NEW REVIEWS: Music & Books from 2013.
By PAUL ZOLLO
The greatest, most inspired McCartney album in decades. Not that Sir Paul needs to be compared against the measure of his own work. But this so stands out, as it simply changes the game. That this man – whose work has not only impacted but completely shifted the very course of the popular song as we know It – is still plugged into the source to this extent some half century since his remarkable debut – it’s nothing short of miraculous. He’s always been the great collaborator, creating his finest, freshest, most infectious and brilliantly inventive work when collaborating with other gifted minds. Of course, there is no collaboration more monumental than his with John Lennon, in which each inspired and empowered the other to perpetually aim higher, deeper and farther. Even after having been to the top of the proverbial toppermost that they spoke of as lads, Paul and John found places beyond the toppermost to go – and doing so, they rewrote all the rules. They paved the musical way for the world we still live in, musically, in which the recording of a song – the production – is created with as much loving brilliance and inventive flair as the writing of the song. And so it makes sense that when Paul connects with some of the most gifted producers making records today, as he has here, that the results would be fresh and great both musically and sonically, and indeed that’s what we got.
Here are brave, brilliant and beautiful songs written and produced with Paul Epworth, who wrote with and produced Adele, Mark Ronson – who wrote with and produced the late great Amy Winehouse, and Giles Martin – son of Sir George Martin – who teamed up with his dad on the brilliant Love. Put those guys together with Paul, and he’s at his best. He’s so famous for his beautiful melodies, that we sometimes forget he’s the guy who invented “Helter Skelter,” and has always loved to truly rock out seriously. So the opening song, the infectious and inviting “Save Us” is built around a raw and raucous guitar riff, both brash and unafraid, and leads us into a pure gem of McCartney genius. And it plays around with a fun and impudent rhyme, a rhyme that shows this guy is in there swinging, making it work as brilliantly as he did when the movement was on his shoulder: “In the heat of battle/you got something that’ll/save us…” Battle and that’ll! A rhyme to make Sammy Cahn smile. And harmonically it’s one of those songs like the kind he wrote back with Lennon in which the tunes turned unexpectedly on great sly chords, delighting us and inviting us at the same time – the kind of secret chords that songwriters have come to know as Beatles chords, those sly, inventive, quick turns of harmony as ingenious in their simplicity as were Cole Porter or George Gershwin in the ways they also subverted the changes of popular songs, with melodies that slipped into and out of major and minor keys, effortlessly transposing and returning. This is one of those songs that make you want to grab your guitar to fathom just exactly how he did that – what makes that effect so delicious and so precisely McCartney? It’s the essence of the best of what this man has done in his remarkable career, and that he does it as this age – and with layers of heavenly, perfect vocal harmonies and miracle bass lines, it’s a reason to rejoice that such good music is still being made, and by a man who has already given us so much. And from there we get a chain of songs that is intimate and playful, melodic and lyrical as the finest, and imbued with genuine joy throughout. “Alligator,” created with Ronson, is fast and funny: McCartney stretching out with long, rapid lyrical phrases. It’s big and small, sad and laughing, and exceedingly, generously joyful. “On My Way To Work” evokes his early solo work, acoustic and intimate, a calm after the storm.
And rather than run from the imposing shadow of the Beatles, he embraces it. In “New” he celebrates the heady triumph that was their recognition that this hunch – this thing called Beatles – was paying off in a rather colossal way. And in “Early Days” we soar all the way back to when he and John were fans, poring over records, hoping only for inclusion, never domination. It was never about business. It was about joy. Paul McCartney shows all songwriters there are no excuses anymore – when you rock this hard in your 70s – and so ingeniously – rock and roll has expanded, the popular song has expanded, and the world is richer for it.
Rod Sphere & The Jet-Sets * Rivers and Rockets
Rod Sphere & The Hemispheres * mist & molecule
Rod Sphere & The Galaxies * Variant Twist
Rod Sphere – the artist formerly known as Rod Smear – has long been one of the most inspirational and intriguing figures on the L.A. folk scene, whether playing his own remarkable originals, or one of his folk-reggae tinged takes on a classic Beatles or Dylan song. When Rod would step to the mic, people would quiet down and sit back, ready for anything. And he never disappointed. Live, that is. He has disappointed those of us, somewhat, who love his music, with a steady lack of recorded output for the last several years. But he’s made up for that now, and in a huge way, by releasing not one but three remarkable records, a triumvirate of truly exceptional record-making.
If Beck collaborated with Elvis Costello and David Byrne, it probably wouldn’t sound much like Rod. But you get the idea. Rod’s an artist with a great love of classic songs – and weaves beautifully inventive covers of famous songs here throughout his chain of originals. And when Rod takes on a cover, it’s unlike anything you’ve heard. He’s as inventive with a Dylan song, for example, as Dylan is! And there is the secret. True artists dig down to the most essential passion for the moment ; like Dylan, Rod takes us on profuse journeys of discovery, in terms of all aspects of this thing – the singing, harmony, instrumentation and songwriting. All of these tracks are rhythmic yet without any real drums: the grooves are built mostly on the great percussive acoustic guitar rhythms he cooks up on his own, great rich textures, as he does live – like Richie Havens, he’s an astounding rhythm player on these steel strings – and that frame is a splendid and spirited one for his tender and friendly singing.
Astounding originals are here, like “Aqua Blue” – which is plaintive and ardent – it’s as harmonically angular as a Kurt Cobain song, but with the tender earnestness of Brian Wilson – a fusion which is special and endearing, and instantly memorable. “Ravi Shankar” is a beautiful rainbow of a tribute to the great sitar master who inspired those who so inspired us. “Mist and Molecule” embraces modern times thoroughly; it’s funny and scary at the same time, about the great blur of over-extended, endless input: “My attention span is shrinking, the media does my thinking.” He comments on all of is as it unfolds with the indifferent “yeah yeah yeah,” an ongoing dialogue with the self in the sad “whatever” age of the selfie. “I’m really busy if you want me you can reach me on my cell,” he advises.
As beautifully as he conveys the madness of these modern times, he also sweetly embraces the past, especially in certain covers. He takes on George Harrison’s “Long Long Long,” from the White album, which is one of Harrison’s lesser known gems, but with a gorgeous miracle of a melody that Rod doesn’t discard or distort, he crystallizes its elegant eloquence. Who knew he could sing with such soulful purity, conjuring up the spirit of the great spiritual Beatle, the one who – like Rod – mixed in his flavors from around the world into a heady gumbo of East and West unlike any which came before? It’s one of those tracks you can put on endless repeat, and it works. I know, because I have driven endless freeways for what seems like days with only this one track playing over and over. And it worked. This is spirit embodied. All the sense of the lesser Beatle, the little brother George, trying to play with the big boys but not always taken seriously, is cast out, replaced with a beautiful and essential focus on the transcendent and timeless power of this work. Rod also does George’s “The Inner Light,” a song written during Beatles time but never recorded. Leave it to Rod to pick it up and bring us this beautiful bridge to the soul.
But then there’s his beautiful rendition of “Stardust,” in which he takes on this famous standard written by Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish, the melody of which many consider among the greatest ever in popular music. Rather than give us an alternate slant on this iconic work, Rod stays faithful to the glorious melody, and it’s a revelation. Rod takes “Stardust” and makes it his own. He sings it with the authority of Sinatra, but with more tenderness, more grounded humility. Is there anything he can’t do? He also gives us a delightful “Dream,” by Johnny Mercer, which is so right for Rod, the promise and affirmation in the lyric so lovingly expressed in the hopeful melody and great performance. Breathtaking renditions of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” (a very tough song to sing, and he does it flawlessly), Lennon’s dreamy “Across the Universe,” and Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talking” are also here. This is a tour de force. Had he given us only one disc, this would be momentous and cause for celebration. But three fully realized albums, it’s a true trove of musical treasure. Thanks Rod. We missed you. You give us a reason to believe. As Johnny Mercer wrote, and you beautifully sang: things never are as bad as they seem, so dream, dream.
Eminent Hipsters, by Donald Fagen.
A hilarious book by Fagen, one half of the Fagen & Becker team that has been the engine of Steely Dan for decades. Anyone familiar with the Dan’s songs knows there’s both a lot of humor and darkness, often intertwined, in Fagen’s soul – as well as a great and gifted way with classic soul and jazz. This is an intimate exploration of that soul. Fagen’s a famous curmudgeon, but nowhere has his powerfully negative sentiments about the human race ever surfaced as overtly as they do here. In fact, much of the book is Fagen griping. And griping, really, in the middle of a true rock and roll dream: unlike 98% of the world’s musicians, the man has made a fortune playing music, so really is in pretty good shape. He has earned it – sure – the guy’s a genius, and with the Dan and solo has created countless masterpieces. So what exactly does he have to complain about? Well, it turns out, quite a lot. Cause he dwells in a world of other humans, and humans are the main problem.
Though there’s precious little here about Steely Dan – (so essentially Fagen, to skip over the thing we love the most), there is his diary of sorts from his tour with the Dukes of September, the soul band concocted with Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald. There are also interesting essays here – including a long and inspired take on the Boswell Sisters and an interview he did with Ennio Morricone. But it’s here in this tour log, more than anywhere, that the true Fagen spirit is exposed.
The problem stems from the fact that this isn’t a Steely Dan tour he’s on, so it’s less grand in every way, in terms of transport, venue and reception. But they aren’t crowding into a van: Each artist has his own bus, and although both Scaggs and McDonald often sleep on their busses, Fagen insists on hotel lodging, as living on a bus is, to him, tantamount to the “life of an insect.” But hotels – like concert venues – are invariably populated by other humans, which to Fagen is almost always trouble. They either want something from him he can’t deliver, or ignore him when he wants to be noticed. Even worse to him than the generation of “TV Babies” (those born with few books but constant TV) is the new generation forever tuned into the phones in their palms, rarely looking up at the world. He even has a hard time with fans who come to hear the hits but don’t care as much about soul classics. But that is why they are there, after all – because they love your music! Then there is the challenge of staying in shape, physically and psychologically, when on the road, which to Fagen is a supreme challenge, as he writes:
“Swimming? Pools are grungy or freezing or crowded or there’s just not enough time. Treadmill in the hotel gym? Go fuck yourself – I am too wasted to exercise…. Bicycling? You mean, call the concierge, inquire about rentals, roll around unfamiliar streets while cars and trucks are trying to kill me? I can’t even get the hell out of bed.”
If it weren’t Fagen writing this, it would get tiresome. But because this is a genius songwriter here, a man who has written countless miracle songs and made so many classic albums, it’s different. So this is the mind that created those songs with Walter Becker!
Fagen also delivers what is probably the best, most succinct, and poignant reflection on why so many musical artists turn to drugs than any I’ve ever read. When he gets to Vancouver, he remembers you can get Tylenol with codeine over the counter, and gets several bottles. “I mean,” he writes, “William Burroughs definitely couldn’t be bothered, but if you take four of them, it just might hit the spot… By showtime I was feeling a little better.”
But this is the crux of it, the reason why :
“It’s no wonder so many traveling performers end up in rehab or worse. It’s easy to see how it happens. They want to be alert and vibrant so that the audience won’t think badly of them, won’t punish them for not being as talented or magnetic as you thought they were. So your crush won’t suddenly end. I know, it’s pathetic.”
Pathetic, maybe, but so real, and true. For this revelation alone, this book is well worth reading. But there’s much more. There’s some about Fagen the kid, loving jazz and science fiction and vocal groups. And a whole lot about Fagen the human, and what it’s like to be a genius in the regular world. Would I have liked several chapters about Steely Dan? Absolutely. I am hoping he writes a second volume. But for now this will suffice. I’ve already read it twice and remain enthralled. He’s got one of the most distinctive voices around – as a singer but also a creator, a thinker – and this is a rare and very fun opportunity to take in that voice, and revel in the often-disgruntled but never boring world of Donald Fagen.
A beautiful new album by Mr. Zipperer, produced by Nick Kirgo, who did an exceptional job bringing all the joy and passion of John’s songs into full view. This is uplifting music, a celebration in words and music. If only for his tender, slowed down version of “Brown Eyed Girl,” which delivers this famous melody with a wonderfully hushed elegance, this is worth the price of admission. But there’s so much more. Great originals like the triumphant “Sailing Away” and beautiful “To The River” abound, and with much of the friendly, choral spirit of his shows with his John Zipperer and Friends band. Laced throughout with the close, warm harmonies of Tara Sitser and Jime Van Booven, and lovely instrumental touches throughout – such as the perky steel drums on “Sailing Away,” played by Doug Lacey, or the multitude of musical magic provided by Kirgo, who brings slide guitars, piano, organ, banjo and more to the proceedings – this is a nourishing musical journey. A friendly, inviting spirit pervades, as projected in “Sing With Me,” which has all the open arm promise of the best folk – from The Weavers to Belafonte and beyond. “Here By Me” is built on a great upright bass line, and resounds like a 1940s standard ideal for the Ink Spots. “Know Who You Love” is solo Zipperer, acoustic guitar and vocal, an elegiac song of questioning. Full Circle is a beautiful and pure cycle of songs of love and life that touches the heart and soul at the same time. Some years in the making, it was well worth the wait.
Edited by Valeria Manferto De Fabianis, Text by Billy Altman
White Star Publishers.
An absolute joy. Jagger’s long been one of this world’s most compelling visuals, and this collection of photos of him with and without his famous band is a delight. Pore over these photos of him from his earliest days to the present and recognize he’s never been unplugged from the zeitgeist for long. There is no dark period, or lapse in style or judgment. It’s been one long poem of a presence in our culture, celebrated here with elegant respect. Billy Altman provides deep text throughout, which is a plus: this is both a great photo collection, and a substantial tome about the man himself. Edited by Valeria Manferto De Fabianis, who has created similar volumes about Castro and lingerie, it’s a poignant, and powerful collection of the man who has brought us satisfaction for so long.
Acustica World Music * Cuatro Vidas Luminous acoustic magic. The beautiful intersection of human voices with passion, percussion and strings. They are a remarkable quartet producing music of great spirit and beauty. Dolores Villareal is the lead vocalist, with John Orr on vocals and guitars, Dave Ambrose on bass and Matt Chrichton on percussion. If you’re feeling downhearted, and who isn’t sometimes, try this on to lift the spirit. Whether in Spanish, as if most of this, or other languages , the message is one of love and light. She sings Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” in French with heartbreaking power and grace; this is the real deal. And they wrap it all up with “Whatever Lola Wants” in English, a funny and fiery song about empowerment, especially on this samba-tinged track beautifully peppered by Ray Coffey on sax. This is uplifting, genuine music, good for the soul.
Brad Parker * Days of Poetry * Riozen He said this collection is a suitcase of songs he’s been carrying around for more than thirty years. Good thing he opened it up and shared. There are 14 beautifully lyrical songs here, songs of love and time, songs by a guy who knows his way around a song. Tuneful melodies abound, as does gentle singing and delicate backing tracks with old pals Marvin Etzioni on bass, Michael Clarke on drums, Abe Parker on keys and Eleanor McEvoy on violins and vocals. All is understated, and bolstered perfectly by the Days of Poetry chorus – a dozen fine singers with voices rapped in harmony. So many beautiful songs are here, but none which haunts me quite as much as “Mulholland Highway,” a beautifully inspirational love letter to our angel city; imagine if Brian Wilson wrote and recorded a song with the Eagles, and you get close to the spirit expressed here, that spirit of innocent, hopeful melodics linked to endless summers which have inspired romantic songs forever. In a time of much turmoil and dissonance, these days of poetry resonate so sweetly and peacefully, giving a reason to believe. Good songs matter.
Amigo * Might Could This is what it’s all about – a great band of good musicians who know how to write funny songs, sad songs, clever songs, songs that rock and roll. There is no gimmick here: Amigo is the real thing. They’ve got a rootsy, down home sound – folk and rock like Wilco and the Band, and like those groups, composed of singers of much heart and soul. When they harmonize, it’s not perfect like the Eagles, it’s more like real people, and you want to sing along. They use funny country music conceits like “Where have all the bad times gone?” but in their hands, it works. They sing of “that old junkie two-step and cheap domestic stuff” and pull you in, you want more. Clean pedal steel lines underscore the funky soul, the jaunty vocals. Acoustic textures throughout are delicate, and set up these stories cinematically, especially the great “Old Testaments and Nail Bombs” which follows the “wise blood” in the veins of church-goers, and gives us some keen insight into both the dark and light of the faithful. “Murder of Crows” is presented in great multitudes of harmony against a cool and chugging guitar groove, and takes you out on a journey that is mysterious and foreboding – both happy and scary at the same time, a dynamic and dimensional effect. “Easy Rider” is like a party with Jackson Browne, a mariachi band and lots of tequila. The Hammond organ, wed with mariachi horns, is infectious. This is unexpected and serious songwriting rendered by a band capable of vast extremes, the kind of band that could be around a long time. I hope they are.
The Single Wing and a Prayer by Keith Piper with David Piper.
Written mostly by Keith Piper, this was completed this year by his son David Piper. The elder Piper was the head football coach at Ohio’s Denison University for a long time, from 1954-1992. His record of success is legend, as was his use of his signature play, the single wing offense, which is affectionately explored throughout. His son, David Piper, is a celebrated songwriter in Los Angeles, one half of the Trough Records duo Piper-Grey. He’s also a teacher, and a former football player himself, at Ithaca under the late Hall of Fame coach Jim Butterfield. So this is more than a tremendous labor of love, which it is, it’s also an informed one. Piper the son has a lot of love and respect for his father’s play and signature moves, which are related here as intricately and lovingly as classic Julia Child recipes. Even those of us mostly unfamiliar with the intricacies of this game are entranced by the union of precision and passion here, the art and science of this thing which unfolds physically, but is keenly calculated. In David’s introduction, he explained his motives, that his father hoped to provide future generations of coaches with the single wing wisdom, which is both a method and a philosophy of the game, so that any coach could lead his team to triumph as he had some 200 times. But this is more than a play book: Piper the son wove his own memories and anecdotes, and those of many others he collected, around the technical stuff, as well as instilled all of it with rich textural photographs and diagrams on every page, so what you’re getting here is the full vision of a man’s life. Football is the focus, but it’s bigger than that, it’s about dedication, focus, passion, fearlessness and love. It’s also a gift to David’s mother and Keith’s wife, Philomena, to whom the book is dedicated, as a way of preserving the beauty and magic of this wonderful life, in which she was always present: “[She] missed only two games,” wrote David, “in my father’s entire 39 year career.” If you love football, if you love wisdom and poetry intertwined, if you love the love of a family: father-mother-son – this is a place you should visit. You’ll be glad you did.
All proceeds will go toward the Denison University Football Program.
[www.thesinglewingandaprayer.com. Purchase at Denison University bookstore: http://www.denisonbookstore.com and look for The Single Wing and a Prayer. Cost is $38.95 plus shipping.]
Tall Men Group * 12 by 6 *Really wonderful. Sure, you put six great singer-songwriters together who also happen to all be fine musicians, you would expect something good. But this is beyond good – this is great. These guys sound so happy and inspired making music together that they created a masterpiece. The Tall Men Group is Marty Axelrod, Ed Tree, Severin Browne, Jeff Kossack, John Stowers and Jimmy Yessian. Call it superfolk: these are six individuals who have been writing and singing their own great songs for a long time, and making great records. And they have worked together – producing, singing and/or playing on each other’s albums. But this is one of those happy instances, not unlike Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, when separate, unmatched pieces fit together to make something bigger than any of the parts, something magical. That’s what we got here – the sound of these voices together is transcendent, so that any time the whole group sings a line in harmony there’s a kind of musical momentum created- something compelling and hypnotic.
Ed Tree’s a celebrated producer, and Jeff Kossack’s well-known as a studio wizard; those two seemed to have led the technical aspects, so that the sound here is delightful. Each instrumental note rings sweetly, and all the voices and lyrics are warm and clear. They take turns singing each other’s songs, starting with Tree’s beautifully haunting “Chaco,” which is a great place to begin. It’s all desert mystery and romance, and memories from this life and previous ones. It’s a heavy place to start, but from there we go in many directions. Severin’s “She’s A Funny Girl” boasts one of his signature complex and chromatic melodies , wed to a poignant and genuine lyric. “Marie,” by Ed Tree, resounds like a modern classic. Memphis-bound and bluesy, it’s a slinky and mysterious noir romance that’s about the present and the past at the same time, ideally etched by Axelrod on organ. Kossack’s “Lessons of My Father” is earthy and bluesy, replete with gritty acoustic slide guitars and soulful vocals, great story-telling that ties together the generations with funny wisdom, about fearlessness and “leading with example in reverse.” “Bar Band” by Severin also starts with the lessons from a father, how music can buoy a life, and launches this rockabilly rave-up about the place where dreams meet life. And “No Time Left At All,” by Jimmy Yessian, is a beautiful ballad of urgent affirmation, floating on great organ and Dylan-like harmonica. This is an impressive and inspirational album; each Tall Man brought his A-game to the proceedings, fine songs and spirited singing. This is an album about enduring spirit, about friendship and faith. Long live the Tall Men.
A modern classic. Timeless songs lovingly rendered by an exceptional artist. Not only does this contain a remarkable chain of finely etched songs sung by a singer of great soul and focus, it’s one of the best sounding albums to come along in a long time. Whereas many records we hear reduce the sound of an acoustic guitar to a slim ghost of itself, this goes the other direction and gives us acoustic guitars as rich as orchestras, with all the dimensions, inflections and frequencies singing with shining clarity, warmth and depth. Guitars singing low and high, sparkling, shining. Jeff Gold’s long been beloved on the L.A. and New York folk scenes as not only a gifted singer-songwriter, but one of the best finger-style guitarists around, and this album celebrates his fluid flair for rich guitar expressions, on which each track is based.
An acolyte of the late great New York songwriter Jack Hardy, Gold walks in the footsteps of his mentor to create modern folk songs – elegant work which reflects the triumphs, failures and mysteries of modern times with the organic grace of folk songs. There are no affectations here, odd stylistic divergences or fluffy filler. This is pure.
It’s also a primer of sorts on how best to produce a singer-songwriter, as Gold the producer delicately frames each of these songs so as to bring out the story – and the tune – and not overwhelm or detract from the narrative. Most songs have two guitars, bass, a lead vocal. There’s hints of percussion here and there, and on the beautiful “Intuition,” Gold himself on “breathy alto sax.” (He’s one of the only singer-songwriters around who is also a fine horn player, both sax and clarinet.) There’s also lovely harmony singing throughout, provided by Lucy Hagan and Mark Mugrage, whose voices blend with Gold’s reedy baritone ideally.
“Three Strangers” resounds like a lost folk classic, but is in fact original: a beautiful, mysterious and driving ballad empowered by their three voices in perfect harmony. It evokes passionate folk vocals of the past, especially Peter, Paul and Mary and The Weavers. (The potent sweetness of Lucy Hagan’s voice is quite reminiscent of The Weavers’ great Ronnie Gilbert). “You’re driving home in the wind,” he sings in the opening song, “At The End,” a song about the essential journey that is life. To start an album at the end is funny, but also reflective of the circles inherent in all we experience, in life, time, distance – and of course, songs. “Streets Cracked” remains the best song ever written about surviving an earthquake, and has long been one of his most popular concert songs. It’s about hope, about going home, about triumphing over even the most adverse adversities in “this western town under a western sky.” When the whole world starts cracking up, the dreams humans dream don’t disappear. They thrive, just as human faith and love endures: “I’m still alive,” he affirms. “Turn Around” is funky rock-folk of the best kind. It’s funny and serious as the same time, delving into human mysteries. “How can you ever expect to be happy when all you do is complain?” “Intuition” is wintry and beautifully haunting.
“To England and Argentina” is the final track, a demo recorded on a boom box. It is breathtaking. Beautiful flourishes of guitar work, and a slinky and remarkable melody that traces the elusive lyric about not really understanding why we do what we do. “We just do.” It’s a contemplation on human nature, as is this entire album, and like the best songs resounds long after you stop listening. If you want pop confection, this isn’t the place to turn. But if you love deep songs that delve into places often unexplored, and with beautiful singing and poignant acoustics, this is a place you want to be. Here in these times when so much of our lives is disposable or recycled, he’s made an album for the ages. Put it on the shelf with your most beloved albums, the ones by Dylan, Seeger, Guthrie, and Lennon and Simon and the rest. That’s where it belongs. This is a keeper.
Wicked Saints * Don’t Kill The Blackbird * Haunting, brave and beautiful. A really wonderful album, beautifully crafted and inspired, soulful songs with compelling, inventive production throughout. Produced by Paul McCarty with Brad Swanson, it sounds as great as it feels, and it feels good: deep, dimensional tracks that a listener can fall into and swim for hours. Wicked Saints is a great folk rock band led by Paul McCarty, and with great musicians like the legendary Chad Watson (bass, trombone, mandolin), Robert Thomas (keys), Brent Michelle (harmony) and David Vidal on slide and cigar box guitar. This is passionate stuff. Lyrical, hopeful, mysterious. It all starts with ghostly but spirited whistling which leads to a martial beat under the remarkable song “Hello,” which is all exultant faith, the kind of song that gives you a reason to believe that humans can cross the vast emotional gulfs between us. With a lovely counterpoint of voices, robust guitars and a great groove, this is essential. The title song also boasts a driving groove – a very cool, jaunty beat, in fact – and a passionate melody built around a plea to honor the artists in us – the voice that creates the songs we sing even before we fully comprehend the meaning, the spark of creation. “River of Fire,” co-written with Raspin Stuwart, is a charged and mythic journey which soars on wings of accordion, mandolin and rich harmonies; wings that can get easily singed: none of this is without risk or danger. As the name of the group indicates, it’s about the journey of being human, which always contains contradictions. Whether holy sinners or wicked saints, all humans contain multitudes, and these songs contain that understanding. And also the wisdom to laugh at the folly of the human condition. This is a happy discovery, this album and this great band. Paul McCarty is plugged into the source, and these songs sing with great truth, joy, mystery and passion. A record for the ages.
Marc Platt * Brand New Day Fast becoming one of the most prolific songwriters on the block, Platt’s coming up with great songs and new albums at a remarkable rate. Now comes a new one, an album of much grace and hope, and as always, filled with good tunes. In a world of increasing inconsequence and inanity, he reminds us why music matters so much. Now more than ever we hunger for the kind of music he makes: songs with melodies as luminous and lingering as his lyrics are incisive and inspirational; songs of grace & outrage, turbulence & redemption. He’s a true tunesmith, a man who knows how to craft a melody with spark and flair, inventing tunes to touch the heart and lift the spirit, and matched always to words that go against the grain of these tangential times to speak with a beautiful clarity about being human in modern times. “Nick Drake” is a remarkable song, a tribute from one songwriter to another in song, reflecting the beautiful and tragic cycles in which all artists spin. It’s short and smart, like a Nick Drake song, and infectious. “Greatest Price” is a haunting elegy for all soldiers for whom the war is never over. Like the best songs, it’s simple and stark, and it echoes in the heart long after the music’s over. “Best In America” is a response to the horror of the Boston Marathon bombing, a discovery of human light in the most brutal darkness. Platt’s been great for many years, a savvy and serious songwriter, and – remarkably – is growing ever greater.
BOOK REVIEW: Guitar for Girls: A Beginner’s Guide to Playing Acoustic or Electric Guitar, by Ali Handal. * Hal Leonard Publishing. Ali Handal’s a great and beautiful electric guitarist, as well as gifted songwriter, who has released several beautiful CDs of her music. She’s also performed all around the world. Now she’s channeled much of her passion and knowledge into a remarkable book. Guitar for Girls provides a profusion of information about playing guitar, with ample technical and practical approaches to the instrument as well as inspirational affirmations. She knows that being a good musician is as much psychological as it is technical, and so she crystallizes all aspects of being a guitarist. She also goes a long way in celebrating female contributions to rock and roll by using, as teaching examples, songs written and performed by a vast range of classic female artists in every genre, including Peggy Lee, Carole King, Tina Turner, Bonnie Raitt, Joan Jett and more. It comes with a CD that contains examples of Ali playing and explaining every song and every technique in the book. Though this is called a beginner’s guide, in fact there is much here that advanced players can benefit from. Ali’s someone who has thought a lot about all the aspects of musicianship and how they connect, and she expresses it with clarity and clear love for the guitar. A wonderful book, and great gift for any budding guitarist.
Eric Schwartz * The Aristocrat * As evident by the cover photo, a portrait of the artist as a bewigged Louis XIV sorta guy, this is funny stuff. But not cheap funny. Aristocratic. Eric Schwartz is a comic songwriter – but he doesn’t write parodies, ala Weird Al, he composes original songs in every genre under the sun – much like the great Tom Lehrer used to do – using the conventions of songwriting and stylistics to frame his humor. He is very funny, and quite masterful with the comic song, not an easy thing to do. This starts with a C&W ballad that goes horribly wrong right up front. “Black Man In The White House” is a blues about our president, a great turn of lyrics set to a driving Chicago stomp, “there’s a black man in the White House with the blues.” “Telltale Kitchen” is one of the best of the bunch – a funky and remarkable deluge of culinary disasters that’s especially resonant in this age of constant cooking shows on the tube. “Senator Whatsoever” spills out a political screed of great proportions reflective of the constant outpouring of slanted politics in our media every day. These are great and inventive songs, beautifully fleshed out by Schwartz with Will Kennedy, who co-produced and mixed. The guy takes on content other people don’t consider touching in songs, and fully engages. These are funny songs but also smart ones – so that the humor doesn’t wear off like a cheap joke. And great musicians like Marty Rifkin on pedal steel and Ed Tree on guitar maintain a high level of musicianship throughout. The world needs funny songs when they’re well-written. He’s glib and poetic at the same time, and always with a fine gift for rhyme. Good work Mr. Schwartz, this is a comic treasure.
Bad Ass Boots * Gotta Give Me Something * A revelation. Passionate country soul that explodes from the first downbeat and never lets up, building a great momentum that expands over the course of these six songs, making us hunger for more. Billie Burnor has a big soulful voice: she knows how to really project a song right to the heart, as in the opening title song, which is all visceral yearning and power. It’s a remarkable melody, written by Burnor with Lisa Nemzo, who also produced, it’s unexpected and arch, yet burns with real passion. But there’s more: in addition to Billie, these Bad Ass Boots boast two other powerful vocalists and songwriters, Karen Mullally and Shazam (aka Suzanne Cimone). “Feels So Good” also burns with genuine fire; it’s funky but triumphant, a statement of power. “Thelma & Louise,” by Shazam, is a cool shuffle built on bluesy harp that unfolds the notorious narrative right off the edge, where it’s always bound, but beautifully compounded. This is visceral, powerful music.