Friday, February 2, 2018

Music Review: Al Kryszak, 'Soft Clowns of the Sea'

A free-form guitar is prominent among the traditional and progressive orchestral arrangements, soft messaged ballads, instrumental quiet time, and underwater think-tank oddities in Al Kryszak's new solo effort, Soft Clowns of The Sea.

The music sounds very much like the abandoned wood planks, moss covered stone, and occasional human artifact one might find looking at the bottom of a clear shallow lake. Even the swirling dead-key vocal arrangements sounds like the voices of drowned people, like the hapless harmonious chorus from an old Jefferson Airplane song.

"Catch Me Sleeping" has such a chorus. A funky pop beat gives way to nearly indecipherable murmuring vocals in which Kryszak sings "You won't catch me sleeping alone", while the helpless background vocals join him as if captured with him in an assured whirlpool. It's a soothing, George Harrison All Things Must Pass effect.

In contrast to those choppy waters, "Sun In My Eyes" is a stark and simple vocal arrangement with an insufferable sun bearing down on motionless waters. Tones of eastern global music, and Euro-minstrel mandolin spinning off the guitar strings gives it an otherworldly, quietly bizarre sound. 

While the album is big and heavy on downbeat, Kryszak's guitar sometimes is the only positive major key instrument speaking in contrast to the general minor key chords he prefers. The guitar flirts, antagonizes and soothes the music, as busy and constant as a dragonfly over water. Its jazzy, free-form style has an assured blues sound that complements well the gentle musical waves lapping against the shore.

The music drifts, sometimes for long periods, into a jazz/folk fusion of quiet meditative music sparked by Kryszak's splendid finger picking. His electric playing is as fine. "Hold Them All" offers a fiery, siren-like jam on guitar that pierces the song's stony rock-blues platform like a Russian meteor shower.

This is a big, ambitious album with several musical themes working, and I'm unsure if it all equals a cohesive whole. It doesn't matter. It's thought provoking and the music is always engaging. A profound theme lies somewhere in these mysterious waters.

Yet, reasoning will not prepare you for the rock and roll assault featuring Mike Brydalski on drums towards the end of the album which adds a final touch of strangeness. It's a regrouping of all the album's musical components burnt to a crust of primal rock. It is a wonderful burst of sound.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Music Review, Brent Best "Your Dog Champ"

Brent Best, lead player of on-again, off-again alt-country rock band Slobberbone, has released his first solo album, Your Dog, Champ. The rowdy, raucous, Texas roots humor of his band is greatly subdued on this effort, resulting in a low-key, sweet country sound that celebrates the cycle of life and death from a child’s perspective, with just a touch of adult cynicism.

The 11 tracks can be heard as a suite of songs that collectively conjure a paradox of Americana culture with songs bursting in rural Texas charm, even as a sack of newborn kittens are being drowned in the pond. Back porch camaraderie, cigarettes and beer, and dusty dirt and steaming blacktop roads are intertwined with references to absent and violent fathers, single-parent mothers, and lives unfulfilled.

The childhood perception of death is delicately examined in “Aunt Ramona”, a song of an Oklahoma-to-Texas family road trip in which the title subject possesses “the smell of perfume and sweet ammonia” as she quietly passes away in the back seat. “None of us could wake her, daddy said that was fine”, the child recalls as Best’s organ flirts with a sad lullaby, and gentle acoustics seem resigned to the realization that death is as peaceful and ordinary as an afternoon nap.

“Robert Cole” also reveals a child’s interpretation of tragedy, and the shaping of identity, as domestic abuse – slamming doors, enraged voices, and a cowering woman – is remembered wistfully and painfully and set against a lofty and mournful ballad in which the narrator dares to take solace on the blacktop road “where I was not to walk ’till I was old.”

Songs like “Daddy Was a Liar”, where daddy at the pond has “a bag of kittens and a brick”, and “Good Man Now”, where it is told, “The only good man is a dead man/Daddy is a good man now”, put a positive spin on the nastiest of scenarios while stressing the cardiac ache in “heart-achy”. This is gritty stuff and Best breezes through it with a naturalistic poetic flare. It is, at times, downright touching.

The country musicians backing up Best, particularly on fiddle (Ralph White), violin (Petra Kelly), and pedal steel guitar (Burton Lee), are a tidy group of players who masterfully accentuate Best’s narration like polished journeymen and can pick up the tempo when need be. “Tangled”, with its American Indian vibe, tethers on a jangle of steel guitar, and the sumptuous instrumental “Travel, Again” whips up dust and tumbleweeds like a tornado rolling across the Texas prairie.

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Movie Review: "Lambert and Stamp", The Story of The Who's Early Managers

Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp are not names that ring familiar in the annals of rock and roll history, let alone as subjects of a full-length, Sundance-debuted documentary Lambert and Stamp. The pair were the unlikely business mangers of the rock phenomena known as The Who, and this movie, directed by James D. Cooper, is the story of their brief and ingenious tenure as pathfinders to what would become one of the hottest bands on the planet.

As aspiring filmmakers at England’s famed Shepperton Film Studios (which The Who later purchased) in the early 1960s, Lambert and Stamp concocted a plan to create a movie about the burgeoning London mod youth subculture of music, sex, drugs, motor bikes and plaid dress suits, by filming a representative teenage rock ‘n roll band. Although they had specifics in mind (being like The Beatles would help tremendously) the two were prepared to sign nearly any rock band to a contract.

With no knowledge of how to manage a rock band, and little cash to support their enterprising ambition, the two, with film cameras in tow, stepped into a shabby London dive club, The Railway Hotel (since demolished) and crudely filmed their first meeting with the club’s house band, The Who – Roger Daltrey, Peter Townsend, John Entwhistle, and Keith Moon – known then as The High Numbers. On lovingly restored, grainy 16 mm black and white film, and with mod teenagers dancing in what looked like a collective glue sniffing trance, The Who are filmed agreeing to the novice business manager’s offers of support, guidance, and promised cash. The rest is Who history.

That Lambert and Stamp filmed and preserved so much historic footage may be reason enough for this patchy documentary’s existence. Lambert’s movie camera reveals a gritty and greasy, street level, mid-century British subculture of rebelling mods and rockers, as eye-popping montages – Jimi Hendrix is seen clubbing in quiet, common revelry – pass by as if unheralded (the duo would later manage and produce Hendrix).

While these images are intriguing and nostalgia soaked in the first half of the documentary, they grow a wee tiresome as the film rolls on. The movie’s main subjects – Lambert and Stamp – are less exciting than the momentous figures around them – namely The Who. The narrative arch is shallower than it might be had this simply been a documentary of The Who.

Kit Lambert, son of noted British composer Constant Lambert, and Chris Stamp, brother of actor Terrance Stamp (both Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp are now deceased) are nearly incidental characters who serve as mere rungs on the ladder of The Who’s impeding superstardom. The duo are just short of fascinating and this documentary is elusive in defining just what their contribution to rock and roll history is – were they pioneering visionaries or manipulative opportunists?

Surviving Who members Roger Daltrey and Peter Townsend speak glowingly throughout the film about them and claim them to be instrumental to The Who’s survival and success. Still, a slow burn emerges as they recount Lambert’s attempt to peddle Townsend’s rock opera “Tommy” to Hollywood film studios without the band’s permission after the album’s phenomenal success. This brought an end to the relationship between The Who and Lambert & Stamp.

There is so much never seen before film footage here, it is no question that Lambert and Stamp’s archive of moving images begged to be put in perspective. Watching a young Peter Townsend debut an acoustic and virgin “Glittering Girl” to the duo is a priceless rock ‘n roll moment. Witnessing the late and somewhat tragic Keith Moom as a young, enthusiastic and playful drummer is part sad and part joyful.

Yet an all encompassing history of The Who during this era is what this archive of film really amounts to. The weird point of view that is Lambert & Stamp, although enticing enough to send me to Wikipedia for further innuendo, seems an incomplete afterthought, as if their history has not been fully disclosed.

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Music Review: Giant Sand "Heartbreak Pass"

Maybe Giant Sand’s new album Heartbreak Pass is inspired by a genuine middle-age heart attack. Founder and only constant band member Howe Gelb sings about everyday existence as if coming from a life renewing, post-traumatic point of view.
But as most middle-agers experiencing an eye-opening realization of mortality can attest, living life with profound respect grows tiresome. Eventually the grind of living anchors itself back into place and the mortal clock is again damned and ignored. In Heartbreak Pass, there seems to be children, grandchildren, wives, and ex-wives to contend with.
Giant SandGelb wants to stop and smell the roses, or as in the case here, contemplate the flickering wick of a gypsy candle (on “Gypsy Candle”), but familial and financial responsibilities rob him of his selfish perspective. While singing a revelatory appreciation for the mundane, he eyes a peaceful and secure future of sunsets, rocking chairs, and children playing on the lawn. “When this day is done…” he lazily and melodically repeats on the same titled track, as if having all the time in the world to soak up a Burt Bacharach-styled easy listening afternoon, a sound this album often reflects.
The band – Gelb and a revolving door of players over the years – celebrates its 30th anniversary with Heartbreak, and except for the Euro synth and London fog-inducing sound of “Transponder” (lavishly produced by Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle), it sounds like a Howe Gelb solo album. The songs are strictly singer-songwriter style, and any additional musicianship – solo trumpet, lead guitar, etc. – sounds distant and alienated, like from another recording session.

Giant Sand’s aging sun is best captured in “Texting Feist,” in which Gelb surrenders the studied observation that “The days become a Leonard Cohen medley.” Indeed, Cohen’s breezy soft acoustics and low-key vocal musings are an inspiration here, as is the lounge piano tinkering of Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner.
Gelb has stripped away the cluttering pop music adornments normally found in Giant Sand’s music, and has left lovely bare bones. “Gypsy Candle” and “Pen to Paper”, vocal duets with Lorna Beth Kelley, are particularly stark and minimal, as if contemplating a long and languid day’s journey into night.
And yet as sweet and solemn as this all is, I’d prefer he’d gone more in the direction of “Transponder,” in which he escapes his bursting-at-the-seams home life tranquility for a dutiful concert tour of Europe. Here, with layers of minor chord keyboards, sound effects, and stoner observations (“Across the pond you’re a transponder”), he ignites the flame that keep the home embers, however dull and domestic, burning.

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Sunday, January 4, 2015

Music Review: Robyn Hitchcock 'The Man Upstairs'

British rock and roll troubadour Robyn Hitchcock's 2014 album The Man Upstairs is a mellow affair, heavy on the light acoustics and indebted to Americana folk music. It offers five new  Hitchcock compositions and five covers of songs by The Psychedelic Furs, Roxy Music, Grant-Lee Phillips, The Doors, and Norwegian indie-rock band I Was A King.

Listening to it, I'm reminded of Jonathan Demme's 1998 documentary concert film, Storefront Hitchcock, in which the Silence Of The Lambs movie director filmed the Soft Boys alumni and celebrated solo artist playing live to a small audience inside an abandoned New York City storefront. As he played, city passersby on the street stopped at the plate glass window backdrop behind the stage, cupped their hands against the glass, marveled over the strange lights and sound, and wondered what the hell is going on in there.

Here, from the comfort of your own listening space, you can still wonder what the hell is going on inside Hitchcock. The veteran songwriter, who shot to minor American fame in the 1980s with his band The Egyptians, creates songs that aren't easily categorized, fusing elements of Syd Barrett's cosmic imagery, Bob Dylan's dusty folk narrative, and The Beatles psychedelic explorations. After listening to a Hitchcock piece, one might find himself in the deepest of thought, yet have little idea what that thought is, like a dream you struggle to remember.

The Man Upstairs is quiet and assured and spiked with a rock 'n roll edge. At 61 years of age, Hitchcock's voice is as rich and commanding as a hormonal teenager's, and his new compositions again battle for equilibrium between the oracular self and the cosmic powers that be. The purely Americana folk song Trouble In Your Blood cites the human condition to be "a well constructed shadow" while resigned acoustic strings and accompanying cello filter in like a foggy mountain breakdown pause for thought. "Comme Toujours" and "San Francisco Patrol" are both engaging quiet listens with a perfectly balanced arrangement of vocal, guitar and cello.

Grant-Lee Phillips' "Don't Look Down" is stark and haunting under Hitchcock's arrangement, even more so than the original's pastiche of dark colors. It sounds like a deadly balancing act on a high wire  with its foreboding refrain and lyrics that must have delighted Hitchcock's surreal comedic sense - "Buster Keaton and I danced out on the window sill/Ten stories high".

Some of the covers are a bit ordinary. There are no great turns to The Furs' "The Ghost In You" or Jim Morrison's "The Crystal Ship", although Hitchcock's interpretations, more revering than explorative,  fits well in the album's introspective tone. Only once does he break out and rock, on the bluesy thumping new song "Somebody To Break Your Heart", which adds a harmonica to the acoustic mix.

Folk artist Gillian Welch is responsible for the album's cool cover art.

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Saturday, January 3, 2015

Music Review - Royksopp - 'The Inevitable End'

Bobby Vinton's recording of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Blue On Blue" was an inspiration on Royksopp's 2001 debut album Melody A.M. The song's ghostly refrain sounded like a trapped and homeless melody hurdling through the cosmos destined for future generations to discover and ponder. There are more pop music archaeological digs on their fifth and amicably announced final album, The Inevitable End, although nothing as memorable as Bobby Vinton drifting through the galaxies.

The album continues Royksopp's retroactive electronic rock, shaped with dark energy of wasted matter made musical, and a hungry dedication to the beat boxes and synthesized keyboards of 1980s synth-pop bands. The Norwegian duo - Svein Berge and Torbjorn Brundtland - have put a significant dent in global music sales over the years, helped no doubt by the corporate use of Royksopp's music in major TV advertising - T. Mobile in the U.K., Geico in the U.S. While their Euro-rhythm melodies suit the slick commercials well, their songs are more often terminally dark and caustic, equal parts lovesick and suicidal.

On the chorale-like "You Know I Have To Go", Royksopp's somber testimony is as resigned as the last message in a bottle from a drowning man. The constant thump of a clinical heartbeat and the subtle sound of a lazy wave breaking at shore add mournful drama to the mix. Picture 10cc's "I'm Not In Love" gripped with a shiny, taunting razor blade.

"I Had This Thing" follows the same formula with layers of electronic keyboards threatening to evolve into the sound of Catholic mass before it breaks into an upbeat techno dance number, even while the lyrics anchor the song in contemplative desperation - "I don't remember anymore what I used to be, there was a fire burning inside of me".

This sad but danceable music is given a shot of sunshine with remedial tracks featuring Norwegian singer/songwriter Susanne Sundfor on lead vocals. "Save Me" and "Running To The Sea" have a radio-ready Madonna-like glitter ball pizzazz, the former sounding like Blondie after the tide has gone out again, the latter reaching symphonic grandness like Kate Bush pursuing a mountain summit.

If there is an issue with Royksopp's bon voyage, it is the repetition of song structures and a few throwaway tracks.  "You Know I Have To Go" and "I Had This Thing" are virtually interchangeable. "Coup de Grace" is a remarkably uninspired short instrumental and "Ronk" seems only to give the album its parental advisory sticker with the repeated use of mankind's favorite four-letter word.

The adventurous musical virtues far outweigh the wasted space though, and when you're not contemplating ending it all, you can dance to it. The CD issue comes with a second CD of added tracks.

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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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