Thursday, November 26, 2015

Most Excellent Vibrations - Holiday Edition 2015

The past year has been a watershed one in a number of ways. It was finally the year I sought out and heard the most new music I'd heard since I was a teenager. And there are some great sounds to be had in a variety of formats now. Music lovers have never, ever had it so good. This year also finally saw the long-anticipated vinyl release of my own band's album which, in my opinion, has become the definitive expression of that work. So I am going to engage in some shameless self and non-self promotion for this entry. With a particular emphasis on NEW or new-ish music.

First off, I am very excited to announce the first release on my own record label NowPlaying On Vinyl: the self-titled debut from my surrealist rock band Afterconfusion Soupmobile. I may be biased, but I think it's a great album for fans of post-modern, heavy psychedelic rock music with a bizarre sense of humor.
 This is a vinyl-centric release though free digital copies do come with the analog rendering. I am looking to expand the horizons of the business down the line with releases from other bands – stay tuned for that in the future. In the meantime, if you want to sample the music on the Soupmobile album – all of the tracks (and more) are available on youtube here: 
  However, this music is meant to be heard and experienced primarily through the vinyl medium. The LP kicks butt – and the current limited edition release was pressed on random color vinyl. Whatever color you wind up with is known only when the seal is broken and each platter is essentially a result of a unique combination of colors. Plus – the pressing quality has been consistently excellent across the albums I have sampled randomly from the total run of 300. No off-center, cruddy pressings here folks! Buy with CONFIDENCE!
  With any luck, this will be the first in a series of fine alternative entertainment products from NowPlaying On Vinyl. The best place to access Afterconfusion Soupmobile is at the website Stop on by!
Now, what can you do if you don't have a turntable yet and you really want to be able to play that Afterconfusion Soupmobile album? Why not support American small business? Behold: the U-turn Orbit!
This small company out of Boston is giving consumers a lot of bang for their buck with new turntables aimed at listeners who want a more audiophile experience than what the other companies offer at the same price point. Plus, there are lots of upgrade options available. Now, to be honest I don't own one of these machines myself – not yet at least. However, the Orbit has generated quite a few positive reviews from reputable sources (such as Michael Fremer) that I feel comfortable recommending the product here. Plus – it's an American company! When was the last time you gave (or received) a gift that was made in the USA? Supporting doemestic small businesses can only be a good thing – one would hope! I wish I had a similar recommendation for an amplifier and speakers (though one can still find some decent used gear online or at thrift stores once in awhile). Visit the U-Turn website for details!

And, what's better – if you decide to give the gift of music this year, there are a number of great releases to keep toes tapping for months to come. Here are some favorite releases of recent vintage from artists old and new:

Special Mention: Topping the list of recommendations (aside from my own album) are two new releases that mean a great deal to me. If anyone reading this blog only picks up two of the following albums reviewed to give as gifts this holiday season – put these next two in “priority position”. Or just buy all of the following albums reviewed right down the list to be considered the coolest, hippest and grooviest by your loved ones this season! No, really!

It's My Life – The Roger Atkins Songbook 1963 - 1969
      I have to give mention to this fascinating release for several reasons. Not the least of which is the unique focus – songs written by Roger Atkins and his main collaborators of the era – the most notable being Neil Sedaka! You'll hear familiar recordings from The Animals, The Monkees, Gene Pitney and the Fifth Dimension right alongside relative unknowns in both demo and commercially available recordings. It is a treasure-trove of great 60s pop excellence. The extensive liner notes feature the inside stories behind each track from Roger Atkins himself. For instance, there is an incredible story about the song he wrote for The Animals which provided the title of the compilation – It's My Life. I won't repeat that story here, but I will say just that story alone is worth the price of admission.
      Oh, but add the other 30 (yes, THIRTY) great tracks on this disc – many of which had the ability to be hits right up there with The Animals and Monkees tracks. One of my favorites is “He Can't Hurt Me No More” by great singer Penny Carter. I'd never heard of Penny Carter before, but if she doesn't ring your bells and tug your heart-strings with her fantastic vocal delivery on this song you must not have a pulse, squire! Your life is just not complete until you've heard Penny Carter. For that alone, you need this disc.
     As if all that wasn't enough, I am pleased to relate that I helped contribute a track to the compilation via an acetate I found a few years ago at a thrift store! Compilation producer Kyler Schwartz spotted my post on a popular online music discussion forum seeking information about that demo acetate I found and one thing led to another! The acetate I found featured a song titled “If You Could Only Be Me” beautifully sung by legendary session vocalist Jean Thomas.
  I had never heard of her before and fell in love with both the song and her voice. So I was honored to provide a recording of that demo to be used for this CD release. And the studio magic used to clean up that demo makes the track sound the best it ever has. Thanks to Kyler for the opportunity to contribute to this great disc and the shout-out in the credits in the CD booklet too. This excellent compilation is tons of fun. If you think you've heard every great song and read every great story from that golden era of pop music – surprise! Order this CD right here.

Michael Chapman – Fish
Michael Chapman is one of the great, lesser-known acoustic guitar giants of the last 50 or so years. His late-60s, early 70s records were produced by Gus Dudgeon for Harvest Records and have been reissued in recent years to new acclaim. I had the pleasure of seeing Chapman in a small club setting in Albany, NY this past fall and I can tell you he still has the fastball in him. I was enthralled by his performance. Almost as thrilling was being able to purchase from him his latest album – Fish. Better yet – this has become my favorite release of 2015 hands-down. I love this album. I bought the CD from Mr. Chapman and later bought the LP version. My advice to you, dear reader, is to just get the CD. The label – Tompkins Square – is well-meaning, but the vinyl copy I ended up with was fairly off-center which is bad news for this music – lots of long-held chords and the like. The CD is the way to go with this material. And the material is the main event here. Introspective, meditative and ultimately beautiful instrumental guitar music – with some cello and other instruments peppered throughout the album. I have played this many times since I saw that show. I hope Chapman sticks around at least another few years for me to see him again – with any luck I can tell him how much I enjoyed the heck out of his most recent album. How many artists – old or new – could we say the same thing about these days? The show I saw paired Chapman with Ryley Walker – a great show overall , but I would love to see Michael Chapman paired up with Leo Kottke (whom I also saw back last winter). They could tell weird stories and jokes to each other between mindblowing tunes! The bottom line: see and support these geniuses while they are still with us. Fish gets 10 stars out of 5. Get it here.

Downloads of Distinction: Though my heart belongs to vinyl, I have to admit to having enjoyed some downloaded albums this past year. Sometimes the price point makes taking the risk a little easier, especially if I've never heard the artist before. I only hope the artists benefit from the sale somehow. I think artists should be compensated for their work though I wonder how much money they might earn from downloads offered at bargain prices. I don't think I paid more than $4 for any of the following albums. For the most part I was pleasantly surprised by the sound quality, though I'm sure CD or vinyl would have been an improvement.

Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
 I actually considered the vinyl option here and I may eventually upgrade since I enjoyed the music more than I'd expected. Barnett is quite a talented guitar slinger, vocalist and songwriter. There's a welcome quirkiness to the proceedings here. Though I have to admit I like the slow, heavy and grinding numbers the best. I'd sure love to catch her live – I'd bet she puts on a great show!

Lucinda Williams – Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
 Lucinda Williams is already working on a new album or is about to release a new one so I don't want this to slip by before I can say “most recent release”. I'm actually a new convert to Lucinda Williams and only have a smattering of her output at present. I was drawn to this latest work via a great poem written by her father (from which the title of the album is derived). I think it was posted from her facebook feed – something like that. This is really a double album and I've returned quite often for repeated listens over the past year. The music gets better every time. Lucinda Williams has all the ingredients for mass appeal – especially with her accessible blend of country/ folk / rootsy Americana alt-rock. Yet, her songs are like literary zen koans – clear swatches of white-lightning thought-awareness and emotional connection. Way above the typical fodder even from her biggest challengers. Her art is the needed mirror our troubled world needs to look into. Seems every song carries the sub-tag “We have met the enemy – and it is us!” I could be full of shit though. Maybe she's having a good go at our expense. I sincerely hope she laughs her way to the bank – she certainly works hard enough. She's one of the few true genius songwriters of our times. Buy her album and tell me I'm wrong.

Sloan – Commonwealth
 Although I'd heard of Sloan for a number of years (they've had a long career) I was intrigued by reactions to their last studio album which tended to be glowing. Attempts to bag a vinyl copy last year proved difficult so I decided to go the download route, though the results were mixed. The sound quality was on par with other MP3 downloads, however the crossfades between songs were compromised resulting in awkward pauses / edits when tracks advanced. Little things like this matter to music lovers. So in this case I wish I'd held out for the LP or CD. Especially since the music is so good! Although the music has no ambitions to push the boundaries we all expect from modern rock, I'd be hard pressed to think of a group working within the genre who is “doing it” better than these guys. Well worth the effort to catch a listen if you've never heard of Sloan before. I'd love to see this group live as well!

Elpees of Esteem: It is heartwarming to see how many new releases are available on vinyl records these days. My heart would be a lot warmer if the quality of these records was consistently good – as good as they used to be years ago. While there is always the potential for sub-par product to roll off the presses, it seems like many new vinyl releases are plagued by issues like off-center pressings, non-fill and other defects. In the past it was easy to return defective records to a shop where you'd get a refund or a credit for something else. These days that process is more time consuming and problematic. Still, I'd rather have the platters out there than not. Besides, most LPs come with download codes or free CDs inside for a digital-option if you can't be bothered with the return processs. Read on, folks..............

David Crosby – Croz
 This excellent offering from legend David Crosby came out in 2014 and clearly shows him hitting a new stride. Crosby is among the most talented individuals of his peer group – right up there with Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney and Joni Mitchell. Though he has had his share of ups and downs, his consummate artistry is in full force on this fantastic new record. Don't pause to wonder – just dive in here and don't look back.

Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
 I don't know what posessed me to buy this album. Um....oh yeah – label Sub Pop put it up on youtube to sample for free. I listened and was semi-fascinated. I heard a very well-recorded, catchy and generally enjoyable exposition of post-alternative-pop weirdo rock. I guess this Father John Misty personage is well-known to hip folks. To be fair – I really should hate this album. But something about the musical nature of the material keeps me from hating it and actually enjoying it, despite the hipster-trapping aesthetic permeating like postmodern patchouli. Father John Misty strikes me as the kind of guy who might be wearing a shaggy beard, but – realizing shaggy beards are overbearingly hipster-oriented at this point – makes the ULTIMATE HIPSTER IMAGE STATEMENT by..........shaaaaving. Holy shit that's so fucking avant-garde man! Yeah.......(I felt compelled to include the f-bomb in my review since FJM likes to pepper his lyrics with it – maybe my review will earn the same street-cred too?). Okay, okay...enough with my uber-snarkiness. This record is pretty musical at the end of the day, but the LP pressing was by far the worst I've experienced all year. Which is really part of the existential hipster cosmic jokiness of the whole proceedings since the record came as a double LP cut at 45 rpm for MAXIMUM AUDIOPHILE pleasure. Pity those extra rotations per minute are totally wasted on a warped, off-center couple of platters. In this case – buy the CD. Sorry – for the vinyl option,  SUB-POP = SUBSTANDARD.

The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
 This record is a good example of atmospheric modern alt-rock at its finest. There are echoes of earlier decades of music found here – some re-evaluating of 80s keyboard textures and production values. Somehow distilling the essence of those echoes down to the most useful vibrations for the future. Aw, shoot – it's just a good record. Nothing earth-shattering or confrontational about it. Yet, it doesn't pander to any lower intelligence quotient the marketplace might demand. I have a reason to believe this is honest art here. Isn't that all we can ask for? Good pressing too. I wonder - did the name of the band repel anyone early on? I can only imagine what people might think reading that name on posters and flyers promoting live appearances. Yet, I think these guys are bigger than I realize as it happens. This was a blind purchase and I enjoyed the heck out of it. 'Nuff said.

Moon Duo – Shadow of the Sun
 This record was another blind purchase – mostly because I really liked the cover art and the music promised some connection to “psychedelic” somethingoranother. Well, I think the “Duo” part of this act is an accurate description of the “band makeup” since I'm hearing lots of keyboard and programmed drum tracks here. Yet, I still like this music. There is room for these kinds of sounds and I like the independent nature of the release. Perhaps not something I might spin in heavy rotation, but something I can play for a change of pace and I don't recoil from the end result. Whatever might be lacking in daring is made up for with a desire for consistent sonic vibe-focus. Is this SHOEGAZE? I have no idea. This LP came with an extra 7” single – which ended up being my two favorite tracks as it happens. Glad the band insisted on including them in the package. That in itself is pretty damn cool.

CeeDees of Consideration: All of the following compat discs were purchased at live shows from the artists who recorded them. This is the whole purpose of putting one's new album on CD these days. They make for good merch-table fodder. The main marketplace has unfairly given compact discs the slip – downloads have taken their place. Yet, nothing quite replaces the experience of hearing a great live show, purchasing a CD at said show and listening to the disc on the ride home in the car after the show. So if you see a great live band – go to that merch table and throw down the hard-earned for the CD. You'll be glad you did and so will your living artist you are supporting. It's a LOVE thing, people.

Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown – Wild Child
 I saw this talented young lad opening up for Jeff Beck last year. For a one-man show he knew just how to work a crowd which is no small feat. He worked his butt off and had the talent to draw on to put his music over to the audience. I sincerely believe he will have a long and prosperous career as a performer – there is no question he is talented, motivated and in possession of the right attitude to advance himself. The CD he was selling at the show was a band-oriented project and to what degree The Shakedown is an ongoing concern I can only guess. The music and production is top-notch, yet.....yet.....(there's a “yet” bubbling under)...there's a tangible “safety zone” at work here. Having experienced Tyler Bryant's talent as a singer, guitarist and songwriter unfiltered in a live performance – hearing him in a more structured framework is a bit of a letdown. Yet, (yet!) I feel like such a curmudgeon for even writing such a thing. Especially since I know he's capable of something more challenging. I think that's it. So, I'd say keep your eye on this young lad – wish him the best and pray he lets his muse carry him to unknown regions like Marc Bolan once did.

The Spampinato Brothers – Pie in the Sky
 This is the most recent offering from the great Spampinato Brothers. Johnny and Joey are still delivering the best rock and roll vibrations anywhere around with the songwriting chops still firing on all cylinders. This music stands proudly alongside their best work of the last 40-some years and as a live act, they are not to be missed. Brother Joey is currently taking a break from performing to kick the shit out of the cancer that was discovered in him recently (early detection thank goodness). In the meantime – here is a link to help send a little sunshine his way: Give Joey Spampinato some sunshine!
And if you haven't yet picked up Pie In the Sky – do it soon so you are ready when The Spampinato Brothers are back and rockin in your town. All the best and brightest moments to Joey and his family and friends. Positive vibrations to them all!

Echotest – Le Fil Rouge
 Perhaps the most obscure of all the reviewed albums here, yet I have to give this release a thumbs up for being adventurous and accessible in its own way. Echotest is a side-project of fabulous bassist Julie Slick. Julie has performed with Adrian Belew and the “Three of a Perfect Pair” King Crimson alumni ensemble among other notable projects. I had the pleasure of seeing her perform with this ensemble for the past two summers up at the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock, NY. Last summer I decided to take one of her CDs home with me and this was the one. First of all – the “bag” this music gets placed in might be called “prog” yet there is a neat variety of material including a couple of great vocal-based songs that could be on the radio if radio these days was more adventurous. Which really got me thinking – why does any of this music have to be nailed to a genre? It's silly to put it in a box like that because of all the trappings – mostly mental – that might keep people from checking it out. Quite simply, this is great modern music from consummate musicians. This is the kind of modern instrumental music that I'd like to hear more often. Engaging, fun, creative and still entertaining. I can put this disc on anytime and not feel the need to pull it out of the player before it completes its cycle. I like Echotest and I hope Julie Slick keeps it going. Best of all – go see her play live. You won't regret a second of that decision – I promise!

Murali Coryell – Restless Mind
 Once again I might be biased here, since Murali Coryell is an old bandmate of mine from college days. Yet, I always knew he was crazy-talented though I have to admit hearing his newest release I must say he is at the top of his game! One thing that characterizes Murali's new album is the passion and devotion to his art – Murali sings and plays from the heart and soul. That is the way its always been with him and, if anything, he has increased his ability to tap into that energy and belt it out in such a way to convert any unbelievers within earshot. When Murali Coryell sings he is NOT KIDDING. He is not trying to hustle you into thinking he kind of feels a certain way – he is communicating his inner reality to you right in that moment! No matter whether he is singing or playing guitar it's all the same – full on commitment to communicating with his audience. The songs on his new album are a continual affirmation of this demanding aesthetic. It grooves, it rocks and it cannot be denied. Having known Murali for many years I can attest that his passion for music has not abated one iota - he is all about the music all the time. Restless Mind is a fantastic release – the best of his recorded work so far. Don't delay to check him out live and when you do – grab this new release. The time is right – the time is now. Get on the good foot – the right foot – the funky foot and groove, people!

Once again – thanks to everyone who has ever stopped by this little place to read my ramblings. I hope you all have found some new and rewarding vibrations to carry you along the path of life. Cheers and Bright Moments to all! Keep listening and seeking!

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Improbable Ascent (and Decline) of the First Court: King Crimson reflections Part Two

My journey through the Crimson Forest will now move in the northwest direction on the map to that fearsome image which graced the first King Crimson album proper – the screaming man's face with the look of terror in his eyes. For, although this was the first album to bear the group's name it was not the first record I heard. As I wrote in my last Crimson segment, Discipline was the first KC album I ever heard in its entirety. A handful of months away from the Discipline acquisition I found a copy of the debut LP which was in somewhat dodgy shape – a cheap flea-market find.
Not my first copy of this record - that one went to the great vinyl circular file in the sky.
 Scratches are not very kind to KC records since all the quiet parts get ruined, however I regret pitching it in the trash since it was an interesting Canadian red-label Atlantic pressing (doh!). I keep telling myself it really must have been a crispy critter for me to stoop to such brutality. At any rate, I did play the thing and had the following reactions:
   1.Oh, I've heard this on the radio before – hooray! I like this music. 
   2.Hang on, that's Greg Lake singing isn't it? Hmmmmm....
You see, I was already an Emerson, Lake and Palmer fan by the time I heard In the Court of the Crimson King for the first time. Well, I certainly liked Greg Lake's vocals then and now so – hooray! Of course, I couldn't help wondering why he'd left Crimson after having success with them – why not stay on when your band has a hit like that? I still don't know the real reason(s) for Greg Lake's departure though he did establish an interesting pattern for KC fairly early on – the transient nature of Crimson residents. Greg Lake's fade from the group was complicated by his vocals being present on the second record when in fact he was no longer an official member. But that's getting ahead of the story isn't it? What eventually replaced my scratchy KC debut LP was the compact disc pictured above. In recent months I managed to find no less than three vinyl copies – the most recent reissue on Inner Knot (very nice!), a 70s US Atlantic reissue (also very nice!) and a nifty German pressing with the palm-tree Island label (like a UK second issue). However, speaking of very, very nice – we are still a bit ahead of the story here. In the Court was not the first album to feature Robert Fripp and Michael Giles, even though it was the first Crimson album. About a year prior to the debut of The Court, Giles and Fripp produced this (with Michael's brother Peter on bass):
  The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp is a very entertaining curiosity and a facinating pre-quel to the runaway success that arose from its ashes. There are sonic glints of the “Crim to come” hiding amongst the breezy and sometimes silly jazziness of the Cheerful Insantiy tracks. Kind of like those demented smiles we are confronted with on the front cover – just what kind of insanity is lurking behind those smiles? The music found on The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp offers a few hints of what was to come, but not quite enough to predict the jarring experience that must have confounded the few “fans” they had who followed them into The Court. I imagine those select few must have had a marvelous time hearing the Crimson debut afresh (were any of them disappointed?). 
  21st Century Schizoid Man certainly must have struck a nerve in the popular consciousness of its times – many a local garage band would happily add that song to their oeuvre. And the angst, paranoia and dread just oooozing from those power chords made for a splendid time in the year 1969 I am sure. I have to imagine a bit since I wasn't there. However, there is enough evidence to suggest that unlike The Cheerful Insanity record, the KC debut was a GRAND SLAM of a hit record. What's the famous endorsement from Pete Townshend? He called it “An uncanny masterpiece” or something to that effect. Not bad from the guy who unleashed his own masterpiece in the same year (Tommy, of course). The success of King Crimson's debut made everything else possible. Yet, the frustrating reality of how to sustain or equal that level of success over the following years must have played heavily upon the heart and mind of, well, at least the one member who rode the ship down to the end. And to think it wasn't exactly his band to begin with! Either by insanity or sheer tenacity, Mr. Fripp resolved to lash himself to the mast of that Crim craft for a ride of his life – which continues to the present, of course. The first phase of which tickles the imagination................

Imagination? Well, what's so interesting about a band that has an unlikely hit record and gradually dissolves over the next handful of years? If the catalog of King Crimson ended with the live Earthbound LP, then maybe it might be a typical case of “one hit wonder group ends after trying to recapture the magic – and fails – after numerous personnel changes”. However, the story doesn't end there (as we will see in Part 3). In 1973 King Crimson would roar back to life with the album Lark's Tongues In Aspic

 – a musical Lazarus if there ever was one. The Crimson of '73 would pave the way for all the future KC endeavors that continue to the present. Yet, what happened between 1969 and 1973 is, to me, pretty mysterious. Especially since I haven't read any group biographies (does one exist?) which is odd for me since I usually go out of my way to find books of that nature. So my imagination is left to fill in the details of a skeletal framework:

SPOILER ALERT!!! Attention Mr. Fripp: I am about to give away an idea that has merit and could be lucrative. Feel free to exploit as you wish. Here's the idea I am going to just give away because I have no ability to do anything meaningful with it myself.........

The story of King Crimson Mark I is perfect for a TV drama. Imagine a TV mini-series either directly based on the first phase of KC or loosely based on it. I don't know all the details about what caused such a turbulant rise and fall from success by KC Mark I but I think it's an interesting trajectory of experiences that could sustain a TV audience – espeically Baby Boomers who I bet would EAT THIS UP. And I certainly would. So, all you TV entrepreneurs - let's get going. I'd love to watch a show like this and I haven't been interested in TV since 1985. And seeing how Robert Fripp has remained the central figure to KC – he is naturally the main character / hero of the story. Mr. Fripp – here's your chance to take KC to the next level – to the mainstream! Wouldn't it be great to have a TV mini-series based on King Crimson to talk about with the people you see at work? Consider the success of “Breaking Bad” which I didn't watch a nanosecond of, but seemingly the whole rest of the world did. The story of King Crimson is fascinating and could be entertaining if presented the right way. And the potential for developing a storyline is easy to find since the real story continues to the present. Here's a quick proposal:

Talented, yet directionally-challenged musicians release one fairly oddball LP that flops in spite of a genuine desire to entertain and please its audience:
One musician leaves – three more are added (among them a splendid vocalist / bassist). New group creates crazy classic LP in a radically different style than the previous flop LP:
After one tour to promote hit record – splendid vocalist bails out forming new supergroup (reaping even more commercial success). Remaining members manage to release follow-up LP somehow persuading splendid vocalist to contribute distinctive lead vocals to key tracks even though he is no longer in the band. 
After record #2 emerges – core members bail leaving only the guitar player and sax player holding the bag. Now with two pretty successful albums – the group that created them is no more. What explains such an unusual turn of events I have no idea.

The second defection of musicians never ascend to similar heights of visibility in the music world again though they continue to make music (and some very good music at that). 
Since the King Crimson band is still a lucrative enterprise – replacement members join to create LP #3. 

Splendid vocalist is now identified with his own successful band which renders him unable to help bail out LP#3. Several vocalists contribute – one who finds the experience so unfavorable that he quits the band before the LP hits the shops! And another vocalist is drafted in from a “rival” up and coming group further diluting any clear association of King Crimson with one vocal identity. Is Crimson the group that has to hire out vocalists from other bands just to get their records done? Egads – what a nightmare. 
  No matter - time to assemble another lineup to promote LP#3 that they didn't even play on!! How did things come to this? Said new musicians also appear to be struggling to hold the unique identity of Crimson together – at least on record. The fourth KC album – Islands – is created under this duress and - while engaging and interesting – bears only a passing resemblance to that first smasheroo LP that excited audiences in ways their recent efforts haven't. 
 Why keep banging one's head against the wall? Why not ROCK OUT instead? A general mutiny unfolds and the crew hijacks the Crim-ship on its last live go-round – grinding to a halt with the release of Earthbound as the terminal document illustrating what happens to a one-hit-wonder band gone wrong over many years of turmoil. Earthbound = the grave. 
Never to be seen again by disgusted and disheartened guitarist. Or so we are led to believe...........until the group rises yet again in Phoenix-like style about a year later.
 So that's my TV-plot line sketched out from the little I know about King Crimson Mark I. What I don't know fascinates me. This is where a little imagination can take artistic license and build up a nice drama. If ex-band members might take exception to being portrayed against their wishes - just use the general outline of King Crimson's real experience as a guide for a fictitious band to save the bother of stepping on any toes and egos. C'mon you TV bigwigs! I smell money in this idea - don't you??

For the record – although the first LP gets the accolades it rightly deserves, I have to admit a soft spot for In the Wake of Poseidon.

 I think the overall sound of the recording and the material gives the debut a serious run for its money. At least on the first side. Side two, while interesting, leans a bit more on experimentation – the likes of which are given free reign on LP#3 – Lizard.
Even Robert Fripp has gone on record to declare Lizard “unlistenable” though I have to say I adore it in all its weird glory. All the more so in its 5.1 surround sound incarnation courtesy of the deluxe, 40th anniversary series of releases. Lizard in surround is as wild a sonic ride as you could ever hope for! I love it! Oddly enough, my first exposure to Lizard was via a used 8-track found at a flea market. 

At various points along the four “programs” of the tape I am certain I stared in disbelief at the player upon first listen. Some parts sounded like the tape was damaged (it wasn't). Then – am I dreaming? Is that Jon Anderson (from Yes) singing on one track? Oh for God's sake what the heck is up with THIS album? One must recall that 8 track tapes did not come with any useful information one might normally find printed inside an LP sleeve. Hearing that album for the first time under such spartan conditions was nearly as confounding as hearing “Trout Mask Replica” - another seemingly impenetrable sonic fortress........

King Crimson LPs have been issued on so many different labels around the world – the variations are dizzying. Which proves another point – that debut LP of 1969 must have really made a splash around the world. All the other subsequent Crimson LPs were issued enthusiastically worldwide no matter how weird they got. This is an important reality to consider. King Crimson, though never again reaching quite the level of “hit status” as achieved on that first album, managed to present challenging and interesting music on a global scale in the years following – right up to now. So many current bands are led into the mindset of finding one lucrative sound and riding it for all its worth in the marketplace – driving a well-worn sound into the dirt. King Crimson may have tried, but ultimately blazed a very different path. Not that “the answer” of how to do this was evident by the end of the tour which produced “Earthbound”. From the average fan's point of view that record was a bitter farewell to a chaotic scramble of a rock band's short and brutish existence. 
 Until next time when I continue with Part Three...........


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Caravan, The Meat Puppets, Zoot Sims and Mingus - a musical Detour

Taking a minor detour away from the King Crimson focus, it's surprising to note how long its been since my last entry here! I've been doing a lot of listening and thinking though not a lot of writing. So I figured before too many more ideas get lost in the shuffle it might be good to get them out in the open. Plus – there's a whole lot of great music I've been discovering or re-discovering that I wanted to pass along. 
First up – Caravan's first album – 1968. I've had this record in my collection for a long time without paying too much attention to it. In fact, I think it was given to me by an old friend I lost touch with (and haven't rediscovered despite the power of social media). At any rate, I remember listening to this back in the 90s and not being impressed (compared to Badfinger, Caravan sounded kind of meandering and tentative). Then, just this past winter I decided to give it another chance and BINGO! I'm eating this record up. In spite of some very funky recording values there are some wonderfully musical ideas presented. And the organ parts make the record. Here's a nifty video of Caravan performing the first track - “A Place of My Own”. 

Now, I have known of the Canterbury Scene groups for a while, yet the appeal of the aesthetic has eluded me for the most part. Finding the Caravan album so compelling gives me hope that I'll enjoy other releases of theirs and from other bands like Soft Machine. In the meantime, I've discovered just how rare (and expensive!) first run copies of this Caravan album are and since I've been playing the daylights out of it, went looking for a CD. Once again, the value of compact discs in terms of what you get for your money just can't be beat these days – you can get Caravan's first on CD with both the mono and the stereo mixes for less than $10 from a variety of sellers. I'd recommend jumping on that deal and keeping it in your collection even if you don't like it initially. I'm happy I never purged the LP years ago – funny how some music takes time to catch an ear for. Caravan was worth the wait for me!

Also worth the wait was finally getting to see the Meat Puppets at a local club! Once again – I'd been aware of the Meat Puppets for years due to my appreciation of the SST bands in general back in the 80s. Yet, I never connected with their music until the early 2000s. I didn't even latch onto them at the peak of their popularity in the 90s when they were featured on the Nirvana Unplugged show and album. Without getting into the whole story now, I never quite got into Nirvana. Let's just say I was surprised at how many people loved Nirvana when they became popular – those same people who must have been listening to Debbie Gibson when Husker Du was at their peak?! Ah, well.......I do remember seeing a lot of advertising of their records in Musician Magazine back in those days. The band certainly looked cool. I just never seemed to hear anything on the local college radio.

 In fact, the same was true of The Minutemen versus fIREHOSE. Never seemed to hear the former – whereas the local play of the latter's first album on the radio caused me to rush out and buy that. And of course, one of the songs on the first fIREHOSE album is called - “Under the Influence of Meat Puppets”! Yet, I still didn't bother with the Pups until I found a cheap copy of “Mirage” on CD and took a chance. 

“Mirage” completely baffled me. I was expecting heavy stuff like Husker Du. Yet, “Mirage” sounded like pastel-flavored, Euro-pop-funk-lite (whatever that means). Over time, I did get into “Mirage” pretty seriously and learned how it was a departure of sorts for the Meat Puppets – yet their whole catalog is a big departure from itself in a way. The Meat Puppets are one of the few bands to experiment with different approaches from one record to the next, yet remaining true to their own sound – that's a familiar tale isn't it? Kind of like The Beatles! Unfortunately when I got into the Meat Puppets, Cris Kirkwood was still estranged from his brother Curt (who had put out the solo album “Snow” which I dutifully snapped up when released). So, it was to my general surprise that the brothers reunited and started putting out new albums and playing live again. There's only one of those releases I don't have yet – the first in the series “Rise to Your Knees”. All the others I have on VINYL and they're great! 
Better still was the band live – I haven't been this thrilled to see a live act locally in a long time (at least at this particular club – one that I played at many years ago myself). Check out this nuclear version of “Lake of Fire” from the show I was at:

Long live The Meat Puppets!!!

One show I ended up missing by a mere few days was seeing Ryley Walker. He'd played a few towns north of me a handful of days prior to me buying his album. I wish I hadn't delayed as long as I had with that purchase – otherwise I probably would have gone to that show. And the new record in question is a corker!

Primrose Green is a fantastic blend of folk and jazz in the mold of John Martyn – yet Ryley has a great sounding voice – better than Martyn's in my opinion.
 I have to be honest – I can't comment about Ryley Walker outside of what my ears tell me about his music. I have no idea about his back story, where he comes from or how long he's been active. Just based on how much I've enjoyed Primrose Green I hope he has a long and profitable career. I have to say I am really enjoying this whole “new release on vinyl with download code included” thing. Primrose Green is a beautifully recorded album which translates well to the vinyl medium. If all new music sounded this good there could be a sonic revolution at hand beyond Neil Young's wildest Pono dreams. Ryley Walker is great artist to keep an ear out for in the future. Check him out!!

With so much great music coming out on vinyl again, the platters have been stacking up. Taking into account my varied tastes (including classical and world music) I've got records piled all over the place. Keeping things organized has continued to be a challenge. I ended up separating by general genres – Classical, Rock / Pop and even Jazz. As much as I disagree on an aesthetic level with putting music into pre-conceived “bags” I've had to confront how tough it can be to find what you're looking for when all records are thrown in the same pile. It gets worse when records end up in different rooms of the house – oy! So I was surprised to find a jazz record lurking in the “rock” section that I must have missed when setting up the jazz section: Zoot Sims and the Gershwin Brothers
 Here's another record given to me a long time ago which I gained a new appreciation for recently. Zoot Sims was a tenor sax player in the straight-ahead tradition. Once again, I know next to nothing about his life. By the time he recorded this album for Pablo Records in the mid-70s he was a well-established name in jazz. The title of the album is a bit misleading, however since the Gershwin Brothers do not appear on the record – they were the composers of all the tunes. Without getting into a whole Gershwin deal – if you are reading this and don't know about the impact of Ira and George Gershwin on modern music I'd be shocked to say the least. Plenty of artists continue to record entire albums of Gershwin material – Brian Wilson being a recent example. What caught my attention on this record was, besides the great music (Grady Tate on drums again!!), the general presentation of the album. Pablo Records was a Norman Granz designed label that put out quality jazz music with a no-frills image. This is such a 70s thing. No disrespect to Zoot Sims, but that cover photo is not the most flattering image in the world. Nobody would mistake this label with Blue Note (arguably the hippest looking jazz album covers of all time). This is PEOPLE'S JAZZ. Man, what a lost aesthetic if there ever was one. Well, don't be fooled by the stark cover image – the music is swinging and fantastic (as is most of the music featured on these Pablo albums – they put out a lot of stuff). But image can carry a lot of influence, of course. This is stating the obvious, yet some innovators were more savvy than others. 

I was recently reading about Charles Mingus again and I found myself re-watching this intense film showing Mingus at the apex of his paranoia in the 60s. As scattered and frustrated as Mingus is in this film, I couldn't help thinking how some of his insights continue to have a relevance and resonance right down to the current times. It is curious to note that the world of music was changing pretty rapidly at the time this film was made. The jazz world was poised to take a plunge into jazz-rock-fusion (the more commercial extension beyond the free-jazz innovation of the early 60s). Mingus would not make that transition along with many others – his own health demanded his time and attention. And perhaps the frantic fire we see in the film settled down for his own benefit (how long can any person sustain that level of intensity without consequences?). Yet, many of the injustices remain from Mingus's time to our own. Images can be powerful – as Mingus knew too well as he demonstrates how easy it is to operate a firearm – it seems that the JFK assassination was especially in the forefront of his mind as one can hear in the film. There are no easy answers to the question of how to make the world a better place. I think Mingus's music will continue to illustrate that beauty can emerge from the most trying of circumstances. I think that is ultimately what the film maker gives us here – in the turmoil of the times, music can still express the human qualities of joy, hope and exuberance. Keep those vibrations flowing................

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Crimson Reflections – Part One: Stumbling into the Court

For the next few installments here, I will be working through some reflections on the great musical institution known in rock music circles by the name King Crimson. It's weird, but I don't think of Crimson as a typical band, per se. It isn't exactly a collective either. Crimson is more of a creative landscape under the watchful guidance of Mr. Robert Fripp who, if anyone has taken the time to read some of his fascinating blog posts, seems to have a fairly complicated relationship with his “garden”. Hmmm. That isn't a bad analogy – King Crimson is more like a musical garden than a “band”. Fripp is the master gardener - the gatekeeper. Crimson is a carefully manicured garden where some plots are allowed to grow wild – as long as the carefully controlled chaos suits the aesthetic of the master gardener. Sometimes the undergrowth gets out of hand and the garden goes on lockdown only to be re-opened to the public in a newly remodeled form. Yet, the essence of the garden remains consistently tied to a particular aesthetic which can only be defined as Crim.

As usual, I am grossly ill-suited to be telling this tale. I haven't even heard all of the music from this region. Well, it would be kind of tough to do though not impossible. There have been solo albums and offshoots – many pathways winding through the Crimson Forest. Yet, a curious realization emerges – the lifeblood of the land is tied up with other elemental components – often associated with other landscapes and regions. There is an odd sense of dislocation that permeates through the Crimson Garden. A slightly less romantic analogy for King Crimson might be the family across town who lots of folks are related to though they don't always admit it. There is an element of elite yet outlaw status with this motley assortment Mr. Fripp has presided over since its inception......which goes back to 1969 when it was still just a band – and not even HIS band, initially.

To move this analysis forward, I will be using the above visual to represent the four major time shifts associated with the Historic Crimson Identity. Those familiar with the music will understand what the four compact discs represent. Everybody else will have to keep reading, of course.

NOTE: There is a recent permutation of King Crimson which toured in the fall of 2014. This version of the band has so far been represented with a live CD which I have not yet ordered or heard. True to form for me – I totally missed the opportunity to see this new version of Crimson just like every other time. Sheesh. So this newest edition is not represented quite yet here.
My journey through this region commences not in a chronological manner, but in a geographic one. I will begin in the southwest quadrant of the map since that is where my own journey started. How I wound up there is related to an article I read in Musician Magazine in August 1984. The article is highly entertaining and worth spending the fifteen minutes or so it takes to read. See here: 
The residents of Crim at this time were Fripp (of course), Bill Bruford (who to me was the first Yes drummer), Adrian Belew (who I knew only from Frank Zappa's band at that point) and bassist Tony Levin (who I heard on countless records without knowing who it was – like John Lennon's last album). For some reason I found that article interesting enough to want to just buy some King Crimson without worrying about what the music sounded like. So it was that I wound up at my favorite record joint and purchased the Discipline album on compact disc (new in the blister package!) without having heard a note of the music.
 Never mind that the record was about 4 years old by the time I got to it – this was still “new music” as far as I was concerned. And was it EVER! To this day, I have not heard anything remotely like what the Discipline album was then and still is. It is uncanny to me. Discipline was love at first listen. I was thirsty for a new music and King Crimson delivered in a way no other musical entity could at that time. 

I was so enthused with Discipline I set out later in the summer to bag another Crimson album – the one profiled in the article that, for reasons I don't remember, I initially passed up in favor of Discipline. Good thing too, since Three of a Perfect Pair was not quite the same experience – and one I nearly paid an ultimate price for (had I not been as fortunate as I was). You see, all this pre-dated my ability to drive an automobile. Trips to the record shops were dependent upon a willing parental lift and were therefore infrequent. Until I got it in my brain that I could ride my bicycle to the record shop on a clear, non-rainy day.

Having some LP-spending cash on hand I reasoned I could steer the bike with one hand while holding the LP with the other on the trip back. Of course, certain parts of the return trip involved a few intense downhill maneuvers which might complicate the process. No worries – just go! The trip to the shop was unremarkable except I got the LP this time (would have been smarter to get the CD, no?). The return trip was also fairly unremarkable – even down the really BIG hill which should have been the scarier prospect. It was the second biggest downhill where things went awry. My street was on the left at the bottom of a down-hill dip in the main road – right after going under an overpass built for a train-track elevated above the road. No problem except I was riding into oncoming traffic, one-handed and didn't count on some rather large debris which had accumulated under the bridge which was hard to navigate and............................. holyshitivehitalogwherethefuckdidthatcomefromiamnowfallingoffthebikeintooncomingtraffic! What's the first thought when I realize I am going down off the bike like this? “Oh my God! SAVE THE RECORD!!!!”
See that bend in the LP cover? Well, that was the extent of the damage to the record, thank heavens. My own damage was also mercifully slight. No cars managed to run over me thank goodness. So I arrived home bruised and shaken, yet undeterred. I later would bring Three of a Perfect Pair to parties and put it on when other guys tried to dance with the girls I was interested in. Heh heh! Yet, that LP would be the end of Crimson Mark III and I never got to see that edition live in concert. It would be many years later before I even bothered to purchase the Beat album.Not because I didn't want it, but because I KNEW – I knew it was going to be great and I was holding out for when I needed to hear it. I know – I am such a weirdo I just didn't want to rush into the last LP from that era of the band. I wanted to SAVOR it.

Last summer I got to experience the ultimate re-creation of this era of Crimson when I saw the double trio act of Adrian Belew's and Tony Levin's bands together performing Crimson music up in Woodstock at the Bearsville Theater. I was totally blown away. I cannot wait for the next performance next summer. I was enthralled once again – even though that Fripp guy was not present. I was also semi-yet-not-quite starstruck to discover the great Tony Levin mulling around the bar before the show – standing right next to me! I'm sure I could have blathered on to him about how his contribution to the Discipline album changed and energized my life as a young listener (and still does), but any knucklehead can come off like Waynes World, right? Just being that close in proximity to such an important musical figure was enough of a buzz for me. So enjoyable it was to see him then, I returned to the Bearsville later in the season to see Tony Levin's Stickmen group. I could watch and listen to him play all day long – he's a true musical treasure of our times. It is no surprise that Mr. Fripp let him in the Crimson Garden all those years ago.
          As a postscript and tie-in to the other eras I will be writing about – the Discipline album was released as part of a 40th Anniversary campaign featuring new 5.1 surround sound mixes of all the King Crimson albums. Most of the catalog has been released this way, though so far Discipline is the only album from that era to be given the 5.1 treatment. That said – the new mix is so spectacular I would recommend any fan of this album to get a surround sound system RIGHT AWAY so you can hear this experience as quickly as possible before life gets in the way too much or back copies of this thing become too expensive to afford anymore. Yes – it is THAT GOOD. In fact, as I will profile in the future, it is this 5.1 remix campaign that finally convinced me King Crimson leads the pack of so-called progressive bands. 
Every single release from this 40th Anniversary series is so stellar, they've raised the bar as to what real progressive excellent music is really all about. The 5.1 remixes have breathed so much new life into the back catalog of Crimson albums, they have forced a re-evaluation of even the more marginal records made under less-than-ideal circumstances. Its almost as if the sonic unfolding of those records sheds new light on what those Crim residents were really up to – while everyone thought they were imploding, they were re-defining the potential of the future. What may have baffled listeners in stereo back in the early 70s comes to life in surround sound in the present era. King Crimson has always been a cutting edge ensemble. Technology has made it possible for the music to be re-discovered and re-evaluated for newer generations of listeners.