Friday, December 25, 2020

Archive Review: Spock’s Beard’s The Light (1995), Beware of Darkness (1996) & The Kindness of Strangers (1997)

Spock's Beard
For long-suffering progressive rock fans, the arrival of Spock’s Beard was a revelation. The mid-70s glory days of bona fide prog-rock were long over, the genre’s early bands providing mere blueprints for a future that had yet to show up for dinner. The 1995 release of The Light, the debut album from California band Spock’s Beard, punctured the dark cloud of somber Seattle bands like a laser beam. The band self-financed and originally self-released the album, because, in the mid-90s, what record label in its right mind would sign a prog-rock band, for Pete’s sake, when the Pacific Northwest was such a fertile rock ‘n’ roll breeding ground?

Little did the major label A&R people know at the time that they were overlooking one of the first major steps towards a prog-rock revival. History has proven that Spock’s Beard’s The Light rivals only the parallel release of Roine Stolt’s The Flower King in importance and influence on the burgeoning prog-rock scene. Picking up the torch that had been discarded by obvious touchstones Yes and the Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, Spock’s Beard in America and the Flower Kings in Europe went about creating memorable music, jump-starting a long-dormant musical tradition.

Spock’s Beard’s The Light

Spock's Beard's The Light
The importance of The Light on the growth of prog-rock is obvious only in retrospect. However, I can’t imagine the subsequent popularity of bands like Arena, IQ, and Threshold, as well as prog-oriented record labels like Magna Carta and Inside Out without Spock’s Beard. How does this groundbreaking album hold up a decade after its release? For that matter, what about the band’s following releases, 1996’s Beware of Darkness and 1997’s Kindness of Strangers, both important albums in their own light? Metal Blade Records recently reissued all three of these pioneering prog-rock albums in deluxe, digitally remastered editions with liner notes by founder Neal Morse, lyrics and rare photos and let me tell you, they all still sound as remarkably fresh and startlingly original as they did a decade ago.         

Many consider The Light to be Spock’s Beard’s finest recorded moment, and I would not argue the point save to throw in a few caveats. Considering the album’s pedigree, the era in which it was released, and the circumstances surrounding its recording and the formation of the band, I would gladly concede the album’s influence. However, after careful consideration of the band’s entire catalog, I would consider The Light’s place in the Spock’s Beard canon to be that of a secondary effort. It is an important release, the first album for the band and, given the musical climate of the time, a bold departure from mainstream culture. However, I personally feel that later Spock’s Beard releases better define or further refine the band’s trademark sound.

Which is not to say that The Light should be dismissed as inadequate – it is merely a lesser work in relation to the band’s growing catalog of excellence. The Light remains a highly entertaining album and an amazing showcase for the young talents of the band’s founders, brothers Neal and Al Morse. The technical proficiency and mastery of their instruments shown by the Morse brothers, bassist Dave Meros, and drummer Nick D’Virgilio is quite stunning and nothing short of amazing. Absorbing the classic influence of Yes and that band’s penchant for extended song suites, The Light stands alone as a solid work of composition and lyricism.

The album kicks off with the fifteen-minute title track, broken down into eight disparate musical sections that evoke the music of Yes and King Crimson, vintage ‘60s psychedelic rock, even Spanish Flamenco, and would offer Spock’s Beard’s first overt Beatles references. Although Neal Morse’s raw vocals would later grow smoother and more mature, here they evince a certain energy and eagerness that stands in contrast to the popular music of the day. Al Morse quickly becomes a guitarist to be reckoned with, a talented fretboard artist whose ability to both compliment and dominate a song’s arrangement would become a major factor in the Spock’s sound. “The Light” is a suitable kick-off for the album of the same name, the band running through several musical styles from its bag of tricks, setting the stage for the listener and revealing the possibilities of that which would follow. Neal Morse’s lyrics range from insightful to oblique, often within the course of the same verse.

“Go the Way You Go” is slightly shorter than the opening title track, but no less grand. With extended instrumental passages that often descend into chaos, Neal Morse’s best pop star vocals, some fine band harmonies and the positive outlook of its lyrics, the song was a signpost of the band’s later musical direction. The song also shows off some of Neal’s best keyboard wizardry, with jazzy flourishes inspired by Billy Cobham and Herbie Hancock. A second song suite, “The Water,” clocks in at a taxing twenty-two minutes and contains both some of the band’s most exhilarating musical moments and, possibly, its most embarrassing.

“The Water” begins with some classically informed piano, evolving into a Rick Wakeman styled keyboard romp before leaping headfirst into a clash of vocals, guitar, keyboards, and percussion. Through the song’s seven or eight distinctive sections, the band quotes Pink Floyd and ELP and even throws in some soulful, Motownish backing vocals. Al Morse’s guitar crackles and snaps like a bullwhip, punctuating his brother’s vocals with stabbing riffs and reckless fretboard runs. Neal’s lyrics here are dark and angry, resulting in the aforementioned embarrassing moment on the “FU” section of the song when the pissed-off singer screams “fuck you” in his most punkish voice.

The emotion seems forced, however, not wry as with Nilsson’s “you broke my heart, you tore it apart, so fuck you” or genuinely frustrated/confused/angry as on a million punk rock songs. It’s a minor glitch in an otherwise ambitious song, and the resulting section, the pastoral “I’m Sorry,” only partially redeems the lapse in judgement. The second half of the song veers back into classic prog-rock territory, featuring maestro performances from the band’s instrumentalists while musically and lyrically the last two segments of “The Water” serve to connect the earlier segments, completing the song’s story and themes.

By comparison with the rest of the album, the brief and lively six-minute “On the Edge” sounds like an edit made for radio. Al’s atmospheric six-string work is razor sharp and quite engaging, complimenting Neal’s dancing keyboard passages while Meros and D’Virgilio provide a strong, and often quite funky, rhythmic undercurrent. The song is about as close to commercial as the band would come on The Light; unfortunately it was the right song in the wrong era. If it had been released two decades earlier, it would have been embraced by fans of Yes, ELP and possibly Zappa’s Mothers of Invention as the innovative pairing of intelligent lyricism and instrumental virtuosity that it is. The Metal Blade reissue of The Light includes the band’s original homebrew demo for the title track, interesting mostly in comparison, hearing the foundation on which the final rendition was built.  

Part of the charm of Spock’s Beard has always been the band’s innate ability to quote several decades of musical predecessors without sounding trite, revisionist, or derivative. Whether miming the Beatles, David Bowie, Yes, or whomever they might consciously or subconsciously choose, Spock’s Beard has always made its musical references personal, its interpretations unique and entirely original. At no time was this more apparent than on The Light. Spock’s Beard’s debut album would do an excellent job in establishing the band’s credibility and announcing its arrival to the world outside of the insular Southern California rock scene. It is rightfully considered a classic of modern-day prog-rock, and rightfully so. But for Spock’s Beard, it was only the beginning.

Spock’s Beard’s Beware of Darkness

Spock’s Beard’s Beware of Darkness
In my mind, Beware of Darkness stands as one of the band’s most vital works. The growth in skill and vision from the band’s first album is enormous, Spock’s Beard showcasing an increased maturity and chemistry in the conceptual song cycle. Part of the reason for the band’s improvement was the addition of keyboardist Ryo Okumoto, who fleshed out the band’s sound with a perspective entirely his own. This would remain the Spock’s line-up for quite some time, the band creating a lasting legacy on the strength of a handful of recordings.

Using Leon Russell’s somewhat suspect arrangement of George Harrison’s wonderful “Beware of Darkness,” Neal Morse goes on to “prog up” the song with keyboard improvisations, syncopated vocals and brother Al’s wicked guitar riffing. The song also features Okumoto’s introductory keyboard solo, the new member showing off his chops for the first time. The SB arrangement of the song retains the spirit of the original while also taking it into an entirely different stylistic direction. Although some of Russell’s original vocals resulted in Morse’s misinterpretation of the lyrics, it all works out fine. “Beware Of Darkness” opens the door for an album consisting of shorter songs that would feature more concise and focused instrumental interludes. Spock’s Beard’s later albums would vacillate back and forth between this approach and that of the lengthier song suites.   

“Thoughts” was inspired by Neal’s discovery of Gentle Giant, an obscure British prog-rock band similar to Genesis but with more classical music influences. The instrumental passage that opens the song sounds somewhat Baroque to these ears, with syncopated rhythms leading to an enviable bit of harmonic vocal interplay that would have the members of Yes in awe. The song’s lyrics are a reflective look inward, an introspective treatment of doubt and hesitation. With its unusual arrangement and interesting vocal gymnastics, the song would stand out on any prog-rock album.

A gentle classical piano intro opens “The Doorway,” the second longest song on Beware of Darkness. The keyboards eventually kick in, the percussion begins pounding and Al Morse’s multi-layered and textured guitarwork runs the gamut from subtle acoustic craftsmanship to sharp circular rhythms. The song features some of Neal’s finest, most passionate vocals and, perhaps, the sparsest arrangement of any Spock’s Beard song at that point. Midway through the song, however, everybody takes a turn showcasing their instrumental prowess and the song finishes as a grand fusion of classical influence and rock ‘n’ roll showmanship, Al’s fluid guitar lines and a wicked keyboard riff carrying the song out.
The instrumental “Chatauqua” features some wonderfully crafted Spanish-styled guitar by Al Morse, providing an excellent showcase for the guitarist’s range and versatility. The full-blown prog-rock rave-up “Walk On the Wind” would follow, the song’s oblique lyrical poetry among Morse’s best, his vocals rising and falling in range with the instrumentation. Al is once again allowed to stretch out, delivering an electric lead solo that sparks with life and energy. The playful clashing of Morse’s piano and Okumoto’s keyboards is subtle and almost lost in the mix.

“Waste Away” is a fine song about self-delusion and lost opportunities, Morse’s stylized lyrics supported by folkish acoustic guitar, chiming keyboards and a big beat. By the time that Al’s electric guitar kicks in, Neal’s vocals rise in volume and intensity, driving his lyrical point home with some force. At a mere five minutes in length, “Waste Away” would have made for some great-sounding radio.

The album ends with the epic “Time Had Come,” a sixteen-minute revisiting of prog-rock’s finer moments that has plenty of what the band’s early fans came to hear – lengthy instrumental jams, a spacey arrangement, altered vocals, and hard-to-decipher lyrics. The band channels elements of early Pink Floyd, Wakeman-era Yes, vintage ‘60s psychedelica, and ‘70s-styled space-rock and even a little German-influenced electronic rock. The reissued Beware of Darkness includes the original home demos of the title track and “The Doorway,” perhaps the album’s two strongest and most entertaining songs.

Spock’s Beard’s The Kindness of Strangers

Spock’s Beard’s Kindness of Strangers
A year after the release of Beware of Darkness, Spock’s Beard would return with The Kindness of Strangers. Needless to say, releasing three lengthy and complex albums like the band’s first three in a relatively short period of time is quite a feat to accomplish. These weren’t mindless pop albums churned out by faceless musicians using pre-fab songs but rather intricate and carefully crafted musical collaborations created with a precise blend of songwriting, vocals and instrumental performances captured using state-of-the-art recording techniques. Regardless of what Spock’s Beard would go on to accomplish in the latter part of the decade – which was quite a lot, by the way, the band’s first three albums ensured them of a lasting prog-rock legacy and immense influence.

With The Kindness of Strangers, the band takes a “best of all worlds approach,” bookending the album with two lengthy song suites, similar to its debut disc, and filling in the middle with shorter AOR-friendly songs, refining the tact from their second album. The album features Neal Morse’s most fully-realized lyrics to date, the musician finding his voice as a songwriter, moving away from the oblique poetry of the first two Spock’s Beard albums towards a more direct, traditional style of writing. The Kindness of Strangers also shows the first signs of the band’s underlying pop tendencies, the songs including more Beatlesque hooks between the amazing flights of instrumental virtuosity.

The album also includes Neal Morse’s first overt attempts at social commentary in his lyrics. “The Good Don’t Last,” a song suite in three parts, displays Morse’s disgust with assembly-line produced pop culture and foreshadows his eventual embrace of Christianity with the spiritual segment “The Radiant Is.” The ten-minute opus includes a nice orchestral string section that augments Okumoto’s dazzling keyboard runs and brother Al’s magnificent guitarwork. “In the Mouth of Madness” is grand in scope; a fine example of what would become Spock’s Beard’s trademark sound. Plenty of handsome string-bending by Al Morse, a fireworks display of keyboards and synths and drummer D’Virgilio’s most outrageous workout yet. If you had to play one song for a friend to explain prog-rock to the uninitiated, “In the Mouth of Madness” would be that song.

 “Cakewalk On Easy Street” offers some positive lyrics, a reaffirmation of being and a reminder that things could always be worse. Neal’s lyrics are supported by some tasteful piano fills, D’Virgilio’s dynamic rhythms and knotty six-string manipulation by Al. According to Neal Morse’s liner notes, “June” almost didn’t make the cut to be included on The Kindness of Strangers, which would have been a mistake. “June” features some wonderful three-part harmonies and an overall acoustic-pop sound that made it a popular song with live audiences. “Strange World” displays Neal’s wry sense of humor, the song’s commentary outlining society’s unbalanced sense of priorities and the often times unrecognized surrealism of life. Morse’s vocals are altered at times, with spacey, effects-laden guitarwork skewed towards a psychedelic sound.

The lengthy “Harm’s Way” is the album’s instrumental showcase. The song is held down by a steady, rock-solid Dave Meros bassline upon which the rest of the band embroiders its various solos and musical embellishments. The song’s lyrical message seems to be “live your life,” a sort of “carpe diem” philosophy. With varying passages and time changes as well as evolving atmospherics, “Harm’s Way” is another fine example of prog-rock classicism. The second song suite “Flow” closes the original album, its three disparate segments running hot and cold with changing musical moods and various emotional palettes. The song offers a meditative reflection on the nature of life and points towards Neal Morse’s future lyrical inclinations, the metaphorical lyrics more closely akin to those on the band’s first two albums.

The reissued The Kindness of Strangers includes several bonus tracks, including radio edits of “The Good Don’t Last,” “Cakewalk On Easy Street” and “In the Mouth of Madness” that reign in the band’s instrumental tendencies and tighten the focus of the lyrics and instrumentation. Although all three songs would make for refreshing radio programming, “Cakewalk On Easy Street” would have been my choice to serve as an introductory taste of Spock’s Beard, the song’s positive message and amazing soundtrack providing a strong initial impression of the band. The original home demos for “June” and “Strange World” round out this version of the album, offering insight into the evolution of both songs.

With The Kindness of Strangers, the band’s musical vision and personal chemistry hit another peak. The band would subsequently tour Europe, earning a loyal following that appreciates the prog-rock aesthetic and eagerly supports both Spock’s Beard and Neal Morse’s individual and collaborative musical efforts. The first three Spock’s Beard albums built a solid foundation for the band’s live performances and raised expectations for future recordings. After releasing three exhausting albums in three years, the band would not venture into the recording studio for over a year, releasing its next album, Day For Night in 1999.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Neal Morse left the band he founded in 2003 after almost a decade of acting as the Spock’s Beard ringleader. As the primary songwriter for the band as well as a charismatic lead vocalist and multi-talented instrumentalist, Morse’s controversial defection left the future of Spock’s Beard up in the air. While Morse, a born-again Christian, went through a period of self-reflection and soul-searching after he left the band, he started a solo career without missing a beat. Two excellent solo albums, along with his collaborations with Roine Stolt of the Flower Kings and Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater under the Transatlantic name has kept Morse’s work in the public eye.

Spock’s Beard has also soldiered on, drummer Nick D’Virgilio taking over the vocal duties and the band sharing the songwriting on its two post-Neal albums, Feel Euphoria and the new Octane. The band’s sound has undergone a gradual evolution, featuring a harder rock ‘n’ roll edge and more AOR-radio friendly sound. The band remains one of the most popular in progressive rock, however, even as it continues to break new ground with innovations in sound and performance. The first three Spock’s Beard albums, however, resurrected by Metal Blade, remain fan favorites, defining the band’s signature sound and widening the audience for prog-rock during the ‘90s. (Metal Blade Records, released 2004)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™ zine, 2004

Buy the CDs from
Spock’s Beard’s The Light
Spock’s Beard’s Beware of Darkness
Spock’s Beard’s The Kindness of Strangers

Friday, December 18, 2020

Archive Review: Todd Snider's That Was Me 1994-1998 (2005)

Todd Snider's That Was Me 1994-1998
If you ever have the opportunity to catch singer/songwriter Todd Snider in a live setting, don’t let it pass you by. Charming to a fault, with a casual on-stage presence and between song rapport and no little amount of charisma, Snider creates the most intimate of listening experiences. Yeah, and he writes pretty damn good songs, too, mixing up shots of roots-rock, folk lyricism and country flavor with an alt-rock slacker ethos to create some of the most amusing and thought-provoking music that you’ll hear.

Originally from Portland, Oregon, Snider is a Nashville artist by default, making his way to the Music City by way of Austin, Atlanta, and Memphis. Don’t mistake this talented troubadour for one of your typical Nashville “hat acts,” however. Snider has an appreciation for his roots that Music Row could never muster and although his work can get twangy at times, this is no redneck rocker or pop-country artist we’re talking about here. As the story goes, Snider was working the Daily Planet club in Memphis when he came to the attention of songwriter Keith Sykes from Jimmy Buffet’s Coral Reefer band, which led to a subsequent major league deal with Buffet’s MCA-distributed Margaritaville Records label.

Todd Snider’s That Was Me

That Was Me 1994-1998
compiles the best material from the three albums that young Todd made for Margaritaville, a sort of “best of” collection from Snider’s early years. Snider was already a considerably talented songwriter by the time of his 1994 debut Songs For The Daily Planet, able to turn a phrase and tell a story with ease. Over the course of these three Margaritaville/MCA albums, Snider would be buffeted from one style to another (pun intended) as he searched for a musical identity free of label executive opinion. By the time of his final album for the label, Viva Satellite, Snider had been recast as a Tom Petty-styled roots rocker with a more raucous sound that felt forced. Snider subsequently signed to John Prine’s indie label Oh Boy Records in 2000, the result a more nurturing environment that has seen some of Snider’s best work released over the course of four albums.

That’s not to say that the material on That Was Me 1994-1998 isn’t worthwhile. It’s still Todd Snider, an artist that this humble scribe has long felt is underrated and underappreciated for the humor, insight and talent that he brings to his craft. Snider’s initial stabs at often self-deprecating humor are here, including his spot-on satire of grunge, “Talking Seattle Grunge Rock Blues,” delivered with Todd’s best Dylan imitation, and “Alright Guy,” a tale of a day gone horribly wrong. There are barroom ballads like “Trouble” and story songs like “Moondawg’s Tavern” and “Easy Money” and heartland rockers like “Hey Hey.” The folkish, socially-conscious talking blues of “Tension” foreshadow much of Snider’s later work while songs like “Horseshoe Lake” and the hauntingly beautiful “You Think You Know Somebody” reveal Snider’s serious side, showcasing his ability to weave a thoughtful, emotionally-moving tale with his words.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Snider is a gifted wordsmith, a poet of considerable insight and intelligence. Much like his “boss” and mentor John Prine, Snider continues to get better with age and experience. An excellent introduction to Snider’s work for the uninitiated, That Was Me 1994-1998 documents an integral period of the artist’s career, his formative years as it were, a small part of the ongoing story of this still-maturing talent. (Hip-O Records, released 2005)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™ zine, 2005

Buy the CD from Todd Snider’s That Was Me 1994-1998

Friday, December 11, 2020

Archive Review: The Doors' Live At the Matrix 1967 (2008)

The Doors' Live At the Matrix 1967
When the Doors were booked to perform two nights at the Matrix in San Francisco in March 1967, they were just another group of hopeful L.A. area musicians trying to ride the rock ‘n’ roll gravy train to fame and fortune. Hungry, loud, raw, and energetic, the band’s first album had only been released a couple of months previous, and few in the sparse audience knew (or, evidently, cared) about the Doors.

I won’t go into too much detail about the band – the story of Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger, and John Densmore is known too well, been re-hashed far too often since Morrison’s “alleged” death in 1971 to bore the reader with useless observations. Suffice it to say that when the band’s self-titled debut was released in early 1967, its unique mix of rock, pop, and blues…shaded with psychedelic strains and Eastern exoticism…sounded like little that had been previously released in the world of rock.

The Doors’ Live At the Matrix 1967

The band’s songs would become weaker with each subsequent album, Morrison’s poetic lyrics strained by hurried composition. The band’s sound would also become overly stylized, polished by the studio and producers to better fit the charts. The performances displayed by the band here are nothing short of remarkable, however. Live At the Matrix 1967 is the first legitimate release of an often-bootlegged set of tapes, drawing material from across the four sets performed by the band over the two nights. Unlike the band’s later recordings, Live At the Matrix 1967 showcases the band in all of its ragged glory.

The two-CD set kicks off with a strident, high-octane take of “Break On Through (To the Other Side).” Starting off with a shuffling beat, the song jumps into Morrison’s rattletrap vocals sitting firmly astride Ray Manzarek’s stabbing keyboard riffs, his voice simply crackling with electricity. Robby Krieger’s guitar is somewhat subdued here, lost in the chaos until he roars above the mix at around the three-minute mark to lay out a razor-sharp solo. The performance itself is breathtaking in its energy, shocking in its relative brevity.

Manzarek’s familiar keyboard line opens the bluesy “Soul Kitchen.” Accompanied by Krieger’s fine fretwork, the song’s running time is stretched out to almost six minutes with brother Ray’s keyboard pyrotechnics, some bombastic John Densmore skin-pounding, and a couple of explosive six-string solos. “Twentieth Century Fox” is another short, sharp shock, with swirling psychedelic keyboard riffs and stomping rhythms almost drowning out Morrison’s hoarse vocals. Krieger’s guitar solo is particularly tasty, evincing the sort of bluesy psychedelic edge that was often softened on the band’s recordings.

When The Music’s Over

“Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar)” is a fine cross between Delta blues and German cabaret, an odd little song that builds upon the sanitized album version with an even more reckless reading of the lyrics and an intriguing, syncopated rhythm that hits the ears with an outlandish perversity. “Light My Fire,” which would become the band’s breakthrough hit a few short weeks after this performance, stands up well in a live setting, the Doors’ again jamming their way past the eight-minute mark with all the intensity of a wildfire.

The band’s live performance of “Moonlight Drive” is, perhaps, less mesmerizing than the LP version, but manages to create a different sort of magical vibe nonetheless. With reckless vocals, slinky/squealing guitarwork, crashing rhythms, and Manzarek’s keys pounding away at the bottom end, the song sounds almost improvised, chaotic in conception but drunkenly anarchic in its execution. The excellent “People Are Strange” is somewhat more sparsely arranged than the version offered by the Doors’ sophomore album, with Manzarek’s keys chiming freely above subtle rhythms and Morrison’s haunting vocals.

The psychedelically-morose “When the Music’s Over” is extended by a couple of minutes from its appearance on Strange Days, but the longer run time does little to dilute the song’s stammering power. With Manzarek’s ever-present keyboard runs, Morrison’s voice soars and dips, stomps and plunders across the lyrics like a pirate’s swordfight, his swaggering voice matched by Krieger’s distorted, strangely disquieting fretwork, which runs through the song like a needle and thread. The result is a thoroughly off-balance work of genius that strained against the boundaries of rock music that themselves were being almost weekly with new album releases
from a number of artists.

In the beginning, the Doors brought a strong blues-rock flavor to their material, and this is displayed up-front on Live At the Matrix 1967 with a number of blues and R&B covers, some working and some… like the middling “I’m A King Bee”…falling flat on their face. A cover of Bo Diddley’s classic “Who Do You Love” is stronger – propelled by Densmore’s tribal drumbeats and an overall anarchic instrumental vibe, Morrison’s fledgling lizard king vox pairs nicely with Diddley’s voodoo-infused lyrics. The band’s take on John Lee Hooker’s classic “Crawling King Snake” is appropriately menacing, even if Morrison’s primal howl is no match for the master’s mojo hand. A spirited and inspired cover of the Van Morrison/Them garage-rock classic “Gloria” is provided one of the best performances short of Patti Smith’s classic take of the song. Starting slow and simmering to a boil, the Doors’ performance is built on a lively guitar lick and galloping drumbeats, augmented by Manzarek’s best approximation of a Farfisa organ run amok.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

The sound on Live At the Matrix 1967 is somewhat hollow, sometimes muddy, and often times bright to the point of distraction, i.e. it stands a notch above that of a decent bootleg CD, but less palatable to sensitive ears than your watered-down, slick-as-a-baby’s-bottom contemporary live LP. No matter, ‘cause it’s the songs here that matter, and to that end Morrison et al deliver, perhaps, their best performance ever caught on tape. Along with the historical provenance of these recordings, should be enough to spur long-suffering Doors fans to their local music emporium to snatch up a copy of Live At the Matrix. (Rhino Records, released September 27, 2008)

Buy the CD from The Doors’ Live At the Matrix 1967

Review originally published by the Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog, 2008

Editor’s Note: evidently there is a growing controversy over the tapes used by Rhino/Warner Bros. to master Live At the Matrix ‘67. You can read all about the subject on Wikipedia:

Friday, December 4, 2020

Archive Review: Joey Ramone's Don't Worry About Me (2002)

Joey Ramone's Don't Worry About Me
After the 1996 break-up of punk icons the Ramones, the band’s frontman and teen idol Joey Ramone worked sporadically on a solo album for several years. Uncompleted at the time of his death last Easter from cancer, Ramone’s long-awaited solo bow has been wrapped-up by producer, guitarist and long-time compatriot Daniel Rey, and is being released in time for the Ramones’ induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in March. Ironically titled Don’t Worry About Me, the album is a fitting tribute to an enormous talent.

With a band that includes Rey, the Dictators’ Andy Shernoff, Frankie Funaro of the Del Lords and former bandmate Marky Ramone, Joey has delivered the perfect pop masterpiece that he’s wanted to create his entire career. The album opens with a strong affirmation of life over death, Ramone masterfully providing the Louis Armstrong classic “What A Wonderful World” with new meaning and power. From the funny schoolboy crush of “Maria Bartiromo” to an inspired cover of the Stooges’ “1969,” Don’t Worry About Me offers up the same sort of bubblegum punk and hard rock that was the trademark of Ramones’ former band. Joey’s imperfect vocals remain infectiously friendly, his simple lyrics concealing the depth of thought behind them.

Joey speaks openly of his disease only once, with “I Got Knocked Down (But I’ll Get Up),” a powerful song of defiance and hope. The album closes with the title track, fittingly an old-fashioned love song. In his heart, Joey was always a mark for pop music, a rabid record collector with a fondness for bubblegum pop and sixties garage rock. With Don’t Worry About Me, Ramone reaffirms his love for the music that gave his life meaning. Joey brings the same sort of passion and fire to this wonderful collection of songs that he did to that first Ramones album better than twenty-five years ago. Joey Ramone leaves a magnificent recorded legacy, one that will continue to reach new fans when today’s hyper-marketed artists have fallen by the wayside. (Sanctuary Records, released 2002)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™, 2002

Buy the CD from Joey Ramone’s Don't Worry About Me


Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Short Rounds: Dave Alvin, Blue Öyster Cult, Shemekia Copeland, Coyote Motel, The Fleshtones, Little Richard, Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, Midnight Oil, The Pretty Things, Walter Trout & Brown Acid

Dave Alvin's From An Old Guitar:
New album releases in 200 words or less…

Dave AlvinFrom An Old Guitar: Rare and Unreleased Recordings (Yep Roc Records)
This “odds ‘n’ sods” collection of rare, unreleased, and barely-released songs by Americana pioneer Dave Alvin stands with any of the artist’s albums due to his talent and passion. Offering the listener every shade of American music, from acoustic and electric blues to country, folk, and rock ‘n’ roll, Alvin mixes original songs with those written by friends like Peter Case and Chris Smithers as well as tunes by musical idols like Doug Sahm, Bob Dylan, and Willie Dixon. There’s really no ‘hard sell’ needed here – if you’re already a fan of Alvin’s charms as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist then you’re going to pick up From An Old Guitar no matter what I write. But whether it’s the energy provided a spry reading of “Highway 61,” the heartbreaking cover of Waylon Jennings’ “Amanda,” or the exciting, electrifying guitar-play of “Variations on Earl Hooker’s Guitar Rumba,” Alvin knows his way around a song. Originals like the swinging, bluesy romp “Albuquerque” or the country blues-flavored instrumental “Krazy and Ignatz” display other facets of Alvin’s immense skills. A true legend of American music, the performances documented by From An Old Guitar are a welcome addition to an often-varied, always-impressive Dave Alvin catalog. Grade: A   BUY!

Blue Öyster Cult's The Symbol Remains
Blue Öyster CultThe Symbol Remains (Frontiers Records)

BOC’s first studio album since 2001’s Curse of the Hidden Mirror was pronounced ‘D.O.A.’ has been hailed by many critics as a “return to form,” but is it really? The 1970s/’80s-era Blue Öyster Cult is long gone, although the (arguably) two most important old guys remain – guitarist Buck Dharma and singer Eric Bloom – backed by a longtime touring band with chops honed to a razor edge by a thousand nights on the road. So, The Symbol Remains offers a new sort of BOC sound, the guitar-driven slab o’ granite released by Italian hard rock specialists Frontiers Records. Whether there’s a market for this sort of rock ‘n’ roll two decades into the new millennium is beside the point, as aging fans will eat up the jagged power-pop of “Box In My Head” or the haunting Goth-metal palace intrigue of “The Alchemist.” All 14 tunes here are originals, written, co-written, sliced & diced with collaborators like musician/cyberpunk author John Shirley and rockcrit legend Richard Meltzer. The results are a crazy-quilt of ‘70s-inspired classic rock with a contemporary sheen. Dharma’s guitar cuts like a knife, the vocals-by-committee approach works, and the album rocks. Hard. What more could a po’ boy ask for? Grade: B   BUY!

Shemekia Copeland's Uncivil War
Shemekia Copeland Uncivil War (Alligator Records)

Returning to Nashville to record a follow-up to her award-winning 2018 album America’s Child, blues singer Shemekia Copeland is working again with producer, songwriter, and musician Will Kimbrough, who collaborates with Copeland’s longtime creative foil, John Hahn, to put together a helluva slate of songs for the talented singer. Musicians like guitarists Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Jason Isbell, Steve Cropper, Duane Eddy, Webb Wilder, and Kimbrough himself as well as steel-guitar maestro Jerry Douglas and mandolin wizard Sam Bush add to the bluesy gumbo that is Uncivil War. Make no mistake, though – this is Copeland’s show, and her confident, inspired vocals make for transcendent performances. The blues-gospel title track is a gem with heavenly vocals grounded by Douglas’s dobro and Bush’s mandolin while “Walk Until I Ride” is a gospel-tinged treasure with Copeland’s soulful vocals displaying a powerful defiance in the face of discrimination. The wonderful “Dirty Saint” displays a nuanced New Orleans mojo in tribute to the late Dr. John and “Apple Pie and A .45” is a devastatingly powerful blues-rock dirge. Copeland doesn’t ignore straight blues here, as the smoky “In the Dark” will attest, Copeland proving once again that she’s among the best the blues has to offer. Grade: A+   BUY!

Coyote Motel's Still Among the Living
Coyote MotelStill Among the Living (Dolly Sez Woof Records)

I’ve heard enough of ‘em over the past 50 years that it’s a rare live disc that really makes me wish that I’d been at a particular show. As for actually going to shows anymore, I’ve paid my dues several hundred times over in clubs with bad air, muddy sound, and overpriced beer. After listening to Coyote Motel’s Still Among the Living, documenting a February 2020 performance at The 5 Spot in Nashville, damn if I don’t wish that I’d been there that night. Pursuing what he calls “cosmic roots music,” musician and scribe Ted Drozdowski leads Coyote Motel through songs from their self-titled 2019 debut, offering a unique hybrid of blues, rock, and roots music. The guitarist imbues opener “Still Among the Living” with otherworldly fretwork and haunting vocals while Luella Melissa Mathes’ ethereal vocals offer a nice counterpoint to Drozdowski’s wiry vox, taking a song like the devastating “The River” into a higher dimension. An appearance by jazz legend Stan Lassiter on the classic “Tin Pan Alley” compliments Drozdowski’s scorched-earth approach to the song. Overall, Still Among the Living captures a truly electrifying performance by a talented band as scary as the wrong end of a .44 revolver. Grade: A   BUY!  

The Fleshtones' Face of the Screaming Werewolf
The FleshtonesFace of the Screaming Werewolf (Yep Roc Records)

Although I found the band’s previous album (2016’s The Band Drinks For Free) somewhat tepid (by the Fleshtones’ lofty standards), I’m happy to say that your fave “super rock” garage band is back in the groove with the rowdy Face of the Screaming Werewolf. Released on CD and vinyl for this year’s third Record Store Day “drop” in October, the album is the rock ‘n’ roll tonic we need for 2020. Featuring Keith Streng’s stellar fretwork, Peter Zaremba’s haunted vocals, and lusty, deep-throated bass drums, the title track will have you hiding under the bed from monsters, but tapping your toes nonetheless. The tribute “Alex Trebeck” takes on a new look with the beloved TV host’s recent death, pairing erudite lyrics with a throwback ‘60s rock vibe (trembling guitars and jangly rhythms) for a respectful homage. Much of the rest of Werewolf offers different shades of guitar-happy, reckless rhythm rawk, from the harmonies of “Child of the Moon,” which reminds of the Stones’ “We Love You,” to the Kinks-styled buzz and hum of “You Gotta Love, Love,” the Fleshtones leave no tasty musical stone unturned, putting their own signature on nearly 60 years of rock ‘n’ roll cheap thrills. Grade: A   BUY!

Little Richard's Southern Child
Little Richard – Southern Child (Omnivore Recordings)

Signed to Reprise Records in 1970, Little Richard decided that his third effort for the label would be a country album. After all, if Ray Charles could pull it off, so could the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer. The result – 1972’s Southern Child – was produced by longtime friend Robert “Bumps” Blackwell and featured a brace of original songs…and it was promptly shelved by Reprise until finally appearing as part of a 2005 box set. Hindsight is 20/20, but I think that if the label had released the album, it may have gotten some traction. As shown by Omnivore’s CD reissue of this lost gem, Mr. Penniman sings country as effortlessly and with the same charisma as he does rock, soul, and gospel. Some of the material – notably “Burning Up With Love” or “California (I’m Comin’)” – are really just rockin’ soul tunes with a bit of added twang. But others, like the slow-rolling “Ain’t No Tellin’” or the raucous title track certainly could have found a home on country radio in the pre-playlist days of the early ‘70s. Altogether, Southern Child is a successful experiment in style, Little Richard proving (again) that he was the best at whatever he chose to do. Grade: B+   BUY!  

Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets' Live At the Roundhouse
Nick Mason’s Saucerful of SecretsLive At the Roundhouse (Legacy Recordings)

I had my doubts about Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason reliving his glory days with live performances of the band’s classic psych-era tunes, but my fears were erased soon after slapping this sucker on the turntable. Mason does his old mate Syd justice with Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets and their Live At the Roundhouse album and concert film. Documenting performances from two nights in May 2019 at the historic Roundhouse in London, England, Mason’s talented band rip and roar through almost two-dozen tracks that pre-date Floyd’s commercial ‘monsterpiece’, Dark Side of the Moon. Mason’s band includes former Floyd touring bassist Guy Pratt, guitarists Gary Kemp and Lee Harris, keyboardist Dom Beken, and Mason himself on the cans; they honed these songs with theatre dates across North America, Europe, and the U.K. The musical chemistry shows, gems like “See Emily Play,” “Arnold Layne,” and “Saucerful of Secrets” hewing close enough to the originals to please the hardcore faithful but offering enough originality to entertain any classic rock fan. FYI, the vinyl packaging is gorgeous, a cardboard slipcase with a cut-out revealing the colorful gatefold double-LP cover beneath, the two albums sheathed in full-color paper sleeves and thick slabs o’ vinyl. Also available as a double-CD set with concert DVD…buy ‘em both! Grade: A-   BUY!

Midnight Oil's The Makarrata Project
Midnight OilThe Makarrata Project (Sony Music Australia)

The first full-length studio album from Australian rock legends Midnight Oil since 2002’s Capricornia, The Makarrata Project is a special collaboration, a meeting of minds whose ponderous description may scare off the casual listener (and even a few hardcore fans). Don’t buy into the ignorance – The Makarrata Project is every bit a Midnight Oil album, from Peter Garrett’s stunning vocals and Jim Moginie’s razor-sharp fretwork to the thunderous rhythms of bassist Bones Hillman and drummer Rob Hirst. Where it differs from the usual politically-charged Midnight Oil joint is its worthy cause and inclusion of indigenous voices from ‘First Nation’ artists like Jessica Mauboy, Alice Skye, Tasman Keith, Sammy Butcher, Frank Yamma, and others. So, you get some spoken word passages, tribal chants, and other singers, all united in service of the ‘Uluru Statement of the Heart’ which, basically, calls for Constitutional power and protection for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia. It’s a powerful use of rock ‘n’ roll for social change, and the band is donating its royalties (matched by Sony) from the album to organizations seeking to elevate the Uluru Statement. Midnight Oil has always “walked the walk;” with The Makarrata Project, they’ve upped the stakes. (Bones Hillman, R.I.P. November 2020) Grade: A   BUY!     

The Pretty Things' Bare As Bone, Bright As Blood
The Pretty ThingsBare As Bone, Bright As Blood (Madfish Music)

The final recording from these British rock legends is pretty much a collaboration between Pretty Things founders Phil May and Dick Taylor, with occasional instrumental contributions from friends and fellow bandmates. An acoustic collection of blues, rock, and folk music that places an emphasis on May’s expressive, soulful vocals and Taylor’s deft fretwork, Bare As Bone, Bright As Blood masterfully blends songs like the PT’s George Woosey’s haunting title track or Will Varley’s “To Build A Wall,” which features May’s gorgeous, fragile vocals with traditional blues tunes by Robert Johnson (“Come Into My Kitchen”) and Willie Dixon (“I’m Ready”), the likes of which the PTs cut their teeth on five decades ago. A cover of folk songwriter Gillian Welch’s hillbilly dirge “The Devil Had A Hold of Me” displays another facet of May’s immense talent while Sheryl Crow’s “Redemption Song” benefits from May’s nuanced vocals and Taylor’s elegant guitar playing. Tragically, May’s death earlier this year ends the 55-year musical partnership between the singer and guitarist but, as swan songs go, Bare As Bone is a hell of a note to go out on. Grade: A+   BUY!

Walter Trout's Ordinary Madness
Walter TroutOrdinary Madness (Provogue Records)

The blues-rock maestro returns with Ordinary Madness, a quick follow-up to 2019’s critically-acclaimed Survivor Blues. There are no signs of rush recording here or a drop-off in song quality, though – the guitarist’s tone, tenor, and tenacity have never been fiercer. The title track is a smoldering jam with gorgeous guitar and lyrics that barely hide their menace. The production on “Wanna Dance” (by longtime Trout collaborator Eric Corne) is spectacular, lush tones and power chords pumping up the instrumentation, underlining Trout’s mournful vocals; forty years ago, this would have been a chart-topper. Much of Ordinary Madness follows the same blueprint – electrifying blues-rock with scorching guitar, soulful vox, and a stout backing band. Trout’s guitar talents often overshadow his vocals, which are displayed nicely on the ballad “My Foolish Pride,” Walter capable of expressing great emotion. “The Sun Is Going Down” may be the best performance of Trout’s lengthy career, Robert Johnson’s hellhounds picking up the scent again, the guitarist facing the passage of time with unflinching defiance. Since his near-death experience six years ago, Walter Trout has been making the best music of his life, Ordinary Madness an album so good that I bought it twice (on CD and vinyl!). Grade: A+   BUY! 

Brown Acid: The Eleventh Trip
Various Artists – Brown Acid: The Eleventh Trip (Riding Easy Records)

The folks at RidingEasy Records scour the back rooms, under-the-shelf crates, and other dark record store crevasses to find the most far-out psychedelic garage-rock cheap thrills possible and slap ‘em on vinyl as part of their “Brown Acid” series of rock ‘n’ roll obscurities. One would think this well-trodden turf to be mined out, what with all those Nuggets, Pebbles, and Back From the Grave compilations clogging up the shelves, but here’s Brown Acid: The Eleventh Trip with ten more roller-coaster time machine trips circa 1969-1977. Like every LP of this kind, there are hits and misses – some 7” wax should remain lost– so I’ll only mention the winners. Adam Wind’s “Something Else” is a cool psych-blues jam with flanged guitars while Grump’s “I’ll Give You Love” is a raucous R&B rave-up with swirling instrumentation. Larry Lynn’s “Diamond Lady” is a slab o’ guitary blues-rock with prog tendencies, old faves Zendik deliver a shimmering bit of chaotic hard rock, and West Minist’r offer a red-hot, Brit-sounding rocker. Kudos also to Debb Johnson for a brassy, soul-blues romp. Since six outta ten ain’t too shabby a batting average, I’ll happily recommend The Eleventh Trip for any fan of old school-dropout psych-cum-garage-rock. Grade: B   BUY!

Previously on That Devil

Short Rounds, October 2020: Elvin Bishop & Charlie Musselwhite, The Hangfires, Kursaal Flyers, Nick Lowe & Los Straitjackets, Toots & the Maytals, Crawling Up A Hill

Short Rounds, May 2020: The Burrito Brothers, Richie Owens & the Farm Bureau, Webb Wilder, Lucinda Williams & X

Short Rounds, April 2020: Datura4, Dream Syndicate, Drivin’ N’ Cryin, Bryan Ferry, Game Theory & Supersuckers

Short Rounds, March 2020: The Bluefields, Dave Clark Five, Marshall Crenshaw, Gwil Owen, Gary Moore & Watermelon Slim