Monthly Archives: December 2013

ROY HARPER — Man & Myth

Album: Man & Myth

Artist: Roy Harper

Label: Bella Union

Release Date: October 29, 2013

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 It may seem somewhat presumptuous, but in truth, it takes a title like Man & Myth to best describe Roy Harper, symbol of iconic insurgence and hero to such musical mainstays as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd (both of whom acknowledged Harper in their own recordings), as well as a host of millennials — Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart and Jonathan Wilson, among the many. A stern curmudgeon, unapologetic romantic and resolute anarchist, Harper created the blueprint for eccentric and eclectic British folk musings in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, decades prior to the quirky leanings of today’s so-called nu folk contingent. Harper’s output has been somewhat scattered of late — his last album, the dubious The Death of God, was released in 2005 — and the flashes of brilliance that characterised such seminal efforts as Lifemask, HQ and Valentine have been sadly scarce of late.

 Not surprisingly, Man & Myth was, by Harper’s own description, four years in the making and, in a certain sense, payback by his keen disciple, the aforementioned Mr. Wilson, who co-produced the initial sessions in California. In many ways it resembles those early efforts of decades back, mostly a stark, steady strum accompanying Harper’s plaintive, slightly desperate rants and wail. Seven songs long, it offers the impression of one continuous tirade, despite the moments of sublime tenderness that illuminate tender courting tunes like “Heaven Is Here” and “The Enemy,” each of which bring to mind such heartfelt Harper ballads as “Commune” and “Another Day.” On the hand, Harper’s no stranger to rock — early albums employed the likes of Paul McCartney, Dave Gilmour, Jimmy Page and Keith Moon on various occasions — and when he quickens the pace and accelerates the intensity on the unceasingly urgent “Cloud Cuckooland,”  it’s hardly surprising to find Pete Townshend joining in on the charge. A welcome, if somewhat belated return to form, Man & Myth can now be counted among Harper’s best.

 DOWNLOAD: “Cloud Cuckooland,” “The Enemy,” “Heaven Is Here”




LETHA RODMAN-MELCHIOR — Handbook for Mortals

Album: Handbook for Mortals

Artist: Letha Rodman-Melchior

Label: Siltbreeze

Release Date: October 29, 2013

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 By Jennifer Kelly

 Handbook for Mortals traffics in the almost-real, the detritus of regular life wrapped in luminous clouds, a drift of melody and meaning that floats just out of grasp. Tremulous clarinet, found sound, guitar and piano trail off leaving you to wonder if you heard them, dreamed them or just remembered them. Even the most familiarly structured bits – the eerie recreation of Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” for instance – are spectral and ineffable. The most abrasive sounds, a squall of detuned saxophone, the blister of distorted guitar, come shrouded in sepia-colored reminiscence.

 Letha Rodman-Melchior has been experimenting with field recordings and sonic textures for some time now, most often under the name Tretetam and frequently on hard-to-find CDR and cassette releases. This is her first album on vinyl, the first to get relatively wide release and a very fine way to make her acquaintance.

 Rodman-Melchior (yes, she’s married to Dan Melchior) seems preoccupied with water on this 11-cut release, naming seven of her pieces after liquid landmarks (that’s four seas with two in Latin , a bay, a marsh and a lake). And yes, there is a dream-like, underwater quality to the sounds she presents, whether the distant shimmer of piano, the muted racket of children at play or even, in one case, a commercial for a hair salon. You could imagine these tracks as sea-covered ruins, the ordinary noise of human beings stopped in mid-sentence, the whole of life subsumed in sparkling, silent clarity. “Marsh of Sleep,” particularly, has this weird noisy serenity, as the roar of car engines, the clamor of children, the diffident commentary of piano is alternately covered and uncovered by a whistling wind-tunnel sounds.

 Not that it’s all dream and drift. “Foaming Sea” is a whimsical wind-up toy of a song that lurches to life on a toy keyboard riff. And “Suess-A” samples a news readers and people-on-the-street talking about the surprise of an earthquake in North Carolina. As the voices fade to indefinite chatter, a ghostly choir of denatured voices come in, hymn-like, female, tinged with country folk, like faith amid absurdity, the sublime in mucky confusion.   

 This is quite a beautiful album, grounded in the day-to-day, but transfused with spirituality. It is, perhaps, worth mentioning that Rodman-Melchior made it while very ill – and that she is still struggling with cancer and cancer treatment. Without trying to speak for her, or to guess how her experience has shaped this music, I do notice a preciousness in these sounds, as if they have been collected and preserved against loss, as if tape and composition was employed to take the place of memory. It is a very sad album, but uplifting too. Buying it may even help a little, since all proceeds from sales will go to Rodman-Melchior Cancer Fund.

 Download: “Marsh of Sleep” “Send in the Clowns” “Foaming Sea”

RJD2 – More Is Than Isn’t

Album: More Is Than Isn’t

Artist: RJD2

Label: Electrical Connections

Release Date: October 08, 2013

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 With a christened name that proves as intriguing as his stage name, Ramble John Krohn, RJD2, returns with his fifth LP under this moniker after numerous collaborations, EPs and mixes. A creative producer and master of electronic beats he has a knack for weaving together disjointed beats with fluid sounds to create hip hop inspired dance tracks; a sampling of RJD2’s “A Beautiful Mine” is known to many as Mad Men’s theme song. More Is Than Isn’t dabbles in several genres; 70’s funk, 80’s R&B and rap, and hip hop instrumentals. Though there exists a similar thread within these styles having them live together on one album will either prove appealing or too large of a range for listeners. Nonetheless, of the 16 tracks on the album 7 of them feature vocalists while the rest are instrumentals…More Is Than Isn’t could’ve remained a lyric free album, it’s the most ear pleasing part of the release.

 The singers prove lackluster, the rappers unoriginal and flat but RJ’s music is damn good. Perfect example is the song “See You Leave,” the track starts with slow keyboards and intermittent drum rolls before giving way to Nile Rodgers-esque guitar strumming, a great start, no? Then the rapping and poor lyricism begins. But instrumentals such as single “Her Majesty’s Socialist Request” and “Winter Isn’t Coming” are solid, creative and attack you with their charged energy. Even the minute long “Suites,” one through three, are all small orchestral numbers that could’ve lasted longer. More Is Than Isn’t balances vocals with lyricless tracks but at the heart of it all is RJD2’s strength in producing impressive music.

 DOWNLOAD: “Winter Isn’t Coming,” “Tempermental”

DOSH – Milk Money

Album: Milk Money

Artist: Dosh

Label: Graveface

Release Date: October 22, 2013

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 When he is not performing with other acts such as Cloak Ox or drumming for Andrew Bird multi-instrumentalist master, Martin Dosh creates calm and thoughtfully pensive electronic soundscapes by harnessing static noise while merging jazz, ambience and hip hop. What makes Dosh special is his creation process: he plays every instrument you hear, from drums to keyboard to xylophone, and loops each piece together one by one to create an effortless sound. For his seventh full length Milk Money, Dosh continues to impress.

 Milk Money is generally a lyric free affair; the only vocals are sampled to fit the texture of a song. “We are the Worst” is a great opener to the album as we hear an ethereal woman’s voice repeat, “careful” as it is solely accompanied by keys, drums and effects. “Unto Internity” has an otherworldly feel as a Theremin like sound fades in and out beneath shuffling drums and  The 24 minute final track, “Legos (for Terry)” undergoes an interesting transformation. It starts quite calmly with singular piano chords and ambient noises to fill the void. It slowly disseminates into several sounds rhythmically toppling over each other: sampled vocals, fast paced chirps and drums, and plucky chords that sound like piano strings being struck with a wooden spoon.

 The experimental sonic world Dosh creates is beautiful and he has created an eerily enchanting one with Milk Money.

 DOWNLOAD: “We are the Worst,” “Unto Internity”


Album: All You Pretty Vandals

Artist: Casey Neill and the Norway Rates

Label: Incident Records

Release Date: November 12, 2013

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 Portland Oregon’s Casey Neill has been building a steadily burgeoning reputation over the past couple of decades, as both a musician and union activist whose songs are charged with urgency and resolve. While he’s still well below the radar as far as awareness from the public at large is concerned, his sweeping sensibilities and emphatic delivery show that his ambitions will not be denied.

 That much is evident at the outset, with the initial surge of the new album’s anthemic intro, “Hollow Bones.” Likewise, that insistent energy is generally sustained throughout, courtesy of tracks like “She Came Alive” (a supposed paean to Patti Smith, “No Earthly Pleasure” and “Signal Reach.” Even so, gathering clouds overshadow much of the proceedings, not only in tone (“Vanish Away,” being a prime example), but also in the actual verbiage of the titles as well (i.e., “The Dark Divide,” “My Little Dark Rose”). Ironically, those two aforementioned tunes – the former, a rarified ballad, the latter, a fiery Celtic work-out — offer momentary diversion from the rafter-raising exhortation that dominates the rest of the set.

 All You Pretty Vandals embodies a populist approach worthy of all the experience and expertise that Neill, his band, and guests Scott McCaughy and Langhorn Slim share in tandem. Flush with journeyman resolve and working class appeal, All You Pretty Vandals offers an adroit lesson on ways to tear it up.

 DOWNLOAD: “Hollow Bones,” “My Little Dark Rose,” “She Came Alive”

THE YOUNG LEAVES – Alive and Well

Album: Alive and Well

Artist: Young Leaves

Label: Baldy Longhair

Release Date: October 01, 2013

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 With a voice that sounds like Elvis Costello’s brother, The Young Leaves bring just enough pop to their punk mix to make the Pop Punk genre palatable once again.

 Coming out of the Boston suburbs, the band carry an impressive collection of influences given their relatively young ages. Along with Costello, there are hints of everyone from Dinosaur Jr. and The Descendents to Jawbreaker and the first few Lemonheads releases (when Evan Dando was still a sucker for distorted guitars). Alive and Well, is sonically sloppy and all over the place, but that just adds to the charm. Over the last few years Pop Punk bands tend to eschew loose production for a cleaned up polished sound, having forgotten that The Ramones were appealing, in part, because they seemed to be making up a lot of the music as they went along. And that’s one of the things that make The Young Leaves stand out from all those other bands that flog t-shirts at your local Hot Topics. 

 This debut is a promising start for a band that could evolve into the next saviors of punk rock… Then again, they could hire a popular producer on the next outing to rip the soul out of their music. Either/or.

  DOWNLOAD: “I’d Rather Be Hurt,” “Holliston” and “That One Tree”


FARM – Farm

Album: Farm

Artist: Farm

Label: Shadoks Music

Release Date: October 01, 2013

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 Southern Illinois was not exactly ground zero for hard rock in the early 1970s.

 But it was where one of the great lost American bands from the AOR era could be found, amidst the rural quaintness of this historic rural section of the Prairie State bashing out a totally unique hybrid of Humble Pie-style boogie and improvised Southern rock a la the Allman Brothers that really sounds unlike anything else out there past or present. They even do a version of Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues” that some may dare say is better than the one so famously rendered by the Bros.

 Released in collaboration with the group’s original members, Shadoks Music has given Farm’s sole self-titled LP a new lease on life. And its five massive tracks, highlighted by the likes of the combustible eight-minute jam “Let That Boy Boogie” and the driving “Cottonfield Woman”, can now be properly rediscovered by a generation who is starving for hot guitar licks.

 DOWNLOAD: “Let That Boy Boogie”, “Cottonfield Woman”, “Statesboro Blues” RON HART


VERLAINES – Juvenalia / Hallejulah All the Way Home

Album: Juvenalia / Hallejulah All the Way Home

Artist: Verlaines

Label: Flying Nun/Captured Tracks

Release Date: December 03, 2013

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The Verlaines were/are one of the most unique acts on the venerable Flying Nun label. Not that the band isn’t well-conversant in the jangling, postpunk guitar pop that’s been the New Zealand company’s raison d’etre since the beginning. But leader Graham Downes’ classical training has always given the group’s music more sophisticated textures and a deeper feel – Verlaines songs are often a bit more challenging than the average two-minute janglepop rush.

The Verlaines’ excellent body of work has been unfortunately out-of-print in the States, despite a healthy number of all-things-Flying-Nun lovers here. As part of its new deal with the label, Captured Tracks has been steadily dipping into the back catalog, and now reissues the Verlaines’ first two albums on vinyl.  

Though a compilation of singles, Juvenilia holds together as an album due to Downes’ consistency as a songwriter and a visionary. Using uncommon chords to create accessible melodies, Downes makes pop tunes that tickle the right fancy without relying on clichés. Veering between cheeky literary references (“Baud to Tears”) and emotional bluntness (“You Cheat Yourself of Everything That Moves”), he leaves few lyrical stones unturned, while letting the singalong melodies carry the weight. “Doomsday,” “New Kind of Hero” and “CD Jimmy Jazz and Me” all worm straight into the earhole – even the appropriately-titled “Instrumental” (recorded live) boasts a hummable tune. “You’re just too obscure for me,” Downes complains in “Death and the Maiden,” the band’s first single. But despite his high-brow pedigree, there’s nothing on Juvenilia that would cause any discerning listener to say the same. (Note: Juvenilia is also being reissued as a CD; the vinyl includes a download code for the CD bonus cuts.)

The band’s first proper LP, Hallelujah All the Way Home experiments with new wrinkles in the Verlaines guitar pop suit. A banjo backs up the jangle of “All Laid On,” while “Don’t Send Me Away” translates the kind of melody you’d find at a Christmas choral concert into a gentle folk tune. “For the Love of Ash Grey” adds some French horn to the mix, while “It Was Raining” strips down to unamplified sounds for a lonely ballad. “The Ballad of Harry Noryb” and “The Lady and the Lizard” stretch the jangle to near-epic length, adding acoustic guitar/French horn/clarinets interludes that bring the bristling clang down gently. Fans who want the kind of fizz found on Juvenilia should skip immediately to “Lying in State” or “Phil Too,” but sticking to trad guitar pop misses the point of this ambitious LP.

The Verlaines have plenty of other record hiding in the Flying Nun catalog. Here’s hoping these snappy reissues are just the first of many.

DOWNLOAD: “Doomsday,” “You Cheat Yourself of Everything That Moves,” “The Ballad of Harry Noryb”


Album: Phew!

Artist: Claudia Lennear

Label: Real Gone Music

Release Date: September 03, 2013

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 The documentary 20 Feet From Stardom raises the question of why so many strong-voiced, gospel-oriented female back-up singers of the 1960s and 1970s failed to have solo careers. One of those included was Claudia Lennear, who released only one solo album – 1973’s Phew! for Warner Bros., which Real Gone Music has just reissued. It’s never been out on CD before.

 Lennear had sung with the Joe Cocker/Leon Russell Mad Dogs and Englishmen revue, at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh and on albums by Dave Mason and Gene Clark. A stunning beauty, she was close to Mick Jagger and David Bowie, who were inspired by her to write “Brown Sugar” and “Lady Grinning Soul.”

 This album answers any question about its failure by its mediocrity. Nobody involved had any prescient vision of her as a lead singer. She’s fighting the arrangements for singing room.

 The album’s first five cuts (the vinyl record’s first side) were produced by Ian Samwell, a Warner Bros. favorite at the time for producing America. His work is awful here – so flat and muddled that one wonders just how many recording tracks were at his disposal in the production room.

 That’s despite having good session musicians – Ry Cooder on guitar and Jim Dickinson on guitar and piano among them. There’s no way a record buyer could listen to this and be interested in the singer. Only on the laid-back, acoustic version of bluesman Furry Lewis’ “Casey Jones” does Lennear get to show off her expressive voice, with a seductive drawl strikingly similar in places to Lucinda Williams. (There’s also a song she wrote, “Not at All,” about Jagger.)

 The reissue’s liner notes don’t say why Allen Toussaint and not Samwell produced the last five songs. (The cagey credits officially list Samwell s producer but thank Toussaint for “musical supervision, brass arrangements” and more.) But it’s a completely different sound. Toussaint works with his own compositions and was signed to Warner.

 And at first that’s a good thing. “Goin’ Down” is bright and forceful and Lennear can be heard, even with the large complement of brass players and other session musicians. Effective to a slightly lesser affect is “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky.”

 But then it becomes clear that Toussaint, whose strength as a producer was first rollicking piano-and-horn-based New Orleans R&B and then simmering, tightly wound proto-funk (Lee Dorsey, the Meters), doesn’t really get Lennear.

 Toussaint’s five songs run together as an awkward suite that increasingly leave her behind as she struggles with the relentless busyness of his arrangements. There’s little impact to “From a Whisper to a Scream” and the ballad “What’d I Do Wrong.” By the time this experiment closes with a second version of “Goin’ Down,” you can forgive Lennear for wondering what Toussaint had in mind. So will you.

 The CD has an extra cut – Ted Templeman’s lame production of Lowell George’s “Two Trains.” Lennear’s voice is mucked up by back-up singers and strings, and the result is the kind of watered-down, AM-friendly rock that he was creating to better effect for the Doobie Brothers.

 Lennear’s problem wasn’t unique. 20 Feet’s Merry Clayton was having the same problem at Ode. No one really knew what to do – or what kind of material and arrangements to use – to make a successful album for a soul singer whose orientation (at this career stage) was hip rock.

 It wasn’t until a younger generation in the 1980s – primed by cooler, more stylized, dance-oriented New Wave – took to Tina Turner that things really changed. But Lennear gave up on music and became a teacher. She may now start performing again because of the movie’s success. If she chooses to resume recording, hopefully she’ll find producers/arrangers who know how to play to her strengths rather than ignore them.

 DOWNLOAD: “Casey Jones.”

CHEAP TRICK – The Classic Albums 1977 – 1979

Album: The Classic Albums 1977 – 1979

Artist: Cheap Trick

Label: Epic/Legacy

Release Date: November 29, 2013

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       While Cheap Trick has finally joined the likes of Aerosmith, Journey, Night Ranger and others on that endless summer nostalgia lap of outdoor music sheds, we will always have their first four records as reminders of happier times, when the band began their journey as Power Pop Pioneers (though 2009’s Latest, was a pretty good album, so there may still be some life left in ‘em). Legacy has packaged all five records in a very cool box set, remastered in 2013 from the original analog tapes.  This set includes the only five Cheap Trick albums you will ever need to own: 

        Cheap Trick –  Their 1977 debut started off strong with “ELO Kiddies,” and had a few other highlights (most notably “He’s a Whore”), bit overall this decent debut  was more of a prelude of better things to come.

      In Color – Probably their best non-live album, this one boasts “Hello There,” “Clock Strikes Ten,” “I Want You to Want Me” and “Southern Girls” – all of which are show staples for the band to this day. By the way, this album came out in 1977. See that current rock bands? You don’t need to let years go by waiting for inspiration to strike. Get your ass in the studio (though it should be noted, pills and Cocaine probably had a lot to do with the bands prolific output during this period).

      Heaven Tonight – Originally out in 1978, boasting singer Robin Zander and bassist Tom Petersson on the album cover rocking two sweet, sweet late-‘70s hair dos – this one was almost as strong as In Color, introducing the world to Power Pop Xanadu in the form of album opener “Surrender” (“Your mommy’s alright/your daddy’s alright/they just seem a little weird!”). 

      (Live) At Budokan – The band’s paramount release. Some will try and tell you this live record – the album that brought the band to a much broader audience – is a bit overrated. They are lying; avoid them at all costs. Can 12,000 screaming Japanese fans really be wrong? Selling three million copies in the U.S., this is easily the band’s biggest album.

      Dream Police – Released in 1979, the title track is still one of the band’s best songs. There are a couple of other great tracks on here like “Voices” and “I’ll Be With You Tonight.” This is also the album that showed Kiss weren’t the only rock band to be seduced by that bitch Disco, with the dreadful nine-plus minute long rock/dance hybrid “Gonna Raise Hell.”