Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Spirit of Giving

For the last couple of years my wife and I have been praying about and doing a lot of reading and thinking about what exactly constitutes our faith in Christ. Is it just me or does the western version of Christianity not strike one as impressive? The kind of believer I’ve seen in most of the churches we’ve visited the past few years are nowhere near the ones who set the ancient world on fire after Pentecost. I’m no different. In most cases, where you hear statistics on how Christians differ from the general populace (divorce and porn use being the ones that comes to mind) there’s often very little difference. “But everyone’s a hypocrite. I’m saved, not perfect,” you say. I’ve said it too.

One issue that has gotten under our skin is the issue of tithes and giving to “the church.” Not how much one gives but to whom. I’ve heard many pastors say from the pulpit that we should be giving our tithe to the church and if you want to have a World Vision sponsor child or support some radio ministry then that should be over and above our tithe. I’m not finding that in the Bible. It’s almost like they are trying to make sure people continue to give to their coffers so they can have enough funds to pay for the budget that was decided upon by themselves and the elders. I’m not saying that nothing good is being done with this money but it seems overly stuffed. Am I the only one who checks how much is taken out for administration expenses when giving to some ministry? 10-15% seems an average number with the rest of your donation going directly to some need.

Consider the average church. You’ve got salary and insurance for the pastor (and often multiple pastors... my current church has at least three). Then there’s all too often a mortgage for the church building, insurance on the building, heating and cooling for the building, all the audio-visual equipment, telephone and internet service, electricity and water, and who knows what else I’m not thinking of. Then you have a special offering ABOVE AND BEYOND YOUR TITHE for the visiting missionaries. I would seriously be surprised if the average church has administration expenses below 50%.

When we started “shopping” for churches I found it very liberating not to feel guilted into giving all of our offering to one local body so that they could meet their weekly budget, as seen in the bulletin each week (along with year to date in case you feel compelled to give extra). We were able to give to struggling ministries, super-duper-small congregations and even individuals.

Talk about joyful giving (2 Corinthians 9:7)! At this time of year we give gifts to each other and it brings us joy to be able to give presents to friends and family. Perhaps God meant giving our tithe to bring joy and encouragement to our hearts in this same way. In giving we are also blessed. What do you think gives more joy: dropping a check into a plate as it is passes (“I hope the people around me know that I get paid every other week and that’s why I’m not putting anything in this week.”) or putting cash in an envelope and anonymously leaving it in the door of someone who is struggling to both pay medical bills and put food on the table, imagining their joyous reaction as you drive off? James 1:27 mentions visiting orphans and windows and in Matthew Jesus talk about visiting those in prison, clothing the naked and feeding the hungry. I wouldn’t be surprised if The Message Bible adds single moms and out-of-work outsourced middle-aged men.

That’s it. I have no concrete answers, just questions.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Music Review - Kim Hill - Brave Heart

Time for a retro review! Somehow my copy of Kim Hill’s Brave Heart went MIA but thanks to some friendly and completely legal web site out there, I have it back. It’s been nearly twenty years since I’ve heard the album and many times when I’ve dipped back I hear cheese and/or music that has not aged well. However in this case the music has held up remarkably. Brave Heart being her third album, Hill had proven her ability to sell records enough that the executives stopped trying to mold her into whatever flavor they thought she was and let her be herself. I’ve noticed this on many other Christian artists where the first two albums are bland and generic and if they survive the gauntlet they are finally allowed to fully express themselves on album three. Or maybe it’s that the Kirkpatrick-Kennedy writing team (who seemed to write 90% of the songs published by Word during that era) takes two albums to fully pick up a singers vibe. In any case, the album is a home run!
The album kicks off with “Words,” a solid rocker with enough slight twists to keep your attention but not so much as to offend radio fans. Lyrically this is an exhortation to watch your words. In fact, many of the albums from Word in this period are filled with such instruction for holiness. Then, mid-song, strings and horns enter and it’s a kind of parade. Different! And they’re the real deal instead of the midi-junk so you know the record company has high expectations and are willing to open their pockets a little. “Satisfied” is more relaxed with a tinge of country to go with artful evangelical lyrics. I think “Mysterious Ways” as the radio single but if it was it’s an odd choice. It’s very quiet, almost spooky, and very sparse. “Round and Round” follows this dark(ish) song and I had forgotten how much I like it. The song totally rocks and Tommy Simms goes all out with noodley bass parts. Plus they shake things up with the rhythm in the verse to keep things fun. The bridge of “It was in my head then / Its my heart now” sums up the song and the changes we go through. In hearing the chorus I’m realizing that the album is half over and I haven’t heard any mention of Jesus or Christ, just generic references like “Only your sweet love was gonna save me.” Hmmm. It was something I probably thought was “edgy” back then but the older me thinks that you should give credit where it’s due.
Side two. “Stop My Heart” is a great song about not giving your heart away with a cool drum pattern that I now realize was heavily influenced by “Time of the Season” by the Zombies. “Gotta stop my heart / Before it runs away with you / And takes me farther than I think I’d like to be” and “I thought that you were the one that I could give my love to / But now I’m not so sure” … great, encouraging stuff for any teen finding themselves sucked into a breakneck romance. “She’ll Come Around” is a semi-story song about a young woman building a wall of anger that can be torn down with a little love. But again, no mention of the source of said generic love. “Don’t Face The World Alone” has an 80s keyboard sound that is almost bagpipy but not distractingly so. “Even the bravest heart needs help sometimes” is the encouraging theme of this simple song that wisely was placed on side two, even if it is the “title track.” The final two tracks on the album are solid but not stellar.
Okay, so it's a wimpy ending but 2/3 of the songs are very strong.

Friday, September 6, 2013

My Political History

I have voted straight Republican from the age of 18. I voted in every election and every primary. I even dutifully held my nose voted for the “lesser of two evils”/party pick in the November elections. Now for some time-compressed internal dialogue:

1988: “Cool! George Bush won! He’s doing some things that don’t quite make sense but I’m only twenty. It’s just politics.”

1992: “Crap! Clinton won. He’s going to destroy the country.”

1996: “Double crap! I can’t believe how stupid the American people are to vote this obviously sleezy guy back into office. But what can you expect when your competition is Dole. But hey, at least now the Republicans have both sides of congress so at least they can stop any more damage… wait… what’s going on? Why aren’t they changing anything? Why are they caving?”

2000: “Well, looks like Bush Jr. won. His dad was real wishy washy but I have hope for this guy. All the Christian radio programs say that he’s a true believer. Plus we still have both sides of Congress. TIME TO FIX THIS MESS! Reduce the budget, shrink government and finally we’ll get Roe V. Wade overturned! Wait… what’s going on? Not only are they NOT doing what they promised to do but they’re actually doing the opposite! Sure, they’re not as bad as those horrible Democrats but they’re still moving in the same direction.”

2004: “Bush won again. I’m supposed to be happy but both sides stunk, like they were almost the same. It’s like I really didn’t have an option. The Republicans talk a good game when campaigning but once they’re in office most of them are just Democrat-lite.”

2008: “Well, this is it. My children will live in a very different country. I thought Hilary was bad but this guy who came out of nowhere, Obama, has scared the pants off me from day one. The Clintons would sell the country down the river as long as it made them money but this guy will sell us down the river on principle! That Ron Paul guy was making a lot of sense but it would just be throwing away my vote which is why I held my nose and voted for McCain even though he gives me the creeps. So it turns out that I threw away my vote anyway AND sacrificed my own principles.”

[Enough reading and research to minor in Political Science. I now have a firm grasp on economics and many of the things that used to confuse me (“Why is so-and-so doing that? It makes absolutely NO SENSE!”) now fit together like a logical jigsaw puzzle.]

2012: “Obama again. I’m a little surprised but not much. After Clinton got back in I no longer count on common sense of the general public. There sure seems to be a lot of detailed, credible allegations of voter fraud in alternative media. Would it have made sense if the Republicans put forth someone with a backbone? And after how the Republicans treated Ron Paul, they have lost me for good. Simply disgraceful and childish and definitely just as dirty as anything on the Democrat side. For the first time my vote wasn’t wasted… it was my divorce decree to the oligarchy.”

2016: “I’ll probably vote for the House and local elections but I’m no longer buying into the charade of national elections. I’ll submit a vote of ‘No Confidence’ by refusing to play their game.” I had a respected professor in college who said that in politics you ALWAYS vote for character. It doesn’t matter what they say but what they do and have done. If every two years your spouse went on a months-long tirad insisting they are faithful but then continually cheated on you and didn’t even try to hide it, would you stay with them?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

A few more thoughts on concerts…

I wonder if perhaps the reason I don’t care much for live music is because it so rarely is worth the time. So rarely does it hit the mark and move me. But when it does… POW!

These few times include:

The first King’s X concert. This band is known for always being “on” and they nailed every song, every part.

The second King’s X concert. Again, the band was magical. They played a song (“Static”) off an album that I didn’t really care for. In fact, the entire album was humdrum. But that night they made this song charged with energy and passion. If they recorded that entire album live instead of how they did it who knows how good it would have been?

They Might Be Giants – Masters of showmanship! They were having fun and it caught with the audience.

Adrian Belew- I went not expecting much other than I had all his solo albums and had a chance to see him for free. He was playing with “two kids”, a brother and sister drum and bass duo. Two kids. Like I said, I wasn’t expecting much. But like King’s X, this trio infused life into a number of songs that I liked but didn’t quite love. These “kids” were early 20’s and simply astounding!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

End of Summer

As summer nears to an end (to which my wife would say that it never really got hot enough for it to have begun) I'm nearing the end of my Miscellaneous Classical Music listening. I discovered some new favorites (Stravinsky's "Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra" comes to mind) and trudged through a few that were, well, mere drudgery. Right now, though, it's Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" so I'm happy. By September I'll be onto the next form and I'm sure all two of my readers are at the edge of their seats. I know I am, and not because there's some unknown stain at the back of my seat.

But on to other things.

This past Saturday I went with a guy from church and our collective daughters (no, we're not sister-husbands) to an outdoor Christian music festival. This led to a discussion on the drive up as to the concerts we had each been to. I was surprised at my own number, not that it was huge but because I don't really care for live music (too uncontrolled and often disappoints compared to a carefully crafted studio album). So upon our safe return I started writing them down. Here is my result. Feel free to make your own list and post it. Feel free to copy my list. Feel free to disregard everything I say.

I included artist name, album the tour supported (if I remembered), year I saw them and the venue. And finally, I put them in chronological order 'cause I'm just that way.

Van Halen - 5150 tour - 1986 - At Ft. Wayne Memorial Colesium

Alice Cooper - Constrictor - 1987 - At Ft. Wayne Memorial Colesium

Alice Cooper - Raise Your First and Yell - 1988 - At Ft. Wayne Memorial Colesium

Rich Mullins - 1988 - First Assembly

Steven Curtis Chapman - 1988/1989/1990 - First Assembly

Deliverance - 1989? - At Sunset Music Hall

Vengeance Rising - 1989? - At Sunset Music Hall

Amy Grant - Lead Me On - 1988/89 - At Ft. Wayne Memorial Colesium

Phil Keaggy - 1990? - At First Assembly - solo

Adam Again - Homeboys - 1990 - At Sunset Music Hall -- one other band also?

Michael Card - 1990 - Anderson Unversity

The Choir - Wide-Eyed Wonder - 1990 - At Mainstream

King's X - Faith Hope Love - 1991 - Elkhart

Eric Gales Band - 1991 - w/ King's X

John Fisher - 1991 - Fort Wayne Bible College

Rich Mullins - 1991/1992 - First Assembly

Lost Dogs - Scenic Route - 1992 - Cornerstone Music Festival

77's - 1992- Cornerstone Music Festival

Adam Again - Dig - 1992 - At Cornerstone

At The Foot of the Cross - 1992- Cornerstone Music Festival

Phil Keaggy - 1992 - Cornerstone Music Festival

Kemper Crabb - 1992 - Cornerstone Music Festival

Margaret Becker - 1992 - Cornerstone Music Festival

Dig Hay Zoose - 1992 - Cornerstone Music Festival

The Choir - Circle Slide - 1992 - Cornerstone Festival

The Choir - Circle Slide - 1992 - At Heartland Church

Adam Again - Dig - 1992 - At Heartland Church

Raspberry Jam - 1992 - At Heartland Church

Phil Keaggy - Crimson and Blue - 1993 - At Taylor University - full band

Phil & John - 1993 - At Taylor University

Galactic Cowboys - Space in Your Face - July 4, 1993 - Pier's

They Might Be Giants - Back to Skull - 1994? - Vogue in Indy

Rich Mullins - Brother's Keeper - 1995 - At Ft. Wayne Memorial Colesium

Daniel Amos - 2000 - Cornerstone Music Festival

77's - 2000 - Cornerstone Music Festival

Terry Taylor - Avocado Faultline - 2000 - in Indy

Phil Madeira - 3 Horse Shoes - 2000 - in Indy

They Might Be Giants - early 2000s - Wooden Nickel In-Store show

King's X - Manic Moonlight? - 2002 - Piere's

Dio - 2002 - Piere's - w/ King's X

PFR - Disappear - 2002 - At Anchor Room

Alice Cooper - 2002 - At Verizon Music Center

Terry Taylor - 2009 - my living room

Adrian Belew - e - 2009 - At Sweetwater

Mike Roe - We All Gonna Face the Rising Sun- 2010 - Pint & Slice

Alice Cooper - 2013 - At Embassy

Switchfoot - 2013 - At Pulse Festival

Audio Adrenaline - 2013 - At Pulse Festival

Friday, May 31, 2013

Review - Parthenon Huxley - Thank You Bethesda

Like any skill, songwriting takes work. The good ones make it look so effortless and easy that any schmoe thinks he can string three chords together and have a hit. But to consistently put together memorable songs album after album, year after year? That takes moxie! Although not widely known, Parthenon Huxley has the touch. He honed his skills writing songs for other artists and now spends his time writing solo albums and filling the shoes of Jeff Lynne in the touring version of E.L.O. alongside many original members. Back in the day he formed a band with Rusty Anderson, now Paul McCartney’s long-time touring guitarist. The man had pedigree.

His latest album is Thank You Bethesda and it does not disappoint. Style-wise there’s a bit of Beatles and a bit of E.L.O. but also a whole lot of positive, high-energy rock sprinkled with lyrics of wisdom and humor. The title track teases us with mellotron flutes before a spongy bass takes the lead on a high octane tour, leaving you to breathlessly fix your windblown hair. “Angeleno” is a playful swipe at the fame-obsessed culture of Los Angeles with lyrics of “Sign here for your major motion picture / Sign here on the standard release form.” Though intentionally cheesy background vocals mock the entertainment capital it’s done with such playful panache that the cowbell fits right in. “Buddha, Buddha” takes an easier pace, giving band members room to lay down noodling guitar and keyboard solos, distracting you while the chorus worms its way into your brain. The sizzling “Love Is The Greatest Thing” is classic rock at its best, featuring some simply drop-dead gorgeous guitar tones while Huxley sings “I wanna believe The Beatles / They mean so much to me / I wanna believe that love / Love is the greatest thing.”

In addition to the rockers Parthnon writes a mean ballad. “Long Way To Go” takes a look back on life with lyrics of “I’ve been playing the show / And it’s taken me place I would never have known: / Albert Hall to Pucon” but still he “Can’t love my baby when I’m stuck on the road.” “Beautiful” is a masterpiece, a wonderful love song that any women would be thrilled to receive (“I wish you could see see yourself like I do / I know that you would love the view”) that packs perfection into three minutes.

Be warned: the music of Parthenon Huxley isn’t for everyone. Fans of One Direction, for instance, probably won’t get it. But for those of us who have a few decades under our belts and are tired of hearing songs by Boston played ad nauseum and perhaps yearn for the kind of quality in music that used to be so plentiful, well then, step right up and let the melodies of Thank You Bethesda fulfill your musical sweet tooth.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Beethoven Bites Me

Years ago, when I was but a young lad and the digital format was new, I enrolled in the Time-Life Beethoven club. Each month they sent me two CDs of his music and each month I sent them a check. I was fairly new to classical music and knew that I liked what I had heard of Beethoven so I figured that they, being the experts, would sift through the classical world and would send me great recordings of some great pieces. And for the most part they did and I learned more and more about this form of music. But one day I received a letter that the Beethoven club was being discontinued. What? I had only received thirty-eight CDs and was missing a few piano sonatas and violin sonatas and whatnots. I had put in my time and my money thinking that I would eventually have a full set -o- Beethoven but it was not to be. Eventually I picked up a box set of piano sonatas and a few other important pieces and continued on my merry way.

It wasn't until only recently as I've been enjoying my stroll through classical lane that it dawned on me to use this here internets to find out more about the Time-Life series. It turns out that while the gang at Time-Life released a massive eighty-five record set on the bicentennial of of Beethoven's birth (creatively titled The Beethoven Bicentennial Collection) the current CD set only contained forty CDs. So what did I miss? His opera, Fidelio. Me and opera aren't on the best of terms (as I think the music usually takes a back seat so that those with Lead Singer Syndrome can showboat) so it was not big shakes.

Then I remembered that I still have all of the payment stubs for this series. Egads! Being the reformed packrat that I am these promptly went into the trash after being photographed. I should note that I also still had the very first pay stub (Symphonies 1 for the low introductory payment of $9.99! Plus shipping and handling) but I was not motivated enough to go back inside and intrude upon the kitchen where my wife was making dinner.

A couple of things I noted. First, they charged sales tax on shipping. That just ain't right! Second, I am a major dork. Third, I paid a whopping $476.34 for these CDs. This was the very late 80s so in today's moolah that's about $968, using the fictitious gubbermint inflation rate of 3% per year. WAS I INSANE?!?!?! Of course back in those days there was no Amazon where you could get the entire collection (and I mean just about every single little thing the man composed on paper, parchment or wallpaper) for a mere $104, even less when it's on sale. But still, it was money well spent, something I looked forward to each month and enjoyed. Well, usually enjoyed. Some of the music wasn't exactly Symphony #9 caliber but Beethoven on a bad day is better than Ratt on a good one.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Just Another Evening in May

Last night I noticed that the chemtrail planes were flyin' mighty low so I grabbed my camera and...

Chemtrail Plane1_1
Chemtrail Plane1_2
Chemtrail Plane 2_1
Chemtrail Plane 2_2
Chemtrail Plane 2_3
Chemtrail Plane 2_4
Chemtrail Plane 3_1
Chemtrail Plane 4_1
Chemtrail Plane 5_1
Chemtrail Plane 5_2
Chemtrail Plane 5_3
Chemtrail Plane 5_4
Chemtrail Plane 5_4 - crop

Turns out there were at least five different planes. My city is very lucky, indeed.

Most of them weren't spraying anything, just flying across the sky over and over and over and over again.* By the red tail I was able to find out that these are most likely 979 Supertankers built by Evergreen, though the ones I've seen online have a blue and green stripe down their sides. Perhaps these lines are overwhelmed by the white sides from the ground. The patent on these is for putting out forest fires though one has yet to be used for this purpose.

* A bit of time to consider this and I wonder, as it was between eight and nine in the evening, if perhaps these were different chemtrail jets returning to their base for the night along a similar flightpath. However as they were flying north-east over Fort Wayne and there is no army base to the NE of our city, I wonder if perhaps they were heading for Canada? The Borden military base, home of the Royal Canadian Air Force? So why are these giant tankers flying from Canada over U.S. airspace each and every day (saw 'em against last night- same bat time). Where's the fire?

Monday, May 13, 2013

Review - Synergy - Metropolitan Suite

I don't know why Larry Fast stopped making his Synergy albums. I mean, they were completely unlike anything else being made. They weren't bland New Age snoozefests like a lot of the electronic music of the time (and unfortunately Amazon still lists Synergy albums under the New Age category) but rather they were serious classical compositions with touches of pop and rock. But regardless of why he stopped, his final album, Metropolitan Suite was his crowning achievement.

The first half of this album is a stunning, sweeping, orchestral tone poem depicting New York in the early 20th century. The five movements are his Ninth Symphony, his magnum opus. The first movement is filled with wonder, like turning a bend in the road and finding a city suddenly spread out in a valley before you. The second is filled with uneven progressive, choppy rhythms with comparisons to "Breakdown in Modern Communications" in spades. The other three movements are equally varied but the common melodic themes woven throughout form a very gratifying listening experience especially for fans of Copland and Gershwin.

The second "side" of the album are his usual unconnected compositions. "Into the Abyss" is packed with energy but retains the majestic feel of the first side. "Prairie Light" could be a Peter Gabriel track and "Redstone" is pure energetic synth rock with tidbits of surf guitar and The Car.

The liner notes are also fun to read, at least for old gear heads like myself. "Sound Generation" lists Moog modular synthesizer, Memorymoog, Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, Oberheim Expander Module (old version), Yamaha DX7, Yamaha TX-216, Emu Systems Emulator II. "Sound processing" has such early digital units as Deltalab DL-2 Acousticomputer, Lexicon PCM-60 digital reverb, Roland Dimension D, Yamaha SPX-90 digital multi-effect Processor, AMS RMX 16 digital reverb, EMT 140 plate echo, Eventide digital delays and more.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Newbery Challenge!

So I got me a wild hair and thought it might be nice to read every Newbery award winner of the course of the next decade. Checking over the list I discovered that I'd only read Wrinkle In Time and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (and I mean that I actually read the books... homie don't count watching the movie as having read the book, unlike some people I know). I also have nothing against reading juvenile fiction. Often it's quite entertaining and have a length that fits with my current lifestyle (a thousand page beast would take me half a year.)

For my first choice I selected Gay Neck. You know... in this PC world it's impolite to laugh. During the first four chapters I learned a little bit about India and pigeons and why I didn't need to read any further. Snoresville. I also learned that I needn't subject myself to the Newbery Challenge.

Click here and you too can claim that you've read Wrinkle In Time!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Music Review - Synergy - Cords (1977)

I first heard the music of Synergy, a.k.a. Larry Fast a.k.a. Peter Gabriel's keyboard guru, on a late-late night Headphones show (can't remember the name... Psychedelic something?) on 103.9(Rock 104, for those in the know), a local album-oriented rock station. The piece played was "Disruption in World Communications" and it blew me away! The next day I was on the phone to the local Wooden Nickel to see if they had a copy. They did... on clear vinyl.

Getting the platter home and onto my turntable I was delighted to hear more of the same. Since this was around 1987 I was surprised to hear such well developed synthesizer sounds coming from a 1977 album. Wasn't that supposed to be the era of blips and beeps? Well, it mostly was but Larry Fast is a genius who built his own hardware, laboriously combining tracks to create these symphonic masterpieces. Often with early synth music the sounds pull you out of the experience. Not so here. The entire package is so extremely well executed that you can focus on the music, not the way it is delivered. This was also at a time when I was just getting into classical music so I was amazed to find music that used "modern" synthesizers in an instrumental format.

So about this "Disruptions" piece that so grabbed me. It still grabs me. It starts off with a light rhythm played on chilled bell tones while a flute-like sound overlays a calm melody. A malevalent sound intrudes briefly and the calm melody continues. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along. Another beautiful melody is introduced alongside harpsichord tones but is soon interrupted but dissonant tones. Not to be outdone the original melody returns, attempting to recover control, bolstering itself with brass bass tones but soon the chaos returns, attempting to merge itself with the original melody. The struggle continues but ultimately the chaos wins out as the song grows more and more dissonant.

What could be a mere novelty composition is, in the hands of Larry Fast, an amazing and engaging work. At one point I attempted to turn this into a marching band piece for a composition class. Can you imagine the nice, straight lines of marchers slowly dissolving into chaos on the field? But I wasn't able to transcribe the song well enough and it now sits somewhere in a box in my attic.

You can get your hands on this album for as cheap as a penny (plus shipping). Oh joy!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Symphonic Finale

Today is the day. The last symphonic trip through memory lane. Sorry it's been more enjoyable for me in being able to hear the music that it was for you in having to skip over my posts where I write out 'em. For the last one I settled on Dvorak's razzamataz wing-ding #9. I bet that's the first time the New World sympony's been called that! I learned a very important lessons: Russians in 1965 did not have access to cough drops. Or at least they have no problems with warfing all over the place during a recording session. But now I come to a very difficult decision, one which will require the consultation of my psychic friend: What's next? I ran a query in my ultra-dorky homegrown classical music database and settled on a mishmash of works I have labeled as "Orchestral Songs", "Other Orchestral", "Symphonic Poem" and "Tone Poem." It's a real mishmash of 350+ compositions encompassing three minute Slavonic Dances, The Planets, synthesizer compositions by Synergy, pieces by Steve Reich, Scott Johnson, P.D.Q. Bach... It's going to be a wild trip! Plus there are a number of duplicates (three versions of Night on Bald Mountain [or Bare, if you dare] and four versions of The Unanswered Question) but still, it might take me through to the end of the year. But it's all good, trippin' down nostalgia avenue and taking the time to enjoy these compositions again.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Review - Aardvark Spleen - Love of Wisdom

And sometimes you buy an album just because you like the name. Aardvark. I wasn't planning to listen to this one again but then I read the review and darnit if it doesn't sound interesting.

* * * * * Combine blues, rock, philosophy and Ralph the Dog and you'll get the twisted swill that is Aardvark Spleen. Their first release, Love of Wisdom, simultaneously pays tribute to and lambastes such important philosophical figures as Copernicus, Socrates, Prometheus and Barney the Proletarian Elf, arguably creating the most intellectually heady lyrics of the decade. Most of the songs discuss philosophical beliefs or world views (in fact the very album title Love of Wisdom is the literal Greek translation of the word "philosophy") while a few are intended to cause great confusion on the part of the listener.

"The Best Diseases" discusses living the "good life" with a rocking ragtime piano, soulful harmonica, and a vocalist that does a dead-on Ralph the Dog from the Muppet Show. "Earthman" is a funky, sax-filled romp through teleological order while "Living Like a Three Toed Sloth", with its frenetic rockabilly groove and jangly guitars, valorizes the "dirtiest and slowest land animal". Other songs, such as "Contaminated Animal" and "Down By The Sea" switch gears to a more subdued, contemplative mood, throwing in flute and backing female vocals to join the appealing melodies. While most of the songs have a healthy dose of humor to go along with the philosophical ruminations, "Gonna Steal Your DNA" and "Demonic Granny" throw in double and triple scoops. "Barney The Proletarian Elf" is especially fun, creating a view of a Santa who deliberately stunts the growth of elves and prohibits labor unions until the usually quiet Barney cries for revolution and the head of Santa on a plate. Good stuff!

Where this album falls short is the same problems that befall most local efforts... thinking that a successful live song will translate well onto a recording. For instance, "Prometheus", with it's spooky keyboards and haunting melodies, is simply too long for the number of musical ideas, becoming repetitive and boring, overstaying its welcome when it could have been an effective, eerie ode to the god who gave mankind fire. Overall, though, the album is a good listen with elements of folk, rock, blues, rockabilly, and a smattering of jazz, brewed together with the kind of lyrics that come from taking a few too many philosophy classes.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, April 2000.

Review - Headmint - Music for Corporations Volume 1

Volume 2 never saw the light of day. Another one that is begging for a listen.

* * * * * You say you're looking for some new music? Something that incorporates dance house, classical, rock, and sixties film music? That's a pretty tall order, except that the brothers drab have just released Headmint: Music For Corporations Volume 1. Consisting of Lindsay Jamieson of Departure Lounge and John Painter, one half of the amazing duo Fleming & John, the brothers drab play nearly every instrument on the disc, and between the two of them, they can play nearly every instrument in western music, plus a few outside western familiarity.

The album opens with "Le monde au balcon", a 3/4 piece played on accordion that is at once melancholic and nostalgic. But this bit of eerie carnival music is short and leaves the listener wanting more. "Paris" soon follows with it's swanky horns and sixties cinema vocals of "lah de dah de dah." If you're into lyrics, pass this one up because all of the tracks except one are instrumentals, not that there's anything wrong with that! Weaving a tapestry of a mysterious Arabian night, "Madagascar" adds a hip swing feel to a lilting violin and analog synth melody. "Number 6" takes a simple piano melody and backs it with pizzicato and glissando violin parts, slowly developing each as the melody mingles with each instrument. The effect is absolutely mesmerizing and definitely keeps your attention for the full seven minutes. Other tracks include Hawaiian guitar, the Theramin, electric drums, and eastern instruments. The title track includes some brief lyrics, sung by the astounding vocal cords of Fleming McWilliams (the other half of Fleming & John) and a great whistling ditty that evokes images of an easy summer stroll through the park. The final track, "Viennese Water Torture" picks up the haunting melody presented in the opening piece, although this time on a slightly detuned piano. Gruff violins are soon added to the mix, as are floating background vocals that give the piece a very Danny Elfman/Edward Scissorhands feel before ending quietly with the rhythm again played by solo accordion. Despite the name, the music is free from corporate intervention and as such, is only available as an independent release at www.flemingandjohn.com.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, October 2000.

Review - Chris Knox - Beat

I've got good memories of this one, I do. It was an early review and the music was as enthusiastic as I was.

* * * * *

My first listen through this album brought me flashbacks of listening to other albums, albums that were early in the careers of bands that ultimately became quite influential, albums that were raw, sparse, fresh, and full of energy. This auditory pastiche included "The Blink Leading The Naked" by The Violent Femes, They Might Be Giants' pink album, and pre-Darkside Floyd. Chris Knox, the New Zealand man responsible for this delusion, is part of the enigmatic band Tall Dwarfs and is able to create delicate ballads, cool pop, and satirical folk songs without breaking a sweat. Knox has an odd sense of humor with a skewed view of the world that manages to avoid cliches. Like the music that he plays, his voice is rubbery, bouncing effortlessly from verse to verse like a super bounce ball from those machines at the grocery store. The, ahem, heart of the album are three songs that came about from the decline and death of his father. These songs are sadder and more open than past songs, but not without hope. Other songs include the infectious "It's Love" which mixes bright piano, fuzzy guitars, and a peppy melody into a quickie that brings up images of Matthew Sweet's 100% Fun, The Troggs, and the Buzzcocks. More fun follows with the jangly guitars and funky horns of "The Hell of It" and the rantings of "I Wanna Look Like Darcy Clay". "Everyone's Cool", the gritty anthem of individuality has a rhythm and sound that would fit in well played in a large stadium. Other songs find Knox in his role of political activist. "When I Have Left This Mortal Coil" and the Dylan-tinged "The Man In The Crowd" sound like updated 60s protest folk songs and the lyrics are definitely in line with the charged atmosphere of change. Lyrically, this man sings speeches. There are lots of words but they are quite good. The album is full of such great lines as "You're better than me by a minor degree" and "When I have left this mortal coil I'll leave no shade / When I have left this place I'll leave my bed unmade." And lets not forget the teeming melodies that worm their way into your, eh, well, heart. For those who seek adventurous music free from the constraints to "move units", this album will definitely brighten your day.

This article first appeared in WhatzUp, September 2000.

Review - Paul McCartney - Working Classical

Composing "serious" music isn't as easy as the masters make it look. But then again, writing a great pop song is no small shakes either. Another one to perhaps revisit out of curiosity, though I still intend to steer clear of Standing Stone.

* * * * *

It must be difficult to develop a new skill in the public eye but Sir Paul McCartney seems to be only getting better with each new release. While his first two "classical" albums were monolithic, heavy, overweight pieces that took numerous listens just to get a feel for the piece, on his latest collection, Working Classical, McCartney has scaled back tremendously. Gone are the full orchestra and chorus. Gone is the sixty-plus minute epic. Instead one finds short pieces for string quartet, most under three minutes, and three orchestral pieces.

The greatest number of pieces are versions of his past songs arranged for string quartet, these pieces having been created to be played at memorial services for Linda. In general, these pieces are fairly straight-forward adaptations of his songs such as one might do as an exercise in a college arranging class. However, the new idiom does help flesh out some new life in such great songs as "My Love", "Calico Skies" and "Maybe I'm Amazed".

"Junk" and "Haymakers" are original compositions for string quartet and both are quite effective miniatures. "Junk" has an Elton John sound about it and "Haymakers" has a light and cheerful Mozart/Schubert feel with a naggingly familiar opening melody that I'm sure I've heard before but haven't yet been able to place. The three longest pieces on the album are the orchestral ones, each weighing in at a little over ten minutes. "A Leaf" has a very American feel to it and plenty of wistful, reflective melodies. "Spiral", however, is a very impressionistic piece with many musical images cascading past the listener like a slow river on a warm summer day. Overall, these pieces are full of the immediately pleasing melodies for which McCartney is known. What is not present is the kind of orchestral understanding that is necessary to make a piece properly unfold. McCartney has yet to achieve his own style and sound orchestrally as these pieces are filled with many styles and unconscious musical references to Beethoven, Schubert, and even George Martin. With little to say musically other than his great melodies, the music is unfortunately reduced to pleasing background music.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, March 2000.

Review - Billy Joel - Fantasies & Delusions

So far I haven't felt compelled to go back and listen to this one but now I'm curious...

* * * * *

About a decade ago The Piano Man left the world of pop music to return to his first love that he abandoned at the age of fifteen, classical piano music. While he never received a formal conservatory education like his brother, this great love was never far from his heart, surfacing throughout his rock career is various forms.

With Fantasies & Delusions Joel reveals to the public the classical melodies that have occupied him for most of the 90s. Largely in the 19th-century style, the pieces in collection draw from the music of Chopin, Debussy, and Schumann which gives the impression that these early works have come from one whose classical personality is not yet fully formed. Still the ten pieces for solo piano display Joel's well-developed harmonic sense and compositional techniques. By comparison other rock-to-classical artists, most notably Sir Paul McCartney, appear juvenile in their attempts at this genre.

Three of the pieces are unmistakably Chopin-esque waltzes and the "Invention in C Minor" captures all the precision and logic of Bach. With eleven minutes of romantic, impressionistic self-expression, "Soliloquy (On A Separation)" contains much by the way of Debussy. The relationship flip side is found in "Suite For Piano" whose three sections describe the three stages of love: infatuation, consummation (says the composer, "You can hear the headboards banging…as closely as can be duplicated on a piano."), and complications. The album closes with "Air", a folksy, Irish-flavored piece that begins with wistful memories on the motherland and ends with a jaunty jig.

Knowing his own limitations, Billy Joel passed off the actual playing of his compositions to award-winning pianist Richard Joo whose dexterous playing captures the full emotion and nuance of each piece. While there are a good deal of melodies contained within, so far none have managed to worm their way into my head like those found in Joel's pop songs. Emotionally the album keeps a fairly even keel with no sudden bursts of passion or extended passages of melancholy, making it an ideal candidate for background music.

If you're a fan of Billy Joel's pop music, be warned that you won't find any singable melodies on this platter (at least not without multiple listens). Fans of Romantic era solo piano music such as that of Debussy, Rachmaninoff and Chopin (especially Chopin) should find this album to be a wonderful addition to their classical collection.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, June 2002.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Symphony 2013

Not that those looking for plans on how to build a rocket ship out of 2X4s care, but my 2013 Symphony extravaganza is going swimmingly! I'm just over one third of the way done (currently listening to Tchaikovsky's 4th). I stripped out a bunch from the original list that weren't proper symphonies... perhaps I'll do a Symphonic Poem spree one day, though the next type will probably be concertos. I do so loves me a good piano or violin concerto. I'd love me a good accordion concerto but thems are rare birds. Electric guitar concerto, not so rare thanks to Yngwie. Also, I thought I liked the symphonies of Brahms more than I do, though I still like most of his first. And #9 by Schubert? I keep forgetting how killer that beast actually is. Now that I've got that out of my system, you may continue on with some other more-frequently-updated site.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Review - Phil Keaggy - Acoustic Sketches

Another one that hasn't lured me back since I reviewed it.

Phil Keaggy is one of those guitarists who are regularly listed in Guitar Player magazine in a "Best Guitarist" list or as someone's influence, and yet he has never achieved national recognition. On the guitar, he is more than good. He is a legend. Guitarists hear his music and openly drool at his impressive array of styles and techniques.

His latest release, the all-instrumental Acoustic Sketches, was originally offered as a fan club special. Recorded in his digital studio, the majority of the selections feature Phil improvising over rhythmic tape loops, much like he does in his solo concerts. Other selections are carefully multi-tracked excursions into flowing arrangements or jaunty Celtic melodies. While it is true that Keaggy can machine-gun out a flurry of notes, most of the pieces on this disc are on the mellow side, meditative without sacrificing musical content (John Tesh this is not). The pieces are tasteful, pleasant offerings that are free from the restraints of having to meet some commercial goal. And perhaps that is why I didn't like it as much as I'd hoped. While Keaggy can produce more musical colors out of an acoustic guitar than anyone I've ever heard, after an hour of ONLY acoustic guitar, my ear yearns to hear a different color. This is only a personal preference, however, as I've known guitarists and non-guitarists alike who happily immerse themselves into hour after hour of Keaggy's music.

Personal favorites include "Paka" with it's mind-blowing, playful picking; "Metamorphosis", a warm and friendly journey with Celtic overtones; and the jazzy "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" which contains the only other instrument on the CD, a tuba. Through the years, I have given many Keaggy CD's as gifts and this one will be no exception. Guitarists will enjoy the detailed liner notes, indicating the guitar and tunings used and non-guitarists enjoy the free, restful melodies. The only difficult part is finding it! I have found Keaggy's music categorized in the classical section, the rock section, and even in the inspirational section. But the music is well worth the search.

This article first appeared in WhatzUp, November 1998.

Review - Phil Keaggy - Underground

One of the first Phil Keaggy albums I heard... and it's still good. A bit rough sonically but tons of heart!

Way back in 1983 before every Tom, Dick and Jane had their own giga-track digital home studio, a persistent cabal of musicians and engineers hobbled together their own studios out of outdated studio gear, jute twine and sheer ingenuity.

One of these illuminati was world-renowned guitarist Phil Keaggy. Using the revolutionary Teac 144 Porta-Studio (a massive bit of machinery giving the user a whopping four tracks of glorious tape hiss) and a converted basement, Keaggy recorded his first “fan club” album, Underground. Being limited to four tracks (a bit more if you bounce, but this isn’t a technical manual) really makes the artist distill the music to it’s essence. Most of these songs consist of guitar, bass, keyboards, a few vocal parts and drum machine. Before you recoil in disgust, remember that it was 1983 and, although everyone was in fact doing it, Keaggy had the foresight to not attempt to make these early, limited rhythm machines sound like a drummer ... usually.

One thing I had forgotten about this album is the number of intricate, very well recorded bass lines. “Paid In Full”, just one of many instrumental delights, is one example, as is “What A Love,” which features some great guitar work and Beatlesque vocal harmonies. It was good to hear such longtime favorites as “One In A Million,” a love song to his wife with a catchy chorus melody against some gritty rock guitars;,and “Think About It,” whose use of clinking bottles in the complicated rhythm section and spooky minor key melody will ensure a good crop of goose bumps. If any two songs are known from this album they would be “The Two of You,” a nice wedding song free of the usual clichés, and “The Survivor,” an epic pro-life song arranged with only voice, acoustic guitar and light keyboards.

Like any re-release worth its weight in plastic, two unreleased tracks are included: “A Glorious Sunset,” a pleasant instrumental straight off The Wind And The Wheat; and “When I Say I Love You,” a nice love song to his daughter.

For years I had to make do with a taped copy from a record borrowed from a friend, so having these gems in digital splendor is nice. It does, however, reveal the limitations of the source material, that being a standard cassette tape. This is not to say that the recordings sound awful, just a bit restrained in their sonic scope. This “limitation” may also result from the music not being squashed and processed “to the max” like today’s Pro-Tools-engineered music. Regardless of whatever sonic limitations may or may not exist, what really shines through is Keaggy’s warmth and enthusiasm. These songs were originally recorded at leisure as gifts to share with immediate family members and close friends. As such, there is a freedom and confidence within that gives them lasting appeal, even close to 20 years later.

While much of Keaggy’s music appeals only to guitarists, the songs on Underground are so fresh and accessible that I urge all lovers of classic rock to visit www.philkeaggy.com and order a copy for your collection.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, August 2002.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Review - A Proggy Christmas

Great stuff herein! I'll be torturing my family with this one for years!

When I first learned that Neal Morse was joining up with a bunch of pals under the guise of The Prog World Orchestra and creating a Christmas album, I heard jingle of bells… or maybe that was the sound of money leaving my bank account. In either case it wasn’t long before A Proggy Christmas was delightfully massaging my ears.

As one might expect from Morse and co, the album is a mixture of reverence and fun, a kind of Mannheim Steamroller meets Trans-Siberian Orchestra with a bit more tasteful restraint. Or maybe not. Just listen to album highlight “Frankincense” and you’ll hear the maniacs mash the Edgar Winters classic with “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman”, “Deck The Halls” and others. Or watch the video online if you care to see Frankenstein’s monster and Santa duke it out in an 8-bit arena. Another personal favorite is “Carol of the Bells,” a metal magnet if ever there was. In this case they start it big and majestic with a massive string section which builds up to… a solo clavinet gettin’ funky! The song gets more wigged out as it progresses along its 7:40 length, weaving the familiar “Bells” theme around dissonant accompaniments, bass gurgles and hairy guitar tones. Of all the songs on the album this the one most likely to make unsuspecting holiday guests put you on the naughty list. But wait, there’s more! “Home For The Holidays” is done up in a playful, almost cheesy, country-lounge style and I’d bet a fiver that they are using a cheap Casio for the piano. Then there’s “Shred Ride – Sleigh Ride.” Guitar antics? Gratuitous drum fills? Glitzy showboating? The famous final piano chord from “A Day In The Life”? It’s all in there! There’s also “The Little Drummer Boy” with Mike Portnoy at the kit. It’s exactly what you would expect, if you are expecting complete prog-rawk awesomeness!

But it’s not all hot dogging and flash. “Joy To The World,” while allowing plenty of space for tasteful guitar solos, is majestic, powerful and orchestral enough to not offend anyone’s auntie. “O Holy Night”, “Silent Night / We All Need Some Light” and “The Christmas Song” are given traditional, acoustic treatments, providing relaxed counterpoint to the rocker songs around them. The yin and yang make for a very pleasant listen.

Most of the songs on A Proggy Christmas are instrumentals with Morse singing a verse now and then for variety. Joining Mr. Morse are such prog-rock giants as Mike Portnoy, Steve Hackett, Roine Stolt, Steve Morse, Randy George and Pete Trewavas plus talented members of Neal’s touring band whose names you might not recognize now but will in a few years. The combination of this group of friendly giants makes for one of the most original and enjoyable Christmas albums I’ve heard since A Kustard Kristmas.

Review - Stolen Babies - Naught

As much as I listened to their first album I'm surprised that I haven't returned to this one even once since I reviewed it. Sure, I'm making a conscious effort to avoid darker music but this one had it's light and fun moments. Maybe it's a summer album...

The first album by Stolen Babies, There Be Squabbles Ahead, was my top album in a year filled with very strong albums. The bass-centric songs were heavy on melody and a carefree, slyly winking attitude permeated the entire album. A mere half-decade later the band has completed Naught and was picked to join Devin Townsend on the road.

The first thing I noticed on Naught is that it is quite a bit darker, both in tone and subject matter. Songs like “Dried Moat” open with elastic guitars and lyrics of “The entrance to Hell is right outside my window / I stay in / It’s no better inside.” “Don’t Know” is a dripping, musty root cellar filled with lyrics of “You don’t know what pain is yet / But in time you won’t remember how you lived without it”, giving me the same icky goose bumps as the music of The Paper Chase. And then there’s the industrial-tinged “I Woke Up” with freaky, screechingly whispered lyrics and sounds right out of the original Evil Dead movie, all with a few Black Sabbath nods.

To offset the dark the band really digs deep into their love of Danny Elfman. The mournful “Swimming Hole”, although eerie, adds a hint of Edward Scissorhands as wonderous, magical bells lead up to a dramatic, cabaret-influenced second half. “Behind the Days” is filled with unusual instrumentation including a violin, bells, clarinets, and a bevy of voices that give this unnerving song a feel as if it was lifted out of Nightmare Before Christmas, perhaps an outtake of the occupants singing on a fog-filled cobblestone street. “Mousefood” brings in some of their heavier sound with machine gun kick drums, discombobulated meters, and disjointed call and answer vocal parts sung in such a variety of voices that almost feel like a play mashed down into a song. “Never Come Back” and “Civil Disguise” also hit you like a brick, if that brick just happens to be shaped like an accordion. Have I forgot to mention that the female lead vocalist, who easily flips between silken and screamo, also plays an accordion? Don’t worry: in this bizarro avant-garde world where any musical style goes the accordion fits right in. Nowhere is this more explicit than in “Splatter,” perhaps my favorite song on the album where Japanese pop meets disco and bubbles over into an industrial noise rock brew that peels paint from the walls. “Prankster” starts with spooky haunted house music that becomes an ambling corpse shambling to techno rock while “Birthday Song” is a simple, jaunty, nearly silly take on twisted surf music with a party of uniquely vocalized guests.

All in all, the main songwriter has been doing quite a bit of all-out composing and it gives the album an orchestrated, lush feel. There are so many differing musical styles and enough tonal variety to populate a midnight carnival that things are bound to sound a bit thrown together but somehow Stolen Babies makes it all fit into one tent. But no matter how weird, heavy, light, dark, playful, or menacing the songs are on Naught they are always catchy enough to be quarantined by the CDC.

Review - Heather Miller - Send Me An Angel

I liked the last song so much that I bought the single years after giving away the CD. Is this artist even still around? It seems to me that this was a case of a rockier songwriter who management tried to fit into a glossier, radio-friendly, soulful style.

For me, this album is quite a mixed bag. To begin with, Heather Miller has a solid, strong voice that is capable of great emotion. For the majority of the album, however, she slips into an urban style (which I find whiney) that makes her difficult to distinguish from the mass of singers who also use this style. Even so, her voice is never thin and she exerts great vocal control. Miller co-wrote almost every song on the album, songs which demonstrate her mastery of the contemporary pop/urban genre. The songs are mostly straight-forward, as pop songs should be, with some really good melodies to stick in yer craw. For example, "If She Could See", a song about a lost friend, has a great uneven chorus melody and the radio single "We Will See Him" has the requisite singable anthemic chorus. The majority of the songs are geared for MOR radio play, which doesn't give it a lot of credence in my book, but again if I heard these songs on the radio, they are of high enough song-writing quality that they would at least catch my ear. For me, the two strongest songs are where Miller proves that she can rock. "On His Way Home" combines her urban style with an aggressive rock groove that grabs the body and demands a response. Her voice really shines on this song, allowing her to open up and show a broad range of expressiveness. The other ripper is the album closer, "Tell Me Why" which opens softly, with a resigned Miller asking "Tell me why does a good man die?" before the pleading chorus literally ignites in a blaze of guitars. If only the entire album was like these two songs it would, well, it wouldn't sell as many copies as it probably would in it's current state. Lyrically the album searches spiritual issues with a great deal of maturity and honesty. Given that the album is co-produced (and some songs co-written) by a member of DC Talk, this should come as no surprise. Overall, it's a strong album that should find a welcome home for fans of urban contemporary pop.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, June 2000.

Review - Sara Groves - Conversations

Apparently this lady has gone on to fame and ?fortune? inside the CCM world. I remember thinking this album was a very good start and genuinely enjoyable, just not my cuppa tea. Kind of like a female Michael Card.

After recording one of the highest selling indie albums in recent years, Sara Groves entertained a number of offers from large companies. Instead of giving in to the image-making machine, she opted to partner with a company that would allow her to develop her artistic voice. The result is Conversations, an album that grows on me with each listen and one which my wife plays constantly. Musically Sara describes herself as "neo-folk/pop" and there is definitely a folk sensibility to her music with some nice pop hooks that go along nicely with the acoustic serenity that accompanies her Joni Mitchell-like vocals. Shades of Sarah McLachlan and Shawn Colvin are also apparent in her music but Sara's lyrics are where she sets herself apart. Brazenly honest, thought provoking, deeply spiritual and introspective, Conversations allows the listener to eves-drop on Sara's prayers, dreams, and discussions with others. The sobering "What Do I Know?" finds an eighty-eight year old friend of Groves sharing that despite a life of faith, she is afraid to die. A piano and string quartet provide a sparse background to this stark tale that ends with unexpected hope. In contrast, "Pictures of Egypt" employs a full band with Groves being kicked out of the nest of security with lines such as "The future feels so hard and I want to go back / The places that used to fit me / Cannot hold the things I've learned." "The Journey Is My Own" finds Groves looking back on the changes in her life with some emotive, cathartic melodies and a song that grows and develops as one suspects does the experience of the singer. The track which seems to capture her personality the best is the final track which features Sara alone on the piano with a swinging, rolling melody, recorded live. While definitely not for everyone, folk and pop-folk fans would definitely enjoy the tantalizing melodies and powerful yet vulnerable, introspective lyrics. Sara Groves is the real deal: an honest musician and (dare I say it?) poet who is more interested in expressing herself and making music than making a buck. This review first appeared in WhatzUp, May 2001.

Review - Fono - comesaroundgoesaround

Fono and Buck might be interchangable: young, energetic Christian bands whose music leaves absolutely no stain on the brain.

Having played together for several years, the members of the band Seven decided to change their name and go for a more progressive sound. The result is Fono and the album goesaroundcomesaround. Opening with adrenaline pumped Police-ish "Collide" tinged with a bit of techno (with very little techno elsewhere on the CD), these British boys show that they know how to rock. The guitars throughout are extremely tight and the entire album is well produced with lots of extra technical touches that make the album bear up under repeated listens. Their sound mixes the pop of The Police with harmony laden choruses, melodic guitars with the standard alternative radio-friendly sound of the day, and uplifting lyrics. Imagine Goo Goo Dolls or Third Eye Blind with a positive message.

"Pretty You" finds singer Del Currie singing of unrequited love while Ian Crawford (it's a British band… there HAS to be someone named "Ian") and Andy Ridley back him on bass and drums in an exceptionally strong and catchy chorus. One of the better songs, "Round and Round" rips off the main verse melody from Zeppelin's "Going to California", stuffing it full of steroids and matching it with a Police influenced bridge. The song of theirs currently getting airplay is "Now She's 24", a gentle, flowing acoustic tune with touches of Jars of Clay and a singable anthem chorus. "Strangest Thing" moodily finds inspiration in the trials of life amidst a moving bass and drum groove. Of the twelve songs on the album, two are simply incredible while the rest are very solid… no dogs in the bunch. These songs are not creative works of genius, pushing musical boundaries to their breaking point. Instead Fono has taken the musical language of today and have created twelve very well-crafted, energetic songs that bear repeated listens and are easily the equal of most anything on "alternative" radio.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, November 1999.

Review - Chevelle - Point #1

People seemed to like this band but they didn't do enough for me to even seek out subsequent albums. Sometimes that happens.

Chevelle broke into public consciousness with their disquieting video for "Mia", a video that bears an almost plagiaristic likeness to the video Adam Jones created for Tool. The similarities don't end there as this band is evidently very influenced by bands such as Tool and Helmet as shown by their mastery of dynamics. Lyrically Chevelle is a bit lighter than Tool, offering a few glimmers of hope in an otherwise dark world of hopelessness. Expect to take more than a few casual listens to decipher the visceral word pictures contained within. The music is heavy, dark and aggressive, combining delicate interludes with abrupt blasts of distorted guitars and noise. Their first single, "Mia", opens with a scant, rubbery riff that quickly opens into a fast-paced song about finding fulfillment and is easily the best song on the album. Other songs such as "Open" and "Blank Earth" continue in their vein of heavy riffing that breaks for the soft, vulnerable vocals of Pete Loeffler. My big beef with this CD is that there seems to be a lot of plain old guitar riffing, and most of these riffs use the same rhythms, making for an overall bland forty-two minutes despite the changes in dynamics and lyrical creativity. On the positive side, this Chicago-based band is comprised of three brothers who apparently can read each other's minds because this band is TIGHT. "Long" is a prime example as the band steamrolls soft passages into walls of sound, all bathed in the emotive vocals of Pete. This perfection may be due in part to the hand of Steve Albini in the recording. The drums are crystal clear, the guitars thick, and the bass wonderfully woven into each mix. I expect that if as much attention had been paid to the writing of the songs as was spent in practicing and producing them, this would have been a phenomenal debut album. As it stands, everything works excepts the songs themselves and even the most skilled studio guru can't fix such an Achilles heel.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, June 2001.

Review - Buck - Business As Usual

I don't remember a thing about this band. Zilcho.

Much like Fort Wayne's own Strut Train, Buck Enterprises began as a ska band that managed to evolve into a horn-enriched hard rock band once the ska fad faded. Business as Usual is the band's second major-release album and finds the band continuing to improve on its clean, upbeat sound. The band is comprised of six lads from Farmington Hills, Michigan, just a bit west of Detroit, the usual four piece with a trombone and trumpet thrown in at no extra cost. The band's ska past is evident but is nicely incorporated into a post-ska sound where the horns emphasize aspects of the song instead of dominating them.

The album rips open with "All I Need". To say this song has high-energy is an understatement as the music springs out of the digital grooves and runs down your ear canals. The infectious melody is augmented by some super fuzzy guitars and bright jazzy horns that pack just the right amount of punch. "When I Get Home" is another solid song driven by the excellent riffs of the guitarist identified only as "Shawn" who practically dominates the album. Their cover of the Beatles "Got To Get You Into My Life" is dead on, although pretty straight-forward. "Silent Ruin", a song about being let down by a friend, is a power pop post-modern cruise full of creative fuzzy guitar and some nice vocal harmonies. Most of the songs on the album conform to the self described "high-octane rock music with horns" feel with horns on the chorus, the exception being the well-written last track, "Days Gone By", a quiet, low-key song about leaving the past behind. Overall, the lyrics are upbeat and positive, although they can be a bit pedantic at times. But since the focus of this band seems to be high school age, this probably won't be a problem. From the amount of energy that has been captured surprisingly well on this disc, I'd bet that Buck Enterprises is a great live band, knowing how to get a room of kids on their feet and moving. Hard-hitting, exhilarating, and just plain fun.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, May 2001.

2013 Listening Take 2

Well, so much for chronological order. I can't find the two Haydn symphonies so it's on to Mozart and Beethoven until I can dig deeper into my collection or stop by the library. On another and more exciting front, I'm growing a dewclaw!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

2013 Listening

I had a friend who listened through his entire music collection alphabetically by artist. That's just plain crazy. But what isn't crazy wonka wonka is that my latest musical scheme for 2013. You see, I love classical large form music, hence my love of progressive rawk. It's not a snobby thing and I know it's not everyone's cuppa tea (which possibly means they just haven't found the flavor they like) but for me, it just kind of evens out my brain, even the crazy wild stuff. And yes, there's crazy wild stuff in "classical" music. But since I'm no longer in school with assignments to read chapter upon chapter I rarely have or take the time to listen to large-scale compositions.

In order to force myself to take the time to enjoy this music I love I'm going to listen to every symphony and symphonic poem I own in 2013. Yes, this even includes two dreadfully boring works (and it IS work to listen to them) by Sir Paul McCartney. I'll be tackling them in rough chronological order, going by the birth year of the composer.

And here is the list:

Symphony No. 94 - Hayden, Joseph
Symphony No. 96 - Hayden, Joseph
Symphony No. 40 in G Minor - Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus
Symphony No. 41 in C - Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus
Symphony #1 - Beethoven, Ludwig Van
Symphony #2 - Beethoven, Ludwig Van
Symphony #3 - Beethoven, Ludwig Van
Symphony #4 - Beethoven, Ludwig Van
Symphony #7 - Beethoven, Ludwig Van
Symphony #5 - Beethoven, Ludwig Van
Symphony #8 - Beethoven, Ludwig Van
Symphony #6 - Beethoven, Ludwig Van
Symphony #9 - Beethoven, Ludwig Van
Concerto in C for Piano, Violin, and Cello with Orchestra - Beethoven, Ludwig Van
Symphony No. 3 - Mendelssohn, Felix
Symphony No. 4 - Mendelssohn, Felix
Faust Symphony - Liszt, Franz
Dante Symphony - Liszt, Franz
Symphony in D Minor - Franck, Cesar
Variations Symphoniques - Franck, Cesar
Die Moldau - Smetana
Symphony No. 1 in C Minor - Brahms, Johannes
Symphony No. 2 in D Major - Brahms, Johannes
Symphony No. 3 in F Major - Brahms, Johannes
Symphony No. 4 in E Minor - Brahms, Johannes
Symphony No. 9 in C - Schubert
Symphony No. 3 with Organ - Saint-Saens, Camille
Symphony In C Major - Bizet, Georges
Symphony No. 4 in F Minor - Tchaikovsky, Peter Iiyich
Symphony No. 5 - Tchaikovsky, Peter Iiyich
Symphony No. 6 in B Minor - Tchaikovsky, Peter Iiyich
The Seasons - Tchaikovsky, Peter Iiyich
Symphony No. 6 - Dvorak, Antonin
Symphony No. 9 in E Minor - Dvorak, Antonin
The Noon Witch - Dvorak, Antonin
Symphony No. 2 - Rachmaninoff, Sergei
Symphony No. 3 in A minor - Rachmaninoff, Sergei
The Planets - Holst, Gustav
Symphonie Fantastique - Berloiz, Hector
A Symphony: New England Holidays - Ives, Charles
Symphony No. 1 - Ives, Charles
Symphony No. 2 - Ives, Charles
Symphony No. 3 - Ives, Charles
Symphony No. 4 - Ives, Charles
Chamber Symphony - Schoenberg, Arnold
Pictures at an Exhibition - Mussorgsky, Modeste
Symphony in E-flat - Stravinsky, Igor
Symphony in Three Movements - Stravinsky, Igor
Symphony in C - Stravinsky, Igor
Symphony of Psalms - Stravinsky, Igor
Song of the Nightingale - Stravinsky, Igor
Symphonies of Wind Instruments - Stravinsky, Igor
Symphony In C - Stravinsky, Igor
Symphony in Three Movements - Stravinsky, Igor
Symphony No. 1 D Major - Prokofiev, Sergei
Symphony No. 4 - Prokofiev, Sergei
Symphony No. 3 in C Minor - Prokofiev, Sergei
Symphony No. 4 - Prokofiev, Sergei
Symphony No. 2 in D minor - Prokofiev, Sergei
Symphony No. 6 in E flat Minor - Prokofiev, Sergei
Symphony No. 5 in B Flat Minor - Prokofiev, Sergei
Symphony No. 7 in C Sharp minor - Prokofiev, Sergei
Symphony Classique No. 1 - Prokofiev, Sergei
Simple Symphony - Britten, Benjamin
Symphony No. 2 - Shostakovich, Dmitri
Symphony No. 10 - Shostakovich, Dmitri
Chamber Symphony - Shostakovich, Dmitri
Chamber Symphony - Shostakovich, Dmitri
Symphony for Strings - Shostakovich, Dmitri
Also Sprach Zarathustra - Strauss, Richard
Symphony No. 5 - Shostakovich, Dmitri
Symphonic Variations - Lutoslawski, Witold
Symphony No. 9 - Shostakovich, Dmitri
Symphony No. 1 - Lutoslawski, Witold
Symphony No. 2 - Lutoslawski, Witold
Symphony No. 3 - Lutoslawski, Witold
Symphony No. 1 - Barber, Samuel
Symphony No. 4 - Piston, Walter
Symphony No. 2 - Piston, Walter
Symphony No. 6 - Piston, Walter
Phantasmata - Rouse, Christopher
Symphony No. 1 - Rouse, Christopher
Symphone No. 1 (Finale) - Herrmann, Bernard
Symphony No. 1 - Jackson, Joe
Working Classical - McCartney, Paul
Standing Stone - McCartney, Paul

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Review - Thrush

This is a killer album! And now you can get it FOR FREE! It's even more amazing given that it was recorded in a one or two day marathon session. I would have loved to see these guys live.

I'll readily admit that I'm a fan of The Rembrandts. After stumbling upon their first album, I eagerly awaited their second, enjoyed their success with the Friends theme song (it's still a good song although I found the album itself weak), and braced myself for the inevitable backlash and chaos such popularity invites. Then Phil Solem left and Danny Wilde put out that horrid fourth album under Rembrandts flag. I have heard a past Wilde solo album and was not impressed (think of a blander Bon Jovi) so it was with great interest that I sought out the solo work of Phil Solem. I suspect Phil carried Danny all the way to stardom. Maybe Wilde is a musical catalyst for Solem or maybe but a pretty, extroverted front man, but the music on this CD reveal that Phil Solem is the musical brawn behind the tasty melodies and energetic rhythms of those early Rembrandts albums.

Thrush is a three-piece Minneapolis band and while this CD is a local release, its production values are definitely equal with any major label release. The album opens with "The Last Minute", barely containing a tension-filled verse that explodes in the chorus, plus lots of nice production extras. "You", an emotive love song of sorts, features Roger Manning of Jellyfish on keyboards and is easily one of the best on the album. "Worst Best Friend" is the dark underbelly of "Rollin' Down the Hill" and is filled with great harmonies and seething guitars. Throughout the entire album, Phil's amazing and familiar guitar work reminds the listener that pop music needn't be fluff. John Fields on bass and Michael Bland on drums play flawlessly through the expertly-written arrangements that are more complicated and challenging than a first listen makes them sound. Of the thirteen songs, three are mind-numbingly indescribable... the remaining ten are merely great. With its harder, darker, faster, rockier Rembrandts sound, this is the album the Rembrandts were trying to make with their LP album. If you've got a hankering for some great, energetic power pop tunes, skip over to http://www.implex.net/thrush/ and get yours hands on this disc!

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, June 2001.

Review- The Rembrandts - Lost Together

This album is one of those that I still listen to a decade later. It's that good! Hey guys... how about some new music?

My college days were spent bathed in the music of The Rembrandts… melodious power-pop songs about unrequited love, friendship and moving on, all backed by dulcet Everly Brothers vocal harmonies and some great guitar. While their first two albums each received respectable radio airplay, it was their third that blew the pressure locks with the theme from "Friends." Such sudden fame took the focus off the music, eventually causing the two musical troubadours to go their separate ways. Then Danny Wilde released "Danny Wilde and the Rembrandts", a record so wretched that I didn't even try to score a free review copy. Then THRUSH, the new band of Phil Solemn, the other half of The Rembrandts released a local album in Minneapolis that could have, should have been the third Rembrandts album. But even this heavy pop/rock endeavor failed to capture the charisma of The Rembrandts, though it did cement in my mind which Rembrandt was responsible for the musical muscle. But like all great songwriting teams, the real spark is when the musical forces come together, creating songs greater than their proverbial parts.

Now that the history lesson is over, I bet you're wondering if Solemn and Wilde have managed to recapture the magic of their first two albums and the answer is… and how! Lost Together manages to capture the woody earnestness of their first album and the diversity of their second. While not earth-shatteringly different than these two albums, I'm not convinced this is a bad thing. After all, good, solid pop/folk/rock songs with candy vocal harmonies are always a plus in my book. The title track is a typical Rembrandts opener - jaw dropping harmonies, plenty of musical tension, and the obligatory mouth-watering cello. "St. Paul" mixes in a bit of country (just a bit, mind you) and "The Way She Smiles" is a soft love song enhanced by accordion. The single, "Too Late" is an upbeat song of hoped-for love that breaks into honey-sweet harmonies in the chorus and a great, gutsy guitar riff in the bridge. Sounding almost like early solo George Harrison, "One Of Us" finds Wilde singing "One of us has to say goodbye/ One of us has to know / That one of us has to be the one of us/ To let it go"…heart wrenching in it's delivery. More Beatles inspiration follows in "Some Other World" with a Rutles-esque riff that you'll swear you've heard before but can't possibly pin down the source. Of course, I'm much more settled in my love life than I was in college so the "gotta have that girl" lyrics don't resonate the way they used to, but twelve great songs can't help but to satisfy this musical sweet tooth.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, November 2001.

Review - Grover Levy - Wrestling Angels

A good album that has failed to draw me back. I plan to rectify this oversight later today.

To be completely honest about this one, for all intents and purposes, this is a Rembrandts rip-off. It's all there: the hooky melodies, the great harmonies, the songs of love and friendship. This is the album The Rembrandts could have (and should have) made after their untitled project instead of creating L.P. with the infamous theme from Friends (hey, I'll admit that I still like the song... I'm not ashamed). But it's not The Rembrandts... it's just a single guy named Grover Levy ripping off their sound... and doing a mighty fine job at that!

Each of these three to four minute pop/rock gems glistens with good song writing and great production flourishes. Like The Rembrandts, Levy draws heavily from The Beatles, Matthew Sweet, and the two part vocal harmonies of the Everly Brothers. The songs are centered around the melody so while the album contains solid guitar work, don't expect your jaw to drop at any flashy guitar-work. The song as a whole is the focus, not some guitar flash drawn forth at the hands of a studio musician. The first song tackles hypocrisy with a great groove that kicks in at the chorus where the guitars develop a very nice crunch. "World Gone Crazy" is another upbeat song about life on this here planet. Trading in the electric guitars for acoustic, Levy pens "Marrianne", a sad song about a lost friend. The sound overall is consistent with the songs being mostly up-tempo with an even balance between ballads and harder rockers. "Tell Us What We Want To Hear" in particular has some very moving rhythm parts that still manage to remain instantly ear-friendly.

If this were The Rembrandts, I would say it was a great combination of the styles from their first two albums. But instead it's someone else doing their style and so I'm torn between slamming Grover Levy for stealing their sound and just enjoying these finely crafted songs for what they are. Since it's been so long since The Rembrandts have put out anything this good, I think I'll just sit back and enjoy.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, May 2000.

Review - Rich Mullins - The Jesus Record

I still miss this man, his music, and his honest seeking of truth. He was so genuine and real, the kind of broken seeker of Christ that made even the youthful metal-head version of me sit up and take notice. Thanks, Rich.

Just nine days before his automotive death, contemporary Christian artist Rich Mullins recorded nine new songs on a cheap, battery-powered recorder that were to be the basis of his next CD, an album he hoped would unfold the Jesus that many believers quickly gloss over, a raw, rough Jesus with dirty fingernails who hung out with the drunks and whores and loved them just as they were. In early 1998, the members of his band that had recorded and toured with him for the last five years decided that the music needed to be heard and went about recording the last songs of Rich Mullins.

The result is a two CD set called The Jesus Record. The first CD is by the entire band, the songs fleshed out with all the Celtic and folk instruments you would expect to find on a Mullins CD (hammered dulcimer and accordion included). Various members of the band, along with "guests" Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith, sing the songs and overall, the result sounds like a Mullins album: acoustic, eclectic, rough around the edges yet pleasing and lyrics that are equal parts sage, child, scholar, and sinner. The music retains its freshness after dozens of hearings due to his writing style. Look at the printed music for Mullins' songs and you will find a literal catalog of chords and variations that keeps the attention of musicians long after the song is memorized.

It is not until you hear the second CD that you realize how unique Mullins really was. This CD contains the demos Rich made just before his death. They are rough, wrong notes are hit and sometimes there is distortion from the tiny jambox, but these sparse recordings of Mullins' voice backed by an acoustic guitar or piano reveal the soul and longing of a lonely man, a man who never found a wife, a man who spent the early hours of the morning alone with his music. When Rich sings "I'm reeling from these voices that keep screaming in my years/All these words of shame and doubt, blame and regret/I can't see how You're leading me unless You've led me here/Where I'm lost enough to let myself be led", you know he not only means these words, but feels them deeply. And it is the rare listener who does not also feel this lonely longing. There is no hypocritical piousness here, just gritty reality made all the more real but the gritty quality of the recording, and that awful truthfulness is what makes his music stand out.

This article first appeared in WhatzUp, February 1999.

Review - Frank Lenz - The Hot Stuff

I remember liking this album and that it was quite solid... and yet I haven't returned to it in the last ten years. Maybe it's time.

Frank Lenz is a third-generation professional musician whose career as a studio musician began as a drummer at age thirteen. Since that time he has logged countless hours behind the drum kit and as a producer but until this year he has never put out an album of his own songs. The Hot Stuff remedies this situation quite nicely.

Like the music of Steely Dan, the ten original songs on the album are a uniquely satisfying hybrid of rock, pop, soul, R&B, and jazz. The overall effect of the album is one of smooth funk, a mellow groove that burns with a smoldering intensity.

When asked to describe his album in four words, Lenz replied with "Sex, drugs, Jesus, money." A prime example is "Take The Wheel" where vocalist Bridget Bride sexily coos lyrics like "Jesus take the wheel and drive/ Saul rode his ass and was blind" while the guitar and keys have a drugged out LSD feel and the whole song sounds like a million bucks. The title track features Lenz with the same smooth vocal delivery of Elliott Smith, backed by copious amounts of Hammond organ, Honner Clavinet, and an intoxicating, subtly funky melody. "Crime On My Mind" has a 70s barely pre-disco feel with some great vocal harmonies and a real flugelhorn. Other songs incorporate these rare acoustic instruments such as "Soul Sound Revival" with trumpet, tenor and baritone saxophone and trombone and the 70s soul jam of "Electric Light Battleship" which again showcases the talents of Bridget Bride and a magic flute. More flute infiltrates "Line Dancer" with soft vibes and Hammond organ enhancing a sultry melody with Lenz singing "Cigarettes / Oh I forget the rest." Somewhat out of place but oh-so-enjoyable is "Tricycle". Like a professional version of Mates of State, this brief song is but drums, simple keyboard, and vocals weaving unusual jazz harmonies.

Proving himself to be an accomplished songwriter, musician, and producer, Frank Lenz has created an album free from social agenda or political message. This is merely fun R&B tinged pop/rock with equal influences by James Taylor, Billy Cobham, and Forrest Cokely. It's sultry and soulful and it's definitely hot stuff. For more information, go to www.northernrecords.com.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, May 2002.

Review - Cindy Morgan - Elementary

Still a very solid album. It turns out that Cindy Morgan co-writes often with Phil Madeira, another writer of dark and beautiful music. Be sure to check out Phil's latest project and help kickstart it.

I first heard the music of Cindy Morgan when a band I was in played her song "Listen." I normally eschew the bubble-gum pop genre of contemporary Christian music (as a rule, almost anything played on WLAB fails to light my spark) but there was something about this music that led me to borrow the CD for a full listen. That CD was The Loving Kind, an album so phenomenally dark and beautiful that I, a lover of dark and beautiful things, fell prey to its enchantments.

When Elementary came out I took the fiscal plunge. My first impression was that it was the doppleganger of her last album, light where there was dark, joy in the place of sorrow. Most of the songs are upbeat with joyous optimism replacing the dark introversion of before, the cause of which being the birth of her first child. Vocally, Cindy is a cross between Sheryl Crowe and Amy Grant, robust and emotive, and although the lyrics are more upbeat than past albums, they are rarely trite and never resort to cliché'.

While the songs are sunnier than her last album, Morgan is unable to shake her dark nature. The more I listen to this album, the more I hear the tears between the smiles, the edge of Tori Amos sandwiched between the intoxicating pop melodies and the classic songwriting know-how of Carole King. The music is stylistically all over the map, Morgan's usual bag of eclectic and sophisticated pop with Morgan penning most of her own material (a rarity in this genre). Of course there's the heavily produced pop fanfare of "The World Needs Your Love" and the dance inducing, synthy "Good Thing" but there's also her trademark sparse, moody piano ballads ("In These Rooms"), edgy Latin pop ("New World"), R&B ("Believe"), jazz combo ("I Love You"), Sesame Street ("Sunshine") and Steely Dan-classic rock ("End of the World").

Forget the latest band of the minute, Elementary is what pop music should be: artistic, instantly likable but challenging enough for multiple listens, and most of all, fun.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, March 2002.