Sunday, December 16, 2012

Cleaning Out the Archives: A Review of Bruce Kulick's"BK3"

This is hopefully the first in a series of publications (to both of my weblogs) of old pieces of writing I have in my computer files. LA Weekly rejected this in 2010.

Bruce Kulick’s BK3: Squandered Potential, Dormant Promise

By Jeffrey Falk

If Almost Famous had been about a veteran, journeyman rock guitarist instead of a teenage journalist, it might have been about Bruce Kulick.
Kulick is one of the most underrated guitarists in rock history.
            One of the implications of those notions is that he is more of a sideman than a frontman.  His new solo album, BK3 (Twenty4 Records/Rocket Science), an often enjoyable but ultimately disappointing mistake, is ample evidence.
            Kulick is probably best known as the lead guitarist of KISS from 1984 through the end of 1995 (most of their commercially leaner yet musically tighter nonmakeup period), but he has shined in all kinds of other gigs, before and since.  He was Meat Loaf’s guitarist on the Bat Out of Hell Tour (when he became the only member of KISS to appear on Saturday Night Live to this day) and has more recently played with Grand Funk Railroad.  He may not want you to know that he played with Michael Bolton when he was almost famous.
            Not content to be a sideman or stick to soloing, Kulick started taking a more active musical role in the latter days of his KISS tenure.  Never even much of a background singer, he took a lead vocal turn on the Gene Simmons/Bruce Kulick composition “I Walk Alone” (released on Carnival of Souls: The Final Sessions in 1997).  Shortly thereafter, he stepped into the role of co-bandleader with former Motley Crue frontman John Corabi for the critically acclaimed and commercially arid Union at the end of the Nineties.
            Corabi is one of several special guests (along with Simmons, his son Nick, and The Knack’s Doug Fieger) taking vocal turns on BK3, though Kulick himself sings lead on half of the songs.  It is unfortunate that Kulick still fancies himself a singer, as his unconfident, faltering, off-key vocals are one of two primary indicators of the worst problems with his intermittently interesting letdown of an album.
            The other one is that “Between the Lines,” an instrumental duet with Steve Lukather, is the disc’s greatest track.
            A predominantly (if not entirely) instrumental rock album from the crisp, skillful, near-virtuosic Bruce Kulick would have been a welcome sight and sound in 2010 (or, to a lesser extent, any year—there were never enough of them).  Unfortunately, he decided to deliver a more conventional album, replete with his own awkward vocals and the vocal performances of his well-known friends (which are sometimes little better).
            The most successful of the latter is the delightful powerpop song “Dirty Girl” (Fieger’s turn at lead).  Forsaking his usual guitar heroics, Kulick concentrated on the kind of catchy and quietly, unexpectedly complex riff that he came up with in KISS’s “Hell or High Water” (and his predecessor and successor, Ace Frehley, did in “Cold Gin”).  This could have been a hit if Fieger and Kulick had delivered this about twenty-five years ago.
            The closing track, “Life,” might have been the best track if it, too, had been instrumental.  If the flat vocals and trite lyrics had been replaced with a lead guitar melody and more soloing, the subtle majesty hiding in the song could come out.  What appears is a likeable letdown.
            Much like the rest of the album.
            Bruce Kulick may not be a frontman (at least in the conventional sense), but there is enough inchoate promise on BK3 to demonstrate he has a great album in him somewhere if he channels his strengths in the proper direction.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Donna Summer, 1948-2012

Another icon of a better recent past has passed.
     Before ProTools, drum machines, and other dangerous technology supplanted human skill and wherewithal, Donna Summer brought a direct, human, musical quality to radio, records, and the Billboard charts.  (Elsewhere, I have remarked--or tried to--on the perils, in culture and beyond, of futuristic technology in an age in which the technology of the soul is at its nadir.  In the 1970's, even disco records--which she pioneered--had real instruments, if for no other reason than the fact that there was nothing else to use back then.)  She also represented an age when at least some pop divas were expected to contribute to their own songwriting.  (In another lifetime, when I was a musician, my high school jazz band was asked to learn "Rock Around the Clock" and Donna's "She Works Hard for the Money" for a popular school event.  Our band director remarked that the latter, which Donna co-wrote, was a "better" song--he meant more musical and complex.)  She apparently succumbed to cancer earlier today at the age of 63.
     Her powerful voice could draw appropriate comparisons to the recently departed Whitney Houston (who did not have her creative prowess), and it was a welcome respite from much of the banal pabulum that polluted pop radio and shopping mall speakers over the last few decades.  (Long after her disco heyday, "This Time I Know It's For Real" was one of the few "pop" songs that captured the interest of this young rock fan.)  Her extended, fifteen-minute-plus hit single "Love to Love You Baby" (which she also co-wrote) reflected a time when Americans' attention spans had not yet been destroyed by progressive education, Children's Television Workshop, and eMpTyV to the extent that they could not enjoy a "long song" (her concerts and live albums included lengthy suites--not medleys--incorporating her own songs and covers, such as Jimmy Webb's "MacArthur Park").  [For an amusing recounting of that single's serendipitous origin, and much more on Donna, I recommend And Party Every Day: The Inside Story of Casablanca Records (Backbeat Books, 2009), written by Casablanca Vice President Larry Harris with my collaborators Curt Gooch and Jeff Suhs.  The book has been optioned for a major motion picture.  I was sure to include extensive Donna Summer scenes, including the infamous origin of "Love to Love You Baby," in my aborted spec script, and I hope the project's screenwriter does the same.]  Bruce Springsteen originally wrote his hit single "Cover Me" for her, and it is intriguing to think of what she would have done with it before his manager exhorted him to record it himself.  (He subsequently wrote another song, "Protection," for her.  They recorded as a duet, but it remains unreleased.)
     Her influence is significant, and there are some signs that, coincident with the collapse of the record industry, mainstream "pop" music is steering back into the her territory of inventive, melodic, organic, and sometimes epic "dance"/R&B tracks with heavy songwriting and production input from the singer.  U.S. pop culture could use that kind of "retrenchment," but, regardless, Donna Summer will be missed.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Band Brad: Elusive Warmth from Seattle

Have you ever heard of the band Brad?
     Circa 1992, inchoate rock superstar Stone Gossard, busy with another band's nascent superstardom, put together another band with old cronies and other veterans of the music scene of his hometown, Seattle: viz., Shawn Smith, Regan Hagar, and Jeremy Toback.  The band signed with Epic/Sony Music, the label of Gossard's other band, and wrote (in the studio) and recorded their first album, Shame, in October 1992.  According to legend, the foursome wanted to call the band Shame as well, but a musician whose first name is Brad heard that news and threatened to sue.  (Wikipedia says his name is Brad Wilson, so "it's gotta be true.")  The band (facetiously?) changed its name to Brad and titled the album Shame (which was released on Epic Associated the following year).  Their litigious interlocutor couldn't (legally) object to any of that.
     The band are no longer signed to Sony Music, and Toback has been replaced (first by Michael Berg, then by current bassist Keith Lowe), but Brad is still active, evidently with a renewed sense of commitment to each other (despite each member's commitments to other groups): their new album is called United We Stand (Razor & Tie).  The band has made it clear in interviews that the album title is not the usual empty, collectivist platitude: it's about band, not country.
     While the band has tenuous connections to "grunge," Shawn Smith's warm voice and lyrics belie them.  And the band's songwriting has grown immeasurably in two decades while retaining its improvisational, in-the-moment extemporaneous quality.  Stone Gossard has a knack for pairing with vocalists who sound like benevolent uncles, but this benevolent uncle has none of the other's sometimes caustic, sometimes irascible mood swings: Smith is all beneficence and comity.  (Gossard has remarked that he is the least cynical person he knows.)  His lyrics and delivery--on United We Stand and elsewhere--are crucial palliatives in these dark, cynical times, and they sound especially warm and organic on Razor & Tie's vinyl edition of the new album.  (Don't let the title "Tea Bag" mislead you--like all of Smith's direct and concrete--and often improvised in the studio--lyrics, there is not a whiff of politics to be detected.  And this warmth must be infectious, because Gossard's lyrics for Brad are some of his most sanguine, fraternal, and optimistic.)
     For those averse to the alleged Ludditeism (which should be a word) of organic and analog sound, an iTunes Deluxe Edition is as good a value as you'll find today: it includes a bonus track ("Thomas Jefferson's Son"--a subject I will address on my other weblog soon enough) with several videos of the band performing the bonus track and other songs not on the album proper (including Neil Young's "Don't Cry"), none of which can be found on the free digital download included with the record.  This band takes full advantage of media convergence and the nostalgia market: a Record Store Day exclusive seven-inch single contained at least one new song, "Waters Deep," that is not to be found on any edition of United We Stand that I've seen (though it is part of the band's live repertoire).  (I write "at least one" because I haven't seen it; it sold out by the time I got to the front of the line at Amoeba Music on Record Store Day.)
     The band appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live on the Bud Light Stage of the El Capitan Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard on Wednesday; I attended the taping for a foretaste of their headline appearance at "Doug Weston's World Famous Troubadour" in West Hollywood last night.  (Note Kimmel brandishing the prominent vinyl cover instead of the now-even-more-obsolete compact disc case.)  The two-song set of "Diamond Blues" and "Don't Cry" (I believe that only the former aired) was an instructive if short refresher of the band's power as a live act (I saw them at West Hollywood's Roxy in 2002).  Lowe's aversion to shoes and socks is puzzling (he wears none in any of the iTunes videos and wore none at either Los Angeles County appearance), but he is a versatile electric bassist (effectively incorporating slap and funk to a few songs at the Troubadour) that locks in well with Hagar's tight, skillful drumming (especially tight and skillful by Seattle standards).  (Smith is versatile himself and occasionally plays drums in the studio along with guitar and keyboards.)  Gossard's extended solo reminded this viewer that Brad is a vehicle for his soloing that his other band could never be; he demonstrates an emotive, expressive quality that makes up for his limited chops.  Auxiliary musician Happy Chichester (the eccentric opening act at the Roxy in 2002 who lives up to his name) played guitar and sang along with themduring the show (as he did extensively during the United We Stand sessions).
     The television appearance was a microcosm of the full set at the sold-out Troubadour the following night.  The audience was treated to listenable opening sets by the low-key Nine 50 Nine (which reportedly included original Pearl Jam drummer Dave Krusen) and the more audacious Everest (who performed their forthcoming album in its entirety).  It was apropos that Miles Davis's "Bitches Brew" (likely unrecognizable to most of the Eloi hipster audience) was piped over the public address system as intro music, as a few tracks from 2010's Best Friends? (Monkeywrench), whether intentionally or otherwise, have the distinctive flavor of electric Miles ("Low" and "Oh My Goodness" sound like they could sit beside "Red China Blues" on Get Up With It).  With Chichester, the reinvigorated Brad opened a ninety-five minute, twenty-song set with "Waters Deep" and played a positive, satisfying show of enthusiastic, focused ensemble playing.  Four of their five albums were represented, and highlights included four of the best songs from 1997's Interiors (Epic), with Chichester taking Gossard's recorded solo on "Sweet Al George" (though the catchy, galvanizing riffing still has Gossard's name all over it).  Chichester participated in all but one song (Shame's leadoff single "Buttercup"), playing Smith's keyboard on several songs.  They opened their too-brief tour in their hometown a few nights earlier, and the setlist was similar last night if a bit shorter and lighter on new material.  I could quibble with the selections and stage time, but I won't (though I will point out that "The Day Brings," one of the most empowering songs you've likely never heard, is anticlimactic in the show-closing position).  For those interested, the full setlist is reproduced below.  (As I type this, the band is about to go onstage in San Francisco, the third of six scheduled dates.  Readers and friends on the east coast can see them at the end of May at venues listed here.  Their unique approach to setlists seems to include adding and dropping a song or two each night while shuffling the order significantly, so that the order changes much more than the content.)  During a poignant brief solo piano set at the head of the encore, Smith briefly forgot the words to "Purple Rain" but confidently regained his footing, following it with a rendition of Mother Love Bone's "Crown of Thorns" while its co-writer relaxed backstage.
     Those with a penchant for modern, multifaceted rock music (forget the fatuous, outdated term "alternative") with counter-intuitively peaceful, positive words and a warm voice should seek out Brad's music, whether or not they are fans of Stone Gossard's other work.


Bud Light Stage @ El Capitan Theatre
Hollywood, California
Wednesday, May 2, 2012
Jimmy Kimmel Live

Diamond Blues
Don't Cry

Doug Weston's Troubadour
West Hollywood, California
Thursday, May 3, 2012
United We Stand Tour
Support: Everest, Nine 50 Nine

Waters Deep
Last Bastion
Sweet Al George
The Only Way
Price of Love
A Reason to Be In My Skin
Make the Pain Go Away
Wrapped Around My Memories
20th Century
Every Whisper
Diamond Blues
Secret Girl

Purple Rain
Crown of Thorns
Don't Cry
The Day Brings

Friday, April 27, 2012

Musicians Love a Stage: April Smith and the Great Picture Show's Vintage Contemporary Sound

How good is April Smith and the Great Picture Show?  So good I skipped both a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band show and a HaSkaLA gig across town to see them again.  That good.  (Steven Schub and his boisterous band can forgive me, because I had already purchased a ticket to see April and her combo at the Hotel Cafe in Hollywood before the ska show was announced and April was making her only area appearance of the year, but if it had been almost any other performer, I would have considered the fifteen dollars a sunk cost and skipped it.  Additionally, the visually arresting Black Beverly Heels were playing downtown.  This is the best kind of dilemma and one of the reasons why I live in this fallen city.)
     For anyone at all familiar with me or my writing, that should be self-explanatory (and for anyone unfamiliar, click on the links, and it will be self-explanatory).  Since I've already heaped accolades on the silky-voiced chanteuse and her versatile band elsewhere, there's no reason to repeat myself, and few had the opportunity to read my previews bon mots, I'll simply reproduce the older pieces below.
     With a slightly different lineup (April didn't introduce the band this time, but bassist Steve Purpuri juggled his upright and electric basses as usual), the quintet crammed themselves and their gear onto the tiny  Hotel Cafe stage once more for a forty-seven minute set similar to the recent area performances recounted below.  The arrangements were similar if slightly slower, with more of a keyboard presence.  (April, who is pregnant and is about  to take maternity leave after this, her only tour this year, mentioned during the set that singing is more challenging with each passing day, which could account for the slightly slower arrangements even though I'd like to think the subtle tempo shift is due to artistic reasons.)  The group did dust off "High School Memory" from April's first (solo) album loveletterbombs (Indigo Planet, 2005).  April (whose between-song patter is as direct and sassy as her lyrics) noted that her father wrote the song for her mother forty years ago (and they're still together, proving the pessimistic trepidation of the title and lyrics unfounded).  She also noted that she wrote the blithe, bouncy "Can't Say No" (from 2010's independent Songs for a Sinking Ship) for her dog (which is so subtextual that the most perceptive listener would never ascertain it without her help).
     After the set, I said hello to April (an old acquaintance from the east coast) at the merchandise booth.  I acquired the recent vinyl pressing of Songs for a Sinking Ship (the group played nine of its songs during the show).  An archetypal example of a twenty-first century album, the Kickstarter-financed label-less platter's vinyl release was long overdue (the band's vintage contemporary sound was tailor-made for a modern vinyl release, and the label of the compact disc version even has the image of a record).  At fifteen dollars, the vinyl couldn't be a better value: it includes a free digital download and a bonus track ("Bright White Jackets" originally appeared on loveletterbombs, but I cannot yet confirm that it is the same recording).
     Reproduced below: a review of their previous Hotel Cafe appearance (a year to the day before last night's) and a review of their November 19, 2010 Bootleg Theater set.  The photos: April and I after the Bootleg Theater set (taken by HaSkaLA's Steven Schub), April's handwritten setlist for the 2011 Hotel Cafe gig, and April's handwritten setlist for last night's show (including new song "Bottoms Up" and Dusty Springfield's "You Don't Own Me") atop the gorgeous vinyl.
April Smith and the Great Picture Show
Hotel Cafe
Thursday, April 26, 2012

Movie Loves a Screen
Drop Dead Gorgeous
Terrible Things
Stop Wondering
You Don't Own Me
Dixie Boy
Can't Say No
High School Memory
Bottoms Up
What'll I Do
Wow and Flutter (interpolating Whole Lotta Love)

These Musicians Still Love a Stage: April Smith and the Great Picture Show at the Hotel Cafe
Unfortunately, they have outgrown the stages on which they still play.
     April Smith and the Great Picture Show, perhaps New York's finest inchoate musical ensemble, crammed their diverse assortment of instruments onto the cramped, diminutive stage of the claustrophobic and meretricious Hotel Cafe in Hollywood on Tuesday evening.  If they had arrived around a decade-and-a-half earlier, they would have had at least a fighting chance to graduate to the Hollywood Bowl, where they belong.  In 2011, one must take them where one can get them.
     It would be difficult to share too much without repeating myself, as the sassy chanteuse and her versatile backing trio played a set that was disappointingly similar to their last two Los Schmengeles performances (and a bit shorter than the last one).  Whether due to poor acoustics, poor mixing, this reporter's poor mood, road fatigue, or a confluence of the aforementioned factors (and/or others), their effect was not quite as stunning and transcendent, this time.  But it is always a privliege to hear the heterogeneous quartet perform their ebullient, ageless, and timeless tunes in these dank, dolorous, trend-specific times.
     The too-short thirty-five minute set kicked off, after four minutes of some desultory open chords and other warming up,  with the usual opener "Movie Loves a Screen," the first track from last year's Songs For a Sinking Ship (no label, at least not one that can be ascertained from the packaging).  The understated song is a good introduction to Smith's Freddie Mercury-meets-Sixties-girl-groups-meets-forties-girl-groups songwriting and singing style, but it seems to be locked into the opening slot (where it is becoming predictable if not anticlimactic this long after the disc's release after this many return trips to the area).  Much can be said about the artful songwriting, though, including the deft touch of using the song's title only once in the lyrics, in the bridge.  Guitarist Marty O'Kane sported a ukelele for this one (as he would later, to lesser effect).  The title's filmic theme is also apropos for the group's entire ouevre, as their sartorial eloquence and instrumental palette  (bassist Steve "Stevens" Purpuri plays an upright bass, as he often does) conjure images of the class, eloquence, dignity, and articulation of old Hollywood (the way the group's lesser peers evoke the egalitarian everymen and -women of the one we're stuck with now).
     After greeting the audience, Smith asked the sound engineer for more vintage reverb, and the group treated the audience to their lively rendition of Dusty Springfield's "You Don't Own Me,"  the first of the show's two cover versions.  O'Kane and Purpuri successfully switched to Fenders, underscoring the song's sixties edge.  Smith's soaring voice, on this piece as well as her own, must be heard and not read about.  (You may have heard her singing "You Don't Own Me" in a television commercial.  Perhaps you have been so fortunate.)  The other cover, Trey Songz's "Bottoms Up," featured multitasker O'Kane on accordion (which he passed back and forth with multitasking drummer Nicky D'Agostino throughout the show).
     Unfortunately, the truncated concert once again completely ignorned April's first album, loveletterbombs (Indigo Planet Records, 2005), released without the "Great Picture Show" name.  (April's handwritten setlist was longer, and it, too, completely ignored the first album, except for "The One That Got Away," which is on last year's disc as well.)  Yes, nostalgia is death, but acknowledging one's past is not nostalgia.  Songs like "Something" and "The Bells" would have knocked the stereotypically jaded and apathetic Hollywood audience out the door off of stage left and onto Cahuenga Boulevard.  Of the recent originals that were performed, "Drop Dead Gorgeous" was a highlight, wich an arresting if simple solo from O'Kane.  The snark of "Stop Wondering" was welcome even if its composer's melodramatic gesticulating was a tad too ostentatious.  Less effective was predictable closer "Wow and Flutter."  O'Kane's ukelele solo sounded so much like a guitar solo one wondered about the purpose of switching to the smaller stringed instrument simply for the solo than strapping on the Fender Jaguar/Mustang again.  Smith's usual quote of "Whole Lotta Love" during the song's breakdown, solos, and band introductions does not quite work, either (though she sings better than the even-more-feminine vocalist who made the song famous).  The absence of the haunting, harrowing "Beloved," the only song from the newer disc not planned (see below), was keenly felt.
     Judging the performance by the misguided (and short) setlist is a mistake, however.  No matter what songs they play in which order, April Smith and the Great Picture Show are as passionate, dextrous, melodious, and multi-instrumental as you'll find in this musical endarkenment.  Ignoring them is a mistake.
April Smith and the Great Picture Show
Hotel Cafe
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Movie Loves a Screen
You Don't Own Me
Terrible Things
Stop Wondering
Drop Dead Gorgeous
The One That Got Away
Bottoms Up
Wow and Flutter (including Whole Lotta Love)
April's handwritten setlist: "Can't Say No," What'll I Do," and "Dixie Boy" were sorely missed.

Musicians Love a Stage: April Smith and the Great Picture Show at the Bootleg Theater
In times like these, you will not find the greatest artists, writers, and musicians in the mainstream.  Some of them may lurk on its fringes, but you must know where to look for them.  James Ellroy and P.J. O’Rourke can still be found at the remaining branches of major bookstore chains, but they are generally limited to a few copies each, inconspicuously resting on the shelves, spines outward, far from the copious, covers-first displays near the storefront.  On television, you can hear consummate performing artists with formidable vocal prowess, but not when you watch the glorified karaoke singers on American Idol (if you make that mistake in the first place).  You will hear them anonymously singing unfamiliar songs (which they often write themselves) during commercials for the National Football League and cable series like Weeds.
            April Smith and the Great Picture Show—who, as recently as fifteen years ago, would have been household names—are a pertinent example of the best musicians to be found in the post-label era.  They have independently forged a self- and fan-financed career and captivated a relatively small but growing following who crave competent musicianship and atavistic melody.  And they have arrested the unwitting and apathetic in television commercials: a Lesley Gore/Dusty Springfield cover for a just-released football spot and at least two originals that you may have already heard in others.
            April Smith is that rare gem: a dazzling songwriter with an artful, colossal voice to match.  If that conjures memories of Freddie Mercury, it is surely no accident that songs like “Bright White Jackets” and “Beloved” owe just a little to the plaintive piano ballads of mid-period Queen, but her myriad influences go far beyond, from the Andrews Sisters all the way up to herself.  Indeed, her bouncy personality is even more manifest—and breaks a skeptical audience’s indifference to even greater effect--on her uptempo, jaunty tunes like “Colors” and “Movie Loves a Screen.”
            Last night, she and her band of multi-instrumentalists captivated a gathering of seen-it-all Angelenos at the compact but densely populated Bootleg Theater with a forty-five minute set that galvanized every last spectator into spirited applause, all the way down (or, more literally and figuratively, up) to the Bootleg’s house sound engineer.  (“That never happens,” indicated my dazzled companion, a masterful performer and songwriter in his own right.)
            The versatile band members juggle multiple instruments: the bassist, known as Stevens, equally mans both Fender and upright basses with facile dexterity; guitarist Marty O’Kane switches between guitar, ukelele and accordion; keyboardist Ray Malo has his hands full with violin and the same accordion, as well; and Nick D’Agostino navigates his modest-sized drum kit with understated skill, equal parts jazz and rock.  But no one could take the spotlight off the frontwoman for very long.
            The eleven-song set consisted of the lion’s share of this year’s Songs for a Sinking Ship (no label—how’s that for independence?) and two well-placed cover songs [Smith’s first album, 2005's loveletterbombs (Indigo Planet Records), sadly seems to have disappeared from the repertoire, perhaps because it was recorded without the Great Picture Show--the sole exception, "The One that Got Away," appears on both albums].  The succession of songs—in tempo and attitude—gradually and cumulatively manifested a versatility in their creator (in equal parts songwriting and performing capacities) that equals that of her entire band.  From the mid-tempo, contemplative contentment of “Movie Loves a Screen” (which opened both set and album) to the dismissive snark of “Drop Dead Gorgeous” to the tense cautionary tale “Dixie Boy” to the ebullient love letter that is “Colors” (listen for that one during commercial breaks as well): the singer and band exuded myriad dispositions, but they never strayed too far from the congenial joie de vivre at the heart of the leader and her refreshingly anachronistic melodic flair.  In addition to the Dusty Springfield song, a slower, sparser, affecting rendition of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” closed the performance with captivating poignancy that almost approached pathos.
            If you hear a sharp, strong voice singing “You Don’t Own Me” between quarters this football season (and recognize it when the original “Terrible Things” is audible on a commercial for Weeds), that is April Smith.  And if you pay attention when she comes to your metropolitan area, turn off your television set, and attend her show, you will see and hear the most exhilarating live music you can find in times like these.

April Smith and the Great Picture Show
Bootleg Theater
Los Angeles
Friday, November 19, 2010

Movie Loves a Screen
Drop Dead Gorgeous
Terrible Things
Stop Wondering
You Don't Own Me
Can't Say No
The One That Got Away
Dixie Boy
Wow and Flutter (including Whole Lotta Love)
I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Record Store Day

Record Store Day 2012 was something of a bust.
     I almost skipped it entirely.  A friend invited me to meet him at the beach in Santa Monica.  Recalling long lines, sunburn, and a limited selection of Record Store Day exclusive titles at my local participating record store, Amoeba Music Hollywood (especially by the time I made it to the front of the line), I wondered if it was worth the trip, parking fees, waiting time, purchase prices, and sunburn.  (The only aforementioned snags applicable during a trip to the beach would have been parking fees and sunburn.)  Since Miles Davis's estate/Columbia Records, Bruce Springsteen and Brad (perhaps the best band you've never heard of, even if you read my blogs) were participating with exclusive releases, I had mild, tentative interest.  When my friend texted to say that the beach atmosphere today was disappointing (unexpectedly cool and hazy), the decision was suddenly much easier.  I had been wanting to hear a new Brad song on vinyl before their new album United We Stand drops Tuesday (I have not taken advantage of any of the digital downloads or streaming previews).   I drove to Hollywood.
     Not surprisingly, the Miles LP sold out long before I arrived.  The lengthy, convoluted process of waiting, placing an order, and waiting again is unnecessary to recount here.  King Crimson and T. Rex (not coincidentally, the bands that inspired this blog's title) sets are enticing but too expensive, so I selected Miles (I was unaware it had sold out), Springsteen, Brad, and a limited edition blue vinyl pressing of the rare 1977 Genesis 12" EP Spot the Pigeon (another Record Store Day exclusive).  I stood in line for a few hours, confident that, even in the event that the limited stock of household names like Springsteen, Davis, and Genesis were depleted, the new music by the tragically unknown Brad would be available.
     After, among other things, sweating in the Hollywood sun, staring at the Hollywood smog, and talking to an older man who admired my Yes t-shirt and reminisced about the 1970's (some don't know how fortunate they are), I picked up my order and found that Brad had either sold out or had never arrived.  (For some reason, the store didn't seem to obtain any of the Pearl Jam-related exclusive releases; Brad certainly falls into that category.)  (I should have anticipated that Angeleno "hipsters" would eschew Springsteen as well as Genesis and deplete Miles.  There are advantages to being a Springsteen fan outside of the northeast.  Now that I think about it, there are advantages to being outside of the northeast, period.)  I spent what seemed like an inordinate amount of money for Spot the Pigeon and "Rocky Ground" b/w "The Promise" (live).  Then I spent more on parking (despite a validation from the store) than I did on "Rocky Ground" b/w "The Promise" (live).  Then I came home and tried to play the 7" disc.  On each side of the record, the tone arm on my turntable lifted and returned to its rest position before the side had completed (this is a recurring problem when I play 7"'s on my turntable--perhaps I should have taken advantage of Amoeba's turntable sale).  (I am having recurring problems with my twenty-first century, digital, trendy iPod as well.  Does anything consistently work like it's supposed to in this Endarkenment?)
     But I helped support a dying institution or three (and I'm not talking about Genesis).

Postscript: Spot the Pigeon plays well (and sounds spectacular in this audiophile blue-vinyl pressing manufactured under license by a tiny California lab).  I also forgot to mention that I received a free bag with a Sub Pop sampler disc (and other free discs), plus shampoo and conditioner.  At least the shampoo and conditioner will be useful.  The day wasn't such a bust.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Rushing Headlong Into the Present

The seminal Canadian rock trio Rush perhaps epitomize the changing nature of the music business as much as any overwhelming successful, vintage act.
     Two years ago, the unclassifiable "progressive hard rock" band began work on a "steampunk" concept album that was already titled Clockwork Angels.  Drummer/lyricist Neil Peart, an avid reader who has incorporated innumerable literary themes, allusions, and tropes into his lyrics over the years, had come up with an idea inspired by anti-dystopian science fiction writers from Jules Verne to Peart's friend (and "steampunk" pioneer) Kevin J. Anderson.  As Peart describes the band's outlook at the time in his essay for their 2010 Time Machine Tour (do follow the link and read the entire piece, which couldn't be more relevant to this post or this blog): "Now the typical thing to do would be to start writing songs toward making an album, then launch a tour behind that in 2011 or so. However, these days an 'album' is an abstraction dearer to artists than to audiences, and it didn't seem necessary to follow that timeworn pattern anymore. 'Crisis is both danger and opportunity,' goes the old Chinese saying, and we were kind of excited about doing things a different way."  The band decided to finish and record two songs of their emerging, futuristic story ("Caravan" and "BU2B," the latter's title--"text-speak" for "Brought Up to Believe"--an ironic nod to a disconcerting trend and its technology), release them digitally (though there was a belated, perfunctory CD maxi-single release), then spend the summer of 2010 on the road instead of in the studio.
     The show they took on the road was a masterful blend of the band's past, present, and future: it included both new songs as well as recent songs, long-unplayed oldies, and never-before-performed songs (recent and otherwise).  (Click on the link for my review.)  Consonant with current trends (and perhaps understandable, given their age), they spread the tour out with two fairly brief legs over a period of two successive summers, satiating the arena rock nostalgia of their aging audience but necessarily pushing back work on Clockwork Angels.
     Clockwork Angels is now finished.  It is scheduled for release on June 12, to be followed by a tour tentatively slated to being in September.  And a third song, "Headlong Flight," dropped digitally today, incredibly streaming on the website of the band's longtime critical nemesis, Rolling Stone (here is irony: as I write this, a link to and its streaming track adorn's the front page of the band's official website alongside those modern, digital advertisements for pre-orders of the album in singular and "bundle" form).
     Given the band's (or, at least, Peart's) initial jaundiced eye on cyberspace (1996's "Virtuality" is an astringent excoriation of the then-inchoate Internet and its culture of seeming isolation and seclusion), the band's complete divorce from their and their industry's past may seem like more irony.  However, this observer and long-time fan expected these three visionaries, traditionally advocates of technology in song and elsewhere, to remember that "the misuse of something is no argument against its use."  This is a band that has typically embraced change wholeheartedly without a backward glance (don't be surprised if Clockwork Angels is not issued in the audiophile vinyl format, which is one ostensibly nostalgic trend I wish the band would follow along with their quasi-nostalgic, annual summer tours).
     "Headlong Flight" is very much cut from the same cloth as "Caravan" and "BU2B."  Musically, it is an amalgam of many songs from the protean band's crunchier eras (1970's: viz., "By-Tor and the Snow Dog" and "Bastille Day," and 1990's: viz., "Driven").  The six minute track is upbeat, dense, and "progressive" (consistent with Peart's comments that their more recent, less sprawling, streamlined music is "compressed complexity") (six minutes being comparatively short when contrasted with much of their work through the early 1980's).  The sinuous bass guitar introduction of Geddy Lee (also the band's vocalist and keyboardist) and the riffing of Alex Lifeson--alternately intense and textured, bludgeoning block-chords and sustained open ones--should be familiarly comforting to long-time fans while still indicative of new directions.  Lee's voice is now largely shed of the piercing falsetto that repelled many critics for years.  You should go listen to it now.
     Perhaps I'll see you on the Clockwork Angels Tour.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

What It Means to Be a Twenty-First Century Digital Boy

It is an age that has moved beyond irony and anachronism.  Most culture today--particularly musical--looks backward even as the technology of media formats hurtles blindly into a not-so-brave new world.
     The age of the rock star is over.  Some superannuated veterans still stalk arenas and stadiums, but they are generally not being joined by their proteges and epigones.  Aging baby boomers who long ago stopped listening to new music crowd arena rock concerts demanding to hear decades-old songs the way they've always heard them while using brief interludes featuring a token new song or two as a convenient opportunity to get another beer and/or release the last ones from their clogged systems.  (While listening to then-new material from Paul McCartney's Off the Ground album, released on the cusp of his New World Tour, Howard Stern facetiously referred to the tracks as "concession stand music".)  The relatively few young and relatively young people who can afford to attend at today's arena concert prices will likely be unable to afford to see their friends play at the local club the next night, driving the final nail into the rock star age's coffin.  ("If you spent two-hundred dollars on Springsteen tickets, how do you justify going to a club the next weekend?  And if the clubs are closed, where is the next generation of live bands coming from?" rhetorically asked Springsteen friend and biographer Dave Marsh many years ago now.)  The narrowcasting that accompanied the rise of the Internet and new media and fall of the major record labels and brick-and-mortar stores  further removed the new century from the old as every consumer now has (studio, if not live) access to (destined-to-remain) obscure artists from all over the globe via CD Baby, Amazon, Facebook, and (the last time I checked) MySpace.
     The content of the culture these new world men and women produce and consume is generally derivative and/or unlistenable, though there are increasingly common, encouraging exceptions (the 1990's trend of deemphasizing melody in popular music seems to be waning).  The failure of modern education as well as  the inexorable and ineluctable effects of modern culture on the modern attention span have ensured that there are fewer thoughtful, artful innovators and even fewer potential audience members for them, especially on the national level.  Teenagers starving for such complex melody, instrumental skill, and general quality flock to the music of their parents (e.g., Iron Maiden) and grandparents (e.g., The Beach Boys).  They may be unaware (as I was for a long time)  that there are contemporary artists worth seeking out if one knows where to find them, they may be unwilling or unable to see the artists live in clubs and theaters (where they inevitably play, today), or perhaps they succumb to old-fashioned peer pressure.  (Most people are sheep.  That has changed little throughout the centuries.)  Concomitantly, advanced technology has made equipment (including recording equipment) and distribution channels more accessible and affordable.  Cinema, in accordance with the dumbed-down culture, has degenerated into remakes, sequels, comic book adaptations, etc.  The rise of digital cable and high-definition television has brought back the 3-D trend of the 1950's just as the music industry devolves back to its 1950's setup of small labels and small venues.  Those who still read are gravitating to "E-readers" but seem to be filling their screens with old works (while writers either starve or become lawyers so they can afford the plasma television and arena rock concert tickets).
     It can be difficult to keep track of the anachronisms and absurdities of an anachronistic and absurd culture.  Capitol Records remixes and re-remasters decades-old recordings for already-dated compact discs and the compressed, tinny sound of mp3's and computer speakers while promising new artists like Best Coast revel in the warmth of vinyl (David Letterman held up the vinyl edition of their self-titled album when they performed on his show).  The arena, once the stomping ground of youngsters and contemporary hits, is now the province of the aged while up-and-comers, some as good as some of the best to ever grace an arena stage, eke out a living in clubs.  To paraphrase Frank Zappa, jazz no longer just smells funny--it is now dead.  (And classical music only survives in film scores.)  But at least there are encouraging trends in the world of popular music (artistically if not commercially).  Literature (excepting some thematically-oriented detective fiction writers) and cinema (excepting the occasional art film that doesn't wallow in naturalistic malevolence) seem entirely dead.  (I predict a theater revival similar to the vinyl revival as cinema increasingly becomes a gimmicky graveyard for overused stories, characters, and ideas.)
     With an archive full of old writings and a succession of upcoming live events that demand some kind of reporting and assessing, I thought it was time to find a home for thoughts, essays, and reviews that didn't fit on my other weblog.  I have the privilege of living in the midst of a theater and club scene that still soldiers on at this late date (with brick-and-mortar options many others don't have); I have access to both repertory cinemas and streaming Netflix; and I have a five-in-one stereo that plays records (including 78's), cassettes, CD's, and mp3's (as well as the old-fashioned radio).  (While I will never let go of celluloid and vinyl, it is gratifying and convenient to view and listen to "new media" along side of them.  A digital exclusive Dream Theater live "album" emanates from my computer speakers as I type this.  While I am a Dream Theater fanatic, I've never been able to listen to it before since I wasn't a Spotify user.  I still don't have an E-reader, but I expect that might change within a few weeks.)  As a aficionado of classics and the classical who still searches far and wide for the occasional gems that still get produced and performed, nothing artistic (if I may use the term in this century of non-art and anti-art) is off limits.
     The convergence of old and new has perked up an dormant interest in contemporary culture (especially music) that I previously thought was completely devoid of interest.  This space will try to put the bewildering chaos of twenty-first century culture into some kind of perspective.  And while I don't like to spoon-feed readers and spell everything out, the title, while descriptive, is also symbolic of a rejection of a dichotomy between art and entertainment.  It is an amalgam of two different song titles: one an artsy, brainy, complex, extended progressive rock dirge; the other a terse, stylish, simple piece of pop ear candy.

A Postcard from California: Alan Jardine's Record Release Party

Renascent Beach Boy Alan Jardine (and his "Friends") ostensibly held a record release party at The Roxy Theatre in West Hollywood, CA Tuesday night.
     "Ostensibly" is the appropriate term as the new disc, A Postcard From California, was not available for sale at the merchandise stand (where only free raffle tickets were available), and the setlist was overloaded with Beach Boys songs (popular and, delightfully, obscure).  For once in the digital age, however, "record" was accurate: free vinyl records were distributed at the door as partygoers filed out of the world-famous venue.
     While none of Jardine's fellow Beach Boys was present (at least on stage), his backing band included stalwarts of the Boys' touring and recording entourage, viz.: bass guitarist Ed Carter, drummer Bobby Figueroa, and multi-instrumentalist Billy Hinsche (Carl Wilson's ex-brother-in-law).  (Unfortunately, former touring band member and Billy Joel sideman Richie Cannata wasn't there for some reason.)  Jardine's sons Matthew and Adam sang with their father (more than adequately, with one exception), and two competent sidemen rounded out the lineup, playing all of the solos.  Several members of the Boys' extended family (including a certain famous actor) joined the band at the end of the show.
     Since it was light on new material (and only one of the three new songs really impressed), the seventy-nine minute set was most notable for the obscure Beach Boys songs that fans will be unlikely to hear on the much-hyped 50th anniversary reunion tour this summer.  Al dug deep into the Boys' catalog and dusted off hardcore fan favorites written by himself and others.  While he had to pass a few tenor vocal parts to his sons, the elder Jardine's voice is remarkably robust for his age (which the aforementioned actor remarked upon at his earliest opportunity).  (An abstemious lifestyle and the right balance of use and rest has paid dividends.  Al's visage may have changed, but his voice--high range excepted--has not.)
     In this age of unregenerate nostalgia, it was encouraging to see and hear Jardine present the old obscurities in a context of relevancy.  The devastating semi-drone and seemingly anti-welfare Surf's Up album track "Lookin' At Tomorrow (A Welfare Song)" was succeeded by a comment that the job-seeker's lament was more topical today than ever (certainly more than the time of its release, 1971), and the boisterous "Honkin' Down the Highway" (from 1977's The Beach Boys Love You, one of the most inexcusably underrated albums by a major artist in rock history) segued into the brand-new "Drivin'."
     The only letdowns were the nostalgic (and ill-conceived) encore, when too many Wilsons crowded the stage (The Honeys--look them up--are always welcome, but they can't be heard when Uncle Jesse, Carl's sons, and everyone else are drowning them out), and the transposed, flat "Wild Honey" (proof as much as anything else that Carl Wilson can never be replaced).
     Given the strength and vigor of Jardine's voice, he will be a valuable asset to whatever artistic success comes of The Beach Boys' tour.  Perhaps he can use that as leverage during tour rehearsals and insist on including some of the rarities on the list below when a recalcitrant Mike Love demurs.  It would be unwise to count on it, though.

Alan Jardine and Friends
Al Jardine: rhythm guitar
Matt Jardine: percussion
Adam Jardine: percussion
Billy Hinsche: keyboards, guitar on "California Saga," harmonica on "Help Me, Rhonda"
Ed Carter: bass guitar
Bobby Figueroa: drums
Jared Dalley: lead guitar, banjo
Tom Jacob: keyboards
John "Uncle Jesse" Stamos: drums on "Surfin' USA"

A Postcard From California Record Release Party
The Roxy Theatre
West Hollywood, CA
Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Set [lead vocalist(s) in brackets]
You're So Good to Me [Al]
I Can Hear Music [Matt]
Heroes and Villains [Al]
California Dreamin' [Al and Billy]
California Saga (On My Way to Sunny Californ-i-a) [Al]
Sail On Sailor [Billy]
Lookin' at Tomorrow (A Welfare Song) [Al]
A Postcard From California [Al]
Don't Fight the Sea [Al and Matt]
Honkin' Down the Highway [Al]
Drivin' [Al]
Wild Honey [Matt]
God Only Knows [Matt]
Sloop John B. [Al and Adam]
Wouldn't It Be Nice [Matt and Al]
Good Vibrations [Matt and Billy]
Help Me, Rhonda [Al]
Surfin' USA [Matt]

Barbara Ann [Matt]
Fun, Fun, Fun [Matt]