Friday, February 27, 2015

Playlist: February

  • Steven Wilson—Hand.Cannot. Erase (2015)
  • Courtney Barnett—Sometimes I Just Sits and Thinks, and Sometimes I Just Sits (2015)
  • Laura Marling—Short Movie (2015)
  • Robben Ford—Into the Sun (2015)
  • Gavin Harrison—Cheating the Polygraph (2015)
  • Mark Knopfler—Tracker (2015)
  • Lonely Robot—Please Come Home (2015)
  • The Waterboys—Modern Blues (2015)
  • The Amazing—Picture You (2015)
  • Bill Frisell—Guitar in the Space Age! (2014)
  • Linda Sutti—Wild Skies (2014)
  • Field Music—Field Music (2005)
  • Joseph Arthur—Junkyard Hearts (2002)
  • Chris Whitley—Living Within the Law (1991)
  • Tears for Fears—Songs from the Big Chair (1985, bonus track remix 2014)
  • David Bowie—Stages (1978, bonus track reissue 2005)
  • Led Zeppelin—Physical Graffiti (1975, deluxe reissue 2015) 
  • Camel—Flight of the Snow Goose (1975, bonus track remaster 2002)
  • Can—Tago Mago (1971)

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Playlist: January

    • Steven Wilson—Hand.Cannot. Erase (2015)
    • Laura Marling—Short Movie (2015)
    • King Crimson—Live at the Orpheum (2015)
    • Björk—Vulnicura (2015)
    • Ralph Stanley and Friends—Man of Constant Sorrow (2015)
    • The Waterboys—Modern Blues (2015)
    • The Amazing—Picture You (2015)
    • Jane Weaver—The Silver Globe (2014)
    • North Atlantic Oscillation—The Third Day (2014)
    • A Winged Victory for the Sullen—Atomos (2014)
    • Trevor Rabin—Live in L.A. (2014 re-release)
    • Julie Slick—Fourth Dementia (2014)
    • Lunatic Soul—Walking on a Flashlight Beam (2014)
    • Sam Weber—Shadows in the Road (2014)
    • Markus Reuter—Todmorden 513, Concerto for Orchestra (2013)
    • Joanna Newsom—Have One on Me (2010)
    • Nik Bärtsch's Ronin—Stoa (2006)
    • Thornley—Come Again (2004)

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Playlist: November/December

  • Steven Wilson—Hand.Cannot. Erase (2015)
  • The Waterboys—Modern Blues (2015)
  • The Amazing—Picture You (2015)
  • TV on the Radio—Seeds (2014)
  • David Bowie—Nothing Has Changed (2014)
  • Marissa Nadler—July (2014)
  • Wovenhand—Refractory Obdurate (2014)
  • Elbow—World Cafe live (2014)
  • Marillion—Recycled Gifts (2014)
  • Sloan—Commonwealth (2014)
  • Nick Mulvey—First Mind (2014)
  • Vieux Farka Touré—Vieux Farka Touré (2006)
  • Interpol—Turn on the Bright Lights (2002)
  • Joni Mitchell—Both Sides Now (2000)
  • Mansun—Six (1998)
  • Catherine Wheel—Adam and Eve (1997)
  • Rickie Lee Jones—Traffic from Paradise (1994)
  • Shawn Colvin—Steady On (1989)
  • Genesis—Genesis (1983)
  • Frank Zappa—Shut Up 'n' Play Yer Guitar (1982)
  • Lou Reed—Transformer (1972)

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

New on Newsstands

I have a couple of front-of-book pieces in the two most recent issues of American Way magazine. In the issue now in seatbacks of American Airlines jets, I interviewed LeRoy Bennett, the music industry's leading stage and lighting designer.

Stages have come a long way since the ’60s and ’70s, when the most lavish rock shows were simply rainbow lights, a riser for the drums and maybe an inflatable doll or, in Led Zeppelin’s case, a cardboard set of Stonehenge at one of their stadium shows. The late, great designer Mark Fisher changed the game completely by creating mammoth sets such as Pink Floyd's The Wall and, later, Peter Gabriel's Millennium Dome show and U2's extra-extravagent extravaganzas.

LeRoy Bennett is the natural heir to Fisher's throne. He's not only designed Super Bowl halftime shows for Beyoncé and Bruno Mars, but also stages for Paul McCartney, Lady Gaga, Nine Inch Nails and Madonna to name just a tiny fraction of the superstars he's collaborated with.

I interviewed Bennett about several of the stages he designed for American Way, but here's an excerpt I couldn't fit into my story about his design for Jay-Z and Beyoncé's "On the Run" tour this year.
They’re very different in their music and their approach to a show. When Jay goes out and walks on stage, it’s a lot more casual. There’s a more masculine look for Jay. Beyoncé is very physical on stage with her dancing and singing.  So I had to meld those two worlds together.  There is a bit of illusion. With the Beyoncé song, “Baby Boy,” there are dancers out there, but then there are images of other dancers so sometimes it looks like there are 12 dancers out there. This whole show was based on Bonnie and Clyde. There’s a lot of little innuendos about them as a couple and their relationship. The storyline is about forgiveness and what love is all about. There’s a moment when they start showing pictures of [their daughter] Blue and they stand there and watch that. They’re both really good parents to her.

I also briefly wrote about the reissue of Led Zeppelin's fourth album, newly remastered by guitarist Jimmy Page and boasting a bonus disc of alternate mixes of the songs, for the previous issue of American Way

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Playlist: October + review of Pink Floyd's "Endless River"

  • Pink Floyd—The Endless River (2014)
  • The Amazing—Picture You (2015)
  • Flying Lotus—You're Dead (2014)
  • Burnt Belief—Etymology (2014)
  • Steve Rothery—The Ghosts of Pripyat (2014)
  • Knifeworld—The Unraveling (2014)
  • Aphex Twin—Syro (2014)
  • Amplifier—Mystoria (2014)
  • David Bowie—"Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)" (2014); The Next Day Extra edition (2013)
  • Joseph Arthur—The Ballad of Boogie Christ, Act 2 (2013)
  • Bjork—Biophilia (2011)
  • Big Wreck—The Pleasure and the Greed (2001)
  • Tool—Lateralus (2001)
  • Justin Adams—Desert Road (2000)
  • Boards of Canada—Music Has the Right to Children (1998)
  • The Cure—Disintegration (1989)
  • Dire Straits—Brothers in Arms (1985)
  • Depeche Mode—Black Celebration (1985)
  • Talking Heads—Remain in Light (1980)
  • Goblin—Roller (1976)
  • Terje Rypdal—Odyssey: In the Studio and Beyond (1975)
  • Can—Future Days (1973)
  • Led Zeppelin—IV (1971, deluxe reissue 2014); Houses of the Holy (1973, deluxe reissue 2014)
  • Frank Zappa—Hot Rats (1969)
There's been something of a common theme to my playlist this past month—they're mostly instrumental albums. A famous rock band has commissioned a book from me and, for some reason, I find it difficult to write while listening to songs featuring singers. My mind tends to automatically largely tune out music with vocals when I'm on my computer. Instrumental music works much better. My wife and I have also just moved from Los Angeles to Boston, so these albums have provided a great soundtrack to the chore of packing moving boxes.

First, I gotta tell you about the album that most surprised me this year—electronic hip-hop artist Flying Lotus' You're Dead. Now, if you stopped reading at the words "hip-hop," I implore you to carry on because this album isn't really a rap record. You're Dead does feature guest appearances by rappers Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg, but it really sounds like a great progressive rock album.

It's a tight 38 minutes of mostly ethereal, organic instrumental music that draws upon jazz, electronica, hip-hop, prog, fusion and funk. It sounds like  a 21st-century take on Miles Davis's Bitches Brew. Indeed, Flying Lotus cites King Crimson, Soft Machine, Slayer, Pink Floyd and Weather Report as influences on the album. I hear Funkadelic's Maggot Brain in there, too.

You're Dead features saxophonist Kamasi Washington, ex-Mars Volta drummer Deantoni Parks and Metalocalypse guitarist Brendon Small. And Flying Lotus also roped in Herbie Hancock with the idea of making hip-hop music that'd impress Miles Davis—"a jazz record, that would fuck him up."   Thankfully, he insisted that Hancock ditch his crappy modern keyboards and play Fender Rhodes. Result? Consistently gorgeous and adventurous music that's genuinely progressive.

One of 2014's very best records. Take a listen to this sample from it, below.

As a massive fan of Porcupine Tree, I've followed the solo endeavors of each of its musicians. Each band member has produced very strong work since Porcupine's Tree's extended—perhaps indefinite—hiatus. Bassist Colin Edwin has pursued a hydra career, flitting between his longtime band Ex-Wise Heads, his new Twinscapes bass duo, and guesting on various Tim Bowness projects. He's also established an exciting band called Burnt Belief with an American guitarist named Jon Durant.

I hadn't previously come across Durant who, like me, lives in Boston. Here's a tweet-length bio: The one-time Berklee College of Music student used to be the demo guy for Lexicon's JamMan guitar looping technology, which was utilized by the likes of Joseph Arthur. In 1996, Durant founded Alchemy records, which has released albums by Michael Manring, Wayne Krantz/Leni Stern and, now, Burnt Belief.

I was knocked out by the debut Burnt Belief album in 2013. The duo's new release, Etymology, defies easy categorization. Not quite jazz, not quite fusion, not quite new age, not quite prog. It's guitar-based instrumental music that sounds as if it's seeped through the cracks of an alternate dimension.

Durant's cloud guitar will appeal to fans of Robert Fripp and David Torn and Carl Verheyen, though the Massachusetts guitarist doesn't quite sound like any of those players. His often textural guitarwork is distinguished by brazen and fierce lead parts. For instance, Durant's guitar sounds like a chorus of trumpets during the opener, "Chromatique," On the Middle-eastern flavored "Dissemble," Durant's underwater guitar sound tangles and twists around crystal clear violin parts by No-Man's Steve Bingham. "Rivulet" showcases two signature aspects of Durant's guitar playing: His shimmering vibrato and the way in which he deliberately smudges his way between notes. For a change of pace, check out the minimalist "Hover," in which Durant's guitar notes gleam like bells.

Burnt Belief's sound, which often draws on eastern modes, is a natural fit for Edwin. He is a master of slow-churn grooves and ethereal textures. I love Edwin's bass undertow in "Not Indifferent" and "Hfraunfosser" as well as his lancing lines during "Squall." Edwin's sinewy treble is one of the most beautiful aspects of Etymology's sound. This stuff will take your head to outer space.

I recently received a review copy of Pink Floyd's The Endless River. What does it sound like? Put it this way: Remember how Steven Wilson created a library of his sounds for the Ghostwriter software? Well, this sounds like the Pink Floyd version of that—a compilation of its best known and classic sounds. Which is to say that little here that's remotely new or different from anything we've heard from these musicians before. Like the latest albums by Aphex Twin and My Bloody Valentine, this Floyd record is more a consolidation of a distinctive sound than it is a progression. Like those other two records, The Endless River is gorgeous music if you accept it on those terms.

Though The Endless River was pieced together from hours of soundscape noodling and jamming, the result sounds more focused than one might expect. Unlike The Orb/David Gilmour record Metallic Spheres, which meandered without any compass, these instrumental tracks have been tightly edited. Nine of the tracks clock in at less than two minutes. The result is a continuous flow of musical ideas that don't outstay their welcome. Each instrumental segues into the next to create a holistic listening experience in which the sum is greater than its parts. For that reason, I'd recommend the CD version of the album rather than the vinyl version for an uninterrupted listen.

The opening track, "Things Left Unsaid," begins in Dark Side of the Moon style with candid admissions by several disembodied voices. "We have an unspoken understanding, but certain things left unsaid as well," says one band member. "Well, we shout and argue and fight and work it all out," says the voice of David Gilmour."The sum is greater than the parts," adds a third voice. Over the next four minutes, Richard Wright's keyboards breathe and sigh in pastoral bliss as Gilmour's Glissando guitar parts shimmer like a heat haze.

The pulse picks up during "It's What We Do." Wright's Minimoog evokes the introduction to "Shine On You Crazy Diamond." Nick Mason reminds listeners that his unhurried fills and drizzled cymbals are a unique and essential component of the Floyd sound. When Gilmour's guitar solo comes in like a laser beam refracted through a prism, your ears will swoon. For the next several minutes, his blues-y guitar notes swoop and dip over a gentle acoustic strum that sounds as it had been lifted from "Dogs" on Animals. Beautiful. "Ebb and Flow" circles back to the slurred guitar sound of the opening track and features candy-sweet keyboard lines. This trio of pieces is a stunning start to the album.

"Skins" begins with the same keyboard sound that opens "Cluster One" on The Division Bell. It's soon subsumed by crackling sounds, a trembling keyboard figure and the snarling guitar Gilmour deployed on "Sorrow." Mason plays the sort of tom-tom figures last heard on "Time" and "Set Controls for the Heart of the Sun." His drums come to the fore for an extended solo on "Skins," which is psychedelic and spooky and harks back to "A Saucerful of Secrets." The extended tenor sax solo and a glass-cut guitar solo of "Anisina" comes as something of a surprise. It's joyful and jubilant, musical qualities seldom associated with Pink Floyd. 

My other fave part of the album is the seven-song suite that begins with the reflective piano piece of "The Lost Art of Conversation." By turns playful, whimsical and then brooding, the suite begins with atmospheric noodling (one track is even titled "On Noodle Street"). The music come to a boil with "Allons-y Pt. 1" and "Allons-y Pt. 2," which is bridged by Rick Wright's majestic turn at the organ inside the Royal Albert Hall on "Autumn '68." "Allons-y Pt. 2" takes off with a heatseeker solo by David Gilmour that wholly plagiarizes"Another Brick in the Wall," but is no less enjoyable for it. The awkwardly titled "Talkin' Hawkin'"—which features the processed voice of Stephen Hawking over "Great Gig in the Sky"-style ululations of a female singer—continues the album's loose theme of the importance of communication.  

Wright's keyboards are front and center during the final suite. "Calling" would be a fitting alternate theme tune to Carl Sagan's Cosmos. The dramatic mood piece "Eyes to Pearls" could work as the soundtrack to a suspense theme in a spy movie."Surfacing" is a direct lift of musical motifs from The Division Bell's "High Hopes." The album concludes with "Louder than Words," the first single and the sole song with vocals. Its lyric summarizes the troubled history of Pink Floyd, a band cursed by musicianly acrimony, yet blessed with musical alchemy. I was initially underwhelmed by "Louder than Words." But it snuck up on me and has taken up residence in my mental jukebox. I adore it now. 

Gotta admit that the first time I listened to The Endless River, I was underwhelmed. I imagine some people will be disappointed in the album given that it only has one proper song. Some may feel that the album lacks the substance and weight of previous releases. After all, it's not a proper album as much as it is a burnished compilation of fragmentary leftovers. But my opinion of The Endless River changed with repeat plays. The key to getting the most out of this album is, a) to listen to it as a continuous piece without distraction, and b) to accept that it's an album fashioned from used parts. I prefer this album to The Division Bell, which I felt was a poor album with just a handful of good tunes. To me, The Endless River is a stronger farewell from Pink Floyd.

I've played this album over and over and over, which is testament to its strengths.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Playlist: September

  • Robert Plant—lullaby and...The Ceaseless Roar (2014)
  • Thom Yorke—Tomorrow's Modern Boxes (2014)
  • Joe Bonamassa—Different Shades of Blue (2014)
  • Aphex Twin—Syro (2014)
  • Interpol—El Pintor (2014)
  • Amplifier—Mystoria (2014)
  • Burnt Belief—Etymololgy (2014)
  • Ryan Adams—Ryan Adams (2014)
  • Steve Rothery—The Ghosts of Pripyat (2014)
  • Opeth—Pale Communion (2014)
  • Plaid—Peachy Prints (2014)
  • Mogwai—Rave Tapes (2014)
  • SAND—SAND (2014)
  • Gary Moore—Live at Bush Hall 2007 (2014)
  • The Pineapple Thief—Magnolia (2014)
  • EngineersAlways Returning (2014)
  • King CrimsonIslands (1971), The ConstruKction of Light (2000), The Power to Believe (2003). 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Now on newsstands: Joe Bonamassa interview

Earlier this year, blues rocker Joe Bonamassa showed up to play a sold-out show in Kingston, New York, only to be turned away at the theater’s backstage door.

“They changed the security guy and he tried to throw me out of my own gig. I said, ‘Dude, probably not good for business,’” Bonamassa laughingly told me when I interviewed him for the current issue of American Way, the in-flight magazine of American Airlines. (You can read the interview here.)

To me, the incident sums up the paradox of Joe Bonamassa: The 37-year-old is America’s biggest guitar hero since Stevie Ray Vaughan but he's hardly a recognizable name to most people. Blame the US media, which has scarcely profiled the guitarist even though he sells out 2-3,000 seat venues per night. (In Europe, he sells out arenas.) His last album went to number 23 on the Billboard charts. And, in Britain, it went all the way to number two, only missing the top spot by a mere 81 copies. Not bad for a blues rock album released by Joe's own record label.

Yet that feat barely garnered any press in the US. Joe's response to the apathy of most music journalists is a sigh.

“I’m not trying to be the hippest thing,” says Bonamassa told me. “I know my fanbase and what they want to hear. I don’t think we’re hip enough. I’m like Opie Taylor plays the blues in sunglasses and a suit. I’m not sure that’s edgy enough for them to brag about at their cocktail parties.”

Joe Bonamassa’s anonymity may not last for long: His eleventh studio album Different Shades of Blue, released this week, articulates what a singular talent he is. (I wrote a brief review of it here.) Produced by longtime cohort Kevin Shirley, Different Shades of Blue is Bonamassa's first album of entirely original songs since his debut. Until now, his albums have typically been a mixture of original compositions and cover versions.

“I’m not a very confident writer," Bonamassa told me. "I’m not a very prolific writer. But some of the best songs that I have—fortunately and unfortunately—are the ones that I write myself or the ones where I have a good amount of input.”

The singer and guitarist holed up in Nashville with a few writers to work on songs that range from blues shuffles to galloping rockers. By the time he was ready to enter the recording studio in Las Vegas, he had a number of catchy melodies, including "Love Ain't a Love Song" and "Get Back My Tomorrow."

“I kept stockpiling material,” says Bonamassa. “I had some good songs, I had some solid material, but I didn’t have that big stomping, swampy blues thing that I’ve become known for. I wrote this song with my friend James House called ‘Oh Beautiful,’ which was nothing but an a capella verse and then a crazy kind of Led Zeppelin riff. I knew when I came back from that particular writing session on that particular day that we had the record done.”

"Oh Beautiful" is, indeed, the standout track. During the epic solo, Bonamassa’s fingers hurtle down the tracks of the guitar neck like an express locomotive.

Joe is typically modest about Different Shades of Blue. “I listened back to it all the way through and thought, ‘This is not so bad,’” he told me Bonamassa.

Now, if he can only get that British number one...

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Playlist: July

  • Robert Plant—lullaby and...The Ceaseless Roar (2014)
  • Jenny Lewis—The Voyager (2014)
  • Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers—Hypnotic Eye (2014)
  • Big Wreck—Ghosts (2014)
  • Rival Sons—Great Western Valkyrie (2014)
  • The Pineapple Thief—Magnolia (2014)
  • EngineersAlways Returning (2014)
  • Tim Bowness—Abandoned Dancehall Dreams (2014)
  • Joe Bonamassa—Different Shades of Blue (2014)
  • Knifeworld—The Unravelling (2014)

Now on Newsstands: Syd Arthur

I interviewed British band Syd Arthur for the new issue of Under the Radar magazine, currently on newsstands and also available digitally.

The British four piece, which recently released its excellent second album Sound Mirror, is an intriguing proposition. The band's sound is, in part, a welcome throw back to the long-dead Canterbury Scene of bands of yore such as Caravan, Hatfield and the North, and Soft Machine. But Syd Arthur bring a modern, threadbare edge to their music, which explains how they're able to straddle the dispirate worlds of indie rock and progressive rock. Syd Arthur played at Coachella and Bonnarroo this year and now they're on tour as the support band for YES.

Fittingly, they're on the reactivated Harvest record label, once home to Pink Floyd, Roy Harper and Kevin Ayers. I chatted with band member Raven Bush (violin, mandolin, keyboard) for the magazine. Turns out that he's the nephew of Kate Bush, who has given the band "positive feedback."

Here's a bonus interview I did with Syd Arthur for Under the Radar's website with material not included in the magazine article. In the meantime, take a listen to the band's music videos, below.

"Garden of Time":

"Hometown Blues":