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!