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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