Saturday, December 31, 2016

Album 2016

Harder than I was thinking with lots of worthies falling just off the mark.


1.  Blonde Frank Ocean
2. Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future Underworld
3. Three Phantogram
4. Goodness Hotelier
5. Fever Dream Ben Watt
6. 22, A Million Bon Iver
7. Thick as Thieves Temper Trap
8. Running Out of Love Radio Dept
9. A Seat at the Table Solange
10. Matter St. Lucia

Single 2016

Maybe no order.  but maybe still.


1.  Can't Stop the Feeling! JT
2.  Hand Clap Fitz and the Tantrum
3.  Burn the Witch Radiohead
4.  Cold to See Clear Nada Surf
5.  Famous Kanye
6.  Stranger Things Theme Dixon/Stein
7.  Sorry Bey
8.  The Noisy Days are Over Field Music
9.  Floridada Animal Collective
10. Gardenia Iggy Pop

Monday, July 25, 2016

i know it's going to happen someday

Diana Ross.  Treasure Island.  July 23rd, 2016.   

I didn't hear a symphony, and I could quibble a bit (venue and weird show closer especially), but I was still delighted.  Hell, she looks great (to say nothing of being 72), her four costume changes (4, not 5!) were a delight, she sang live, and she appeared to be having fun (or she's such a professional that appearing and being are indistinguishable  to the audience, and I'll take that any day)
 

One more off the bucket list and a great companion to the Cure,  Stevie Wonder and Fleetwood Mac who are all recent cross offs. 

Of course, that fabled bucket list sits rather amorphously in my head, adding/subtracting at will.  So, the caveat that I might change my mind at any moment, right here, right now are the ultimate acts I'd really like to see (and would even make travel considerations where warranted).  I'd put ABBA on the list, but impromptu reunion earlier this year, I don't think that's going to happen.  As for The Smiths (or at least Morrissey/johnny Marr...) think what you like.  I'll keep a light on in the window.

Kate Bush (whatever.  who's to say she won't do a residence in vegas?)
XTC (ya ya.  but you'd go in a heartbeat too)
Van Morrison
Strokes (yes, Julian is a bastard, but still)
John Cale
Annie Lennox/Eurythmics
New Order
Beck
Elvis Costello
Cock Robin
Sheena Easton
Donnie Iris
Dwight Twilley
Icicle Works
Icehouse
Julian Cope
Marshall Crenshaw
OMD (kicking myself)
Paul Weller
Prefab Sprout (one can hope, right?)
Radiohead (ya never know...I could just end up at some festival one of these days)
Ray Parker Jr
Toto (Oshkosh, Wisconsin, August 31 and September 1st.  just sayin')
Split Enz
The Fixx

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Becoming Sound Again (Redemption 11)

Someone great. Something lost.
Silenced.

Shock.  Realized.  
Troubled, hurting, uncertain.
Down.  

Sorrowed. 
Held, talked, teared.

Acknowledged.
Wounded. Not broken, but not whole.
Just.
Waiting.
Then.
Music.
Dependable. Faithful. Universal. Intimate. Selfless.
To solve, to center, to comfort, to remember, to repair, to reset, to return, to salve.

Recover
With


A phrase that resonates
A chord progression that lifts
A melody that warms
A hook that re-engages
A rhythm that rouses

 
The Cure "Pictures of You" (the churn and misery, the minor chords, the moments of light when the guitars kick in, "the pictures are all i can feel")
Yeasayer "I Remember"  ("you're stuck in my mind, all the time")
The Eels "Last Stop: This Town" (the keyboard hook.  the breakdown freakout.  "i'm gonna fly on down for the last stop in this town")
Bjork "Hyper-Ballad" (that voice.  that rhythm track.  that barely restrained madness "every morning i walk towards the edge and throw little things off.  I go through this before you wake up.")
Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush "Don't Give Up" ("you have friends.  you're not beaten yet.  i know you can make it good.")
Lyle Lovett "If I Had a Boat" (Well, kiss my ass I bought a boat, i'm going out to sea"  Why does a simple guitar riff always connect?) 
Bill Withers "Lean on me" (The opening piano chords, "lean on me, when you're not strong")
Waterboys "This is the Sea" ("These things you keep, you better throw them away."  Anthem it out, brother, anthem it out and sing yourself hoarse.)
The Beatles "Blackbird" ("Take these broken wings and learn to fly")
Jake Runstead (composer) "Let My Love be Heard" (the harmonies.  the sweeping voices.  hopeful.  hopeful.)
Mr. Mister "The Border"  ("We, we must go on now.  Wherever people go, go on together."  the pulsing beat.) 

Accept.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

For All to See

The heat wave has arrived.  Summer is here with emphasis so of course it's time to rock out.  What better to listen to, than "Big Red Letter Day" from Buffalo Tom.
 

Buffalo Tom, frequently derided as dinosaur jr clones (dinosaur jr jr?) had a lot more going for them than that.  Buffalo Tom's sound was/is a built on noisy guitar buzz for sure, but they had big guitar riffs, melodic and production hooks aplenty, and oblique enough lyrics to make it all seem important, for four minutes anyway (four what more could you ask?)   
 

Released in 1993 on Beggars Banquet, "Big Red Letter Day" was Buffalo Tom's fourth album and a high water commercial mark for the band, merging their fuzz rock with pop sensibilities.  The album became a (college) rock album hit with several singles, most notably "Sodajerk" and "Treehouse," seeing chart success.  Even though BRLD's sound can be fixed to certain time and place, and it certainly doesn't break new ground, it is a brilliant summer album. By turns, raucous and rowdy, boisterous and full of bravado, it has a surprisingly sensitive center and its lyrics are darker than one would expect for such a big sounding album.
 

The big guitar riffs that lead into "sodajerk's" opening lines "Watch an eyeball, take a freefall, at the mention of a name," waste no time getting down to business and working up a sweat, and although it might not make a whole lot of sense, it's impossible to listen to the "Jerk my fountain" line and not smile.  The band is giving it all they have, but they aren't taking it too seriously. 
 

Perhaps realizing they were soundtracking a generation x of bar-b-q's, the band pulls back from the sweatabyss welcome-to-the-party opening track.  "i'm allowed" arrives all uncertain and belligerent, looking for a beer and somebody to talk to.  "Came to the party, but I got my own signals crossed.  Thought I was welcome, but I felt like I should get lost."  Navigating a crowd, whether its friends or strangers requires great skill or utter fearlessness and this song has both.
"Seasons change" again with the uptempo rocker, "treehouse" and folks are getting settled in now.  The beer is flowing, the steaks are just about to go on the grill and the sun is still circular on the pool.  Folks are playing some volleyball off to the side of the house and everybody's making nice.  This is what summer is all about, working up a sweat and showing as much skin as possible.
 

The cool down doesn't take long to arrive again with "would not be denied."  Ordinarily, this fast, slow, fast, slow sequencing would be a bit of a schizophrenic listen, but on "Big Red Letter Day" it's a balancing act of rambunctious ball throwing and beer chugging, exchanged with quiet asides beside the pool, positioning the events later in the evening, if luck and lyric allow.  Having one of the best melodies of the album, as well as the best example of loud/soft dynamics, certainly doesn't hurt the sequencing either. 
 

"latest monkey" and "my responsibility" continue the up and down sequencing, but the highs aren't as high and the slows are just a little more more.  The food is ready and everybody is digging in as the sun starts to hit the trees.  The party has hit a pause. 
 

The evening shift starts with "dry land;" uptempo and melodic but nothing extreme.  Food has been eaten, folks are settling into chairs or standing behind them.  Roles are cast, lines are set and the act awaits the musical cue.  Something to sway to, something to nod your head to, but the only thing sweaty now is the beer clenched firmly in a hand.  The transition from the fade of "dry land" to the guitar strum opening of "torch singer" sets a damn near perfect mood.  "late at night" adds some late breaking drama to the mix.  Bracingly pungent and slightly unpleasant, the wind down isn't gonna be perfect and some hearts might be broken before the party is over.  "Suppose" closes down the conflict and gets everybody back in a good mood before heading off into the night.
 

"Anything that way" leaves the party hosts doing a little clean up, before giving up and promising the rest of it to tomorrow.  They are both wondering if they should have told their friends about their pregnancy or if it's too soon and if that might have been the last bbq in a while.  They upright a couple unsettled lawnchairs and watch the fireflies for awhile before heading into the house and off to bed.
 

Buffalo Tom's profile was never higher after the success of "Big Red Letter Day," but they were unable to capitalize, despite releasing a couple stellar post-BRD singles in "Summer" and "Tangerine."  Their moment and sound fell into fickle disfavor and after a couple more entertaining albums in the same vein with diminishing results, popularly and artistically the band called it a (temporary) day with "Smitten" in 1998.
 

How fertile was the songwriting period for Buffalo Tom?  Enough so that they could write and product 4 more tracks for b-sides and compilations that equal anything on the album proper.  In the never ending ultimate sequence quest, here's a "Bigger, Redder, Letter Day."  (and totally not a dig on the original album sequence, just trying to fit the bonus songs in the context of the album instead of pasting them at the end.  adding "the way back" after the "dry land/torch singer" couplet certainly extends a certain perfect mood just a little bit longer and I totally don't understand why "late at night" doesn't end the album)
 

Sodajerk
I'm allowed
Treehouse
Would not be denied
Witches broom (b side)
For all to see (no alternative)
Latest monkey
My responsibility
Butterscotch (b side)
Dry land
Torch singer
The way back (b side)
Suppose
Anything that way
Late at night
(reprise)
Anything that way (live)
Late at night (live)

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Versions of You

Reduce, Reuse, recycle.  

The pop music industry already has these particular basics of economy down pat. (Putting responsibility and the music industry in the same sentence feels very strange.)   Every hit, near hit or just brilliantly written (but possibly unjustly ignored) song eventually rises phoenix like from the ashes of a generation’s dis-remembrance.  Hits will be covered (for better or worse), hits will be remixed (for airplay, for clubs, for someone’s ego power trip) and a plethora of acoustic versions (either heartrenderingly treacly or stunningly revealing) will repeatedly renew the shelf life of a song.  Even hooks and riffs, to say nothing of the blurred (lines) feel of a song can be reclaimed, partitioned and renewed for a second, third or however many chance(s) in some airplay shape or form.  All about the benjamins of course, but enough artistic success is engendered to make the most of attempts a worthwhile listen, in theory at least. 
But beyond the lazy artists covering a golden oldie as a follow-up to a one hit wonder, or the bloated cock rocker shooting one last wad on an acoustic cover of a song with no discernable melody, there are some true gems in the game of musical reuse.  These real experts of economy are artists who are brave enough to remake their own signature hits.  Here then, are a few artists and their songs, who, despite having considerable success the first time, were daring and talented enough to make lightning strike twice.

Frank Sinatra “Someone to Watch Over Me”
Frank’s vocal performance of “Someone” from 1945 sounds tentative and the strings overpower him at times. His hits all the notes perfectly of course, and his voice, so young here, is flawless, but there no passion in the performance, no connection to the lyrics in this performance.  Instead of a plea, Franks sings the lyrics almost as a boast.  Frank even does some dipping in his vocal, perhaps to add some drama to the all too careful rendition.   It’s such a great song, and Frank is such a vocal talent, that it would hardly be fair to call this version a disappointment, but it doesn’t connect as well as it could have.
Just nine years later, Frank recorded the song again, and it is astonishing to hear the difference.    The more sympathetic strings help, but from the first breath, Frank owns this song.  His vocal is much more measured, he’s reassuring, cajoling, and pleading in this version.  His voice is richer,and he uses it brilliantly, modulating volume, adjusting tone and adding shades to dramatic effect; all within a single phrase.  Frank’s phrasing here is beyond impeccable, the way he draws out the tension by breaking up following line into tiny phrases and  staggering the emphasis within each section , “ although I/ may not/ be the /man some /girls/ think of/, as handsome/, but to her heart/, I’ll /carry/ the key,/” is breathtaking.  Even his breathing becomes a part of the song, as during the “Won’t you tell her please, to put on some speed (breath), follow my lead (breath), oh how I need (breath), someone to watch over me.”  Nothing showy; sung strongly, but never loudly, perfectly in tune literally and figuratively; that’s a primer on how to sing the hell out of a song, holmes. 

Neil Sedaka “Breaking up is Hard to Do”
The Brill(iance) Building shine of the original “Breaking up is Hard to Do” cast a long shadow.  “Breaking “ was (and is) the archetype 60’s pop song, filled with every imaginable hook; a great vocal intro/chorus; “do do do, down doobie down, down come-a, come-a, down doobie down, down,” that kicks into an indelible melody, tight female harmonies mirroring Neil’s lead excellent vocal, and the perfectly placed key change at the bridge at baked into a breathless 2 minutes 30 seconds.  This song is undeniably joyous pop perfection and made breaking up sound like so much fun.
Which makes 1975’s remade “Breaking” all the more fascinating.  Starting with a nod to the vocal intro of the original, this remake smoothly breaks down into torch song territory with a piano driven, slowed down broken hearted version.  A measured, sympathetic adult vocal from Neil replaces the fun of the original with a dose of chagrin and hesitation.  Sure, there’s a little MOR balladry embedded in the paint by numbers arrangement, but it’s an interesting remake with a completely different dynamic than the original.   And it beats the nakedly incestuous “Should’ve Never let You Go” for best Neil ballad by a landslide. 

Aerosmith/Run DMC “Walk this Way”
“Walk” a top 10 hit from 1977, has one of the signature opening guitar hooks of the rock era courtesy of Joe Perry’s amazing guitar skills and the main guitar riff aint nothing to walk away from either.  Instantly identifiable and compulsively listenable, (your mileage may vary depending on your tolerance for screechy lead vocals and juvenile lyrics) the song is a mainstay of rock album radio and understandable so.
A slightly different kind of remake/remodel brought Aerosmith back to the charts in the mid 80’s when Run DMC covered their signature song with the band guesting.  Let’s be clear here, it’s not like Aerosmith really did anything all that special with their part (one should be happy that they were still alive enough to even play at that point in their drug careers), they basically played it and sang it just like the original.  But they do deserve credit for having the vision (desperation) to allow their sound to be grafted onto a hip/hop track. But Run DMC did all the heavy lifting here.   And what an amazing success this version is, commercially and artistically.  It still has that propulsive drive, and not just because of the sampled drum kick intro combined with vinyl scratches, but seamlessly merging two disparate musical styles is pure genius.   Popular?  Visionary?  Influential? Revolutionary?  Yes, Yes, Yes and Yes.

Joni Mitchell “Both Sides Now”
When she first recorded “Both Sides Now” in 1969, Joni Mitchell was in her mid 20’s, and still somewhat girlish, where romantic notions of life and love still held sway.  With simple production and a straightforward guitar strumming against the melody, Joni’s pure singing promises perspective and understanding.  Her disillusions with love may have colored her performance then, but she’s optimistic her losses grant her wisdom and strength for the journey ahead.  The girl may not have known clouds that day, but it was just a momentary disappointment.  A cloud front across the sunny day that is just around the corner. 
However our experience defines the limit of our emotional understanding, all deceptions fail to time.  By the time she returned to the song in 2000, experience laid bare the essential truths of life.  Against a wash of strings and the occasional horn accents, an older wiser, wearier Joni has really seen all sides and she sings that awareness into this version.  Her voice is rougher around the edges and her voice can no longer straddle both sides of the sky, but her performance is still honest.   Remembrance, regret, and loss color this version of “Both Sides Now.”  There are no moons or junes or dizzy dancings ways to feel.  She really has seen all sides now and there are no more illusions.  While there may still be some hope, her vocal is all about understanding and acceptance.  When she sings that she really doesn’t know life at all, it’s her truest vocal moment, her barest moment as an artist.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Life Beyond The Top 40

Ambrosia vs. Pablo Cruise.  

Who was who and which hit belonged to which band?  It’s easy to be confused. This then, makes the case for telling them apart, and attempts to declare a victor in the age old conflict between Ambrosia and Pablo Cruise.  

Both bands were active from the early to mid 70’s to early 80’s and battled it out on the charts on several occasions.  

Both were southern California rock bands, and although their influences varied, they both had their greatest chart successes with self-penned, very middle of the road/album oriented rock (MOR AOR), state of the art-radio friendly songwriting and production approach.

Both had strong lead singers who were largely anonymous.  While Ambrosia’s David Pack had some small measure on name recognition, that might have been more attributed to his frequent studio credits and a big label push behind a largely ignored solo album.  Who was the lead singer of Pablo Cruise?  And both bands had instrumentalist, who, although very competent players, never ascended to stardom.  (The same could be said for Orleans, Firefall, America, Player, ARS and Toto too)

Hits
Pablo Cruise edges out Ambrosia when it comes to number of Top 40 hits, even including some iffy chart successes on both sides.  However Pablo Cruise charted three Top 10 hits “Whatcha Gonna Do?,” “Love Will Find a Way,” and “Don’t Want to Live Without it” and “Cool Love” peaked just outside the top ten , Ambrosia charted 2 Top 5 hits (“How Much I Feel” and “Biggest Part of Me” and had a near 10 ten hit (“You’re the Only Woman”) as well.  Both bands are still fixtures on retrospective radio and all their hits are still surprisingly listenable.

Pablo Cruise Hits:
A Place in the Sun
Whatcha Gonna Do?
Don’t Want to Live Without It
Love Will Find a Way
Cool Love
I Want You Tonight
I Go To Rio
Ambrosia Hits:
Holdin’ On to Yesterday
Nice, Nice, Very Nice
How Much I Feel
Biggest Part of Me
You’re the Only Woman (You and I)

Albums
Both acts were primarily known for their hit singles, but Pablo Cruise released 7 albums and Ambrosia released 5 over the course of their careers (not including label cash grab greatest hits and Christmas bonus live albums).  Pablo Cruises albums were somewhat hit or miss affairs, especially in the hit single years, with plenty of (generic almost unlistenable) filler and several of their albums (“Pablo Cruise,” “Lifeline” and not producing any hits at all.  Ambrosia albums were much more consistent and until the end (“Road Island”) sported at least a (minor) hit single or a memorable album track off each album.

Artistic
Ambrosia had a more interesting career arc, starting out as a progressive pop band for their first two albums, transforming into a mainstream pop juggernaut for their next two albums before finishing up with a straight ahead rock album.  The songwriting was structurally and melodically complex, they worked with a variety of styles and their lyrics were ambitious, at least for the first two albums.  Even when the band made a bit for mass acceptance and write love songs, they never mired down in happy three chord chorus structures, writing about regrets, compromises and loss in minor chords and varied time signatures.  Ambrosia had the chops and studio credits, playing on too many albums to credit (early Alan Parson Projects amongst their studio work).  The Bruce Hornsby connection is fascinating and Ambrosia bassist/singer Joe Puerta ended up being a part of the Range.  The band benefited from their studio connections as well, calling in favors far and wide for their albums as well (It only seemed like Michael McDonald sang back up on all of their hits). 
Pablo Cruise pretty much went into hit making formula from the start, only waiting for their songwriting chops to sufficiently develop.  Once that happened, and the radio market becoming more inviting to faceless corporate rock, listeners caught onto Pablo Cruises undemanding uncomplicated pop pretty quickly.  Which is not to say they didn’t become very good at what they did, producing some very ear worm worthy hits during their nice run of hits in the late 70’s.  They might not have been adventurous, but they knew their audience and they exploited it very successfully. 

Album Covers
This is hardly a fair criteria, but damn if both bands didn’t have great album design teams over the years.  The first Ambrosia album cover is pretty lame, and the second isn’t much better, but “Life Beyond LA,” is a pretty cool album photo that is better at conveying the theme of the alienation of the LA lifestyle than than the music on the album does.  And although “One Eighty” continues the band members self-absorption with placing themselves on their album covers (for all the fame it ever granted them individually) it’s a really great image with “Ambrosia” in the upper left corner and “One Eighty” in the right corner.  Although it sunk without a trace, the drawing and typeface from “Road Island” (influenced by Robert Crumb?) is visually striking. 
I’d similarly throw out the first two Pablo Cruise albums as well, with a generic jungle photo on the self titled debut, followed by a rather boring shot of the shirtless band on the cover of “Lifeline,” but by “A Place in the Sun,” much like the music, Pablo Cruise had found a visual style that they went back to for subsequent releases during their hit run.  “World’s Away” and “Reflector” typified the laid back, casual sound the band was pushing, lots of sun, palm trees, and water.  Even “Part of the Game” with it’s ping pong battling turtles, managed to fit in a palm tree and water onto a card table.  The red hands of “Out of Our Hands” was perhaps a little too literal, but by then the hits had dried up so maybe there wasn’t anything to nourish the palm trees.

Tale of the Tape
Pablo Cruise was undeniably more fun to catch on AM radio and had more hits with their bright sunny blast of pure pop pleasure.  Ambrosia’s more complicated adult themes were filled with memorable hooks and sounded great on the radio too, and they produced more consistent and ambitious albums.  It’s a close call, but Pablo Cruise just had a very more undeniably popular chart hits, and those album covers during their run of hits might just be the tie breaker that gives them the title. 
Winner: Pablo Cruise.