Thursday, March 29, 2018

Review of The Gloaming's "Live at the NCH"

I posted this review on the Sputnik Music website a few hours ago:


Review Summary: Delicate and beautiful traditional Irish folk music


The Gloaming are an Irish classical folk band. This album was taped from live performances at the National Concert Hall (NCH) in Dublin. It's the band's third album, following upon two studio albums: Their self-titled debut (2014), and a follow-up LP, simply titled 2 (2016). All six of the songs recorded here were previously recorded on one or the other of the band's two studio albums.

The music here is sparse and exquisite. There is almost no percussion, and half of the tracks are instrumentals. When there are vocals, they're mostly (but not all) sung in Gaelic. The songs are generally slow to mid-tempo, with the exception of the third track, "The Sailor's Bonnet", which starts out with some leisurely piano and fiddling, then gradually builds to a fevered pitch. and the fifth track, "The Rolling Wave", which is similarly structured. Some of the songs mix in vague elements of jazz -- for example, the last track, "Fainleog" (which translates to "Wanderer") is a little discordant in parts, although never so much that it becomes strident. For the most part, though, what you have here is traditional Celtic folk music, but with a twist -- the best way I can describe it is it sounds like genuine Irish folk, as opposed to the stuff they sometimes serve up to the tourists.

The band members are an interesting lot. Iarla O' Lionaird (who is male, by the way) has a voice that is high and sweet. He comes from West Cork, and outside of The Gloaming, he's a well-respected practitioner of "sean-nos" singing -- a rich, emotional style of a capella singing famous in his home region. There are two fiddlers, Caoimhin O Raghallaigh and Martin Hayes. The first plays a specialized instrument called a Hardanger d'Amore, which is a mix between a Norwegian Hardanger fiddle and a viola d'amore. He's also a bit of a minimalist. The second comes from County Clare, where he learned a more traditional style of fiddling that tends to be slow and wistful. They're joined by Thomas Bartlett, an American pianist who has worked with artists such as Sufjan Stevens, The National and Nico Muhly; and Dennis Cahill, an American guitarist who specializes in Irish traditional music. 

Since their first sold out show at the NCH in 2011, The Gloaming have been granted an annual residency in this storied classical music hall. This album makes it clear why that is. With music that is both delicate and beautiful, I recommend Live at the NCH highly. It's a must-have for all fans of classical Irish folk music.


Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Review of Pink Floyd's "Works"

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


Review Summary: I'd rate this compilation LP at 3.5 stars for the material, but only 1.5 stars for its cohesion as an album. In this age of digital downloads, there's no real reason to own it today.

Let's start with the obvious: Pink Floyd is one of the greatest, and most important, rock bands of all time. On this site alone, if you click on the all-time charts section, the band has three albums rated among the site's Top 100. 

As a recording entity, Floyd released fifteen studio albums over the course of their existence, and went through four more-or-less discreet periods as a band. These included the Syd Barrett years, the early post-Barrett period, the classic period (when they released all of their most highly acclaimed albums), and the post-Waters period. (The lines are a little blurry in some places. For example, in many ways, Meddle was really the start of the classic period, although Obscured By Clouds was a throwback to the post-Barrett era; and while The Final Cut has some sonic similarity to The Wall, few would argue that it belongs with the other classics. But you get what I mean.)

Works is a compilation album that presents material from the band's first two periods and the beginning of their classic period. This is a problem, as the band had a very different sound in each of those first three eras. Consequently, in trying to rate the album, I'd give it 3.5 stars for the material on it. After all, it's frickin' Floyd! However, as a musically coherent album, it doesn't deserve more than a star and a half.

Works was released by Pink Floyd's former American label, Capitol Records, in June of 1983. After the release of the band's mega-hit The Dark Side of the Moon in 1973, the band had ditched Capitol and signed on with Columbia Records, who offered them a huge advance for their next album. (They continued on with Harvest Records as their European label). Capitol, however, retained the rights to Dark Side and all of the band's earlier material. So in '83, when Floyd released their twelfth studio album The Final Cut, Capitol saw the chance to make a buck, and released Works pretty much everywhere but Europe.

Musically, the album is all over the place. The two singles from the Barrett era, "Arnold Layne" and "See Emily Play", while enjoyable songs in their own right, sound like the band is playing a game with their fans of Which Doesn't Belong and Why" Then there's "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun," a psychedelic classic originally from the band's A Saucerful of Secrets album, which is purportedly the only track that Syd Barrett and David Gilmour ever both played guitar on. This one loosely fits with a pair of post-Barrett numbers, "Free Four" from Obscured By Clouds and the bizarre and aptly named "Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict" from Ummagumma. Finally, you have a pair of songs from Meddle, "Fearless" and a remix of "One of These Days", plus a pair of remixed Dark Side songs, "Brain Damage" and "Eclipse". The album is capped off by the one song that was a rarity at the time of Works' release, "Embryo", which had previously only ever been available on a multi-artist compilation called Picnic - A Breath of Fresh Air

As you might guess, it's not really a great album for playing beginning to end. From one track to the next, it barely sounds like the same band. And while in 1983, it might have made sense for truly rabid Floyd fans to buy it just for "Embryo" (which is a slow, eerie Gilmour song that features flute, cymbals, strange piano and even stranger animal noises), in this age of digital downloads, the completist can simply buy the one track and ignore the rest of the album.

Overall, Works is a strange duck. The songs are good, but unless you're a remix fanatic (and the remixes aren't really all that different from the originals), they're all better owned on their original LPs. I gave Works a 3-star rating on the strength of its material. However, there's really not much reason to own this album today.


Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Monday, March 19, 2018

Review of Duran Duran's "Seven and the Ragged Tiger"

I posted this review on the Sputnik Music website a couple of minutes ago. It's my 100th review on that site.


Review Summary: While this album marked the end of Duran Duran's reign at the top of the pop rock mountain, it's still a New Wave classic.

Seven and the Ragged Tiger was Duran Duran's third studio album, and it capped off what was the most successful period in the band's career. While it's clearly not as strong as their second album, Rio (1982), and probably not as consistent as their self-titled first LP (1981), it's still a pretty substantial musical document that holds up well today. 

At the time of its release, the band was often hit with criticism that was somewhat unfair -- namely, that they weren't a serious band, but were rather a teen-idol type group whose music was aimed mostly at underage girls. More than thirty-five years later, it's obvious that their music has endured the test of time in a way that no teenybopper-centric band ever could. Yes, they were immensely popular with hoards of screaming adolescent females, but so had The Beatles been twenty years earlier. It didn't detract any from the music. Duran Duran was also criticized as a band trying to make it by pushing sexually sensationalized songs and videos. But while some of their music was (and is) pretty sensual, again, it's become clear over the decades that there's more there than just sex -- Duran Duran had a talent for crafting songs with strong hooks, they had a first-rate pop vocalist in Simon LeBon, and several of their musicians were severely underrated (as guitarist Andy Taylor and bass player John Taylor demonstrated two years after Tiger when they played in their rockier side project with Robert Palmer, The Power Station).

While reportedly not an easy album to make, Seven and the Ragged Tiger contained three successful singles: "The Reflex", which was the only single the band ever released that reached #1 on the charts in both the UK and the U.S. (and in several other countries as well); "Union of the Snake", which reached #3 in both the UK and U.S.; and "New Moon on Monday", which "only" reached #9 in the UK and #10 in the U.S., but which was my favorite of the three. I don't know that any of these three tracks has held up quite as well as songs like "Hungry Like the Wolf" or the title track from Rio, or even as well as "Girls on Film" from Duran Duran, but all three have proven long-lived enough that they still get some airplay on '80s stations today.

Of the nine tracks on the original release of the LP, there are several other worthwhile numbers as well. Among the most notable are the slow and spacy instrumental "Tiger Tiger", the bouncy "I Take the Dice", and the wistful album-ender, "The Seventh Stranger".

Seven and the Ragged Tiger received mixed reviews at the time of its release. The band followed it up with a live album (Arena) in 1984, then went on hiatus while Andy and John Taylor made their The Power Station album, and LeBon, keyboard player Nick Rhodes and drummer Roger Taylor went on to form their own side project band, Arcadia. By the time they came back together for the 1986 studio album Notorious, Roger Taylor had retired (for the next 15 years, at least) from the music business, Andy Taylor left the band mid-way through the recording sessions, and Duran Duran's most prosperous days were behind them. Nevertheless, while Seven and the Ragged Tigermight have marked the end of Duran Duran's reign at the top heights of the pop rock mountain, it's still an album to be valued as a fine example of some of the best of '80s New Wave music.


Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars


Sunday, March 18, 2018

Vitamin D, Sheryl Smith and Tom Ryan

My daughter turned 21 this past fall, which I'm still trying to wrap my mind around. So this past Saturday was her first St. Patrick's Day as a legal drinker. She went out to dinner with my wife and I on Friday night, and requested that she'd like to go out for some music and a drink for St. Patrick's. We thought first about my sister-in-law's band, but they're not playing again until next weekend.

A couple of words about my daughter and St. Patrick's Day. My daughter has always identified mostly as British -- both of her birth parents were of mostly British background, and the child is a born English girl -- she drinks her soda warm, she's hooked on Doctor Who,and she's one of the few people I know from her generation who both appreciates and loves Monty Python. I've always identified as mostly Irish American myself, and so my daughter and I have had an ongoing joke between us where I accuse her of historically oppressing my people, and she responds with things like, "We told  you not to wear skirts. But did you listen?!" For Christmas, however, my wife got all four of us DNA kits from Ancestry.com, and while my daughter did check out as primarily British, I've been teasing her to no end that she also is 7% or so Irish. (I've been threatening to send her for step-dancing lessons, but I wouldn't really do a thing that cruel to some nice step-dance teacher). Anyway, except for a few old staples (like "Danny Boy"), she's really not so much (or at all) into Irish music the way I am, or I might have tried to get tickets to the Larry Kirwan show that night at the Boulton Center. But in any event, it's not so much that she identifies with St. Patrick's Day that made her want to go out that night, it was more the idea that St. Patrick's is known as a drinker's holiday, and she's now a legal drinker.

Now Denise is on Facebook (I'm not), so these days, she's much more connected to what's going on around the local music scene. And she immediately mentioned that our old friends Vitamin D were scheduled to play a special St. Patrick's Day show in Patchogue as part of one of Karl Reamer's events at Kappler's in Patchogue. D. and I are only just starting to get out again -- once we adopted our two children, all of that needed to be put on the back burner -- but Karl was doing these monthly events at Kappler's from before our kids came to live with us, and Vitamin D has been playing with him there since the beginning.

We described Vitamin's D music to our daughter (I still think of them as somewhat beatnik), and also Karl's band, Big Daddy and the Bulldogs (blues), and she said that that worked for her. Truth be told, the kid is much more of a metalhead -- the last time I took her out for a night of music, it was to see a friend of hers' band, Accelerator. They're a metal band complete with a mosh pit, and I remember watching in terror a couple of times when the mosh pit got precariously close to a young lady on crutches. (I later learned that she was the drummer's girlfriend, and the reason she was on crutches was she'd had her leg broken in the mosh pit a month or so earlier). But for St. Patrick's, my daughter really just wanted to enjoy a legal drink and get a little taste of live music, so I figured the Vitamin D show was a good choice.

We got there near 8 o'clock. (It was just the two of us, because Denise was home making sure our son and his girlfriend were walking on the straight and narrow path). We parked in the LIRR lot across the street from the bar (which I learned, to my chagrin, now has those annoying machines where you have to pay to park -- thanks Patchogue, you greedy bastards!). It took us a few minutes to find the stupid machine, during which we hypothesized what it would be like if we'd both had some drinks before parking, and I teased her that she'd be driving home (but she knew that was a lie -- Dad was there strictly as a designated driver).

As we entered Kappler's, Vitamin D was just getting ready to start. They were shocked to see me (understandably enough, since, like I said, I haven't really been out these last eight years), but very pleased, and I was happy to see them as well. My daughter and I grabbed the last two available seats in Kappler's (at the bar), as the music began. At this point, I realized I'd walked right past old friend Vinny DiMarco (who I also hadn't seen in about 8 years), so we said our hellos and caught up for a little. I also ordered my daughter her drink of choice for the evening, a Jack and Coke, and a Diet Coke for myself.

Vitamin D on this night consisted of Mark Loebl in his familiar position on bass and Dee Loebl on electric acoustic guitar (which was new to me) and lead vocals, with Mike Zielinski (who was apparently the designated drummer for all of the bands, at least in the early part of the evening). They played a regrettably short set, (but it was a six-band show, so I kind of expected that), that consisted of a Wishbone Ash cover I wasn't familiar with, an original I wasn't familiar with, a cover of "I Know You Rider" (which I know is a traditional song, but I'll always think of it as a Grateful Dead cover), and a cover of Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" (which Dee proudly related she had just learned that day).

As is my wont at live shows, I started singing along with "I Know You Rider", and my daughter started shrinking into her bar stool in embarrassment, as had her mother on so many nights before. And when I sang along with "Wicked Game", she sank a little deeper.

At about the time that Mark and Dee finished, we realized that the corned beef and cabbage buffet was open, so as the next performer, Sheryl Smith, went on, we got ourselves some plates of food. I offered my daughter another drink, but I wasn't surprised to learn that she was through. (I also offered her a soda with her meal, but she thought it was much more fun to take the rest of mine).

I wasn't familiar with Ms. Smith before, but she has a nice voice. I was a little distracted with my food, so I don't remember her whole set (which was also short). I do remember that she told the audience that she didn't know any strictly Irish songs, but she did know some Van Morrison, before launching off into a cover of "Crazy Love". I also remember that the highlight of her set (for me, anyway) was a cover of The Rolling Stones' "Time Is on My Side". This was another great sing-along song for Dad. Coincidentally, it was right at this point that my daughter told me she was ready to leave after Smith finished her set. (As some of you already know, one of the greatest pleasures of parenthood is torturing your children).

At the conclusion of Smith's set, I found Mark and Dee and said my good nights. We chatted for a little bit, as Mark told me about his new project, a Grateful Dead tribute band, and Dee sent a hug home for Denise. Behind me, the next act, who I assume was Tom Ryan and friends (that's who was scheduled, anyway), started their set with "Danny Boy", then continued on into some other Irish classics. It was hard to tear myself away, as this was some especially good sing-along material for me, but I knew my daughter really had wanted only a drink with her Dad and a little taste of music, so we headed out the door. (I regretted that we hadn't been able to stay for Karl's band, but we'll catch them another day).

In any event, it was great to see Vitamin D again -- I look forward to seeing a fuller set next time -- and I enjoyed the little I heard from Sheryl Smith and Tom Ryan as well. As for my daughter, she admitted that she'd enjoyed herself (except for my sing alongs -- hrrmph!). Next time, I'll take her to more of a metal show -- she's got a couple of friends playing in bands right now, so we'll probably hit one of them -- and when I do, I'll doubtlessly tell you about it here.

And sometime soon, probably in a couple of days, I'll be writing my 100th album review for the Sputnik Music website. I was tossing around a couple of possibilities, but it looks like it will of a Duran Duran album.

Until then, stay musical my friends!

(Btw, apologies to the bands we didn't get to see on Saturday night, including Moonlight Gypsy Caravan, David Goodnight, The Septemberists, and of course, Big Daddy and The Bulldogs).




Monday, March 12, 2018

Review of Black 47's "Bankers and Gangsters"

I posted this one earlier tonight as an early St. Patrick's Day present, on the Sputnik Music website:


Review Summary: This album is the masterpiece of Black 47's later years.

Bankers and Gangsters (2010) is the masterpiece of Celtic Rock band Black 47's later years. Released just two years after the joyless protest album Iraq (2008), this one showed that the band still knew how have fun, and how to craft some great rock anthems as well. The LP features high-energy Celtic rhythms, intense ballads and everything in between, with songs that are alternately humorous, heartbreaking, lusty and political. There are thirteen tracks in all, and they're mostly all first-rate. The two highlights, however, are a pair of songs that feature the band at their most lighthearted, "Izzy's Irish Rose" and "Long Lost Tapes of Hendrix". 

"Izzy's Irish Rose" tells the story of a gentle Jewish tailor from the lower east side of Manhattan who finds true love in the person of a voluptuous Irish barmaid. His mother tries to match him up with a "Katz from Houston St./A great big strapping lump of a girl with two big awkward feet." Ms. Katz, however, is no match for Izzy's true love: "He was looking at Rosemary Eileen Statia Ann Magnoles/Forever after to be known as Izzy's Irish Rose." In the end, the star-crossed interfaith couple marry and have a brood of red-haired "Sons of Israel", each of whom, singer Larry Kirwan assures us, can "drink you out of house and home". The music throughout the song switches back and forth from that of a rollicking Irish romp to a special Black 47 version of the Israeli folk song "Hava Nagila".

The other comical classic song on the LP is based on a true story. Apparently at some point, Jimi Hendrix's bass player Noel Redding made off with some previously unreleased tapes of one of Hendrix's last live performances and deposited them in the Allied Irish Bank as collateral for a mortgage. In this song, Kirwan's protagonist learns about this, and plots to steal them from under the nose (and other body parts) of the hefty bank manager Molly Maguire. But the ghost of Hendrix intervenes, and our hero awakens after a night of drunken carnal love on the floor of the bank vault to find himself forever betrothed to the lusty Ms. Maguire. Why Jimi Hendrix's ghost appears playing the uilleann pipes I don't even want to think about, but the important thing is that in the end, yet another of Kirwan's shady-but-luckless characters has gotten his proper comeuppance.

While these two tracks are the standouts, there are plenty of other treats on this album as well. The slow, ominous "Red Hugh" is another of Kirwan's historical musical biographies. It's sung from the viewpoint of Hugh Roe O'Donnell, an Irish warlord who rebelled against English rule in 1593. "Rosemary (Nelson)", on the other hand, is a tribute to a more modern Irish human rights activist who was assassinated by a car bomb in Northern Ireland in 1999.

On a lighter note, "Celtic Rocker" is the Black 47 version of The Rolling Stones' classic "Ruby Tuesday". It's a tribute to an Irish American girl who is a groupie for all of the top Celtic Rock bands. Meanwhile, "That Summer Dress" is Kirwan's nod to a former lover with whom he shared a fiery summer romance: "That summer dress/And your spark of desire at my door/That summer dress/It spent most of August on my floor." Another entertaining number is "Wedding Reel", a duet that Kirwan shares with Kathleen Fee, the lead singer of the New York band Celtic Cross. It's an amusing back-and-forth exchange between a sharp-tongued couple who constantly threaten to dump one another, but in the end, you know they'll probably stay together. Kirwan's notes about the album describe this one as "a mixture of raucous Kinks and crazy Ceili jam."

There are some excellent quiet numbers here as well. "The Islands" is a beautiful tale of lost love, wherein Kirwan goes back to his hometown for the girl he left behind, only to find that her house is boarded up because she's found another man and moved to Dublin. And "One Starry Night" is the band's take on a traditional Irish folk song. It's another sad tale of a broken relationship. This one features some particularly poignant sax and uilleann pipes.

Black 47 did record one last LP of original music after this one, Last Call in 2014, before the band called it a day. But Bankers and Gangsters was their last truly great album. It contains all of the elements that earned and kept their small-but-passionate fan base together for 25 years. If you find you'd like to celebrate this St. Patrick's Day by listening to some exceptionally good Celtic Rock music, you couldn't do much better than this album.


Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sunday, March 11, 2018

GGOOLLDD and OMD

This was a week of music that wasn't (for me, anyway), and finally, of music that was.

Last Sunday, Denise and I were supposed to go stay a night in The Mohegan Sun (which we've never done before), and catch one of my favorite modern bands playing at Mohegan Sun's Wolf Den, The Mowgli's. The Mowgli's are an 8-piece Los Angeles band that feel like they should be from 1960s San Francisco. There's kind of a hippy vibe to them, almost a Cowsills feel. A lot of the people on the Sputnik site can't stand the band, at least partially because they feel that their lyrics are so upbeat that it's sickening. I don't find that to be true myself -- in fact, their last album, Where'd Your Weekend Go? (2016) actually had a bit of darkness to it, although the music itself still sounded upbeat. They're definitely a band on my bucket list -- I really wanted to see them live. However, life got in the way. Some family issues caused us to cancel our plans. This was sad, although at least we cancelled early enough to not lose any money on the hotel room. And since the Wolf's Den is a free venue, we didn't lose any money on the tickets, either.

Then, towards the end of this week, I was hoping to pull a local music doubleheader. He Bird, She Bird was playing a gig in Babylon on Thursday night, and The Hank Stone Band had a show scheduled for Friday night in East Setaucket. Unfortunately, I was dreaming, because my proofreading job, which has had hardly any work for me all year, finally kicked into its busy season this week (of course), so I wound up working late both nights. (I'd have liked to ditch the job both nights, but like most people these days, I owe, I owe, so off to work I go).

But finally on Saturday, I got a little something to feed my soul. A few months back, Denise and I had talked about the fact that Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark was playing a show in Manhattan on March 10. They're one of the rare '80s bands she's never seen live before, and of course, if she hasn't seen them, you know I haven't. The '80s is her era.

At first, I said I didn't think I wanted to go. I've gotten so that I really don't like going into Manhattan anymore for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is it's such a hassle. Besides, my understanding was that the venue was one of those that didn't have seats -- they pack you in like cattle and expect you to stand for the night. I didn't used to do that even when I was young enough to endure it, and these days, there's no way Jose. Denise checked into it further, though, and found out that they do set up a section with handicapped seats for those who are older or physically in need of being able to sit.

At first, I was still against it. Then I started thinking, and I realized that the two of us have put so much time into the family for the last 7 or 8 years that we haven't always gotten the time together that we need. And the more I thought, the more I realized that sometimes it's better to push yourself and actually do something, even if it's more comfortable to stay home. I also realized how much Denise would really enjoy it. And it wasn't like I wouldn't enjoy it-- OMD's 2017 album The Punishment of Luxury just missed my Top Ten albums last year, and it was definitely in my Top Twenty. (If the show had been scheduled at a Long Island venue, I wouldn't have thought twice). So finally I told her, "Let's Do It".

We decided to drive in rather than take the LIRR and grab a cab, and Denise researched and prepaid for a parking spot in a lot nearby the venue. We couldn't leave home until nearly dinnertime, due to family obligations, so I was a little nervous about making it on time. But we figured wed give it our best shot.

We took the 59th St. Bridge in, which is unusual for us, but the venue, Terminal 5, in on West 56th St., so we thought it made more sense. Happily, the traffic wasn't bad, although actually finding the bridge was more difficult than we thought -- whoever put up the signs up in that Long Island City area was a madman.

The driving in Manhattan was insane, as usual. After getting across the bridge and onto 62nd St. (don't ask me how the 59th St. Bridge puts you on 62nd St., I'd  rather not think about it) we had five blocks to work our way across five lanes of traffic so we could make a right onto E. 57th St. At one point, while Denise took a quick look behind her to check the position of three psychotic taxi drivers all aiming for the same spot in her lane, a bicycle rider went shooting out in front of Denise, and very nearly was sent to bicycle guy heaven. Nevertheless, we managed to make it across without killing anyone or getting killed ourselves, and surprisingly, the traffic on 57th wasn't too bad. After one minor mishap pulling into the wrong parking garage and having to go around the block again, we were safely parked and on our way.

We made a brief stop at a nearby pub, where some of members of Denise's WLIR Facebook group were getting together before the show. But the place was small and packed, so we only stayed for a moment before heading to the venue early, to make sure we were able to get seats. For once, everything went as planned, and we soon found ourselves sitting on folding metal chairs in a roped off area on the left side of the room facing the stage.

A word about Terminal 5 -- this was my first time to the venue. It's a fairly large room, with a big open floor. You enter it to the right of the stage. There's a big bar in the back of the room. There are two upper floors on either side of the stage, with metal rails where people can stand overlooking the dance floor, and another at a different level midway in between those two levels at the back of the room, over the bar. The funny thing is, it looks like the perfect place for blood sports. I feel as though on the nights when they don't have bands booked, they probably have bare-fisted fights to the death in the middle of that open floor, with spectators up above screaming and howling and giving two thumbs down -- "Two men enter, and one man leaves!"

Prior to the show, Denise and I got to talking to very nice lady who was seating near us because she'd had a leg operation. She was there with her husband and her teenage son, who was out on the floor somewhere. They were upstate from New York, and like us, they go to a variety of concerts -- especially '80s shows. (In fact, we were at the same Blondie/Garbage show at Bethel Woods last summer). She told us a story that once, a number of years back, she and her husband were attending a concert by the band Sponge. She turned her head to say something to her husband just as the drummer decided to hurl his drumstick into the crowd, and as she turned back, it clocked her right between the eyes and knocked her unconscious. To the band's (and the drummer's) credit, they were very concerned, and checked in with her after the set. And they were so grateful that she wasn't going to sue them, that her family developed a relationship with the band, and with bands who were Sponge's friends. They kept in touch for a number of years, and the band often sent them music, comped them, etc. Apparently, she's known in Sponge's circle of friends as "Drumstick Girl".

At 8 PM, with the venue already at least two-thirds full, the lights went down and the opening band, GGOOLLDD hit the stage. (I think they pronounce it as Ga-Gold, but I'm not sure -- I didn't hear clearly). I'd heard they were a synthpop band, but actually they were a little less synth and a little more rock than I thought. In any event, they're a 5-piece band from Milwaukee, WI, fronted by a platinum blonde female lead singer. She came out in an outfit that Thera Marshall of the LI band Folk Fiction might have worn a few years ago. It started out looking like the sort of white terrycloth a prizefighter might wear to the ring (and I immediately thought that maybe she was a sometimes-participant in the weekly Terminal 5 death match events), but eventually, it opened up into a thing with butterfly wings and little white lights all over it. Very cool. Anyway, I liked the band more than not. I don't know the names of any of their songs, but they had some nice moments, especially the second song, and the last song, of their set. (I bought their EP, so I'll hopefully get to know their music better). In comparison to some of the other opening bands I've seen in the last year that I hadn't been previously familiar with, I liked them better than bands like Deap Vally, Judah & the Lion or Palaye Royale, but not quite as much as Potty Mouth. And they not only seemed to really enjoy their set, but they hung out the whole night enjoying OMD's set as well. (I know because after loading out their equipment through a door near our seats, they flitted back and forth past us several times from backstage over towards the bar area. They didn't leave until OMD's encore was over).

In between sets, I made my way across the room to the merch stand and the Men's Room, and by this time, the floor was completely packed. So packed, in fact, that I suspect the fire marshall might have been less than thrilled. Denise pointed out, though, that they might not have actually surpassed their capacity -- the crowd against the upstairs rail was only four or five deep, so there was room up there -- but the dance floor was so full, it took 10 or 15 minutes to work my way across it. Happily, I discovered on the way back that it was actually quicker to go all the way to the back of the room and make your way across behind the oval bar, so I managed to get back before OMD hit the stage. (And so did our new friend Drumstick Girl, who came back with her teen son in tow -- he husband had worked his way to the very front of the stage, and wasn't about to give up his prime spot).

When the lights went down again, the crowd went wild, and it became obvious that this was going to be a very high energy night. And it was.

OMD took the stage to a taped intro of "Art Eats Art" and "La Mitrailleuse" (urging you to "bend your body to the will of the machine"), then launched into "Ghost Star" from The Punishment of Luxury album. I'd seen a copy of their setlist ahead of time (which someone who had been there for the soundcheck posted to Denise's group), so I knew what to expect. And as the excitement grew, for the fourth song of the night, the band burst into my favorite OMD song, "Tesla Girls". For me, this was one of the quintessential pop singles of the '80s, and hearing the band perform it live was really exciting (in much the same way as seeing Men Without Hats perform "Safety Dance" had been when we saw them last summer.)

Throughout the night, the band mixed all of their classic '80s hits in with songs from the new album, all the while drawing off of the energy of the  crowd. (At one point, the crowd on the floor was packed so tightly that a young woman passed out right in front of us, and had to be dragged to a seat in our area until security could work their way over to help her. But as she sat there only semi-conscious, she never stopped bobbing her head to the music. And although security helped her away from the area, presumably to a first-aid room or something, Denise told me that before the end of the night, she was back out out on the floor still dancing and bopping to the music).

While it was clear that the happy audience was most excited about the classic songs from back in the day, the new songs went over very well also. All told, OMD played an impressive 18-song regular set (which included another of my favorites, "If You Leave" from the Pretty in Pink soundtrack), eventually ending with their 1981 single "Enola Gay". Then, after a quick break, they came back for an encore with the one-two-three punch of "Dreaming", "Secret", and their very first single, "Electricity" (which I've always thought of kind of as the faster older brother of The Psychedelic Furs' "Love My Way").

It was a tremendous show. Denise danced her bottom off throughout the night like the true '80s girl she is (and uncharacteristically slept until noon today, heh heh). And Drumstick Girl's teenage son was dancing around so wildly, a couple of times I was afraid he was going to accidentally clock Denise in the head while he was flailing his arms around.  (From what Denise tells me, the online feedback from everyone who else who was there from her Facebook group seems to be in agreement with our assessment -- everyone seems to have had a great time.)

I can tell you that the two of us were so exhausted from the long trip in and back, and from the excitement of the show itself, that today was one of those days where neither us had the energy to do much but relax and watch a little TV. (We were hoping there were some videos of OMD posted on YouTube from last night, but so far, the one that was up there wouldn't load properly).

So anyway, after some frustration in the early part of week, our weekend ended happily. How was yours?

I expect to be back up here on the blog sometime later this week with a special St. Patrick's Day review of the 2010 Black 47 album Bankers and Gangsters, and maybe even another St. Patrick's Day review as well.

Until then, Erin go bragh!


Sunday, March 4, 2018

Review of Jethro Tull's "Under Wraps"

I posted this review on the Sputnik Music website about 30 minutes ago:

Review Summary: A Jethro Tull album for fans of Ultravox and Gary Numan

I mostly try to review albums that haven't had a previous write-up on this site. The only time I break this rule is when 1) I feel I have points to make that haven't already been made in previous reviews; or 2) When I feel that an album has been either misunderstood or unfairly maligned by previous reviewers, or I at least feel that I have a different perspective to contribute. This review falls into the latter category.

Under Wraps has never gotten a lot of love, from critics or even from many Jethro Tull fans. I used to think it was just about the synthesizers -- Tull morphed over the years from a blues rock band to a progressive rock band to a folk band, etc., and except for the few studio albums at the end of their career, their synthesizer period was their least popular one. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized there was more to it. A (1980) went over reasonably well with the fans, and the song "Black Sunday" is particularly well loved. Even Broadsword and the Beast (1982) gets some respect. Its rating on Sputnik Music is 3.3, which puts it somewhere between "Good" and "Excellent". But poor little Under Wraps is the band's lowest rated studio album on the site, with an anemic score of 1.9, and that's with 106 votes as of this writing, a decent-sized sample. Worse still, the one review that exists for the album, written in 2010 by a respected reviewer, scores it at 1.5, placing it in the "Very Poor" category. I've always liked the album, so I asked myself, what is it that makes so many others disparage it so" And it comes down to three words (or two, if you count a hyphenated word as one word): Peter-John Vettese.

Vettese joined Jethro Tull as their keyboardist for the Broadsword album. Tull overlord Ian Anderson must have liked something about him, because while Anderson is still credited as the songwriter for all of that album's songs, there is a footnote that credits Vettese with "additional material". This in itself is unusual in Tullworld. After Mick Abrahams departed the band at the completion of their first album in 1968, Anderson has been their prime creative force, and he hasn't often been prone to sharing. However, after Broadsword, Anderson invited Vettese to actually collaborate with him on his mostly unknown solo album, Walk Into Light. This collaboration continued on Under Wraps, with Vettese sharing songwriting credit on seven of the LP's original eleven songs.

"So what was the problem"" you ask. Well, for many people, the first unpardonable sin was the choice by Anderson to record the album using a drum machine rather than a live drummer. This decision immediately angered many Tull fans. And then there was the synth work. It wasn't so much the use of synthesizers itself that put off fans as it was Vettese's style of playing. As I stated earlier, a lot of the A album went over well enough, but that was with Eddie Jobson on keyboard's. Jobson plays a grand style that was familiar to progressive rock fans, close enough to those of players like Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson to feel comfortable for Tull's fan base. 

Vettese's mode of playing, though, is way more '80s, but also a very particular kind of '80s -- we're not talking Spandau Ballet or Erasure happy dance pop here. While there isn't really anyone who plays exactly like him, what he was doing for Anderson and Tull was much closer to Gary Numan or Ultravox music than it was to music familiar to longtime Tull fans. The problem at the time of Under Wraps' release was that many (if not most) '80s fans weren't about to give a listen to a '70s rock dinosaur like Jethro Tull, and most Tull fans felt the same way about '80s music. So Walk Into Light, and especially Under Wraps, were albums in limbo -- the people most likely to enjoy them ('80s fans) weren't going to give them a listen, and the people who were willing to give them a listen ('70s-music-loving Tull fans) weren't particularly predisposed to like what they heard. Consequently, the album was very poorly received, and afterwards, in order to keep his fan base happy, Anderson had little choice but to go back to the more basic rock style heard on 1987's Crest of a Knave.

I'm not going to claim that Under Wraps is one of Tull's top albums. It's not in the same stratosphere as LPs like AqualungThick as a Brick or Songs From the Wood. What I will say, though, is that there's a lot of good material on here. The one quiet acoustic number, "Under Wraps #2", has endured, and deservedly so -- it's a little gem, in the same category as tracks from previous albums such as "Wond'ring Aloud" or "Dun Ringill". But other numbers I love here include the semi-acoustic "European Legacy", the brash "Heat", and the seriously strange "Nobody's Car". And I've always felt that "Later, That Same Evening" would be a perfect companion piece to Thomas Dolby's "One of Our Submarines". 

Vettese's playing here is very in-your-face, even strident at times, but I find it consistently interesting. And throughout the LP, he does all kinds of innovative little sampling things with Anderson's voice that enhance the music. As for the lyrics, there's an overall cold war/spy theme to most of the songs (Anderson is an avid fan of spy novels), that I think makes Under Wraps kind of fun. I'll grant you that some of the tracks (say, "Apogee" or "Saboteur") are uninspired, but there's more than enough quality material on here to make this a worthwhile album. 

Vettese left Jethro Tull after Under Wraps, although he did add some keyboards to some of the tracks on the 1989 Rock Island album. He went on to work with a number of '80s bands such as Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Go West, Pet Shop Boys and Simple Minds, and even contributed his keyboard work to Annie Lennox's Grammy Nominated Diva album. I'm sorry he didn't stay with the band longer. While I realize I'm in the minority here, I like Under Wraps (and Walk Into Light) better than Crest of a Knave or any of the albums Tull released after it. Like Rodney Dangerfield, it didn't get any respect. But it deserved to.

Rating: 3 of 5 stars