Monday, December 22, 2014

Music Review: Matt Turk - 'Cold Revival'

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, December 21, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Music Review: Yes - 'Heaven & Earth'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, June 14, 2014

Music Review: Brian Jonestown Massacre - 'Revelation'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Music Review: Swans - 'To Be Kind'

Is that a melody? The new Swans album is packed with leader Michael Gira's trademark loud art rock - lengthy guitar slams and atmospheric droning passages in a no-wave political music one might meditate to while contemplating global domination. Add to the equation a sparkling melody and a shiny pop sheen.

There are downright catchy background vocals on the funk-minded "A Little God In My Hands". A trombone assault closes "Oxygen" like a Duke Ellington show-stopper, and there's guitar intros so rudimentary you could swear you're listening to Grand Funk Railroad strumming chords in search of a song structure. Swans have been infected with rhythm and melody, not to mention rock 'n roll.

It's a welcome change, a bright human element in Gira's bleak worldview where the godless militant sky squashes men like in an old Raid! commercial. Not that Swans have abandoned their metal shield of all things unnatural. The darkness is still visible in long guitar noise of complete chemical breakdown. Weird twisted tribal tongues still bark in the face of established religion. Moments of pure silence are shattered by a deafening assault on the ears. It's just that they've never sounded happier about total devastation.

On the 34-minutes long "Bring The Sun  / Toussaint L' Outerture", Gira sounds positively joyous singing a gripping infectious mantra above a cacophony of fierce guitar waves as if shouting "Ride 'em cowboy!" while straddling a nuclear missile.

In the David Lynch inspired collage "Just A Little Boy (For Chester Burnett)", he channels a cosmic hillbilly sporting a metal plate in his forehead while bleating "I'm just a little boy! I need love!". It's an eerie crawling music full of metallic tinkering and atmospheric hum interrupted by a mocking television laugh track. I envision a human harvesting operation in the Ozarks. The dedication to the great bluesman Burnett ("Howlin' Wolf") may be indicative of both Swans and Burnett employing pounding repetition in their music.

To Be Kind is a mammoth 2-disc recording (Special Edition has 3 discs) with over two hours of poetic, adventurous music. Swans have never sounded so accessible and yet so dark and mysterious. Largely funded by the Swans fan base, the album answers to no one but the delighted mesmerized listener.

Swans just started an extensive American and European tour.

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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Theatre Review: 'The Anastasia Trials in The Court of Women' by Carolyn Gage at Rust Belt Books (Buffalo, NY)

A tiny space in a back room at Rust Belt Books on Allen Street in Buffalo, NY, is the venue for The Brazen Faced Varlet's production of "The Anastasia Trials in The Court of Women" by Carolyn Gage. It is an informal stage to say the least. Just ask the late arrivals who stepped through a door and into the small theatre and found themselves center stage during performance. They promptly sat in chairs that were certainly part of the set design.  A cast member turned to them and rudely said, "you can't sit there - go sit over there", and pointed to the designated seating with all the authority of a traffic cop and without losing a beat of her monologue.

The Varlets, a feminist thespian troupe, were prepared and likely eager for any impromptu minor collision to occur in this reckless comedic tour de force, a play within a play, concerning the trials, both genuine and psychological, of The Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikulaevna,  the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.

Before you envision Ingrid Bergman offering longing haunted looks to a movie camera, know that this Anastasia is a traumatized veiled waif who screams wildly at the mere mention of her history and behaves as though she needs a miracle worker and not a lawyer. She is played by a member of the bickering cast-within-a-cast who are mounting a theatrical production about a courtroom trial in which Anastasia accuses five women of denying her a rightful identity.

The production is falling apart at the seams as the cast bickers over everything and backstage shenanigans ensue. Two top critics are rumored to be attending the night's performance debunking the theory expressed by several of the ensemble that "The patriarchal media never reviews women's theatre!". More theatrical clichés are decked out like vaudevillian vignettes. A young ingénue hopes to steal the spotlight from a seasoned thespian; the playwright adds a new character moments before the curtain rises and informs the cast that she herself will play the role; a stagehand with a phobia of acting is thrust onstage much against her will. It is a recipe for the broadest and possibly blandest of comedy.

Yet this comedy with all its silliness rests assuredly on the historical plight of equality for women and the very genuine sorrow of the raped and murdered Grand Duchess Anastasia and her pathetic imposter who was briefly the toast of the New York City elite in the 1920s. That this "Noises Off" farce could so seriously strike a humanitarian feminist vein in the midst of its outrageous comedy is a credit to its impassioned and energized cast and director, Lara D. Haberberger.

Diane McNamara playing Anastasia's aunt and closest surviving relative embodies the entire fallen Russian empire in gestures of regal hollowness that turn the stage deadly significant however briefly. She offers a surprisingly touching account of her niece's final days. Kelly M. Beuth playing a cussing bag lady friend of Anastasia is as animated as an adrenalin-charged cartoon character, and as wise as theatrical bag ladies will be. The entire cast performs well teetering between loud absurdist comedy and empowered feminist statement.

The audience plays judge and are asked at times to allow an attorney to proceed or be sustained, through the use of little stick women designating yes or no, handed out as the audience enters the theatre. It's a cute gimmick that adds a childlike touch to a strange night of theatre wherein the audience exits with the dubious and possibly schizophrenic understanding that we are all Anastasia, Grand Duchess to the Tsar of Russia.

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Monday, January 6, 2014

Music Review: Various Artists - 'Punk Goes Christmas'

This is not your father's anarchic punk Christmas..The punks in the new holiday compilation from Fearless Records, Punk Goes Christmas ,are a gentle lot content on cuddling warm embraces under the mistletoe and marveling over Santa's solid gold Cadillac. These punks are tame mainstream rockers with holiday songs more indebted to Brenda Lee than The Sex Pistols.

William Beckett's "Do You Hear What I Hear?" is so void of irony, so traditional, you might as well be listening to Catholic mass. Even Alvin and The Chipmunks probably have a more sparkling rendition of this holiday chestnut.

There are more familiar punk leanings on Man Overboard's snotty "Father Christmas" with a jagged garage guitar backing up a leftist sentiment of an unfair Santa who gives "all the toys to the little rich boys". The song is all about rolling Santa for his money and is about as radical as this music gets.

Issues' "Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays" (no shortage of uninspired song titles) is catchy radio fare with an aggressive metal vocal grunt merging with a squeaky clean pop vocal track. It's a delectable blend of Top 40 kiddie pop with just a sprinkle of holiday sentiment.

Set It Off's "This Christmas (I'll Burn It To The Ground)" sounds more Halloween than Christmas. It offers a traditional "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" morphing into a Gothic dripping Christmas rampage concerning a can of gasoline. Not only does Grandma get run over by a reindeer, she is  burned alive at the stake.

But mostly these are tame radio friendly songs your Grandmother might tap her foot along to. New Found Glory's "Nothing For Christmas" is an acoustic-strumming, folksy love song about wanting nothing for Christmas because "I got what I needed ... it's you".  The Summer Sets' "This Christmas" is a slick and danceable glitter ball of kiddie techno culture. That is as fine as Top 40 radio gets.

But is this punk? Absolutely not. But it is is a most agreeable grab bag of Christmas candy. These young punks still believe in Santa Claus.

this review was first published at