Sunday, January 4, 2015

Music Review: Robyn Hitchcock 'The Man Upstairs'

British rock and roll troubadour Robyn Hitchcock's 2014 album The Man Upstairs is a mellow affair, heavy on the light acoustics and indebted to Americana folk music. It offers five new  Hitchcock compositions and five covers of songs by The Psychedelic Furs, Roxy Music, Grant-Lee Phillips, The Doors, and Norwegian indie-rock band I Was A King.

Listening to it, I'm reminded of Jonathan Demme's 1998 documentary concert film, Storefront Hitchcock, in which the Silence Of The Lambs movie director filmed the Soft Boys alumni and celebrated solo artist playing live to a small audience inside an abandoned New York City storefront. As he played, city passersby on the street stopped at the plate glass window backdrop behind the stage, cupped their hands against the glass, marveled over the strange lights and sound, and wondered what the hell is going on in there.

Here, from the comfort of your own listening space, you can still wonder what the hell is going on inside Hitchcock. The veteran songwriter, who shot to minor American fame in the 1980s with his band The Egyptians, creates songs that aren't easily categorized, fusing elements of Syd Barrett's cosmic imagery, Bob Dylan's dusty folk narrative, and The Beatles psychedelic explorations. After listening to a Hitchcock piece, one might find himself in the deepest of thought, yet have little idea what that thought is, like a dream you struggle to remember.

The Man Upstairs is quiet and assured and spiked with a rock 'n roll edge. At 61 years of age, Hitchcock's voice is as rich and commanding as a hormonal teenager's, and his new compositions again battle for equilibrium between the oracular self and the cosmic powers that be. The purely Americana folk song Trouble In Your Blood cites the human condition to be "a well constructed shadow" while resigned acoustic strings and accompanying cello filter in like a foggy mountain breakdown pause for thought. "Comme Toujours" and "San Francisco Patrol" are both engaging quiet listens with a perfectly balanced arrangement of vocal, guitar and cello.

Grant-Lee Phillips' "Don't Look Down" is stark and haunting under Hitchcock's arrangement, even more so than the original's pastiche of dark colors. It sounds like a deadly balancing act on a high wire  with its foreboding refrain and lyrics that must have delighted Hitchcock's surreal comedic sense - "Buster Keaton and I danced out on the window sill/Ten stories high".

Some of the covers are a bit ordinary. There are no great turns to The Furs' "The Ghost In You" or Jim Morrison's "The Crystal Ship", although Hitchcock's interpretations, more revering than explorative,  fits well in the album's introspective tone. Only once does he break out and rock, on the bluesy thumping new song "Somebody To Break Your Heart", which adds a harmonica to the acoustic mix.

Folk artist Gillian Welch is responsible for the album's cool cover art.

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Saturday, January 3, 2015

Music Review - Royksopp - 'The Inevitable End'

Bobby Vinton's recording of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Blue On Blue" was an inspiration on Royksopp's 2001 debut album Melody A.M. The song's ghostly refrain sounded like a trapped and homeless melody hurdling through the cosmos destined for future generations to discover and ponder. There are more pop music archaeological digs on their fifth and amicably announced final album, The Inevitable End, although nothing as memorable as Bobby Vinton drifting through the galaxies.

The album continues Royksopp's retroactive electronic rock, shaped with dark energy of wasted matter made musical, and a hungry dedication to the beat boxes and synthesized keyboards of 1980s synth-pop bands. The Norwegian duo - Svein Berge and Torbjorn Brundtland - have put a significant dent in global music sales over the years, helped no doubt by the corporate use of Royksopp's music in major TV advertising - T. Mobile in the U.K., Geico in the U.S. While their Euro-rhythm melodies suit the slick commercials well, their songs are more often terminally dark and caustic, equal parts lovesick and suicidal.

On the chorale-like "You Know I Have To Go", Royksopp's somber testimony is as resigned as the last message in a bottle from a drowning man. The constant thump of a clinical heartbeat and the subtle sound of a lazy wave breaking at shore add mournful drama to the mix. Picture 10cc's "I'm Not In Love" gripped with a shiny, taunting razor blade.

"I Had This Thing" follows the same formula with layers of electronic keyboards threatening to evolve into the sound of Catholic mass before it breaks into an upbeat techno dance number, even while the lyrics anchor the song in contemplative desperation - "I don't remember anymore what I used to be, there was a fire burning inside of me".

This sad but danceable music is given a shot of sunshine with remedial tracks featuring Norwegian singer/songwriter Susanne Sundfor on lead vocals. "Save Me" and "Running To The Sea" have a radio-ready Madonna-like glitter ball pizzazz, the former sounding like Blondie after the tide has gone out again, the latter reaching symphonic grandness like Kate Bush pursuing a mountain summit.

If there is an issue with Royksopp's bon voyage, it is the repetition of song structures and a few throwaway tracks.  "You Know I Have To Go" and "I Had This Thing" are virtually interchangeable. "Coup de Grace" is a remarkably uninspired short instrumental and "Ronk" seems only to give the album its parental advisory sticker with the repeated use of mankind's favorite four-letter word.

The adventurous musical virtues far outweigh the wasted space though, and when you're not contemplating ending it all, you can dance to it. The CD issue comes with a second CD of added tracks.

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Monday, December 22, 2014

Music Review: Matt Turk - 'Cold Revival'

Mandolin plucks like twinkling stars and drums bang like someone is pounding the lids of aluminum garbage cans in folk artist Matt Turk's new album, Cold Revival.  More traditional folk instruments - ukulele, steel guitar, accordion - are sprinkled throughout, each offering a tasty side dish to a serving of modern folk music that pays homage to love, loss and commitment. While grounded in the genre's values, Turk is an edgy innovator not content for an electric guitar to merely resonate when it can screech and howl.

From island reggae rhythms (the comfortable and predictable When A Boy) to electric guitar solo fade-outs (the surprisingly explosive In Her Smile), Turk covers much ground in an array of styles that fall neatly under his Euro-folk gazebo tree. His modernist testament to emotional angst (love- loss-commitment, in that order) is crowned with a watchful eye on the state of the fiery political world, singing on the title track, "Young lovers and young soldiers, lead us through this war/Caught between the crossfire of extremists, there's no middle anymore".

Sorrowful steel guitars and comfort zone keyboards lay a bedrock of impending grief in "Quiet Day", a heart aching ode to death and dying which recalls John Prine's similar shout-out to the aged, "Hello In There". Turk's omnipresent view of a lifelong relationship ending in death boasts his troubadour talent for atmosphere and storytelling as he conveys, both musically and lyrically, the helplessness of an aging couple who "live in a small way, hope for a quiet day".

The late great Harry Nilsson, complete with escalating vocals and antiquated musical instruments (accordion, ragtime piano) is a certain inspiration in the jaunty barroom blues of "Battle Song", in which the lovelorn sips his brew to the point of misery - "I used to dream about you/Now I just want to kill you". The talk narrative and subsequent rock and roll surge in "Say You'll Live" brings the urgency and topicality of indie bands Drive-By Truckers and The Handsome Family to mind.

While "Cold Revival" flirts on the fringes of chill - the songs say relationships are futile and impossible to resist - the outcome is a warm embrace this songwriter happily surrenders to. He conveys that paradox with the finest of folk music values, occasionally stepping out of bounds to express the endless limits of the genre.

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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Music Review: The Turtles 'The Turtles 45 RPM Vinyl Singles Collection'

In the canon of 1960s pop music groups, the sophisticated bubble gum psychedelic sound of The Turtles lies somewhere center between the crowned king Beatles and the corporate controlled Monkees. Their string of hit singles between 1965 and 1969 - including their most successful record, "Happy Together" which is still heard in regular rotation on commercial radio today - were a delectable blend of addictive pop hooks, desperate love-heat sentiment, and a spooky, almost menacing aural vibe ("Elenore") that spoke to the sex hungry, thrill seeking youth of the era.

Turtles founders, Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan - later known as Flo and Eddie when a contract dispute prevented them from using The Turtles name - have released The Turtles 45 RPM Singles Collection which includes their top hits on eight vinyl singles along with incredible and worthy B-sides that are fascinating peaks and valleys to the brief, but by pop music standards, glorious history of The Turtles.

The recordings sound wonderful on virgin vinyl. The phonograph needle digs lovingly into the grooves of these records, revealing layers of ambiance not entirely detected when blasting from your favorite oldies radio channel. Keyboards slither and crawl beneath the jangle of guitars, pounding drums are suddenly reduced to a near silent bongo syncopation, and vocal harmonies are complex and echoed and buried deep in the sound.

Their first hit, a cover of Bob Dylan's "It Ain't Me Babe" (#8 Billboard 1965) progresses from a soft rock ballad into a raw emotionally charged rocker. It's a slick and smooth transgression of a Dylan acoustic song, created at a time when Dylan himself was turning towards electrified music. The circus-parade atmosphere of "She'd Rather Be With Me" (#3 Billboard 1966) reaches dizzying heights of happy delirium with an oom-pa-pa brass band enshrouding a catchy as all hell melody.

But it's the signature super-hits drifting off the vinyl that mesmerize as splendid classic recordings. "Happy Together" (#1 for three weeks in 1967 Billboard) has an ominous, foreboding sound laced with a gothic themed keyboard tugging at the heart of the simplest of song structure. It defies you to not sing along. "Elenore" (#6 Billboard 1968) is still wonderfully atmospheric and finds cuddling up with your babe at the picture show to be as daring as a deadly commando mission. Here, the spookiness of the music (scary organ) gets extraordinarily grey, while the poetic prowess goes no deeper than, "I really think you're groovy, let's go out to a movie".

Flo and Eddie went on to join Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention after the demise of The Turtles in 1970. They had further success as recording artists and radio programmers, and still tour today as The Turtles. Their vocal arrangements are the mightiest factor of their old Turtles records, and over the years they have contributed vocal tracks to recordings by T-Rex, John Lennon, Stephen Stills, Keith Moon, Alice Cooper, Blondie, Bruce Springsteen, The Psychedelic Furs, Duran Duran, The Ramones and several others.

The limited edition Turtles 45 RPM Singles Collection comes autographed and numbered and includes a Turtles 45 RPM adaptor (Hey kids!). It can be ordered at Flo and Eddie's official Turtles site -

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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Music Review: Yes - 'Heaven & Earth'

Classic progressive rock fans can't expect a cutting edge release from Yes this late in their career. The pioneering British rock band that formed in 1968 and helped spearhead the progressive rock wave of the late 1960s and early '70s now releases an album every few years or so, as if dutifully doing their taxes.

The new album Heaven & Earth - my vote for the blandest album title of the year - is the first with lead singer/lyricist Jon Davison. He replaces founding member Jon Anderson who has gone solo again. This latest full-length is so light and passive (dainty even), it is nearly void of any signature progressive rock musicianship, let alone any defining Yes flourishes.

Sure, Chris Squire's anchored bass still provides a solid platform for the band to work from, and Steve Howe's flashy fret work still thrives with a seasoned confidence, but so lazily are these contributions offered, along with Alan White's barely distinguishable drumming, the performances sound as if they were lap-topped in from the four corners of the globe. 

Loyalists may have a challenge warming up to singer Davison's freakishly spot-on impersonation of Jon Anderson, the ageless choirboy voice of Yes on such classic albums as Close To The Edge and Fragile. Davison's vocals sound only like an accomplished enactment - he was the lead singer in a Yes cover band - and his cosmically light lyrics rarely invoke the striking imagery fans could expect from Anderson.

If pressed, one could kindly describe Heaven & Earth as a pleasant, if unadventurous album. Keyboardist Geoff Downes' pretty and linear playing seems insistent on keeping this garden free of any progressive growth. Songs like "It Was All We Knew" and "In A World Of Our Own" have a pop flavor unfortunately diluted by the drowning remnants of progressive rock. One wonders what might have been had the songs been more fully charged with a steeper degree of drama and flash.

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Book Review: 'The Opposite Of Everything" by David Kalish

This is a lighthearted and comedic novel concerning Daniel Plotnick, an Associated Press business writer who, upon learning he has contracted thyroid cancer, decides to change his life by doing the opposite of everything. What he once deemed important - a solid marriage, a successful career, reasonable good health - would now be, in his enlightenment, obstacles to avoid.

His doctor first informs him that if you're going to get cancer, thyroid cancer, a mostly curable disease "is the one to get". After further examination the same surgeon does a complete about-face and declares Plotnick's condition as incurable. After sacrificing his thyroid, a vocal nerve, and a portion of his trachea to the surgeon's scalpel, Plotnick is given a 50-50 chance of surviving 10 years and the unsettling advice to "live each day with meaning".

What makes David Kalish's thin and breezy book so appealing is its refusal to treat the Big C as anything but a motivation for humor. Never does the disease reach dramatic threatening height, all the while intimidating the character's very existence. The point here is - the choices one makes in life, including the frantic choices a cancer diagnosis may invoke, are essential in determining one's well-being and quality of life, regardless of how little time that life has left.

After running the tread mill of cancer treatment, Plotnick concludes that the choices he has made in life - the smart practical choices - have not served him well. Why not then, he supposes, do the opposite of all he held significant? He locks his wife out of their apartment and soon divorces her. He gets fitted for a nose ring and dresses in gothic black like his beloved death metal rock bands. He goes on drinking binges, practically lives in bars, and roams the night like a Metallica reject.

In his most radical departure from the norm, he accompanies his swinging singles father on a weird odyssey to a Catskills resort senior citizens weekend. Here, his life takes another spin as he slips even further into his psycho abyss when he can't tolerate his father's playing of The Village People's "Macho Man" at full volume on his father's Mustang cassette deck. 

Before Plotnick self-destructs with or without a terminal illness, the author allows his protagonist to fall in love with a lovely Columbian woman who sees his reckless behavior as a calling to her own needs and desires. With that happy outcome, witty Seinfeld-like dialogue, and bizarre situations that confront the commonplace (Plotnick falls or is pushed from a famous American landmark) The Opposite Of Everything is a passive and engaging read. 

The character of Judy, Plotnick's first wife is sketchy at best. She is a cast-off wife who only serves as a catalyst to his ensuing adventure and romance. I thought the author's treatment of her was harsh. It's the only false note in a novel that is grinning from ear to ear with the promise of another day. 

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Saturday, June 14, 2014

Music Review: Brian Jonestown Massacre - 'Revelation'

The fourteenth Brian Jonestown Massacre album, Revelation - the first to be recorded in their new Berlin, Germany recording studio - is a jangly psych-rock affair glazed in a frosty shoegazing chill. Although it's a terribly bland title, the new album is spirited with BJM's gloomy, then bright  psychedelic haze.

The band's one constant -  singer, writer, multi-instrumentalist Anton Newcombe - is a survivor of documented drug addiction (the rock documentary Dig!) and rumored alienation. He has produced an album with an almost paranoiac tone yet with a glint of light, of hope, creeping through the window of his safe European home. He has relocated to Berlin and is now a husband, father of a young son, and record producer. Word is, he's on the mend.

BJM have always been conspiracy-minded with a reckless enthusiasm for all things dark and dangerous. What more can you expect from a band name that is a combination of tragic Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones, and the mass suicide (or was it murder?) of hundreds of members of The People's Temple in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978. On Revelation an adult maturity has seized and anchored Newcombe, as if it suddenly dawned on him that being alive is better than being dead. "You've got to wake up and be a man, and know the plan", he sings on "What You Isn't", a song bristling with angry confidence and backed by a white-knuckled organ and American Indian tom-tom percussion.

The album boasts Newcombe's musical influences. He raises his glass to Robert Smith and The Cure on the ska-tinged, "Food For Clouds". He channels The Man Who Sold The World -era David Bowie on the whimsically lovelorn "Unknown". "Memorymix" impossibly combines The Beatles repeating Sgt. Pepper (title track) guitar riff with '90s electronica and club land dub, and is the most experimental song here even while constrained to a dance groove.

Newcombe never sounded so at peace with himself as he does on "Nightbird", a soulful "waking up alone" ballad with a modest string arrangement accompanying an acoustic guitar and killer melody. Throughout the album jangly Byrds-era guitar and customary drum beats that break in at perfect intervals add a sunny splash to the moody atmospherics.

Revelation gets darker and deeper on repeated listens. On first take the instrumental "Duck and Cover" seems only filler. On further listens, the whistling keyboards, like a perfectly cued air raid siren, paint a drone-filled sky governing the continents. It's food for thought from an artist not quite ready to abandon his inner rebel.

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