Monday, June 25, 2018

Review of The Naked and Famous' "Simple Forms"

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

Review Summary: It's ... nice.

I don't want to rag on The Naked and Famous. There's a lot to like about them. Their general sound is a good one for me, with lots of rolling synthesizers and both female and male lead singers. Their female vocalist, Alisa Xayalith (who handles about three quarters of the leads) is first-rate, and their male vocalist, Thom Powers, is solid at worst. Their songwriting, if not outstanding, isn't cringe worthy either. So what's my hesitance to full-throatedly recommend this album about?It comes down to this: I like Simple Forms. But I wanted to love it.

I think part of the problem is the large shadow cast by their breakthrough single. When this band first burst onto the international scene in 2010 with their debut album, Passive Me, Aggressive You, it was largely on the strength of the excellent lead single from that LP, "Young Blood". The song was a #1 hit in their native New Zealand, and a Platinum single here in the U.S., which isn't too shabby. They also had another charting single off of that album, "Punching in a Dream", but as often happens, I think that a lot of the success of that song was due to a ripple effect from "Young Blood". 

The band's next two albums, In Rolling Waves (2013) and this one, have actually both been more consistent efforts overall than Passive Me. Unfortunately, neither had a single of the quality of "Young Blood" (although Simple Forms takes a pretty good shot at it; more about that in a minute). Consequently, each of those two follow-up LPs feels mildly disappointing. "Young Blood" set the expectations a little too high, and T/N/A/F, while still creating enjoyable music, hasn't been quite able to live up to that track's exalted standard.

There are a few highlights that I want to point out on this LP, though. The first is its aforementioned lead single, "Higher". This is a mid-tempo synth-pop anthem with a triumphant feel to it, powered by a particularly lovely lead vocal by Xayalith. In spite of the fact that "Punching in a Dream" actually charted higher, this is truly the second-strongest single that the band has ever released. Then there's "Laid Low", Simple Forms' follow-up single. It has some engaging synth work, and is also a pretty good song, in spite of the fact that it wasn't as successful as "Higher". And the closing number on the LP, "Rotten", might be my favorite track of all. This one has an interesting pattern of percussion, and a slight feel of the Australian bush to it. I especially like the way the song builds, and the way Xayalith's vocals are layered over one another. I can see why it wasn't released as a single -- it isn't necessarily as hook-laden or radio friendly as the other two tracks -- but in many ways, it might be the most effective song on the album.

So The Naked and Famous is still good with me. I continue to enjoy this band, and I'll definitely go ahead and pick up their next original studio LP. I absolutely liked this album. I'm just hoping that next time, they'll up their game just a smidgen more. They continue to be a solid band. But I think they've got a little better in them.

Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Review of Tomita's "Snowflakes Are Dancing"

I posted this review about an hour ago on the Sputnik Music website:

Review Summary: For many 1970s fans of band's like Pink Floyd, Yes and ELP, this semi-classical album seemed like just another logical step in the expanding development of their musical tastes and appetites.

It's hard for music lovers today to picture the smorgasbord of genres that were played on 1970s FM radio in America. Yes, there are more different types of music available today on the Internet, but it's pretty diffuse -- you have to know how to go out and find it. Modern college radio is a little more comparable, but for the most part, while those stations play many different styles of music, genres are often segregated into little two- or three-hour blocks, depending on the interests of the host. Seventies FM radio was a different animal. Yes, there was a ton of what is now referred to as "classic" rock, but it was mixed in with everything from R&B to Sinatra to folk and light jazz. And one artist who benefited from this open format was the Japanese synthesist Isao Tomita (known at the time simply as "Tomita"). 

Tomita was a composer and a classical-music student who became fascinated with the efforts of Walter (now Wendy) Carlos in translating the work of classical composers such as Bach for the Moog synthesizer. Beginning in 1974, Tomita released a series of albums, each of which focused on the work of one or more classical composers as played on the Moog. The first, and perhaps best, of these was Snowflakes Are Dancing, which focused on the work of French composer Claude Debussy. This album became a worldwide success. I can't speak as to how it grew prominent in the rest of the world. In the U.S., however, it became known not only in classical music circles, but in rock and popular music circles as well, thanks to the airplay it received on FM radio. North American fans, having been prepared for this kind of music by the psychedelic and electronic experiments of bands like Pink Floyd, as well as the classical music/progressive rock crossovers of artists like Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, accepted Snowflakes Are Dancing as simply another step in the progression of the music they were already listening to. Consequently, the album charted in both the U.S. and Canada. It also received four American Grammy Awards in 1975 (including Best Classical Album of the year).

While some of Tomita's other albums sold quite well, especially his 1975 release of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, I would argue that Snowflakes Are Dancing was his best LP. This is because the musical tone poems of Debussy were particularly well-suited both to Tomita's electronic explorations, and to the lightheartedness of his work. Debussy's music is often delicate and airy, and the compositions recorded on Snowflakes (all of which were originally composed for the piano) work well with Tomita's buoyant approach. Where Mussorgsky's tone was grand and majestic, and consequently much better suited to the head-on style used by Keith Emerson in ELP's excellent version of Pictures, Tomita's lighter touch proved perhaps too flimsy for much of Mussorgsky's music. It was, however, perfect for the gentle, more fragile compositions of Debussy.

There were ten tracks on the original release of Snowflakes, all programmed and played on a variety of Moog synthesizers and a mellotron. There are no human vocals on the LP, but part of the joy of the work is that in various places, Tomita uses his synthesizers to approximate human voices, both solo and in choruses. He also gets playful at times, and makes his synths sound like a person (or persons) whistling, as evidenced on tracks such as "Arabesque No. 1" and "Golliwog's Cakewalk". 

On the LP's best numbers, though, the combination of Debussy's music and Tomita's treatment of it are exquisitely beautiful. "Claire de Lune" is such a piece. Here, the music is so airy that it practically floats away. In fact, at the end of the piece, this is almost exactly what happens, as the notes get higher and higher until it all seems to just dissolve into a soft, wonderful cloud. Other tracks that will transport you to another world include "The Engulfed Cathedral", where Tomita creates various bell and church-organ sounds, as well as his own angelic electronic chorus, and "The Girl With the Flaxen Hair", a slow and wistful number that somehow actually creates the visual image in your mind of the damsel from the song's title lazily brushing her long, blonde locks.

Sadly, Isao Tomita passed away in May of 2016 from a longstanding heart problem. He left behind a legacy of original and adapted music, soundtrack albums, and innovations in electronic music. For my money, though, if you want to experience Tomita's artistry, Snowflakes Are Dancing is the place to start. It will not only give you fine taste of Tomita, but it might also give you an interest in a deeper exploration of the music of Debussy.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Review of Cassandra House's "The Roam"

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

Review Summary: Country/folk pop from an up-and-coming artist

This album by Long Island singer/songwriter Cassandra House is like a musical Bermuda Triangle -- it exists in the in-between. At eight tracks long, it's in between being an LP and an EP. The genre of the music falls somewhere in between folk-pop, country and blues. Finally, while many vocalists lean in the direction of either power or beauty, House's voice once again is nearly exactly in the middle -- I'd give her about a 7.5 out of 10 on the beauty scale, and an 8 to 8.5 on the power scale. Her real strength, though, is what she's able to do with that voice. Ms. House is one of the most interesting interpretive singers I've heard in awhile. She doesn't annoy you with unnecessary vocal trills, but she varies things up in such a way as to keep her vocals consistently interesting.

The Roam is House's first (pretty much) full-length album. It's very nicely produced for an indie album -- there are tasteful vocal effects and interesting little instrumental flourishes throughout. I noticed this on the first listen, and then when I checked her website, I could see why -- the album was produced by Ben Wisch, a Grammy-winning producer who has worked with artists such as Marc Cohn and Patty Larkin.

As for the songwriting, I'll admit it didn't grab me at first. This is one of those albums, though, where the songs grow on you with repeated listens. "Little Flower" is as good a country-pop single as I've heard in a long time, and "Tidal", a slow, tense track, is almost as good. In fact, for a first (almost) LP, this is a very mature album.

House's bio says that she has shared the stage with artists such as Lucy Kaplansky, G. Love, Amy Helm, Jen Chapin and Todd Scheaffer (of Railroad Earth). I haven't seen her live show, but if it's anywhere near as good as her recorded efforts here on The Roam, I expect to see her go from a regional artist to a national headlining artist sometime within the next two years. This album is that good.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Sunday, June 10, 2018

R.I.P. Anthony Bourdain? - Mildly Off-Topic

So I'm hoping that my comment about television chef and travel specialist Anthony Bourdain in my recent post about Jethro Tull wasn't the final straw that pushed him over the edge. (You know, that whole "Eat another warthog anus, chef-boy!" thing.)

I used to be a fan of Bourdain's  show, although in recent years, a series of things turned me off of him. Most of them aren't music-related, so I won't talk about them here. The reason he got mentioned here at all was his outspoken hatred for all things Jethro Tull. (And c'mon, what kind of joyless misanthrope hates Jethro Tull?)

In all seriousness, it's always tragic to see someone so much in pain that they make the decision to take their own life, so I'm sad for him, his family, and his fans. You never really know what kind of pain is going on inside of someone's head.

So in spite of some of the bad feelings I developed toward the man in the last year or two, R.I.P. Anthony Bourdain. As Ian Anderson himself would say, "Wish you goodbye till further on."

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Review of The Who's "It's Hard"

I posted this review earlier this morning:

Review Summary: Often vilified by critics and Who fans alike, this album deserves more credit than it has usually received.

It's Hard, released in 1982, was The Who's tenth studio album, and it's the one which over the years has received the least love, even from the band itself. It was the second album released following the death of Who drummer Keith Moon in 1978, following 1981's Face Dances, and as I explained when I reviewed that album, many Who fans thought The Who should have disbanded after his death. Small wonder, then, that both of those albums were denigrated by a music public that was still reeling from the loss of one of the rock world's most interesting and beloved characters. Thirty-six years have passed since the album's release, though, and at this point, we should be able to look back, listen to the LP with a more objective ear, and ask ourselves, "Is It's Hard really that bad?" Guys, it's the frickin' Who!

One of the problems we have when we look back at the output of a band like The Who is that their reputation is dominated by their middle period. Their output prior to 1969 (which included three LPs, a whole bunch of singles, and several compilations that included music that hadn't previously been released on an album), was quirky and fun, but while it had earned them a devoted following, it hadn't yet made them into a world-revered band. It was the three albums released in that middle period, Tommy (1969), Who's Next (1971) and Quadrophenia (1973) (plus their reputation as a live band, which had been helped both by their appearance at the 1969 Woodstock Festival and by their 1970 release Live at Leeds) which cemented their reputation as one of the best bands on the planet. All of their later output, including the studio albums released with Moon, paled in comparison to that one-two-three punch of three of the greatest albums in rock history. So if you take It's Hard, compare it to those three albums, then add in the factor of the heartbreak at Moon's death, it's easy to see how this 1982 release could have been underappreciated at the time.

With that in mind, let's take a fresh look at It's Hard and see what we find. There are twelve tracks on the original release, including nine written by Pete Townshend and three by John Entwistle. Of those twelve, there were definitely some that can be easily discarded. Two of the Entwistle tracks ("It's Your Turn" and "One at a Time") are far from his best efforts, and Townshend songs such as "Cooks County" and "One Life's Enough" aren't much better. So that's a third of the LP dismissed which not much impact.

Let's look at the better tracks, though. Of the remaining eight numbers, I'd rate four as really good, two as pretty good, and two more as decent. Two highlights stand out (for me, anyway). "Eminence Front" is the song that has shown the longest legs since the album's release. It's a slow, brooding track with a long instrumental lead-in that features a nice synth pattern serving as the song's spine, embellished with lots of little bits of guitar and keyboard noodling until the main guitar kicks in. Townshend himself takes the lead vocal on this song. You young 'uns may think you've never heard of "Eminence Front", but you'd be wrong. It has been used over the years as bumper or intro music in a variety of films, television shows, video games and commercials, and to this day, I can't turn on my television without hearing it pop up in advertisements for GMC cars.

The other highlight is the album's title track, "It's Hard". This is an excellent rock anthem sung by Roger Daltrey (who is in excellent voice here, and throughout the album). It makes use of a somewhat subtle (maybe even nitpicking) wordplay, in a series of comparisons throughout the verses, that take the form of "many people can ___, but only a few can ___". (Eg, "Any gang can scatter -- few can form/Any kid can chatter -- few can inform"). The choruses then hit us with a catchy little synth flourish, while Daltrey explains that "It's hard/It's very very very very hard." Yeah, some of the analogies are silly, but the music itself here is kind of stirring, and I've always been surprised this one hasn't become more popular with Who fans (and rock fans in general) than it is. The truth is, if It's Hard had been released last week instead of 36 years ago, this song would be in serious contention for my favorite song of 2018 so far.

There are other strong tracks, too. "Athena" is the track that might have received the most radio airplay at the time of the album's release (at least here in America) and deservedly so. It's a brassy song about a turbulent love relationship sung by Daltrey, with a strangely beautiful and delicate bridge sung by Townshend. "A Man Is a Man" is another of a series of tracks which Townshend has written over the years about his spiritual guide, the Indian guru Meher Baba. This one compares traditional notions of masculinity against what Townshend would argue is a more enlightened model, with an emphasis on emotional honesty and compassion over physical strength and toughness. Finally, "Dangerous" is Entwistle's strongest contribution to the album (from a writing perspective, anyway). It's a straightforward, but catchy, rock number with a vaguely ominous feel.

It's Hard was The Who's last studio album until the release of Endless Wire 24 years later. By that time, Entwistle was also deceased, and rock fans and critics alike were in a more open state of mind to a new release by The Who. I'm hoping, however, that now that so much time has passed, people will take the opportunity to go back and listen to It's Hard, and enjoy it for what it is. No, it doesn't even approach the great Who albums from that period of 1969 through 1973. But it's a better album than people have usually given it credit for being. As I said earlier ... It's still the frickin' Who!

Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Monday, June 4, 2018

Review of Preacher Boy's "Estate Bottled Blues"

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

Review Summary: "And if Satan finally loses on Revelation's final page/Then why is everyone so afraid of Armageddon days?"

I'll tell you what I know about Christopher Watkins, aka Preacher Boy. My bio information is a little limited, because he's a true "indie" artist -- there's not a ton of background material available about him. He works in a genre that some refer to as "alternative blues", although I tend to think of it as "dark rural". He's a little bit blues, a little bit country, with a style that matches gruff vocals and Delta slide guitar with often-gritty subject matter. His is a world not so much of Louisiana swamps as it is one of dark back roads and gritty truck stops. However, to the best of my knowledge, he's mostly lived in urban centers such as Brooklyn, Chicago, and now, Santa Cruz, CA. Clearly, he's a man of contradictions.

I first became aware of him at a live show on Long Island, NY, shortly after the release of his excellent 2004 LP, Demanding to Be Next. His "demand" was not met -- in spite of the album's obvious high quality, it got lost in the shuffle of a million other indie albums, causing not a ripple on the ocean that is commercial music. Legend has it that at that point Watkins, feeling that he had done the best work of his career and it still wasn't enough to get him noticed, moved out of the New York area and swore off of music for good.

For a man like Preacher Boy, though, music is a thing of the soul. You just can't get rid of it like you would an old pair of shoes. And so suddenly, twelve years later, in 2016, the songs in the Preacher Boy's heart came bursting out of him like an alien Xenomorph busting out of John Hurt's chest with a pair of new releases, Country Blues and The National Blues. This was followed by a third release in the waning days of that December, entitled Estate Bottled Blues

Estate Bottled Blues is apparently a "lost album", written and recorded somewhere between The Devil's Buttermilk in 2000 and Demanding to Be Next in 2004, but never released until 2016. There are 16 tracks here in all, and while I'm normally not a fan of albums with more than 12 or 13 songs, the quality of the LP is high throughout. Some of the numbers that jumped out at me included "Armageddon Days," a slowish track that makes effective use of harmonica, strummed guitar, piano, and a weird-ass off-key fiddle that comes in at the end of the choruses with the kick of a mule; "Saltpeter", which is apparently about a shooting that Watkins witnessed on the streets of Chicago; and "You Ain't That Bad Off", an angry song about a fellow musician who successfully garnered some critical acclaim by spinning stories about a hard (and wildly exaggerated) personal history.

The album abounds with musical tales of desperation and loneliness that would do a Springsteen or a Neil Young proud, painted poignantly with ominous guitars and raw vocals. The man knows how to write a song, and how to deliver it with gut-punch impact.

Earlier this year, Preacher Boy released yet another LP of old (and some new) material called Black Market Crow. I look forward to that one, but in the meantime, I recommend Estate Bottled Blueshighly. It's literal proof that you might be able to keep a good man down after all, but you can't stop him from singing about it. And he can't even stop himself.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Friday, June 1, 2018

Review of Twisted Sister's "Stay Hungry"

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

Review Summary: "Stay hungry, you're alone."

Twisted Sister began their life as a New Jersey band modeled after the glam-rock unit The New York Dolls. In the mid-seventies, they hired Dee Snider to be their lead singer, and shifted their music in a heavier direction, modeling their sound after bands such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper. By this time, they had moved to Long Island, becoming one of the top bands in the thriving Long Island club scene, along with groups such as The Good Rats and Zebra. Known for both their KISS-like makeup and their heavy riffs, they played to packed houses throughout the New York City area. They didn't begin recording, however, until the early eighties.

Stay Hungry (1984) was the band's third album, and it's the one that put them over the top nationally (albeit for a fairly brief time). Less metal than hard rock, the album is a masterpiece of driving rock anthems and radio-friendly power ballads. The album coincided with the glory days of MTV in the United States, and two of the songs from the LP were made into videos that became staples of the MTV rotation, "We're Not Gonna Take It" and "I Wanna Rock". Both of these songs were released as singles, with each going Gold in the U.S. and Multi-Platinum in Canada. A third single from the album, "The Price", was also somewhat successful.

All three of these singles are decent songs, with "We're Not Gonna Take It" being the best of the three. It's an adolescent rebellion song that held the same kind of appeal for the 1980s teen boy as had songs such as Alice Cooper's "School's Out" and Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall" for the schoolboy set in the prior decade.

For me, though, the real strength of Stay Hungry comes from the deeper album cuts. Energetic numbers such as the Darwinistic title track (which advises you to "expect no sympathy" from life, because "There's no room for the wannabes, the has beens or the bad"), and the cautionary "Burn in Hell", which warns, "Make your choice now, for tomorrow may be far too late", propel the album forward relentlessly. (This is why it's my favorite exercise -- or maybe that should be exorcize -- album of all time). The two-part "Horror-Teria (The Beginning)" adds to the dark vibe. It introduces the listener to the character of "Captain Howdy", a psychopathic child killer (whom Snider went on to portray in his 1998 horror film Strangeland), then dispatches with him in the second part of the song, "Street Justice", which is a musical tribute to violent vigilantism. And other winning tracks include the dynamic ode "Don't Let Me Down," and a mid-tempo classic called "S.M.F." (guess what that stands for).

As previously mentioned, Twisted Sister's time at the top was relatively short-lived. Their follow-up to Stay Hungry, 1986's Come Out and Play, saw a significant drop-off in sales, and it was all downhill from there. Stay Hungry, however, still holds up well today. It won't really scratch the itch for metal fans, but for mainstream rock fans (especially those with a dark sense of humor), it's likely to prove enjoyable.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Favorite Artists, Part 1: About Jethro Tull

This is Part 1 of my "Favorite Artists" series, a series where I write in-depth about my favorite bands and artists of all time.

Most times, if I'm asked to name my favorite bands, Jethro Tull is right up at the top of my list. That's because on most days, Jethro Tull is my single favorite band of all time. I won't claim they're objectively the greatest band of all time. That would probably be The Who, who I'll write about in a couple of weeks. But while my mood changes from day to day, so that some days, I might like The Who, or Pink Floyd, or Yes, or even The Good Rats best, on more days than not, my favorite band is Jethro Tull.

Like many people of my age, I first became aware of this band through the song "Aqualung". I would have been around fourteen at the time, and if you're a fourteen-year-old boy, what could possibly be better than a loud rock song that sings about, "Snot running down his nose!"?  Denise still remembers that her youngest brother went through a period where he blasted that song every single morning as soon as he woke up. How could he not? Love songs? Please! What could be better than a song about a dirty old man who lusted after young girls and had to walk in the bog just to keep his feet warm? It was love at first listen.

A year or so later, when Thick As A Brick came out, my tastes were a year more sophisticated, and I was completely ready for it. It was the ultimate progressive rock album, a single extended song that took up both sides of an album (remember, we were working with nothing but vinyl in those days). And it had a story behind it to boot: the tale of the young poet Gerard Bostock, who supposedly wrote the poem that constituted the lyrics of the album. Mind you, that bit at the end of Side 1/beginning of Side 2 kind of sucked (the part with the 218 babies wearing nylons), but the rest of it  was just brilliant.

This was a great period in this band's life, but the real strength of Tull is that there were so many other excellent periods. While their first album didn't (and still doesn't) do anything for me (too much basic blues), their second and third albums, Stand Up and Benefit, were wonderful. And while I found Passion Play to be a bit of a misfire (thanks to trying too hard to catch that Thick As A Brick lightning in a bottle again), I loved War Child (especially "Skating Away ..." and "The Third Hoorah"). And later, when they hit their rustic/Elizabethan period (with Songs From the Wood and Heavy Horses), I grew to love this stage of the band even more than the Aqualung/TAAB era. I even loved their synthesizer period in the '80s, although I'm know I'm quite in the minority on that one.

Tull is about as eccentric a band as you could ever find. (How many rock bands are built around a flute player?) There are certain things that were fairly consistent throughout their 50-year career -- they always featured some sort of mixture of rock, progressive rock, folk and rustic elements -- but they were also always changing. And Ian Anderson's solo discography (Anderson is the driving force behind Tull, for those who are totally unfamiliar) is varied and wonderful as well.

In fact, if you go down the checklist of things I like from my "Playin' Around With My Top 25" post last week, you'll find that many of the elements I like best are there. Acoustic guitars? Check. Keyboards? Check. (Well, most of the time, anyway.) Melodic songs with good hooks? Yep. Concept albums with themes beyond "I love you, you love me"? Double check. (Hell, this band devoted a 9-minute song to the obsolescence of the British plow horse, and the damned thing will bring a tear to your eye!).

I'm only just scratching the surface here, but hopefully you have some idea of what I mean.

These days, it looks like Jethro Tull is probably dead as an ongoing entity, and the world is a worse place for it. Anderson can still write -- his last two solo albums, Thick As A Brick 2 and Homo Erraticus were bleeping brilliant. But his voice has been shot for a long time now, and it's gotten so he can't even hide it on the recordings, let alone in his live shows. (Don't listen to the last album released under the Jethro Tull moniker, The String Quartets. It will break your heart.) And at age 70, who knows how much Ian has left in the tank?

But man, what a body of work he'll be leaving behind. I spent the first three months of this year reliving the pleasures of all of Tull's studio albums, and a decent amount of Tull concert footage and Anderson solo stuff as well. And it all still thrills me.

Television personality Anthony Bourdain makes fun of this band, and says he's mad that they ever existed. Well go eat another warthog anus, chef boy! They'll still be listening to this modern-day minstrel and his band long after you've fried your last schnitzel.

To quote Mr. Anderson himself, in his poignant armageddon song from the A album, "And with the last line almost drawn -- wish you goodbye till further on./Will you still be there further on?"