I've been a music lover since my first Raffi album. I was a working musician through most of my 20s and as I stare down the big 30 I find myself as a radio host and programmer for Long Beach Radio in Tofino. I love music... like all art it's as much about the stories, the energy and social impact of the medium as it is about the art itself. So these reviews will include opinions, rumors, fables, legends and possibly even out and out lies about the music reviewed. Please do comment on the music in question and add where you can to those tales. Thanks, Geoff (geoff@longbeachradio.ca)

Friday, March 4, 2011

Carolyn Mark and NQ Arbuckle, Let's Just Stay Here

Ever have one of those moments?  Maybe you're at a dinner party, or a concert.  Your wife introduces you to someone... or you have a great chat with a stranger then, hours later you smack yourself on the forehead and say something ignorant like "He was THAT Barack Obama!!!" Well, I sort of had one of those this past weekend.  In the spirit of quantum album reviews I'll tell you how I came to be in the possession of this fine album; "Let's Just Stay Here" from Carolyn Mark and NQ Arbuckle.

It started with the Sumner Brothers.  Twice we've tried to get them into the Long Beach Radio studio before shows in Tofino.... twice we've failed.  This time we did manage to catch up after the show and they brought with them a confident woman with a guitar who's name, though familiar, didn't set off a lot of bells in my head.  We chatted, did our radio thing, and afterword both The Sumner Brothers and Carolyn left me some CDs.  One of the albums she handed me I knew well... I have even quoted some lyrics, specifically "It's hard to be a good man listening to the 'Drive By Truckers'".  Luckily she won't know what an idiot I am because no-one reads these reviews.

So, here goes the review portion of our story.  Bullshit basic stuff first... guess you'd call it "Alt Country".  I write this on a stormy Friday evening, with a belly full of rum and that seems appropriate. I love the rawness and "cleanness" of NQ Arbuckle recordings in general, their "XOK" continues to be a favourite album of mine that will no doubt be reviewed eventually.  With production and mixing credits going to NQ Arbuckle I'm happy to say everything is captured brilliantly and beautifully.

The mood is difficult to explain... In the car, where I do a lot of listening it's seems mellow, sort of gooey if that makes any sense, like it's trying to drag you down... The lyrics take you through emotional depths of long term relationships that seem doomed to the shallow satisfaction of drinking and farm-girl groupies.  But, if you take the same album and listen to it as I am, a few drinks in, with a darkening sky, it's hopeful. Song like "The 2nd Time" become anthemic... convincing of the power of fate or human will.  Musical mood stabilizer?  I'm not sure that's exactly what I mean.

Maybe a better way to say it is that this album will take you where it wants too.  It's not ready to be the album for every occasion. It has a plan for you and there aren't really any alternatives.  Isn't what art is about... delivering you somewhere, despite your intentions?

NQ Arbuckle songs possess a magical quality that I can't easily explain. Most are twice as long as they "should" be. Not in a "progressive rock" way but in a "stadium rock" way.  That is to say you can often sing along the first time you hear one of their songs... and you are compelled to! This album is no different.  Every song has a comfortable, embracing quality.  Familiar yet refreshing.

I feel, for the most part country music has forgotten what it's all about.  With "Let's Just Stay Here" I fall more in love with the sad realities of life, the confusing experiences, the even more confusing responses and the bewildering consequences. The tragic hero of country music, the dangerous devotion, the loving alcoholism are all here.  Love is not a paved road and this album, despite great recording, is still bumpy... and real.

I want to be able to say that his album is greater than the sum of it's parts but I'm not totally sure it is to me.  NQ Arbuckle have set the bar pretty high in this "genre", even for themselves. I'm not totally sure this album breaks out to into a new domain... I am, however, totally sure it's worth a listen.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Has Ritalin Killed Rock and Roll? How Can We Save It?

One of the best parts of my job is listening to music, discovering new and exciting things and having a great vehicle to share then with others when I do.  Sadly, a lot of the music that I stumble across is pretty awful.  From uninspired, assembly line pop to the desperate death rattles of has-been rockstars.

Lately, I've had to come to terms with something terrifying.... The people that we should be able to have a little faith in to save Rock and Roll have been poisoned.  I speak of the angsty youth... who have been quelled by mind altering drugs... Ritalin and mood stabilizers are killing the youthful base of Rock and Roll.

Back in the day when Rock and Roll was being born nearly all the best known Rock and Rollers were popping pills; Elvis, Hank, Cash and others.  There was some heroin floating around in the Jazz and R&B scene, and a lot of pot at the time too. 

Then, as the 60s unfolded rockers wandered from pills to pot to LSD. Cocaine ruled for a few decades and is still a huge problem in the entertainment world.  Of course, this whole time everyone has been drinking.

Now I'm not saying that you need to do illegal drugs to be a Rockstar. The way I see it what you need is madness, spontaneity, creativity, emotional intensity and such.  For some that's just part of who they are, creative genius is in their blood.  For others it's a process they've home honed for decades. For very few it's a rare combinations of those things and some foreign chemicals.

The drugs we pump kids full of these days may be doing great things.  My concern here is more music, and I don't think a "stable mood" is really conducive to creative, energetic art. 

The evidence of it's damage is what is largely knows as "Indie" rock, not all independent artists but the "hipster" scene.  There's a lot of it out there, and at the risk of sounding like an old man... it all sounds the same.  Here are some of the common features 

-The vocals are buried under a ton of reverb, which doesn't really matter because there's not really a melody and the lyrics are mostly about how nothing matters anyway....very passionate and inspirational....

-The drums are almost always playing some sort of vintage beat, surf being the most popular it seems.
-The guitars are usually chugging on a single chord for the whole song with little regard for dynamics and even less regard for tone.  There are no guitar solos, too expressive, people might look up from their Pabst if you played something interesting.

-Someone with grade 2 piano skills will be noodling out a fantastically arrhythmic yet mind-numbingly repetitive bit.  In some cases this is all sampled off an archaic 8 bit synth and looped.  If you can't manage a keyboard or 8 bit synth a second guitar player can handle this component.

Of course I'm not referring to the Indie band's YOU like because they ARE original, creative geniuses.

I just wonder why people would want their art to be intentionally inexpressive and low quality.

Is it a political response to the ultra-high production values of modern pop?
Is it because they don't know how to operate the equipment?
Punk could say "Yes" to both of those questions but still had emotional content, the lyrics were unintelligible but could inspire with their tone and conviction.

I think the problem isn't really Ritalin, that was just for the headline... I think what we have is a situation where we are geared to embrace the average, not the exceptional.  A culture where people want their political leaders to be a good drinking buddy more than a brilliant visionary.  Where celebrity is short lived and comes from a lucky iPhone video, not a lifetime of dedication to a craft. 

Maybe, as a culture we have removed the motivation to be truly exceptional.  We auto-tune pretty faced teens and give them Grammies, make someone a celebrity for their own sake then FORCE their album onto the charts.  It's disheartening for those working hard to make art.

I don't think the answer is to decide to produce indifferent music.  I definitely don't think the answer is to support those who choose to make our musical alternatives bland in some sort of "ironic" protest. 

The answer, is to love and embrace those who still take their craft seriously in the face of a largely indifferent world.  Support the creative people out there that actually do enrich our lives. Ignore what people tell you is good, myself included, and judge for yourself. Most of all DEMAND quality from them, by feeding quality and not mediocrity, together we can save Rock and Roll.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Dead Weather, Sea Of Cowards

I'm not going to be the first to review this one... but I've never claimed to be cutting edge, well researched, insightful or accurate.  I'm just here to share my thoughts on music... You know that saying "Those who can't do, teach" well, I fell off the Rock and Roll making wagon a while ago... now I'm on the Rock and Roll listening wagon... it's not as good for picking up girls but I still feel needlessly self important and that's what matters.

I like to refer to my reviews as "Quantum" in nature.  Where the observer, in this case me, is considered part of the experience. Thus here's a little background on my experiences with The Dead Weather's "Sea of Cowards".  I've only listened to the album on laptop speakers in mp3 format.... magnifying the lo-fi experience exponentially... like looking though a cracked window while wearing someone else's prescription glasses.  That said, I don't think it's damaged my experience much.

The whole album is recorded very aggressively, I feel like every instrument was set up well, just short of clipping then someone was mopping up whisky they spilled on the console and, with a misplaced elbow turned it all up to at least 11.... maybe 13 for so.  The drums don't clip too often but everything else, even the 8 bit synth is jagged.... Is that bad?  In this case what it is Rock and Roll!!!

This is a VERY sexy album. Not like your Mom's Sort of sexy.... that's right your Mom has a definition of sexy and... at least once... your Dad fit in there somewhere.... I digress. This Is a VERY sexy album, like aggressively sexy.  "The Difference Between Us" in particular has such a sense of depravity, sinfullness that I'm not sure if I should be uncomfortable or turned on... so I choose both.

I guess I should mention the sound of the album in general.  Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath come to mind pretty quickly. It's not that simple though the sound is very spacious.  Both in terms of "outer space" and emptiness. Like it was recorded in that big chamber in the James Bond film Moonraker, with every piece of supervillian equipment replaced with amplifiers.  I'm a time when "indie rock" is so emotionless this album feels angry, in the proper Rock and Roll fashion.  I suppose there is an argument for White Stripes influence but it sort of sounds like their drummer is part of the band so I'll leave whether or not to make that comparison up to you.

If I had to complain about something regarding this album it would be the lack of dynamics.... I love the sound, I'm entirely invested by the end of the first song.... then, as the decibel level is sustained through the next 4 or 5 tunes it starts to wear.  Even the most braindead metalhead know you need a power ballad or something like that on an album... If it's ALL loud it might as well all be quiet... Maybe that's the point and I'm just getting old...

It's absolutely worth a listen.... possibly even on a system better than a laptop.  I always look for diversity in a album and this doesn't quite deliver that. If what you want is a sexy-crazy Rock and Roll party this is the album for you, if you want a full bodies listening experience look elsewhere.  Shit, it sounds like I AM too old.

Thanks for reading and happy listening.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

JJ Grey and Mofro, Country Ghetto

I'm sort of a jerk.  Often times, when I'm talking to people who's musical taste I trust greatly I seem to shut my ears... then months later when I stumble across a band or album they tried to push on me back I'm really humbled.  Here's another one that I owe the discovery of to some of my Rock and Roll friends.  I don't think this is the exact disc they meant for me to check out but hey.... I wasn't really listening.

I had no idea what to expect from JJ Grey and Mofro's Country Ghetto. Trying to guess from the name, of the group or the album, left me with nothing.  Perhaps I was over thinking it all, perhaps I was scared my friends had sent me down the path to a Kid Rock sound-alike... Hillbilly Hip Hop for the 21st century.  Once I got the album home I realized that if I though a little less about it I'd have know exactly what I was getting into.

So this disc goes back about a decade... put that doesn't matter, it's a 40 or 50 year old album where it counts.  With some tasty funk, a gob of rich southern soul, and some of the fattest grooves this side of the R&B greats like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and the like.  For me, it was Otis Redding's style that seems most obviously adopted.... But I've always been a sucker for Otis so it's probably a bit of a quantum measurement there.

Guitars on the album will punch you one second, then sneak up with the wah pedal rocking gently and squeeze your wife's butt, finally soothing you with some heavy vibrato and steel guitar whines.  The horns, oh so essential to the genre are spot on. Most important of all the voice is authentic... Often a genre like this is forced upon some karaoke champ by a producer and you can't totally buy it.  That is not the case here, every sung note rings true... whether hollered through a harp mic or angelically delivered in the backups, nothing feels forced or faked. 

Usually I do a bit of a track-by-track breakdown but I can't really think of how to group the songs.  The overall mood is so steady but it takes you up and and down, picks you up and throws you away while managing to, all the while, keep you in the same general groovy state.

This album makes it clear that I need to check out the other Mofro albums in case they are even half as good.

Thanks for reading and happy listening

The Waxbills, Hard to Lose

I've been sitting on this disc for a while. I gave it a quick listen a few months back, pulled a song or 2 to put in rotation on Long Beach Radio and set it aside... not because I didn't like it. I just didn't have time to really listen.

Now that I find myself with a little more time I'm sitting down with it again, in a more sensative way.  Now that I take the time to listen I wonder why it was so "easy" to pick some of the tracks for the radio station.  The whole album is so radio friendly that it's almost embarassing.

The album opens with a U2 song.... not a cover but a song that you could hear in the middle of a familiar, contemporary U2 album and not bat an eyelash.  If the whole album went on that way it would be a problem. Not because I don't like U2 but because I'd just go put in Joshua Tree and forget about the Waxbills.

Luckily we walk into a few different directions through to album.  We spend a little time in Tom Petty's recording studio with "Broken Girl", have a bit of a Neil Diamond moment in "Valentine".  It all sounds familiar.... which is great for radio programming but not likely to cause it to spend a lot of time in my car's CD player.... oh yeah we do come back to the U2 for a bit too.... Where's Joshua Tree?

I do enjoy the "60s-ness" of much of the album.  "Roller Coaster Man" especially has me envisioning gogo girls and tambourines.  "Taste" and "High Street" have a classic punk feeling, think MC5 or Clash... maybe even some Lou Reed but aren't as convincing doppelgangers as the other tracks are to their originals.

The album reminds me of the Jet album from a decade or so back "Get Born"... that was all BTO, Beatles and Fleetwood Mac songs repackaged as sound alikes.... That said, it did really well, probably provided the capital for a lot of great parties and I still find it amoung a lot of peoples "in the car" CDs.

The playing is great, the singing right-on... the fact that the songs are so effective at delivering up nuances of specific artists is a testament to the writing/ production skills.  If it hasn't already I can see this album being hugely successful in the film soundtrack world or licensed to advertisers like mad.

I want to like it, and I suppose I do... I just don't feel pressured by it. I don't feel like I'm hearing anything I haven't before.  There is no cutting edge to it. Timeless but somehow stale.

Thanks for reading and happy listening,

Ryan Bingham, Junky Star

I'm leery of albums that open with harmonica.  There was something in the drone of that open guitar string, slightly out of tune as open droning strings tend to be, combined with a gentle rhythm had already delivered my past my preconceptions of your average harp player.  Then once the voice hit me I know I was in for something special.

So here I go, with no prior background experience and a mind that's been forced open before I could slam it just, a listen to Ryan Bingham's Junky Star.

Sadly the second song opened with harmonica too.  It also had a Tom Cochrane feel that sort of caused me to glaze over a bit.  When the other players stepped up I was shaken awake a bit and left wondering why you wouldn't use them more and put the harp away....

The voice though, continued to keep me interested and things got a little smashier with "Strange Feelin' In The Air". Then they slow right down for the title track.

I think what I may be missing so far is the quality of songwriter this guys is.  You can hear the influence of some of the greats, 'Closing Time' era Tom Waits for sure.... but I've been too focused on the intruments, slowing down the critical mind and listening with my eyes closed, not 'taking notes', has changed what I heard... a lot.

The album paints a picture of life on the streets, friends and futures lost to drugs and random violence as well as more cliche' love stories and such.  Depression, not only being the title of one of the tunes, is the main theme.  Once you let it get under your skin it's sort of impressive that the guy can bother to draw the breath he needs to blow that harp. The saddest Dylan song never made me wonder how he could manage to blow.... Though some songs off the first 3 "Bootleg Series" discs are mighty dark and the feeling isn't that different.

"Direction on the Wind" turns the album in a different direction for a while.... continuing the Dylan-esque feel... but pushing it more towards the 'electric' Dylan era. Even the title of the tune is a little blatant perhaps.

It's a heavy album, one you'll really want to listen to, not something that you'll put in shuffle with a few other CDs, or on your iPod as the case may be.  I like that, these reviews are about albums for the most part and this is a good cohesive thought and feeling that you wouldn't want to interrupt.  You could sit in a comfy chair with a scotch in your hand and listen to this album over and over if you let it take you away.... You'd need to hug a loved on afterward and lock up the sharp knives though.

Sometimes you want music for a mood or mindset and if you're looking for some company for your misery... check this one out.

Thanks for reading and happy listening

Monday, January 31, 2011

Matt Epp and the Amorian Assembly, At Dawn

I was sent a digital pre-release version of this album over the weekend.  Matt Epp and Amorian Assembly are making their way to the West Coast in a bit so I thought I'd give it a listen and let you know what I got out of it. 

The first word is... Surprise.  I'll admit my exposure to Matt Epp has been pretty limited.  The first couple of notes had me thinking it was opening with a cover of the Beatles tune "Rocky Raccoon".... I've heard worse ways to start an album I guess.  The song, it turns out, was not a a Beatles cover.  It features some haunting ambiance from huge-sounding drums and a surprisingly fitting Spanish horn arrangement.... making the showdown theme of the song striking. It makes me want to watch the duel that was no doubt going down during the recording. I'm hooked... and certainly curious what the rest of the album has to offer.

One of the main things that struck me listening through the album for the first time was how well the acoustic instruments were captured, at least on the first few tracks.  The drums sounded as though they were recorded using primitive methods, a sound I love... creating a lot of space and depth, with a certain taste of some of Zeppelin's recordings.  Other instruments, notably the piano and acoustic guitar sound like the were isolated and masterfully recorded, not only making you feel like they are in the room but that you have your ear right inside them. I like the balance of the 2 sounds on may of the tracks.

Sadly, the other arrangements aren't as creative as the opening track. In the middle there are a few songs that are more "radio friendly" pop-rock that don't deviate too far from your basic pop formulas ("Met Someone" in particular).... It even seems that the emphasis on sound quality isn't the same (New Sunglasses)... making it feel a lot less personal.

Nearly every tune on the album contains a greasy guitar solo that would make Neil Young blush.... That, to me, is a very good thing.  Hints of Hammond organ and Rhodes piano as well as some Otis Redding-esque vocal hooks near the end of "Red Winged Blackbird" help make it a highlight of the middle of the album for me.

It's hard for me to sum this album up. It seems to be 3 EPs put together to fill the time slot.  I enjoy nearly all the songs individually but have a hard time feeling it flow together as a package.  My thoughts, listening to the songs as they are is that they will make for a good, dynamic live show but for a guy who has an unnatural love of concept albums and such I can't says I'm entirely in love with this album. 

If the surprise of that first track was relived a few times during the experience I'd be entirely sold.

I hear songs that would sound good on a mix with Jeff Buckley... Others more 54-40 and even some a little hint of Norah Jones...  Those Neil Young style guitar solos and the massive sounding drums keep it all sounding like Rock and Roll.  I tend to like music that alienates a certain number of people... I like this album overall and I don't think it would truly alienate anyone.... maybe that doesn't sound as much like a compliment as I mean it to be.

I can't wait for the show in a few weeks and I'm definitely going to have a listen to more Matt Epp.

Shortly after publishing I got a review.... ummm... review from Matt himself:

"Just saw your review and was happy to read how much care you took in listening - it was fresh air to know someone had insight into the process and the sounds... and what it takes to make the record."

And he left me a little insight as to how the album was recorded:

"Regarding the capturing of sound on the record, I wanted to let you know that we made the record live-off-the-floor in 3 days (vocals, guitars, drums, bass all final) and then tracked the keys in Spain... and then a few other things (like back up vocals) later on. So those takes you hear all had the same studio set up and separation - it's probably the differences in how we dealt with it in the mix that makes it so dynamic and changing. I'm not sure if I'll ever find one 'sound'!"

Thanks for your kind words about my review and thanks for the info Matt.

Thanks for reading and happy listening,