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

Friday, November 27, 2020

Archive Review: Emmit Rhodes' The Emitt Rhodes Recordings (2009)

Emmit Rhodes' The Emitt Rhodes Recordings
A phenomenal talent who would be battered by the music biz much the same way that a rowboat might be tossed around like a hurricane, singer, songwriter, and musician Emitt Rhodes was, perhaps, destined to become on the more enigmatic cult artists in rock music. Unlike tragic figures like Tim Buckley and Nick Drake who would die young before fulfilling their full artistic promise, or a talent like Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, who would burn out long before fading away, Rhodes simply walked away from it all, leaving behind four sparkling and forward-reaching albums of pure pop genius.

Rhodes’ story is not unique, although the circumstances and experiences that pushed his artistic development certainly were. Somewhat of a child prodigy, Rhodes was playing professionally in bands in the L.A. area at the age of 14, and by the time he was old enough to get his California driver’s license, he was writing beautifully-crafted songs and fronting the folk-influenced baroque pop outfit Merry-Go-Round. 

The Merry-Go-Round enjoyed a brief but moderately successful career circa 1966-69, scoring two regional hits with the Rhodes’ songs “Live” (which would later be covered by the Bangles almost 20 years later) and “You’re A Very Lovely Woman.” The acclaimed British folk-rock band Fairport Convention thought enough of Rhodes’ songwriting chops to cover the band’s “Time Will Show The Wiser” on their 1968 debut album, but by 1969 the writing was on the wall as the Merry-Go-Round’s slight commercial fortunes waned and Rhodes turned his attentions towards a solo career.

Emmit Rhodes’ The American Dream

Emmit Rhodes' The American Dream
Still owing A&M Records an album under the terms of the Merry-Go-Round’s contract with the label, Rhodes went into the studio with members of The Wrecking Crew, studio pros like Hal Blaine and Larry Knechtel, to cut original material to compliment a handful of leftover Merry-Go-Round tracks. The resulting album was titled The American Dream, and although Rhodes completed recording the album in 1969, it would be a couple of years before A&M would release it...more about which later. The American Dream album is where the limited-edition career retrospective The Emitt Rhodes Recordings (1969–1973) begins, the two-disc set kicking off with the original album in its entirety. 

More than its entirety, really, as the song “Saturday Night” would be pulled from subsequent pressings of The American Dream in 1971 in favor of the minor Merry-Go-Round hit “You’re A Very Lovely Woman.” Both songs are included here, and both are equally deserving of inclusion, the former a wistful recollection of days passed and love lost that sounds like the Byrds minus McGuinn’s 12-string, the latter an exotic fusing of L.A. pop and vague Middle Eastern musical themes, the tension between the two matched by Rhodes’ acrobatic lyrics and the band’s delicious harmonies.

On the whole, The American Dream is really just a more mature Merry-Go-Round album, featuring a similar sort of pop sensibilities while showcasing Rhodes’ growing songwriting savvy and a fuller, more textured sonic palette. With its lush instrumentation and socially-conscious lyrics, the jangling “Mother Earth” is a wonderful example of the baroque pop style, while the Beatlesque “Textile Factory” displays a wider sense of rhythm and style with a slight countryish twang and touches of bluegrass-styled fiddleplay. The complex “In The Days of the Old” takes the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s musical breakthroughs a step further, matching fantasy-infused metaphorical lyrics with a spry soundtrack and a clever vocal turn.

Emitt Rhodes' Emitt Rhodes
After “paying his bill,” as it were, with A&M Records, Rhodes scraped up a little cash and purchased an old Ampex four-track tape deck, sticking it in his parent’s garage with the rest of his musical gear. Transforming himself into a one-man¬band in order to better control the final sound of his recordings, Rhodes taught himself to play the instruments he didn’t already know. Writing prolifically at this time, Rhodes cranked out demos of some songs, scored a label deal with ABC-Dunhill, and subsequently recorded his (true) self-titled debut at home…lending a whole new meaning to the term “garage rock.” 

Released in 1970 by ABC-Dunhill, the Emitt Rhodes album – considered by many to be the songwriter’s masterpiece, and easily recognizable by its stylized cover showing Rhodes gazing through mottled windowpanes – was a twelve-song collection of finely-crafted pop-rock created entire by Rhodes and evincing a delightful whimsy to go along with its imaginative instrumentation and intelligent songwriting. Rhodes’ solo debut is often compared to Paul McCartney’s songwriting efforts, but in my mind Rhodes took the best of John Lennon and Paul McCartney and put his own unique spin on their trademark style.

Emmit Rhodes’ Mirrors

For instance, “With My Face On The Floor” sounds positively McCartneyesque, from Rhodes’ lofty vocals right through the pop/rock instrumentation. But Rhodes displays his own uncanny sense of popcraft, infusing the song with some tasty guitar licks, unusual changes in direction, and an infectious chorus. “Lullabye” is slightly more than a minute of pure melodic nirvana, Rhodes’ warm vocals caressing the lyrics, accompanied by only a fine thread of guitar strum. The album’s single, “Fresh As A Daisy,” is a jaunty pop tune with an infectious tick-tock beat, warm vocals stuck high in the mix, and a lovely chorus while “You Take The Dark Out of the Night” is provided a muted, wall-of-sound production that barely conceals Rhodes’ expressive vocals and taut fretwork.

The success of Emitt Rhodes, the album creeping into the Billboard “Top Thirty” chart at #29, forced A&M Records to reconsider The American Dream. The label dusted the album off and pushed it into the stores in early 1971, perhaps confusing Rhodes’ growing legion of fans, and competing with his own subsequently released Mirror album. And here is where the Emitt Rhodes’ story starts to get a little dicey, but not entirely unfamiliar for dozens…if not hundreds of musicians that have experience similarly lugheaded and stupid corporate hijinx. Despite the fact that Rhodes’ self-titled ABC-Dunhill album took close to a year of dedicated studio work to craft, the executive braintrust at the label wanted a follow-up a mere six months later, as per the ridiculous terms of Rhodes’ contract (which, yes, he signed and thus agreed to, but really, what’s the hurry, bub?!).

Emmit Rhodes' Mirror
Rather than support Rhodes’ creative efforts and nurture the growth of a talented songwriter and performer that could have been a virtual cash cow for a label notoriously lacking in capital, ABC-Dunhill instead suspended Rhodes’ contract and sued the poor schlub for $250k, a sum no doubt several times what they’d paid him in royalties for sales of the Emitt Rhodes album. Hurried, and no doubt frenzied, Rhodes’ delivered the flawed but still classic pop/rock collection Mirror. Released in 1971 and going up against his The American Dream album in the market, Mirror may have been conceived and created in a rush relative to his debut, but it contains a lot of fine material nonetheless. “Birthday Lady” is a spry bit o’ lofty rock ‘n’ roll cheap thrills that helped usher in a more sophisticated era in pop music. The introspective “Better Side of Life” displays not only Rhodes’ warm vocals, but his fully-emerged songwriting skills as well. Intelligently worded and backed by a simple but effective melody, the song is a rock-solid example of Rhodes’ talents.

Mirror’s title track is another musically complex showcase for Rhodes’ increasingly sensitive and insightful wordplay, his lyrics complimented by a dense soundtrack and a tight thread of guitar that brings a sense of urgency to the performance. The lovely “Golden Child of God” features gossamer strings, a chameleon-like changing of sounds, multi-tracked harmonies, and an ambitious Rhodes vocal performance. “Take You Away” treads into Crosby, Still, Nash & Young territory with folkish roots, clashing vocals, and a textured guitar performance worthy of Stephen Stills. Overall, the ten songs Rhodes created for Mirror are darker, more inward-looking, and teetering on the edge of emotional meltdown. With little or no support from the label (they sued him, remember?), Mirror barely scraped onto the Billboard Top 200 album chart, and ABC-Dunhill ramped up their squeeze tactics on the singer/songwriter. As the lawsuit rolled on, and the pressures mounted, Rhodes’ took most of 1972 to create the album that would become his swansong, Farewell To Paradise.

Farewell To Paradise

Farewell To Paradise, released in 1973, would be Rhodes’ most ambitious collection yet. In many ways, the songs illustrated the singer’s growing disillusionment with the music business and his pursuit of rock ‘n’ roll stardom. Again recording entirely in his home studio and playing every instrument, Rhodes stretches his talents even further than ever before. The album-opening “Warm Self-Sacrifice” includes Rhodes’ first use of the violin, the instrument adding an air of weariness to an otherwise up-tempo arrangement. Lyrically, though, Rhodes is beginning to show the strain, a certain amount of self-defeat and self-doubt evident across several of the songs on Farewell To Paradise.

Emmit Rhodes' Farewell To Paradise
It may have been Rhodes’ final album, but the dozen songs on Farewell To Paradise display no deterioration of talent. Quite the contrary, actually, as the aforementioned “Warm Self-Sacrifice” and songs like the bluesy “See No Evil,” with its baroque pop undertones, or the bluegrass/country-styled “Blue Horizon” showing a further expansion of not only style but performance as well. The latter, particularly, is a wistful look back at what might have been, a metaphorical acceptance of Rhodes’ future departure from a flagging career. “Only Lovers Decide” may be one of the best songs that Rhodes ever wrote, a folk-influenced musing on relationships with brilliant imagery and a poetic sensibility floating above a beautiful, albeit dark-hued soundtrack with masterful piano, haunting strings, and strains of provocative fretwork. The rollicking “Bad Man” is an unabashed rocker with a slight boogie beat and Rhodes’ understated vocals while the title track is a perfect snapshot of Rhodes’ talents, blending a multi-textured musical backdrop with his typically fluid wordplay and a difficult, but ultimately successful vocal turn.

The Emitt Rhodes Recordings (1969-1973) also includes “Tame The Lion,” a non-LP track released as a single by ABC-Dunhill in 1972 as a stopgap before Farewell To Paradise was completed. A timely anti-war song with vocals reminiscent of Paul McCartney and a song structure similar to some of Paul Simon’s later work, “Tame the Lion” is a good song with clever turns of a phrase supported by an up-tempo soundtrack and impressive, hard-rocking guitarplay. A companion piece, of sorts, with “Those That Die” from Farewell To Paradise, the song woulda, coulda, shoulda been a huge hit with just a small push from Rhodes’ under-appreciative label. Following the disappointing lack of success of Farewell To Paradise, Rhodes simply walked away from his recorded career at the age of 24. A veteran of nearly a decade in the competitive and pressure-filled trenches of the pop-rock rat-race, Rhodes would subsequently become a producer and A&R repre¬sentative for Elektra and Asylum Records. Later, he would retreat to his own recording studio, built in a house across the street from his childhood home, where Rhodes would record other artists while reportedly (and hopefully) amassing a wealth of unreleased songs.

Through the ensuing years, Emitt Rhodes has been saddled with a sort of “savior of pop” albatross that has only added to his cult status among a growing crowd of fans. The Internet has made legends out of more than one obscure musician, but in Rhodes’ case the adoration and renewed attention is certainly well-deserved. Listening to his early ‘70s recordings today, one must marvel not only at the technical proficiency displayed by the trio of ABC-Dunhill releases, recorded in (primitive, by today’s standards) Rhodes’ home studio, but also at the warmth and density of the sound that he achieved. Throw in Rhodes’ prescient songwriting skills (really, all that stuff that you’ve heard folks like Paul Simon, Harry Nilsson, and Matthew Sweet, to name but three, create in the late ‘70s and ‘80s is but a reflection of what Rhodes had already done) and his overlooked and often under-appreciated instrumental talents, and you have the makings of an artist that was decades ahead of his time.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

The Emitt Rhodes Recordings (1969-1973) collects all four of the singer/songwriter’s long out-of-print albums, as well as that one lone single release – 48 songs total – into an impressive two-CD set complete with pristine remastered sound, and a CD booklet with informative liner notes and a handful of rare photos. If you’re a fan of Beatlesque pop, and you’re not familiar with Emitt Rhodes, you owe it to yourself to discover one of the 20th century’s most talented and unheralded cult legends, an artist who is just now beginning to receive the acclaim he earned almost four decades ago. (Hip-O Select, released June 11, 2009)

Editor’s Note: Rhodes returned to the music world in 2016 with the critically-acclaimed album Rainbow Ends, which would achieve the highest chart position (#150) of his career. Rhodes passed away in July 2020 at the age of 70.

Review originally published by the Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog, 2009

DVD Review: Echo & the Bunnymen's Dancing Horses (2007)

Echo & the Bunnymen's Dancing Horses
Echo & the Bunnymen are one of the most beloved of the edgy ‘80s “new wave” rock bands hailing from the UK. Releasing their debut LP, Crocodiles in 1980, the band immediately captured an audience with its inspired mix of Goth gloom and doom, psychedelic instrumentation and shoegazer soundscapes. Subsequent albums like Heaven Up Here (1981), Porcupine (1982) and Ocean Rain (1984) set the band above the ranks of MTV-fueled new wave one-hit-wonders and created an influential, lasting musical legacy. Although the band has survived several break-ups and changes in roster over the past 25 years, they reformed in 1997 around the nucleus of vocalist Ian McCulloch and guitarist Will Sergeant and have continued to create their own unique brand of music ever since.

Echo & the Bunnymen’ Dancing Horses DVD

Recorded live during a 2005 performance at The Shepherds Bush Empire in England, Echo & the Bunnymen’s Dancing Horses DVD features 20 songs, including many fan favorites, chosen from across the British band’s lengthy and storied career. The videography on Dancing Horses is decent, with multiple cameras capturing several close and distant angles of the band’s performance. The lightning is moody, atmospheric to a fault, often obscuring the band member’s features, providing only a shadowy, ethereal outline of the performers. It’s all about the songs, of course, and the band sounds as good here as they did some 25 years ago. Guitarist Will Sergeant’s fretwork is phenomenal, consistently excellent and entertaining throughout with incredible tone and liveliness punching up the performances. Ian McCulloch’s vocals are coarse, yet warm, often barely breaking through the wall of sound woven by his bandmates.

McCulloch offers a minimum of between-song patter, the band sliding from one song into another, although he does loosen up and get a little chattier as the show proceeds. There are some fine performances to be found on Dancing Horses. The mid-tempo “Stormy Weather” features one of McCulloch’s most heartfelt deliveries, his vox cradled in a blanket of gently chiming guitars, strong rhythms and mesmerizing instrumentation. “Bring On the Dancing Horses,” from which the DVD takes its name, starts out big with an upward spiral of swirling synths (courtesy of Paul Fleming) as jangling guitars chime in. The instrumentation can barely sustain the middle, McCulloch’s vocals edging through the mix as the music sort of washes over your soul. A heavy bassline, delivered by Stephen Brannan, holds down the foundation while the twin guitars of Sergeant and Gordon Goudie rattle and shake for all they’re worth.

The band mimics the Doors with “Rescue,” McCulloch kicking out his best Jim Morrison as “The Lizard King” impersonation as the music swells and throbs behind him. My personal Bunnymen fave, “The Cutter,” cranks up with Sergeant’s mind-bending psychedelic fretwork at the forefront before launching into McCulloch’s distressed reading of the song’s lyrics. “The Killing Moon” offers a similarly haunting performance, with instrumentation as strong as a spider’s web and as delicate as a moonlit night. “Villiers Terrace” hits hard, drummer Simon Finley’s tribal-styled big beat flaying the skins and propelling McCulloch’s powerful vocals to new highs. The song ends with a torrent of machine-gun beats, stopping with the sudden urgency of a car wreck. “Scissors In The Sand” is another hard-driving number, McCulloch’s vocals straining to rise above the din of clashing guitars and explosive drumbeats. It’s a breathtaking performance, one of many on the DVD. A three-song encore includes a vibrant performance of “Lips Like Sugar” that features electrifying guitar with shimmering leads that provide a distinct signature to the song.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Overall, Dancing Horses captures a very engaging performance from Echo & the Bunnymen, lively and with many highs and lows that will keep you on the edge of your seat. The DVD also includes a bonus interview with Ian McCulloch and Will Sergeant, done as a simple Q&A with the questions flashing onto the screen in print and the guys providing their answers on camera. No concert DVD can replace the intimacy and energy of a live performance, but with Dancing Horses, Echo & the Bunnymen have done a fine job of bringing their live show into our homes, displaying the vibrancy and vitality of a band that, even after all these years, still has something to prove. (Secret Films / MVD Visual, released June 26, 2007)

Review originally published by Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog, 2007

Friday, November 20, 2020

DVD Review: Cactus' Cactus Live (2008)

Life often doesn’t take us where we expect it to go. For bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice, after the break-up of their band Vanilla Fudge, they planned to form a Cream-styled supergroup with flash Yardbirds guitarist Jeff Beck. When Beck took his motorcycle over the edge – a serious accident that put the guitarslinger out of commission for nearly a year and a half – the instrumental duo instead hooked up with crunch-axeman Jim McCarty, from Mitch Ryder’s band, and gravel-throated vocalist Rusty Day from Ted Nugent’s Amboy Dukes outfit, to form the blooze-rock foursome Cactus.

Although the lifespan of Cactus was short (1969-1972) and commercially unremarkable (a couple of high-profile tours and an infamous performance at the Mar-Y-Sol Pop Festival in Puerto Rico did little to jumpstart album sales), subsequent praise from well-known fans such as Van Halen, King’s X, Monster Magnet, David Coverdale, and Kid Rock have turned Cactus into a bona fide ‘70s cult band. The subsequent limited-edition CD release of the band’s entire studio recordings and live performances on two double-disc sets has prompted a re-evaluation of the band once known as the “American Led Zeppelin.”

One Way...Or Another

To be perfectly honest, there’s little that’s unique, or even overly original about the trademark Cactus sound – a high-energy, boogie-based, blooze-rock thunderstorm where the whole enchilada seldom rises above the talents of the separate ingredients. Masters of sonic ear-sludge, Cactus practically wrote the hard rock playbook that would later be followed by folks like Foghat, Fastway, and Montrose but, in truth, much of the band’s dubious provenance is provided by Day’s high-flying vocal gymnastics and the maestro-level chops of frontline players McCarty and Bogert. But while critics fretted and sweated over Cactus albums like the band’s eager self-titled debut or its potent follow-up, One Way...Or Another, wayward youth like the Reverend found the Cactus sound to be pure catnip to our chemically-altered teenage cerebellums nonetheless.

Cactus' One Way...Or Another
With all of the increased interest and activity swirling like a dervish ‘round the band’s meager four-album canon during the latter years of the century, the original pair of Bogert and Appice got back together with McCarty and began writing songs together again in 2001. Recruiting vocalist Jimmy Kune from the revolving door that is Britain’s Savoy Brown to replace the late Rusty Day, and bringing in mouth-harp tornado Randy Pratt, the reformed band debuted with Cactus V in 2006, a brand-new album with the same old booger-rock sound. The release of the new album led to a series of shows, including a June 2006 performance at the B.B. King Blues Club in New York City, a show that was captured on video for posterity and released on DVD by Music Video Distributors as Cactus Live.

The NYC performance kicks off with a bit of wicked riffing courtesy of McCarty before launching into a down-n-dirty rendition of Little Richard’s timeless “Long Tall Sally” that grinds and bumps nasty like your high school prom date. McCarty is one of the unsung geniuses of ‘60s/’70s hard rock, an explosive fretburner with pyrotechnics dancing from his fingertips. When Jimmy Mac takes off on one of his wiry leads, you feel the garrote tighten, and his mastery of the monster riff is second to none.

Cactus’ Cactus Live DVD

“One Way...Or Another,” one of the trademark tunes in the Cactus canon, is dedicated to the memory of Rusty Day, and the band smokes the song, hitting the target like 1,000 rounds from a fire-breathing Gatling gun. Kune’s vocals soar above the band’s metallic clash, but let’s establish right from ‘Jump Street’ that Jimmy Kune ain’t a mere Rusty Day clone, and we’ll admit that those are rather large lungs to fill. An old-school shouter with a solid pedigree, Kune’s vox don’t have the spicy bar-b-que twanginess of Day’s boozy drawl, but he belts out these tunes like an angry longshoreman anyway.

Another throwback from the band’s 1970 debut, “Bro Bill” is the kind ole-fashioned jackhammer shuffle that nicks more than its dinosaur-stomp melody from the Willie Dixon songbook. The song itself is some sort of anti-drugs screed, a death-n-reds fright-flick that enjoys an Eastside Chicago vibe, with McCarty tearing off fistfuls of hoary riff meat. One of the new tunes from Cactus V, “Muscle And Soul” opens with a tasty old-school riff before tossing the listener back to ’72 with a sound that evokes memories of smoldering stacks o’ wax from fellow travelers like Status Quo and Mountain. Much of the song’s instrumentation was plagiarized by the band from its own catalog, which in turn “found” a large chunk of its own underground sonic dynamism from the Yardbirds, Zeppelin and Cream (by way of Howlin’ Wolf).

“Oleo,” also from the Cactus debut, basically serves as a spotlight for a Tim Bogert bass solo. Bogert is a rarity, a true hard rock bassist born-and-bred, and he single-handedly invented the bass-heavy bottom end sound during his Vanilla Fudge daze, back when the hippies were still chasing butterflies. A lot of rock bassists of the modern era – many who have subsequently mimicked the Bogert sound – looked no further than Sabbath’s Geezer Butler or Deep Purple’s Roger Glover for inspiration or, worse yet, pursued some nancy-boy jazz training. Bogert remains underrated and a true spectacle to watch, beginning his four-string rumble with a low-tuned growl that sounds like a pack of rabid ridgebacks. Then he flies into a thrashy, blistering display of talent that soars and dives like some demented bird of prey.

Howlin' Wolf's Evil

Cactus V
The Cactus version of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Evil” remains the definitive version of the classic stalker (save for the master’s original, natch). On Cactus Live, the band takes the song on a breathtaking high-speed run on a Hellbound train with a performance that is as sweet as a voodoo queen’s kiss and as surprisingly powerful as a dynamite suppository. The song leads into the obligatory ‘70s-style drum solo, and Carmine Appice does not disappoint those who enjoy this sort of percussive excess. Appice is anything but a subtle drummer, and any technical superiority that he once possessed has long since fled for higher ground. The collateral damage that he heaps upon his kit is entirely appropriate for the band’s ballistic approach to the blooze-rock idiom, however.

“Cactus Boogie,” another new tune from Cactus V, sinks deeper into the booger-rock mire, a veritable tar pit of big riffage and bigger rhythms. These guys come by the boogie honestly, attending the J.L. Hooker School of Architecture, and with this rambler they erect the kind of funky free-for-all that went out of fashion with the birth of punk, but never fell out of favor with the stoners, heshers and other low-hanging fruit of music fandom (including this humble scribe). There really ain’t much to the song, and little thought went into the lyrical poetry, but the song stomps-and-stammers along anyway, howling like the enraged beast that it is.

Another landmark from the band’s distant past, “Parchman Farm,” although credited to blues/jazz giant Mose Allison, is really a story older than the dirt of the Mississippi Delta. A scorched-earth, fire-and-brimstone, guitar-driven rocker, the moans and wails of McCarty’s six-string work echo the misery of the prison’s occupants, the infamous work farm itself the inspiration for a score of blues tunes. Randy Pratt’s harp choogles along like a freight train, while an extended jam be-tween Mac and Bogie steam and char the paint from B.B. King’s walls. Cactus Live closes with a notable encore, another Cactus trademark tune, “Rock N Roll Children,” a funky rhythmic orgy of mud wrestling with an undeniable boogie-beat and Kune’s best strangled gutter-tramp vocals.

Psychedelic Blues and Soul-Drenched Booger-Rock

While the band’s performance is solid and, at times, spectacular on Cactus Live, from a technical perspective the film gets a solid ‘B’ from this critic, a moderate thumb’s up with a few issues. The camera work is excellent overall, the multiple-cam rig capturing several good angles. With the exception of Kune’s mug being washed out with bright white light a time or two often, the lighting is usually pretty good, and the picture is often crystal clear. Although the live sound is quite listenable, a notch, perhaps, below studio-CD quality, spoken word segments are out-of-sync at times, resulting in an unnerving kung-fu flick sensation. The editing is razor-sharp, though, including both full and widescreen shots, as well as some uber-cool slo-mo time-capture segments and groovy split-screen effects that showcase the individual band members.

To fully understand the lasting appeal of Cactus, one has to look back at the breeding ground that spawned such a Frankenstein hybrid of psychedelic blues and soul-drenched booger-rock. If Bogert and Appice were the heart of the band’s sound, Day and McCarty were the band’s soul. Together, the foursome broke out of the boiling cauldron that was the old, industrial Detroit – after the riots, but before the Motor City’s fall from grace and rapid descent into darkness. This was back when bands like the Stooges, the MC5, SRC, Third Power, the Amboy Dukes, and others roamed the city streets, rewriting the rock ‘n’ roll rule book with a sound as strong and deadly as the factory killing floor.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

If nostalgia for the era is largely what drives the growing popularity of ‘70s-era bands, one can’t fault Cactus for trying to recapture their former infamy. It doesn’t hurt that the performances on Cactus Live raise a joyful noise in an entirely appropriate, noisy Motor City way; not for nothing does Jimmy Kune wear a Creem magazine t-shirt through the show. Spiritually and sonically, the new Cactus shares common ground with its predecessor. Life doesn’t always take us where we expect to go, and it’s unlikely that McCarty, Bogert and Appice expected to be playing old Cactus tunes 30+ years after the band’s flame-out. But as my dear old departed Grandpa used to say, “that’s some real poop-punting music!” Boy howdy! (Music Video Distributors, released December 11, 2007)

Buy the DVD from Cactus’ Cactus Live 

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