Friday, September 28, 2012

Review - Andrew Peterson - Light for the Lost Boy

I probably sound all sappy on this review but I don't care. This album blows me away like a twister in Kansas.

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It’s been a long time since I’ve come across an album like Andrew Peterson’s Light for the Lost Boy. The ten songs enchantingly capture the marvel of childhood, expressed through the melancholy eyes of a father who is watching his children grow up and lose their sense of wonder through the hardships of life. Sadness flirts with joy. Hope mingles with loss.

“Come Back Soon” opens like the dawn, full of hope and apprehensive promise, spouting forth picturesque lyrics of “We awake in the night in the womb of the world / We beat our fists on the door / …. Are we alone in this great darkness?” “The Ballad of Jody Baxter” is quiet, sung in whisper with appropriate rural instruments that accompany this retelling of The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings while the hushed “Shine Your Light On Me” captures a day when Peterson was “sixteen with a broken heart in bloom.” The reassuring “Rest Easy” springs forth with the hopeful line “You are not alone” and builds to a cathartic bridge of “You work so hard to wear yourself down” before providing rest and affirmation. Inspired by a family trip to the Kensington Gardens of Peter Pan fame, almost the entire song of “Day By Day” is a memorable quote. Indulge me a few: “We just can’t get used to being here / Where the ticking clock is loud and clear / Children of eternity / On the run from entropy” and “Everybody’s so surprised / When right before your very eyes / Your baby’s in the second grade / You blink and it’s her wedding day.” Add a gentle rock beat and a sticky melody and you’ve got pure pixie dust! In “You’ll Find Your Way” Peterson writes to his too-quickly growing son “I wanna go with you / But I can’t follow” through life, lamenting “Your first kiss / Your first crush / The first time you know you’re not enough / The first time there’s no one there to hold you.” If this isn’t an apt expression of early teen years then I don’t know what is. The final song, which incorporates an expensive Peter Gabriel influenced sound, explores the topic further with “But every little boy grows up / And he’s haunted by the heart that died.” However, far from being a depressing album, Peterson sprinkles each song with light through a desire for hope through faith.

Too often a band’s lyrics are negligible. Very rarely does an album fire on all cylinders. By focusing so much on the lyrics I don’t intend to downplay the music as it is excellent. Somewhere in between “Americana” and “Roots rock”, these mostly acoustic songs are peppered with a judicial amount of progressive electronic sounds and a dollop of experimental production. Take these away and you still have superb examples of top-notch songwriting. Such music allows expression of things mere words cannot and when the words and music come together, as on Light for the Lost Boy, the result is pure magic.

Review - Tin Hat - the rain is a handsome animal

I like pinto beans.

I’m not sure why I even bought the rain is a handsome animal, the latest album by the multi-instrumentalist cabal that current goes by the name of Tin Hat. At first blush it sounds a lot like the kind of music they play on NPR as they take a commercial break, if you know what I mean and I think you do. And then there’s the fact that the album is based on poetry by the avant-garde poet e.e.cummings, a man so creative that he refuses to capitalize his name. I’ve got nothing against the man or his poetry, it’s just that I never find myself sitting in front of a warm fire, my favorite pipe firmly in hand and a burning desire to read me some e.e. cummings poetry ensconced in my brain. However I’ve enjoyed past albums by Tin Hat and so I forked over the credit card and listened and listened and listened some more. handsome animal is certainly not as playful or as dark as past albums. And instead of being mostly instrumental this beast is mostly vocal, thanks to violinist Carla Kihlstedt tackling the carefully constructed lines of cummings.

Just about the time that I’m ready to write this one off it starts to reveal itself to me. The classical-meets European folk melodies begin to shine through and what I once thought of as excessive use of the bass harmonica now seems appropriate. It also doesn’t hurt that I’m a non-polka accordion fan and this album is packed with exceptional squeezebox bravado, especially “a cloud on a leaf” where Rob Reich evokes images of accordion virtuoso Piazzolla. Clarinetist Ben Goldberg joins the accordion in “2 little whos” to make a romantic afternoon in Paris, forming gauzy atmosphere in the likes of an impressionistic painting. A funeral arrangement of horns fills “buffalo bill” with a somber spirit, giving Kihlstedt ample room to mourn and flex her expressive vocal cords. Acoustic guitarist and founding member Mark Orton more than holds his own amongst these musical maniacs. “sweet spring” is a beautiful song featuring Orton’s impeccable talents, graciously allowing the silences to say as much as the notes played. And as always Kihlstedt’s violin prowess is on full display, never more so than on the crazed violin solo in “enormous room,” frantically careening about on silken slippers. These songs are definitely slow growers but they appear to be paying rich dividends.

I was originally planning to pan this album but dangit if I didn’t instead discover why I bought the rain is a handsome animal: Tin Hat never fails to surprise and never fails to please the ears.

Review - Classical Accordions

Ahh.... my very first music review!

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Like most people, I spent the formative years of my life associating accordions with the cult formerly known as the Lawrence Welk Show (I still wake up at night screaming, images of dancing bubbles ricocheting through my head). It was not until I heard the tasty, melodic strains of accordion skillfully blended into the music of They Might Be Giants that I changed my tune (yes, that was intentional and yes, I am deeply, deeply ashamed). Now, as a proud owner of a Scandalli piano accordion, I join the ranks of thousands of people whose musty accordions sit horribly underplayed in some remote corner of their abode. This is all to say that when I saw the CD "Duos for Classical Accordions" sitting all alone on the music store rack, the guilt of my near-abandoned Scandalli was too great and I was powerless to resist.

I wasn't sure what to expect when I started up the disc. The two major pieces on the CD are Stravinsky's "Petrushka" (the 1947 version), and Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition", popular for spawning not only an ELP album but for providing music for the bluest little has-beens in the land, "The Smurfs". The versions on this CD were arranged by the two "classically trained" accordionists James Crabb and Geir Draugsvoll (should be household names any day now). The Mussorgsky piece being an old favorite (it was the third classical album I every owned), I skipped the disc to the opening "Promenade" theme and sat back to subject my ears to the horrible sound of strangled geese. Though sounding a bit "reedy" at times, the music was far from horrible. Actually, it sounded more like an organ duo than anything else. The music is so true to the original and the playing so precise that about five minutes into the piece, I had forgotten that I was listening to accordions and instead was enjoying the music. Though not as familiar with the Stravinsky piece, it too seemed to lack any of the horrible corniness that I hoped would be present on this album. Stravinsky's angular, boxy melodies actually seem ready-made for the transition to accordion, as though they had been waiting since 1947 for this moment. Though perhaps not for everyone, the strong of heart and ear will find that "Dues for Classical Accordions" presents a new twist of these familiar and popular works.

EMI Classics Debut : Duos for Classical Accordions James Crabb and Geir Draugsvoll

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, May 1998.

Review - Daniel Amos - Songs of the Heart Deluxe

Songs of the Heart is the album that got me back into DA. I had a longish commute (for me, at least... 25 minutes) and I was able to listen to the entire album driving there and back, an album that I had previously written off. But it got it's hooks in me and these hooks haven't left yet.

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Back in 1995 everyone's favorite oddball alternative Christian band (well, mine anyway) decided to record a concept album, Songs of the Heart, detailing the last vacation of Bud and Irma Akendorf before Bud passes away in his sleep. As if the subject wasn't enough of a guarantee to ensure a "big hit with the kids" they decided to use unconventional instrumentation and arrangements and the vocalist often spoke the part of Bud. For further confusion they used an album cover from a 60's gospel album (not the one above), resulting in their album often being placed among Sandi Patti, Bill Gaither Trio and their ilk. It all seemed like a good idea at the time.

Even for many diehard fans this album had an unusually long warming period, myself included. But once it hits, it hits hard with rich stories of the blessings and sufferings in their lives, all presented in a kind of movie soundtrack. The instrumentation, while unorthodox, does usually revolve around the typical rock band setup. Except "Get Back Into The Bus, Aloha" which uses a trombone to play the bass part… and "The Glory Road", which is about Route 66 and is built in a very angular rhythm and an accordion part so luscious and hip that it encouraged me to learn that very instrument… and a few others. But I digress. Once one gets past the initial shock the different musical tone colors only serve to make repeated listens more enjoyable with new textures and parts being discovered each time. Personal favorites are legion but include the bittersweet, nostalgic, near a cappella "Donna Nietche and Her Super Race of Kick Boxing Uber Parrots" and "Sins of the Fathers", a song in which Bud faces his own mortality in a roadside diner by reflecting upon the young "counter kid with the insufficient moustache." Lines such as "I could offer the boy some kind of words of wisdom… Tell him about unrealized expectations … But you can't teach these young dogs new tricks" poetically portray Bud's past as well as his hope for the future. The final song, "My Hand to God" finds Bud with his sleeping wife of forty-seven years beside him in bed, his body in the grips of a heart attack, knowing his time has come and yet hesitating to offer a prayer for his wife that "You know I love you, sweetheart / See you again soon." As strange as some songs on the album have been, here the music is a perfect compliment to the beautiful lyrics that often manage to pull tears from deep within me. In addition to the many lyrical and musical gems on this album one can also hear the insane musical ramblings of bassist Tim Chandler and the kind of guitar parts that can only sprout from the mathematical mind of Greg Flesch, who by day is a real NASA scientist. I've heard thousands of musicians in my life and these two approach their instruments in such an off-kilter manner than I've yet to hear their equal.

This album has been reissued in a most unusual and fitting format. First there is a sixty-page book that includes notes on the original recordings and a lengthy story where this last vacation is fleshed out and given more depth. A second disc contains a stripped-down acoustic version of the album with the songs presented in a somewhat more coherent order. Presented with only piano, drum kit, and acoustic guitar, the lyrics are allowed more of center stage and reveal previously hidden nuances of the songwriter's craft. The final CD includes band leader Terry Taylor reading sections of the story, an interview with him about the album, and two new songs that bring further elements of the story to life.

For those willing to take on this exhilarating Americana adventure down Route 66, cruise over to www.danielamos.com. Be sure to tell them Bud Akendorf sent ya!

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, July 2002

Review - John Linnell - State Songs

In contrast to the Monopuff albums I still find myself listening to this album. It's AMAZING! KILLER, even. Witty, quirky, catchy... GIVE ME MORE, MAN!!!!

John Linnell, the accordion playing half of They Might Be Giants, has a mission: to write a song for every state in the union. His first solo CD, State Songs, is a wonderfully quirky collection extolling fifteen states plus the "title" song "The Songs of the 50 States". The songs are very similar in style to that They Might Be Giants, and rightly so, though the instrumentation is more keyboard/ saxophone based instead of guitar, and there exists a great variety of instrument combinations.

The opening song, "Illinois" is an instrumental played exclusively on the Wurlitzer 103 Band organ (with custom paper roll cutting by Bob Stuhmer). The album really gets rolling with the aforementioned "50 States" as Linnell reflects on the songs themselves while dabbling in catchy, syncopated melodies and humorous, self-effacing lyrics such as "I'm not gonna say they're great/ I ain't gonna say they ain't." "West Virginia", the nation's leading producer of bituminous coal, is replete with a 60's vibe, mostly due to the Doors-ish organ that runs through the entire song. Mixing the baritone vocals of "Whistling in the Dark" with the pounding rhythm of "Birdhouse in Your Soul", "South Carolina" finds Linnell singing of a bicycle accident and punitive damages. "Idaho" is a quiet song about driving the tour bus across the Idaho state line while everyone else on the bus sleeps, ending with the sound of a lone car alarm going off in the night. Some of the songs, including "Pennsylvania" with its catchy yiddish violin theme and the jaunty sax/ accordion/ piano/ drum quintet called "Mississippi" are instrumentals. Few of the songs actually go into any depth on the state in question but instead speak of something happening there. Except for the rousing fight song of "Michigan", don't' expect state travel bureaus to adopt these songs. "Utah" is about how forgettable the state is, with the repeating line "I forget Utah" while New Hampshire is lambasted with lines like "No one likes New Hampshire" while more organ paper rolls whirl in the background. It is with mixed emotions that I report that "Indiana" has not received a song on this CD… maybe the next one.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, November 1999.

Review - Monopuff - Unsupervised

While I have nothing to base this on, I get the feeling that Flansburgh is the businessman and Linnell is more of the free-spirited artist that needs shepherded. But either of them can write a song in ten minutes that puts my best to shame.

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It's always interesting when members of a band create solo albums, allowing the listener to decipher what influences each member brings to the band. With the release of Unsupervised under the band name Mono Puff, They Might Be Giants member John Flansburgh reveals his eclectic, experimental nature that was so great a part of the early TMBG albums. "Hello Hello" is the whisperings of paranoia as the singer intones "Hello, hello, it's good to be back" while the drummer supplements the hysteria with an incredibly complex, ever changing drum part. "Don't Break The Heart" and "Don't I Have the Right" are country songs replete with incredible harmonies and the obligatory twang. "Distant Antenna" is a compelling organ-based instrumental with a running dialog in broken English of one families struggle to pull in a Mono Puff song through the FM haze of their radio. In fact, many of the songs are instrumentals, such as the opening James Bond/surf music "Guitar Was the Case" and the eerie "To Serve Mankind" which is played on a melotron "sampled" with human voices, giving it a disjointed, otherworldly feel.

The worst part of the CD is that it is so short, the thirteen tracks only making thirty-three minutes of music. If you take out the one or two duds in the mix, that leaves only twenty-five minutes of good tunes. Of course Flansburgh is unable to leave his They Might Be Giants background behind and most of these songs would have fit in easily on a TMBG release. Instrumentally, bassist Hal Cragin has added some very creative bass parts, often times making a song that would have otherwise fallen flat. The lyrics are a bit more straight-forward than you would find on a TMBG release, but the humor is still there. Lines like "I hit my head/I hear the phone ring/ I was distracted by my friend Joe" from the title track and "Don't make the fatal error/ Of thinking you'll find someone better" bring an easy smile to the listener's face. Overall, it's a good first solo effort, very similar to They Might Be Giants in style, but horribly short!

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, October 1999.

Review - Monopuff - It's Fun To Steal

Oh Flansburgh... Was it you and your hipster ways that destroyed the TMBG that I loved? Or was it Linnell getting sober and having kids and growing up, though not necessarily in that order. Or did you both start taking yourselves too seriously? In any case, there are a couple of really good songs on this Monopuff album and a bunch of puff.

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If John Flansburgh is known at all in this city of the three rivers, it's as half of the quirky pop/rock duo They Might Be Giants. Since Flansburgh and Linnell are song-writing machines, they both have side bands as outlets for their material. On the first Mono Puff album, most of the songs were written by Flansburgh and had a very TMBGish flavor. On the latest release, It's Fun To Steal, the songs were written more as a band with lots of experimentation in rhythms, creating a Beck-ish white boy funk of deep grooving, party-atmosphere songs. But diversity is key here and although most of the songs are heavily processed shag carpet pseudo-funk, you'll find everything from straight rock to a capella folk to rockabilly ska.

The title song has the same suave soul-pop as "Pet Name" from TMBG's last album. The chorus is especially catchy with some tasty two-part hamonies as Flansburgh sings about cheating and breaking hearts. "Dashiki Lover" has a Zappa meets funk edge to it and would have fit right in on the first Mono Puff album. An early favorite was "Poison Flowers" as a kind of theme song for Dr. Evil. Starting with a foundation of aggressive rock, evil lyrics of world domination are layered on top such as "Who's going to build my death ray and grow poison flowers?" to which a chorus replies "We will! We will!" "Extra Crispy" is yet another love song to New York City, comparing it to chicken with "Once you have extra crispy / You'll never go back again." Where there are love songs, there are breakup songs such as creepy lounge of "I Just Found Out What Everybody Knows". Other odd characters populate this disc such as "Hillbilly Drummer Girl" ("Playing for a crowd of six/ Free beer and eight dollars/ That's money for new sticks") and "Night Security" sung in a resonant baritone. Though not for everyone, this disc is a great addition to seekers of fun musical experimentation and diversity.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, October 2000.

Review - They Might Be Giants - No!

This might be the last great album TMBG put out. And it's freaking me out that when I wrote this I only had two young pups. I'm up to seven now and the afore-referenced Joshua is seventeen.

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First a disclaimer: I love the music of They Might Be Giants and have raised my two sons, Joshua and Matthew, to enjoy their quirky, intoxicating melodies (as well as other snobbish music-critic audibles). It was no surprise then that they took instantly to No!, the first They Might Be Giants album designed to be enjoyed by the entire nuclear family.

As you might expect, the usual colorfully cartoonish sound of TMBG (here represented by the Johns and their band of Dans) lends itself easily to a childrens' album. What makes this album different from their regular albums is that there aren’t any songs about death or depressing subjects (albeit wrapped in bouncy, happy tunes). The subject matter runs from bizarre to weird, which is exactly how Nickelodeon made its fortune. “Violin” sports a simple melody, sparse orchestral strings and lyrics like “Violin,” “Hippo,” “Mop,” “Speck of dust” and “3/4 of George Washington’s head.” The ultra-catchy “In The Middle” is sung by Robin Goldwasser and intones “Don’t cross the street in the middle, in the middle, in the middle of the block” while manic xylophones dance nimbly around your ears. A longtime favorite from a fan club EP is “The Edison Museum,” sung with gusto by Nicholas Hill.

Touted as the “most famous haunted mansion in New Jersey,” facts about Thomas Edison float above a spooky background of baritone sax and harpsichord.

But wait, there’s more! Although the 17 tracks run a disappointing 34 minutes, the CD includes special interactive sequences for most of the songs, playable on either a PC or Mac. In “The House At The Top Of The Tree,” which is about a mouse who eats your house unless he has potato chips which are delivered by a dog in a car, you get to feed the mouse potato chips to keep him from eating the house. Much less complicated is the funky “Clap Your Hands,” where you make three odd bird-creatures dance, stomp their feet, groove and generally git jiggy wit it. While none of these could be called games, each interactive sequence is quite interesting and lends yet another fun element to this already enjoyable CD.

Like the best products made for children, the contents of this disc appeal to both kids and adults with songs that speak to children without speaking down to them. The lyrics are definitely not plain (“Spaghetti is from China but Italians make it best”) and the music is equally inventive and varied to bear many repeat listens. Don’t tell Child Protective Services, but this album was a big hit at my house after a single listen. You can get a sample of the songs and interactive sequences at www.giantkid.net.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, June 2002.

Review - Those Darned Accordions - Amped

Oh accordion, how do I love thee? Well, apparently not much because mine hasn't been released from it's case in over a year. Other bands with accordions include They Might Be Giants and Stolen Babies, a very diverse club.

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Brandishing their accordions like really blocky frontal birth defects attached to their sternums, Those Darn Accordions are back with yet another album of squeezebox mayhem. Be warned: these are not Wisconsin accordionists. There are no polkas on this platter, just six tasty rock songs that just happen to use this much-maligned instrument. In addition to the trinity of accordions, there's a solid foundation of bass and drums that really propel the songs along. Going with the theme, this time around the songs are harder and the lyrics, while still humorous, are not outright silly, which helps make this less of a novelty album than their past releases. "Mr. Slagle's Revenge" is from the adult viewpoint of someone who blew off school. Now as he performs low-paying, menial jobs he can hear his shop teacher laughing at him. Here the accordion is put through a wah pedal, giving it a very un-accordionesque sound. You an also find the answer to the "Meaning of Life", which is essentially "Just getting' up and doin' stuff and goin' back to bed." "Enter The Douser" is about the ultimate killjoy. As I listened to this song, I found myself getting out the liner notes, thinking, "I wonder who the guitarist is… I don't remember seeing a guitarist listed in the credits… and where are my pants?" That's because there is none… guitarist, that is (the pants were on the davenport.) Those clever bellow-squeezers fed an accordion through a series of stomp boxes, creating a very guitar-sounding tone and a couple of killer "guitar" solos. No TDA album would be complete without cover songs and "Magic Carpet Ride" is the first target. The original had lots of early, wheezy rock organs and it's amazing how perfectly this translates to the accordion. The other cover is "Making Our Dreams Come True", the theme from Laverne & Shirley, played and sung in true garage band form by the two female accordionists of the band. As usual, TDA push the boundaries of what respectable folk expect from the accordion. Their use of various guitar effects is truly amazing, giving the album a broad array of aural tones. With only six tracks on this EP, it's regrettably short. However, exhaustive research and market testing has shown that for most people, seventeen minutes is the longest they can listen to the accordion, even if it does sound like a warped seventies guitar. You can search the mall for years looking for this respite from life's daily grind, or you can go to www.thosedarnaccordions.com and have it delivered to your door.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, November 2001.

Review - Those Darned Accordions - clownhead

I sure do loves me some Those Darned Accordions. But in moderation. Maybe if these blokes and blokettes were in Mexico where accordions are king then they would be living an a squeezebox shaped palace but here in America they are not given the honor they deserve.

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As a burgeoning young accordion player, how could I resist a band that boasts of having six accordion players? As clownhead spun the first track, "They Came For Accordions", an eerie sci-fi tale of an alien invasion, replete with otherworldly sounds and a solid drum and bass groove, it was quickly obvious that this was not a polka-fest. "Wall of Gum" is a slow rap about a man named Lloyd who ventured too close to Bubble Gum Alley. "Lapis Lazuli" is a tango-flavored instrumental that fits the voice of the accordion quite nicely while "I Think About Stuff" is a swanky, strolling song about, well, stuff. Octogenarian tattoo-covered Clyde Forsman croons "First Bratwurst of Summer" with it's rousing chorus of "BEER! BEER! BEER!", a song that manages to perfectly capture the feeling of a summer picnic. The question of who accordion players pick on is answered in my personal favorite, "Hippie With A Banjo" with lyrics such as "Now I've been to a dentist with a very dull drill/ Hammered on my gums, I remember it still/ …But nothing compares to the pain I feel/ When I hear the twang of those strings of steel" and "Just when I thought this was the worst that I seen/ Here comes his girlfriend with a tambourine." Good stuff! True to their past albums, they include two accordion "enhancements" of classic rock songs. Past albums included Do You Think I'm Sexy (sung by 84-year old Clyde), Stairway to Heaven and even Also Spracht Zarathustra (the theme to 2001). This time around they tackled "Low Rider" by War and Devo's "Uncontrollable Urge". Surprisingly, you would think that the Devo song would fit this medium better but it is the weaker of the two. "Low Rider" kills.

Overall, Those Darn Accordions! do a fairly good job of avoiding the novelty album stigma when an album grows stale after two or three listens and you've heard all the jokes. Here, the songs are melodic, well written and the humor is more subtle than just a series of one-liners. And fear not, while one would think that a band with six accordion players, a drummer, and a bassist would produce music completely saturated in accordion sound, I found this not to be true. The bass and drums provide a solid foundation and usually only a few accordions play at the same time, each with different parts and timbres, giving a full but not busy sound. With strong songs such as these, it's easy to see why their fans include Drew Carey, Penn and Teller, and now this humble accordionist.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, March 2000.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Review - Common Children - The Inbetween Time

Whereas other Common Children albums are a collection of songs this one feels like a cohesive album that must be listened to in one sitting. With headphones. In the dark.

The Inbetween Time is a glorious mixture of melodic, fuzzy guitar rock and drifting, wandering space rock. The listener is one minute bathed in a psychedelic wash of unearthly soundscapes only to be brought roughly back to earth with a driving rhythm and crunchy guitars, a tendency that is at times appealing but also creates for an uneven listening experience. For instance, the album opens with an ethereal preface "Absence of Light" with lots of reverb and echoes, drawing the listener into a sedentary state before shifting into "Entertaining Angels" which is full of jangly, high-energy guitars… a sweet but rude awakening. With a photo inside showing more effects pedals and boxes than I've seen in some guitar stores, be prepared to hear a plethora of new sounds. Due to the many effects, this is definitely a headphone album, not to mention a guitar album and a studio/production album, all wrapped in good songwriting. "Celebrity Virtue" begins with a bubbling bass and calm verse vocals, vocals which become angry in the bridge and absolutely explode for the chorus, swirling amidst pleasantly distorted guitars and a caustic guitar solo. The title track is a six-minute instrumental adventure in deep space, a dizzying wash of spacey guitar tones floating in zero gravity and surrounded by rocketing comets. The music is a controlled cacophony, always on the edge of too much but always reigned in, similar to The Choir, very early Pink Floyd, and even perhaps Phish. The album as a whole has a theme of hope amidst the horrors of life, an uplifting quality that reminded me of Peter Gabriel's "Don't Give Up." One song whispers "How many time a day do you feel unhappiness? / How many times a night do you close your eyes?" while the final song plays sparse acoustic guitar against such naked lyrics as "You should know by now / It's gonna hurt like the first time / And this won't be the last time / Your heart comes crashing down." But such darkness is, like the Gabriel song, answered by a shaft of light, hope cutting through the darkness in a way that is neither false nor in genuine. For these current times, such a message is quite welcome.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, October 2001.

Review - Common Children - Skywire

What a super-duper lovely album. I likes me some fuzzy rock music and this album rocks it out with the best of 'em. If you can't get the album, try to at least get the song "Hate"... it's a venomous expression of Romans 7:15.

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Have you ever purchased a new guitar multi-effects box or rack unit that has lots of preset sound combinations that sound really cool yet are so wigged-out that they could never possibly be used in any song not composed by John Cage? Yeah, me too. Common Children, a three-piece melodic modern guitar rock band from Nashville, have taken up this challenge with incredible results.

The aggressive "Throw Me Over" starts the show nicely with sizzling guitars and a spongy bass that anchors the song to keep it from dissipating in a fury of distortion. The song which first caught my attention is the explosive "Hate". Hints of Nirvana can be found in the volatile chorus where guitarist/vocalist Marc Byrd screams "I hate myself" above a growing din of feedback and noise that culminates this ode to self-loathing. The title track is more laid back, being pop enough for radio but eclectic enough to keep it interesting with flanged, distorted guitars rumbling behind a chorus of vocal harmonies.

The experimental "Dual Lens" opens with spacey, echoing guitars in an extended instrumental intro that gives way to acoustic guitars and vocals that shimmer into oblivion. Backing vocals by Riki Michele add a new timbre that proceeds a section of strained guitars and eerily calm nighttime silence. "Drought" is a bass-driven manifesto that grabs your gut and refuses to let go, taking you hostage through a solo section incorporating a mega-whacked guitar tone. In stark contrast is "Broken Smile", a simple, somber song of acoustic guitar, vocals and (later) strings and light percussion.

While more rock oriented and less experimental than their The Inbetween Time release, Skywire is an effective mixture of driving, distorted rock and edgy, psychedelic soundscapes. Of the twelve tracks, at least half blow the rusty hinges off your creative modern rock lovin' mind. The other six are merely good, which I guess is not a bad average in an industry that often puts out one good song surrounded by filler. With lyrics that are honest, raw and real combined with inventive, edgy, aggressive guitar-driven music, I know I'll be looking forward to the next release by Common Children.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, July 2002.

Review- The Church - After Everything Now This

This is a fine, fine album. Plus I notice that I started using my now current review format in 2002. Boring, yes, but effective. Maybe I need to shake things up and write a review in rhyme.

* * * * * Australia's The Church has spent over two decades exploring the singing voice of the electric guitar, weaving rich tapestries of sound for those willing to slow their pace enough to listen. Like their 1988 album Starfish, a masterpiece of dreamy, floating guitars, After Everything Now This is a consistent buzz, a continually pleasant trip of gently wafting guitars tinged with distortion and other effects. The songs are, more or less, of the same laid-back tempo, giving a nice cohesion to album. Even though ten songs of the same tempo would normally put me under, The Church is inventive in their use of sound and the listener is treated to a constant parade of tonal surprises that pick at your ear like a hungry goldfish.

The poppy "Song For the Asking" is a typical song from The Church with mellow guitar glissandi, light piano adornment, and a throbbing, hidden beat that lies just below the surface, adding a hint of darkness to an otherwise melancholy song. The bright "Seen It Coming", with its exemplary guitar work, is the sick love-child between U2 and Oasis and "After Everything" has a beautiful simplicity and wave-like fluidity that float the listener on a relaxing bed of reverb. "Chromium" turns up the tempo a bit in this mid-tempo rocker. Here the two vocalists trade parts, adding nice variety to this comparatively straight-forward track. With organs, ringing guitars and complex structure, "Reprieve" reminded me of very early Pink Floyd (think Syd Barrett era). The "peaceful like a budda" song increases in intensity artfully halfway in before emerging from the fog bank, gliding peacefully over a sea of clouds. The final track, "Invisible", is built around a tape loop of squeaking fret noise. With an unparalleled tranquility, The Church spins a glassy web to catch the tide-like distortions that waft from their amps, leaving the listener relaxed and subdued.

Displaying a continuity and sense of unity unmatched since Starfish, The Church continue to ply their trade of enchanting the adventurous with cascading waves of sound. This is shoe-gazing minimalist pop-rock at it's finest with ten songs sure to drag you into the under-tow of their control.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, February 2002.

Review - Riki Michele - Surround Me

I haven't listened to this album since I reviewed it ten years ago... just haven't felt the need, if that tells you anything.

It has been nine years since Riki Michele's last release One Moment Please. A lot of water has passed under the proverbial bridge in nine years including her divorce from Gene Eugene, founder of the world's most under-appreciated, under-productive rock bands in history, Adam Again. Riki shook her lanky, whirling frame and sang background vocals for this great unknown, her haunting voice always adding a mysterious edge to the otherwise hard yet funky beat. While her first album was naïve and homespun and One Moment Please was a sophisticated blend of pop and rock, Surround Me is a mixture of trip-hop, electro soul, ethereal pop and chill out. As in the past, Riki writes and co-writes a good deal of the songs and her vocals are as enchanting as ever. Produced by the innovative Julian Kindred, the CD is full of intricate synth beats, inventive guitar tones, and imaginative keyboard washes. For instance, "Things I Mean", and a good many other tracks, feature Common Children's Marc Byrd on guitar, who weaves an intricate tapestry of effervescent guitar tones that shimmer throughout the song like starlight. "Mystery In Me" is upbeat, almost rock, with complex percussion and a very catchy melody perfect for capturing Michele's hypnotic voice. Sedate and seductive, "Giving Up" pairs whispered and sung vocals that open up to a bright and absorbing chorus. With a minimalist approach, "We Take It On" slowly builds with disco drums, funked bass, and sizzling synth tones. Of interest to Adam Again fans is "If I Remember", a mirror of the classic "The Tenth Song" from the album Ten Songs By Adam Again. Looking back after the death of Gene Eugene, Riki sings "If I remember/ Then let me remember / The sweetness." Recalling the feel of her first album is "Forever Bright", a relaxed song of acoustic guitars and no electronic beat, which is only natural as the song was written by Steve Hindalong who played a large role in the writing of that first release. While electronic music with programmed drums is not exactly my simmering cup of tea, I've never been able to escape the gravitational pull of Riki Michele's voice. Repeated listens reveal production nuances and skillfully played, creatively written parts that appeal to even those like myself who normally eschew such music. You can download two songs and purchase Surround Me www.rikimichele.com. This review first appeared in WhatzUp, April 2002.

Review - The Choir - Flap Your Wings

This is an extremely uneven album. Half of it is trippy and buzzy and amazing. Then, per my imagination, the band found that they only had half an album done and a deadline of the upcoming Cornerstone festival looming so they raided Derri's unfinished solo album for songs and added a bit of Choir-ish-ness and ZOOOMBA, you have an album. Not that I don't like Derri's songs but it's obviously a mishmash. This could have been one amazing EP.

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The Choir has long been one of my favorite bands. They write accessible, melodic rock songs, are stunning musicians, and always manage to have a sound that is truly alternative to the rest of the world. Flap Your Wings is their latest sonic landscape, a collection of solid songs played by musicians free to exercise their creativity. The title track almost sounds like the clouds opening up and a ray of light coming down with the listener taken up through the hole and beyond. The fuzzy, chaotic bass line is juxtaposed perfectly against the clean, ringing guitars that give a perfectly heady feeling to the listener. There is a bit of Radiohead to this song but as with all Choir influences, these are distilled to their essence and reworked to create fresh and original sounds. "Shiny Floor" buzzes nicely through the mind with Derri Daugherty's incomparable spacey wall of guitar textures that draws from such bands as The Church and early U2. As always, Steve Hindalong has created lyrics that conjure unique metaphors such as "I'll try to be agile like a Saskatoon lynx". The Choir always has managed to stride the fence with just the right amount of sentiment, humor, and seriousness. "I Don't Mean Any Harm" has an especially catchy melody and lyrics to which every married man can relate: "I called to tell you/ That I'm sorry to have such fun and leave you all alone / I'm gonna paint the hallway tomorrow / Say it won't be too late to atone." As a song that every father will feel, "Cherry Bomb" is an ode to small children who "spill grape juice on me" with Tim Chandler's trippy, slippery bass line that sounds like a lumbering, drunken elephant which incidentally only causes slightly less damage than a small child. The stunning "Sunny" shows the Choir at their most creative with a sultry, fuzzed out feel. Dan Michaels adds his smouldering sax to this song that sounds like it has the band bubbling up from the bottom of a very dark lake. Mixed in with this aural frenzy are a number of acoustic songs that are just as well written as the rest but seem a bit out of place and simplistic against the grandeur of the atmospheric, electrically charged, feedback-laden songs that dominate the album. A small achilles' heel, if you will. It's been a long wait since the last Choir album, but worth every painful second. If you can't find this album locally, go to www.thechoir.net.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, August 2000.

Review - The Choir - Never Say Never

How I managed to review twenty years of albums in a short review is beyond me. I must have had super powers back then.

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Every serious fan of music has a handful of favorite artists who, despite consistently creating stunning music, somehow miss the success they deserve. The Choir is one such arrow in my quiver. Over the past twenty years they have pushed the envelope of what is possible in music, had once come within inches of a deal with Geffin Records, and continually inspire bands who are both less talented and more successful than themselves. Never Say Never is a box set containing their first nine studio albums plus a 100 page book detailing their Spinal Tap-ish history and complete lyrics, all for about $60. They never were in this business to get rich. The band first recorded in 1985 and admittedly, their first two albums are a sonic reflection of their times. The third album is better but their producer wasn't doing them any favors. For their fourth album, Chase the Kangaroo, they took over complete control and recorded in their own studio. They unearthed their sound and their sonic palette exploded. The guitars became dark and monolithic, drenched in reverb, the lyrics honest, probing, enigmatic spiritual quests where there were no easy answers. The songs sprawled outside their three-minute radio-friendly boundaries, becoming adventures unto themselves. The Choir followed this disturbing masterpiece with a perfect pop album, Wide-Eyed Wonder which manages to celebrate the recent additions to their families without becoming trite or saccharine. The band returned to their swirling wall of sound in Circle Slide, an album of sadness, joy, pain and beauty, of longing for a tree of one's own on which to hand a tire swing. With Kissers and Killers the band traded in their clean reverb for powerful distortion and feedback while retaining their signature pop melodies. Lyrics that marry violence with love ("Before you kill me honey recognize / I'm you're one way rumbling ride through yellow skies") twist their way through the fuzzed-out morass of guitar. Dreamy nighttime soundscapes typify Free Flying Soul, their last studio in this collection. Clean whirling guitars smash headlong into brash distortion as the oblique lyrics follow suit, ending with "The Warbler" which is both comforting and chilling. Difficult, challenging and worth every second, this album crawls under your skin and haunts your every waking moment. Of course, what is a retrospective box set without unreleased material? How about over an hour of unreleased material including two new songs, early demos, and other rarities? Sure $60 is a lot to plunk down on a band you may have never heard of, but this is eight discs full of incredibly inventive, melodic, lyrical music. It's impossible for me to pick a favorite album because each one is such a strong release and worth of a full review. It is equally difficult to pigeonhole their style… but here goes: take parts of The Church, My Bloody Valentine, U2, Radiohead, and four inventive minds, blend in rock, pop and true alternative (for they are ever forging new ground, always outside the mainstream) and pour into a chilled goblet of arcane, perplexing yet intelligent lyrics and enjoy. Search Fort Wayne for these classic albums if you dare or head straight to www.thechoir.net and satisfy your musical gullet.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, September 2001.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Review - Fleming & John - The Way We Are

This one still rocks my socks off. Buy it... NOW! Enjoy it for life. Too bad this duo hasn't released anything since, instead focusing on having and raising children. I understand. At least John is still active, doing mostly instrumental music for movies like Hoodwinked.

* * * * *

Maybe once a year, I hear an album that gives me literal goose bumps. This one gave me goose bumps on my goose bumps. The second release by husband and wife writing team, The Way We Are retains the imaginative pop styling of their first album but with a more mature approach to lyrics and composition. Fleming, the wife, sings, writes the lyrics and creates the melodies which are unbalanced, full of unexpected twists, yet natural and horribly catchy. Husband John creates rich tapestries of sound around these melodies, writing the music, making string arrangements, and playing an astounding number of instruments (aside from drums and orchestral strings, he plays every instrument on the album including such non-conventionals as flugelhorn, balalaika, vibes, flute, oud, saz, dilruba, spacephone, accordion, dulcimer, and the creepy theremin).

Like the music of The Police, their sound is immediately catchy with just enough pop to have wide appeal but with enough musical meat backing this pop to appeal to the die-hard musician. Ben Folds, perhaps their biggest fan, calls their sound "the Carpenters of the 90's with a Led Zeppelin rhythm section". "I'm So Small" opens quietly but with enormous tension that soon floods into a full-out punk-flavored assault of guitars, Indian-flavored orchestral strings and Fleming's voice that can effortlessly glide from a sweet little girl to a screeching banshee. "Sssh!", with it's Alanis Morissette feel and theme of falling for a best friend, is driven along by timpani and spent more than one day in my head. Singing about their marriage, "Comfortable" hits home with anyone who has gone past the infatuation stage in a relationship with it's laid back, Carpenterish sound. The title song finds Fleming wondering if she and John will grow apart or stay "the way we are" against a jazz-influence slide upright bass part that morphs into an aggressive chorus of complex, interwoven vocal lines. "Radiate" can only be described as "The Go-Go's Meet Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass". In "Ugly Girl" Fleming sings "I can't believe you're leaving me for an ugly girl" while John plinks away merrily on the xylophone. Other songs verge on disco, mix R&B with tango, swing with grunge, and dirty blues with Siouxie and the Banshees. In the hands of lesser artists, this juxtaposition of styles would be a sonic mess. With these masters of songwriting, however, the result is absolute perfection.

This article first appeared in WhatzUp, April 1999.

Review - Rick Altizer - Blue Plate Special

What's it like to be such a talented musician like Rick Altizer and/or Adrian Belew? You can play every instrument out there to perfection, you can write catchy sugary tunes, and yet you are mostly unknown. BOOO HISSSS!

There is no easy way to categorize Blue Plate Special, the first disc by Rick Altizer: guitar driven, twitchy rhythms, nimble pop/rock hooky melodies, sky-high production values (compliments of Adrian Belew) and lyrics that are mature and honest make this an unusually tasty offering. Rick's vocal style is a cross between Tom Petty and David Bowie and his songwriting style borrows from U2, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Cars. Aside from two or three overly-derivative tracks, the majority of the songs are amazingly fresh and original. And to top it all off, except for a few guitar solos (and I use this term loosely) from Adrian Belew and drums on a few songs, Altizer plays every instrument on the CD! Even so, Altizer doesn't take himself too seriously, as evident by the plentiful humor in the lyrics as well as the CD packaging.

The album opens with "Make A Monkey", a dark song with plentiful layers of sound and a suprisingly singable chorus. "Amy and Her Baggage" is full of nervous electric guitars that mirror the psychological state of the title character, and "Oxygen Tank" speaks of clearing ones life of clutter with a hypnotic melody a la' U2. The bouncy "Jan the Best" is a cute ode to his wife and "Never Shake His Hand" is a spooky warning of the pitfalls of justification and temptation. I feel I must also mention that his web site (www.rickaltizer.com) is hands-down the best musician/album web site I've ever seen, continuing the theme of leftovers that starts (and is carried to extremes) in the CD art. Download MP3s, play games, watch videos, or do nothing more than stare at the dead fish... to each his own. With a package this incredible, Altizer has his work cut out for him in topping, or even trying to match, this CD with this next effort, but I'll be the first in line to hear what he has to offer.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, June 1999.

Review - Rick Altizer - Neon Fixation

This guy writes a great tune! Sometimes it all sounds alike and the ear gets fatigued, but it's still good stuff. Time to give his albums more listens into my brain.

* * * * *

Rick Altizer's debut album Blue Plate Special was so packed full of hooky guitar riffs, infectious melodies, and a complete, polished sound that I wondered how he would ever top it. The simple answer is, he couldn't. What he did with Neon Fixation, however, was to create an album that is every bit the equal of his first, a sonic twin. Opening with fuzzed out, wiggy guitars, and layered vocals, "Disco Ball" combines first class songwriting with some great guitar licks as Altizer presents the theme of the album, that of our societies fixation on glitzy, cheap folderol. From this frantic, danceable sound, Altizer turns the heat up further with "TV Preacher", a rocking, rollicking roller coaster ride. "Ray Guns and Plastic Flash" continues to theme of the album with Altizer's characteristic choppy rhythms and distorto guitars. Songs such as "Let It Go" show his Dylan influence while "Untitled" shows a definite nod to Tom Petty... I'd say we're missing George Harrison and Jeff Lynne but the entire album has an underlying Beatles Sgt. Pepperish tone with an ever-changing cascade of timbres. Altizer knows he has a distinct sound and isn't afraid to let the world know it.

As on the previous album, Altizer plays nearly every instrument aside from a few guitar solos that erupt from the fevered mind of guitar innovator Adrian Belew. The melodies are upbeat and bright with a sound that is a cross between Mr. Music Head era Belew, Todd Rundgren, and The Traveling Wilburys. As with most do-it-all studio gurus, the music is heavily produced but not in an attempt to cover up deficiencies in the material. Indeed, one of Altizer's strengths is his ability to craft quickly appealing songs that belie their true depth. Repeated listens reveal multiple rhythmic and instrumental layers, subtle sonic textures tightly woven behind the flash, and mature lyrics that gain wisdom with each revelatory spin. All in all, an auditory delight and a true pleasure for fans of studio albums!

This article first appeared in WhatzUp, January 2000.

Review - PFR - Disappear

PFR still rocks! I'm really getting into the solo music of Patrick Andrew and wish he'd put out some more albums... soon! I first heard PFR on a demo cassette at the local Christian bookstore and I foolishly grouped them with the pre-fab boy bands that were coming out in the Christian wake of Backstreet Boys. Fortunately the title song from their second album, which I Providentially saw as a video on a grainy, poorly-received late night Christian video show which I had never seen before or since, changed my mind about this band.

* * * * *

There aren't many songs that capture my attention on the local Christian radio station and quite a few that elicit a violent response to the utter lack of artistry for the sake of "THE MESSAGE" (Yes Virginia, there is something worse than The Backstreet Boys). One of the very few exceptions is the music of PFR. Five years ago, this talented trio broke up to get off the road and spend time with their families. But the road has a way of luring one back and these gents have recorded their fifth studio album. I must admit, this one took me the longest get. I was initially disappointed, thinking that they had lost whatever magic they previously were able to create. But it seems that PFR wanted to make the album that they would have made today had they stayed together these many years. It's taken a while to grown on me but is has grown and while I don't think it's their best, it is most definitely a solid album. So what do they sound like? Imagine Jellyfish scrubbed clean of innuendo by a wall of gritty alternative-rock guitars set among Beatlesque vocal harmonies and the ability to write a great power-pop song. PFR gets on the radio with their soft ballads, but they limit these to two or three per album. The rest of the songs are aggressive guitar feasts for musicians. "Amsterdam" and "Gone" are most like PFR's last album, which was the best guitar rock album of 1996, Christian or otherwise. Expect gutsy rhythms, tasteful distortion, upbeat tempos that swing, and some gloss-perfect production. As a bass-hound, the first thing that struck me were the many bass sounds present, each one painfully full and rich, making me burn to know how such a sound was captured. The final song, "You" begins in a mesmerizing wash of flange before being interrupted by a fuzzy guitar before settling down to vibes and a long vamp featuring a crying, emotive violin. Lyrically there are the Christian references required for radio airplay... on the ballads. The upbeat, rockier songs are much more creative and thought-provoking, settling more on the non-cliched spiritual themes one might find on an early U2 album. My only beef is that after waiting half a decade, PFR only gives us thirty-five minutes of music. Very good, but very short.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, June 2001.

Review - Adrian Belew - Coming Attractions

You're not making any new fans, Mr. Belew.... Oh yeah... this is post # 500!

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It has been a long time since Adrian Belew has put out an album of all new material. Not that he's been idle! Aside from producing albums for other groups and recording with Nine Inch Nails, it seems that Mr. Belew currently has five personal projects in the works. Not wanting to keep his fans in the dark, he has released Coming Attractions, a collection of songs from each of these upcoming albums, a kind of "best of" album in reverse.

By far the best cut is the raucous opening track, "Inner Man" from his next solo record. Singing of the frustration of being a nice guy, everything on this song is touched with distortion; the guitars roar like an angry beast on a thin chain and even the vocals crisp around the edges. "117 Valley Drive" is from the next The Bears album, a project with Rob Fetters, Bob Nyswonger, and Chris Arduser that has casually been in the works for over a year. This song looks back nostalgically at Belew's first band, a Beatles cover band, with lyrics "Though it was a different age/ Nothing's gone and nothing's changed/ In my mind". Yes, there is a bit of a Beatles feel to the song (how could they not) but it is subtle. Other songs are acoustic versions of his solo material and selections from his upcoming twenty-year retrospective box set Dust which promises to include unreleased songs, instrumentals, demos, live recordings and more from his solo projects, The Bears, and King Crimson albums. Included is a unique instrumental track with a running dialogue by the Prophet Omega plus alternate mixes of "Bird In A Box" and "House of Cards" from the album Mr. Music Head. The most disappointing track is also the last, a selection from the second in the Experimental Guitar series in which every sound is created with the guitar. With the aid of guitar MIDI, Belew creates a broad palate of jungle sounds, animal noises (lions, peacocks, rhinos and more), and African percussion, each one made exclusively on the guitar. The overall impression is more of jungle ambiance than an actual song; technically interesting but not something I personally find interesting. This does not detract from the album as a whole, however, as Belew fans are sure to find this album a tasty sampler of treats to come.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, February 2000.

Review - Adrian Belew - Salad Days

Nice but unnecessary. It's been years since Adrian put out anything, and that would be the amazing instrumental album e. Before that it was the "Sides" albums and I didn't hanker to them much.

* * * * *

"The acoustic Adrian Belew" might at first seem like an oxymoron. After all, he has spent his entire career redefining what you can do with an electric guitar, coaxing exotic, imaginative new sounds from a slab of wood and some wires. And for once, I can say with great confidence that everyone reading this, and I mean everyone, has heard his playing. In addition to his solo work, he is a much sought after studio player, lending his unique sound to everyone from Paul Simon to Nine Inch Nails to Frank Zappa (not to mention extensive producing including the song "Flood" by Jars of Clay). The songs on this CD are taken from his past solo CDs and his work with King Crimson, plus two aural montage songs for the devoted Belew fan. By reducing his music to a purely acoustic format, Belew has boiled away everything but the bare bones, revealing song writing skills that are normally hidden behind layers of guitars and effects, giving these songs new life.

Fittingly, he opens with "The Lone Rhino", the first song from his first solo album. Belew captures the sorrow of a rhinoceros trapped in a zoo, longing for his homeland, with humor ("I know the zoos protect my species/They give me food, collect my feces") and sensitivity. Belew's ecological concerns are to be found on a number of tracks including "Men In Helicopters" which he sings against a string quartet that adds an urgency to his message. Other tracks include the haunting and hypnotic "Fly" ("After all I'm only sand to irritate the oyster and to wait for a pearl") and the nostalgic "The Rail Song" in which he sings the part of a rail employee lamenting the fading of the railroads. "Never Enough" and "Dinosaur" prove that you can rock on just an acoustic guitar, although from reading the extensive session notes at www.murple.com/adrianbelew/ I learned that these songs contain what he calls "super-tracking" which is layering up to sixteen tracks of the same guitar part to create an immense, full sound.

Belew has always had a strong Beatles influence, with McCartney's gift for melody and Lennon's penchant for experimentation. It has been this Lennon side that has turned people off in the past as they are unable or unwilling to understand his lean, "weird", angular soloing style (imagine an atonal, alien bird call). In this acoustic format, such "offensive" soloing is gone leaving only well written, tasty pop songs with hooks aplenty and thoughtful, humorous lyrics. This review first appeared in WhatzUp, March 1999.

Review - The Bears - Car Caught Fire

I really wish this album was better. Oh well. At least there's that amazing Mr. Bonaparte song with it's flash video.

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The Bears started recording songs for their third album, Car Caught Fire, a mere four years ago (there's nothing like not having a record deal to allow one the luxury of time). It's not likely they'll remain without a label for long. After all, The Bears is composed of such longtime cult mainstays as Chris Arduser, Rob Fetters, Bob Nyswonger, and Adrian Belew, representing bands like Psychodots, The Raisins, and King Crimson. Fear not, fearless musical listener, this is not a Belew side project for here he blends effortlessly into a member of the band. Indeed, the song writing duties are split almost metrically with each member getting an even share. Even the drummer gets two songs in, and these aren't Ringo songs either. The .002% of the readers familiar with the two earlier Bears projects will be pleased to hear that The Bears have continued their practice of filling an album with well-crafted pop/rock songs. "Life In A Nutshell" opens the album with an acid-tinged Mersey Beat, a song that would have fit on Belew's Inner Revolution album. "Caveman" is the oldest song on the album (a ripe eight years) but full of ratty, distorted guitar and a primal rock beat. In the touching "Dave" Fetters sings about when he was fourteen and his best friend committed suicide- touching without being saccharine. The only song written by all The Bears is "Waiting Room" which has a very odd vocal effect on the verses, a cheesy organ, and the great lyric "I've put a lot of pavement on my shoes / Made a lot of payments on my dues." "As You Are" feels much like vintage Elvis Costello, albeit with seven guitars stacked high, and "Safe In Hell" finds the singer humorously "free from [his] creditors." My favorite track, and indeed the one that prompted me to buy the album, is Belew's "Mr. Bonapart", an odd counterpoint to "I Am The Walrus" with a staccato guitar rhythm and an eerie refrain of "I live in my lonely mind" woven throughout. You can hear this song, order, the album, and see a disturbing flashtoon video of this song at www.thebearsmusic.com. Despite this blinding bright spot, the album suffers a bit from inconsistency. Perhaps it's due to the variety of singers and writing styles (although all of the styles are derived from The Beatles and all the songs are full of catchy melodies) but you finish the album feeling that as good as it is, it could have been better. Were I a tenured third grade teacher named "Velma", I'd give this album a B+. Fortunately, my secret life has yet to be discovered so I'll just say it's a really good album of 60's-derived pop songs.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, October 2001.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Review - Ty Tabor - Safety

The last two Ty Tabor solo albums have been quite good (especially the Libertarian-leaning lyrics... ALLITERATION!!!!), meaning I'm now obliged to revisit his earlier albums, like this one, to see if I was missing something.

* * * * *

Ty Tabor's latest solo album, Safety, was written and recorded over a three-year period. Arriving at an unfortunately appropriate time for this reviewer, the ten songs chronicle his journey through the end of a "busted marriage". Aside from Jerry Gaskill on drums for most of the tracks and Christian Nesmith providing a few backing vocals, Tabor plays and sings (and produces and mixes and masters) everything on the album.

While the material from King's X (Ty's main band) is usually harder and more progressive, Ty's solo music is full of easily palatable pop-rock with catchy melodies and copious amounts of Beatle-derived vocal harmonies. The opening track, "Tulip" is example one with an upbeat acoustic-electric song that bears a strong George Harrison influence. The title track mixes acoustic Zeppelin with Crosby, Stills & Nash vocal harmonies to create a rollicking good tune where Tabor finds some peace during his marital discord.

As is my wont, my favorites are the few where crunchy guitar riffs propel Ty's silken vocals through unusual chord changes. In "Better To Be On Hold" Ty captures his emotional state succinctly with lyrics like "She's all about her business/ She's got an address / And I am helpless" while accompanied by a great, chunky guitar riff. "Funeral", possibly the heaviest song, has more gutsy guitar work leading to multi-layered vocal harmonies in the chorus and one mind-blowing guitar solo, effective more for it's emotion than it's technical aspects. Although Tabor finds his life to be a "perpetual funeral" the bridge reveals the hope that "the knot will slowly start to loosen." While you might expect a song titled "Anger" to give a double-dose of distortion, Tabor instead presents a mid-tempo pop-rock gem while me muses that there is "Anger if I think about it" while again realizing that "I can see the end of the roller coaster." The final track, "I Don't Mind" opens and closes with some freakish Adrian-Belewish guitar sounds compliments of Wally Farkas. With slow, melancholy guitars ringing Tabor takes off his wedding ring and coils a great melody around the lyrics "And if it's you / You need to find / I don't mind / Anymore", closing the album with an inner resolution to heal and move on.

I've always found Tabor to be at his best when collaborating with others and this album is no exception. There are some incredible melodies and vocal harmonies within and while I don't personally subscribe to the clingy "I'll be your doormat while you 'find' yourself" slant of the lyrics, one would be hard pressed not to find songs which speak to the wounded soul.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, June 2002.

Review - Platypus - Ice Cycles

I prefer this second album to their first but would gladly settle to be able to write songs 1/20th as good as any on either album.

Progressive rock is often criticized (and rightly so) for over-indulging technical abilities at the expense of the song. Form a "super group" with some of progressive rock's most talented musicians and you might get a cesspool of technical grandstanding. Might. With Platypus, though, the result is a collection of great songs backed with outstanding musicianship. This aquatic creature is comprised of John Myung (bass, Dream Theatre), Derek Sherinian (keyboards, Planet X), Ty Tabor (guitar and vocals, King's X), and Rod Morgenstein (drums, Dixie Dregs). The songs on this release are more radio-friendly than their first, although they are also darker and harder. Instead of the plentiful long instrumentals of When Pus Comes to Shove, Ice Cycles has only two instrumentals and six songs with lyrics. As Tabor handles the vocals and lyrics, these songs tend to have a more Beatle-ish feel, much like his solo albums.

"The Tower" as an up-tempo romp mixed with slower verse sections accompanied by some incredible drumming and an extended bridge where the musicians trade off solos. "Cry" is a dark, sobering song of desperation. Fans of Alice Cooper with recognize a piano part from "I Love the Dead" within and it fits in quite naturally with the dour mood of the song. In "I Need You", Platypus digs a deep groove with some emotive bass playing and some very substantive vocals. "Gone" is a six-minute ode to missed opportunities with an smoldering slow burn and a simple chorus of "Something has changed / Something is wrong / Something is gone." As with their first album, the best tracks are the instrumentals. "25" starts with heavy, fevered guitar riff and keeps it that way with a piece that switches between 70s fusion and dirty Mississippi rock, plus a few other styles to keep the listener on their toes as each musician takes their turn to show off their chops. Not to be outdone, the album ends with "Partial To The Bean", a ten minute pastiche comprised of seven sections that range from an aggressive and frenetic meter-swapping funhouse to the soothing and hypnotic mid-section to a Dark-Side-Of-The-Moon keyboard driven piece called "Platmosis" that opens up into more inventive guitar madness. Overall, this sophomore album is more homogenous than the debut, finding the members maturing from a side-project into a real band.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, January 2001.

Review - Platypus - When Pus Comes To Shove

This band morphed into The Jelly Jam when the keyboardist left. I likes 'em better as a power trio but the two Platypus albums ain't nothin' to shake a stick at.

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About six months ago I downloaded an MP3 file of a song by the new "progressive supergroup" Platypus and started annoying my coworkers by turning my computer up to eleven. I have suffered through months of domestic release delays until early this month, this strange creature was born in the form of their first album When Pus Comes to Shove. And my stereo hasn't been the same since.

Playpus is comprised of bassist John Myung and keyboardist Derek Sherinian of Dream Theater (whose music is best described as Bach meets Metallica in Kanas), drummer Rod Morgenstein of the legendary jazz-southern rock fusion band Dixie Dregs, and guitarist Ty Tabor of King's X (whose sound and style laid the foundation for many of today's bands including Soundgarden, Collective Soul and Alice in Chains. Together they have combined the best of their respective bands, creating a musical masterpiece of progressive rock not heard in years. While the songs range from new age to ballads to full out rock, the spirit of disciplined chaos, intricately woven parts, humor, and freewheeling mania continue throughout the 50+ minute CD of half instrumental, half lyrical songs.

"Rock Balls/Destination Moon" retains the free jamming feeling of classic Kansas. This track especially is drenched in organs and keyboards, giving a Deep Purple vibe that none of the band members expected. "Platt Opus" continues this sound, expanding it with tightly intertwined melodies, a playful "Dixie Dregs" spirit and 18/4 meter. "Chimes" is a piano/keyboard piece composed in irregular meter that somehow manages to remain relaxed, flowing, and meditative. Borrowing from the mellow rock of Steely Dan, "Bye Bye" combines Satrianiesque guitar parts with Tabor's Beatle-induced vocal harmonies to create a song that makes you scream for more! For my money, though, the two best songs are "Willie Brown" and "I'm With You", both of which sound like Gretchen-era King's X. "Willie Brown" is full of Hendrix fuzz guitar that starts in 5/4+4/4 meter and builds to a manic, fevered instrumental romp a la' "Moanjam" from the King's X album Faith Hope Love. In contrast, "I'm With You" keeps the same feel throughout, but what a feel. From the very first guitar riff, it tugs at you with a smoldering intensity that bursts into flame during the chorus where Ty breaks out the candy-flavored harmonies that are richer and brighter than anything he was ever written. With the adventurous spirit of the 70s combined with the sound and intensity of today, this is perfect music for turning up loud driving around with the top down.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, March 1999.

Review - King's X - Please Come Home Mr. Bulbous

While not super high on the list of other fans I still find this album to be one of their better ones from the second half of their career.

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King's X has long been a band's band, creating music that has inspired the bands that have made it big but King's X has yet to find the commercial success they deserve. Judiciously using jaw-dropping amounts of musicianship, King's X mixes heavy grooves with melodic pop, topping it off with a layer of outstanding vocal harmonies. After a number of albums that were more like solo efforts by the individual members, Please Come Home...Mr. Bulbous is a welcome return to group writing. At their best, the band creates a kind of musical chiaroscuro with bassist Doug Pinnick's rumbling, dark grooves and pained, earthy voice contrasting with guitarist Ty Tabor's Beatlesque leanings and ethereal vocal harmonies, all held together by the outstanding drumming of Jerry Gaskill. The result is an interesting pastiche that is far greater than the sum of its parts. Overall, the album is darker than their last release, taking the energy of Dogman and adding the kind of songwriting prowess found on Gretchen Goes to Nebraska. It is obvious that a lot of thought went into reworking these songs, adding extras that make for repeated listens.

"She's Gone Away" finds Tabor singing of a missing love against a simple backdrop before slamming into a heavy chorus full of layered vocals. Gaskill appears to be writing some lyrics again, as evident on the eerie "Smudge" with such lines as "At the bottom of a box of five black markers is a buried Swedish pen" and references to Mr. Wilson from their Faith Hope Love album. "Move Me", the final track, is a soaring, epic invitation to a higher power that has the same feel as "Burning Down." Though it changes almost daily, my current favorite is "Julia." Beginning with a verse that has the same feel as a minor version of the Beatles song of the same name, the group takes the listener through a tunnel of aggressive progressive rhythms to a central bridge in 3/4 time and back again. Please remain seated for the entire ride.

After seven studio albums, King's X is anxious to show that they still have more than their share of tricks... surprises wait around every corner and the song writing is more solid than they've produced in years. The amount of texture and depth in every song is absolutely amazing- there are no filler songs. Longtime fans will be delighted to hear this collection of songs whose strengths mirror those of the bands "classic Sam Taylor" period while the broad array of innovative songs will serve to draw new fans to this talented band that refuses to be a musical footnote.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, May 2000.

Review - King's X - Manic Moonlight

Well, um, yeah. This one still isn't a favorite but once upon a time I heard them play "Static" live and it absolutely slayed me.

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The mention of King's X brings many things to mind: great melodies, rich vocal harmonies, inventive rhythms and dead-on musicianship, just to name a few. In the late 80s they pioneered a new sound that married soul with metal, a sound which brought the proverbial fame and fortune only to the many bands that copied the King's X sound. So after more than a decade, the question remains of whether a band that made its name with a then new sound should continue trying to recreate this magical mixture of their early years or should it forge ahead, breaking new ground. While last years excellent Please Come Home Mr. Bulbous fell into the former category, Manic Moonlight definitely belongs in the later. With guitarist Ty Tabor busy on more side projects than a Nashville studio musician, bassist Doug Pinnick wrote the lion's share of the material, basing most of them on rhythm tracks from Acid Foundry software, loops that in nearly all cases could easily have been removed from the final mix with no loss. In other cases, they push drummer Jerry Gaskill further back in the mix. For anyone who's heard him, Jerry definitely has a signature sound that has influenced legions of drummers and he deserves to be heard. Because Doug wrote the material, Manic Moonlight is more like a Poundhound album with Ty playing guitar: heavy on the soul and groove, light on the vocal harmonies (in fact, you can only make out Ty's voice in one track). Regardless, the songs are quite good but are a departure from the usual King's X sound. While part of me wishes for a return to their very early days, the rest of me applauds them for trying something new. Many of the songs are quite lengthy, but don't expect any intricate arrangements like "We Were Born To Be Loved" from Faith, Hope, Love. Instead, these are extended jams that would play better with a bit of judicious trimming. Some of the standout songs include the title track, which would have been at home on the Bulbous CD, "False Alarm" with it's soaring chorus melody, and "Static" which makes effective use of the drum loops, is completely different from anything King's X has done before and yet retains the King's X stamp. So it's not your father's Oldsmobile but it shares a lot of the same parts, some retooled for a new century, some just like you remember. It's a good ride, but with King's X anything less than "great" is a bit of a letdown.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, November 2001.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Sobering Realization

While looking at a giant "know your employment rights" poster put up in our breakroom I realized that I am one of the very few employees not in a protected status. I am not female. I am not no distinguishable ethnicity/race. I am not even under thirty or over fifty-five so I can't count on agism for protection. Nope, I'm just a 41 year old white male who has to rely on himself.

Review - Terry Scott Taylor - John Wayne

In this review I say this isn't Mr. Taylor's "best work." Was I on crack?!?!? This album is one of my favorite TST solo albums. Insightful lyrics and melodic heavier music... good stuff! The line of "Find what you need in what you've got" has spoken to me many, many times over the years.

It must be nice to have so many songs floating around inside you. Terry Taylor, the man behind the bands Daniel Amos, The Swirling Eddies, Lost Dogs, and the music for the videogame Neverhood has released John Wayne, a collection of ten songs under his own name. Stylistically, John Wayne is a mixture of the raw sound of Bibleland and the introspective lyrics of Songs of the Heart, both released by the band Daniel Amos. The album opens with "Writer's Block", an ominous, orchestral, epic song backed by aggressive strings. "Mr. Flutter" is a Byrds-influenced rock piece continuing the theme of the previous song with "I'm tryin' to write a song but I don't have the words and my kids need a doctor but I'm not insured and my wife she looks pale, she got the check in the mail and it's not the amount we were thinking about." "Boomtown" is a rolling rocker that is rounded out perfectly by the slippery, noodling bass line of Tim Chandler, my personal favorite bassist. "You Told Them Exactly What I Didn't Say" shows the influence of Dylan while "Big Shot & Miniature Girl" has a John Lennon meets Beachboys feel to it that would have made it at home on the Zoom Daddy Swirling Eddies album. "Ten Gallon Hat" is a humorous country song about having "a ten gallon hat over my devil horns" with a simple, sticky melody and the obligatory slide lap steel guitar. As a compliment to the dark "Writer's Block", Taylor answers his own questions with the profound "Chicken Crosses the Road", a sad, resigned song where he contemplates his position in life, ending with the lyrics "find what you need in what you've got." While this would have been a perfect album closer, Taylor does one better, showing his ability to craft songs that are not only catchy but beautiful as well with the breathtaking "You Lay Down". While not his best work, this is a solid release with scads of rich Beachboys/Beatles harmonies, horribly memorable melodies, Tim Chandler's incredibly creative bass work, and honest lyrics, all combined into ten energetic, enthusiastic songs that reveal the amazing songwriting abilities of a man proving he is more than a musical footnote.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, July 1999.

Review - Terry Scott Taylor - Avocado Faultline

This is an album that continues to grow on me. Plus there are many excellent songs that are easy and fun to play on the guitar (chords are here. Originally meant to be a calling card to get his foot in the door as a song-salesman in Nashvegas, or so I've heard. I've also heard that "Pie Hole" is about the (now former) wife of one his many band members.

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In his first acoustic album the prolific doppelganger Terry Scott Taylor has tackled the singer/songwriter genre and pegged it perfectly. The music on Avocado Faultline is a blend of pop, rock, country, and Americana folk-song story telling music. Taylor has taken the laid-back, relaxed vocal style of Don Williams, mixed in Jimmy Buffet's playful sense of melody and combined it with his own keen observations of the human condition. While I am normally quickly bored by this genre, Taylor manages to add enough musical twists and wry humor to bring me back, with each listen endearing these comfortable songs more.

With as much truth as humor, Taylor lambastes the Yoko Ono phenomenon in "Pie Hole" writing such great lines as "She thinks we'll consider her just one of us/ If she drinks like a sailor and knows how to cuss" and "I like restaurants or parties with mixed company / But there's times I like hanging out with must my buddies and me." While most of the album is very relaxed, "Built Her Like a Cloud" kicks things up with a great country-rock feel that would have been right at home on a Lost Dogs album, one of Terry Taylor's many side-bands. The eerie "With What I Should Have Said" is shockingly mid-90s Bob Dylan with comparisons to his Oh Mercy album inevitable. "Startin' Monday" is full of gentle humor as a kind of flip side to "Margueritaville" with Taylor taking the view of someone who's spent his life screwing around and ready to change... starting Monday. One of my favorite songs is where Taylor sings "You're a little long in the tooth, babe / Me, I'm puffy and under the weather / But the drunker I get... / Honey, you're looking better" and "Pretend I'm Elvis for just one night / I will call you Pricilla, if that's alright / Don't we look sorta like 'em / In the neon light? / Let's pretend I'm Elvis, darlin' / For just one night." Three guesses as to the name of the song.

With its many charms, Avocado Faultline should bring this talented artist a whole new audience. The album is highlighted by heartfelt lyrics and songs that mix intelligent artistic expression, gentle humor and commercial accessibility. This is Americana at it's best! If you can't find this album locally, go to www.silentplanetrecords.com

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, August 2000.

Review - Terry Scott Taylor - LITTLE, big

Not my favorite Terry Scott Taylor album. I don't think I've listened to it once since this review in 2002. Mayhaps I'll give it one more try but my recollection is that there just isn't a lot of sparkle.

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LITTLE, big, the latest solo offering by the prolific Terry Scott Taylor, is possibly his most personal project yet with the subject of each song being someone personally close to him, each viewed through the lens of the "everyday." While seemingly mundane, Taylor reveals his brilliance by being able to give the listener a gentle glimpse into the extraordinary that lies just behind the ordinary that we often take for granted.

As on his first two solo projects (including the timeless Knowledge & Innocence, which should be required listening for anyone who has lost a loved one to the icy hands of death), Taylor has collaborated with Rob Watson. Thanks to Watson's loving attention and studio wizardry, the six songs on this E.P. have an intimate yet orchestral sound, in many ways similar to the Beach Boys classic Pet Sounds, an album which Taylor holds as one of his favorites.

The title track comes the closest to capturing the Beatles feel of Knowledge & Innocence, loaded as it is with keyboards (Watson's main instrument), ethereal background vocals, thundering timpani, and orchestral spots of color. The lyrics set the theme for the album with lines like, "Goin' home to my little house / To my little wife and not so little kids / There inside my little world / Is the love I feel / So big." Flute, oboe and the occasional orchestral string flourish adorn the relaxed "Molly Is A Metaphor" where Taylor, with acoustic guitar in tow, uses the family cat to examine eternal love. The Beach Boys influence is extremely apparent in "Lovely Lilly Lou", a catchy tune built around a staccato piano melody and heaped with mounds of sounds like sleigh bells, wood blocks, timpani, a variety of organic keyboard sounds, and a bridge replete with a 1930s feel and honky-tonk piano. "Oh, Sweet Companion" is a song for Taylor's wife and although I'm sure she enjoyed it, it's a simplistic tune that seems out of place on this disc. Likewise, "Rob's And Carolee's" is full of inside jokes that were surely enjoyed by the title characters but the melody seems a bit forced and saccharine to my ears despite the lush orchestration. The final track, "Mama's In The Desert, Daddy's In The Sky", is classic Terry Scott Taylor. With acoustic guitar, strings, operatic female vocals and a melancholy melody, Taylor sings of his mother, "She's gone to talk to Daddy / And lay some flowers on his grave/ She says she knows Dad isn't there but / It helps her to get by." Both sorrowful and encouraging, the song brings this album of quaint and peaceful pop to a satisfying close. Available at www.danielamos.com. This review first appeared in WhatzUp, November 2002.

Review - Daniel Amos - Mr. Buechner's Dream

It's been eleven years since a proper Daniel Amos album. Since then there has been a Swirling Eddies, some Lost Dogs, and quite a few knock-off fan club Terry Taylor releases. However all that is going to change thanks to Kickstarter. Yeah, baby... a new DA album some time next year! And, uh, is mp3.com still around?

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The general consensus among the inner circle of the musical cabal is that Daniel Amos, or DA, is the most criminally overlooked yet influential band in history. Twenty-five years into their fertile existence, DA has released their White Album, a double album containing thirty-three songs. A rarity among double albums, there's not a weak song in the bunch and I'm as stunned as you are skeptical. In stark contrast to the shambling skeletons of The Rolling Stones and other bands well past their prime, these songs are startlingly fresh and vibrant, the fun and enthusiasm of the recording experience evident throughout. Like all of their albums, these songs grow on you with each listen until you wonder how you ever lived without them. Musically DA isn't reinventing any musical forms. Instead they borrow a premise from influences Elvis Costello and They Might Be Giants: take twenty or so smart, catchy three minute songs- a mixture of ballads, driving rock, and everything in between- machine gun them at the listener and you can't stop listening for days. Similarly you won't find constant shredding and grandstanding among the members but rather ingenious reinventions of the standard forms handled by musicians who work together to serve the song. Ever curious to hear what kind of convoluted guitar part a bona fide NASA scientist would create? Look no further- Greg Flesch is your man. Lyrically, Terry Taylor, the nucleus of the group, poses questions concerning the tensions between faith and doubt, probing the meaning and humor of what it is to be human. To keep your attention through one hundred minutes of music, there is a plethora of musical timbers - trumpets, trombones, mellotrons, organs, pianos, sax, accordion and mandolin, just to name a few. There's also an unending array of guitar sounds, disturbing bass rumblings, and judicious use of noise- an amazing, exhilarating, unpredictable ride!

Now for some detail. "Staggering Gods" is a stunning auditory, psychedelic treat mixing backwards guitars and symphonic strings with a driving beat, creating a 60s version of ELO. "A Little Grace" is a raw, blistering melodic garage band rocker while "Rice Paper Wings" opens innocently enough with acoustic guitar and bells before being commandeered by a mysterious melody and a monster bass line. Tim Chandler is unequivocally the most creative bassist on the planet, teetering precariously on the edge of insanity, and yet his lunatic creations never seem out of place. Making distortion their slave, "Small Great Things" is a noisy, boisterous, seething whopper of a song followed quickly by "She's A Hard Drink" which is full of drunken, Dixieland horns and lyrics such as "She's a bad dream / Like an Adam's apple on a beauty queen." "Fingertips" is a mad cacophony of distortion held tenuously to reality by an inescapable melody, dissolving effortlessly into a legato piano at the end in a startling contrast to the previous chaos. Drummer Ed McTaggart lays down some complex rhythms on the gritty stomper "Easy For You" which contains yet another mind-bogglingly inventive guitar solo. But not every song is an over-the-top adventure in good rock music - just my favorites. Fully half of the songs fall into the hard modern rock genre, but the rest are soft rock, mellow disco, alterna-folk, and some that just defy description. The only thing better than two discs for the price of one (at www.danielamos.com) are the NINE free songs at mp3.com, and the only thing better than that are the songs themselves. You've been depriving yourself too long- join the secret society and discover this amazing collection of songs and their enigmatic creators.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, September 2001.