Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Top 20 Songs of 2017, Part 1

Wow, I'm actually getting the first half of this list posted by the end of January. This may be a record for me.

For some reason (probably because I was working from so many damned albums), it was especially difficult to cut it down to 20 songs this year, and in fact, I think when I enter the list on Sputnik this year, I'm going to do it as a Top 25. This is because of two songs in particular that I can't bring myself to totally give up on, but I couldn't get rid of any of the ones in my Top 20 list either. I'll list these two as "Honorable Mentions" below.

I have fewer restrictions for songs than I have for albums. The songs can come from EPs or compilations as well as LPs, just as long as the LP the song is on was released during 2017. (I know sometimes some of these might have been released as singles in 2016, but if the album the song is on was released in 2017, it's a 2017 song).

For some reason, even more so than in previous years, I have a lot of songs on here from albums I thought were just mediocre or even poor, but they had that one great song. Oh well. Anyway, without further doo-doo:

Honorable Mentions: The two songs I couldn't let go of were "Righteous Woman" by Torres and "Obligatory Drugs" by Black Kids. The second one is a completely goofy song, but I can't help but smile every time I play it. And just so my blog readers don't miss out, the other three songs I'll be putting into the Top 25 list on Sputnik are "Tell Me a Story" by Grouplove, "Bad Company" by Jule Vera, and "Heaven" by Pvris.

And here's Part 1 of my list,in reverse order:

20. Coin - "Talk Too Much"

This one is just an alternapop bit of heaven. It's bouncy and it's catchy. It's not the deepest song ever, and if you don't like alternative pop, it won't do anything for you. But I like it. It's from the band's How Will You Know If You Never Try album.

19. Dia - "Gold and Silver"

This is from one of the first albums I listened to last year, Dia's (formerly known as Dia Frampton, of Meg & Dia, and Archis, fame) Bruises. It's a slow and dreamy pop number about Dia's musical dreams, and how much she misses working with her older sister (who has retired from music). The album came fairly close to making my Top 10, only dropping back near the end of the year.

18. The Flaming Lips - "There Should Be Unicorns"

This song is slow and strange, and reminds me of Bob Ross on acid. Except that instead of painting "happy little trees", he's painting unicorns (the ones with the purple eyes, not the ones with the green eyes), and paying huge sums of money to the police, so they can "quit their shitty, violent jobs, and live the greatest life they've ever lived." Ok then.

17. MisterWives - "Machine"

This is one of those cases where I was only so-so on the Connect the Dots album, but I love this song. (This band's "Our Own House" song almost made my Top 20 list in 2015). It's a song that makes you want to move along with it. It's also a Tour de Force for vocalist Mandy Lee, who proves during the bridge she can sing really, really fast, and remember a lot of words as well.

16. Styx - "Locomotive"

One of the advantages of becoming something of an old coot is that you can draw songs from older bands that the kids would never admit listening to because they're long past being cool. (As if "Come Sail Away" could ever go out of style! Hmph!). Anyway, this is a slow, somewhat despairing song that can't help but make me think of Bowie's "Space Oddity". It's sung to a lost spaceship from a sad technician at mission control.

15. Rainer Maria - "Ornaments of Empty"

This one is from this NYC indie rock band's first new studio album in eleven years, S/T (which actually stands for "self-titled", because the album is also simply known as Rainer Maria). It's the ultimate ode to finding yourself turned from a person into a sex object who is fit only to be decorated and displayed.

14. London Grammar - "Truth Is a Beautiful Thing"

This slow and quiet ballad is the title track of the album on which it is presented. While many rave about the vocals of lead singer Hannah Reid, for me, this one is all about the piano, which is absolutely ravishing on both the verses and the choruses. This is another case where I really didn't care much for the rest of the album, but this track is memorable.

13. Motionless in White - "Not My Type: Dead As Fuck 2"

This is a hard-rocking (well, over-the-top, anyway) ode to necrophilia, as lead singer Chris Motionless explains, "If she's got a pulse, then she's not my type". The band's tongue is firmly embedded in their cheek for this one (and also in some less savory places that I won't go into). Completely silly and fun.

12. Said the Whale - "Step Into the Darkness"

This is another tasty alternapop anthem with a fetching pop hook. To quote my own album review re/this song, "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.'" Good stuff.

11. Greywind - "Afterthoughts"

This is the title track from the debut album by this Irish sister/brother band. It's a rocky number, which sort of gives singer Steph O'Sullivan a good excuse to show off her pipes. And show them off she does. Her voice possesses a happy combination of beauty and power, and both of those attributes are on full display here.

So that's it for Part 1 of this list. I'll be back in a day or so to give you Part 2.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Top 10 Albums of 2017

Moving right along from yesterday's list, today I present my Top 10 Albums of 2017 overall.

A brief reminder of the rules as to what constitutes an "album": It has to be an LP of seven songs or more, or at least 30 minutes in length (so EPs are ineligible); and it has to be all by one artist -- no compilations allowed. As I stated yesterday, this year, digital-only releases were allowed. So, for example, although it didn't make this list, an album like Passion Pit's Tremendous Sea of Love was considered, even though they never released it on CD.

Also, a reminder to my blog readers: While I always post my CD reviews on the Sputnik Music site first, and post them here afterwards, for reviews of live concerts and shows, and for my end of the year lists, they're released first here on my blog. Later, they're usually posted (albeit in a much more abbreviated form) as a list on Sputnik Music.

I'll give you a couple of quick honorable mentions here that just missed this list: 1) British musician Barns Courtney with his debut album Attractions of Youth; and 2) Aussie electro dance band Cut Copy with their fifth studio album, Haiku From Zero.

So, let's see how many of our albums by local artists from yesterday's list made this one also. Here they are, in reverse order:

Top 10 Albums of 2017:

10.  Neil Cavanagh - City of the Sun, Valley of the Moon

Again, this is such a beautiful album. And while I talked about "The Gates of Crocheron Park" yesterday, I'd be remiss if I didn't throw a mention of the equally lovely "On a Sunday Afternoon", and the instrumental version of that same song, "Sunday Evening". Makes me proud to be a fellow Queens boy.

9. Wolf Alice - Visions of a Life

Wolf Alice is a female-fronted British alt rock band from North London. I think I first became aware of them from hearing John from the YouTube channel ARTV talking them up, and he was right. They go through a variety of styles on this album. As for lead singer Ellie Rowsell, she can shriek with the best of them, and sing a nice ballad as well. My favorite song on here is the album opener, "Heavenward".

8. Lorde - Melodrama

This album from the New Zealand no-longer-teen sensation Lorde has received a ton of accolades, and rightly so. If all you're familiar with are the singles from this LP, you're missing out. There are a bunch of great songs on here. The number that most blew me away is "Liability". It's an absolutely devastating portrait of a lonely girl who always find herself  used and then dumped, because "You're a little much for me." So good.

7. Greywind - Afterthoughts

I reviewed this one early last year. This is the debut album by a fairly heavy brother-sister band (Paul and Steph O'Sullivan) from a small town in Ireland. She has a voice that's ridiculously powerful and gorgeous. Even the album art for this release is first-rate. Once again, the best track is the first one, which is also the album's title track. There are some excellent rock power ballads on here.

6. Aimee Mann - Mental Illness

This is another album I reviewed early in 2017. It's perhaps Aimee Mann's most stark album ever, and to me, her best one since 2005's The Forgotten Arm. Mann is probably the best singer-songwriter out there these days. I know I'm getting predictable, but yes, the best track is once again the first one, "Goose Snow Cone". (And if you're a cat person, the video for this song might make you cry.)

5. Brand New - Science Fiction

Their last album, 2009's Daisy, came in at #2 on my Top 10 Albums list of that year. That one felt like being inside the mind of a serial killer. This album is more like an episode of The X-Files, complete with possible alien abduction and experimentation. And guess what -- my favorite track here isn't the first one. It's track #6, a little ditty called "137".

4. Matisyahu - Undercurrent

If you're unsettled by listening to the Brand New album, this one will help center you again. You might not hear much about the "Reggae Rabbi" (as he used to be known) on the national scene anymore, but it doesn't mean that Matisyahu has stopped creating beautiful music. His last album, 2014's Akeda, made my Top 10 list for that year, and this one is equally good.

3. Mostly Autumn - Sight of Day

I reviewed this album by the British folky prog rock band Mostly Autumn midway through the year in 2017. They're a band I learned about from fellow prog rock fans on Sputnik Music, and given that they've been recording since 1999, this is a case of "Where have you guys been all my life?". The band mixes Celtic influences into their music, always a plus for me, and features quality male and female lead vocalists. Favorite track here: "Once Around the Sun", which has a little bit of a Kansas flavor to it (the band, not the state).

2. The Flaming Lips - Oczy Mlody

I admit, I kind of lost track of this Oklahoma City psychedelic rock band after 2002's excellent Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots album, and now I can't think why. Regardless, the fantasy themes of this album made me check this one out, and I'm glad I did. There are references to fairies and witches and frogs with demon eyes throughout this excellent work, but my favorite track here is "There Should Be Unicorns", a song wherein they explain that they're referring to "The ones with the purple eyes, not the ones with the green eyes. Whatever they give them, they shit everywhere." OK.

1. The Magnetic Fields - 50 Song Memoir

What else can I say about this one -- it's a songwriting Tour de Force. In addition to the tracks I mentioned yesterday, here are some more to check out: "Be True to Your Bar"; "Hustle 76", "The Blizzard of 78"; "Come Back As a Cockroach"; "Lovers' Lies"; "Me and Fred and Dave and Ted"; and "Weird Diseases". God (or whomever - insert your own deity here) Bless Stephin Merritt.

So that rounds out my Top Albums of 2017 list. Again, I hope maybe this encourages you to check out something on here you haven't heard before.

I'll be back in a few days with my "Top 20 Songs of 2017" list. Some of the songs I've mentioned here will doubtlessly make it there as well, but I can also promise you some surprises.

In the meantime, I've got a bunch of concerts coming up in February and March which I'll write about, and hopefully I'll also see and review the musical Once at the John W Engeman in Northport. And, as always, I'll keep the album reviews coming. My upcoming review schedule includes some Moody Blues, some Blackmore's Night, a little Ultravox and some Black 47 (which I'll be trying to time to post right around St. Patrick's Day), as well as some new 2018 stuff.

Peace out, folks.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Top 10 Local Albums of 2017

Well, it's that time of the year again, when I (finally) post my Best Of music lists for 2017.

I'm still working through my Top 20 Songs list -- finalizing what tracks to include, and what order to put them in. But I've got my album lists together, so I'm going to go ahead and start posting them, and hopefully, I'll be done with my Songs list by the end of this week.

I left myself a good suggestion when I did last year's lists, and that was to reverse my previous practice, and post my Top 10 Local Albums list before my Top 10 Albums. The reason for this is suspense: If I post my Top 10 Albums list first, it's pretty obvious that any local albums that are on it are going to also make my Top 10 Local Albums list as well. If I do it the other way around, you have no way to tell how many, if any, of these albums will be also make the Top 10 Albums overall. I don't think I've ever had a year when none of my Top 10 Local Albums made the overall Best Albums list, but who knows, this year could be the first time. Last year, there was only one album that made both lists, although it happened that that one was also #1 on both (it was Bayside's Vacancy album). And even if the top few albums on this list also make the overall list, you won't know how high they are by reading this one first, so we'll reserve a little mystery.

A few words about the rules, as I've changed them a little this year. What is eligible: It has to be a full-length album of at least 7 songs (unless you've got one or more epic-length songs). No EPs. It also has to be all by one artist -- no compilations. The change is that this year, for the first time, I've had to grudgingly change with the times. While I still greatly, greatly (did I say greatly?) prefer hard copies of an album on CD, this year, if there was an album by an artist I really felt needed to be included for consideration, and there was nothing available to me but a digital copy, I've allowed it be included. I'm less likely to take a flyer on a digital-only album for an artist I'm not familiar with, or one I'm only so-so on. But I realize that it's much cheaper for bands and artists to release a digital album than it is to press a bunch of CDs, and I know that as the years go by, more and more albums will be released in digital-only versions. So reluctant as I am to do so, this year, some digital-only albums have been included.

In 2017, I listened to almost 95 albums to put together these lists, not counting EPs and compilations, which is ridiculous -- I'm really planning to cut that number down in 2018. I tried to include a variety of genres, but my tastes are what they are -- I like classical, but no classical albums were included. I don't much like pure hip-hop or jazz -- I just don't enjoy/understand those genres -- and this year, no pure jazz or hip-hop was included (although certainly some jazz and hip-hop influenced rock was.) I listened to a few metal or metalish albums this year, but none of them made either of my Top Album lists. I did listen to some country or country-rock albums in 2017. But the majority of the new albums I listened to this past year fell somewhere on the rock/alternative/folk/pop spectrum.

As for the definition of the word "local", I try to keep it very loose. For the purposes of picking a Top 10 Local Albums list, here's what I consider "local": 1. Long Island, for sure; 2. The 5 boroughs of NY (especially Brooklyn, where a lot of Long Island bands have run off to); 3. Sometimes Jersey or a little ways upstate, if the mood takes me. (I'm not giving away money or anything, so I kind of get to make up the rules as I go along). Also, if a band or artist spent a decent amount of time living on and playing on Long Island or in the City in the past, they get to qualify, even if they've moved to another area of the country.

My overall feeling is that 2017 was a strong year for music, stronger certainly than 2016. Consequently, because each album list only has ten slots, a lot of very good albums fell by the wayside this year. In terms of this Top 10 Local Albums of 2017, there were at least ten other albums I would have been proud to have on this list. I briefly considered expanding it to a Top 20 list, but 1) I don't need to make more work for myself, and 2) My experience is that that's not the case every year -- 2017 happened to be exceptional. So I kept the Top 10 format.

So without further blathering ... um, I mean ado, in reverse order, are my Top 10 Local Albums of 2017:

Top 10 Local Albums of 2017

10. Pete Mancini - Foothill Freeway

Pete is the lead singer/songwriter of the local Americana band Butchers Blind. This is his first solo album. He's a good songwriter with a great voice. He's got some terrific tracks on here, the best of them being the song that leads off the album, "Sweethearts of the Rodeo", a catchy country-tinged tune that city (and suburban) folks can enjoy as well.

9. Gogol Bordello - Seekers and Finders

This is a "gypsy-punk" band from the Lower East Side of Manhattan that has been in existence since the late '90s. They played out here once last year at The Space in Westbury, but unfortunately I missed them. The band mixes gypsy, punk and dub, and incorporates accordions and violins into their music. This is their tenth studio album, and it's fast-paced and filled with examples of their unique sense of humor.

8. The Nancy Atlas Project - Cut and Run

The Nancy Atlas Project is a band from the East End of Long Island that can often be found playing venues like The Stephen Talkhouse. They're basically an Americana/countryish band, but they mix in some other styles on this album, including Hawaiian. The best song here, though, is a seven-minute-long sea shanty that tells a stirring (and true) story about the rescue of a missing fisherman, called "The Tale of Johnny Load".

7. The Movielife - Cities in Search of a Heart

This album marks the welcome return after a 14-year absence of the Baldwin pop punk band The Movielife. Normally, I lean towards melodic voices rather than gruff ones, but somehow the projects of lead singer Vinny Caruano (who's also the lead singer for I Am the Avalanche) always seem to end up on my Top 10 lists. My favorite song here is a track called "Lake Superior".

6. Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner, James McAlister - Planetarium

This is a concept album written by composer Nico Muhly that was originally commissioned by a Dutch concert hall. Muhly collaborated with Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens and Bryce Dessner, the guitarist for The National. (McAister is the drummer from Stevens' touring band).  The music is mostly low-key and atmospheric, and all of the songs are inspired by the various planets, moons and stars of the solar system. Many of them also incorporate bits of Greek and Roman mythology.

5. Torres - Three Futures

Torres (aka MacKenzie Scott) is a Brooklyn-based indie artist (originally from Georgia) with a chocolate-rich voice. Her 2015 album Sprinter made my Top 10 Local Albums list from that year. Her music is often quiet but intense. She doesn't fit into the traditional singer/songwriter mold -- there's a lot of synth included in her songs. My favorite track on here is an ardent-but-restrained number called "Righteous Woman".

4. Neil Cavanagh - City of the Sun, Valley of the Moon

I reviewed this album on this blog a few weeks ago. Neil is a Queens/Long Island native who loves to experiment with guitar and synthesizer sounds. He wrote, performed, recorded, mixed and mastered this project himself. It's a great album full of amiable psychedelic rock sounds that makes me think of Todd Rundgren. My favorite track is a gentle ode to a place I remember well from my own childhood, "The Gates of Crocheron Park".

3. Brand New - Science Fiction

Yes, these guys have gotten a lot of bad press lately for a scandal allegedly involving the sexual exploitation of a minor by lead singer/guitarist/songwriter Jesse Lacey, and given that this was intended to be the band's farewell song anyway, I doubt we'll be hearing from them again. But basing my appraisal of the LP solely on the music, this album is a stunning achievement, especially given that the band has been MIA for the last eight years. It bounces back and forth from quiet and creepy to manic and frightening in a heartbeat, and it plays like something of a nightmare that you can't wake up from. If they had to go, this was a great swan song.

2. Matisyahu - Undercurrent

This is an album I reviewed over the summer by former Brooklynite (and White Plains native) Matisyahu. It's a very spiritual work that mixes elements of reggae, hip-hop, jam rock and jazz that was created by gradually honing a series of improvisational songs into a more coherent whole. It's a work of great musical depth and positive energy. My favorite track here is the first one, "Step Out Into the Light".

1. The Magnetic Fields - 50 Song Memoir

I consider Stephin Merritt to be one of the best songwriters of our age, and this album is a dazzling return to form for him. It's a five-disc, 50-song concept album that features one song for every year of Merritt's life. I'll admit, I was almost dreading this project beforehand, because I wasn't sure if the man still had it in him to pull off something this ambitious, but I was wrong. I can't claim that every song is a winner, but the percentage of good songs to throwaways is high, and with tracks like "A Cat Called Dionysius", "Have You Seen It in the Snow?" and "A Serious Mistake", this is clearly this band's best album since the equally impressive 69 Love Songs in 1999.

Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read this list. I hope that maybe you see something interesting here that you weren't necessarily familiar with and that you check it out.

Coming tomorrow (hopefully), my overall Top 10 Albums of 2017. Will some of these albums make that list as well? Read it and find out.


Review of Waterparks' "Entertainment"

I posted this review a few minutes on the Sputnik Music site:

Review Summary: I don't love this album, even though I really wanted to.

In 2016, I was a big Waterparks defender. While some maligned the Houston pop-punk band's debut album Double Dare as unsophisticated and depthless, I argued that music doesn't always have to be complex to be worth something. There's something to be said for the simple enjoyment of a good pop hook, and "fun" shouldn't be a dirty word for music. But here I am in 2018 reviewing the band's newest release Entertainment, and I'm finding this one harder to defend. I know that Waterparks has had a hectic performing schedule over the last two years, and I read an interview with lead singer Awsten Knight where he explained that the recording process for this LP had to be jammed into a single month. However, the trouble here seems to me to be more than just a case of a band being too rushed. Some critics have argued that what's different from the last album to this one is simply a matter of a pop punk band going in more of a "pop" than a "punk" direction for one album. Maybe, but it feels like more than that. To me, the problem is that Entertainment feels dumbed down, almost like the band made a deliberate decision to shoot for a younger demographic.

Mind you, I'm not saying that the album is terrible. I still like Waterparks' basic sound. Yes, Awsten Knight is vaguely helium-voiced, but I think that works for this genre -- it never hurt Blink-182. And I enjoy the way he constantly tries to cram ten pounds worth of words into a five-pound lyric line. As for the instrumentation, there's a lot of use of synths, and I'm good with that -- particularly since so many pop punk bands tend to go with all guitars. 

I think the problem here is twofold. First, in comparison to Double Dare or the 2016 Cluster EP, I find the songs themselves just a tad less interesting musically. In too many cases, the hooks aren't grabbing me as much. What's really hitting me in the face, though, is how trite some of the lyrics are. It might seem strange, since I quote lyrics so often in my reviews, but I'm not really a lyrics guy. I tend to let them blow past me, unless they're either particularly clever, or jarringly bad. And some of the lyrics here made me wince. 

For example, in the opening track "11/11" we find this line: "My favorite set of stairs is the one up to your room". Really? You have a favorite set of stairs? What's your favorite ceiling fan? Then there are the cliched rhymes, like this little gem from "Rare": "'Cause we're not seventeen/But you're my teenage dream". Didn't ABBA kind of pull the cord on that one about forty years ago? If it sounds like I'm nitpicking, I'm not trying to. It's just that lyrics like this forced themselves to my attention the first time I listened to this album, and once I started to notice them, I couldn't not hear them.

There are definitely some things I like about this LP. I enjoyed songs like "Peach (Lobotomy)", a nice mid-tempo number with some pleasantly strummed guitar and interesting use of whistling, and "Not Warriors", with its catchy chorus. And "TANTRUM", which is the musical equivalent of a nervous breakdown, isn't just the liveliest song here, it also has the best and most sincere-feeling lyrics on the album (for example: "I'm getting texts from idols I've looked up to since 15/But now people use my friends to try to get to me, fuck you.") Even a few of the songs where the lyrics make me cringe have some good things going on instrumentally. I love the synth pattern underlying "11/11", and the guitar chords on "Lucky People" might not be unique, but they make me nod along and smile. And as I mentioned, I like the vocals throughout. 

It's just the little pet peeves that keep me from fully enjoying this album. Like the too-often joltingly bad lyrics. Or the boring album art. Or the way the opening chords on the song "Rare" are just a little too reminiscent of the opening chords on the Gwen Stefani song of the same name(!) from her 2016 This Is What the Truth Feels Like LP. These are the things that make me want to go all Lewis Black and throw a "TANTRUM" of my own.

I still like Waterparks. I'd happily see them live again if given the opportunity. And I don't hate this album. It's just that I don't love it either, and I really wanted to.

Rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Smol Data, Crash the Calm, Pale Lungs and Looming

I've been reading Nick Mason's bio of Pink Floyd this week, and it's funny how in the last 50 years, not much has changed for young bands trying to make it. Last weekend, Denise and I saw Walk the Moon and Company of Thieves in a large Arena show at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. Tonight, I took in a show at the other end of music hierarchy that featured some local bands playing a much smaller venue with a pair of young national touring bands.

Back in October, I reviewed the new album Seed by the band Looming. I basically liked the album, although I noted that the band's lead singer Jessica Knight has a voice that I find interesting and unique, but some people can't deal with. About two weeks ago, I was checking Looming's Facebook page, and I noted that they were scheduled to play on Long Island on January 25 at a venue I wasn't familiar with called The Amityville Music Hall. The full band wasn't coming along on this tour -- Knight and her bandmate Brandon Barnes were playing as a duo.

I really wanted to catch the full band, but I figured I might not get the chance to do that for awhile, so why not take advantage and at least catch an acoustic version of Looming playing close by. (I was wrong about the acoustic part, but more on that later).

I contacted the venue, and learned that while there weren't seats available, because of my age and situation, they'd make accommodations for me. It was scheduled to be a six band show, featuring four local bands plus Looming and Pale Lungs, a national touring band from Nashville, TN, so it was key I be able to sit -- I might have made it through Looming's set standing, if I knew exactly when they were going on (and knowing the music scene, how likely was that?). But I wouldn't have been able to make it through any of the other bands. In the end, the venue allowed me to bring in my own folding chair that I keep in my car trunk. I really appreciated them helping me out.

Now I was picturing either a VA type hall (this was, after all, a 16+ show), or maybe a venue like 89 North in Patchogue. But as I drove up and down Route 110 in Amityville, squinting to see address numbers, I didn't see anything like that. When I finally found the place, I realized why. It turned out that The Amityville Music Hall is a refurbished version of the old Wrong Way Inn!

Now those of you who have known me from the old Long Island Music Coalition days probably remember that in the first year of two of the LIMC's existence, with the possible exception of The Spot at SUNY Stonybrook, there was no other venue where we booked as many full-band LIMC shows as The Wrong Way Inn. It's fairly tiny for a music club. But it was home.

The place has been prettied up some -- there's now a raised stage, and a full sound booth in the back, and the upper part of the walls has what appears to be soundproofing. But other than that, it looks pretty much the same inside. Being there felt very familiar. I think I even ran into my own ghost.

By the time I got there, I had missed the first two bands, Casanova and Only Sibling, and a band called Smol Data was just finishing their set. All I can tell you about them was they were louder than I expected, and pretty interesting. They're a female-fronted shoegaze band from Islip. They didn't have any merch with them, but I know they have a demo up on, and someone told me they have a new EP coming out soon.

The next band up was Crash the Calm. They've described themselves as combining grunge, alternative, post punk and ambient. I'd just go with "heavy alternative". They were actually quite good. The singer had a gruff voice that reminded me Vinny Caruana's (of I Am the Avalanche and The Movielife fame). I was pretty impressed by them. Before I left, I picked up a copy of their LP, How've You Been.

Next up was Pale Lungs. As I said earlier, they're a touring band from Nashville who I'd definitely classify as shoe gaze. Apparently, they've played the Amityville Music Hall before, and seem to be friends with Crash the Calm. They're also the ones who put the tour together, then invited Looming along. They have a new CD, also available on Bandcamp, called Strawberry. The thing that most impressed me about them was their dynamics -- they really know how to create quiet spaces between the waves of sound.

Now a few words about Looming. I introduced myself to Jessica and Brandon in between the Crash the Calm and Pale Lung sets. They explained to me how the tour had come about. We talked a little about the CD (I have a digital copy, but the hard copy has been back ordered on Amazon since October, which was news to them), and I explained to them how I first became a fan (from a review of their debut album Nailbiter in Alternative Press). And they actually gave me a free T-Shirt, which was super-nice ( I bought a second, so I'd have one for each of my kids). They also explained that although they were playing as a twosome on this tour, they were performing electric, not acoustic. They'd brought along some sampled percussion to fill out the sound a little. The full band will come back together for a brief tour of the East Coast with Tigers Jaw (although unfortunately, the closest they're coming to here is Providence).

What really impressed me is how hard they're working. Jessica mentioned that she's made music her full-time career right now, and they're actually driving with Pale Lungs for this tour. And they're having all of the experiences of hardworking touring musicians all over the world. For example, earlier today, they got into a slight car accident, and at the beginning of the set tonight, they had some equipment problems, etc. (All the same kind of things that Nick Mason talks about early Pink Floyd experiencing in his book). I hope that someday, they'll be where Company of Thieves and Walk the Moon were last Saturday -- playing large venues and maybe making some real money. But right now, they're paying their dues, although they seem to at least be enjoying the experience.

I enjoyed their set, although it wasn't a full Looming performance -- Jessica mentioned from the stage that she had been sick all day, although she was happy and excited to be playing the show. But the sampled percussion was very loud and echoey, so I didn't get to hear her voice as much as I'd have liked (actually, I thought the vocals were a little low in the mix for all of the bands, but especially for Looming.) Also, game though she was, by the end of their next-to-last song, I could hear her struggling with her vocals because of her illness. But I enjoyed their set regardless. (You can see the setlist at . They really created a wall of sound.

I was really glad I went tonight. It was fun meeting and talking with Looming, and seeing all four of the bands that I caught, and it was nice to see The Wrong Way operational again as the Amityville Music Hall. It's nice to be getting out and enjoying some live music these days.

Coming very soon: I've in the process of completing my Best of 2017 lists. Plus a review of the new album by Waterparks.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Review of Kaiser Chiefs' "Stay Together"

I posted the following album review on the Sputnik Music website a little earlier this afternoon:

I've never made any bones about it -- The Kaiser Chiefs' 2005 debut Employment is one of my favorite albums of the millennium. The band's sense of fun, and their ability to craft strong alt-pop singles such as "I Predict a Riot" and "Everyday I Love You and Less" led me to believe that this was going to be one of the bigger bands of the 21st Century. Sadly, it hasn't worked out that way. 2007's Yours Truly, Angry Mob was a letdown, and most of their work since then has been middling at best -- always good enough to keep me buying their music, but nowhere near the quality of that first album.

Stay Together (2016) doesn't quite reach the high bar set by Employment, but it's a step in the right direction. This is mainly due to two factors: 1) The band has chosen to fill the LP with songs of more personal (and accessible) subject matter than on some of their more recent efforts. Sex, love and relationships are the topics of the day here. More importantly, 2) They've infused the music on this album with disco and other dance music elements. Don't get me wrong, I'm not a huge fan of dance music as such -- but blended together with The Kaiser Chiefs' adept pop sensibilities, it works pretty well. I wouldn't have guessed it, but maybe a quick injection of 1970s Bee Gees was just what this band needed to freshen up their sound.

A number of the tracks stand out for me. I especially like "Indoor Firework". The verses are bass driven and stealthy, punctuated by little bursts of strummed guitar, and there's a yearning to the choruses that I find gripping. "Good Clean Fun" is another really good one. This is a droll song about an unhealthy-if-fervent relationship with a chorus that exemplifies the concept of the clueless male: "Why are you so mad"/Sex makes everything better". I'm also fond of "Parachute", the album's lead single. It's a catchy little number, even if I'd have to admit there's nothing especially unique about it.

In fairness, Stay Together hasn't exactly been universally acclaimed. It hasn't sold as well as 2014's mediocre Education, Education, Education & War, and the reviews overall have been mixed -- Metacritic only rates it at 59/100, and on this site, it's the band's lowest user-rated album to date, scoring only 2.2 out of 5 stars. However, I'd argue that its score on Sputnik is more indicative of the musical leanings of the average Sputnik User than it is of the quality of the music, and that the LP hasn't caught on with the band's usual base because it's a change of direction for them. The problem isn't that Stay Together is a bad album -- it's a good album that hasn't fully found its audience, that audience being people who enjoy dance-oriented alternative pop. 

So Brit pop fans, 80s club kids, lovers of English new wave and 70s disco, come one and come all. Stay Together will get you moving and keep you smiling at the same time. It's not typical Kaiser Chiefs by any means, but it is the best and the freshest LP this band has released in a number of years.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Monday, January 22, 2018

Company of Thieves and Walk the Moon

Sometime early in December, Denise asked  me how badly did I want to see U2. She had been thinking of getting U2 tickets as my Christmas present, but when she looked them up, she discovered that U2 was looking for over $200 a ticket. She found this particularly grating because she remembers seeing them for about $10 a ticket at Nassau Community College shortly after their first album came out, when nobody even knew who they were. I've never seen them myself, and while I like them and wouldn't mind seeing them, they're not in my top echelon of favorite bands. And frankly, for $200+ a ticket, Bono can kiss my Irish-American ass. I like their new album somewhat, but let's face it -- U2 is no longer a cutting edge band.

Instead, I told her I'd rather she got me tickets for another show she and I had talked about, Walk the Moon, who was playing at the Mohegan Sun in January. I'd rather see a(n admittedly lesser) band that I like who's still in their prime at a fifth of the price. So that was the show that Denise got me tickets for for Christmas.

At some point later (I think in early January), I was up on the Mohegan Sun's website to see if there was an opening band, and although they didn't specifically list one, I followed a couple of links and learned that they were being joined on this tour by Company of Thieves. I was surprised and very happy to see this. The last I heard, Company of Thieves had broken up. This was unfortunate, as their first album had been in my Top Ten Albums of 2009 list, and their single "Oscar Wilde" was in my Top 20 Songs list for that same year. So now I was particularly psyched for the show.

As it turned out, Saturday was kind of a grueling day physically. We had things to do in the morning, and I didn't get a chance to eat. Denise decided she'd rather spend the bucks than drive all day, so we took a 1:45 Port Jefferson Ferry boat to Connecticut. The plan was to eat when we got to Connecticut, rather than eat the unappetizing ferry food. But of course, when the ferry reached Connecticut it was already 3:15, so we decided to just head to the motel we were staying at in Waterbury. Bottom line, my hope had been to have lunch, then check in and take a nap for an hour or two before we went to show, but the way it worked out, we had to check in, skip the nap and head right over to the Mohegan Sun and eat there.

I was so out of it at that point from lack of sleep and low blood sugar that I was concerned that I was going have one of those shows that I half slept through. It was bad enough that I did that in 2015 at the Squeeze show, but at least most of that crowd was at or near our age. it's even more embarrassing to be the only old guy sleeping at a show surrounded by mostly kids and young adults. As I've mentioned before, aging kind of sucks.

Luckily, we were able to get a quick table at a seafood shack inside the casino, and finally getting some protein in my system brought me back to life a little. As it turned out, we had some extra time after dinner anyway, because showtime was 8PM instead of the 7PM start time we had been told. (Our tickets were "Will Call", so we didn't have physical tickets to look at until we actually got to the Mohegan.) So we hit the floor and gambled for about an hour or before meeting up back at the Arena entrance at 7:30.

The Arena itself was nice. I thought we had seen Duran Duran and Mannheim Steamroller there about 10 years ago, but it turns up my poor brain was all befuddled -- that was at the MGM Grand Arena at Foxwoods. This arena holds a lot of people, but somehow seemed more intimate than you'd expect. There are basically three sections -- the floor section, the first inclined section, and a top section. We were in the first inclined section, to the left of the stage.

The place was about half full when Company of Thieves hit the floor. They were good, but different than I expected. They were very energetic, especially Genevieve Schatz, the lead singer. She was completely different than I expected. I figured the person who wrote the chorus of "Oscar Wilde", which has lyrics about how we are our own devils, and we make this world our hell, would be a cynical, sarcastic kind of gal. Instead, she was the exact opposite. She was much more Glinda the Good Witch than Janeane Garofolo.

As for the crowd, I felt like they were kind of low energy to start the night. They were responsive -- they applauded the band -- but except for "Oscar Wilde", they didn't really seem to get into the show. This might have been partially because the band played several new songs in their relatively short set, but I think it was also because a lot of the young crowd just weren't that familiar with them -- their last release was in 2011, and they announced their breakup in early 2013, a full five years ago.

This was unfortunate, as they're really quite a good band -- Schatz has a very powerful voice, and their songs are sophisticated and kind of interesting. I wish there had been more publicity to tell people Company of Thieves was even on the bill -- I had to literally hunt the info down. These guys do have a fan base, and I think more of their fans would have attended the show if they'd been aware of it. As it was, by the time the arena filled in, it was mostly sold out, but there were about ten empty rows at the top of it all the way around -- maybe fifteen empty rows at the furthest points from the stage. I bet if they'd have publicized this band more, they'd have sold those seats too. Nevertheless, Company of thieves seemed to be really excited and happy to play in front of a big crowd again. They'll be releasing some new music later this year, and I hope it brings them back up to the popularity level they used to be at.

They did mention that had a new EP for sale -- its official release is sometime in February, but there were advance copies available for sale at the show. So in between sets, I headed to the merch stand and bought a copy. I was a little taken aback that they charged $20 for a five-song EP (and only three of them were new studio tracks). The lady at the counter kindly offered that the band was going to be autographing their merch, and pointed to the side of the booth where kids were starting to line up. I thanked her kindly, but my days of standing on lines for band autographs are -- I was going to say "done", but they never really existed in the first place. If I ran into the band somewhere, and I could pull out the EP and ask them to sign it, I would, but I don't really care about autographs enough to ever stand on line for them. As for the price of the CD, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is a band that probably isn't making much money right now, so if an extra ten bucks or so can help them keep playing until they reach a higher level, then fine.

Walk the Moon hit the stage around 9:15 or so. And I quickly learned that if the (two-thirds female) crowd had been reserved during Company of Thieves, it  was because they were saving their energy for this band. They were all up and dancing from the get-go, and after every song, there was a chorus of high-pitched voices screaming their heads off.

Walk the Moon was really impressive, even better than I had expected them to be. Having just released their third album, What If Nothing, just a few months ago, they now have three albums worth of quality material to pull from to put together a setlist. They also have a really good light show, although my one complaint about it was that most of the lighting was directly behind them, backlighting them so that half of the night, it was like watching a band of silhouettes. The two large screens on either side of the stage filtered the light out some, so you could see the band better if you looked at them.

But really, this was a minor complaint. Nick Petricca is an amazing and energetic front man. At one point, the band explained that they had performed in Albany on Thursday night, flew to L.A. to play a short set at the iHeartRadio ALTer EGO concert (along with Mumford & Sons, Beck, Cage the Elephant, Spoon, The National and Dashboard Confessional) on Friday night, then flew back to the East Coast for this show on Saturday. But, they explained, a frenzied crowd like this gave them a big shot of adrenaline, and you could tell the band was really into it. It also probably didn't hurt that this (by Petricca's own confession) was the first time ever that Walk the Moon had headlined an arena show of this size. In any event, they played like a group who was happy and excited to be there.

The band played a good chunk of the new album, but also supplemented it throughout the night with many of the best songs from their first two albums, including my favorite Walk the Moon song, "Next in Line". Interestingly, the song that got the biggest crowd response of the night wasn't "Anna Sun" their first big hit from their first self-titled album, or "One Foot", the biggest hit from their new album, but "Shut Up and Dance", from their second album Talking Is Hard. They really tore the roof off the building with that one. The audience seemed to also really enjoy "Different Colors", a song celebrating diversity.

As I told Denise after the concert, I love seeing bands from the 70s and 80s that take me back to a lot of my favorite music. But every so often, I really need to get and out see a quality younger band. I enjoy watching the kids enjoy the music. Anyway, I couldn't have asked for a better concert to start off my 2018.

So thanks for my Christmas present, Sweetie. It was great to get away for a night with you.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Review of Crash Test Dummies' "God Shuffled His Feet"

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

Review Summary: Gentle-but-eccentric Canadian folk rock

Oh Canada! Hail to my neighbor to the north. I praise you because not only have you shared with us some major musical talents over the years, like Rush and Joni Mitchell (for which I am eternally grateful), but you've also given us a host of quirky smaller bands throughout the last four or five decades, so many of whom I've enjoyed: Bands like Klaatu in the seventies, and Martha and the Muffins in the eighties. Oh, and in the nineties -- Crash Test Dummies!

Although they made a nice little career for themselves in the great white north, God Shuffled His Feet (1993) was this band's only internationally successful album. A follow-up to their 1991 debut The Ghosts That Haunt Me (which had reached #2 on the Canadian charts), this one took off around the world, reaching #1 in New Zealand, #2 in the UK, #5 in Austria, and #9 in the U.S. It also went double platinum in the U.S. and triple platinum in Canada (although it was actually less successful overall there than their first album had been). In most of the world outside of Canada, the album was largely powered by the success of one unconventional single, a slow and poignant track about how it feels to be different, the oddly- titled "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm".

The song is a highly atypical single -- it's slow, soft and very sentimental. The verses tell the tales of three different children: a boy whose hair turns white after a harrowing car crash, a girl who doesn't want to change clothes in the school locker room because she has birth marks all over her body, and a boy who is a member of a Pentecostal church where the worshipers regularly lurch and shake in religious ecstasy. The chorus consists entirely of the quasi-humming of lead singer Brad Roberts, as he repeats the song's title. The lyrics draw you into the children's embarrassment and their shame at being perceived as different from their classmates, all the while only implying (without spelling out) the daily torment they receive from their contemporaries. Nowadays, I get the feeling that the track is somewhat looked down on by music fans. This is unfortunate, because on its own terms, it's both a touching and effective little song.

The music throughout God Shuffled His Feet is a genial brand of soft folk rock. There's a lot of acoustic guitar and piano. The most striking thing about the band's sound is Robert's deep voice (which falls somewhere in the bass/baritone range) and his sharp and distinctive way of pronouncing his words. The other unique thing about the LP is its thematic frame. Many of the song lyrics have to do with the relationship between God and his creations. The album practically functions as an advertisement for Intelligent Design theory.

Overall, God Shuffled His Feet is a top-heavy album -- the first three tracks are far and away the strongest. In addition to the "Mmm Mmm" song, there's the LP's title track, an unhurried tune with a wry sense of humor that finds God, having just made the world, engaged in an awkward encounter with his new creations. He tries to communicate to his people in parables, but finds himself somewhat flummoxed by the more concrete nature of their questions: "If your eye got poked out in this life/Would it be waiting up in heaven with your wife?" Then there's "Afternoons & Coffeespoons", the album's second track, which is a more upbeat number powered by some nicely strummed acoustic guitar. This one is an amusing, if someone regretful, tract about aging: "Someday I'll have/A disappearing hairline/Someday I'll wear/Pajamas in the daytime." It was modestly successful as a single, and is considered by many Crashheads (or whatever the band's more devoted fans call themselves) to be the quintessential Crash Test Dummies tune.

The rest of the album is okay -- it's just not up to the standards of those first three tracks. "Swimming in Your Ocean" was a somewhat successful single in Canada, but if you're looking for the next best song, I prefer the soft, lackadaisical pleasures of "The Psychic" -- there's some lovely piano on this one, and it provides an excellent showcase for Roberts' resonant voice.

Although the band continued to have some success in their home country, internationally, they dropped back into obscurity after God Shuffled His Feet. Regardless, this is a pretty decent album in its own right, and it also serves as a good example of the kind of eccentric alternative rock music that was often successful in the early 1990s.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Review of Neil Cavanagh's "City of the Sun, Valley of the Moon"

I just posted this review a few minutes ago on the Sputnik music website:

Review Summary: Affable psychedelic rock and modest experimentation with some solid pop hooks.

New York indie artist Neil Cavanagh slipped this release out late in 2017, to little fanfare. That's a shame, because it's one of the better releases of last year. What a world we live in now, where a musician can write, perform, engineer, produce, mix and master an album this good virtually all by himself. Yes, two of the tracks have a backing guest vocalist (John Cavanagh on "Sun Coming Out" and Michelle Ingkavet on "Another Morning"), but let's face it -- City of the Sun, Valley of the Moonis almost as solo as an album can get.

Cavanagh himself describes the music as "an eclectic sequence of alternative, experimental and progressive rock", and that's fair enough. To me, the album has a Todd Rundgren vibe -- there's a lot of gentle psychedelic rock here -- and there's also a touch of Joe Satriani, although this LP is much less guitar-centric than some of Cavanagh's earlier music (and some of the stuff that most reminds me of Satriani is actually performed on synthesizer -- go figure).

While there are times the album rocks out, a lot of it has a laid back feeling. There's a great deal of pleasantly strummed guitar, some comely piano, and a lot more experimentation with synthesizers than on most of this artist's previous work. As for the singing, Cavanagh's somewhat high vocal range is effective throughout, especially when he layers his vocals on tracks like "Everything's Forgotten Now", and at times, his phrasing is distinctly Beatlesque. In this case, however, the music is at least as important as the vocals, probably more so. Fittingly, then, there are also several instrumental tracks on the album.

Two of the best songs here are relaxed, mostly-acoustic tunes, and interestingly, they each have park themes. The first is called "On a Sunday Afternoon", which has an all-instrumental alter-ego later in the album called "Sunday Evening." The music here evokes the image of a lazy summer afternoon, lying in the grass and watching the clouds. The lyrics complement this, as they find the singer clearing his head after some kind of a life change -- possibly the loss of an over-stressful job, the kind that makes you wonder after the fact, "Why didn't I get out sooner?" As good as it is, the instrumental version might even be better than the original, as the lack of vocals there really draws your attention to the incredibly beautiful slow guitar solo.

The second song I referred to might be even stronger than the first. This one is a mid-tempo number called "The Gates of Crocheron Park." It takes the form of a conversation between a parent and an adult child, as the singer finds strength and renewal by returning to his home town: "Follow the stars, you'll be homeward bound/With all that was lost just waiting to be found/But they're closing up the gates of Crocheron Park/Just as the sun is going down". The song has a great hook, and is filled with a number of appealing little guitar trills.

City of the Sun, Valley of the Moon does a good job of mixing up speeds and styles throughout. In addition to the songs I've already talked about, there are slow and pretty piano tracks ("Valley of the Moon"), chunky guitar numbers ("Abused"), psychedelic guitar and synthesizer instrumentals ("The Empire Strikes Back"), and exquisite acoustic songs ("Taking a Ride"). Yet somehow, the album always holds together as a cohesive whole.

This is definitely Neil Cavanagh's best album to date. Although it has virtually no publicity behind it, I really hope that somehow people will find there way to it and give it a listen. It's one of the hidden treasures of 2017.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Review of The Magnetic Fields' "Distant Plastic Trees"

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

Review Summary: "Why do we keep shrieking/When we mean soft things?/We should be whispering all the time." -- from "100,000 Fireflies" by Stephin Merritt

In the beginning, there was no Magnetic Fields. Not really, anyway. There was just Stephin Merritt, a laconic, somewhat depressed musician/songwriter in his mid-twenties. In 1991, he put together his first album under the Magnetic Fields name, Distant Plastic Trees. He played all of the music himself, and wrote nine of the ten tracks on the LP (the only exception being "Babies Falling", a cover of a song by The Wild Stares). He entrusted the vocals, however, to a young woman with a light-but-pleasant soprano voice named Susan Anway. The album went largely unnoticed at first, and probably would have stayed that way. Except ... well, we'll get back to that.

Anyway, I rated this album at 3.5 stars, which by Sputnik Music standards equates to "great", and the site as a whole seems to agree (the aggregate Sputnik rating currently sits at 3.4). "Great" might make you think Distant Plastic Trees is an album of consistent high quality, but you'd be wrong. What you have instead is a 10-track LP with a few pretty good songs, a few average ones, and two or three that are fairly lousy. Oh yeah, and a couple of great ones that pull the whole album to a different level.

The music throughout consists largely of synthesizers and keyboards, sometimes with tinkling bell-like sounds, static and other white noise, swooshing air and humming generators, and various other sound effects. Anway's vocals are pretty enough. They're maybe a little thin, but by and large, they work with this material.

The tracks that don't work (such as "Kings" and "Falling Babies") tend to be a little formless and experimental, and I chalk them up to the young Merritt relying on trial and error as he tries to find his way as a musician and a songwriter. A few others, like "Living in an Abandoned Firehouse With You" and "Josephine" are inoffensive, but a little boring.

More interesting is "Tar Heel Boy". It has a country/Appalachian vibe to it, to the point where Anway even yodels on the chorus, but the instrumentation sounds something like a banjo-inspired music box. "Smoke Signals" and "You Love to Fail" are also winners. The first features some lovely swirling piano, while the second is one of Merritt's classic not-love songs: "And I want to take you out/But you always refuse/'Cause you only play the games/That you know you can lose/You love to fail, that's all you love".

The 600-lb. gorilla on the album, however, is a little ditty called "100,000 Fireflies". This song began with some limited airplay on alternative rock and college stations. Gradually it became something of an underground classic, to the point where various critics have named it one of the Top 10 indie songs of the nineties. It starts off sounding like an inverse and more ethereal version of Springsteen's "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town", until Anway jumps in with one of Merritt's best-ever opening lines: "I've got a mandolin/I play it all night long/It makes me want to kill myself". From that point on, the song manages to be funny, touching and sad in equal measures, as the singer pleads for her lover to give their relationship another shot: "You won't be happy with me/But give me one more chance/You won't be happy anyway." For a certain type of twee teen/young adult, this song was the musical totem of their generation, beloved in much the same way as films such as Donnie Darko and Napolean Dynamite were embraced by their respective admirers in the early 2000s.

Although "100,000 Fireflies" is the song Distant Plastic Trees is most noted for, one other track, "Falling in Love With the Wolf Boy", is almost as brilliant. This one features whirling, carnival-like synthesizers that seem to fall in and out of the sync with Anway's vocal part, and includes lyrics that are both biting and highly amusing. The song is a description of/fantasy about a person of the female persuasion with whom Mr. Merritt is something less than pleased (I'm going to take a wild guess that it's Ayn Rand, but I could be totally off-base): "With a face like an African mask/And the strength of ten men when she's wrong/She's in charge of the world at large/And her novels are all very long". Where someone of a more violent nature might wish for physical harm to befall the object of their derision, however, Merritt has a gentler but stranger plan: "Take her down to the woods where the wolfboy lives/So the villagers say/And the three of you evaporate into the night/And you both fall in love with him." A unique solution to an interpersonal problem if ever there was one.

"100,000 Fireflies" probably didn't make Merritt a ton of money. But it did help to give Distant Plastic Trees and The Magnetic Fields enough of a reputation to build a cult following in indie music circles to carry the band through the nineties until the release of their most successful album, 1999's opus 69 Love Songs. Listeners who first jumped on The Magnetic Fields' train on or after that point would probably find the band's original sound, with its airy female vocals and tinker-toy synthesizer sounds, jarring. But while this first Magnetic Fields album is certainly uneven and immature compared to an album like 69 Love Songs, the hits on Distant Plastic Trees still outweigh the misses by far.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Review of the Hank Stone Band's "Painting Tomorrow's Skies Blue"

I just posted this review, my first of the new year, on the Sputnik Music website.

Review Summary: "Hearing the rippling of rivers/You will not utterly despair."

Hank Stone is an old folkie. I don't think he'd mind me telling you that. Stone's music initially brings to mind artists like Bob Dylan, Woody and Arlo Guthrie and Peter, Paul and Mary, although there are also a variety of rock and Americana influences as well. Painting Tomorrow's Skies Blue is his third album, and his first with the Hank Stone Band, which includes Todd Evans (of He-Bird, She-Bird) on guitars and backing vocals, Mike Christian on bass and backing vocals and Gary Settoducato on drums and percussion. Stone himself adds both acoustic guitar and harmonica.

Overall, this is a solid album that features some fine songs and some quality musicianship. Stone being a folkie at heart, he gives us some songs about trains (both real ones and toy ones), some songs about rivers, and even a gentle war protest song. But he also touches on themes such as spirituality vs. science, the yin and yang of luck, and the betrayal of a friendship. 

My personal favorite track is a little ditty called "One Side's Up", a lighthearted song that pokes fun at various superstitions, all the while pointing out how one person's good fortune is another's mishap. Ultimately, he comes out on the same side of the fate vs. free will argument as Canadian prog rockers Rush: "Is it the fall of the cards? The roll of the dice? Why does no one ever talk about virtue or vice?" The song is enhanced by a rather tasty guitar groove, presumably delivered by Evans.

"The River Says" is also a favorite. The song is mostly about the permanence of rivers and our connection with them, but it morphs in the last verse into a river-themed love song. This one also features some really pleasing guitar work. Another interesting track is "The Rippling of Rivers", a song that Stone speaks as much as sings, that takes the form of a debate between himself and scientists such as Francis Crick, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on DNA, but who sees human consciousness as little more than a side effect of neural processes. Stone makes it clear that he respects the science, but feels that such a cold approach misses some pieces of the human puzzle.

One last track I'd be remiss if I didn't mention is "Wartime Bride". While many songwriters who try to write a protest song fall into the trap of preaching to the converted, Stone takes the approach of instead creating a believable and sympathetic character as the protagonist of his song, in this case a young soldier talking to his fiancee. His thoughts aren't filled with platitudes or huge ideas -- he just wants to find a way to talk to his girl (the Army has blocked Facebook, but he found an old phone card he can use), finish the job he was sent overseas to do, and get home to his lover and his family. By not preaching, Stone makes his song all the more effective -- we empathize with the young man, and want to see him make it home safely. The song is proof that sometimes, a light touch is more powerful than a sledgehammer.

My only criticism of the album is I'm not sure that the songs are consistently as strong here as were the tracks on his 2005 solo album Rough Folk. The Band is excellent throughout, and there are some numbers that seem to be carried more by the proficiency of the playing than by the songs themselves. Nevertheless, the top tracks certainly exemplify Stone at his best, and overall, this is an enjoyable and above-average album. 

Hank Stone's bio states that he's been writing songs for more than forty years, and he's been performing for more than fifteen. Painting Tomorrow's Skies Blue contains a solid representative sample of the songwriting skills he has honed over that period, and also gives you the added bonus of a skilled backing band to present those songs in their best light. It's a more-than-worthwhile listen for fans of folk rock and Americana music.

Rating: 3 of 5 stars