Thursday, July 28, 2016
My review of The Avalanches' exciting new album Wildflower is now live at Positive Feedback Online. In fact, I'm listening to this album while I'm typing this. It's been playing on my turntable constantly since I bought it two days ago!
You can read the review here.
Wednesday, July 27, 2016
Funny how I've gravitated to the older performers, the ones my parents also love, in the last few years. In 2014 I obsessed about Harry Belafonte, last year it was Dean Martin and now I'm trying to get all the Julie London I can. A lot of this has to do, of course, with the Analogue Productions reissues that have featured these three artists--in each case I was mightily impressed with the realistic sound quality and made albums such as Dream with Dean and Belafonte Live at Carnegie Hall a permanent part of my demo stash for trade shows.
Here's the thing, though. I've known about Dean and Harry for years. I've owned plenty of their recordings. But Julie London has always been sort of an unknown quantity to me. I mostly knew her from her appearances with Bobby Troup in the '70s TV show Emergency!. The only reason I knew who they were because my mom would get excited every time she saw them hanging out at the nurse's station. "They're famous! They're married in real life! She's a singer and he's a band leader!" Okay, Mom. Whatever.
But there have been inklings over the years that they were much more than Dixie McCall and Dr. Joe Early over at Rampart General. First, Troup was hilarious in his small role in the film M*A*S*H. ("Goddamned army jeeps!") Then there was that scene in the film V for Vendetta where V is playing "Cry Me a River" for Evie in his underground hideout. Nice song, I thought. Then I noticed that audiophiles were beginning to talk about some of Julie's records, and how great they sounded. So when Chad Kassem started remastering them for AP, I knew I had to check them out.
First up was Julie Is Her Name, Vol.2. I wanted to start with Vol. 1, but it didn't look like Chad had tackled that title. Perhaps it's because it was a mono recording, but that hasn't stopped Chad before since he's the master of mono reissues. All I know is that pristine copies of the 1955 debut are very pricey, and they are not reissues. So I purchased Vol. 2 at Chad's booth at the Newport Show, ran back to my exhibit room and was almost through the first side when the record started skipping. I couldn't see what was causing the skip, but it appeared to be some sort of hard obstruction in the groove. I went back to the booth to trade it out for another copy, and wouldn't you know it--they were out. So I had to go with Julie's Latin in a Satin Mood, which is still a hell of a consolation prize.
I was a little bummed since we were all loving Vol. 2 so much. But stuff happens in the world of vinyl. So as soon as I got home I re-ordered it online. I'm so glad I did, since this 1958 recording is a sonic benchmark for female voice recordings. Forget Krall. Forget Barber. Forget Warnes. Julie's voice on this album is so present, so tangible that it's eerie. Remember how I raved about Dean Martin's voice on the Dream with Dean reissue? This is just as good.
Like the Martin recording, V2 features very simple and spare arrangements--we just get Howard Roberts on guitar and Red Mitchell on bass. But Julie's voice is so front and center that you won't find yourself wishing for anything more. This is a fantastic-sounding album, period. When I play it for people, they say "that sounds great." Every single one.
Latin in a Satin Mood is no slouch, either. Julie's voice is just as breathy and sexy and clear and sweet and romantic on this 1963 release. The only reason why this LP isn't quite the same masterpiece--and it certainly has nothing to do with the remastering job--is because the arrangements are little more complex and there's a slightly noticeable barrier between Julie's naked voice and the much larger orchestra behind her. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. What that separation creates is more of that "window into history" sound that enjoy so much in order recordings. I want there to be a tinge. I want to be reminded that I was a year old when this recording was captured in the studio. I want to feel each and every one of those year passing by as I listen.
Will Analogue Productions release more of Julie's catalog? I hope so. I'll buy a mono version of Vol. 1 in a heartbeat. I don't see anything on the Analogue Productions Acoustic Sounds website, but I'll keep my eye peeled.
Saturday, July 23, 2016
Here's a super cool idea. One of my favorite bands, Wilco, is offering a limited edition Pro-Ject Carbon DC turntable to go along with their new album, Schmilco, which arrives on September 9. For $489, you get a limited edition orange LP, a pack of Shocking chewing gum and yes, a matching turntable. They're only going to make 100 of these, so chances are they'll be worth a lot more than $489 in a very short time.
You can order here.
Wednesday, July 20, 2016
If I had any sort of musical talent, I might've put out an album like Pat Kearns' So Long City. He sings about the things I've lived through, such as moving to new places, trying to make and keep new friends, being on the road, getting away from it all and leading a simpler life. Like me he's a hobo at heart, not necessarily folksy in a Woody Guthrie sort of way but just sort of perpetually in motion, restless and looking forward to noticing and mentally cataloging all the new vistas. Even the chord progressions on his acoustic guitar are vaguely familiar--like I've stumbled onto them before while practicing. As a result, I made an immediate emotional connection with these songs, one I didn't expect.
If I could sing, and I really can't, I might even sing like him. He has an affable and clear voice, sort of a mix between Jeff Tweedy and Bob Weir, with just a touch of Jeff Buckley for the more dramatic moments. There's a likability here that seems to bleed through the fairly conventional song structures, like you're finally getting to see the hometown kid on a big stage and he's far better than you thought he'd be.
Turns out I've heard Pat Kearns before. He fronted the Portland band Blue Skies for Black Hearts for many years, and I reviewed his CD back in 2014. Kearns had focused more on a power pop sound back then, very much in the mold of Big Star. So Long City delves more deeply into alt-country--it's driven by acoustic guitars, pedal steel guitars and even the occasional Dylanesque harmonica. It's surprisingly breezy and it goes down easy.
Kearns' lyrics can put too fine of a point on his themes, as if he's quickly scribbling his thoughts down as they come. He's not obscure or overly poetic. In "From Promo Queen to Queen Bitch," the one odd cynical track on the album, he starts off "Let's get drunk/That's what your invite said/But you didn't mean it/You'd rather I be dead." It's hurt he's singing about, not misogyny, bitter regret that might be misconstrued by more literal listeners. (That reminds me of an old girlfriend who freaked out when she heard Wilco's "Via Chicago" that starts off with the line "I dreamed about killing you again last night." No, I don't like this. Not one bit.)
Ultimately it doesn't matter since the album ends on such a strong note with the gorgeous and lyrical "Will You Come With Me Where I Go." This is where the aforementioned Jeff Buckley emerges in Kearns' voice and he feels like he's putting everything he has into this song. I'm not talking about belting it out a la "BabopbyeYa" but rather settling into a beatific rhythm and letting everything you have to say gel into one perfect little tune. Every time I play it for other people, they ask "Who is that? It's good."
Indeed it is.
Friday, July 15, 2016
My latest review for Positive Feedback Online is now online. This time it's Jane Ira Bloom's stunning new jazz CD, Early Americans. You can read it here. Enjoy!
Wednesday, July 6, 2016
Just before we exhibited Down Under Audio at the Newport Show last month, someone asked me if I was going to bring some music from Australia and New Zealand to play in the room. I thought yeah, of course, let me see what I got. Hmmm. Here's a couple of Midnight Oil albums, but they're kind of scratchy and the sound quality wasn't that great to start off with. And what happened to all my Split Enz records? Did I lose them in the last custody battle along with all my Liz Phair and Elliot Smith albums? I can't find them anywhere.
So the answer was no, sorry, I won't be playing Down Under music in our Down Under music rooms. (Ian Robinson and Lindy Gerber brought plenty, by the way, and they played it constantly in the Axis VoiceBox/REDGUM Audio room much to my delight.) Fortunately, someone else came through for me back in the other room--Simon Brown, who makes The Wand tonearm from New Zealand. Simon presented me with a gift from his homeland--the latest LP from Dave Dobbyn, a beloved singer-songwriter from Auckland who was a member of bands such as Th' Dudes (in the late '70s) and DD Smash (in the early '80s). When Simon gave me the LP, I almost said something stupid like "Oh, wasn't he in Crowded House?" I'm glad I kept my mouth shut.
I forgot all about Harmony House--things were obviously quite hectic for me at the show--but once I got home I quickly found the LP and gave it a spin. After a perfunctory first listen I found the album likable and Dobbyn's singing heartfelt and passionate, as if he really had something on the line. His wavering and sometimes vulnerable voice has the flickering glow of someone who has been around, taken a beating once or twice, and still wants to finish the song even if the venue is almost empty. There's something in his delivery that reminds me of Graham Parker during the later years in career--he's lacking a bit of the swagger and confidence of the younger version of himself, but the wit, intelligence and sheer talent more than makes up for it.
Simon told me he worried that Dave might be too MOR for me--even though I've been geeking out on Belafonte, Dean Martin and Julie London over the last couple of years. (Perhaps that's because of all the edgy indie rock bands I cover in this blog.) After repeated listens to Harmony House, however, I started peeling back the layers of the onion and found new things to admire--how strong and energetic his backing band is, how the melodies of his songs start to really lodge themselves in the back of your mind and how each song has a firm, unique feel despite the single, unifying force of Dobbyn's voice.
What sticks most with me is the final song, the title track. It's a tune of strange comfort, almost delivered in the style of a slow march, that seems to address the all-too-common feeling of weariness that accompanies thoughtful folks as they head into the home stretch. The sentiments in the song slowly evolve from deep-seated depression into gratitude for small pleasures, finally resulting in the following compromise: It's not so bad, she said/Let's not be sad, she said/Nobody's shooting at us/Nobody. It sounds passive at first but then you start thinking about it, the tinge of irony, a sly take-down of first-world problems.
Like the rest of the album, it'll make you think long after you've lifted the needle. This is a smart, honest album. Highly recommended.
Saturday, July 2, 2016
"I'm going through a rough patch."
That's what popped into my head about fifteen seconds into We the Wild's new CD, From the Cities We Fled. No, I'm not talking about a rough patch personally, in life or in love. It's just that I have a handful of CDs and LPs in the review pile that might be a bit too extreme for a music reviewer who's quickly approaching his 54th birthday. Do I really want to review some speed metal? Am I going to sound like I know what I'm talking about?
It's not like I'm that much of a wimp about these things. I like music that can be pretty far out there in terms of bone-crushing force. I just listened to NAILS' new album, You Will Never Be One of Us, and thought it was pretty awesome and ferocious, mostly because it's so pure and streamlined. I'm starting to obsess a little about Swans, and I when I'm in a particularly dark mood I'll listen to the two-hour-long The Seer in its entirety. I can clear a room whenever I feel like some Mars Volta or, if I'm feeling nostalgic, a little Husker Du. I'm not afraid of darkness or noise.
I suppose I'm having trouble wrapping my head around this CD because I can't find a decent entry point. But I suppose I can begin with what I like. On From the Cities We Fled, I like Joe Lawson's drumming. A lot. He isn't a drummer as much as a machine-gunner. The way he careens through the twists and turns of these songs is, quite simply, a towering athletic achievement. Joe must have arms like Popeye.
I also love the way the band shifts gears in the middle of songs, especially when they step off the gas a little. They can play. They can sing. Lead vocalist Benjamin Cline can inject real emotion into the lyrics, albeit in a way that suggests Linkin Park, but too often he devolves into a one-note grindcore scream that's something we've all heard before a million times. Here's the problem--four of the five band members are credited with vocals, and they're actually pretty competent when it comes to complex harmonies. So why all the screaming? It almost borders on parody, a coke-fueled bad Mike Muir impersonation.
So chalk it up to old guy sensibilities, I guess. But I think there's real promise here. The entire band is talented. They're disciplined. One small tweak--more Maynard/Serj honey and less Dremel tool in full roar--and We the Wild might be great.