Music Review

Song of the Week: Thao & The Get Down Stay Down - "Astonished Man"

The alt folk-rock outfit Thao & The Get Down Stay Down have just released their fourth album, A Man Alive, and "Astonished Man" is the first single from said album. The record was produced by fellow Bay-area musician and tUnE-yArDs leader Merrill Garbus, and she produces the heck out of this single. In fact, their entire album. It's even quirkier than the Talking Heads and her own band, and that's in a grand way. 

This Charming Man

An Evening With Arthur Brown
11th March 2016
The Ruby Lounge, Manchester, UK
To the uninitiated, the title on the flyer suggests an event of essential Britishness, a talk about allotments, a discourse on gardening, or maybe the latest findings of the local historical society. Such is the distinctive ordinariness of the name Arthur Brown, as English as roast beef, and harking back to a time of tweed, flat caps and whippets. This is indeed an aspect of the truth, for the Mr Brown in question has elements of all of the above, but he is much more besides, and is quite simply one of the unsung national treasures, a living legend, the godfather of heavy metal and shock rock, and influence on acts with distances in longevity as Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson, and the Prodigy. With a four octave range that even now, at the tender age of seventy three puts most "knackers in a mouse trap screechers" to shame. He also possesses a wonderfully rich, almost fruity speaking voice that makes him sound like a prophet or a priest, or an actor about to wander along the finest aspects of Shakespeare.

George Martin R.I.P. (1926-2016): More Than Just the Fifth Beatle

On the evening of March 8, famed producer George Martin passed away at home, in his sleep, at age 90. (The announcement was first made on Ringo Starr's Twitter account.) He is, of course, primarily famous as the Beatles' producer, but I was heartened to see many friends in my Facebook feed chose to mark his passing by posting non-Beatles tracks he produced. Martin was a well-established, and well-rounded, producer before he started working with the Beatles. In his career the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee worked in quite a variety of contexts with any number of famous people, from comedy records with Peter Sellers to jazz records with Stan Getz, and practically everything in between.

The Beatles would undoubtedly have become famous without him -- and perhaps he without them -- but they wouldn't have sounded as good. Who else at that time would have made a Beatles record on which not one Beatle played an instrument? Of course, I have just described "Eleanor Rigby," on which Paul McCartney sang over Martin's lovely string quartet arrangement.

In 1998, struggling with hearing loss, he decided to bow out of the business with the album In My Life, released under his own name but full of guest stars ranging from Sean Connery, Goldie Hawn, Robin Williams, and Jim Carrey to Bobby McFerrin, Jeff Beck, Celine Dion, classical guitarist John Williams, and Phil Collins, all heard interpreting Beatles songs. Martin justly included two of his own compositions on the album too, the instrumentals "The Pepperland Suite" and "Friends and Lovers." As one of the true gentlemen of rock rode off into the sunset, this valedictory album and his induction into the Hall put the period to a long and fascinating tale (though he and his son did work on one final Beatles project a few years later, a Beatles remix for Cirque du Soleil).  Read more »

Achievement in Reverse: Brett Smiley Obit

Brett Smiley 25th September 1955 - 8th January 2016.

The death of Brett Smiley has removed one of the most obscure, but fascinating facets from the chipped, black nail varnished footnotes of rock. Until the turn of the new century his most slender of reputations rested only in the minds of those fortunate enough to possess his lone single "Va Va Va Voom," a wonderfully effete confection which surfaced in Britain in the fading months of 1974. Over-hyped and over the top, this California pretty boy import pouted and pranced like a stick thin bleached and back combed Goldie Hawn in platform boots. He emoted huskily: "I've gone so crazy I'm a certified nervous wreck. A little bit eccentric Ha! Screaming like a discotheque,"  made the cover of Disc magazine as the prettiest boy in the world and managed to briefly render Marc Bolan butch and reveal Sweet as the dockers in drag that they truly were. Had he gained a more prolonged period of exposure his androgyny would have shocked the nation, as it was he crashed and burned, his single bombed undeservedly, despite having Steve Marriott of the Small Faces on guitar duties, and not yet nineteen, he became a teenage has been. A has-been then for the second time because Brett Smiley was no stranger to the fame game. At the age of eleven he'd already conquered Broadway in the lead role of Oliver. Precocious he might have appeared, but it was with an awareness of his own worth and capabilities. Read more »

Darius Jones at The Stone, February 18, 2016

Alto saxophonist Darius Jones recently curated a week at The Stone and I caught the first set that Thursday night. He was playing with his Big Gurl trio, a collaboration with bassist Adam Lane and drummer Jason Nazary. His opening remarks include the observation "I haven't played any of this music in a long time," noting that this was one of his first trios after coming to New York. Read more »

Three J.D. Souther Reissues Remind Us How Good He Is

J.D. Souther's songs are better known as sung by other people, which is good for his bank account but puzzling if you've heard his fine LPs. I wouldn't be surprised if more people nowadays know of him from his acting on the TV series Nashville than from his career in music. If there's any justice, these three reissues will redress that imbalance.

After this Texan moved to L.A., he teamed with Glenn Frey in the band Longbranch/Pennywhistle (they kept co-writing songs after Frey founded the Eagles, notably "New Kid in Town"), lived upstairs from Jackson Browne, and dated Linda Ronstadt. Read more »

Song of the Week: Robert Kidney - "Big Paradise"

Robert Kidney, of the legendary N.E. Ohio-based agro-blues outfit 15-60-75 aka The Numbers Bandis set to release his long-awaited solo album, -- Jackleg (Exit Stencil Recordingsl). Friend, producer and bassist Tony Maimone (Pere Ubu) wisely persuaded him to record a solo album at his Brooklyn studio sans any outside distractions apart from a satchel of new songs and his guitar. What you hear is what you get. Unfiltered. His earnest vocals and guitar playing will leave you mesmerized. Not unlike the Rick Rubin-produced Johnny Cash sessions. "Paradise Lost" is the blues of a white man, blues that never try to mimic the blues of the African-American blues giants of the past, but rather distilled into Mr. Kidney's own unique style, a style that he has nurtured and refined for well over five decades. This track is only the tip of the iceberg and a full ablum review will be posted shortly. In the interim, please listen and share this unique tale of Americana. And order the album today!

ANNIVERSARIES: Wilhelm Furtwängler Born 130 Years Ago

Is Wilhelm Furtwängler (January 25, 1886 - November 30, 1954) the greatest conductor ever? While there are some who, in preference to his highly inflected, interventionist style, would prefer a more straight-forward conductor such as his contemporary Arturo Toscanini, many cognoscenti believe that at the least Furtwängler, when heard in his favored 19th century Austro-Germanic repertoire, ranks supreme of his type in the pre-stereo era. The aforementioned Toscanini himself was an admirer; asked who aside from himself was the greatest conductor, he named Furtwängler, and also pushed for the German to take over the directorship of the New York Philharmonic when Toscanini relinquished its reins, though controversy prevented that. Read more »

In Defense of the Eagles, and Not Being a Jerk About Recently Deceased Musicians













Even as 99% of my Facebook friends were eulogizing the late David Bowie in reverential terms, there were a few dissenters. Aside from a non-musical issue*, the most negative thing I saw about Bowie was along the lines of "I never cared/listened/understood the attraction." It's kind of passive-aggressive, since there's not much point to alerting us all to the fact that you are apparently apathetic yet somehow still feel we all need to hear from you on this trending topic, but it's pretty low-key, so whatever.

Then Glenn Frey died, and a much larger portion of the internet decided that this was the perfect time to remind us how much they hate the Eagles, how bad the Eagles' music is, and how clueless the rest of us are for apparently being deluded into liking them. Read more »

Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band: The Complete 1978 Radio Broadcasts (Soundstage)

I bought it for myself, but this was my Christmas present, arriving in the mail from England on Christmas Eve: a fifteen-CD set containing five epic Springsteen concerts from the legendary Darkness on the Edge of Town tour. When the Cleveland deejay who emceed the show for WMMS-FM introduced the band by saying, "Round for round, pound for pound, there ain’t no finer band around," he wasn't just rhyming, he was telling the truth.

Why, you ask, did this set come from England? Well, it's an unauthorized collection of bootlegs, but in Europe, radio recordings are public domain, so this is actually a legal release.

The word went out through the fan network I ordered it on Amazon U.K. before the release date. Perhaps Bruce doesn't get a penny out of this, but I've seen it suggested that writers' royalties would still have to be paid. Either way, for £15.99 (slightly under $24) plus Amazon's usual $3.99 shipping, I couldn't resist. In the years soon after these shows, when all of them were individually bootlegged on massive vinyl box sets, any one of them cost more than that. Read more »

Songs of Mortality

David Bowie: Blackstar (Iso/Columbia/Sony)

At first, I wished I'd gotten and listened to Blackstar before Bowie left us. Then I would have had an opportunity to judge it dispassionately, without the sense of loss and the desire to pay tribute altering my response. But as I listened to his slightly frayed voice on my second time through the album, I was reminded of Warren Zevon's far more ravaged voice on his last album, when we all knew he was dying, and I realized that any review written before Bowie's death would be missing Blackstar's ultimate context. Read more »

Best Classical Albums of 2015, Part Two

This concludes my look back at 2015 with the newer new albums -- the ones with new, or at least contemporary, compositions, most by living composers.

1. Soloists/Warsaw Boys' Choir/Warsaw Philharmonic Male Choir/Warsaw Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra/Antoni Wit
Penderecki: Magnificat; Kadisz
Naxos' invaluable Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933) project continues to bring us conductor Antoni Wit's impeccable renderings of the Polish composer's complex and challenging music, especially excelling in the choral works, as here. 
One of the longer settings of this text (here nearly 45 minutes), Penderecki's Magnificat (1973-74) is also epic in sound, written in a high-avant style similar to his iconic St. Luke Passion, with extended singing effects (especially long glissandi, but also speaking and whispering), highly disjunctive melodies, extremely dense dissonance, and colorful cluster interjections by the orchestra, especially the winds.

Best Classical Albums 2015, Part One

As I struggled, as every year, to get my end-of-year lists finished in a reasonably timely fashion, it occurred to me that I could publish half of the classical list earlier if I could find a reasonable way to split it into categories. Thus the non-contemporary/contemporary divide this year. The newer composers' work requires more listening; that's the only reason the older repertoire comes first.

Supposedly this release of a previously unissued concert recording was approved by the pianist shortly before his passing in July 2015. Certainly it's hard to hear anything of significance that he wouldn't have liked about it, because it is a magnificent testament to everything that made him one of the greatest pianists who ever lived: one of the most beautiful piano tones ever heard, allied to liquid phrasing that gave him one of the greatest legato touches ever recorded. 

Paul Bley (November 10, 1932 - January 3, 2016)

The death of the visionary pianist/ improviser Paul Bley leaves a big hole in the jazz universe. Bley, a fearless improviser with grace, bite, humor, and knowledge, will be remembered for the ability to empty his self of all preconceptions and impediments before sitting down at the instrument, and for the ability to take his own specific approach and language and to morph it into something that works with whatever the environment and/or musicians that are in the ambient -- and for the ability to sit at any piano [and they all have different personalities] and except for being extremely stylized, he could pull out the personality of that particular piano while still sounding like himself.

Paul, though studied, was completely naturalistic and organic in his musical conception. He had a mindset that was always in the moment, and if so-called history ever came through in his playing, it was more a function of the natural flow of language than any ostentatious show of jazz knowledge. Read more »

Song of the Week: The Besnard Lakes - "Golden Lion"

A new year and right out of the gate some must-own new music to share. I admit I let the tremendousily engaging "The Golden Lion" slip through the cracks in my inbox back in November. Nonetheless, this Montreal-based quintet, named after a lake region in Saskatchewan, Canada and featuring the husband/wife team of Jace Lasek and Olga Goreas, are creating some grand work. If you're into hazy waves of reverb-drenched guitars and worshipped at the altar of My Bloody Valentine, or the shoegazer rock scene in general, you'll be pleased as punch. But that's just half the story as their melodic, alt-rock has traces of Pink Floyd and even some slight prog leanings. Influences aside, The Besnard Lakes' track begs repeated headphone listens to fully appreciate the sonic weave of texture and nuances. Taken from A Coliseum Complex Museum (Jagjaguwar) and set for a January release date, order your CD or vinyl copy today!

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