Categories
Wax On

Sunshine Soul of the 5th Dimension

Sunshine soul of the 5th Dimension sends me Up! Up! And Away!

With coronavirus numbers off the charts in the U.S., causing massive panic here and abroad, I must rely on my own fertile imagination and wander the landscapes in my head. With the highest number of cases and a per capita death that is among the highest of any nation in the world, the U.S. traveler is truly someone to be feared. Because of that, we are banned entry to many countries, or required to quarantine ourselves for 14 days once we reach our foreign destination.

I have no idea when I will be able to travel to Europe again, or anywhere else for that matter outside the US. Don’t even know if I would risk it if I could. My short weekend excursions to the mountains of Georgia and North Carolina seemed risky enough, but now that the coronavirus pandemic is out of control here, I don’t think I will be doing much more traveling in the U.S., either.

So listening to music is my passport from the home-bound, quarantined world that physically confines me, and sets me loose into the vast expanse of my mind. Instrumental music, classical, jazz and electronic, is great for triggering my own worlds and stories, but also conceptual albums can guide me on the narrative laid out by both the lyrics and the music.

Tommy by the Who. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, by the Beatles. Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. Globe of Frogs by Robyn Hitchcock. Tumbleweed Connection by Elton John. All great conceptual albums that tell a story, describe an idea and take us on a guided tour of the musician’s psyche.

I recently rediscovered one such album I’d overlooked for decades – a classic album of psychedelic soul and sunshine pop by the 5th Dimension, Up! Up! And Away! . As a kid, I loved their versions of Laura Nyro songs like “Wedding Bell Blues” and “Stone-Soul Picnic”, the theme from Aquarius, Jimmy Webb covers. Of course, at the time, I didn’t know anything about the songwriting industry centered around the Brill Building in New York or the contemporary sounds emerging out of Southern California at the time. But listening again, now, as an adult, I realized that this is more than good-time sunshine music. Listening closely recently, I picked up a through line, a thread from song to song linking them to one another, tracing a journey both geographical and creating an emotional arc.

The album opens with the upbeat, euphoric “Up! Up and Away!” written by master songwriter Jimmy Webb. It perfectly captures the transcendent feeling of falling in love. Life wears a happier face in my beautiful balloon, suspended in twilight, searching clouds for a star to guide two lovers with the moon as their companion.

Love is waiting there in my beautiful balloon
Way up in the air in my beautiful balloon
If you’ll hold my hand we’ll chase your dream across the sky
For we can fly we can fly up, up and away.

The very next song, penned by Steve Barri and P.F. Sloan, brings us crashing down to earth immediately with “Another Day, Another Heartache” a bouncy but bitter reminder in five-party harmony that love is fleeting. It’s bracketed with an intro and outro by a sitar-sounding guitar.

The female lead singer plaintively cries,

Since you left me by myself
I spend my lonely nights
Wondering why (why)
Why you’ve gone.

That leaves the nameless male lead singer in the third song asking “Which way to nowhere?” another song by Webb. Now that he’s left his cheating lover he’s lost and without direction. With simple elegance, the lyrics capture the mental spinning wheels brought on by indecision and a broken heart:

There’s the highway
Got a brand new car
And plenty of gas to burn
Guess I’m ready
Got my map on my lap
But I don’t know where to turn

Next up, the woman takes the lead again to sing “California My Way” by Motown star Willie Hutch. Bags packed, she’s ready to start a new life in warm, sunny California, the promised land. Side one closes out with “Misty Roses”, a jazzed-up version of a song written by folk singer Tim Hardin. Time passes, the singer sees a woman who is “too soft to touch, too lovely to leave alone.” He meditates on his own ambivalence in pursuing her, the fleeting nature of love too good to last, and the realization that beauty fades along with peace of mind.

Resigned and world weary, the lover in the next song sings “Go where you want to go” with their blessings. A song written by John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, it describes a woman whose lover is going off 3,000 miles away knowing he is going to see other women. She cries that he doesn’t understand “That a girl like me can love just one man.” Even after a week, she’s trying hard not to be the crying kind, not to be the girl he left behind. Of course, things are “Never Gonna Be the Same” after such a betrayal of trust in this Jimmy Webb number. Damage is done. And yet after all the pain he caused, the female lead singer said she’d take him back in a minute if he’d let her. “Told myself the day you left it’s just a matter of time till I regain my peace of mind… but every day my peace of mind seems farther away… amazed at how much things have changed… I can’t find a new beginning…”

“Pattern People,” also by Jimmy Webb, follows this lament with a reflection about the predictable nature of people who fall in and out of love, and keep repeating the same cycle of breaking up and getting back together using the same trite words, same practiced looks, listening to the same old songs. “Rosecrans Blvd.” by Webb is a nostalgic look back by the male narrator as he re-examines a past affair with a flight attendant he admits he used over and over to get over his broken heart. He describes it as a detour, an exit off the highway on his way to San Diego.

“But there were a time when she laugh and I think I loved her One night on Manhattan Beach I said things that moved too fast to suit her Then I held her close and dried her tears.”

Of course it didn’t last, he broke her heart and every time he drives past Rosecrans Boulevard, he wonders why he did it.

The next song, “Learn How to Fly,” by Willie Hutch, is a piece of inspirational advice to pull oneself out of the doldrums of a broken heart, picking up the theme of the album’s opener. “Ever since you’ve been gone, I’ve been down on the ground.”

Our musical journey through love’s littered landscape closes with “Poor Side of Town,” a dark song about reconciliation after getting dumped by Johnny Rivers and Lou Adler. After his lover has been rejected by her rich lover, he welcomes her back to the poor side of town, even though the last time she saw him, she wouldn’t even kiss him.

“To him you were nothin’ but a little plaything
Not much more than an overnight fling
To me you were the greatest thing this boy had ever found
And girl it’s hard to find nice things
On the poor side of town.”

The song ends on a hopeful note that together by each other’s side, “this world can’t keep us down.” A hopeful note for these weary times, and a reminder that there’s no place like home, be it ever so humble.

Categories
Wax On

A Musical Manifesto for the Pandemic

A Musical Manifesto for the Pandemic

No other album has helped me endure the strain of the coronavirus pandemic more than Robyn Hitchcock’s Globe of Frogs. The 1988 album, his third with backup band the Egyptians, featuring the impeccable Andy Metcalfe on bass and Morris Windsor on drums, skitters from one absurdist, sometimes apocalyptic, sometimes sexual scenario to another, shifting musical gears throughout its delightful 36 minutes and change.

For one thing, I can’t think of a single pop or rock record out there that comes with a manifesto that explains exactly what the artists are trying to achieve, and adds in a healthy dollop or two of healthy sexual perversity as only the British can.

“This album does not deal with the conventional problems of so-called ‘real’ life; relationships, injustice, politics, and central heating systems, about which it’s notoriously hard to talk because orthodox lines of cliché have been devised for and against everything,” says Hitchcock, modern rock’s Oscar Wilde.

He dismisses the glib, hackneyed slogans pop music can descend into and how the music business serves to please and distract. He’s just as dismissive of politics and advises us to bury our television sets.

“I’m concentrating instead on the organic. All of us exist in a swarming, pulsating world, driven mostly by an unconscious that we ignore and misunderstand. Within the framework of ‘civilization’ we remain as savage as possible,” he says.

It’s the “dense traffic of modern life” we are shielding ourselves from with violent videos , virtual sex and music. Always music.

So, Globe of Frogs offers an alchemic alternative to the technopocalypse, an organic world ruled by the natural laws not created by humankind. Random, violent, sensuous, chaotic, beautiful.

The album cover, an original painting by Hitchcock, offers a glimpse of what that world might look like. Striped zebra fish, silver fish and jelly fish swim in the sky as a green-bandaged, vegetable-looking humanoid stands on a knoll and observes through a set of binoculars. A dead, leafless tree is nearby.

What appears to be a person in a spacesuit rests on a park bench on the same knoll. A closer look reveals a skull inside the glass orb helmet of the space suit. What appear to be dead fish litter the hillside.

Another humanoid creature holding what appears to be a scythe is doing something in the valley below. Fish float in and out of strange buildings on a jetty near a lake. The sun sets behind distant mountains.

You wonder what dangerous world this is taken over by nature as you play the first song, “Tropical Flesh Mandala,” a giddy, upbeat little number about scary things emerging from the murky waters onto a beach.

Although the sight of this pink-scaled, tiny-feathered thing with many valves opening and closing gives the narrator an irrational sense of pleasure, he ominously sings, “Underneath your ribcage and your skin, Honey, there’s a new way to get in.”

The song gallops along into an avant-garde piano solo before coming back to the basic groove, ending with a creepy punchline: “On the night the creatures came to shore, someone told Joanna what they’re for.”

That segues into “Vibrating.” With a crashing drum and throbbing bass line it sets up a thrumming, dynamic drone as the narrator tells the tale of a woman who buys a pug and can’t stop vibrating. Is she the same woman from the previous song?

The dog dies, his bones form an alphabet on the grass, beautiful and obscene, and fleshy flowers in a demon’s mesmerize the damsel as she vibrates into oblivion.

The bouncy “Balloon man” was supposedly written for The Bangles. But try as I might, I cannot imagine Susannah Hoffs singing about spherical heads spewing hummus and chunks of tomatoes all over the place and jumping off the Empire State Building filled with marshmallows. Delightfully bonkers, the song continues to mine the recurring theme of gross organic matter and insanity.

From the Manifesto: “But our inflamed and disoriented psyches smolder on beneath the wet leaves of habit. Insanity is big business.”

Propelled by Metcalfe’s accordion, which sounds like a harmonium here, the purposefully quieter “Luminous Rose” follows, a spare meditation on receiving the news of the death of someone you love. The ocean – deeper than the grave – is portrayed as a living breathing entity, taking the dead sailors into her arms as fish nibble on their fingers, flesh giving way to coral.

It is one of the more introspective of Hitchcock’s songs, and has the great line “God finds you naked and he leaves you dying. What happens in between is up to you.”

Robyn and the band kick it back into high gear with the raucous rockabilly number, “Sleeping With Your Devil Mask.” The innocent-sounding nursery-rhymey opening verses of birdies in trees and fishes in seas soon gives way to a menacing man perched upon the garden wall who “made it all.”

The narrator sings, “I see right through into your bones Your skeleton can dance all night And caper ‘neath the swaying light” before launching into the chorus.

Then, in the same verse, he name drops Dennis Forbes, a montagist, illustrator and Egyptologist who was the art director for The Advocate in San Francisco in the 1970s, and a sultry Gareth Hobbes, who has a bunch of useless jobs and is a fictional American serial killer from the Hannibal Lecter book and movie, Red Dragon.

After the narrator intones, “It’s all compulsion, there is no choice,” he describes a scene where his mother (whose name is JOYCE) witnessed the execution of a cellist. A Bunuel-like coven of 13 “men with long black heads” stand around her bed until their heads caved in and their rotting brains fell to the floor and crawled away. Nice.

The final verse deals with an organism that rapes itself and gives birth upon a shelf, which seems like a call back to the action in Tropical Flesh Mandala. Meanwhile, the narrator grows a flower in his gut and tells us in our next life we will return to this earth as a trout.

The absurdity continues with “Unsettled,” as Hitchcock strings together words and syllables with the zest of James Joyce during Finnegan’s Wake that sound good and rhythmic but mean very little and yet sound vaguely ominous and threatening: swallow piston in you shatter, blood or glass eruption, seen druids, forest fire, dogs expire.

The words come at a Dylanlesque pace until suddenly he announces “Casserole is friendship.”

Next thing you know, a Lennon-like word salad of potatoes and lasagna and tomatoes and moussaka are tossed around until, biting off a crust, the narrator says, “What can I say to you?”

Unsettled, indeed. Even the music threatens to go off kilter any second.

This maelstrom is followed by the most beautiful “Chinese Bones.” Ethereal and floating along chiming guitars a la Peter Buck of REM, the narrator contemplates Romeo, Juliet, snakes and dwarves, mirrors and lakes and statues that might have stared at their reflection too long.

One thing Shakespeare never said was, “Man, you’ve got to be kidding.”

The title track rides on a spare rhythm built on an Indian drum played by Windsor, then builds up with guitar, harmonica and other instruments kicking in and fading out as funny goings on are described in a greenhouse? Arboretum? Terrarium?

A woman, maybe the same woman emotionally scarred by the creatures of “Tropical Flesh Mandala” is feeding happy, hungry flowers, walking across oozing floorboards and listening to a creaky house full of disembodied souls, and fish that like to nibble on her thumbs, and a mouth unravels as a flower breathing for the word: a soul.

The next song, “The Shapes Between Us Turn Into Animals,” is a hard-rocking and ominous distorted guitar alarm bell warning us of the coming dread. It’s as if the ideas an themes of all the previous songs come to a head here. We are back in the realm of science, muck and algebra, a woman with hair like anemones, under the sea, waving her fingers.

More nonsense about lions and zebras and baboons, a nighttime thrill ride through the house of love till morning comes. Everything is smashed into bits.

And after all that violent thrashing about, a moment of silence before the final song, “Flesh Number One (Beatle Dennis)”, It’s a most infectious, sweet ditty propelled by Buck’s jangly 12-string guitar as Robyn and Glenn Tilbrook sing about house fires, plane crashes and erectile dysfunction so far removed from two lovers that they don’t seem to mind. They’re not there, they’re in love and they’re as far as I can tell… and the song concludes with the refrain, “There’s nothing happening to you that means anything at all.”

And that is as good a mantra as I can come up with to help me get through the pandemic, however long that may be.

If it all ended right then and there, it would be a satisfying album, but the way the album is arranged, “Flesh Number One” easily segues right back into “Tropical Flesh Mandala”, creating a melodic Moebius strip of sound I can listen to over and over again, as long as this crisis lasts.

Because, after all, as Robyn says in the manifesto:

“My contention is, however – and it’s a bloody obvious one – that beneath our civilized glazing, we are all deviants, all alone, and all peculiar. This flies in the face of mass marketing, but I’m sticking with it.”

Categories
Features

A World Without Stages

A World Without Stages

Talking Quarantine with Robyn Hitchcock, Emma Swift and Helen Gillet.

I’ve been watching a lot of streaming performances since I’ve gone into quarantine. Matt Wilson moved his record release party to his living room. Sweet Crude played their record release show from their front porch with the band members social distancing. Neil Young does a live stream from his back yard, playing to his chickens and a stunning mountain view. Twice a week, pianist Jon Cleary does his Quarantini Happy Hour where he plays a few songs; answers viewer questions and tells stories. With touring out of the question, musicians are scrambling to find ways to stay afloat financially and stay connected with their audiences.

I’ve been pretty faithfully logging into Helen Gillet’s Monday night live stream and Robyn Hitchcock and Emma Swift’s Sweet Home Quarantine shows. Helen Gillet is a New Orleans based cellist, singer and improviser. She’s normally streams from her practice room, but has done a few sessions from an art gallery in the French Quarter. Robyn and Emma stream their shows from the living room of their Nashville home. Their cats Tubby and Ringo are popular guest stars. To get a better grasp of how people are adjusting to our locked down world, I traded some emails with the Robyn. Emma and Helen. I’m glad to share their insights with you.

“At first it felt quite strange to sing into a laptop,” Emma Swift said, “but we’ve gotten used to it. I’d rather sing into the computer than not sing at all. It’s also utterly lovely to connect to people from our house. Viewers leave great comments in real time and it’s nice to have that interaction. For us, it’s really the highlight of the week to be able to do this.”

Robyn Hitchcock added, “All the adrenaline of a regular gig floods into us, even with an invisible audience. I still have to change my shirt after every show. And sometimes it takes all night to unwind…”

“[It was] Weird at first to not have applause and have to stare into a little box,” admits Helen Gillet, “but I’ve gotten used to receiving audience feedback in a delayed response kind of a way – after my shows – when I sit down with a glass of wine or tea and read everyone’s comments. It’s become a fun and engaging ritual.”

When I asked how she prepares for her shows, Gillet said, “Good night’s rest, good breakfast, some gardening, practice on either piano or cello, promote, ask ourselves if the internet is working well or should we use 4G network on phone etc., light candles, incense then Lights, Camera, ACTION!”

Robyn and Emma devise themes for their shows. One week it was a selection of Bob Dylan covers, another weeks was all requests from the Robyn Hitchcock songbook. “The first thing we do is ask for song requests from fans,” Emma explains. “After that comes the challenge of rehearsing those requests. Some songs have been in our repertoire for ages, others we’ve never played together before. There are whole sections of Robyn’s back catalog that I had not heard before quarantine. It’s challenging and lovely to try and learn new material. Some songs will always sound better with a band, while others really suit acoustic reinterpretation. Now that we don’t leave the house, we have more than enough time to experiment. Rehearsals are mostly held around the kitchen table. We both like to scribble notes and set lists on hotel stationary we acquired back when hotels were a regular part of our touring life. Robyn plays the guitar, while I summon whatever harmonies are floating in the ether. We squabble over what works and what doesn’t, and then clear the air with a fresh pot of coffee and a joss stick. If that fails, Tubby the cat is on hand to resolve any ongoing disputes.”

“Tubby has a lot of work.” Robyn adds. “All I’d like to add here is how hard Emma has to work to get this show to the outside world. It was her concept, and she alone has the technical know-how to make it happen. We’re constantly striving to improve transmission and sound quality, and reduce the chance of a glitch stalling the show. When I say we, I mean Emma. I’m a 20th Century Luddite with a brain totally un-wired to the practical – for me this kind of thing isn’t just difficult, it’s impossible: so – thank you Emma!”

I asked if the streaming shows were helping with finances. “Absolutely” Hitchcock says. “This show has given us a way to survive in the elastic limbo that has engulfed live music, amongst many other things. And, with no guarantee that this limbo will end: thanks everybody for tuning in – we’ll be here as long as you need us.”

“The shows are our primary source of income at the moment” Swift continues. “We sell merchandise online as well. For many years, playing live has been what sustained us economically, creatively and spiritually and at present we don’t know when it will be safe for us to tour again. We are incredibly grateful that fans are happy to join us and continue to support “live” music, even if it is being beamed remotely.”

For Helen Gillet, “It brings in enough money to still feel like a working musician, which is such a blessing. I’ve been doing steadily well – with repeat audience members who are spreading the word to others. I have also been selling more merch than I thought I would, which is great! I feel that after all this is over, I will be traveling to visit several Covid-times live streaming friends on tour, which has become an invaluable “carrot” to look forward to.”

The Sweet Home Quarantine shows are streamed on the Stageit.com website Stageit hosts many other performers, so it’s a good place to find streaming concerts to check out. The site requires that you purchase a ticket to support the artists. Helen Gillet does an Internet version of busking. Her Monday night shows stream at no cost on YouTube and listeners can drop some coin in the virtual hat.

If you’re looking for streaming concerts, there are a lot of resources out there. If you’re following artists on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook, it’s likely you’ve already seen announcements for streaming events. Websites like Stageit.com and Bandsintown.com can help you find more events to check out. . There are also “virtual venues” that host a lot of different performers. For the jazz and experimental music crowd, I can recommend The Experimental Sound Studio site. They have nightly performances coming at your from around the world Here in the Tampa Bay area, DTSP gives local musicians a forum with their Saved By Streaming sessions.

I’m barely scratching the surface of what’s out there. It’s going to be awhile before it’s safe to get back to the concert halls and bars. I know there are a lot more people doing a lot of creative things these days. If you have any additional resources or favorite performers, please leave a comment. We’re all looking to keep that “live music is better” feeling going.

Helpful links: helengillet.com robynhitchcock.com emmaswift.com bandsintown.com experimentalsoundstudio.org

Categories
Music Reviews

Arthur Buck

Arthur Buck

Arthur Buck

New West

Peter Buck has been the most prolific of the former members of R.E.M., although most of his activity has been fairly low key. He’s been in the studio and out on the road with Robin Hitchcock and the Venus 3, The Minus 5, the Baseball Project, the Filthy Friends and more. He’s released several vinyl only solo records on the tiny Mississippi Records label. Buck lives part time in Todos Santos, Mexico where he curates a laid back music festival bringing together a lot of artists Buck has worked with over the years and local acts, all to benefit the Palapa School.

Joseph Arthur has been a participant in the Todos Santos festival, which led to this collaborative project. Joseph left one of his guitars in Todos Santos after the 2016 festival. When he went to retrieve it, he stayed with Buck and they went on a songwriting bender. Everything was done quickly with Buck and Arthur coming up with the basic songs (the lead off track “I Am the Moment” was written between sound check and performance at a gig). With the basic tracks laid down, Arthur took the songs back to his studio to flesh out the tunes with drums, synths and vocals.

“I Am the Moment” opens with a signature Buck guitar riff harkening back to classic R.E.M.. The buoyant tune sets the tone for the record. Arthur’s lyrics about spiritual growth and striving are themes that recur throughout the album. While I don’t think it was intentional, the fanboy geek in me can’t help but associate it with the 50th Anniversary Doctor Who special. That story revolved around a doomsday weapon that developed consciousness and encouraged the Doctor (three of them) to find an alternative to mass destruction. Lines like “Just ask yourself, am I aware and see what happens next” and “find a kind of spiritual plan too go beyond space and time and all of this predicament” do make me think Joseph may be a Whovian.

“Are You Electrified” is an anthem to persistence and spiritual growth. Joseph sings “Are you Electrified, is your Third Eye open?” and uses the metaphor of jumping the turnstile to catch a subway for seizing opportunity. It’s one of many NYC references that crop up on the album.

“If You Wake Up in Time” points to the other recurring theme of the album, grappling with the darkness that threatens to overwhelm us. Joseph asks “Cause you hate almost everyone, so how come you want to waste my time?” He doesn’t have an answer beyond suggesting “save your life if you wake up in time.”

That darkness is most clearly defined on “American Century”. Generally, the tunes on Arthur Buck are infused with optimism and the promise of change. “American Century” comes close to succumbing to the despair of living in Trumps America. “When you needed love, all you got was pain… Social media diplomacy leaving Puerto Rico out in the dark. Tax the middle and give to the rich as the devil eats the rest of your heart.” The song is a lament to the suicidal policies that are destroying America and questioning why there isn’t a more active opposition to the obvious evils. I can’t help but hear “Wide Awake in November” as hoping for an electoral sweep to drive out as many of the reality show politicians as possible. “Wide Awake in November” is a quiet, somber tune suggesting that the folks who need to be awake may well still be asleep.

There is a lot going on here. Arthur Buck is an album that has been stuck in my player for weeks. It’s been awhile since I’ve felt compelled to take a magnifying glass to a lyric sheet and ruminate on how the meaning of specific words is colored by the sonic choices the artists made.

I’ll close by warping the old American Bandstand cliché; I like it. It’s got a good beat and you can think to it.

www.newwestrecords.com/artists/arthur-buck

Categories
Event Reviews

Elf Power

Elf Power

Cincinnati, OH • 7-17-2017

There are dates on a band’s tour when the guitar riffs, drumbeats, lead singer and audience come together as beautifully as a 31-foot LeBron game winning jumper. It didn’t happen at the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Quicken Loans arena. It was Elf Power scoring big at the Motr Pub in Cincinnati.

Rick Harris

Elf Power is one of those bands that changes members like it changes ripe tour clothes. Some might call them an experimental band, and despite a rotating line-up, consistently and historically deliver a right-on-the-money 90’s alternative rock sound. Some might say Elf Power have an R.E.M. vibe (think Murmur) and that comparison might be because their roots are sunk deep in the Athens, GA music scene. What they really are, is part of the Elephant Six Collective – an iconic, psychedelic pop label preferred by Southern alts for a sound that makes you feel proud that you have ears.

The 50 or so people who crossed the Monday night threshold to see Elf Power got a 55-minute set tighter than a double-knotted Doc Marten boot, with four musicians who gave enough of a damn to perform like they were playing a stadium show. Out supporting their 16th album, Twitching in Time on Orange Records, Elf Power’s Andrew Rieger (guitars and lead vocals), Matthew Garrison (bass and vocals), Davey Wrathberger (slide guitar and vocals) and Peter Alvanos (drums) filled the stage while their sound enveloped the room.

Rick Harris

Elf Power could have mailed it in. They were in the middle of the country (Cincinnati) on a Monday night. They were across the street from the Woodward, Cincinnati’s alternative music mecca. It has long been said that playing the middle of the country on a weekday can make or break a band. With 23 years of touring experience under its belts, Elf Power knew what it had to do and did it. Thank God for veteran alternative rockers.

Drawing from their first 1994 album to their last and with a sound ready for prime time, Elf Power delivered an 18 song, 55-minute set that featured eight songs off their 14-song Twitching In Time 2017 release. Highlights included “Sniper in the Balcony” featuring Rieger’s soothing, story-telling voice and Wrathberger’s beautiful slide guitar that sounded at times like a gorgeous violin dying to be heard. Borrowing from true life, Rieger and the Elves slowed it down with “Cat Trapped In the Wall”, a true story about his pet cat that got trapped in the wall with a twist. Sounding more country than alternative, Cat was a bridge song that had the audience swaying and heads rocking in rhythm.

Rick Harris

Other favorites were “Let the Serpent Sleep” from their 2002 Creatures album which was performed a half-a-beat faster than the original and it made the difference live.

Elf Power’s two covers were beautifully selected and had knock-out punch quality. They roared into David Bowie’s “Queen Bitch” and Robyn Hitchcock’s “I Wanna Destroy You”. Often a band with a lack of confidence will rely on more high profile covers (crap like “Don’t Fear the Reaper” or a forced arrangement of something like Katrina and The Waves “Walking on Sunshine”), but these elves took a pair of songs well suited for their vocals which better matched their set. It also was when Wrathberger stepped from stage-left and performed directly in front of a quintet of po-goers.

Elf Power closed out the show with “Everlasting”, featuring a machine gun drum riff that lasted more than 45 rapid-fire seconds from the amazing Alvanos who drove a consistently tight, methodically piercing and occasionally awe inspired drum line throughout the set.

The main thing to remember about Elf Power was their precision-like ability to entertain. Rieger’s between song banter set up songs with a casual descriptive ease that made you want to listen to what was next. You had four guys who cared about their music who proved it for a little less than an hour in a town that rolled up the sidewalks before their 10:00 PM start.

All 50 fans (give or take a couple of stragglers) who turned out on a weekday in the Midwest got to see a band that knew how to handle an audience, sing their songs the right way and own a stage with the comfort of veteran alternative rockers from the chill community called Athens, GA.

For more information on Elf Power, Twitching In Time and tour Dates, please go to www.elfpower.com.

elfpower.com

Categories
Music Reviews

Thank You, Friends Big Star’s Third Live…and More

Thank You, Friends Big Star’s Third Live…and More

Concord Music Group

There is something so infectiously timeless about the music of Alex Chilton and Big Star, and it’s never been so realized as on this star-studded concert of Big Star’s Third. Recorded live at the Alex (ha!) Theatre in Glendale, California in April of 2016, this DVD/CD set reinforces the universality of Big Star’s music like never before. Songs that you thought you alone had discovered and cherished turn out to be favorites of the cream of the indie rock world- I mean, just check out the ensemble: Big Star’s Jody Stephens on drums, Mitch Easter and Chris Stamey, The Posies Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, Mike Mills from R.E.M., Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone of Wilco, Robyn Hitchcock, Dan Wilson of Semisonic, and Benmont Tench from the Heartbreakers, among others. The freakin’ Kronos Quartet is the string section, for goodness sake!

The show began with assorted Big Star classics, including a ferocious “Feel” with Stringfellow on vocals, a heartfelt “When My Baby’s Beside Me” from Jeff Tweedy and more. But two performances stand out. First is “Thirteen”, one of Chilton’s most heartfelt and expressive classics. It’s performed by North Carolinian Skylar Gudasz in a rendition that literally could move you to tears, and it’s only equaled by Chris Stamey’s version of Chris Bell’s “I Am The Cosmos”. To watch him sing the opening lines – “Every night I tell myself, “I am the cosmos, I am the wind”/But that don’t get you back again”, your heart melts in recognition, and drives home why Big Star holds such a place in the hearts of fans- because it speaks to you – and only you. Despite the increased visibility of the band in later years (in large part due to this traveling show), the songs resonate deeply, and on moments such as “O, Dana” (sung here by Jon Auer) or “Back of a Car”, you wonder how they tapped into your most private thoughts. That’s art of the highest magnitude.

But the heart of the show was Third, the last album by Big Star – and really only Alex and Jody- performed live. The band had broken up before, during and after recording, and the songs had never really been performed live. The original string charts were made available, and hearing moments such as “Nighttime” by Jeff Tweedy, or a moving “For You” sung by Jody Stephens brings songs that previously existed only on vinyl alive, with string arrangements and a rowdy horn section. Oh to have been there, truly.

Big Star was a pivotal American band, whose simple songs moved you in ways never before experienced, emotional without artifice, rocking without posturing. Its music that has -and will continue- to find new ears, long after the band is sadly gone. Thank You, Friends will show you why.

Categories
Music Reviews

Robyn Hitchcock

Robyn Hitchcock

Yep Roc

Robyn Hitchcock is a journeyman. He’s a reliable craftsman who will always deliver the goods. Of course, over the course of 20 albums since getting started with the Soft Boys back in 1976, some of the good are better than others. You’re going to get music with an appealing blend of folk, rock and psychedelia with songs that exist in some parallel universe of light bulb heads, sea creatures, ghosts and public transportation. On this self-titled release, Robyn drew inspiration from a talented crew of Nashville session musicians and they deliver a good One.

The weird dreams come at us right out the gate. “I Want to Tell You About What I Want” talks about wishing for world peace, non-invasive telepathy, cannibal over lords and robot minds all wrapped up in gently tripping rock and roll. “Autumn Sunglasses” and “Time Coast” make me think of Doctor Who (and also wonder what the show would be like with Robyn as the Doctor. I mean, the current Doctor plays guitar, so why not ?)

The Nashville connection is played out most obviously on the honky-tonk throw down, “I Pray When I’m Drunk”. This is no piss take on country music, although it may well be a piss take on Robyn’s drinking habits. I think it might go down well in a country bar if no one is paying too much attention to the lyric. “Sayonara Judge” makes good use of steel guitar to give color and texture to a sensual ballad about self-doubt.

What can I say about a catchy pop tune about suicide? “Virginia Woolf” sounds like something that could have been on Underwater Moonlight. Robyn sings about Virginia Woolf filling her pockets with stones and Sylvia Plath opening one final door. Robyn doesn’t cast judgment, just observes that sometimes you feel what you don’t want to feel.

“Raymond and the Wires” returns to Robyn’s fascination with public transportation. In the past, Robyn has eulogized the trams of old London and dreamed of trains. On this tune, he reminisces about riding on a double-decker trolley bus with his father. Am I weird that I love songs about transport? (Probably).

I’ll end with a comment on the album artwork. You’ll never get to truly enjoy the ’70s stoner chic of an image that, in another era, could have been a popular blacklight poster sold at head shops if you only stream the disc. On line services are great for what they are, but they’ll never give you tactile pleasure of holding a surreal image of Mr. Hitchcock holding a cat while listening to his music from another reality.

www.robynhitchcock.com

Categories
Music Reviews

Rhett Miller

Rhett Miller

The Interpreter: Live at Largo

Maximum Sunshine Records

I’ve always wanted to make it to Largo, the L.A. nightclub that throughout much of the ’90s and early aughts regularly played host to singer-songwriters like Aimee Mann, Grant-Lee Phillips, and Neil Finn as well as comedians like Patton Oswalt, Larry David, and Jack Black, and where on many Friday nights producer/ singer-songwriter/ film composer Jon Brion would hold court for improvisational jam sessions that might feature Elvis Costello, Benmont Tench, Brad Mehldau, Chris Thile, or Fiona Apple. The club relocated to bigger digs in 2008, leaving behind many fondly remembered performances and what was reportedly a unique atmosphere. But the old Largo lives again now on this disc from Old 97’s frontman Rhett Miller, who was also a regular denizen of the club. Rather than tapping the catalog of his alt-country band or his own somewhat poppier solo work though, Miller here tackles a set of cover tunes from some of his musical heroes and contemporaries. While by no means a polished live album, it nevertheless captures something of what it must have been like to be at Largo on any given night as Miller kicked back to have some fun with friends.

Early on, it’s the song selections that may bring a smile to your face more than the performances themselves. Miller opens with a campfire sing-a-long quality version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” and an unadorned, occasionally amateurish run through Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” Similarly, Miller’s take on Elvis Costello’s “Brilliant Mistake” might make you want to reach for King of America but it’s unlikely to make you want to listen to this version ever again.

Fortunately, the record and performances get better. Jon Brion (who has produced some of Miller’s solo work) joins in on piano for the Wilco/ Billy Bragg/ Woody Guthrie classic “California Stars.” A pair of David Bowie tunes (“Queen Bitch” and “The Bewlay Brothers”) that also feature Brion impress with their musical ambition and fun performances. The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset,” which Miller describes as “only the greatest song ever written by any human being” is another great choice, even if he struggles with the vocal range needed to pull it off completely.

There’s also a nifty medley of The Pixies’ “Wave of Mutilation” and The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated.” “Wave of Mutilation” also appears here in a bonus track studio version with Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago. There’s a terrific studio version of Robyn Hitchcock’s “Cynthia Mask” as well.

The live cuts also include Miller’s straightforward take on Aztec Camera’s “The Birth of the True,” which I’ve found has somewhat strangely become a touchstone for a lot us who grew up during the ’80s. Miller reportedly performed the song at his first ever public performance as a freshman in high school.

Brion’s piano turns The Beatles’ “I’ll Cry Instead” into a barrelhouse number while Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” becomes a honky-tonk tearjerker in the hands of Miller and Brion.

The album’s most affecting moment comes as Miller pays tribute to Elliott Smith, who was also a frequent performer at Largo before his death in 2003. Introducing a cover of Smith’s beautiful and intricate “Happiness,” Miller tells the crowd Smith was so great, he’s barely able to pull off the song.

“I miss him and I’m going to miss Largo and this whole thing is a very magical time and place and things like this don’t come along very often,” Miller said.

The Interpreter, the first release on Miller’s own label, Maximum Sunshine Records, ultimately proves to be a fine tribute to the spirit of Largo, if not necessarily the best showcase of Miller’s talent. While not quite like being there, the record at least serves as a pleasant time capsule and trip down memory lane for those lucky enough to have been a part of the Largo scene.

Rhett Miller: www.rhettmiller.com

Categories
Music Reviews

The Legendary Pink Dots

The Legendary Pink Dots

Seconds Late for the Brighton Line

ROIR

Pink Floyd never died; they simply moved to Amsterdam.

For Pink Floyd purists, the cult of few who feel that their Syd Barrett days are the only entries in their discography worthy of serious discussion, the Legendary Pink Dots have filled that psychedelic void for 30 years. Because of their relative obscurity, the Pink Dots have been sadly below the radar of Barrett’s devoted followers. Robyn Hitchcock may have gotten the “next Barrett” tag during his college-radio reign of the ’80s, but as whacked-out as his most adventuresome material was, the Pink Dots probed deeper into acid-washed rock. In fact, the Pink Dots leader Edward Ka-Spel picked up where Barrett left off, updating his brain-damaged folk by embracing the ambient electronics of krautrock, the oppressive gloom of Goth, and the existential angst of post-punk.

Like The Fall, the Pink Dots have kept to their singular, uncompromising vision into middle age. “Russian Roulette” is trademark Pink Dots: slow, glacial synthesizers; minimalist beats, and Ka-Spel’s detached, deranged mad-scientist vocals. It almost recalls the spare, icy grimness of Wire but minus the loud, angular guitars. The clock-ticking rhythms of “Endless Time” find Ka-Spel in a rare melodic mood and it’s the only track on the album that could possibly be marketed as a single. Elsewhere, the Pink Dots peel away layers of atmospheric dread, especially on the closing “Ascension,” which is over 13 minutes of synthesized bleakness.

When Ka-Spel’s black-planet outlook clicks, which it often does, as on “Hauptbahnhof 20:10,” the effect is hypnotic and darkly seductive.

The Legendary Pink Dots: www.thelegendarypinkdots.org

Categories
Music Reviews

The New Pornographers

The New Pornographers

Together

Matador

I get the feeling A.C. Newman would be a pretty good writer for The Simpsons. No wait, hear me out. Y’know how episodes of The Simpsons these days give the distinct feeling that the writers sat in a room with a list of wildly divergent plotlines and tried to fuse them together to make a reasonably coherent episode (or at least to get Homer and company from point A at the beginning of the episode to point B at the end)? That’s a little bit how Newman’s songs are, taking unexpected turns in melody and style throughout Together. In fact, Newman’s occasionally circus-like contributions here may be some of the densest songs the band has ever recorded. Inventively arranged opener “Moves” has its sawing cellos and staccato piano. “Up in the Dark” with its gang of harmonies insinuates itself and gets under your skin like the best pop songs often do. “Valkyrie in the Roller Disco” (dig that title) is more stripped down but no less meticulously arranged and performed.

But Newman is of course not the only show in the New Pornographers. Billed as a Canadian indie-rock supergroup when they emerged in 2000, the members of The New Pornographers for the most part are now more famous for being in this band than they were their previous bands. The ringer here though is alt-country chanteuse Neko Case. Her always fantastic pipes get a showcase on “Crash Years,” the record’s strongest song and an amateur whistler’s dream. She also takes the lead on “My Shepherd,” a very pretty, ear-caressing song that reveals new layers on every listen. Together as a whole, it should be noted, is well worth a listen on a good set of headphones just to hear those layers and carefully placed bells and whistles.

The other female voice in The New Pornographers is Kathryn Calder, who is Newman’s niece and who is also in the band Immaculate Machine. She and Newman share vocals on “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk,” another of the album’s strongest offerings.

But some of Together‘s greatest pleasures lie in the songs of Dan Bejar, who also records as Destroyer. His David Bowie-meets-Robyn Hitchcock contributions here are some of the strongest he has made to a New Pornographers disc. That’s especially true of “If You Can’t See My Mirrors,” a tune with another great title that makes for an even better chorus. “Daughters of Sorrow” is alternately squalling and sensitive. And “Silver Jenny Dollar” is one of Bejar’s best pure pop delights.

Together may not quite hit the heights of the first two New Pornographers records (2000’s Mass Romantic and 2003’s Electric Version), but that might be asking too much. This record is an endlessly inventive hope chest of party favors from what continues to be a pretty super supergroup. It’s like a great episode of The Simpsons with Krusty, Mister Burns, and Comic Book Guy… or something like that.

The New Pornographers: www.thenewpornographers.com