd that was there as wildly enthusiastic. See kids, this is what your parents and your grandparents do when you're not around -- they rock the fuck out! I'd tell you what else they do too, but you'd never be able to look grandma in the eye again. I can tell you for sure that some of the grandpa's here were going to get lucky tonight! Especially the balding gentleman in the row in front of me, whose date for the night (his wife, I hope) was shaking her long white hair like crazy, fist pumping like a madwoman, and shaking what she had so hard I was afraid she'd break a hip. She was pumped, happy, and feeling young again, and I only hope she could keep her hands off of the poor old geezer long enough to let him drive home safely.

Kansas is sounding mighty good these days. Ronnie Platt, the guy who took over for Steve Walsh on most of the lead vocals, sounds great, and the rest of the band was excellent also. (Mind you, like many of us, they're looking a little long in the tooth these days. From my angle, the guitarist Rich Williams was looking frighteningly similar to Stan Lee. Excelsior, baby!) They filled most of the show with songs from their two greatest albums, Leftoverture and Point of Know Return, occasionally sprinkling in the odd song from some of their other releases. So I had no complaints. (Well, not many, anyway. I'd have loved it if they'd have played "Can I Tell You" from their first album, which was the first Kansas song I ever heard. And and it would have been great if they'd played "With This Heart" from their album of last year The Prelude Implicit, instead of going with "Rhythm in the Spirit". But I'm really, really nitpicking here.

Anyway, they got a couple of well-deserved standing O's throughout the night, so all was good. So I finally saw Kansas, man. I ask you, can Styx be far behind?

I've got a few bloggy coming attractions for you of things heading your way in the very near future, including a review of the new Foster the People album, an atypically controversial column on music, politics and Juliana Hatfield, a possible write-up on Mamma Mia! at the Patchogue Theater, and (you read it here first) The return of The Gangsta Rabbi!

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Review of Matisyahu's "Undercurrent"

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

Review Summary: "You've been traveling the speed of light, you've been searching. You've been moving all of your life, you've been reaching."

I'm going to be honest here. I shouldn't really be the person to review this album. Matisyahu's music generally combines reggae and hip-hop, and his lyrics are often reflections of Hebrew spirituality. I've never been a fan of hip-hop, and while I like reggae, my knowledge of it doesn't run much deeper than Bob Marley. As for Hebrew spirituality, I took a course in it once, but that's about it. I was raised as a Roman Catholic, and spent 12 years in Catholic school, so I suspect I'm ill equipped for any deep understanding of orthodox Jewish thought. Here's the thing, though. My guess is that if I didn't review Undercurrent for this site, no one else was going to either. And that would be a shame, because this is a beautiful album.

Matisyahu first burst onto the scene with his second album, Youth, in 2006, which charted #4 on the Billboard charts. At that time, he sported a full beard and identified as a Hasidic Jew. Hailed by some as the "Reggae Rabbi", he performed on the late night talk show circuit, where he was treated as something of a novelty act. Since that time, his musical and mystical journeys have continued, even as his mass popularity has waned somewhat. These days, he is beardless, and his music has moved more in the direction of hip-hop and improvisational rock and further away from reggae. Undercurrent, his sixth studio album and his first self-produced one, has yet to chart. Then again, there hasn't exactly been a massive amount of publicity given to this album.

The music on Undercurrent was largely written by Matisyahu's band, who improvised for hours while he listened. Gradually various sonic themes were developed into songs, onto which he eventually grafted his beats and lyrics. Consequently, what developed was an album filled with lush soundscapes that were allowed to develop at their own pace. It's a subtle album -- it takes repeated listens to really take in the music. Don't look for pop hooks here. Instead, just sit back and let the music take you.

My biggest criticism is that as a result of way the album was created, some of the tracks tend to meander. There are only eight songs in all, the shortest of which is "Back to the Old" at nearly five-and-a-half minutes. So sometimes, the songs continue well past the time you're ready for them to end. Nevertheless, much of the music is exquisite. I particularly like the guitar work here, which I presume is done largely by Aaron Dugan. I say presume because sadly, this is one of those albums that is packaged in such a way that the song credits are written in about 2-1/2 pt. type on a colored background -- even a magnifying glass won't help you here. Anyway, the songs are mostly slow, and the guitar work reminds me of David Gilmour's. Not that it mimics his style, but more because it's somehow very expressive without being overly flashy. Dugan says a lot with just a few notes. The keyboards, which are probably provided by a musician called Big Yuki, are strong as well. (Dugan and Big Yuki are, to best of my and Wikipedia's knowledge, Matisyahu's most recent guitarist and keyboardist).

As for Matisyahu himself, he appears to be having a ball here, trying on different hats in various songs, as he rhymes and sings his way through a montage of roles, all the while reflecting on themes of seeking the divine, making yourself into the person you always knew you could be, etc. In "Back to the Old", he imagines himself as a frail old man dependent on his son, while in "BSP: Blue Sky Playground", he and his childhood friend watch their children play together and reminisce about their own playground days. Sprinkled throughout are references to dreidels, the Rabbi Nachman, Pharoah, etc. that let you know you're traveling through a very specific cultural landscape. There are also various references to the BQE (Brooklyn Queens Expressway), the LIE (Long Island Expressway) and Crown Heights, which remind you that you can take the boy out of New York, but ... well, you know.

The standout track on the album is the first one, "Step Out Into the Light". It's a deliberate song with just a bit of an edge, as the somewhat formless verses suddenly coalesce into a tight and inspirational chorus. Thematically, it's about our endless quest to find some kind of ultimate reality, and about standing on the cusp of the fruition of that journey. There's some tasty sax playing at the climax of this song, which then fades into some noodling acoustic guitar notes. Awesome stuff.

"BSP: Blue Sky Playground" is another track that really kicks it into gear on the chorus. I wish I could tell you who the other rapper is on this track, but once again, 2-1/2 pt. type on the credits = me rapidly losing my eyesight. But it's a good collaboration with, well, somebody. "Forest of Faith", on the other hand, has a mysterious quality to the music, with lyrics like "Colonial ghosts make a sound like 'whoosh' ", and a chorus that asks the eternal question (of God?) "What a man gotta do/To get through to you?"

Love him or hate him, Matisyahu just keeps following his own path. He's long since proven that he's much more than just a novelty act. If you're willing to take your own leap of faith, and follow him on a spirit quest through a desert filled with new musical structures and visions, you'll be rewarded with sounds both dazzling and arcane. This album may never make the Billboard charts, but it's a sure bet to make my Top Ten albums for this year.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Pvris, 30 Seconds to Mars and Muse, plus Chester Bennington

So after not attending a concert at Jones Beach since three years ago when I took my son and his buddy to see Linkin Park, I've been to two concerts there within a week. Life is strange sometimes.

I'm not sure why I haven't been there in a few years. Denise and I used to go a couple of times a year. I think part of it is that I really wasn't feeling my best until this last year. I think it's also because some of the prices got out of hand. I looked into taking Denise to the Sting/Peter Gabriel show there two years ago, and it was so expensive it just pissed me off. Denise loves Sting (I think she'd dump me for him in a minute), and we've seen him several times, including three times (I think) at Jones Beach -- twice solo and once during The Police reunion tour. And I'd have loved to have seen Peter Gabriel live. But I think the tickets for their tour together were close to a couple of hundred dollars a pop, and that's a lot for one night of music.

So last week, we saw the Incubus concert there, partially because the tickets were just $20 each, and it got to me to thinking, "What was the last show I saw here?" And as best I can remember, it was that Linkin Park show. And then, the very next day after seeing Incubus, Chester Bennington of Linkin Park killed himself. Weird. And sad.

I don't know a lot about Chester Bennington outside of Linkin Park. I was a late arrival to the LP train -- I first heard them through their song on the first Twilight soundtrack album, "Leave Out All the Rest", which I liked. The first album of theirs I ever bought was Living Things, a very solid album. Their song "Burn It Down" from that album made my Top 20 Songs list for that year. My son got very into the band, primarily through his best buddy, who cited Linkin Park as his favorite band ever. Usually my son hates my music (not unusual, I know). Linkin Park was the rare band we could enjoy together. So 3 years ago, I took my son and his friend to see Linkin Park at Jones Beach for their tour for The Hunting Party album, and it was a great show. I'm pretty sure my son will still have the memories from it when he's my age.

Like a lot of Linkin Park fans, we were both a little shocked at their new album's sharp turn into light pop. It's not that they didn't have that side to them -- "Leave Out All the Rest" certainly isn't a heavy song. But especially after The Hunting Party, it was a huge change in direction, and not an entirely welcome one by their fan base. My son really doesn't care for One More Light much. I like the title track a lot, but most of the rest of it is pretty mediocre. But a lot of the kids on The Sputnik Music site hated it -- its current rating on the site is 1.7 out of 5 stars -- below poor. And I know that Bennington was very defensive about some of the reaction to the album. From what I read, he had a lot of other problems, including issues with depression, and a strong reaction to the suicide of Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, a close friend of his who killed himself two months ago. So there was a lot that contributed to his death. But I'm sure the fans' reaction to One More Light couldn't have helped things.

Anyway, here's to you, Mr. Bennington. Thanks for all the music, and especially for giving my son and I something to bond over. I hope you've found peace.

So, Muse. Muse is a weird group. I wouldn't exactly consider myself a fan, although I do like some of their stuff, and I do own a copy of their album The Resistance. Much like Incubus, Denise likes this band better than I do, and she was the one first thinking about going to the show. I was on the fence, but then I saw the full lineup for the concert, and noticed that Pvris was opening for them. (I know they like to stylize their band name, but I don't do all caps. It bothers the hell out of my OCD.). Now I won't say I love this band -- I rated their first album, White Noise, at 2.5/5 stars, which is average. But I do love their song "Smoke" -- It was one of my Top 10 Songs of 2015. And they have a new album coming out next month, which I'm definitely going to check out. The other act scheduled was 30 Seconds to Mars, who I'd heard of but wasn't familiar with at all.

It's kind of brutal comparing music shows, but in this case, having just gone to the Incubus show, I can't really help but to compare it to this one. And although I enjoyed Incubus, in every way but one, the Muse show was better. The only victory in the Incubus column was the weather. While the weather for the Incubus concert was as perfect as you could ask for, for Muse, it was less so. Saturday was a hot, cloudy day. It was humid, and there was rain on the horizon, so much so that we were never really sure until the show was over if the concert would take place, or if they'd make it all the way through without stopping. Happily, they did, although not without us getting wet. It drizzled all through Pvris's set, then stopped raining for 30 Seconds to Mars. Then, about halfway through Muse's set, just as they were about to play "Supermassive Black Hole", the skies opened up, and while it wasn't exactly pouring, it rained for most of the rest of the night. Luckily, it never quite got heavy enough to send us scrambling for cover, although it got close a few times. Anyway, Muse made it through the show, and all was well.

As I said, in comparing the shows, everything else was in Muse's favor. The crowd was much larger -- not a sellout, but not far off. Consequently, the sound was better from the beginning of the show -- more bodies in the seats equals much less echo. And going band by band, Pvris was better than Judah and the Lion, 30 Seconds to Mars was better than Jimmy Eat World, and although I actually like Incubus better than Muse as a band, Muse put on the better show.

Pvris didn't play for that long -- only lists 6 songs for the show, although I'd have sworn they played more -- but they played well. I notice that their drummer Justin Nace really plays the hell out of those drums. And while Lynn Gunn's voice was maybe a little wild, it was strong and powerful. I haven't formed much of an opinion of their new material yet, but they did a nice job on "Fire" from their first album, and yes, they made me happy by playing "Smoke".

I didn't realize until I researched them a few weeks before the show, but 30 Seconds to Mars is the actor Jared Leto's band. I watched a couple of their videos prior to the show -- very high concept. I'm not sure what genre they fit into most comfortably -- maybe heavy alternative. Anyway, considering how hard it is to enjoy a band whose music you're really not familiar with, I liked their set a lot. Leto is a weird guy -- he came out  wearing some kind of silver mumu. But he has a strong voice, and he knows how to take control of a crowd. It's sort of not fair. He's rich, good-looking, a famous actor and a talented singer -- shouldn't he share at least some of that good fortune with poor Corey Feldman?

Leto's band started out blazing hot with a couple of numbers called "Up in the Air" and "Conquistador". I thought they lost a little energy in the middle part of their set, but they picked it up again later on. A couple of their highlights were a song called "Kings and Queens", and another song called "Do or Die" (both of which had sing along parts. Leto loves his "Whoa whoa"s and "Oh oh"s). They also had fans sing along on a new single they're recording (I don't know the name of it). And Leto did a tribute to Chester Bennington during his set, and dedicated the song "Alibi" to him.

As for Muse, I have to tell you that they're a great live band. Matt Bellamy has an amazing voice that's as accurate live as it is in the studio, and their set is littered with interesting video effects and various other forms of entertainment (such as pyrotechnics during one song, huge white balloons for the crowd to bat around during another, and a machine that shoots out snow and confetti during yet another song).

A lot of the folks on the Sputnik site who attended the show are longtime fans of the band, and were excited about songs played from the early albums. Even Denise was thrilled that they closed their encore with "Knights of Cydonia" from their Black Holes & Revelations album. But I only became familiar with them from the version of "Supermassive Black Hole" on the Twilight soundtrack, and the only album I own of theirs is The Resistance, although I've heard Denise's copy of The Second Law a few times. You'd think I'd like them better -- I'm a huge progressive rock band. But the prog rock band they remind me of the most is Queen, and I was never a huge fan of theirs either. I like certain songs from both bands, but they're both a little too theatrical and over the top for me. And it's actually a bit of a shame, because as much as I enjoyed this show, I'm pretty sure that if I were a big Muse fan, it would have been one of the best shows of my life. As it was, it was still pretty good.

The two songs I most wanted to hear were "Supermassive Black Hole" and "Uprising", both of which they performed. The only song I can think of that I would have liked for them to play that they didn't was "Neutron Star Collision" from the Eclipse soundtrack. Other highlights of their set included "Hysteria" from their Absolution album, and "Resistance" from The Resistance. They ended their set with a loop of "Drones" from their most recent Drones album, which I liked enough that now I'll have to buy that album. It's almost like electronic medieval chamber music. They also did their own tribute to Chester Bennington before performing "Starlight" from Black Holes & Revelations.

My appreciation for Muse has definitely increased, and given the opportunity, I'd love to see them live again.

So that's about it. I've got a few more concerts coming up in the near future. So you know you'll hear from me again soon, right on this very page. And sometime in the next few days, I'm hoping to finally get to my review of the excellent new Matisyahu album, Undercurrent.

'Night all.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Judah and the Lion, Jimmy Eat World and Incubus

The family and I flew back into MacArthur late Tuesday night after 11 days in Florida. Luckily, I was off from work on Wednesday, because by Wednesday night, Denise and I were heading to Jones Beach to see Jimmy Eat World and Incubus.

I'm really not familiar with Jimmy Eat World. I watched some of their videos Tuesday night, and it turns out I had heard a few of their songs. On an iPod that I have stuffed with some 28,000 songs, though, I don't have even one Jimmy Eat World song. They just never made an impression on me.

As for Incubus, I'd say I'm a casual fan. I first got into them through "Black Heart Inertia" and their Monuments and Melodies album in 2009. They've never had either an album or a song make my Best Of lists for any given year, but I like them enough that I still buy their albums whenever a new one comes out. However, I've been pretty disappointed in their 8 album, released earlier this year. It feels to me like they predetermined a time when they were all going to come back together and create the next album, and when they actually did, it just didn't happen for them this time -- the creative juices just weren't flowing.

Denise likes them more than I do, and she likes 8 more than I do also. They have a little bit of funk to their sound, which always raises a band in her estimation, and she particularly likes the quality of Brandan Boyd's voice. I tried to get tickets to take her two years ago when they came around, but I either couldn't get them, or I couldn't get them at a reasonable price -- I don't remember which. But this time, one of the ticket agencies had some kind of special going where for a week or so, there were a bunch of shows that presumably weren't selling that well with tickets going for $20 a pop. This show was one of them, so Denise jumped on it. The tickets were supposed to be on the top level of the stadium, but when we got there, the show wasn't sold out even with the discounted tickets, so they gave us a free upgrade to the second tier.

The show was scheduled to start at 6:45 PM, and we didn't get there until a little after 7. So as we crossed the parking lot, we could hear that the show had already started. I was pretty sure it wasn't Jimmy Eat World playing, especially when I heard the band cover The Killers' "Mr. Brightside", but no one seemed to know who it was. Luckily, once we got outdoors, I saw that they had a banner overhead, telling us they're called Judah and the Lion.

A couple of words about the venue. I think the last time I saw a show there was when I took my son and his buddy to see Linkin Park 3 years ago, but it hasn't changed much. On the plus side, it's a nice, open stadium, and Wednesday happened to be a great night to see an outdoor show -- there was a cool breeze blowing throughout the night, making it a very pleasant environment. On the negative side, while there are signs all over indicating there's supposed to be no smoking in the seating area, obviously they're just kidding -- people were smoking and vaping their little hearts out while the adolescent-looking usher totally ignored them. Also negative -- for a hefty fellow like myself, the seats are just tight enough to be painful. My hips are still bruised two days later.

I can't give you much of an opinion of Judah and the Lion. By the time we got to our seats, there were only two songs left in their set, neither of which made much of an impression. But they were in a tough position, playing to a still mostly empty stadium, with the sound echoing all over the place, and while the crowd standing in front of them wouldn't have looked bad at a local club, at this venue, it looked miniscule. Denise was a little horrified that the band was using both an accordion and a banjo -- she's really not a fan of banjos. I thought they sounded OK, though.

Jimmy Eat World was up next. I like their sound well enough, but there's really nothing distinctive about them. They play a pleasant enough brand of pop punk, but I can think of about a dozen other bands who sound just like them. If I had to use one word to describe them, it would be "innocuous". I also thought that it was weird that for a known band who's been around a while, they didn't seem to be getting much respect -- Jones Beach has a huge stage, but they had Jimmy Eat World penned up into a small section of it in the middle like the press at a Hillary Clinton rally. I know that Incubus was the headliner, but JeW were being treated like a newbie band who should just be glad to be along for the ride. Anyway, about two-thirds of the way through their set, the stadium had filled up enough that the sound was noticeably improved -- finally, there were enough bodies in the seats that the music wasn't just echoing willy-nilly. Some of their best songs included a slow acoustic song called "Hear You Me", another track called "Pain", and my favorite JeW track, "Sweetness". They closed with another popular older number, "The Middle".

By the time Incubus took the stage, the sun had gone down. It was an especially dark night -- there was no moon, and I only saw one star. They started out with a curious choice, a low-energy number from their new album called "Love in a Time of Surveillance", then launched into "Warning" from their Morning View album. We were still far enough away that it was a little difficult to see the band, and unfortunately, while they had the show on two big screens placed on either side of the stage, instead of a straight video presentation, there were a bunch of effects distorting the picture -- sometimes the video was in black and white, sometimes they had effects going on in the background -- and because the night was already so dark, it was hard to follow the show even on the big screens.

It was an interesting and unusual crowd. A few rows in front of us, I saw a young woman who looked to be in her early 20's there with her parents. Dad was wearing an Incubus shirt from their 2002 tour, and he was loving every minute of the show. I could  be wrong, but I had the feeling that maybe daughter had bought her parents a couple of those $20 tickets as a treat for their anniversary or something. She seemed to be enjoying watching them enjoy the show. It was that kind of crowd.

A couple of thoughts on the show Incubus put on: 1. I thought Brandan Boyd was a little flat for the first few songs, but then he hit his stride. (Maybe it took them a few songs to get the sound in his monitors right). 2. While the stuff from the new album was accepted with mild enthusiasm by the crowd, all of the real excitement was for their older hits like "Drive" and "Wish You Were Here". 3) I was slightly disappointed by their set list. They didn't play "Black Heart Inertia", "Promises, Promises" or "Love Hurts", and they didn't play the one song I like best from the new album, "Familiar Faces". They also didn't play anything from their excellent Trust Fall (Side A) EP from 2015. And I was hoping they'd do "Switchblade" from If Not Now, When, although I knew that was a long shot.They did do a surprising encore, though, the quiet and cool "Aqueous Transmission". This was a nice surprise. 4) Tellingly, my favorite part of the night was when they played their song "Wish You Were Here", then morphed it into the last verse of Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" at the end. 5) Unlike Jimmy Eat World, Incubus had the full run of the stage, but they didn't really use it much. They're a pretty staid band -- they play hard, but they don't move a lot. I saw Paramore at Jones Beach a few years ago, and Hayley Williams was all over the place. Not so much for Incubus. 6) One thing I did appreciate, though -- these guys know how to rock. I love pop hooks, and I enjoy bands that use a lot of synths. But sometimes, it's nice to see a band that's not afraid to just rock out, and do it well.

So overall, a decent night of music, made better by the cool and comfortable weather in the stadium. I don't know how I'd have felt for $75 or so a ticket, but for $25 plus a free upgrade on the seats, the show was a bargain.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Review of Tangerine Dream's "Sorcerer"

I posted the following review earlier this morning on the Sputnik Music website. And since the site has slowed to a crawl tonight, let me tell it wasn't easy.

Review Summary: Tangerine Dream does a masterful job here of creating a dark but vibrant piece of music that matches up perfectly with the film it's meant to represent.

According to Wikipedia, the German synthesizer band Tangerine Dream has created more than sixty film and television soundtracks over the course of their career. Their soundtrack for the William Friedkin film Sorcerer was their first. It was also one of their best. 

Sorcerer is a dark thriller based on the 1950 French novel Le Salaire de la peur by George Artaud. It's also considered a remake of the 1953 film The Wages of Fear. It's a story about four men from various parts of the world all of whom find themselves in a small hellhole of a town in South America where the only work normally available is a low-wage job for an American oil company. All four men are there because they're on the run from something or other, and none of them especially like each other. Nevertheless, they find themselves working together on a dangerous but high-paying assignment driving a pair of makeshift trucks filled with some very unstable explosives through some of the worst terrain you've ever seen. The title of the film, Sorcerer, comes from the name scrawled on one of the two trucks. 

Friedkin commissioned Tangerine Dream to score the film after attending one of their concerts. He encouraged the band to create the score solely based on their ideas after reading the script for the film without seeing any of the footage. When they were finished, he cut his film to fit their score rather than the other way around. Although Friedkin had some issues with various aspects of Sorcerer -- he wasn't able to cast his first choices for several of the roles, and the filming itself was difficult in many respects -- he has always considered Tangerine Dream's score to be one of the film's strengths. The soundtrack album sold pretty well, especially in the UK, where it reached #25 on the UK Albums Chart. 

It's sometimes difficult to describe an all-instrumental album such as this, but I'll give it a go. As you might expect, given the film's subject matter, the music throughout is mostly somber and ominous. In comparison to, say, Tangerine Dream's soundtrack for Firestarter, this is a gloomy, if often exciting, affair. Most of the tracks have some kind of low-end repetitive synth sounds that give the feeling of movement, as the trucks drive around treacherous mountainous roads, roll over bumpy rain forest terrain, and at one point slow to a crawl to traverse a rickety wooden rope bridge that could give you nightmares, all the while hauling cargo that could blow them sky high at any moment. While the Firestarter soundtrack had a few tracks that sounded frantic when the main characters were being chased, and some taut music meant to embody the villainous character of John Rainbird, it also had tracks of beauty and wonder meant to represent the mind-meld between Andy and Vickie McGee and the awe-inducing power of their daughter Charlie. The music was at times dangerous, but at other times profoundly lovely. There's nothing like that here. 

Sorcerer as a film presents us with a bleak and treacherous world, and Tangerine Dream composed a soundtrack to match it. A couple of the tracks barely even qualify as music. The first track on the album, for example, listed as the "Main Title", begins with low, rumbling sounds that are eventually joined by high-pitched organ notes. As the track continues, there are times when the sounds coalesce into short pieces of something melodic, only to drift apart again. It's kind of hypnotic, but not in a pleasant way. It tells you from the start that the story this album will tell is not a happy one. Later tracks lull you with the continual low-end traveling music, only to jar you with searing bursts of organ that make you jump. On track 8, "Rain Forest", as the driving bass notes continue, they're overridden by something that sounds like it might be an alien death ray from a '50s sci-fi flick. But as the sound becomes more repetitive, you realize it's meant to represent the constant droning of windshield wipers, as the truck rambles on through the torrential rain. 

As the description above probably makes clear, the three elements most prevalent in the music throughout this album are the feeling of constant movement, as the trucks work their way through the difficult topography; a feeling of dread, as the music makes it clear that catastrophe could happen at any moment; and a hopeless, heavy-hearted feeling -- the sense that this isn't going to end well. Because of this, I'd have to say that Tangerine Dream has done a masterful job in creating a dark but vibrant piece of music that matches up perfectly with the film it's meant to represent.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Monday, July 3, 2017

Review of The Cars' "Panorama"

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

Review Summary: If you liked the first two Cars albums, you'll like this one. Just maybe a little less.

Panorama was The Cars' third album, released in 1980, following their first two successful releases, The Cars in 1978 and Candy-O in 1979. If you read reviews of the album, two things will strike you. The first is that most of the critiques written when it was first released were significantly more negative than the reviews had been for either of its two predecessor LPs, or for either of the two albums that followed it, Shake It Up in 1981 and Heartbeat City in 1984. The second noticeable thing is that many of the appraisals written years after the fact describe Panorama as more experimental than either of the band's first two albums, and point to this as the reason for the album's initial lack of critical success.

There might be some truth to the first idea. I actually like Panorama better than Shake It Up, but that's a matter of personal taste. The fact is that Panorama is the lowest selling album of The Cars' first five releases, although it still went Platinum in the U.S., which is nothing to sneeze at. So those who view it as the weakest album of the Cars' first five have the sales records on their side. As for the second idea, though, that Panorama was some kind of big change in direction for the band following Candy-O, I just don't hear it. They're maybe playing around more with the synthesizer sounds than they were on the first two albums, and occasionally putting effects on the vocals, but that's about it. The truth is that the biggest difference between Panorama and either of the band's previous albums comes down to one simple difference -- the lack of successful singles.

The Cars were always one of those hybrid bands -- popular in part for their albums and in part for their singles. Their heyday being the new wave period of the late '70s and early '80s, they arrived at a time when the American music scene was in flux, shifting away from bands who made their living off of album rock and FM radio airplay and toward bands who were able to compete in the singles arena. The Cars were normally strong in each of these domains. Much like their first two releases, Panorama featured several songs that got significant FM radio airplay in the U.S., including the title track and the album-closing "Up and Down". It was in the Top 40 realm that the LP fell short.

The Cars' eponymous debut album featured three songs that made the singles chart, and Candy-Ofeatured two. Panorama was the only one of the Cars' first five albums to chart with only one successful single, "Touch and Go", which topped out at #37 on the Billboard Hot 100. Two other tracks were released as singles, "Don't Tell Me No" and "Give Me Some Slack", but neither managed to chart. So as best as I can tell, when critics described Panorama as "experimental", what they really meant was it's stingier with the pop hooks.

In spite of this, there's still plenty to like here. The songs are still imbued with Elliot Easton's impudent guitar bursts and Greg Hawkes' sometimes-strident synthesizers, and feature the same deadpan vocals by Ric Ocasek and Benjamin Orr that helped to give the group their trademark sound. There are ten tracks on the album, with Ocasek taking six of the leads and Orr the other four. As was usually the case, Ocasek wrote all of the songs. The lyrics still as often as not feature male protagonists getting twisted physically and mentally by capable and alluring women who know how to take control of a situation. 

The single, "Touch and Go" is almost delicate for a Cars song. It's a mid-tempo ballad sung by Ocasek and punctuated by little keyboard bursts, with a chorus that's longer than the verses. It doesn't stack up against some of the band's best early singles like "Just What I Needed" or "Let's Go", but it certainly holds its own with others such as "Good Times Roll" or "My Best Friend's Girl".

Other memorable numbers on Panorama include "Gimme Some Slack" (which sounds in some parts like the answer to the question "What would it have been like if Ric Ocasek had fronted The Rolling Stones?"), and the sometimes harsh title track, "Panorama". Other than the single, though, the highlight of the album is probably "Up and Down". It manages to be both raucous and controlled, somehow precise in its mayhem. And yes, as usual, Ocasek is all "up and down" here (and probably sideways as well) over a woman.

To sum it all up, Panorama is vintage Cars, containing all of the elements that made their first two albums so popular. It's maybe just a little more noisy and a little less catchy. If you liked The Carsand Candy-O, you'll probably like Panorama as well. Just maybe not as much.

Rating: 3 of 5 stars