Be-Bop Deluxe–MODERN MUSIC (1976)

71grgknawul-_sl1300_Review by Alejandro Muñoz G

Assigned by B.b. Fultz

The songs here are beautifully crafted: they’re full of little intricacies and ornaments (owing especially, though not exclusively, to the guitar) which enhance and reward a listener’s attention. Also, some of the songs have fairly interesting structures: ‘Twilight Capers’ shifts from 4/4 rock, to reggae (or is it calypso?), before ending with a 3/4 kinda space-rock coda, without any of the changes feeling forced. The album’s overall style –an amalgam of glam and prog with a step towards new wave – is successfully accomplished by the band without it ever sounding pretentious.  

Guitar work is terrific and the drumming is delightful too. The synths, however, do sometimes feel purposeless (for instance, in the last minute of ‘Twilight Capers’).  As for the vocals, I think they’re one of the album’s weaknesses. While not annoying or poor by any means, Nelson’s voice sounds rather limited and I can’t help but imagine how the songs would benefit in the voice of a more capable and dynamic singer.

The opening sequence, from ‘Orphans of Babylon’ to ‘Kiss of Light’ is possibly my favourite part of the album. ‘The Bird Charmer’s Destiny’ is a sappy below-average 70s ballad but, thankfully, is kept short to give way to the much better ‘The Gold at the End of the Rainbow’, a beautiful love song. ‘Bring Back the Spark’ may start as one of the most straightforward rocking songs in the album but its worth lies in its coda: an instrumental crescendo of piano-arpeggios and gorgeous guitar work (and somehow reminds me of the ending to Baba O’Riley).

Side-B seems to me less strong than the first one. The ‘Modern Music Suite’ flows smoothly and effectively across diverse sections but for most of it, it didn’t grabbed my attention. It’s mostly good but not really great (and certainly not epic despite its length). ‘Down on Terminal Street’, with its sing-along-type chorus provides a grand ending to the album before ‘Make The Music Magic’ briefly lightens the mood one final time.

When first listening to this album, I thought the best way to describe it was as being the work of a skillful artisan rather than that of a gifted artist. It seemed accomplished and enjoyable but not particularly enthralling; a tad too tamed and lacking memorable tunes. After a couple of additional listens I still think the work the band put onto this songs is considerably higher than the output the listener takes from them. However, the album has grown on me and now I find some of its songs to be truly gripping and effective. In any case, in spite of is limitations, the album is certainly worthy of multiple listens, even if it’s only for its craftsmanship and guitar work.

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Various Artists—SON OF ROGUES GALLERY: PIRATE BALLADS, SEA SONGS & CHANTEYS

71fspa1nril-_sl1299_Review by Adrian Evans-Burke

Assigned by Alejandro Muñoz G

Ahoy matey, there be troubled waters ahead. At least that was my first thought upon glancing upon this behemoth. An entire album of sea chanties? Nay, an entire DOUBLE album, running 26 tracks, with many stretching past the four minute mark. Even if you are somewhat partial to folksongs, let alone carry some affinity for the odd chanty (even if you deign to spell it with an ‘S’ instead like a landlubber), this is a lot to ask of your ears, for a number of reasons. First, folk-in-general, along with its many subgenres, relies upon an ample if not incredibly diverse library of time-tested, well worn tunes that invite the performer to fully inhabit them. These tales of love and lost and ghosts and greed run the gambit from funny and clever to regretful and melancholy, but unless they are performed by a particular talent, the emotions can fall flat and come off instead like folk-by-numbers or open mic night. With 26 tracks and a host of players from folk-rock veterans to odd classic rockers and a few actors for good measure, this hit-and-miss risk is on full display, though likely less so than similar blues or folk compilations I’ve heard.

Another issue is that, unless you own (or long to own) a boat yourself, or have obsessively played Assassin’s Creed Black Flag, sea chanties in particular are a tough sell. These are intentionally rhythmic, repetitive, if sometimes witty songs meant to accompany redundant, long, and thankless labor at sea over miles and miles featureless ocean. Great for bonding with your mates and passing the monotonous day (at least until the scurvy takes ye!), not so much for listening at the gym or on the commute. Thankfully, while there are plenty of chanties with pirate swagger and rum-soaked tears, there are also so straight-folk ballads, and other sea-themed ditties, as well as whatever the hell Todd Rundgren contributed.

So yes, one one hand Todd makes the track his own, with all his glittery production straight out of a robot disco tavern in Nassau, but god if ‘Rolling Down to Old Maui’ really sticks out like Lady Gaga parody track and just doesn’t fit here. Same for Frank Zappa’s ‘Wedding Dress Song/Handsome Cabin Boy’, though in Frank’s defense, this was one of the few tracks not specifically recorded for this compilation. In this context, it seems Johnny Depp and whomever else worked on this figured that Zappa was kinda pirate-ish, so they should include SOMETHING of his, even if this one also feels way out of place. There are few other true offenders, however. Most of this stuff is great! Indeed, tracks succeed or fail based upon the charisma of the performer. When we’re dealing with faceless indie darlings like Broken Social Scene, whatever is happening in the weird mambo party with Katey Red on ‘Sally Racket’, or even singers who SHOULD work in this setting but just don’t deliver (Iggy Pop), the result is pleasant, maybe even humorous (if the sodomy in Pop’s ‘Asshole Rules the Navy’ is still humorous in 2018); but ultimately forgettable.

While there are plenty of fair-to-good tracks, its the songs where the performers truly inhabit the songs, or bring something different and surprising to the table, that make this compilation worthwhile. When thinking “pirate music”, my first thoughts were the usual suspects: Shane MacGowan, Tom Waits,  Nick Cave. Unsurprisingly, the first two are on here, they’re great, with MacGowan’s swaggering ‘Leaving of Liverpool’ coming off like a Pogues classic, and Waits being his grimmy yet mournful, last-call best on ‘Shenandoah’ — a song that recalls rolling Virginia hills more than barnacles and seafoam, but still. Nick Cave makes an appearance too, but as an understated supporting role, ceeding the spotlight to Shilpa Ray on ‘Pirate Jenny’, who effortly conjures up harbor fog and whalebone corsets.

Meanwhile, my ears tricked me on my first playthrough, as I swore that Marianne Faithfull sang twice. And though she does make her stately presence (and chain smoking croon) felt on the swaying ‘Flandyke Shore’ — halfway through the somewhat weaker second disc — it is in fact the legendary Patti Smith who provides one of my favorite tracks, ‘The Mermaid,’ a chiming yet world-weary, sunbathed song that, at under 3 minutes, could have easily gone on for another 3. And though that second disc does sag a bit in the middle, the mighty Richard Thompson does arrive at just the point where my attention is drifting, kicking the bar stool out from under the scallywags and showing them how it’s done on ‘General Taylor’.

And while there are too many bloody tracks to go through, I’d like to tip my cap to another favorite — the surprising effective ‘Mr. Stormalong’ by one of the lesser (to me anyway) Neville brothers: Ivan Neville. This track is pure New Orleans sweat-stained piano and sazerac. Given New Orleans’ own history of roustabouts, rakes, and caribbean pirates, the track is a fitting inclusion on an album that spends most of its (OH GOD SO LONG) running time in rather safe, traditional (if professional and entertaining) territory. Ultimately it’s thumbs up from me, though I’d probably mix down my favorite 12-15 tracks into a single disc. That said, there’s something here for everyone, be they a cabin boys, a purser, a lady pirate, or a midshipman. And when the song is done well, it’s like unearthing a bit of treasure buried by some of your favorite artists.

RAY BARRETTO – Acid (1968)

Review by: Ali Ghoneim
Album assigned by: Alejandro Muñoz G

When a Latin jazz musician releases an album called Acid — in 1968 no less — you would be forgiven for assuming it combines latin music with psychedelic rock. You would be forgiven, but you’d still be wrong. Not a hint, lick or indeed dab of psychedelia is on the entire thing (the eight minute long improvisation of Espiritu Libre comes close, but when the improv is this dry, it’s just called jazz). The only psychedelic thing about the album isn’t even on the album, it’s on the cover. What a waste of psychedelic font.

Not that Acid is a straightforward latin jazz record. It does draw influence from 60s soul/rock and tries to give them a latin spin, but the end result doesn’t really transform these genres in any significant way. A Deeper Shade of Soul sounds like a medley of covers rather than anything truly transcending typical soul. In fact, its melodies seem to be snatched from Twist and Shout and Summer Nights. The Soul Drummers is a bit of a slog except for that section near the end when the horns kick into high gear. And while Mercy, Mercy, Baby is a pretty good song, everything cool about it has nothing to do with the fact that Ray is belting your stock 60s soul/rock lyrics over latin percussion. Finally, Teacher of Love is Ray’s unconvincing attempt at hippy rock lyrics, not that actual hippy rock lyrics are all that convincing in the first place. Here’s a sampling:

I come to my class tonight
Don’t be late or you’ll be left behind
Cause I’m the loving loving man
I’m the teacher of love
(teacher won’t you teach me tonight!)

Stupendous. (That means it’s stupid, right?)

Where the album really shines is on its more straightforward latin tracks. All of the songs were written by Ray Barretto, a percussionist, but the real stars on display here are in the horn section. Just listen to the explosive horn riff that opens the first and best track, El Nuevo Barretto. It is the definition of a pick-me-up. Once that groove kicks, it’s hard to not let yourself be transported to a more pleasant state of mind. Think this is the kind of music George Clinton meant when he coined the term “mood control”. 

MESSER CHUPS – Surf Riders From the Swamp Lagoon (2011)

Review by: Alejandro Muñoz G
Album assigned by: Alex Alex

The album’s very first note strikes me as particularly familiar. That rich defiant reverberating guitar sound… where have I heard that before? A tune plays in my head but I can’t remember the name, it’s an instrumental… Found it! It’s 1958’s Rebel-‘Rouser by Duane Eddy, the master of twang.

Just like Duane Eddy back in the 50’s, Messer Chups seem to build their career mostly upon instrumentals, though Eddy’s were essentially rockabilly while the Chups’ are fundamentally surf rock. Eddy’s recordings almost always sounded like soundtracks for some Western film, even when they weren’t. Similarly, Messer Chups sound like a soundtrack for some old B movie. There’s an obvious reason for this: most of this album’s melodies are drawn from old films, tv shows or albums (some are instantly recognizable, others are more obscure).

What’s interesting is how all these tunes are reinterpreted and fitted into the Chups’ own twisted scenery. Swamp Lagoon is definitely not the Beach Boys’ sunny California. This is a darker, weirder and more adventurous world which sounds just like if the B52s were throwing a party in Planet Claire for the creature from the Black Lagoon.

CAT STEVENS – Foreigner (1973)

Review by: Jimm Derby
Album assigned by: Alejandro Muñoz G

This album was the fourth one released after Stevens’ “comeback” that started in 1970 with the Tea For the Tillerman, an album whose hit single “Wild World” served as a template for that album and its follow-up, Teaser and the Firecat: Acoustic-driven, folksy pop songs with questing, spiritual lyrics and gruff, passionate vocals. The hooks were not obvious, but the real magic was in the interplay of acoustic guitars, string bass, and gospel piano, with touches of Eastern and Mediterranean folk elements and melodies. With his 1972 record Catch Bull at Four he moved into a more ambitious modern sound, with synthesizers, drums, and bigger themes. The hit single from that album was Sitting, and as its title suggests, was a simpler, more meditative song than before, and songs like Angelsea and Can’t Keep It In evince a more overt spirituality that was permeating the music.
 
With Foreigner, Stevens continues with the keyboard-driven, broader sound, and makes his most ambitious track ever with the 18-minute title suite. Like most extended multi-part pieces, the lyrics are all over the place, and it drags a bit in spots, but it moves fairly quickly through the sections. The themes are mostly in the pastoral, gospel pop style, although my favorite was the last “heaven must have programmed you” section, which is a nice spritely piano pop riff repeated over and over. The opening lyrics “There are no words” seems a bit ironic; there are many words over the course of the suite, but the general gist seems to be that Cat is the foreigner, not in the social sense but spiritually, which is in tune with his general progression. He bemoans the vanity of wealth and the pop star lifestyle, and genuinely wants some kind of experience that will bring him home. Overall, I am impressed he attempted to put together a “magnum opus,” but the form doesn’t suit him, like his early cover paintings, his songs are snapshots, not panoramas or landscapes.
 
As for the other four tracks, “The Hurt” was a single and actually has a cool message that “I didn’t know about love until I was hurt,” but it has less spark than the big hits. “How Many Times” wonders about hygiene and shoe maintenance in the midst of habitual behavior, a bit slow and draggy. “Later” has one of his angriest vocals and has more of the mundane musings (“Maybe I’ll fold your clothes later!”) with gospel backup singers and driving piano. And the strange “100 I Dream” has a mystical feel with some liquid guitars and obscure lyrics.
 
This record is a bit of an oddball in his catalog. The others have colorful artwork, at least one hit single, catchy, enigmatic titles and seem to have more going on. The stark, monochromatic photo and minimalistic title belie the “faux-epic” feel within, and I had actually forgotten this record existed before doing this review. As such, it doesn’t stand with his best work, but it’s not a disappointment, either; I guess I’ll stick with my Greatest Hits and Tillerman as my go-to’s for now.

EISLEY – Currents (2013)

Review by: Alejandro Muñoz G
Album assigned by: Nina A

Eisley is a Texan band formed by four siblings and their cousin. They seem to put a lot of effort upon each song’s textures, and that’s one of the strengths of the album. The overall sound strongly reminds me of Florence + The Machine, especially in songs like “Real World”.
There are some really delightful moments in the album. Take for example the superb opening track built upon different layers of acoustic and electric guitar lines; the melody of the “come lay under my wing” line in “Drink The Water”, mimicked by a piano all along the song; or the gorgeous piano arpeggios in “Shelter”.
I’m usually a big supporter of “albums” as integral works of art which should be listened from beginning to end to understand each song in its context. However, in this case the fact that most of the tracks share the same mood and tempo means that, when listened thoroughly, the album may appear quite unexciting at some point. This problem is accentuated by the limitations of the singing: while the lead singer (or are there more than one lead?) is a perfectly capable one, it’s not a particularly versatile or dynamic voice. For these reasons, I believe these songs are much better appreciated when listened apart from the album, isolated or alternated with other artists contrasting songs.
Overall, Currents is a beautifully crafted indie pop-folk-rock album; a nice listening experience, and I would surely return to some of its songs.

GÉNESIS – Génesis (1974)

Review by: Dinar Khayrutdinov
Album assigned by: Alejandro Muñoz G

Génesis, whose name should not be confused with the classic British prog-rock group’s, is a 1970s Colombian band who obviously took part of the inspiration from folksy late 60s psychedelia (something in the vein of Traffic or Spooky Tooth) and the other part from Colombian ethnic music (which itself is most probably a cross between Latin American and Native American tunes and rhythms). This 1974 self-titled offering is the band’s sophomore album and it is… an okay-to-good record. Yes, for some reason, this is pretty much the only adequate epithet I can come up with. It’s pleasant, it has nice melodies and professional musicianship, yet it is hardly anything groundbreaking or even in any way unique, apart from the fact that the album is incredibly short (only 24 minutes!) but they managed to cram 8 songs and 1 bluesy instrumental into this short running time. To be perfectly frank, after the first listen I was going to dismiss the album as generic and derivative, however these tunes grew on me on subsequent listens, and I really enjoyed the authentic American atmosphere. The album’s flow is smooth, with more folk-rock in the first half and more atmospheric “Native American” tracks (that flute-driven sound is pretty cool!) in the second half of the album. The only element that is deserving to be deemed ‘bad’ here is definitely the production – unfortunately, the album’s sound is muddy and somewhat muffled to the point that you can hardly hear some of the instruments sometimes. In some weird way this reminded me of early efforts by my favourite Russian band Aquarium who had similar production problems early on in their career, so my guess is that, like Aquarium, Génesis probably just did not have good equipment to record on. The parallels, however, do not end there – Génesis’s brand of folk-rock is at times eerily similar to what the Soviet rockers tried to do, albeit a decade later. One track that sounded especially familiar to my Russian ear was Sueñas, Quieres, Dices – listen to Aquarium’s early stuff and you’ll get what I mean.

Overall – I’m not sure I will ever return to this band, but the experience was enjoyable and rewarding.