Monday, May 28, 2018

Playin' Around With My Top 25

This is one of those posts that might be of interest only to me, so feel free to skip it (not that you wouldn't feel free anyway -- you don't really need me to tell you that). A couple of posts ago, I talked about my 5-Year Project, and how I planned to go back over my Top 25 Artists of All Time and give them a re-listen, then write a little about each band (or solo artist) here. But before I start those essays, I wanted to go over my Top 25 list, and look at some trends. This will give you (or me) an idea of what I like in an artist, before I even start writing about what I like (and dislike) about each of them specifically.

So here's the list again. I'm going to break down some of their trends next to each (specifically year of first recording, country of origin, genre and the gender of the lead singer(s). So here's the list:

Jethro Tull -- 1968 - UK - progressive folk rock - male
The Who -- 1965 - UK - hard rock/progressive rock - male (male, male)
Pink Floyd -- 1967 - UK - psychedelic/progressive rock - male (male, male)
Yes -- 1969 - UK - progressive rock - male (male, male, male)
The Good Rats -- 1969 - US - hard rock - male (male)
Procol Harum -- 1967 - UK - progressive/blues rock - male (male)
Bruce Springsteen -- 1973 US - rock - male
Joni Mitchell -- 1968 - CAN/US - folk/pop/folk-jazz - female
The Cars -- 1978 - US - new wave - male (male)
The Police -- 1978 - UK - new wave/reggae - male
Blondie -- 1976 - US - new wave - female
Eurythmics -- 1981 - UK - new wave - female
The Smiths -- 1984 - UK - new wave - male
The Go-Go's -- 1981 - US - new wave/pop punk - female (female)
Fleetwood Mac -- 1968 (1975) - UK/US - female - female - male (male, male)
Rush - 1974 -- CAN - hard rock/progressive rock/math rock - male
'Til Tuesday -- 1985 - US - new wave - female
The Cranberries -- 1993 - IRE - alternapop - female
Nirvana -- 1989 - US - grunge/alternative - male
The Slant -- 1998 - US - alternapop/folk - female (male, male)
Future Bible Heroes -- 1997 - US - indiepop/lo-fi - female, male
Paramore -- 2005 - US - pop punk/alternative - female
Bayside -- 2004 - US - pop punk/emo/rock - male
Black 47 -- 1991 - IRE/US - Celtic rock - male
Blackmore's Night -- 1997 - UK/US - Renaissance/folk - female

And here are some breakdowns of the trends.

Year of first recording:

1960s - 8 (7)
1970s - 5 (6)
1980s - 5
1990s - 5
2000s - 2

No shockers here, given my age -- The biggest decade for me is bands who started in the 1960s, followed by bands that started in the 1970s. (I've half-shifted Fleetwood Mac to the 1970s, since the version I love -- with Nicks and Buckingham -- really started in the mid-70s. And I guess I could almost say the same thing about Pink Floyd, as for me, they're really a different band from Meddle onwards.) I'm almost surprised that the number is the same for the 1990s and for the 1980s. Notice there are only two bands for the first decade of the new century, and none for the second.

(I was wondering if I were to add some bands who began in the current decade, who would be the most likely candidates? The three I came up with are The Mowgli's, Foster the People and Passion Pit, but none are really ready to crack that Top 25 yet.)


Country or Origin:

US - 14
UK - 9
Can - 1
Ire - 1

Considering I'm American, the list is pretty Brit-centric, and that's especially so at the top, where five of my top six are bands of British origin. I've treated Joni Mitchell and Larry Kirwan of Black 47 as though they were Americans, even though they were born in Canada and Ireland, respectively. This is because each lived in the U.S. for pretty much their whole music careers.


Genre:

I'm not going to try to break down specific numbers here, just some general trends. There's a preponderance of progressive rock and new wave bands here, with a decent number of some kind of version or other of alternative rock, pop rock, psychedelic rock,  folk and hard rock. What you don't see: a whole lot of pure pop, R&B, blues, country, metal, jazz or hip-hop. (And while I occasionally enjoy certain types of classical, in terms of my favorite artists, Yes is about as close as I come to that.)

If you look really carefully at these artists, what really stands out to me is that I like a lot of bands that make heavy use of keyboards and synthesizers, and artists that make use of acoustic guitars. I don't exactly hate electric guitars, but I need more to make music interesting to me. The only really hard rocking bands in the bunch are The Who, The Good Rats, Rush and Nirvana (and to a certain extent, Bruce Springsteen, Bayside and early Paramore). And none of those first four bands I mentioned are typical guitar-centric bands.

The other thing that stands out is melody. I like melodic songs with crisp hooks. I don't have a lot of tolerance for dissonance.


Gender of Vocalist:

It seems to break down fairly equally, with roughly 14 bands that rely on mostly male vocals, and 11 that rely on female. However, given that probably about 80% of bands in general (I'm guessing) have male lead vocalists, you can see that I actually somewhat favor female vocalists, especially in later years. (In the 1960s and 1970s, there weren't a whole lot of female lead rock vocalists.) I'm a huge fan of interesting female voices. Although it's not immediately obvious from this list, I also love bands that do are good at vocal harmony.


Other Factors:

1. Of course, this is only my opinion, but one thing I think that most of these artists have in common is strong songwriting.

2. A lot of the bands, especially the ones from the 1960s and 1970s, have a largely male fanbase, and several (such as The Who, The Good Rats and Rush) are almost what I'd call "ugly guy" bands. (There aren't a lot of matinee idol looks here). And also, see point number 3 as another reason for the largely male fan base.

3. The themes of the songs for these artists tend to go far beyond typical love and/or sex songs. Many, if not most, of these artists are writing about things like the meaning of life, spirituality, madness, etc. Few of them are famous for "I love you, you love me" kind of songs.


So anyway, this breakdown should start to give you an idea of why these artists, in particular, made my Top 25.

The next post (that isn't an album review) will start to talk specifically about each of these 25 artists. It will be about Jethro Tull.


Friday, May 25, 2018

Review of Martha and the Muffins' "Danseparc"

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


Review Summary: "Everyday it's tomorrow and I never know what tomorrow will be/Everyday it's tomorrow and to dance with you is all I need."

Danseparc (1983) was the fourth studio album by Canadian new wavers Martha and the Muffins. Best known for their 1980 single "Echo Beach," (and to a lesser extent for their 1984 single "Black Stations/White Stations"), the band specialized in trippy dance beats, female and male vocals (with Martha Johnson handling approximately two-thirds of the lead vocal duties), and a staid and artsy rock sensibility that frequently added some discordant sax to jazz up the mix. One of the band's stronger efforts, Danseparc charted in both the U.S. and Canada. While the album is pretty decent as a whole, Danseparc is dominated by two particularly impressive numbers -- the title track, "Danseparc (Every Day It's Tomorrow)," (which charted as a single in the band's home country), and "Sins of Children."

"Danseparc" starts with a clean, distinct bassline, which is soon joined by some boisterous bursts of guitar. Johnson takes the lead vocal here, with Mark Gane adding a subdued second vocal line to the chorus. The thing that makes the song, though, is the guitar line on the chorus, which somehow manages to create an auditory representation of the formation of an electric spark each time Johnson croons, "Danseparc!" The song compares a loving relationship to a dance, as Johnson poses the question, "Will the way that we dance always be the same?" The song has a dreamlike, mystic quality to it, with a chorus that begins, "Every day it's tomorrow and I never know what tomorrow will be." As the guitar fades out, Johnson whispers something that begins, "This is a place I've visited ...", then drops so low that I've never been able to make out the last part of the line. No matter. With no disrespect intended towards "Echo Beach," this might be my favorite M + M song.

"Sins of Children" is the album's other classic track. (And you can tell the band knew it, because when they released the album in 2008, the three "bonus" tracks included a B-side, an extended dance version of "Danseparc" and a live version of "Sins of Children"). This is a song with a slow, deliberate pace and a gradual buildup, that features great use of hand percussion to supplement the guitar, piano and bass. The theme of the song is the way certain religions torment and frighten children, with concepts such as "original sin" and prayers about what happens "if I should die before I wake." Johnson's calm vocal adds to the poignancy of the song, as she intones lines such as "Down on bended knees/Words are whispered low/Confessing sins/they must invent." The song ends with a sweet closing synth line, that features four descending single notes, each held for a full measure, repeated several times in such a way as to form a wail of despair.

The rest of the LP has its moments, although nothing else reaches the heights of these two tracks. "Obedience" starts the album on an upbeat note, with a frenetically strummed guitar. "Several Styles of Blonde Girls Dancing" finds Gane singing lead, and features an interesting and leisurely guitar line at the end that sounds like an inversion of the music from a track of off the band's Mystery Walk album, "Come Out and Dance." And "Walking Into Walls" is energetic and fun, although the track is somewhat marred for me by the presence of various audio clips from old movies and/or television shows played over the sax in the middle of the song.

Martha and the Muffins were a delightful little niche band. They never received a ton of radio play, even at their height, and they never profited from a bunch of best-selling singles. They had their own unique sound, and you can tell they were in it largely for the love of the music. For anyone who ever enjoyed this quirky band from the great white north, Danseparc is an essential album.


Rating: 3 of 5 stars


I'm including this comment I entered in the comment section below the review:


"I didn't redo the whole history of the band here, and how they eventually morphed into M + M, (which was essentially just Martha Johnson + Mark Gane and whatever studio musicians they happened to need at any given time), or the fact that this album cover is the only one that ever referred to them as both M + M and Martha and the Muffins. 

"To their credit, Martha and Mark still make music together -- they dropped a new song last August called 'Summer of Song'. It's not the best single ever recorded, but it was good enough to at least give a Muffinhead like myself some moments of pleasure."

Saturday, May 19, 2018

My 5-Year Project

2017 was a good, but grueling, year for me musically. It was my first full year on the Sputnik Music website, and although I always try to keep up with interesting new music, by the end of the year, I felt I'd overdone it. In the end, I think I listened to about 95 or 96 new LPs that qualified for end of the year Best-Of lists, and that's not even counting the various new compilations, live albums and EPs that included some songs qualified for my Top 20 Songs list. And when I say listen, we're talking five or six listens minimum to each album. After it was over, I felt like like someone who maybe should have passed up the third helpings of a sonic Thanksgiving dinner.

Don't get me wrong, I love to stay as current as I can on new music, especially new music in the genres that I like. But it got so I was compulsively consuming so much new stuff that I had little time left for music from the past that I already knew I like.

I hate to say ... um, write ... this out loud in this way, but I'm 61 years old now. I've been a music lover in one way or another since the mid-sixties, so that's five decades of music that I was, if not completely ignoring, then at least severely neglecting. (Don't tell the guys on Sputnik that, or I'll never hear the end of it. Some of them suspect that I'm older than pretty much everyone else on the site, but most them have no idea how old I am. And I don't want their perception of my age to color the way that they read my reviews. They already give enough guff to some guys whom I know are a decade or two younger than me.)

So what I decided to do was to try to cut down on how much time I focus on new music in 2018, and to go back and re-experience in as fresh a way as possible some of the older music I love best. So being the good little obsessive-compulsive, list-making nut that I am, what I did was to map out a 5-Year Project to go back and re-listen to music by the bands I've listed as my Favorite 25 Bands of All Time. Because who knows how much time any of has left on this planet. In all honesty, I've never lived the healthiest lifestyle, so when I was younger, I never even thought I'd make it to this age. (On the other hand, my grandmother on my father's side lived into her nineties, as did her mother, so don't count me out yet either.) So I've chosen to go back and re-enjoy the music of the bands I hold most dear. And starting this past January, I begun to do just that.

Now lately, especially with a small hiatus that's been going on in my live-show schedule, this blog has basically just turned into a place where I post my album reviews. I enjoy doing that, but its not all that I envisioned this blog to be when I created it.

So from time to time, I'm going to take a break from the constant barrage of album and live show reviews to post about each of these 25 bands/musicians as I re-experience them, not so much to try to write about their history (because let's face it, you could look most of that up right now on Wikipedia and a hundred other sources if you wanted to), but mainly about why they're in my Top 25 Bands list. What is it I love about them? What do I think were their strongest and weakest releases, where do I think they rate objectively in the grand scheme of music history (as opposed to where they subjectively rate for me)?

You might ask me, "Are these really your Favorite 25 Bands of All Time?" (You might. Go ahead. Try it.) And the answer is mostly, but with some qualifiers. For one thing, the only local, non-national act I've included on my list is my wife Denise's original band The Slant. As some of you know, I was very involved in the local music scene, especially from the late nineties through the mid-2000s, so much so that in reality, I'm more emotionally attached to some of local bands and their music than I am to some of the bands on my list. (And so, if I make it through these next five years, I've got another project involving favorite local bands loosely planned for years six and seven.)

Also, to a certain extent, if I were to really examine my feelings, some of the list would probably change a little every day. In fifty years of music, I've loved and respected the music of so many bands that it's really hard to say "These guys are my favorites, forever and always."

At very least, though, I can definitely say that these are some bands that have enjoyed and will always enjoy, and I think that's the best I can do. The top few bands will probably always be my top few, so I'll be doing my list from the top on down. This way, if I step out my front door tomorrow to get the mail and I get annihilated by the falling toilet from the Mir space station like the little girl in that old show Dead Like Me, at least I'll have had the chance to re-listen to my top few.  After the first six-to-eight listed, they could really be in any order, though -- this is just the way I've chosen to organize them.

So without further ado, here's my list, in the order I'll be working through them:

Jethro Tull
The Who
Pink Floyd
Yes
The Good Rats
Procol Harum
Bruce Springsteen
Joni Mitchell
The Cars
The Police
Blondie
Eurythmics
The Smiths
The Go-Go's
Fleetwood Mac
Rush
'Til Tuesday
The Cranberries
Nirvana
The Slant
Future Bible Heroes
Paramore
Bayside
Black 47
Blackmore's Night

I've already spent this past January through March working my way through Jethro Tull's studio recordings, plus various live albums, concert DVDs and DVD bios, and sometime over the next few weeks, I'll be posting a write-up about them. I'm currently mid-way through The Who, which I plan to finish up by the end of June. Then I'll focus three months each on Pink Floyd and Yes, and that will take me through this year.

Hopefully, this will break of the monotony of too many album reviews here on the blog, and it will give you some insights into my musical tastes and preferences, and maybe make you think about your own. Who would be on your list?

Anyway, that's my plan, fellow music lovers. So keep your eyes on the sky, and watch out for crashing toilets hurtling down in my direction. And if none are forthcoming, maybe I can entertain you with some thoughts about the bands that I love the most, and the reasons that I love them.

Until then, Auf Wiedersehen!

Review of Mountain's "Flowers of Evil"

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


Review Summary: Although this isn't Mountain's strongest album, it will give you a decent taste of what this band was all about.

Mountain is a band that doesn't get a lot of attention these days. Although they were one of the groups who played at the original Woodstock Festival, their "classic" lineup of Felix Pappalardi on vocals, bass and keyboards, guitar legend Leslie West on guitar and vocals, Steve Knight on keyboards and Corky Laing on drums was only together from 1969 through 1972. Their special brand of blues-influenced hard rock invites comparisons to other late-sixties-early-seventies bands such as Cream, Cactus, Grand Funk Railroad and Humble Pie. Flowers of Evil was this lineup's third and final studio album, although in truth, it was actually half-studio and half-live -- the first five tracks are studio recordings, while the final two (side two of the original vinyl LP) were recorded at a live concert at New York's Fillmore East in June of 1971.

Flowers of Evil has received mixed reviews over the years, and for good reason. It pales in comparison to Mountain's first two LPs, Climbing! (1970) and Nantucket Sleighride (1971). The popular view has long been that after two years of constant touring, Mountain was somewhat burnt out when it came time to write songs for a new project, which is why only half of the album featured new material. On the other hand, it's generally conceded that these first three LPs (and maybe the 1972 release Mountain Live: The Road Goes Ever On) comprise the high point of the band's existence. Viewed from this perspective, Flowers of Evil can be seen as the least important original recording of the band's most important period.

I've read many comments on this site and in other places saying that the live portion of Flowers of Evil is the best part. All I can tell you is that I've owned the LP for many years, and I've always gravitated more toward the studio side of the album. I freely grant that none of the new songs on Flowers reach the level of Mountain's three best tracks, "Mississippi Queen" and "Theme for an Imaginary Western" from Climbing! and the title track from Nantucket Sleighride. Taken on their own terms, though, I find each of the five new original tracks on this recording to be pretty decent.

The title track "Flowers of Evil" kicks off the album. It's a mid-tempo rocker with West singing lead on the verses and Pappalardi taking the choruses. A reflection of its time, it's sung from the perspective of a father lamenting that his son has come back from the Vietnam War with a personality-changing drug addiction. This one leaves plenty of room for West's guitar acrobatics, and received some modest airplay on American FM radio.

Next comes "King's Chorale," a short-but-graceful instrumental for piano, organ and guitar penned by Pappalardi. This leads into the album's most controversial track, "One Last Cold Kiss", a song about a pair of swans whose happy life together is tragically altered by the arrow of a thoughtless hunter. The song sounds great and has a bouncy instrumental chorus, but it's marred by cringe worthy lyrics: "Husband come to my side/And with your feathers warm my pain". Yeah, rock in the seventies sometimes got a little pretentious.

The studio portion of the album is rounded out by "Crossroader", a solid, if unexceptional, basic mid-tempo rocker, and "Pride and Passion", a seven-minute-long prog-rock track with a few different movements that mines the same vein as "Theme for an Imaginary Western" in the main body of the song.

The live section of the album begins with a five-part medley, the best portions of which are Mountain's cover of the rock staple "Roll Over Beethoven", and an instrumental segment referred to as "Swan Theme" that allows the band to improvise around the chorus of "One Last Cold Kiss" without getting weighed down by the embarrassing lyrics. The album ends with a welcome concert version of "Mississippi Queen". I suspect that musicians and guitar lovers in particular are more drawn to this live side of the album. There's a lot of musical improvisation and a good energy level throughout. My short attention span, however, is better suited to enjoy the five studio tracks.

In the year 2018, I find Mountain to be a sadly undervalued band. Rock historians credit them with being one of the forerunners of heavy metal, and in 2015, Rolling Stone magazine rated Leslie West as #66 on their list of 100 Greatest GuitaristsFlowers of Evil isn't their best album, or their second best, for that matter. But it's a respectable rock album that will give you a good taste of what 1970s hard rock was all about.


Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Monday, May 14, 2018

Review of Rachael Sage's "Myopia"

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


Review Summary: While Sage makes it clear that she sees the darker side of life, she chooses to focus on the positive. This is her own special form of "myopia".

New York City songstress Rachael Sage has just released her 14th studio album. Entitled Myopia, the LP is among her best works yet. Here's my only admonition -- pessimists, cynics, Debbie Downers and other revelers in the dark emotions be forewarned: While the album does contain a few somber songs (including a ballad written just for misanthropes), on the whole, Myopia is almost relentlessly upbeat. The first track smacks you right in the face with all of the reasons that it's good to be alive, and continues on from there. So if you're looking for some music to consume alongside a tequila and a bottle of sleeping pills, you're gonna want to look elsewhere.

For those unfamiliar with her (which judging by her Sputnik Music page includes almost everyone on this site), Sage is a former dancer and show kid who has spent the last twenty years or so carving out a nice little indie music career for herself. She looks like a happier Tori Amos, and her music is a kind of folk-pop blend (with maybe just a dash of cabaret) that calls to mind such disparate artists as Amos, Suzanne Vega, Regina Spektor and Sheryl Crow. In the past, many of her recordings have been heavily piano-based, but on this LP, she's made a conscious decision to record songs that rely more heavily on the guitar. Her music, especially lately, also tends to make good use of underlying string instruments like violins and cellos, which adds a special richness to the sound.

On the whole, the first half of the album seems slightly stronger than the second -- that's where you'll find most of my favorite songs, anyway. This list includes the single "Spark", which has recently been challenging artists like Taylor Swift and Kesha on the FMQB's Adult Comtemporary chart; "Olivia", an ode to the Mariska Hargitay character on the Law & Order SVU television show; and the title track "Myopia", a tribute to self-confidence and triumph over emotional nearsightedness.

The few darker numbers on here include "Sympathy Seed", a song sung from the perspective of a bitter and empty person who wishes they had more human empathy ("I do not possess what I was I were filled with/I wish I were filled with the sympathy seed"); "Daylight", about a woman trying to find a way to deal with her combat-veteran partner, who has come back from the war a changed person; and "Maybe She'll Have Cats," a musical reproach to a father who is overly judgmental of his teen daughter's sexual transgressions ("Someday she'll be older/None of this will matter/No one's gonna wonder/Who she kissed in her heyday"). 

In spite of tracks like these, though, the album as a whole still comes down heavily on the optimistic side of life. Whether she's playfully singing a punked out version of the Yiddish song "Umru Mayne", or closing the album with a sentimental look at sisterhood ("Sistersong 2018"), Sage makes it clear that it's not that she doesn't see darkness in the world; she just chooses to put her focus on the positive. This is her own special form of "myopia". And I'm just fine with that.


Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars


Friday, May 11, 2018

Review of Belly's "Dove"

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


Review Summary: Forget the Belly of the '90s and come to this with fresh ears, and you might be in for a treat.

Tanya Donelly has had a fairly storied career so far. She and her step-sister Kristin Hersh founded Throwing Muses as teenagers back in the mid-'80s. Near the end of that decade, she and Kim Deal formed another successful New England band, The Breeders. In 1991, Donelly decided it was time to form her own band, which she christened "Belly" because she thought the word was "both pretty and ugly". Their first album, Star (1991) was certified as a gold album by the RIAA, powered largely by a pair of hit singles, "Gepetto" and "Feed the Tree" (which hit #1 on the U.S. alternative charts, and also made the Top 40 on the UK singles chart). Their second album, King (1995), was less successful, in spite of a pair of singles that scored on the U.S. alternative charts, "Super-Connected" and "Now They'll Sleep". Donelly then disbanded Belly and embarked on an up-again-down-again solo career. Now, thanks to an effective PledgeMusic campaign, Belly is back with Dove, their first LP in 23 years. 

The lineup for this album is the same one that created the King album: Donelly on guitar and lead vocals; Thomas Gorman on guitar, vocals and keyboards; his brother Chris Gorman on drums; and Gail Greenwood (who has also played with another pair of notable female-fronted rock bands, L7and Bif Naked) on bass. To be honest, though, Dove doesn't sound much to my ears like either King or Star. Donelly's voice has deepened somewhat, which is fine, because her voice was strong, but girlish, on the band's previous efforts -- she now sports the rich voice of a woman. As for the band, they're less frenetic, but more textured than they were in the '90s. The bad news is that there's no single track on here anywhere nearly as catchy as "Feed the Tree". But the good news is that this might be the most consistent and complete album that they've ever released. It's full of lush vocal harmonies and melodic tracks that will sooth a weary listener's soul. I really wasn't too sure what to expect from this band almost a quarter of a century after their heyday. For me, the album was a welcome revelation.

The best two numbers hit you right at the start of the LP. "Mine" is a deliberately-paced track which features some nice dual vocals by Donelly and Greenwood, plush chunky guitars that call to mind 'Til Tuesday's "Voices Carry", seasoned with just a dash of synthesizer vaguely reminiscent of the end of The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again". It might or might not be about a passionate couple of monsters (think Frankenstein and Bride-Of). This is followed immediately by the album's first single, "Shiny One". This is another slower song with strong vocal harmonies mixed with unhurried but sumptuous guitars, that finds Donelly and Greenwood repeatedly intoning, "Bless me, bless me my son/My shiny my shiny one".

If there's a weakness to Dove, it's that most of the numbers here are slow-to-mid-tempo songs. The only numbers that cut loose at all are "Army of Clay", which I found to be one of the least effective tracks on the album, and "Stars Align," which is more effective, but still not all that rocky. In fact, the most damning praise I've heard is that it's too "pleasant" an LP. There's not much bite to it. My suspicion, though, is it's a grower -- repeated listens will make the heart grow fonder.

My advice to listeners re/this album is twofold. First, try to forget it's the Belly of the '90s, because while the personnel is the same, their sound has definitely changed over the years. Come to them with fresh ears and pretend this is a brand new group, and see where the album takes you. And secondly, as stated earlier, I'd encourage giving Dove more than one listen. I really didn't have high expectations for this LP. In an admittedly weak year for music so far, though, I'm surprised but pleased to say that this has been one of my favorite albums of 2018.


Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Review of Procol Harum's "Exotic Birds & Fruit"

I posted this one just a few minutes ago on the Sputnick Music website:


Review Summary: The last great Procol Harum album.

Exotic Birds & Fruit was Procol Harum's seventh studio album, and it's my favorite release of theirs, post-1970's Home. It has some shortcomings (which we'll talk about), but it also has three of the band's best tracks from their later days, "Nothing But the Truth", "As Strong as Samson" and "The Idol". This is enough for me to give it the nod even over such excellent entries as Broken Barricades (1971) and Grand Hotel (1973).

The lineup of the band for this LP consisted of Gary Brooker (vocals and piano), Mick Grabham (guitar), Chris Copping (organ), Alan Cartwright (bass), and Barrie Wilson (drums and percussion), with all of the songs being written by Brooker (music) and Keith Reid (lyrics). Unlike their previous two releases (Live With the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and Grand Hotel), all of the music (except for some contributions by a couple of guest musicians on "As Strong as Samson" and "Nothing But the Truth") was performed by the band itself -- there was no accompanying orchestra. This was good, in that it provided for a more stripped down sound. It wasn't necessarily Procol's best lineup ever -- Matthew Fisher had been long gone by this time, and Robin Trower had left just before the Live album -- but it was certainly a capable bunch.

For me, the album has two main flaws. The first is inconsistent songwriting. Some of the tracks are pretty forgettable. "The Thin Edge of The Wedge", for example, is slow and creepy, but that's about all it has going for it. "Monsieur R. Monde" features some interesting drumming by Wilson, but not much else of note. And "Butterfly Boys" is kind of raucous, with some bluesy piano, organ and bass, but in the end, it's really not much more than a musical shot at their label (with which they were angry at the time), dressed up in boisterous-but-basic rock clothing.

The second flaw is a little more unexpected. In spite of what the band's web site would have you believe about this album, it's really not Keith Reid's best work. As recently as Grand Hotel, Reid was still churning out the kind of grand and epic ideas in his lyrics that had become Procol's trademark. On this effort, however, even the best songs feature lyrical weaknesses. "As Strong as Samson" wants to be about relevant social issues, but it comes off as kind of mawkish and trite. And although the lyric for the chorus, "The weakest man be strong as Samson/When you're being held to ransom" isn't bad on paper, it was hard enough for Brooker to sing as to be almost incomprehensible on the record (at least for me). As for "The Idol", while it contained a strong central idea (there's a hero who has helped the singer's people out of jams in the past, but now he's just too indifferent to be bothered saving them again), some of the individual lines are embarrassingly bad: "But he could see no point in diving in/He knew that he would neither sink nor swim". Both of these songs make it on the strength of their music, not their lyrics.

So let's talk about the big three numbers. "Nothing But the Truth" leads off the album, and this one is immediately identifiable as a Procol Harum song. It's upbeat and almost heroic sounding, and contains some surprising chord progressions. It unfortunately failed to chart when released as a single, but that doesn't lessen the quality of the song. It certainly starts the album out on a solid (and energetic) note. 

"Strong As Samson", on the other hand, is slower, but just as dramatic. Its main selling point is that its chorus contains a hook strong enough to hang the heaviest of winter coats upon. And while I've criticized it for being a little emotionally manipulative, the music itself lends the track a certain nobility.

Finally, there's "The Idol", which tells an interesting story (albeit through some painfully cliched lyric lines). It's a slow song with some excellent rolling piano, and probably Brooker's strongest vocal performance on the album. And while it starts out quiet, the closing outro features some frenzied guitar work by Grabham layered over Brooker's piano and dual vocal lines (one of which features a calm repetition of the opening line of "Oh the i-i-idol/Oh the i-i-idol", while the other finds him continually blasting out, "Just another idol made of clay!"). It's one of those distinctively bizarre songs that is unique to Procol Harum.

There are some other worthwhile tracks which, while not as good as the big three, do lend the album some texture. "Fresh Fruit" is basically a musical produce commercial, which is silly, but kind of amusing: "Here's another point of view/Fruit is good for doggies too/Rover wags his tail with glee/When he gets his Vitamin C". "New Lamps for Old", meanwhile, is something of a throwback. It's a leisurely, wistful-sounding track that feels like it could have fit on the Home album, somewhere in between "Nothing That I Didn't Know" and "Barnyard Story". It closes the album by paying a slight homage to the more epic Procol of earlier years.

All things considered, then, Procol Harum was still functioning at a pretty high level on this LP. Their work would take a turn for the worst after this. 1975's Procol's Ninth (which was really their eighth studio album, but their ninth when you include the Live LP) has its moments, but isn't nearly as strong as this one. After that, Something Magic (1977) was a big falloff from the band's previous work, and none of the four albums released after the fourteen-year hiatus that followed ever really sounded like classic Procol Harum. Powered largely by those big three tracks, then, Exotic Birds & Fruits is the last great Procol Harum album.


Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars


Sunday, May 6, 2018

Review of Jethro Tull's "J-Tull Dot Com"

I downloaded this review just a couple of minutes ago to the Sputnik Music website:


Review Summary: Terminally bland.

J-Tull Dot Com (1999) was Jethro Tull's last studio album of original music, which is unfortunate, because it was also probably their worst. I know that not everyone would agree with this -- many fans were never able to warm to 1984's synth-laden Under Wraps, but I feel that album has been underrated by most. And some would perhaps rank 1989's Rock Island as the band's most lamentable LP, but even that album had a few songs that have endured somewhat, including "Another Christmas Song", "Strange Avenues", and the sophomoric-but-catchy "Kissing Willie" (and I've always had a warm place in my heart for the "tragic" musical tale of Martin Barre's stolen instrument, "Big Riff and Mando"). 

The problem with J-Tull Dot Com, however, isn't that it's unlistenable or painfully bad. It's that it's terminally bland. By the time of its release, Ian Anderson's voice was so shot that he had to write songs within a very narrow musical range for him to be able to handle them, and while there are some pleasant spots here and there, there's very little that's consistently interesting. Consequently, with the exception of 2017's criminally exploitive The String Quartets album, this is arguably the worst album ever released under the "Jethro Tull" moniker. (And in all honesty, that one is a Jethro Tull album in name only -- it's basically Anderson accompanied by a classical string quartet, with an occasional assist from the last of the Tull keyboard players, John O'Hara).

So what can I say that's good about this album? Well, as you'd probably expect, Anderson plays some really fine flute throughout. And there's a short number with some ravishing piano written by then-keyboard player Andrew Giddings, called "Nothing @ All (instrumental)". As for decent tracks, there are a few. My favorite is "The Dog-Ear Years", which is an enjoyable little ditty that finds Anderson making fun of his own age. And "El Nino" is slow, dark and mysterious enough to catch a listener's interest. I also enjoyed the guitar and flute line in "Like a Willow", and the accordion in "A Gift of Roses". The problem, though, is that even the best tracks don't reach that high of a level. The lows aren't embarrassingly low, but the highs just never soar very high. It's basically 55 minutes or so of mostly flat, stodgy plain.

To listen to this album, you'd have to be forgiven if you thought it marked the end of Ian Anderson as a top-level musical artist. You'd be wrong about that, though. He went on to do better work as a solo artist, especially more than a decade later, with the magnificent Thick As A Brick 2 (2012) and the almost-equally-excellent Homo Erraticus (2014). It's just a shame that J-Tull Dot Com effectively ended Jethro Tull's musical existence, not with a bang, but with a yawn.


Rating: 2 of 5 stars