Oct 31, 2018

ROBERT REED - Sanctuary II (Tigermoth Productions TMR2CD0117, 2017)

Welsh musician, producer and composer Robert Reed is mostly known for this association with female fronted proggers Magenta (as well as the large-scale if somewhat forgotten Kompendium project from 2012 that boasted the contributions of Steve Hackett, Nick Beggs and Mel Collins amongst others), but he also issues solo releases, currently focusing on a set of primarily instrumental `Sanctuary' works, the second release under that banner we find here arriving two years after the striking 2014 debut. The first album was frequently influenced by Mike Oldfield's classic era of works (completely by Reed's own admissions, though!), and the artist again takes a multi-instrument approach for another grand two-part vinyl length suite of symphonic passages filtered with Celtic and folk flavours, alternating acoustic/electric sections and chanted world elements, all meticulously weaving together with a careful sense of purpose and flow.

In addition to embracing Mike Oldfield's approach (as well as utilizing drum and recorder contributions from former Oldfield collaborators Simon Phillips and Les Penning), there's a rich and wide variety of influences peppered throughout `Sanctuary II' that should be pointed out, so that this project is not merely dismissed as simply some hero-worshipping remake. Looking at some of the highlight moments, the welcoming magical keyboard fanfare alongside crashing percussion that opens the album almost instantly reminds of the more uplifting moments of Yes and in particular Rick Wakeman's grandiose earlier solo works. Warm hand claps and Reed's reaching Flower Kings and dramatic David Gilmour-like guitar strains weave between female- chorus worldly chanting vocals, twinkling pretty chimes and Angharad Brinn's sighing ethereal voice.

There's plenty of soothing and reflective classical elegance and spiralling folk arrangements with flamenco-like ravishing guitar runs, whimsical recorder, fancy accordion and prancing madrigal flute-lifted interludes, with a cool fusion of heavier guitar bite and Simon Phillips' pounding drumming surprisingly emerging in a few brief moments. A spirited folk whimsy dances through Steve Hackett-flavoured ruminative acoustic strums, and overall throughout the two-part set there's still plenty of epic guitar climaxes and joyous synth trills that instantly remind of Reed's own Magenta band. All of these elements together prove to be infectious on multiple repeated listens, and it's hard not to be charmed and won over by this frequently uplifting and joyous piece of music.

While the appearing themes are perhaps not quite as memorable as those found on the first album, and the large increase in constant vocals (especially in the first half) perhaps challenges claims that this is an `instrumental' project, `Sanctuary II' is hardly a poor effort by any means, and one that improves immensely once the instrumental melodies settle in. Certainly those who loved the first album will find plenty to enjoy here, and it's a victory for lovers of varied, colourful and lavish symphonic music with a worldly flavour, another confident work of great inspiration exquisitely delivered by Mr Reed and his musical friends.

If there are any packages left of the special edition of "Sanctuary II" with bonus CD and DVD, that is the edition to go for here. With more than 3 hours of material that is a good deal no matter how you look at it. This is a case of the bonus material being of the same or similar quality as the main album, which probably indicates that Robert Reed is quite the perfectionist. Otherwise, this album in general is one that have Mike Oldfield fans written all over it in terms of a main target audience. Other than that, those who tends to enjoy music where folk music and rock music meet inside a progressive rock general context of the kind that veers towards atmospheric laden and ambient landscapes should find this album to be a rewarding experience.

Oct 30, 2018

WISHBONE ASH - Argus (MCA Records MAPS 6007, 1972)

"Argus" is without question Wishbone Ash’s magnum opus. That much is hard to argue. What’s less clear is whether this is a progressive rock band; a hard-rocking yet innovative group of skilled musicians; just four guys who got lucky; or something else. ‘Something else’ is probably the closest answer. I have several other Wishbone Ash albums, and while a few of them are quite good, none exudes the kind of calm sense of confidence and self-assurance that this one does. The boys in the band must have felt pretty cocky when they laid down the last tracks on what they must have known would be considered a masterpiece.

There’s nothing particularly innovative about the style or arrangements of the seven songs which make up this album; heck, the Allman Brothers were doing the exact same kind of stuff but with a bit more flair, percussion, and soul far to the west of Devon about the same time. Country Joe & the Fish and Spirit were among many bands that predated Wishbone Ash in the realm of folksy, blues-tinted and guitar-driven mood music. There are easily dozens of similar bands that put out similarly inspiring sounds in the early seventies (Ramatam, Thee Image, Cactus, etc.), but none of these have left the kind of lasting impression that Wishbone Ash did with this album. Every track is a self-contained expression of peace, nostalgia, longing, sadness, and beauty, all rolled into one and lain out like a bare soul for the reflection and enjoyment of all who have partaken of them. The twin guitars and poignant harmonizing vocals have stood the test of nearly thirty-five years time flawlessly. Brilliant stuff in every respect.

The opening track "Time Was" would have been enough to make this album worth picking up all on its own. The gentle guitar and mellow singing that lead off the song give the impression this is a folkish melody, but eventually the tempo picks up and this turns into a touching lament-turned-love song. The soaring guitar licks and driving beat work themselves into a full-blown jam for what seems like an eternity before finally bringing it home with a flourish. Every time I hear this song (really, every time I hear this whole album) I wish I was sitting behind the wheel of an old muscle car just cruising down a coastal highway taking in a cool summer breeze, free of all the world’s crap and with a busty blonde in a billowy dress at my side. Daydreams were made for this kind of music, and vice versa.

"Sometime World" evokes many of the same emotions, but I think this is the track that first got people calling this progressive music. It isn’t, maybe, but the tempo shifts from ballad-like crooning into driving twin-guitar intensity is an absolute rush if you hear it with the car stereo’s volume turned to eleven. Try it some time: if your dial doesn’t have an 11, paint one on. Feel free to sing along too, especially if you’re in that muscle car and screaming down the highway. No one will care. I really shouldn’t drive while listening to music, I think. The timing of "Sometime World" seems designed to get one’s blood rushing to jut a little beyond the safety point just so "Blowin’ Free" can bring it back down to earth. Now that’s a great production technique! Still the twin guitars carry the rhythm, but this is closer to that folksy side of the band that makes them so endearing. I can think of a whole pile of ‘girl I can’t quite reach’ songs like this one from the seventies, but this one not only wears the scars of experience, it does it while seeming to celebrate the gut- wrenching experience of longing that so many of us have forgotten over the years. This one will bring those feelings rushing back, and will probably get you thinking about some old girlfriend as well. Enjoy.

"The King Will Come" is the rockingest song of the apocalypse ever made. At times it almost seems like a celebration. It just occurred to me that one of the great things about this album is that it makes the journey through the lands of a hundred human emotions, and it showcases each one with a knowing resignation that each of these emotions and experiences is essential to what makes us human. I wonder if these guys were into Zen or something ? Maybe. That wizened gristle can be heard in "Leaf and Stream" as well as anywhere else on the album. This acoustic and poetic folk ballad forms a peaceful interlude before the boys kick things up again with "Warrior", a war-cry for any of a thousand races who have pledged their souls to secure the freedom of their own destiny. This one brings me back to the real point of the album, the loosely-coupled theme of struggle and conquest and finally peace.

The peace comes with the aptly-titled "Throw Down the Sword", a reflective anthem of searching. The guitar work here is rather subdued and the vocals a bit discordant, full of the raw emotion of a weary soul. The sense of the uncompleted journey is completely intentional I suspect, and mirrors the unfilled search for meaning and conclusion that we all seem to live every day. A poignant ending to a brilliant album. It’s kind of frustrating that Wishbone Ash never again was able to capture the combination of seamlessly precise musicianship and honest emotion that this album evokes. But I suppose if they had it would only have served to cast a shadow on this classic, which would have been unfortunate in some ways. This is a classic, and one that belongs in every music lover’s collection.

Oct 29, 2018

CHRISTOPHER - Christopher (Metromedia Records MD 1024, 1970)

Another one of Texas' wealth of interesting, late-'60s psychedelic bands, Christopher came together in 1968 in the Houston area. Doug Tull (drums), Doug Walden (bass, vocals), and Richard Avitts (guitar, vocals) were the original members of the band, which was originally known as United Gas. Tull and Avitts, at the time playing in a series of R&B and soul-leaning groups, first met in 1966 when Tull sat in on drums with one of Avitts' bands. Tull, however, was not as serious about the music as Avitts, leading to an eventual split. Tull developed a friendship around this time with Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, and, in 1967, invited Avitts to jam with them. Certain that they had the makings of a band, the two went searching for a bassist who could sing, eventually finding Doug Walden.

It was not long before United Gas developed a following in and around Houston, playing local clubs such as Tangerine Forest, whose owner, Nick Lee, developed an interest in the band, eventually becoming their manager. Walden and Avitts began writing their own material and recorded a demo that Lee had circulated around Las Vegas and Los Angeles by his connections in those cities. United Gas moved to Las Vegas for a brief time and then to Los Angeles after L.A. record label Metromedia offered them a two-year contract. At the behest of Metromedia, the band changed their name to Christopher so that they wouldn't be confused with similarly monikered California band Pacific Gas & Electric. Walden and Avitts felt Christopher to be a religious band -- the name is derived from Saint Christopher -- and wanted to convey this through the music.

Recording of their first album started in early 1969; however, it was hampered by Tull's drug use and his failed suicide attempt. He was fired (later returning to Houston and joining Josephus) and the sessioins were completed with drummers John Simpson and Terrence Hand. The result was Christopher's self-titled debut album, released in a single 1970 pressing of a thousand LPs by Metromedia. Walden and Avitts remained in Los Angeles playing as Christopher until Avitts returned to Houston later in the year.

From the psychedelic tribal blues opener "Dark Road" through to the end of the album, Christopher shows just how strong the second-level psychedelia of the late '60s could be. There was no shortage of great musicians hailing from Texas during the era, and the ones who remained in the state were forming some of the most idiosyncratic bands of the swirling, inventive times: top-flight bands such as Thirteenth Floor Elevators, Lost & Found, the Golden Dawn, and Christopher. Christopher, though, cannot exactly be lumped together with those peers. They had to leave Texas for California to make their mark, and indeed, Christopher owes a good deal to the music of that state -- songs such as "Magic Cycles" and "In Your Time" are informed by the dreamier qualities of the San Francisco sound, especially the extended atmospherics of Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead.

There are also hints of fellow Los Angeles bands the Doors and Spirit throughout the album, and like the best music coming out of California, the songs on Christopher sound somehow revolutionary and foreboding, as if there is something dark lurking just beneath the surface of the music. Occasionally, Christopher occupied similar musical territory as Cream. They were not unfamiliar with the blues, and, like the British supergroup, they were an absurdly powerful three-piece with an abundance of ability in both instrumental and songwriting proficiency. In addition, Doug Walden's vocals are a dead ringer for Jack Bruce. With that said, the album actually sounds quite different from Cream. Christopher are somehow both more mystical and earthy. "Dark Road" starts out with a loping, jazzy blues groove before being propelled forward by a tempo change and some brilliant, musical drumming. "Wilbur Lite" seems grounded by some slashing chording by Richard Avitts, but then an open-ended melody and upward bass progression raise the song up off its legs. "Queen Mary" rolls along on top of a choppy drum beat and bass groove until Walden's phenomenal spine-tingling vocals soar above the music, uncontainable. The music itself, however, never spins out of restraint.

The songs are all relatively succinct, never growing excessive or dull, and Avitts' guitar playing is economical. The lyrics can get a bit pretentious here and there, but that doesn't even really qualify as a minor flaw since it is a product of ambitiousness and the era. Christopher is one of the finer albums to have fallen completely through the cracks of the '60s, and Christopher one of the era's best forgotten bands. One wishes that they had stuck around long enough to create more music.


Oct 26, 2018

HUMBLE PIE - Rock On (A&M Records AMLS 2013, 1971)

"Rock On" was the fourth album by Humble Pie, released in 1971. It reached #118 on the Billboard 200. It was the last Humble Pie studio album to feature guitarist and vocalist Peter Frampton, who embarked on a successful solo career. "Rock On" saw Humble Pie establishing the heavy blues rock sound they became famous for, led in no small part by their new manager, Dee Anthony, after the collapse of Andrew Loog Oldham's Immediate Records. But this was not where Frampton wanted to be and within a year he had quit the group to pursue his solo career and take his music in a more acoustic direction. Most of the songs on "Rock On" were performed live on tour before being recorded for the album. Steve Marriott turned the production into a studio party of sorts, featuring numerous guest performers from the world of blues and soul. Distinguished performers such as PP Arnold, who Marriott knew very well from his Small Faces days, Doris Troy who had a US hit in the early 1960s with her own self-composed song "Just One Look" (later covered by The Hollies), and Claudia Lennear (who had sung backing for artists such as Joe Cocker, Freddie King and Gene Clark), were featured on this album.

The album features the classic rock song "Stone Cold Fever" written by band members Marriott, Ridley, Frampton and Shirley. Steve Marriott's ballad "A Song For Jenny" (written for first wife Jenny Rylance) features The Soul Sisters (Doris Troy, P.P. Arnold and Claudia Lennear) on backing vocals. B.J. Cole contributes pedal steel guitar. "Strange Days" is a ballsy blues rock song, in which Marriott's powerful vocals soar as close to a live performance as any on this album. The vocals have a delayed echo, sounding grounded yet "out there"; and Frampton's guitar solos weave throughout. It is also the longest song on the album. "Sour Grain" was a joint composition by Peter Frampton and Steve Marriott, keeping the same tempo as "Shine On", but with just Marriott on vocals. Everybody agrees that "Rock On" is one of Humble Pie's best albums, if not the best one. On this album the band really proves why in the early Seventies it was considered one of Britain's greatest Rhythm & Blues outfits. They are becoming thoroughly Americanized by this time, much more so than their principal concurrents, The Faces: Country, Blues and Bluegrass influences are all over this album, but Steve Marriott adds to everything his impeccable vocal stylizations, really bothering to sing and, okay, maybe 'articulate' instead of just barking and shouting his way through all the songs. And the band shows itself a tight and compact unit; not as tight as the Stones, but I don't blame them for that. I mean, none of the songs ever really fall apart or degenerate into noisy bummers; Shirley's drumming is tight enough to prevent them from doing that, but loose enough to give the band some opportunities for improvised jamming. Meanwhile, Marriott tosses out crunchy, awesome riffs, Frampton blasts the house to pieces with magnificent leads, and occasional guests, like Bobby Keyes on sax, provide great embellishments as well.

The heavy tracks should be played really loud in order to feel their power, especially the monstruous jam "Stone Cold Fever" - a track after listening to which I hardly understand the need for Aerosmith's existence on the planet. Marriott howls out the paleolithic lyrics like a prime caveman while beating the shit out of his guitar, Frampton gives out an impressive impersonation of Santana, and the track ends with a little guitar heaven as both play that generic, but unbeatable riff in unison. There's also a terrific cover of Howlin' Wolf's "Rollin' Stone", heavily recommended for all heavy lovers of heavy blues; Steve's singing on that one is magnificent, a prime example of 'putting the soul and spirit into the blues', and Frampton really intrigues me with his playing on that one. The solo part is awesome once you listen to it in headphones; Wilson & Alroy were right in comparing Frampton with Page on that one - he plays the same barrages of echoey, flashing licks that distinguish Page's work on Led Zep's best album (the first one), and that's a fantastic listening experience.

However, the album is diverse enough, and it's not just the heaviest numbers that make the grade. Many subgenres of roots-rock are tackled in many interesting ways, some of which are quite unique. Okay, maybe "A Song For Jenny" isn't too unique, but you can't get away from the fact that the main acoustic melody of it is just as memorable as it is gorgeous, which is only proved for the fact that McCartney later nicked that same acoustic riff for his pretty ballad "Mama's Little Girl" - be it intentionally or subconsciously, it really doesn't matter. But what about "79th And Sunset" ? I love that song, and, shame on me, I even like the misogynistic lyrics. They rank among the most interesting misogynistic lyrics I've ever witnessed, by the way. How about this: 'Well this yellow haired snake sits snug as a bug/Got more angle than a toby jug/Star lock hair pins, honey has faults/Shows her legs when opportunity knocks/Underneath her red sweater/She's a big-deal go-getter/There'll be some dramas inside your pajamas tonight'. And I could go on, too, but I won't, because I'm not here to give away the lyrics. Instead, I'll just say that the saloon piano is tremendously tasty, Marriott's tongue-in cheek intonations are hilarious, and the doo-woppy backing vocals and Frampton's simplistic, but enthralling licks are absolutely endearing.

Frampton's main highlight on the record, a Bo Diddley stylization entitled "The Light", is quite catchy as well; bassist Greg Ridley breaks in with an overtly stupid country rocker ("Big George"), highlighted by its own stupidity and Bobby Keyes' beautiful sax solo. And the magnum opus of the record is a really strange number appropriately called "Strange Days" which begins its life as a piano-guitar fast jam before turning into an eerie chant about an FBI employee - three years before Mick Jagger took the theme and perfected it on "Fingerprint File". Again, Steve is the main hero, turning this into a real theatrical performance: his singing ranges from a shaky, trembly murmur to all-out screaming, and the song can get really scary at times. I'm sure the record will keep on growing on me yet, like most prime Rhythm & Blues recordings do. There's probably nothing particularly great about it if one just disassembles it to individual pieces, but when all the elements of the band's 1971 style are taken together, this makes up for some truly great Rhythm & Blues and a style you certainly couldn't find anywhere else. Like I said, this is the vibe that Aerosmith were probably feeding on in the beginning of their career - they just made everything a wee bit heavier and faster and swapped the funny and interesting lyrics for idiotic ones. If you're a big Stones or Faces fan, try it, you'll like it.

Oct 25, 2018

(Polydor Records PD-1-6060 2391 223, 1976)

The story of the Atlanta Rhythm Section began in Doraville, Georgia, a small town northeast of Atlanta, in 1970. Local Atlanta engineer Rodney Mills built a new studio in Doraville with the support of music publisher Bill Lowery, producer/songwriter/manager Buddy Buie, and songwriter/guitarist J.R. Cobb. The studio was dubbed Studio One and would become one of the preeminent studios in the Atlanta area. Over the years, artists who recorded there included Al Kooper, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Joe South, Bonnie Bramlett, Dickey Betts, B.J. Thomas and Billy Joe Royal. The Atlanta Rhythm Section originally came together as the house band at Studio One. Buie and Cobb had been part of the group the Classics IV - remembered for hits including "Spooky," "Stormy" and "Traces." Buie recruited three musicians he had worked with previously in the Candymen, a group that backed Roy Orbison-singer Rodney Justo, keyboardist Dean Daughtry and drummer Robert Nix. Two talented local session players also joined in-guitarist Barry Bailey and bassist Paul Goddard. These musicians played on a number of other artist's records and the decision was made to make an album on their own. Buie wanted the best players doing his songs as a guitar based band, and he wrote, produced and managed ARS from the start. Buie, Daughtry and Nix did a lot of the songwriting together. The Rhythm Section would play on other's albums 3-4 days a week and then work on their own material. They recorded a demo featuring instrumentals and over a couple of years pulled together material for an album. The demo got them a two record deal with MCA/Decca, and so ARS officially began.

The ten songs that make up Atlanta Rhythm Section's self-titled debut album were recorded at Studio One in Doraville in November 1971. Producer/songwriter Buddy Buie wrote nine of the songs in partnership with others in the band. While the sound of the album may have become a little dated over time, what still comes through today are two traits that ARS was starting to refine and would prove to be their strong points over the years-great songwriting and excellent musicianship. The album was released in 1972 and generated some critical interest for the quality of the songs and musicianship. But there was also some questioning of the idea of a rock band made up of a group of studio musicians who hadn't paid their dues on the road. The album didn't produce any hit songs, so the group continued to play on other artist's records at Studio One. It was during the recording of the first album that Ronnie Hammond came to Studio One as an assistant engineer for Rodney Mills. He was skilled on multiple instruments and most importantly had a great singing voice. When singer Rodney Justo decided to leave the group to pursue a solo career, Hammond became the new lead singer. This group of musicians would go on to make the next six ARS albums together. In 1972, the group tried to broaden their approach as they worked on their second album for MCA/Decca.

The group went to work on "Back Up Against The Wall", their second album for MCA/Decca. They kept working hard, spending a lot of time in the studio. For a time, Hammond and Daughtry lived upstairs above Studio One. It was here that ARS first crossed paths with Lynyrd Skynyrd, who rolled in one night raising a ruckus. Producer Al Kooper worked at Studio One during the day, and then ARS would come in and work at night. The second album was released in 1973. With a number of quality songs, the album got the group more notice but did not produce a breakthrough single. At this time, the group got out of the studio to do their first live shows and went on tour to support the album and to expand upon their studio skills in concert. The 11 songs on "Back Up Against The Wall" offer a mix of up-tempo tunes and ballads-an approach that would become a cornerstone of the group's future success. The pace overall is slower and more restrained than where the group would go with future albums. But it is a beautiful timepiece of a group of talented musicians playing quality songs and working together to establish their collective sound. There's a mix of tempos, both between songs and within individual tunes, which the band would refine on future records. After this album, the band decided to leave MCA/Decca for Polydor. They also started to establish a reputation in the Atlanta area for doing great live shows by the time they went back into Studio One to work on their next album.

"Third Annual Pipe Dream", ARS's third album, presented a more accessible ARS-a punched up but smoother sound, a variety of types of songs and a unique sound that could have both pop and rock appeal. It climbed to number 74 on the U.S. charts and gave the group their first regional hit, Doraville, which reached the top 40. Angel was also released as a single and reached number 75 as another regional hit-but overall the quality collection of songs didn't generate the level of recognition it deserved. The 10 songs on "Third Annual Pipe Dream," including 8 written by Buddy Buie in conjunction with other band members, show ARS to have become both tighter in their playing and more polished in their song presentation. The band's pop oriented songwriting and diverse musical stylings and characteristics that would distinguish them from other Southern Rock bands-are displayed to great effect and show a band coming into their own. ARS's unique brand of music was developing a regional following, but they had yet to reach a national audience. They continued to play live shows, working to solidify their identity and carve out their niche. At the time, the Allman Brothers had fallen on hard times and Lynyrd Skynyrd was leading the charge of guitar based Southern Rock. While ARS shared some musical approaches with these contemporaries, their background as musicians-not performers-and more pop oriented songwriting put them in a unique position along with but not truly a part of the Southern Rock scene.

They rocked, but they also dabbled with country and blues-all with more of a pop feel than some of their contemporaries. Their songwriting continued to improve. Their musicianship was tighter than ever. ARS tried to be true to themselves and fit into the musical landscape, a challenge they described in the song Boogie Smoogie: "We like reggae, we dig country, classical music's a gas, we play the blues in three quarter time but they don't want to hear that jazz-they want to boogie.". ARS returned to Studio One in 1974 to work on their next album. They built on the polished production of the previous album while working out a set of songs that were tighter and better than what they'd done before. As always, new songs were written on acoustic guitar or piano, and brought into the studio before being done in concert. In the studio, the band would approach their own material just like it was someone else's-taking chord charts and doing multiple takes to try different approaches. It was a style that stressed discipline over spontaneity, and over 4-5 years helped ARS to develop their unique sound, which was now coming together. "Dog Days" was ARS's fourth album and their first true masterpiece - an album that still stands as one of their best. It showcases a band that has found its groove and is taking its music to a new level. Featuring another fine collection of songs about themselves and the South, the band displays a growing array of musical styles and approaches that are very different from where the rest of Southern Rock was headed. Overall, it's a faster paced album that what had come before, featuring six up-tempo songs and two beautiful ballads-all originals. Despite the great material, there were no breakout singles or large increases in national attention. The band continued touring to refined their live sound, and fairly quickly went back into the studio to record their next album-one that would capture their evolution in a new way.

Another early classic that is among their best work, "Red Tape" is quite different from the previous album or anything that had come before. As the band had played more live shows, they had developed an ensemble sound, and there was an effort to capture that sound on record. The result was like an ARS gig from the mid-70's-with a strong emphasis on their appreciation for the blues. The band had previously been combining pop and rock stylings. For this album they went with predominantly shorter, pop length songs-with one notable exception. The performances featured a harder rock approach than they had recorded before, with a sharp edged guitar sound prominently featured. "Red Tape" was released in April 1976. The first single from the album, "Jukin", was a regional hit and was followed by a second single, "Free Spirit". While these songs got airplay in the South, the album didn't produce the sales Polydor was looking. They continued to expand their live performances, including a memorable show in the spring of 1976 with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in Atlanta's Chastain Park. ARS faced increasing pressure for sales and chart success, and this came to a head in 1976. They had been taking 3 months to record each album, but now got an ultimatum from their record company-deliver the next album in 45 days or else. While road weary from touring non-stop for most of the year, they went back to Studio One and wrote, recorded, and produced the next album in 30 days. Whether it was the deadline pressure or the natural evolution of the group, they created a rock and roll alternative that would carry them to new heights.

The band attained a new level of critical acclaim and popular appeal with this album released in December 1976. It is another eight song set, including seven originals and a cover of a blues classic previously recorded by the Yardbirds. While a few songs feature shorter arrangements similar to the last album, most of the songs go back to the longer format of previous albums. And while several of the songs rock hard, overall the production returns to the smoother, pop feel the band had used to record in the past. This is another great record-one that seems to be a culmination of all that ARS had done up to this time. The twin signatures of the ARS sound - Ronnie Hammond's voice and Barry Bailey's guitar - have never sounded better, but the record's great strength is the breadth and scope of the songs themselves. With "A Rock And Roll Alternative", ARS needed a hit record to keep going-and they got it. The first single, "Neon Nites", got close to the top 40. It was the next single, "So Into You", that proved to be the breakthrough. It rose to number seven on the charts and was a staple of rock radio during the summer of 1977. The album made it to the top 10 on the charts and went gold. Popularity carried them out of the clubs and into stadiums. On Sept. 4, 1977 ARS played their biggest show yet, the Dog Day Rockfest at Atlanta's Grant Field on the campus of Georgia Tech University. Heart and Foreigner were the opening acts and Bob Seger co-headlined. For a period of several years, ARS was on the road for over 250 shows a year. When they came off the road, they were right back in the studio working 5 days a week. For the first time, the band had popular success to build on-but this also meant increased expectations to top themselves. They worked to produce a focused, concept album that would show they were up to the challenge-and had their greatest commercial success.

"Champagne Jam", released in 1978, was the breakthrough album that marked the zenith of music-making, critical support and popular acclaim for ARS. Eight great songs-all originals-are showcased with the top notch, smooth pop production the group had been refining for years. The songwriting and musicianship maintain the superior standards the band had established through its previous albums. The songs continue the pattern of blending beautiful melodies with shifting tempos, with each of the songs clocking in at a moderate three to five minutes. The album proved to be very popular, hitting the top 10 and going gold and then platinum. The song "Champagne Jam" was released as a single, and the single of "I'm Not Gonna Let it Bother Me" made it to the top 20. But it was "Imaginary Lover" that proved to be the band's biggest hit-reaching number seven on the charts. The story has been told of a New York DJ who accidentally played the 45 of "Imaginary Lover" at 78 rpm and was inundated with calls asking about the new Fleetwood Mac song. Whatever, it worked. The album hit the top 10 and went platinum. But the musical climate was changing as new wave took over and what was labeled Southern Rock became less popular. The group continued to hit the road, now performing to much bigger audiences who knew their hits. In August of 1978 ARS hosted another big festival at Grant Field in Atlanta - the Champagne Jam - a celebration of the local boys who had made it big. It was also around this time that ARS played one of their more prestigious venues-the White House. They had become acquainted with Jimmy Carter in his days as Governor of Georgia, and as President he invited them to come play for his son's birthday on the South Lawn in Washington. "My friends," Carter described ARS as he introduced them, "Not only are we both from the same part of the country, but I remember when they first started that all the critics and commentators said they didn't have a chance-and they said the same thing about me." This performance was noted in Time magazine among other places. The studio session men from Doraville had come a long way. The distance traveled also had a down side, as the non-stop pressure of the road and the studio started to get to everyone in different ways. It was around this time that original drummer and songwriter Robert Nix left the band and was replaced by Roy Yeager, who joined them in the studio for work on their next album.

Released in 1979, "Underdog" was another excellent album that continued ARS' popular success and documents the band continuing to make quality music-even though the critical and popular tide that had swelled through the late 1970s had reached its peak. The album features eight original songs, one of them incorporating a well known Ashford & Simpson song. The tone of this collection is softer, as only a couple of songs truly rock out, but the songwriting and musicianship continues at the superior levels the group had established previously. While two songs would break out as singles, overall it's another superior set of tunes. "Do It or Die" and "Spooky" were both released as singles and hit the top 20. The album went gold. With the group's popularity still high, the decision was made to put out a double live album that showcased the bands' musical prowess in concert. Both a tribute to ARS's popular success and a testimony to their musical abilities, the live album "Are You Ready!" was released in 1979. The cover images show how far the group had come-from the house band at a small studio outside Atlanta to playing to stadiums full of people. The album also documents the power that ARS could bring to a live performance. While their musical talents had been well documented with their studio recordings, their ability to give songs a different but equally enjoyable arrangement in concert comes through clearly. Overall, this is another classic work-a compilation of many great songs from their albums up through "Champagne Jam" played with great energy and skill. The live album was the last for the Polydor label. Following up to the successful festival show of the previous year, ARS hosted the Champagne Jam II in August 1979 in Atlanta. The band moved to the CBS label as they went back into the studio to record again.

"The Boys From Doraville", released in 1980, didn't reach the number of listeners the last few albums had - the music scene was shifting and what had been labeled Southern Rock wasn't getting the attention it had previously. It was too bad the audience didn't stick around, because they missed out on another fine collection of songs. The group continued the softer, pop approach of Underdog while injecting a swinging country/western feel into these nine original songs. The majority are uptempo, with a couple classic slower selections-and they are all generally shorter, with only two over five minutes. "The Boys From Doraville" didn't reach the audience that previous albums had-while it was a solid set there were no breakout singles. While the band's sound continued to evolve on its own path, the music business had gone down other roads marked disco and new wave. ARS continued to do their own thing as the Southern Rock scene faded. When they went to record their next album there was again pressure to come up with a success. While the next album also didn't match previous sales, musically it stood along with any of their top albums. "Quinella", ARS' next recording, was one of their best. Some of the audience that helped the group achieve the height of their popularity had moved on, and they missed out - the group was continuing to make great music. Released in 1981, this album starts out rocking harder than the last couple had and then transitions into the great pop, with an occasional country and western influence, that the group had been refining over the last couple albums. It's another classic. The song "Alien" was a top 30 single in the U.S. The band continued to play live. In fact, a show recorded in New York City in Oct. 1981 and featuring three songs from "Quinella" would eventually be released on CD in 2000. The group continues to make concert appearances showcasing their hit songs and their still outstanding musical abilities.

Oct 24, 2018

NEAL MORSE - One (Radiant Records 3984-14519-2, 2004)

An 80 minute journey into the spiritual creative mind of Neal Morse is always going to be a delight. I had listened to the "One Demos" album before this as it was cheap and easy to obtain. This featured outtakes and demo versions of these tracks that are the finished product. As a consequence I became very used to the demo unfinished versions. It was quite a surprise to finally hear how the songs turned out, not necessarily better, but definitely more polished and complex in terms of musicianship and structure. The album is a masterpiece from the great man that features some of most celebrated material.

It features two colossal epics, "The Creation" and "The Separated Man" that together clock 36 wonderful minutes of heavy to ambient emotionally-charged prog. Both songs are segemented into many sections, in the classic progressive style of a multi movement suite, many songs seamlessly becoming one, and both are in four distinct sections. They are also the best tracks on offer here. "The Separated Man" is my favourite, with some gorgeous keyboard melancholia and some of the most beautiful acoustic guitar from the dextrous hand of Christian guitar legend Phil Keaggy. The songs follow the Biblical account of the fall of man, how he rejected God, the pursuit of God for man to find redemption, and consequently how we became separated by our sin from God, and ultimately how we can be brought back to God through Jesus Christ. Whether one believes in this or not there is no disputing the power of the music and the absolute brilliance of the melodic vocals and awesome musicianship.

Neal Morse plays keyboards, and some guitars, but it is his dominant crystalline vocals that lift this album into the heavens. Randy George is reliable on bass guitar and the power of Mike Portnoy's percussion is flawless. "The Creation" is a tour de force of symphonic orchestration mixed with passages of heavy prog and ambient beauty, depending on the storyline. It is meant to capture the creation of the planet at the hands of God who said "Let There be Light" and man 'received the breath of life' in Genesis. The account of Adam and Eve, and the creation of the Earth, is by no means an original theme to bass an epic on as others have done so before, including early Genesis, The Flower Kings and PFM, but this version must be the most spiritual coming from a true believer. The passion of the vocals and music is unsurpassed; majestic and purely emotional. The music is always bright and uplifting; the keyboard runs, melodies and guitars work well together to create a positive atmosphere. Morse does not hold back with his lyrics about living to "Praise His Name" and utilising Biblical passages paraphrased to suit the music. It ends with the cry of God to Adam 'why are you hiding?' with Morse in his heaviest angry voice. This theme will appeal to the Christian as well as those who simply want to be blown away by incredible music. The lyrics really are uncompromising but it is all Bible based and is quite a mesmirising journey if you allow it to soak through your system. It makes a nice change from all the dark prog that is churned out.

"Author of Confusion" is another passionate composition with very soulful vocals and sweet melodies. It begins with a raucous prog tempo and then settles into beautiful harmonies and Mellotron. This is followed by melancholia and deepest heartfelt vocals with "Cradle to the Grave". I liked the version better on "One Demos" as it follows seamlessly from the wonderful prog instrumental "Mayhem" with heavy riffs and very powerful time sigs, thus balancing it out perfectly into quiet refelction after blazing guitars; like the calm following a tempestuous storm. "Help Me/The Spirit and the Flesh" is a gorgeous spirit filled song, encompassing piano and jazz fills that lifts the spirit up, and the lovely melodies of "Father of Forgiveness" has become a favourite ballad among the fan base. The album ends with the glorious "Reunion" in three parts, making a splendiferous finale. Overall, this is an astonishing conceptual album with some of the all time greatest material from Neal Morse.

"One" is one of those rare cases where the influences are clear, and still it´s very original. Yes, Genesis, Beatles and some Gentle Giant are the obvious sources of inspiration and traits of those groups can be found all over the album. But don´t look for anything explicit, since Neil Morse´s talent ensured that those elements are only part of the formula. The music here is very much Morse´s own version of prog. Nothing overly complex for its own sake, but working for the music. And he proves to be an excelelnt singer, songwriter, keyboarder and guitarrist. And he is helped by equally skilled musicians (Randy George on bass and ex Dream Theater Mike Portnoy on drums, plus a few guests). The results are awesome: the music is a fine example of talent, technique and taste all put together for the best results possible. If some of his stuff sounds simple at first sight, listen to it again. You´ll find very fine subtle parts that make this record something to be enjoyed a little more with every new hearing.

Oct 23, 2018

JOHN WONDERLING - Day Breaks (Paramount Records PAS-6063, 1973)

Johnny Wonderling was born in France on February 18th 1945, and moved to Queens, New York, at the age of five. Always a music enthusiast, he began his career at Cameo-Parkway Records in the mid 60s, before finding a job at Alouette, an independent NY music production publishing company best-known for having signed up Quincy Jones, Lesley Gore and Janis Ian, and run by Artie Wayne and Sandy and Kelli Ross, towards the end of 1967. At the same time, he set about writing songs himself. Sadly, Ross barely remembers him: "His name and face are familiar, but I cannot recall how I was involved," she says. "Wish I had more to tell". "I met Johnny when I was a teenager, and it completely changed my life," says Carey Allen Budnick, who first encountered him backstage at a Hullabaloo dance show in Manhattan. '"He was a song plugger, and introduced me to various publishers. He taught himself autoharp, and we began to write songs together, which we sold for $25 to $50 a time. He was a very well-liked guy, a wheeler-deler who knew everyone - I remember him introducing me to Tiny Tim one day".

In April 1968 Wonderling's song "Midway Down" - co-written with Lou Shapiro – was recorded by The Creation in the UK, via his publishing connections, but didn't sell. That June, a song by Wonderling, Budnick (under the alias Allane) and their pal Ed Goldfluss, "Ask The Children", was included on the Cherry People's sole LP. It was also released by The Cowsills on their "Captain Sad & His Ship Of Fools" LP in September - but, for unknown reasons, the writers never saw any royalties. That autumn Wonderling became the first pop artist to sign to Jerry Ragovoy's Loma Records, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers, which had previously devoted itself to Rhythm'n'Blues. On September 11th he recorded his only 45 for the label at Ragovoy's Hit Factory studio in New York. He produced it himself, aided by engineer Bill Szymczyk (who went on to earn immortality with The Eagles and others) and a crack backing band consisting of Hugh McCracken (guitar) Paul Harris (keyboards), Chuck Rainey (bass) and Bernard Purdie (drums). Coupling Wonderling's own rendition of "Midway Down" with "Man Of Straw" (written by him, Budnick and Goldfluss), the disc was issued at the end of the month, both on Loma and Warner Brothers, one pressing for each Coast. 'New artist shows certain savvy about the current market,' hedged Record World in a brief review on October 12th. 'Has a certain sell quality.' Cash Box, meanwhile, raved that a 'Distorted carnival atmosphere gives this track a staying power which will peg it for immediate response. Song is the first pop-flavored release from Loma, and has outstanding appeal for teen and progressive listeners. Should be welcomed by radio spots for exposure that should create a sales explosion.'  In fact, the disc barely made a whimper in the marketplace.

Wonderling therefore became studio manager at the Hit Factory, at a time when Jimi Hendrix, the Stooges, the James Gang and countless others were working there. He hadn't abandoned his own creative ambitions, however. In 1971 his haunting song "Jessica Stone" - co-written with Szymczyk – was recorded by Jimmie Haskell on his eccentric "California '99" LP. The same year, he set about making an album of his own, in collaboration with Szymczyk. Drawing on his many studio contacts, the initial sessions for "Day Breaks" took place at the Hit Factory, and subsequently at Sun West in Los Angeles (after he'd moved from New York to Laurel Canyon, where he lived with his girlfriend Cindy). Few musicians, even superstars, commanded such a roll-call of talent: Aynsley Dunbar, Tim Rose, Jesse Ed Davis, Jim Gordon, Jim Pons, Bernard 'Pretty' Purdie, Chuck Rainey, Hugh McCracken, Paul Harris, Jim Keltner, Danny Kortchmar, Paul Griffin, Gloria Jones and numerous others were all involved. Despite such a large and stellar cast, however, the arrangements are restrained, albeit more layered than it seems at first, with piano, organ, steel guitar, wah wah, backing vocals and more adding subtle texture.

Most of the LP consists of spacey, acoustic guitar-led ballads, sung in Wonderling's appealingly warm, world-weary voice. It opens with the reflective "Long Way Home", referencing a backpacking trip Budnick had made around Europe in the 60s. Next is the beautiful, wistful "Jessica Stone" (co-written with Szymczyk). Its mood is sustained on the reflective "Someone Like You", "M'lady" and "Shadows". Perhaps surprisingly, a faithful re-recording of the eerily psychedelic "Man Of Straw" is included (its B-side, "Midway Down", is absent). "Cowboy Lullaby" is a gentle instrumental; 'Just close your eyes and listen,' instruct the credits. The bouncy "Follow Me" breaks the album's thoughtful mood, but its levity is quickly reined in on the touching closing track, "Reach The Ground", in which Wonderling hopes that his fragile subject will "someday make your way down, without breaking when you finally reach the ground..." 'John was a fascinating fellow and a great guy," says engineer Bruce Alblin, who worked on overdubbing mixing, and editing the LP at Golden West Sound in Hollywood. "He was very much a man of the world - charismatic, sophisticated, smart, and fun to work with in the studio. As well as being a talented musical artist, he was also well-versed in the 'business' side of the music business - a very rare combination."

With the album finally completed, in December 1972 Paramount trailed its release with a radio promo 45, offering mono and stereo mixes of "Shadows", in a picture sleeve. The LP was scheduled to follow in mid- 1973 (judging from its catalogue number, PAS 6063) - but something went awry. The singer-songwriter scene was at its commercial peak, but "Day Breaks" seems not to have been distributed, and was effectively stillborn. Only a handful of copies are known to exist, and no promo material or references to it in the contemporary press (including trade papers) have yet surfaced. It was clearly expensive to make, and was packaged with a custom lyric inner sleeve, so the reason for its evidently tiny pressing size is baffling. "From what I gathered at the time, there was some kind of politics / machinations at the label that delayed and inhibited its release," recalls Ablin. "It was held up quite a I while, and from what I recall, the release was extremely small, 100 or fewer albums total." Wonderling is not known to have performed live, which can't have assisted his prospects as a recording artist, and the album got no traction whatsoever. Ablin, however, was always a fan: "Of all the countless projects I've worked on over the years, "Day Breaks" is one of my favorites, if not my favorite, musically. It's that good.  Truly brilliantly creative and unique. I'm amazed at how well the songs, arrangements and production hold up after all theseyears."

Following its release Wonderling is known to have made numerous demos, only one of which – the melodic "Penelope" - is known to survive, and is included in this set. Despite his considerable abilities, he released no further records under his own name. Instead, he joined Arista Records as'General Professional Manager, East Coast' in February 1978, subsequently becoming their 'Director of Creative Affairs' and 'Publishing Director, East Coast' working with stars such as Aaron Neville, Chaka Khan and Pat Benatar. In 1981 he moved to Sidstan Music Publishing in New York (owned by former Beatles promoter Sid Bernstein and his brother Stan). The following year he played autoharp on John Gale's Music For A New Society, and produced the near-hit 400 Dragons by Adrian John Loveridge. Wonderling and Loveridge also contributed two songs to the March 1982 debut album by Laura Branigan, "Branigan", which reached #34 on the Billboard chart, making it easily the most commercially successful recording of his career. Unfortunately, both Loveridge and Branigan died before their time. Wonderling subsequently set up his own music production and publishing company, Myth America, from the  barn he called home in Woodstock, notably overseeing the 1990 album 4 Creole Christmas, for which he produced tracks by artists including Aaron Neville and Irma Thomas. He also collaborated closely with the composer Keith 'Plex' Barnhart on advertising jingles for Macy's and others, which became his main source of income for the remainder of his life.

Latterly he was involved with The Woodstock Youth Theater, and acted as musical director for The Woodstock Century, an ambitious production mounted at the Woodstock Playhouse in June 2002. His last public statement seems to have been made that October, when he joined a protest against the invasion of Iraq in Woodstock. "The powers that be are the ones pulling all the strings," he told the New York Times. "You've got to keep going and eventually us gentler people maybe will be heard." He succumbed to a heart attack in Amsterdam on September 17th 2003, whilst honeymooning with his third wife, and may well have taken the full story behind the mysterious "Day Breaks" with him. "I'm really thrilled to see that it's available at last," concludes Ablin. "For many years after John and I worked together, the only way that I could listen to the record was via my reference cassette from the master tape. But great music, and all great art, has a way of eventually being acknowledged." For now, the last word goes to Wonderling's daughter Jenny, after whom he named his Sweet Jenny Music publishing company: "He was a wonderful man, deeply passionate, with a laugh, naughty wit, intelligence and warmth that was rare. I really miss him".

Oct 22, 2018

BE BOP DELUXE - Drastic Plastic (Harvest Records SHSP 4091, 1978)

It seems very easy to mistake "Drastic Plastic" for a New Wave album, but if we are operating with genrisms in the first place, I would still rather think of it in terms of Glam Rock. Up to the very last moment of its existence, the Be-Bop Deluxe sound was loud, expansive, flashy, cocky, what­ever, even long after Nelson had reneged on the principle of choking his basic melodies with mountains of guitar improv. Yes, he did cut down on guitar heroics, add more keyboards, expand his horizons with new ideas, but "Drastic Plastic" still betrays a child of the early 1970s, as far as my ears tell me, at least. It is a good album all the same, and it may, in fact, even contain the single largest number of memorable hooks that Nelson ever had the chance to collect on a single LP. However, its being all over the place, as Bill explores page after page of the blues, pop, funk, hard rock, even rock­abilly books, is not necessarily a plus. The songs are not that good, and the overall impression is that of a highly experienced and talented, but kinda clueless artist in search of a new light for an old direction, so to speak. I enjoy this stuff, sure, but I am not certain if there would be any reason for me to come revisit it some time later.

"Electrical Language" is a pretty attractive power-pop opener with a romantic (not New Roman­tic, just Romantic) flavor and a very democratic balance between the synthesizers, now turning cold but still friendly rather than robotic, and Nelson's guitar. One could see where it might have been some invigorating introduction to a concept album of sorts, on how to express old feel­ings with new technologies, that kind of thing. Then, however, we start meandering. Titles like "New Precision" and "New Mysteries", especially if they are sitting right next together, suggest that the focus will be on technocracy, and both have a certain Gary Numan scent to them, but they are not exactly the epitome of admirable precision or deep thrilling mystery, they just kind of roll along to more or less the same martial rhythms, nothing too mystifying or terrifying about them. Rumour has it that Nelson was, in fact, closely monitoring the latest developments in his major idol's career, but these songs are nowhere near the psychic intensity of Bowie's Berlin trilogy, among other things, this is also because Bowie had Eno to keep him company (not to mention an occasional Robert Fripp as well), whereas the keyboards on "Drastic Plastic" are hand­led with taste and reservation, but without any seeming touch of genius.

Still, the record gets by merely on the strength of its bizarre plunges into the unpredictable. For instance, "Love In Flames" sounds like a proto-New Waver's parody on hard rock ecstasy, with a guitar-hero finale in which Nelson is channelling the spirits of Angus Young and Alvin Lee at the same time in a hilariously flashy mode. "Dangerous Stranger" is nothing if not a new-era re­write of Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" (even the bass vocal line is retained from the ori­ginal), inessential fun but curious simply in terms of its existence. "Possession" is glossified garage, Alice Cooper style, all that is missing is that extra snarl in Nelson's voice to make the track register on the same shelf as something from Alice's own "Flush The Fashion".

Arguably the best track (although some competition is provided by the humorous catchy pop song "Panic In The World") is the album closer, "Islands Of The Dead", a fine tribute to Nelson's own departed father, no predictable sadness, no trivial sentimentality, just a solid folk-based art-pop song with a friendly pagan concept (others would have probably sung about the joys of Heaven; Bill goes beyond the boring tenets of monotheism). Still, it is not fabulous per se; its classiness is mainly provided by the context, writing a song about the dearly departed without falling on musical and lyrical clichés by the dozen is complicated even for a genius, and Bill Nelson does not quite fit my vision of genius (at the very least, just like Bowie, he is just too smart to let the genius come awake, and usually gets by through the force of intellect).

In any case, even if I do not see anything drastic about this plastic, this is yet another stimulating experience, rounding out a small, but remarkably even (with the possible exception of "Futu­rama", where I do not see eye to eye with the fans) collection with another respectable thumbs up. Less than a year later, Nelson would pull the plug on Be-Bop Deluxe, realizing that, in the im­mortal words of Decca executives, guitar bands are on their way out and finally shifting to the intellectual department of modern sound exploitation, leaving behind the seventies image of the brainy guitar rocker. Come to think of it, he may not have had another choice. But it was fun, although a very strange kind of fun, while it lasted.

Oct 21, 2018

WILCO - Being There (Reprise Records 9 46236-2, 1996)

As far as I know, "Being There" was sold for the price of one CD, despite the package actually containing two discs; so much for any possible 'marketing ploy' accusations. The situation becomes ca-wazily more bizarre, though, when you realise that the overall length of both is exactly 77:33, which is, I think, quite an adequate amount of musico-minutes for an enhanced CD; also, considering that a few of these songs could have easily been chopped and sliced a wee bit, it wouldn't have been difficult to squeeze it all onto a regular length CD either. So what's the proper, logically consistent, Poirot-endorsed answer to this conundrum ? Why, just that Wilco wanted to have an official "double album" under their belt. Because, face it, a "double album", unlike, say, a double album proper with no quotation marks around it, is so much more than just a double album with no quotation marks around it. It's something that's supposed to be broad in scope, daring in ambitiousness, and justified in talent. Also, more often than not, it's supposed to be a wink-wink hint-hint at the good old days when "double albums" were so common, not just because they hadn't yet invented CD technologies, but also because there, like, was so much more to say uh-oh, Old Man Grumble headed this way. Not good. Change channels.

"Being There" is nearly a genius. It aims at much more than A.M., but not that much more. Jeff Tweedy was a pretty good songwriter - still is, but it's not like he's grown himself a new head to be responsible for two CDs worth of music. The arrangements are generally more complex and the production more intricate, but who fucking cares. However, to use Jeff's own words from the past, 'that's not the issue'. The issue is that Wilco, for all their potential - but only potential - mediocrity, have come out with an album that's consistently gee-ow-ow-dee from first track to last. And that's the most important thing about "double albums", quotation marks or not: just for how long can they hold our attention ? "Being There" holds mine for as long as it runs. Individually, very few of these songs hold up as self-sufficient masterpieces. A few of them do; a few more pretend to do; most don't even try. Nobody, I'm sure, will hear "Far Far Away" and go bonkers over how Jeff Tweedy does for country-rock basics the same thing that Michael Jackson did for underage kids. (I, of course, mean "making the world pay more attention to them" - what did you think ?). At best, they will hear it and say 'hey, isn't that cute how that guy does his little Jerry Garcia thing ?'. (And I do say at best because it took me a sleepless three weeks to figure out who those vocal stylistics on the 'might be shining on you tonight' line remind me of exactly). And then it's Radiohead all over again.

But the miracle of "Being There" is how, just by having nineteen non-ugly, non-suck, non-cheese, non-corn, non-non-catchy tunes assembled in one place, you end up with something so much more powerful than nineteen isolated entities. It's almost as if Jeff Tweedy split his soul into nineteen equal parts - nobody wants a 1/19th part of anybody's soul, you know. And in a way, I'd rather have a big whole consisting of nineteen partly-soulful entities than, say, nine fully-soulful entities meshed in with ten silly useless filler parts. Another part of the charm of "Being There" is its transitional character. The good transitional character, one that successfully merges the old with the new instead of neglecting the old while still not fully mastering the new. No, Tweedy does not move away from his alt-country-rock heritage; he expands upon that heritage by merging it with other influences, primarily guitar-based "power-pop" and lush piano-based "art-pop" or whatever other labels I've forgotten to mention. The resulting mixture of rock'n'roll, guitar pop and piano pop might spell "Big Star" to ye ol' time fans, and certainly Big Star are one of the primary influences here, along with a couple zillion others (Tweedy himself never forgets to mention how Being There was essentially a tribute to his Sixties/Seventies idols, but methinks he's being a bit humble about that). But the scope is inarguably grander than that. And that's another good thing about the album - not only does it have the balls to be big and ponderous, it isn't afraid to be big and ponderous, which, as Old Man Grumble keeps whispering in my ear, is a relatively rare thing today.

And I don't even know where to start with the individual songs, because, well, you know. Okay, let's dwell on this: Disc 1 has a song called "Outta Sight (Outta Mind)", which is later redone on disc 2 as "Outta Mind (Outta Sight)" (might be a hidden reference to Neil Young there). Same song, two versions; I've witnessed actual complaints about this (in the "make up your mind, choose one screw the other, cut down the length, help save plastic" vein - the usual stuff). But it's not like they put both of them on the album because they'd run out of material or something: the two arrangements are drastically different, in fact, I'd say, symbolically different. The first version is all brawny guitars, power chords, and big massive drums, like it could easily be an outtake from A.M.: that's the past. The second version, on the other hand, is all martial pianos, soaring vocal harmonies, and weird muffled proto-experimental percussion: that's the future. (Well, technically speaking, it's also the past, but not exactly Wilco's past - the nod to the Beach Boys is very clear. But it is Wilco's future). Besides, both versions rule, except I find the piano one a bit better.

The lyrics are also consistently clever - primitive and straightforward on tunes where the melody is supposed to take immediate precedence, but wittier and more evocative on the more "generic" material, most noticeably the simplistic country exercises like "Forget The Flowers" (hey, I know it's subjective and all, but aren't lines like "you're trying my patience, try pink carnations" awesome in terms of phonetic juggle-around ?). Also, what's up with the "cash will flow" line on something as proverbially innocent as "Someday Soon" ? See, there's something decidedly tricky about that Tweedy guy, and it happens in spots where you least expect it. But still, "trickiness" is not the primary feature I'd associate with Mr Songwriter. "Heartfelt beauty", maybe - sometimes - if you pardon the cliched cliches. The little buds of "Dash 7" broke through the floor and resulted in brushes of bitter, believable melancholy - "Red-Eyed And Blue", for instance, which clearly milks what looks like a three-note melody for maximum feeling, and it's exactly the kind of feeling you'd expect from a band like Tweedy's: frustration and depression when your musical and spiritual ideals come clashing with sordid reality - 'when we came here today/We all felt something true/Now I'm red-eyed and blue'. That said, it can't be that depressing if you end your song with such a lovable whistling reprise of the main vocal melody. By doing this, and cleverly combining moments of gloom with moments of relaxation throughout, Tweedy avoids falling into the trap of the "original mixed-up kid", making an album that deals with real problems in realistic ways rather than simply ripping apart his T-shirt and rolling around in the ashes.

And the most real of these problems is the problem of connection: connection between Tweedy and the audience, Tweedy and the industry bosses, Tweedy and his partner(s), whoever he/she/they might be. It can certainly be hard to connect, and this hardship is perfectly captured - no, not on "The Lonely One", much too predictable a choice, but on "Hotel Arizona", where the word "connection" is actually spoken and the conclusion is that 'that's just something I've gotta get used to" (with a delicious series of doo-doo-doos for background, too); but the song's miserable 'hello, can you hear ?.' pleas, echoed by feedback drawls resembling a long phone beep, and the violent musical tempest that occupies most of its second half - as if the poor hotel were receiving a genuine Keithmoonian treatment - somehow suggest that "getting used to it" might take a long, long time. The simple, technologically unadorned magic of the Unassuming Pop Tune is also perfectly captured on "Say You Miss Me"; wise guys may lambast the lyrics for being strictly dumb - 'baby say I'll miss you, just say you'll miss me too' - but the thing is, we all know Tweedy can do much better than that; he simply won't, because he's going for realism, and sometimes - way more often than not, in fact - there's nothing more real than saying "just say you'll miss me too". It's a perfect break-up song, much more so than, uh, I dunno, Blur's "No Distance Left To Run", just to pick an off-the-cuff example; and musically, the 'whoo-oo-hoo!'s alone are worth the price of admission.

Then there's the "assuming" stuff. Both discs begin with a six-minute-plus 'program statement' of sorts, which, again, will probably appeal more to people who sympathise with all the Tweedys in this world than to people who just wanna hear good pop music, but then I've been known to be wrong, too. The biggest one is "Sunken Treasure", with lyrics that are hard to decipher until they culminate in Jeff stating that 'Music is my saviour, And I was maimed by rock'n'roll, I was tamed by rock'n'roll, I got my name from rock'n'roll', even if the song itself is hardly rock'n'roll at all; it's a slow, meandering, strictly four-four folk-rock shuffle with a couple thunderous, but somewhat predictable crescendos along the way. I don't love the thing, but I certainly understand its presence - and not offended by it. "Misunderstood", though, the album opener, I really love a lot. Not just because of the scraping guitars and dissonant feedback in the intro (just one of the just several 'experimental' tidbits just innocently scattered all over the place just to give the whole thing an 'uncommercial' look - there's really nothing innovative or "wild" about "Being There"), but because of the same things I praised "Red-Eyed And Blue" for: maximum human emotion over minimum instrumental chords.

For all of the album's ambitions, non-ambitions, suffering, happiness, retroishness, and actualness, though, surprisingly little of this stuff really rocks. I count maybe "Monday", the first version of "Outta Sight", "Hotel Arizona" (although the bombastic crescendo that forms the song's main focus of attention isn't exactly "rock'n'roll", either), and the closing "Dreamer In My Dreams"; the latter is almost never mentioned as a highlight, possibly because its positioning at the end ain't exactly a listener-enticing way of handling things, but I like it when Wilco are doing barroom rock, and "Dreamer In My Dreams" is a perfect example of them doing it, what with the fiddle guy going absolutely insane by the time his last solo comes by and all. Besides, I urge you to check out the lyrics to that song - hands down the best on the entire record, even if you can hardly tell a word because of Jeff's intentionally spluttered delivery without consulting the printed version.

Concerning Tweedy's debts to his forefathers, I'm not gonna say much on that account - I've named some of the influences, and it doesn't take too long to figure out a couple dozen others. The important thing is that influences remain influences; this is not an exercise in "let's see how many of yesterday's giants I can imitate" technology, and, despite what Tweedy says himself, it's not even a real "tribute", because "tributes" are not supposed to include the personality of the one who actually pays that tribute, and "Being There" can't help being way too personal. Maybe Jeff would have liked to have it less personal, but he's not able. Yes, there are songs that read like patented genre exercises - the power-pop of 'I Got You' or the country-pop of "Someday Soon" - but they're so tightly tied in with Tweedy's soulful, meaningful material that the resulting emotions are simply more complex and delightful to revel in than they could have been otherwise.

Oct 20, 2018

GINGA RALE BAND - Wir bedauern (Reibo Records LR 1119, 1980)

We've said this many times before, but it can be somewhat mind-boggling that an album this good can be so deeply buried for so long. We've certainly turned up albums that are just as rare - but they may be more obviously flawed or teetering on the fringes of the genre we love. But Ginga Rale Band's debut is the kind of album that is likely to have wide appeal. After hearing it for the first time, I wanted an original LP immediately. I braced myself for the inevitable sticker shock. That collectors knew about it already, and the proverbial arm and leg was the asking price. But I was pleased to find one online for under $100. Not cheap to be certain, but it could have been 10 times that for all I knew. It took a long time to seal that deal, and thus the extended delay from point of first hearing (early December) until reporting here.

Musically, what are we talking about anyway ? The AC introduced them to me this way: "Led by keyboardist Pipi Furz and guitarist Rainer Hochrainer, this virtually unknown Austrian group conjured up something truly amazing here. The backbone of their music is a kind of loose progressive jazz-rock of the distinctly "kraut-fusion" variety, but that doesn't really tell the half of it. Long, sprawling tracks unwind in a non-linear fashion, with all sorts of unexpected twists and turns, bizarre vocal interjections and sonic detours, creating an unsettling and distinctly surreal atmosphere that hovers over the entire album like a weird mist. Wild, reckless creativity and delirious imagination abound, entirely at odds with the standard funky fusion and symphonic prog that dominated the Germanic scene of the time. These guys were on too strange a trip to ever think about compromising or playing it safe, describing themselves as a "Dada Rock Brainstorming Cooporation" right on the cover. If this album had come out of 1972 Berlin, it would already be legendary. But emerging from this particular time and place, it never really had a chance. A lost krautrock classic if there ever was one."

It would seem obvious the name was a play on the ginger ale drink. And that's been confirmed. There's actually a page on the web about them. The AC took this a step further and added these historical notes: "My German is nonexistent, but with the (somewhat dubious) help of Babelfish, I was able to determine that the band was founded in 1977 in Salzburg as the "Ginger Ale Band". In 1980 they changed the name to Ginga Rale Band, and released "Wir Bedauern". It seems their "dada rock" concept saw them producing some sort of stage show with film projectors, additional actors, etc, (syncs up with the Austrian guy on RYM who said something like "They held nice open air festivals"). It seems like after this there were some major line-up changes, and the band took a totally different direction. As you can see on the discography provided by that site, they produced a couple of (presumably private press) singles, which seem to be tied in with some kind of rock opera named "Rock Dream" that they were involved in.

I checked around and amazingly found one of these tracks posted on youtube! As you can hear, it's angsty punk/new wave oriented stuff with female vocals, totally at odds with their earlier material. I think this is down to the line-up changes that I mentioned, and this brings up another interesting point. It seems that after "Wir Bedauern", the band mostly became a vehicle for Hochrainer and his wife. In fact, it turns out that "Rainer" Hochrainer was actually named Paul, and you can also see his rather extensive discography (extending up to the current day) on that site. It turns out that Hochrainer and a couple of the other Ginga Rale guys actually guested on the first Aardvark (the Austrian one, obviously) LP, an album I remember hearing a long time ago and not liking at all (stylistically all over the map, from what I can recall). Anyway, after these singles they made an appearance on an obscure Austrian new wave/punk compilation under the name of "Friques Ginger Rale Band".

This sort of punk attitude unfortunately carries down to the track titles on "Wir Bedauern", and represents the only problematic aspect of the album. There are only two tracks per side, and none are actually listed on the record label itself. But the back cover is clear on what those titles are. I've spent the last 13 years or so of my career heavily involved with Human Resources, so I shudder at seeing the N word. It's not clear why they use this title twice (even though they are different songs). The album doesn't appear to be racist in any way, and the content is almost entirely instrumental. I would imagine any kind of reissue would have to at least address this within the liner notes or even a renaming of the title(s). Some may say we are all too politically correct for our own good, but I could see many more folks being just flat out offended by it (including me frankly).

Back to The AC's historical notes: "Finally, in 1984 "Information" was released, and then it seems they disbanded. I had heard that this later LP was in a Germanic polit-rock/agit-rock style, but based on the album's entry on that site and the style they had already been playing in for the past 3 years, I'd say it's probably more like a new wave/agit-punk mixture. Obviously well outside our interest area, in any case. Anyway, I haven't been able to find any useful links to this point, but I'm hoping that Hochrainer's relatively recent musical activity would mean making contact with him is still possible, hopefully leading to some interest in a Ginga Rale Band reissue or archival release". Ginga Rale Band is a bulls eye for those that love the German Kraut fusion style, with the added bonus of successfully re-creating the atmosphere of the edgy cosmic Berlin-styled Krautrock of 1971.