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 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 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

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.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Review - Time Life Treasury of Christmas

Frequently during my youth, my family of seven would pack into the van and brave the hour-long trip from Fort Wayne to Wabash where two sets of grandparents and sundry other relatives awaited. Five kids, one hour, no hand-held electronic games. During the holiday season, this intolerably long drive was tempered with Christmas music via an 8-track and later a hungry cassette deck. Chuck Mangione reigned as king during the rest of the year but at Christmas he graciously stepped aside for John Denver And The Muppets (A Christmas Together) and the Time-Life Treasury of Christmas. In a futile attempt to get this crusty old curmudgeon into the Christmas spirit, I recently purchased the 2-CD set Treasury of Christmas and this review is my festive way of making said purchase a tax deductible business expense. Ho ho ho!

The first few seconds took me back in an instant: Perry Como crooning "Home For the Holidays", although I didn't remember him jazzing things up so much: such are the selective memories of youth. Then came the definitive edition of "White Christmas", sung by none other than Bing Crosby. Andy Williams treated me to "Do You Hear What I Hear?" and "It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year" (they really knew how to make long song titles back in those days) and Gene Autry did his best with "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer." Of course everyone remembers the world famous Harry Simeone Chorale and their stirring rendition of "The Little Drummer Boy". Never one to back down from a challenge, the Robert Shaw Chorale rejoinder is their medley version of "Carol of the Bells/ Deck The Halls", although it ends up being spookily reminiscent of the theme music from The Omen. Judy Garland demands that you "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" and the obligatory Burl Ives joins in with "Holly Jolly Christmas", without which no holiday music collection is complete. There were a number of songs on this 45 song collection that I didn't remember, probably resulting from the fact that even at a young age, the Hoffman boys were ruthless music critics. "NOT THIS SONG AGAIN!" our cheery, grating voices would squeak every time Julie Andrews dared beseech God that those Merry Gentlemen should rest or Lena Horne would thrice invoke the coming of snow. But now I am just a smidgeon more tolerant and can appreciate these classic jewels for the memories and tradition they represent. Should you brave the recently warm weather (where's Lena when you need her?) make sure you don't pick up the bowdlerized version which is also comprised of two CDs but could have been put onto one. A scant twenty-four tracks grace this version which is "based on" the original "as seen on TV" set (always a good sign) and also contains a number of what one can only politely call substitutions. Luciano Pavarotti singing "O Holy Night" in place of Perry Como and Alabama sawing through "Tennessee Christmas" are but two of these aberrations: you've been warned. If you're buying the album for nostalgic memories, you want to make dad-blurned sure you get Fred Waring And the Pennsylvanians and their jazzy take on "'Twas The Night Before Christmas" so hunt down the complete 45 song version. Anything less just wouldn't be Christmas.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, December 2001.

Review - Kustard Kings - Kustard Kristmas and various Christmas

The Kustard Kings album is one fine piece of work. I listen to it every year, perhaps multiple times, becoming a family tradition. The other albums in this review, well, I honestly had forgotten they existed.

The fine folks at Confidential Recordings decided that what their roster really needed was a trio of instrumental Christmas albums designed for today's jaded youth.

Husky Team weighs in with Christmas in Memphis, twelve tracks and thirty-two minutes of Yuletide goodness. Comprised of Dave Amels, inventor of many keyboard products, and Dennis Dikens, former drummer with The Smithereens, Husky Team have striven to combine classic Memphis R&B grooves with a classic Christmas sound. The first track that caught my attention was their take on "Auld Lang Syne" where they combine this treasured song with the memorable riff from the Booker T. and the MG's instrumental rock classic "Green Onions". The other catchy track is "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" where a skating-rink organ is punctuated with a screaming guitar lick. Other tracks include such standards as "Silent Night", "We Three Kings", and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing", each done with a swinging style that incorporates lots of Hammond B3 organ, Wurlitzer piano, and dead-on drumming. However, the sparse instrumentation throughout and the fact that the organ takes the melody on nearly every track makes this the least interesting of the three, at least to my grinchy ears. Still, if you love the early rock Memphis sound or Hammond B3 to the point that you have performed unnatural acts with this instrument, this album will certainly bring many smiles to your face.

Next up on the chopping block is the first solo album from multi-instrumentalist/producer/arranger Jon Graboff, For Christ's Sake!, an even mix of traditional carols, albeit done in creative ways, and newer favorites. The album kicks off with a Nashville-flavored "Sleigh Ride" with lots of fancy pedal steel guitar playing, sleigh bells (or course), wood blocks, and a bevy of real violins! "Winter Wonderland" finds both Spanish and Hawaiian dobros taking the melody in this innovative remake that also includes a Wurlitzer and a bowed upright bass. NQRB's "Christmas Wish" would have become a twangy country song had it not been for the inspiration of adding bongos, mandolin, mandocello, and theremin, all played by Graboff. Pedal Steel guitar on the melody ensures a country sound on the Beach Boys' "Merry Christmas Baby" yet the expertly played tenor and baritone saxophones give just the right balance to keep most of the twang away. The original "Christmas Shopping" reveals Graboff's mixed feelings of the holidays with expressions of good cheer mixed with trepidation, expressed by the piano and guitar doubling the melody for a very nice, relaxed sound. Laura Cantrell's "Too Late For Tonight" opens with Graboff at the sitar before transitioning back to the western world with pedal steel guitar on the melody. The obscure "Thanks For Christmas" by XTC is given a joyous air of distinction with Hammond organ, mandolins aplenty, and pizzicato strings. Other tracks include a Johnny B. Goode-styled take on "Run Rudolph Run" with lots of ragged piano, and the shuffling upbeat groove of "Joy To The World." Although a brief thirty minutes, it's an excellent, creative, alt-country exploration of these treasured songs.

Saving the proverbial best for last is A Kustard Kristmas by the wickedly tight alterna-pop house band at Loser's Lounge, The Kustard Kings. With nearly an hour of material these five kings bear sixteen instrumental gifts guaranteed to even make Scrooge tap his feet. The medley "Holly Jolly Christmas/We Are Santa's Elves" from one of those Rankin/Bass animated Christmas specials is a surf-guitar and organ duet injected with the sugar of three dozen Christmas cookies. The Beach Boys' "Little Saint Nick" mixes the classic version with a riff influenced by "Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress" for another energetic excursion. More surf rock is to be found in the original "A Kustard Kristmas" which showcases their classic pop-funk-lounge sound with tastefully restrained guitars and organ juxtaposed with a crushing wall of guitars. "Christmas Night in Harlem" features varied percussion and layer upon layer of squishy, fun keyboard sounds and a colorful Lincoln-era They Might Be Giants sound. As heavy as last years fruitcake is the original "U Sleigh Me" with a monsterously fuzzed-out guitar riff sure to make your behind shake and wiggle. Sporting a groovin' bass line similar to Edgar Winter's Group's "Frankenstein" is the King's take on "Welcome Christmas" from the classic "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" special. With a cowbell recklessly joining the mix of banjo and cartoonish sounds, a wheezy keyboard duels with a strep-throated guitar to make this version delightfully memorable. Another killer track is "Heat Miser Strut", based on the song from another Christmas special, "The Year Without A Santa Claus". Steamy and murky, the melody oozes like lava from a scorching keyboard with subtle wah guitar that later gives way to electric piano that further explores the catchy melody. There are no monster egos in this tight quintet… they are a true ensemble cast and it shows in the musical variety where everyone gets their time in the limelight. The best thing I can say about this crazily inventive album is that I will not be surprised to find myself listening to it in the dead of summer. Yes, it's definitely one album that won't be packed up with all the other Christmas CDs on December 26.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, December 2002.

Review - City on a Hill - It's Christmas Time

Not one I reach for often... the female refrain of the title track ("It's Christmas time!" over and over) is a big saccharine and oddly secular.

Christmas albums are difficult things. Not only do they only get played two or three weeks out of the year but woe to anyone who tries to write original Christmas songs. Likewise, woe to anyone who simply rerecords songs in the same fashion as those who made the song famous. A further hurdle is the fact that Christmas carols carry such a strong element of childhood nostalgia that it's difficult to determine if we're enjoying the song or the warm memories that accompany the song.

But these obstacles don't deter the release of dozens of Christmas albums each year, many of them mere vanity projects or as bland as unflavored gelatin. Enter City On A Hill - It's Christmas Time, the third installment in the popular (in certain circles) Christian worship album series. If anyone can do justice to a Christmas album it would be a Christian Christmas album, right? Although I've heard more than my fair share of awful Christmas albums from that market, I'm happy to say that It's Christmas Time connects more than it misses.

For a change, this Christmas album contains songs about the birth of Christ. The first single, "It's Christmas Time", is the predictable "let's get all the big artists in one room to trade off vocal leads." As an original Christmas song it's pretty decent, mixing in musical quotes from classic carols to create a more timeless feel. "Silent Night" follows in a beautiful and austere rendition, sung by Leigh Nash of Sixpence None The Richer. With a gentle yet reverent feel, acoustic guitars, and in this case cello, this song is typical of much of the album. The fact that so many songs stick to such simplicity not only gives the entire project a mostly homogenous feel not usually found in "various artists" projects but also helps to tie in the original songs with the classics. Caedmon's Call performs the original "Babe In The Straw" with nice accordion accompaniment compliments of Phil Madeira. Sara Groves lends her fantastic voice to the plaintive yet reverent "Child Of Love", a song which will surely be sung to background tapes in many churches this season. Written and performed by Julie Miller is "Manger Throne", perhaps the best song on the album with a near classic sound that might make it past the guards and into the timeless canon of Christmas carols. "Away In A Manger" is quite brief but is notable for it's pump organ and incredible horn arrangement by John Painter (half of Fleming & John and string arranger for Ben Folds). The final track is "O Holy Night" with a very nice cello arrangement and a stellar vocal performance by Michael Tait, formerly of DC Talk. The only real weak points on the album come from Jars of Clay and Out of Eden. Both abandon the acoustic tone for electronic drumbeats, keyboard sounds and other obviously non-organic timbres, nice songs on their out but sorely out of place. Program those out of your CD player and you've got a very solid, enjoyable Christmas album that effectively manages to mix classics with songs so craftily written that you might forget many of these songs didn't exist one year ago.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, December 2002.

Review - They Might Be Giants - Holidayland

Ah, the many joys and images of the Christmas season. Snowflakes falling gently to the ground, Santa Claus luring away your wife, snowmen in protective rubber skin. Fans of the quintessential pop duo known as They Might Be Giants have long been familiar with such unorthodox holiday imagery but now these disturbing scenes are available in one convenient, festive package known as Holidayland. The earliest track on this collection is "Santa's Beard", from their infamous Lincoln album. Flansburgh sings "I saw my baby wearing Santa's beard / She kissed him once and whispered in his ear" to a stripped down and ratty guitar paired with a pogo-stick bass beat. Also by Flansburgh is "Careless Santa", originally released by his side band Mono Puff. Before now, "O Tannenbaum" was only available as a special 7" vinyl single from the They Might Be Giants fan club but now it has been converted to a bunch of shiny, laser-encoded pits for your listening pleasure. With J.D. Feinberg utilizing brushes on the drum kit, Linnel sings a drunken jazz version of this famous melody in the original German. Another rarity is the original "Feast of Lights", previously released on a compilation album. The song is played mainly on a harpsichord with the occasional percussion flourish, giving it a spooky, subdued feel. Recorded specifically for this project is a cover of "Santa Claus", written by the legendary 60s band The Sonics. The Giants give this tough, bluesy song a spin in their power-pop blender, creating a delicious holiday beverage. The only Christmas missing from the TMBG catalog is the B-side of the "O Tannenbaum" record, a humorous off-the-cuff ditty called "Christmas Cards" where the singer explains why you won't be getting a Christmas card from him this year: they all seem to get stolen before he can mail them, right out of his desk. But they didn't ask me. They never ask me and to tell you the truth, I'm getting a bit tired of them not asking my opinion. Clocking in a just under twelve minutes, this EP would make a great stocking stuffer.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, December 2001.

Review - Phil Keaggy - Majesty & Wonder

I had meant to post these before Christmas and plumb forgot. Sugarplumb, that is. I listen to this Christmas album every other year or so. It still doesn't grab me but it's nice wallpaper.

Though best known in the Christian music industry, veteran guitarist Phil Keaggy is revered among guitarists of many faiths for his amazing mastery of the instrument, despite only having nine fingers. Because it appears to be almost mandatory in the Christian music industry to release Christmas albums, Keaggy has finally bowed to the idol with Majesty and Wonder, a Christmas album full of his wonderful playing. In this instrumental collection, Phil displays his wide stylistic range on seven holiday classics plus four original compositions that incredibly hold their own against such well-known Christmas fare. While most of these tracks are accompanied by the London Festival Orchestra or a small ensemble of instruments the focus is almost always on the guitar.

True to the multiple facets of Phil's past music, there are many styles to enjoy on this disc. "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" is a pretty straightforward rendition in classical guitar but the next track, "Good Christian Men Rejoice" switches to a jaunty Celtic dance with penny whistles, violins, and Celtic percussion. "Silent Night" changes the tone yet again with a laid back, almost jazzy feel. A long-time favorite of mine, "Do You Hear What I Hear?" finds the melody traded between acoustic and electric guitars while the orchestra layers each verse with added tension. Other classics that Keaggy includes are "The First Noel", "O Come O Come Emmanual", "What Child is This?" and "O Holy Night". But for me, the highlights are the Keaggy originals. Comprising a three-piece set is the "Nativity Suite" where the interplay between the electric guitar and orchestra is quite dramatic, especially in the finale, "Flight Into Egypt" that incorporates the melody of "Carol of the Bells" into its tapestry.

Overall, the music on this album is quite laid back. If you are expecting the constant roar of electric guitar found on his Crimson and Blue album, you'll be sorely disappointed. But there is quite a bit of technical prowess herein, yet it's not so in-your-face that it draws attention to itself. Rather, this album is great background music that also bears up under close listening. Mellow yet rich.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, December 2000.

Review - Freak Kitchen - Land of the Freaks

Years ago there was a band named Galactic Cowboys whose 1993 album completely wiped the floor with my unibrow. It was heavy yet packed with gossamer four part vocal harmonies, progressive rhythms and power pop melodic sensibilities. It fit me like a glove which means that most people either ignored or hated it. After this album they jettisoned their longtime manager and went in a more power-pop direction. Nice albums but they mostly seemed to come up short.

Fast forward to 2012 and I see an ad which features the guitarist for a band named Freak Kitchen. Don’t I have this band on one of my “check them out one of these days” lists? I certainly do! But back when I did dozens of CD reviews a year my thinking of them and their releasing an album didn’t coincide. Now that I’m freed from absolutely positively having to have every album I buy be reviewed and therefore written off as an expense, I decided to buy Land of the Freaks, their 2009 album that I somehow missed.

Boy am I glad that I did.

This has sat unfinished for about two weeks now so let me get to the chase. This is muscular yet quirky prog rock. It’s not the Yes-derived squiggle type of prog but rather 80s metal riff-based. There’s a lot of Faith No More here (like the excellent “OK”) but usually it’s only snippets of likeness. There’s also bits of, believe it or not, Moxy Fruvous (or Barenaked Ladies for you mainstream readers) in the song “Do Not Disturb.” But overall it’s big, gutsy guitar riffs played with amazing tone interrupted occasionally by early Steve Vai-type solos. Being Scandinavian they have no problems mixing danceable music into the mix, such as the almost disco “Hip Hip Hoorah” and a few others. There’s also a few freakily complex breakdown sections (“Teargas Jazz”) that will challenge your air guitar ability. Oh yeah, each and every song is puffed out with some beautiful two and three part vocal harmonies.

The big “quirk” boost is from their lyrics. Like 80s metal they tackle a lot of social issues but with sick humor. “God Save the Spleen” is about black market organ trafficking, “Sick? Death By Hypochondria” is self-explanatory, and “Honey, You’re a Nazi” is about “Soccer mom hatred” with the best line I’ve heard all year: “Celebrating ‘Arian Superiority’ / No, I don’t care for another cookie.”

I’ll be picking up their back catalog for sure!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Book Review - Testimony by Neal Morse

Neal Morse's autobiography, Testimony is a dandy of a book! It's a very quick read and I found it difficult to put down, taking whatever opportunity I had to sneak away for a few minutes. As the chapters are brief and the reading easy, I could often wolf down a chapter in only a handful of minutes.

And therein lies it's only problem. Yes, the book is a story of Neal's conversion and to that end it is very streamlined. However many, MANY times I found myself wanting more details surround the creation of various Spock's Beard and solo albums. There were no details on his relationships with Kevin Gilbert or Randy George or much of anyone. There were very few tour stories and entire years were passed over quickly. I can see the point in not bogging down the narrative with non-Testimony details but still...

However for all that, it's well worth the money (available here and many times it encouraged me to deepen my walk with Christ and to allow Him free reign over my life. Scary, indeed!