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

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.

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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.

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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...

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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.