Friday, February 26, 2021

CD Review: Crack the Sky's Tribes (2021)

Crack the Sky, photo by Rei Perri

Crack the Sky are rock ‘n’ roll lifers; formed in Weirton, West Virginia in the early ‘70s by John Palumbo (vocals, keyboards) and Rick Witkowski (guitar, vocals), the band’s original line-up included guitarist Jim Griffiths, bassist Joe Macre, and drummer Joey D’Amico. The band released its self-titled debut album in 1975, the first LP released by songwriter/producer Terry Cashman’s independent Lifesong Records label. Crack the Sky received near-unanimous critical acclaim for its heady prog-rock sound, and was even proclaimed the “debut album of the year” by Rolling Stone magazine. In a pattern that would be all too familiar over the course of their lengthy career, distribution problems and promotional shortfalls prevented the album from really taking off.

The band released its sophomore effort, Animal Notes, a year later and ran into the same brick wall of widespread critical acclaim and commercial indifference. They toured heavily, opening for major league headliners like Kansas, Boston, Supertramp, and Yes, but received little or no radio airplay (even from ‘sympathetic’ FM stations) and, when their commercial fortunes failed to improve, Palumbo left the band to pursue a solo career. Recruiting singer Gary Lee Chappell, and with producer Rob Stevens subbing on keyboards, CTS released its third album, Safety In Numbers, in 1978. When it, too, underperformed the band decided to break up; Lifesong would release a live album later that year. Palumbo and Witkowski reunited in 1980 for the album White Music, and Crack the Sky has been performing and recording in one form or another ever since.   

Crack the Sky’s Tribes

Crack the Sky got some positive press with the release of its 2018 studio effort Living In Reverse, the band doubling up a few months later with the compilation Crackology, which featured new recordings of old fan-favorite songs. Flash-forward a couple of years to the plague-ridden days of 2021 and CTS lives up to its name with the devastating Tribes, an album which sunders the heavens with sonic lightning bolts. I’ve always considered Crack the Sky to be more of a hard rock outfit with prog-rock tendencies, and it shows in the grooves of Tribes, with Witkowski leading a thunderclap band that includes original Skyster Joe D’Amico on drums as well as bassist Dave DeMarco, multi-instrumentalist Bobby Hird, and keyboardist Glenn Workman, the latter two men both 20-year CTS veterans. Together, they create a muscular musical canvas upon which Palumbo paints his colorful lyrics.

As a songwriter, Palumbo has always had a keen eye for his surroundings, but Tribes focuses that skill on America circa now, the album-opening title track the most succinct recap of where our society currently stands as you’ll ever hear. Above dark-hued instrumentation that settles into a menacing, slinky groove, Palumbo reveals the depth of divisiveness in our world with lyrics that are anything but reassuring. Palumbo’s vocals dance atop the lush soundtrack like a dervish on a pinhead, reinforcing the power of his words. D’Amico’s martial drumbeats open “Another Civil War,” Palumbo’s eerie vocals foreshadowing a dark future for the last American century as the band’s hybrid of pysch, prog, and goth sounds creates an intoxicating listening experience. The third of what is really a trilogy, “Dear Leaders” addresses the lack of empathy and anything even marginally resembling political courage in the U.S. in near-Biblical terms, the singer’s insightful lyrics matched by a gale-force storm of overwhelming instrumentation.

Palumbo resurrects an old song from his solo days for Tribes, “Blowing Up Detroit” masterfully capturing chaos in a bottle as the band rocks ferociously behind his vocals, the slashing guitars particularly stunning. Much of Tribes follows a similar blueprint to these first four, with Palumbo’s erudite, intelligent lyrics matched by snarling instrumentation that bares its fangs at every opportunity. Palumbo tosses off lines that lesser writers would kill for – “Turn on the TV and I feel like screaming, I close my eyes and hope I’m dreaming” or “I’m a stranger in a strange land, I tried to fit in a long time ago, and now it’s clear I don’t want to do that.” The songwriter waxes nostalgic for “Boom Boom” in a way that Springsteen forgot decades ago, the band strutting across the song like Godzilla stomping on Tokyo while “The Lost Boys” wonderfully captures the lingering alienation of the aging man-child with exotic rhythms that underline the agelessness of the theme.      

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Palumbo, Witkowski, and crew are extraordinarily talented musicians who, together, create a joyful noise, playing every bit as well as they did 45 years ago. Witkowski and Hird, in particular, are skilled and imaginative string-benders who play in service to the material without ego or showboating, but every member of CTS gets a chance to shine here. This isn’t ‘commercial’ music by any stretch of the imagination, but rather timeless incantations of rock ‘n’ roll that, the seeming topicality of the lyrics aside, sounds like it could have been recorded in 1975 or 2025, and it’s equally at home in either year. Old-school CTS fans will be overjoyed with Tribes, but any prog or classic rock fan will find a lot to like here. Grade: A (Carry On Music, released January 15th, 2021)

Buy the CD or LP from Crack the Sky’s Tribes

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Stuff I Like: Too Much Joy’s “Uncle Watson Wants To Think”

It would be an understatement to say that I’m overjoyed that one of my fave bands from the college rock era – the quirky, intelligent, indefatigable Too Much Joy – is returning in March with their first album in nearly a quarter-century. From indie rock records like 1987’s Green Eggs and Crack and the following year’s Son of Sam I Am (which includes the mirthful, insightful, classic tune “Clowns”) through their too-brief major label years, which yielded underachieving and overlooked albums like 1991’s Cereal Killers, 1992’s Mutiny, and the criminally-ignored …finally (1996), Too Much Joy never failed to deliver an entertaining musical experience. My long-lost interview with TMJ frontman Tim Quirk remains one of my favorite conversations with an artist but, since it was never published, I have no idea what we talked about…

Currently comprised of original band members Tim Quirk (vocals), Jay Blumenfield (guitar, vocals), Sandy Smallens (bass, vocals) and Tommy Vinton (drums) along with long-time member William Wittman (guitar, keyboards, vocals), Too Much Joy comes roaring back on March 19th, 2021 with Mistakes Were Made, and the band has released its first single from the album with an accompanying video. Needless to say, it sounds like they never left, with “Uncle Watson Wants To Think” displaying the same sort of bruised, wistful lyrics as their best songs along with an edgy pop-punk-drenched rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack…think of Weezer, but smarter and with balls. Of the song, the band writes that it “began life when critic/professor Gina Arnold shared a list of unused Raymond Chandler titles on Facebook and suggested her friends kill some pandemic lockdown time by writing stories to match.”

“Tim was struck by the title ‘Uncle Watson Wants to Think’, and asked if he could contribute a lyric, instead. He wrote the words quickly, while swimming laps in a swimming pool near his house: ‘I just saw Uncle Watson collapsed on a couch, and a little kid trying to sneak past him without disturbing the guy. The whole thing pretty much sprang to life fully formed, which is rare, for me. I could tell the guy was kind of a jerk, but I never like it when songs spend all their energy ridiculing someone else, so I tried to figure out what made him so sad and mean. Turns out Uncle Watson probably had his own Uncle Watson. Jay, Bill and Sandy worked up an appropriately melancholy arrangement for the tune, then Bill asked his pal Joan Osborrne to contribute some lady vocals to the mix, as we really needed to hear from the mother who brought this man into the house.’”

The video features singer/songwriter Joan Osborne on guest vocals and was directed and edited by Keegan Denery of 1596 Films. Says the band, “Jay had the idea for the video, which was assembled by young genius Keegan Denery after experimenting for several hundred hours with dozens of different images suggested by the band. Some looked uncannily real when they mouthed the song’s words, others were frightening failures. After a lot of trial and error, Keegan combined all the ones that worked into a seamless whole. Many of the characters are easter eggs for diehard Too Much Joy fans, based on old lyrics or PR mishaps.”

In the liner notes to the new album, the band writes “we weren’t really planning on making another record; this album only exists because 2020 sucked so goddamn much. Our humble hope is that, since it now exists, it can make whatever year you’re listening to it suck a little bit less.” Check out the video below and then get on over to Bandcamp to pre-order the brand-spankin’ new Too Much Joy album Mistakes Were Made. Tell ‘em that the Rev sent ya!

Buy the new CD: Too Much Joy’s Mistakes Were Made

Too Much Joy, circa 2021

Friday, February 19, 2021

Archive Review: Marianne Faithful's Kissin' Time (2002)

Marianne Faithful's Kissin' Time
Best known for her association with Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones and for a string of lightweight pop hits during the ‘60s, Marianne Faithful has nevertheless forged one of the most enduring and unique legacies in music history. Although drugs derailed her career for much of the ‘70s, Faithful’s 1979 comeback album, Broken English, signaled the rebirth of her creative efforts and led to successful collaborations with producers such as Hal Willner and Daniel Lanois. Kissin Time is the latest chapter in Faithful’s storied life, a contemporary pairing of her incredible lyrical vision with the musical talents of folks like Beck, Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins, and Dave Stewart of Eurythmics.

Faithful’s voice is rough-hewn and raw, easily an octave lower than heard on the lofty pop confections she recorded in the ‘60s. As gritty as Faithful’s voice has become, it is also a magnificent instrument, beautifully flawed and perfectly appropriate for her lyrical flights of fancy. There are several moments of pure enchantment to be found on Kissin Time, “Song For Nico,” for instance, offering a heartfelt tribute to a fellow chanteuse, revisiting memories of a time long past. Corgan’s production of “I’m On Fire” is priceless, subtle with shimmering instrumentation almost burying Faithful’s tortured vocals, her lyrics portraying an immense longing for love.

Kissin Time closes with a joyful reading of the Goffin/King gem “I’m Into Something Good.” Producer Corgan pushes Faithful into delivering the sort of pop tune she might have sung thirty years ago and Faithful responds by filling her performance with youth and vigor undaunted by age albeit informed by hard won experience. Beautiful and profane, intelligent and brutally honest, Marianne Faithful has taken the measure of her life and created in Kissin Time a complex, timeless work for the ages. (Virgin Records, released 2002)

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

Friday, February 12, 2021

Classic Rock Review: Leon Russell's Carney (1972)

Leon Russell's Carney
Rock ‘n’ roll legend Leon Russell began his career as an in-demand session musician, playing on albums by artists like Jan & Dean, the Beach Boys, and Dick Dale as part of the Wrecking Crew conglomerate of L.A. studio professionals. After recording a pair of albums with guitarist Marc Benno as Asylum Choir, Russell put in time on the road with Delaney & Bonnie and Friends (where he met George Harrison and Eric Clapton) and, following Joe Cocker’s Top 20 chart success with Russell’s song “Delta Lady,” as the musical director for Cocker’s 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour.

Somewhere in between all this activity, Russell found the time to record his self-titled 1970 solo debut which, although peaking at #60 on the Billboard album chart, would yield one of the songwriter’s most enduring compositions in “A Song For You.” Recorded through the years by artists as diverse as the Carpenters, Ray Charles, Cher, Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin, and the Temptations, among a couple hundred others, “A Song For You” would be inducted into the Grammy™ Hall of Fame in 2018. Russell would follow up his debut a year later with the Top 20 charting LP Leon Russell & the Shelter People, which featured both original songs and covers of tunes by George Harrison and Bob Dylan. Carney, Russell’s third album, was released in June 1972 to much anticipation from the artist’s growing fan base.

The album did not disappoint, the original slate of songs displaying Russell’s trademark quirkiness and musically adventuresome spirit. Nowhere is Russell’s free spirit more apparent than on the delightful “Tight Rope,” the album’s hit single (#11) and an unlikely radio hit that featured syncopated rhythms, staggered vocals, and a minimalist soundtrack on what is a metaphor for life lived in the spotlight. “Out In the Woods” offers up a swamp-blues vibe with double-tracked Russell vocals (effectively singing parallel to himself) and an overall rootsy vibe while “Cajun Love Song” moves out of the bayou and onto Bourbon Street with an infectious melody and mesmerizing vocal patois. “Roller Derby” offers a similar up-tempo New Orleans R&B sound with soulful vocals, honky-tonk piano, and breathless backing vocals.

Many critics, both at the time and more recently in reappraising Carney, have dismissed the second side of the album as too psychedelically-influenced which, honestly, would have been terribly out-of-date by ’72. Other than the second-side-opening, instrumental flight-of-fancy that is the title track, or maybe the meandering and pointless “Acid Annapolis,” much of side two of Carney is just as finely-crafted and imaginative as the flip side. “If the Shoe Fits” is a rollicking, mid-tempo romp with plenty of rowdy juke-joint piano-pounding while “This Masquerade,” which would become a Top 10 chart hit a few years later when recorded by jazz guitarist George Benson, is an ambient jazz-soul ballad with crooned lyrics and elegant fretwork. Album closer “Magic Mirror” is a blue-hued ballad with muted keyboards and haunted vocals.

Carney would become Russell’s most commercially-successful album, peaking at #2 on the Billboard album chart on its way to Gold™ Record status for better than a half-million hubcaps sold. Russell would continue to enjoy sporadic success through the years with albums like 1974’s Stop All That Jazz and the following year’s Will O’ the Wisp; several albums of country music recorded under his ‘Hank Wilson’ alter-ego; and collaborations with artists like Willie Nelson and Elton John. Russell’s eclectic musical tastes, along with his unbridled imagination and ability to span genres from rock, blues, and folk to country, R&B, and Gospel made the singer/songwriter one of the classic rock era’s most original and intriguing talents. (Shelter Records, 1972)

Also on That Devil Music: The Asylum Choir’s Look Inside the Asylum Choir review

Buy the CD from Leon Russell’s Carney

Classic Rock Review: The Asylum Choir's Look Inside the Asylum Choir (1968)

Long before he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Leon Russell began his career as a well-respected session musician. Moving to L.A. from Oklahoma in the late 1950s, Russell worked his way up the ranks of studio professionals, his natural ability to cross genres like rock ‘n’ roll, blues, country, and gospel leading to a chair with the legendary Wrecking Crew, where he brought his talents to records throughout the 1960s by such disparate artists as the Byrds, Jan & Dean, Ray Charles, Gary Lewis & the Playboys, the Beach Boys, and Glen Campbell, among many others. Russell would later hook up with guitarist Marc Benno, a fellow studio pro, as part of the two-man band the Asylum Choir, which released its debut album, Look Inside the Asylum Choir, in 1968.

It was an auspicious, if tentative debut for the future rock ‘n’ roll legend, with the two musicians sharing production duties and tag-teaming the instrumentation and songwriting on a set that blended psychedelic rock (only then becoming passé) with scraps of pop, blues, soul, and whatever else they could mix in the bowl. With Russell handling vocals, piano, guitar, and drums and Benno adding guitar, bass, and vocals, the pair delivered a fine, if overlooked album which displays their musical curiosity while still flirting with a (barely) commercial sound. As such, you get songs like the Sgt. Pepper’s-era Beatles (“Icicle Star Tree”), Big Band-styled psych-soul (“Death of the Flowers”), noirish exotica (“Episode Containing 3 Songs”), or frenetic ragtime (“Black Sheep Boogaloo”), all carefully-crafted and sporting a glossy studio sheen.

Look Inside the Asylum Choir refused to find an audience in spite of the album’s widespread critical acclaim, which didn’t deter Russell and Benno from taking another shot a year later. They called in some friends to help record Asylum Choir II, including talented guitarist Jesse Ed Davis and bassist Carl Radle. Scheduled for 1969 release by Russell’s own Shelter Records label, legal problems delayed Asylum Choir II until 1971, by which time Russell had begun to establish himself as a solo star, helping push the album to #70 on the Billboard chart. Russell hopscotched through Delaney & Bonnie & Friends on his way to a role as bandleader for Joe Cocker’s momentous 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour and then onto a modestly-successful solo career.

Benno didn’t do too shabby for himself either, establishing himself as a blues-rock solo artist and songwriter with better than a dozen studio LPs to his credit. Benno continued to dabble in session work as well, contributing guitar tracks to the Doors L.A. Woman album and recording with artists like Rita Coolidge, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. (Smash Records, 1968)

Friday, February 5, 2021

Archive Review: Bad Religion's All Ages (1995)

Bad Religion's All Ages
Contrary to the belief of many scribes, the recent punk rock revival hasn’t occurred overnight. Mainstream critics have all but ignored the punk underground, perhaps thinking that it would go away if they just wouldn’t write about it. The kids knew all along what time it was, jamming local all ages shows at clubs across the country to see bands like 7 Seconds, NoFX, Operation Ivy and, the grandpappy of them all, Bad Religion.

Formed during the early ‘80s American hardcore punk revolution, Bad Religion rapidly became SoCal faves with the release of their uncompromising debut, How Could Hell Be Any Worse? As the hardcore movement began to lose steam come mid-decade, mutating into a dozen varied musical forms, the band split into separate factions and stayed out of the game for almost four years. In 1988, the original five members of Bad Religion reunited to release the ground-breaking Suffer, and a revitalized punk scene was born that would carry over to the present day.

Over the next few years, Bad Religion would rewrite the book on punk rock. The band had developed a driving, furious rock style that combined the attitude and energy of punk with musical elements drawn from almost 40 years of rock ‘n’ roll. Intelligent lyrics, often espousing a certain socially-conscious world view, were contributed by vocalist Greg Graffin and guitarist Brett Gurewitz. Released through Gurewitz’s Epitaph Records label, albums like No Control, Against the Grain, and Generator captured the hearts and imaginations of young fans, each selling upwards of a hundred thousand copies – unheard of, at that time, for a punk band on an indie label.

All Ages culls material from the aforementioned late ‘80s/early ‘90s releases, as well as a pair of previously unreleased live cuts and a taste from their 1981 debut, “We’re Only Gonna Die.” All Ages is a significant overview of the band’s work during this important time period, presenting the band’s talents through cuts like “You Are (The Government),” “No Control,” “Fuck Armageddon...This Is Hell” and “21st Century Digital Boy.” Twenty-two cuts in all are included, each one going a long way towards explaining the band’s popularity and influence. This stuff is whip smart punk rock: no frills, cranked out fast and furious with style and intelligence.

Covering as it does, Bad Religion’s 1988-1994 pre-Atlantic label years, All Ages serves as an excellent document of the band’s achievements to this point, showcasing a considerable musical growth and their maturity into one of rock’s best bands. Along with the previously-released, self-explanatory 80-85, the appropriately-titled All Ages is an excellent compilation for fans of the band as well as an important touchstone in the band’s career. With the major-label release of Recipe For Hate, Bad Religion began writing the next chapter in their story, and only time will tell the story. (Epitaph Records, released 1995)

Review originally published by R.A.D! zine, 1995

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