Smithereens-Beauty and Sadness EP

The Smithereens – Beauty and Sadness EP

One of my guiltiest pleasures while serving as Music Director for a college radio station in the mid-‘80s was the music of an outstanding quartet from Carteret, New Jersey, The Smithereens.  In 1986, their debut album, Especially For You, was released on the then-hot indie label, Enigma Records.  Overflowing with a new blend of power pop heavily influenced by The Beatles, with a muscular guitar sound and the rich, smoky voice of lead singer, Pat DiNizio, that record led to the incredible follow-up, 1988’s Green Thoughts.  While I did everything I could to wear out the promo copies of these releases, I do still own them, in playable condition.  So, the other day, while taking a spin through the tracks, which have held up extremely well over the decades, a feat that can’t be matched by too many of The Smithereens’ contemporaries, I remembered a mystery I’d once been unable to solve:  Where the hell is Beauty and Sadness

Three years prior to releasing their debut album, the band cobbled together a four-song EP called Beauty and Sadness, which was subsequently released by Enigma.  My college radio station never received a copy, and I never saw one turn up at any of the record stores I frequented.  As my near-obsession with The Smithereens wore off, I all but forgot that I desperately wanted to hear and own that EP.  Flash forward to the Age of The Internet and my search was on once more.  The EP is readily available on CD, and in two different versions, no less.  The 1988 Enigma version preserves the EP’s original four-song running order, while a 1992 re-issue on Capitol (the label that gobbled Enigma) adds an instrumental version of the title cut.  Woohoo!  Success at last!  Let’s give a listen to the thing now that I’ve had a chance to let it sink on in.

If a band ever proudly wore their influences on their sleeves, it was The Smithereens on the cut “Beauty and Sadness.”  From the opening guitar strain which approximates “She Said, She Said” to the drum pattern that liberally borrows from “Ticket To Ride” and “Tomorrow Never Knows,” we might be fooled into thinking this four was also fab, then DiNizio’s pipes open up and we definitely know they are.  His warm baritone is infinitely appealing as he sings this tale of a forgotten love.  If there were no other songs on this EP, I’d still consider my purchase to be money well spent.  It forecasts the directions that the band would take on (at least) the majority of tracks recorded for Especially For You and Green Thoughts.  The remainder, though not as strong, are great filler pieces showing off the solid songwriting from DiNizio and the infectious background vocals courtesy of drummer Dennis Diken.

Track 2, “Some Other Guy,” is another love song, or rather a love gone wrong song, which incorporates jangly, Byrds-like guitars from the underrated Jim Babjak and effervescent bass playing from Mike Mesaros.  There’s always a film of regret and longing draped over Smithereens songs, with a hard-to-pinpoint “’60’s vibe” flowing underneath.  “Some Other Guy” thus falls right in line with so many other great tunes in The Smithereens’ catalog.  It’s followed up by “Tracey’s World,” which spreads out a bit more during its 4-minute length than the EP’s other songs are allowed.  DiNizio takes full advantage by using more time to describe the object of his obsession, blowing some tasty harmonica, and adding in a gut-wrenching, minor-key pre-chorus to keep us engaged.

The EP closes with a rather uncharacteristic track for the band in “Much Too Much.”  This song is rockabilly all the way, right down to the honky-tonk guitars and the gang-chanted background vocals.  Obviously, this was our heroes having a go at a style they didn’t intend to maintain, but the fun they had while putting the song together implies we may hear other “experiments” like this one when we least expect it.

And there you have it – the review of the EP that confounded me for over 25 years.  If you’re already a fan of The Smithereens, get this one written down on your “must have” list, if only so your collection is complete.  If you’re a passing Smithereens fan, you can let this one go as you won’t hear enough here to convert you to our cause.  And some advice to myself – get yourself some more damn Smithereens albums, man!  They’ve been relatively active all these years.  Though the highly animated Mike Mesaros is no longer with them, they’ve been releasing albums all the way up until 2011’s collection of new studio tracks, simply called 2011.  They’ve done collections of Beatles covers (two of them), their own version of Tommy, and even a Christmas album.  I’ve been missing out, but no more.

 – Mark Polzin


Dexys Midnight Runners - Searching For The Young Soul Rebels

Dexys Midnight Runners – Searching For The Young Soul Rebels

I know what you’re thinking –  ‘80s one-hit wonder.  But if that’s all you’re thinking, you’ve sold yourself short, music fan!  I welcome you to also perform a reappraisal of this band, just as I did.  What caused me to do so was hearing music from the first album released from a version of Dexys (the name they go by these days) in 27 years, 2012’s One Day I’m Going To Soar.  You’ll not find a more enjoyable adult pop record on the racks, let alone one released in the 21st century.  And as that album’s hooks wormed their way deep into my cranium, I began to wonder if my impression of this band had been horribly skewed by the five zillion times I’d heard “Come On Eileen” over the years.  Ashamedly, I admit it is so.

To properly understand what Dexys is all about, you have to learn about two essential elements of their sound – the voice of singer Kevin Rowland and the influence of Northern Soul music on young folks in the U.K.  Rowland, the only constant member in the band’s 36-year history, is also the band’s primary songwriter and a man capable of delivering the words with an unmistakable warbling croon that effortlessly dips down in smokier moments and rises to a falsetto when he’s clowning around.  This is his band, despite the contributions of guitarist Kevin Archer, who’d co-formed the outfit with Rowland.  But both men were seeking a sound that defied contemporary punk and pop standards, yet paid homage to the Northern Soul legends they’d heard play in their youth.  Northern Soul is not a term that means much to Americans, but it defined a music scene originating in 1960’s England that centered on just about any American R&B or soul acts that WERE NOT signed to the Motown label.  That influence can be heard in the music of Paul Weller, whether with The Jam, The Style Council, or his solo work, and also recordings by The Smiths, Pulp, and other similar, adventurous groups.  Though Dexys would alter their sound as time wore on, the influence of Northern Soul is felt most heavily on their debut record, 1980’s Searching For The Young Soul Rebels.  Hopefully that title makes more sense to you now that you know that Rowland and Archer were attempting to connect with an audience of like-minded young Brits.

Kevin Rowland was always sold on the idea that his band needed an image.  Aside from the strict practice and performance regimen (members were not allowed to drink or take drugs before or during performances), he also imposed his fashion sense.  Though we’re all familiar with the dungarees, unkempt hair, and bare feet from the video for “Come On Eileen,” that was actually two “looks” after the one used on the debut album, that of New York dock workers, with donkey jackets and wool hats.  I know, go figure!

But the look has never mattered squat to my appreciation of a band’s sound, so I dug in deeper and found that Soul Rebels is an album full of pop hooks and the meaty performances that present them.  Dexys’ sound was altogether different from what you think it was, too.  The violin-centered sound of “Eileen” was new for that record; Dexys used to have a kick-ass horn section in their original eight-piece line-up.  Not only that, but while we may think of them as a one-hit wonder here in The States, “Come On Eileen” was actually the band’s second number one single in the U.K.  The first, “Geno,” is on Soul Rebels, and it had served to prime England’s youth for a possible Dexys takeover.  Unfortunately, the band never managed another #1, but their albums are full of songs at least as good as the hits.

Beginning with a random scrolling through a series of sad, fuzzy radio stations, Soul Rebels soon afterwards gets down to business on “Burn It Down.”  Rowland and Archer know when to step back and let the band do some work, and that restraint works to great effect as organist Pete Saunders sets the mood while trombonist Big Jim Paterson, tenor sax player Jeff Blythe, and alto sax man Steve Spooner spray brassy honey.  Enough cannot be said about the skills of drummer Stoker, who also showed brilliant restraint with his tasteful fills and his concentration on the main responsibility of the person at the kit – keeping time.  The lineup was rounded out by longtime bassist Pete Williams, the keystone to a very sturdy foundation.  Rowland’s lyrics are excellent as he criticizes a fellow young rebel about throwing out the babies that are poets and novelists with the bathwater of today’s consumer-driven media output.  All to a danceable shuffle complete with trombone solo and breezy falsetto voice.

The sound stays consistent on “Tell Me When My Light Turns Green,” and the lyrics turn toward the unseen forces and people that are holding Rowland back from living his dream.  You know, shaking your fists towards “the man” and all that – typical angry young man fare, but sung through a soul filter.  “I’m Just Looking,” shakes things up in a different way, with softness, slowness and stabbing horns accentuating Rowland’s emotional croon.

Soul Rebels includes two hit singles: The aforementioned “Geno” and “There There My Dear” (peaking at  #7 in 1980).  Videos for both are tacked on to the EMI CD re-package from 2000, but they’re only playable through your PC.  Sorry Mac fans!  These are definitely worth watching to see how an 8-piece combo kicks it out on stage, and also to puzzle at Kevin Rowland’s bizarre, goose-stepping dance moves.

Soul Rebels also includes many a nod to the odd literary figure, beatnik, or jazz man, but Rowland’s poem, “Love Part One,” delivery spoken with spastic sax wailing away in the distance as the only accompaniment, tries to present a serious counterpoint to the serious fun had elsewhere on the record.  It baffled listeners with 1980 ears, but bare-assed as it is, it reveals the sensitivity and deep concern of a young man just finding his place in the world.  To think they’d thought about not including it in the first place!

I won’t prattle on about how you need to change your ways and get you some Dexys pronto, but I will say this:  Screaming guitars are not all there is in the world, though we love to hear them.  Hyperspeed delivery or disconnected prog noodling have their places as well.  But when you want to hear how a band crafts an original sound based on an older style without blatantly ripping it off, you can’t do better than Dexys.  And forget about Eileen.  She seems like a nice enough girl, but I’ve become a bit too familiar with her and so has the rest of the world.

- Mark Polzin


The Amps – Pacer

by TW on February 17, 2014

The Amps-Pacer

The Amps – Pacer

Fans of the Pixies are also pretty hip to longtime bassist Kim Deal’s “other band,” the Breeders.  But I’ll bet that the only release from Kim’s “other other band” slipped by under the radar for most of those fans.  In 1995, after a brutal tour schedule supporting the Last Splash album, Kim decided to give the routine a break and make a solo record.  Once her twin sister, Kelly, came on board, the project began to morph into something different.  Once Kelly had stepped back out again, Kim had been referring to the project as “Tammy and The Ampersands,” which was later shortened to “The Amps.”  Released on the impeccable 4AD label, home to both the Pixies’ and Breeders’ records, Pacer was issued to completely polarizing reviews.  Journalists either seemed to love it or hate it – nothing in-between.  So, what was Kim doing so differently that caused people to form such strong opinions?  Let’s take a closer listen.

Anyone who’s remotely familiar with the material on Pacer has likely heard the track “Tipp City,” and that song would give you a pretty good idea about what else the band had laid down in the studio.  It’s a four-chord garage ditty with sometimes severely distorted vocals.  The guitars are attacked sharply and their tones ring out into a near drone.  Kim’s sweet, girlish voice squeals on the chorus and evokes a sing-songy boredom on the verses.  The listener can’t deny that Kim was having a blast, and taking some of the pressure off from the Pixies/Breeders whirlwind.

Some of the worst criticism of the album mentions that the songs seem to be only half-crafted and unintentionally sloppy.  To me, that’s giving Kim Deal far too little credit.  In interviews, she’d explained that her main focus of the album was the vocal parts, and she’d admitted that without them the songs may seem thin.  Given then that those vocals are not always crystal clear or floating on top of the mix, the critics turned on her like rabid dogs.  Sad.

To these ears, Kim was more concerned with the immediacy of making a record than in crafting the pieces with ornate structure.  And that “basement jam” feel to Pacer only increases its appeal.  When the band stretches out on the album’s longest cut, “Bragging Party,” there’s more slightly-buried guitar wankery than elsewhere, but not much change in direction.  A steady eighth-note pattern in 4/4 from the band provides a frame for Kim’s meandering voice, but the song is rather devoid of hooks – by design.  Skittering into “Hoverin,’, with an amateurish drum pattern that proves its intent to fake us out by ending the phrase with a drum roll, the guitars get louder and the vocals more enigmatic.  Someone was having too much fun tweaking Kim’s voice to apply echo or to freeze it on a syllable.  Strange, yet intriguingly so.

“First Revival” ushers in Side 2 with much of the same – loud, uncomplicated guitars with simplistic rhythms and bright yet simmering voices.  “Full On Idle” changes it up, however, with a polka stomp backbeat, and cleaner guitars and vocals.  Kim’s vocal range is not expansive, so if you’re waiting for that big emotional swoon to kick in somewhere, you’re going to keep on waiting.  At times, she’s wielding a monotone recitation which is a signature style, even on her Pixies tunes, that endears her to her fans.

The weirdo voice award goes to “Empty Glasses.”  To open the song, Kim harmonizes with herself in a raspy “woo-hoo” that proves a bit unnerving.  Soon afterwards, the song evolves into a hollowed out pseudo-punk basher that’s over before we know it.  As it goes throughout the record, songs roll past in bewildering order with no clue as to a unifying concept and no remnants of unprecedented showmanship to carry along with us as a recurring brainworm.  This is not a pop record.  I’d file it under “experimental,” if that’s even a category.

So, Kim went back to the Pixies and ended up conquering the world before resigning once more.  Even when she was with them, her fans kept demanding to hear more and more from her, even though her contributions to Pixies albums consisted of about one song on each.  But those fans know that Kim Deal has something entrancing about her songs, and with the Pixies being Black Francis’ band, she wasn’t given much room to step to the fore.  She’s now a free agent again, and we’re likely to hear more refreshing and pleasantly challenging releases from her before too long.  But seriously, go track down Pacer, if only because you enjoy all the records from other side projects of the Pixies camp.  Your collection isn’t complete without it, and you’ll be happy to hear 12 more reasons why we appreciate Kim’s music so much.

-Mark Polzin



Mike Oldfield – Islands

by TW on February 13, 2014

Mike Oldfield-Islands

Mike Oldfield – Islands

Mike Oldfield is the composer and artist responsible for Tubular Bells, which you’ll probably remember as the creepy theme to William Friedkin’s 1973 chill fest, The Exorcist.  That recording, the first for Richard Branson’s Virgin label, was groundbreaking in several ways, from the recording methods used to the material itself – heavily influenced by progressive rock and foreshadowing the New Age music movement.  But Oldfield actually has an extensive resume, with next month seeing the release of his 25th studio album, Man On The Rocks.  While I wouldn’t mind padding my collection with what I’m missing, today I’ll make do listening to 1987’s Islands, a record that falls in with those considered by Oldfield’s legion of fans to be from his “pop period.”  While it’s not nearly as impressive as Tubular Bells, Islands does prove to be a solid listen from front to back.

Mike Oldfield’s “pop” records typically rely on a proven formula – one side for a lengthy, proggy instrumental piece, and the other side reserved for a handful of more straight-ahead pop songs with guest vocalists.  So, Side One’s workout unveils “The Wind Chimes,” a song that breaks its 21+ minutes into two movements.  Oldfield is thought of as mainly a guitarist and bassist, but his albums have given him the opportunity to stretch out and play an alarming number of instruments.  With “The Wind Chimes” being primarily a synthesizer-driven number with wonderful samples of human voices and bell tones interwoven, his choice of Björn J:Son Lindh as guest flutist (Lindh is the guy that delivered the distinctive flute solo on Murray Head’s “One Night In Bangkok”) is a genius stroke.  But “The Wind Chimes” is a stately composition, which could easily be mistaken as the theme music for some sort of historical or nature special on the Discovery Channel.  There’s nothing “rock n roll” about it.  Instead, it’s professional and calculated which may alienate fans of grittier material and even fans of Tubular Bells due to “The Wind Chimes” not being dark enough.

Flip the record to listen to some of Oldfield’s charting singles and music more closely resembling rock.  We start with “Magic Touch,”, featuring vocals by Max Bacon (of ‘80s, short-lived supergroup, GTR) and production assistance from Geoff Downes (Asia, Yes, Buggles).  Guitarists Rick Fenn and Micky Moody are present, but the liner notes don’t indicate who plays where.  Yet whether its Fenn, Moody, or Oldfield that delivers the guitar solos, they’re outstanding.  The song has a feel much like the work that Yes was doing in the ‘80s, but it’s intentions as a pop hit are not easily concealed.

The overt pop orchestrations continue on “The Time Has Come,” featuring Oldfield’s then wife at the time, Anita Hegerland.  This is a piece that just continues to build and build across its nearly four-minute length, employing lush synthesizers and spectral guitar filigree.  The superior Hegland-sung piece follows, however, with “North Point.”  Here the guitar is more prominent and Hegland’s voice becomes a choir, similar to the multi-tracking methods used by Enya, among others.

Oldfield called in help from old chum Kevin Ayers on “Flying Start.”  Ayers does seem a bit out of his element amidst the plodding drum track and the shimmering keyboard echoes, but his voice proves why Oldfield called him up.  Ayers has this ability to make you feel like you’re one of his oldest friends and he’s got a new tale to tell you after dinner.  Despite the ill-fit of the vocals and the music, Ayers delivers.  The weird close to the album comes with its title track, sung by the scratchy-throated Bonnie Tyler.  I can’t say that I’ve ever been much of a fan of her own music, but how she’s used here deflects the blow a bit.  This was released as a single by “Mike and Bonnie” in the U.K., where Tyler could rely more on her star power than the one-hit-wonderdom she enjoys in the States.  It’s not a particular favorite of mine, and it only leaves me wishing that Oldfield had used guest saxophonist Rafael Ravenscroft (the dude responsible for the devastating solos on Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street”) to better effect than that from him just wailing over the outtro.

My copy of Islands is an original vinyl version on Virgin Records from 1987.  The cover art is killer – with sea and sky images stretched neatly over cubes.  The UK and CD releases include different, inferior art work, so shop accordingly.  Another difference is that the CD reissue includes a bonus track sung by a fellow from Glasgow going by the name of Southside Jimmy (real name Jim Price) called “When The Night’s On Fire.”  As I haven’t heard the cut, I can’t say whether or not it fits in well with the material on the original version, but we’d love to hear from anyone that’s heard it and has an opinion.

Mike Oldfield has always been one of those artists on the fringe that has seen far greater success in Europe than in the U.S.  It could be that his brand of sophisticated song sculpture falls flat when heard by our ears, or it’s more likely that he just doesn’t get the right kind of exposure these days.  Nonetheless, he’s an artist whose repertoire deserves a thorough once-over from fans of all sorts of music.  I’ll be interested to hear if his new album lands closer to the somewhat interesting music released during the “pop period” or is more closely aligned to the thoroughly engaging Tubular Bells.  In either case, Oldfield knows well how to add exciting and unpredictable elements to his output, so we’re unlikely to be disappointed.

- Mark Polzin



Frankie's House OST

Jeff Beck & Jed Leiber – Frankie’s House Original Soundtrack

Jeff Beck is one of those guys that have taught us not to trust rumors of an artist’s “farewell tour”.  He’s been trying to retire for decades, but I’ve just read that he has a new album coming out this spring.  Whatever, Jeff…

Well, as much as Jeff has said that he’d rather be working on his hot rods than recording new music or touring, he’s had a fair amount of work slip by under the radar over the years.  During one lull in overt activity in 1992, Mr. Beck did work on the soundtrack for an Australian A&E Network’s television movie mini-series starring Iain Glen and Kevin Dillon, called Frankie’s House.  Teaming up with keyboardist Jed Leiber, Beck delivered brilliant interstitial pieces that ranged across moods from playful to menacing to devastating and back again.  Long out of print on CD, it saw a re-release late last year by the classy Friday Music label, which has also overseen the release of several other obscure Beck recordings as well as 180-gram vinyl reissues of classics like Blow By Blow and Wired.  I give Friday Music big props for rescuing the Frankie’s House soundtrack from the nether regions of the cut-out bins, and for recognizing that the music contained therein is actually some of the best work Beck had done across his entire career.

I’ve not seen the movie Frankie’s House, but I’ve gathered that it’s about photojournalism during the Vietnam War.  Grim and gripping stuff for sure!  But you don’t really need to know the storyline to enjoy the 15 instrumental tracks collected here.  I don’t know if the tracks correspond to a chronological use from the film, but the soundtrack does have a logical flow to it that carries us through the variety of dramatic settings used in the film.  While Back and Leiber’s styles are all over the map as the film dictates, it serves as an excellent reminder that Beck is equally at ease playing heavy rock, blues, jazz, “oldies,” and atmospheric sounds bordering on New Age music.

Opening with a few echoing lightning bursts from both musicians, “The Jungle” then descends into what’s likely the opening credit sequence.  With Leiber’s Southeast Asian textures and steady rhythm track below Beck’s alternately blistering and gently melodic solos, it’s the perfect set-up for what’s to follow.  Inexplicably, a few tracks later, Beck’s breaking into the foot-stomping classic “Hi-Heel Sneakers,” in a rather straight-forward reading backed by Lieber’s honky tonk accompaniment and barrelhouse solo.  The cut isn’t as jarring as you might think, and actually elevates the listener’s awareness that we could be in for just about anything as this record keeps spinning.

Switch gears on the CD’s briefest track, “Thailand,” which consists of roughly half Leiber’s spooky bamboo forest pipe sounds and half badass blues riffs from Beck.  After a quick fade-out, we’re treated to “Love and Death” and some of Beck’s most elegant sonic manipulation in the higher registers.  Gauzy, weepy, whammied notes drape themselves across Leiber’s synth tones.  Part way in, we realize we’ve been faked out as Beck takes a turn at backbreaking metal before easing back into the misty emotions.

The track that sticks with me most is called “White Mice,” and it begins with Beck stabbing through the darkness with nasty, roaring dinosaur noises before taking a step into a funky, up-tempo blues with Leiber’s Bernie Worrell-style organ puffing alongside.  This single three-minute song exhibits all that Beck is capable of – fancy finger-picking, battering metalisms, deftly inserted blues and jazz licks, and unnerving and other-dimensional spookfests – the ride is thrilling.

So, while we wait to see if the tour supporting Jeff’s forthcoming release proves to be his last, we can sample some of his outstanding collections from throughout his career.  And now that the Frankie’s House soundtrack is once more back in circulation, make sure to check it out to hear what else you’ve been missing from this maestro.

- Mark Polzin


Babatunde Olatunji

Babatunde Olatunji – Dance To The Beat Of My Drum

I know I’ve reviewed some things on this site that challenge your tasteful leanings towards the classic rock, but hang with me on this one.  There’s a good story here as well as appearances by well-known artists.

How does a dude from Central Wisconsin encounter the music of a legendary African percussionist?  I blame my dad.  You see, dad used to really dig old Bob Dylan music.  Dad likes stuff that tends towards the “folkie” side of the spectrum, and The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is one very cool element of his collection.  On that album, there’s a song called “I Shall Be Free,” which, in a typical rambling Dylan lyric, questions “what do we do about” various bald entertainers and personalities that won’t need the greasy kid’s stuff that some ad man is pushing on us.  At the end of that list, almost as a cast-off, Dylan wails “Olatunji.”  Now, Babatunde Olatunji was, at the time, a label mate of Dylan’s.  He’d broken ground, incredibly, with his 1959 release on Columbia, Drums Of Passion, which introduced American audiences to what would later be lumped in as “world music” with his fascinating drumming and chanting.  And, yes, my dad owns this record too.  He’s got nothing else remotely similar in his whole library, but that’s a testament to how successful Olatunji was at breaking barriers with the power of music.  Lots of people own that record, and most of them aren’t world music fans.  And, in my dad’s case, he was led to it by a folkie from Minnesota.

Flash forward to 1986, and I’m working as Music Director of the local college radio station.  Along with all the various “college rock” (the ridiculous term “alternative rock” hadn’t been forced on us yet) records coming into the mailbox each day (this is well before digital, kids) were an array of new blues, jazz, bluegrass, and reggae albums.  Showing up one day, on the tiny San Francisco label, Blue Heron, was Dance To The Beat Of My Drum, the latest from Babatunde Olatunji.  What the….?  Not only that, the album was produced by Grateful Dead percussionist, Mickey Hart, and featured the guitar talents of a Mr. Carlos Santana.  Double what the….?  The world just got smaller and my record collection just got cooler.

1986 was probably just before I started REALLY getting into The Grateful Dead, but I was fast becoming a fan.  The Dead were involved in a lot of side projects during the ‘80s, and Mickey Hart seemed to be leading a virtual percussion army!  Between work with The Rhythm Devils and his Planet Drum series, Hart just about wore his hands down to nubs.  But Hart understands that music is a language that transcends words, and he was happy to assemble an ensemble of over 20 musicians to help update Olatunji’s work for the modern audience.  Along with San Francisco fixture Bobby Vega on bass, and legendary percussionist Airto Moreira on caxixi (pronounced “ka-SHEE-shee”, an African-Brazilian gourd-basket filled with seeds) and assistance in the production booth, the gathering set out to make BIG music and shake some cobwebs off of Olatunji’s traditional Nigerian compositions.

Olatunji was educated in The States – Atlanta and New York City, to be precise.  He was well-received by hip jazz artists of the ‘50s and ‘60s and word of his prowess filtered down through the ranks of musicians in the know.  Artists that incorporated Latin and African beats into their sound knew all about Olatunji.  In fact, the aforementioned Santana covered one of Olatunji’s songs, “Jin-go-lo-ba”, renaming it “Jingo”, on his debut album.   So now you can see how all the pieces were coming together for Dance To The Beat Of My Drum.  Hart and Santana, old chums from the San Francisco psychedelic circus were very psyched for this project, as were the percussionists, who contributed Djembe, Bembe,  Junjun, Agogo, Ashiko, and log drum sounds to the recording.

There are only five songs on the album, as the pieces are lengthy and give room to the percussion workouts.  Olatunji’s lyrics, some in his native language and some in English lean towards spiritual concerns and folk tales.  The title track, clocking in at nearly 8 minutes in length, was inspired by a friend of Olatunji’s who could simply not sit still when Olatunji began to play.  While he recognized that his talents held power over acquaintances, he also knew that this story was merely one example of what he hoped his music would accomplish with listeners from around the world.

Following up is “Loyin Loyin,” which translates as “Honey Honey,” and serves as a prayer for peace for his ever-embattled homeland.  The simple lyrics call for the situation in Nigeria to be sweet as honey forever.  Nigeria is a complicated country, holding unbelievable oil revenue while rogue political and religious factions vie for power in the hinterlands.  The clash of East and West has led to a very unique country that celebrates monetary success despite their troubles.  Olatunji’s prayer seems to have gone unheard, however, as Nigeria has seen some of the worst sectarian violence in the nation’s history during the 10 years since Olatunji’s passing.

Ending side one of the album is “If? L’oju L’aiye” – a song about love.  Olatunji was a big believer in universal communication and that love and rhythm were sure means of getting any message across.  Evidence of this shows up on Side 2 as the drummer reprises one of his best-remembered songs from Drums Of Passion, “Akiwowo.”  This time, with sizzling guitar licks from Santana spicing up the mix, the song stretches over 12 minutes, first as an a capella reading, then bringing in the full band.  How is this evidence of love and rhythm being universal?  Well, the song is about a legendary train conductor in Nigeria, who was adored by all passengers enjoying the introduction of a national railway system in the 1950s.  How else do you explain that Americans are somewhat familiar with a train conductor from decades ago living half-way around the world?  The love that Nigerians had for Akiwowo pours out through the performance, with jubilant voices and thundering beats.  You’ll hear the song and just understand – like magic.

Closing out the record is “Se Eni A Fe L’Amo – Kere Kere,” which is an old adage in the Yoruba language: You are the only one who knows the one you love, you don’t always know the one who loves you.  Olatunji, in his own entries in the liner notes, explains that this adage is useful when people have disagreements.  We should learn to love one another indiscriminately and practice that love throughout our lifetimes.

If, at some point while reading this story, you went out to search for Dance To The Beat Of My Drum online, you may have come up empty handed.  That’s because the Blue Heron version of this release has long been out of print.  But in stepped Mickey Hart to the rescue, and he’s reissued the album on his own label, renaming it Drums Of Passion: The Beat.  His devotion to the project has lasted decades, beginning with writing his splendid technical notes on the original album’s sleeve and then by saving it from oblivion when issuing it himself 25 years later.

So, that’s the tale of my encounter with this spectacular album, except for one more detail showing us just how small this world actually is.  As time went by, my dad got new neighbors when a charming couple purchased the house next door to his.  She was born in the USA, but he was a native of Nigeria, who’d come to The States for an education, but then stayed for love.  Dad and Fidel aren’t bonding over drum circles or anything like that, but I doubt dad ever thought, when he went out on a limb to purchase Drums Of Passion, that one day he’d be living next door to a fella from Nigeria who was also carrying a message of love.  Who could have guessed?

 – Mark Polzin





Okkervil River – The Stand Ins

by TW on January 31, 2014

Okkervil River-The Stand Ins

Okkervil River – The Stand Ins

Fans of classic psychedelic rock may have recently encountered an outstanding indie rock band based in Austin, Texas through their association with legendary singer Roky Erickson.  His 2010 “comeback” album, True Love Cast Out All Evil, was produced by Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff, and featured the balance of the band as musical support.  That release should have been a clue to the old school rockers amongst you that Okkervil River has something very unique and incredible going on in their own recording career.  With seven full length releases and a smattering of EPs behind them, Okkervil River transcends the typical trappings of so-called “indie bands” with stellar lyrics and cleverly constructed arrangements.  Let’s step back to take a listen to their fifth album, 2008’s The Stand Ins.

Released on the ever-interesting Jagjaguwar label, The Stand Ins had originally been conceived as the second half of a double album which saw the first half appear on the previous year’s The Stage Names.  For whatever reason, the double album idea was scrapped, but not at the expense of the material or the thematic concept found on both albums.  The rough storyline follows a variety of characters as they encounter the highs and lows of fame.  Most of the touch points come from experiences in the music business, but film stars are also discussed (Sheff’s time as a film student surely coming into play here).  While The Stand Ins serves as an enjoyable sequel to The Stage Names, the enjoyment of either is not dependent on ownership of both.

“The Stand Ins” is also the name of three musical interludes scattered across the album, each coming in at less than a minute long.  These pieces are instrumental and consist of mainly strings and synthesizers.  They serve as a sort of “palate cleanser” before dipping into tasty, toe-tapping dramas.  This is exactly what happens at the album’s beginning as “The Stand Ins, One” glides smoothly into the upbeat “Lost Coastlines.”  Sheff duets with soon-to-be-former bandmate Jonathan Meiburg in an allegorical tale seemingly about an army setting sail to conquer a foreign land, but actually (without aid of a crystal ball) about how touring can tear a group apart.  Their honeyed croon serves as a conversation between two men on board the departing vessel.  It’s this sort of multi-dimensional songcraft that characterizes Sheff’s work and really commands our attention on The Stand Ins. 

The shuffle-step analysis continues on “Singer Songwriter,” where Sheff matter-of-factly dismisses the work of an artist who was born to privilege and subsequently reserved his good taste for all but the music he’s made.  There are enough details included in the lyrics (“Your great grandfather was a great lawyer, and his kid made a fortune off the war.  Your father shot stills, and then directed films that your mom did publicity for.”) that we could probably research the identity of the song’s subject, if we thought it important.  Or if he actually exists.  But it’s details like these that make Sheff’s music feel more like short stories than songs, and they’re also what compel us to push on through the rest of the record. 

“On Tour With Zykos” presents several more stand-out moments of whip-smart lyrics and gorgeous accompaniment.  The story here is told from the point of view of a woman whose devotion to a famous rocker has left her frustrated and lonely.  Amidst beautiful piano lines and Sheff’s reaching to the higher end of his vocal range, the world of the woman whose man places his craft above all else is vividly displayed.  Her boredom and unease are tied tightly to the love of a man who’s placed her on a back burner.

The term,”indie rock” really means nothing beyond the fact that a band has not recorded for a “major” label.  Lazy journalists and folks who can’t help but categorize artists despite their vast differences are the ones responsible for imparting the idea that only the younger music fan would appreciate an “indie rock” band’s work.  Okkervil River busts that notion wide open with one of the more adult and thought-provoking releases ever issued by a band that hadn’t yet been snatched up by a lumbering, corporate behemoth.  I can’t recommend The Stand Ins and The Stage Hands enough for those of you that are tired of gimmicks and juvenilia.  Without a shred of punk or heaviness to be found in their music, Okkervil River’s albums will fit nicely alongside the albums by The Byrds, Scott Walker, and Wilco that you already have in your collection.

- Mark Polzin



ZZ Top – Degüello

by TW on January 27, 2014

ZZ Top-Deguello

ZZ Top – Degüello

Happy New Year, music fans!  I’m not sure what’s finding its way on to your playback devices in early 2014, but I’ve been continuing to fill obvious holes in my collection by acquiring some classics that, for some reason, I hadn’t picked up previously.  Today’s column visits a band that’s had a rather messed up handling of their back catalog in the CD format, ZZ Top.  I, like many others, was happy to purchase the band’s Six Pack collection when it was released many years ago, thinking it was a great way to quickly catch up on the band’s output, but not realizing that so much of the music had been remixed for a more modern drum sound and essentially ruined in the process.  Inexplicably, but thankfully, the Six Pack did not include an album that was originally released during the same period as the rest of these early recordings, 1979’s Degüello.  That album did see a release separate from the Six Pack and included a mix that remained largely unscathed.  I’d recently picked up Degüello on CD and had a flashback to times spent decades earlier in the “booth” of a high school “radio station” with a good friend, Tim O’D, who knew this album back and forth and was happy to play it for the lingerers in our South Commons after school.  Degüello remains a magical stew of thick blues, extra-planar comedy, filthy innuendo, and grooves as irresistible as Texas barbecue.  Just what the hell did this trio include in the recipe to make it that damn good?

For starters, Degüello comes loaded with a total of three classic rock radio hits: their cover of the Sam and Dave oldie, “I Thank You,” the celebration of bluesman culture, “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide,” and the paranoid boogie of “Cheap Sunglasses.”  Readers of this column should well be familiar with these gems, but the record on which they’re included may not have stood the test if time of the rest of the material didn’t hold up in comparison.  While “I Thank You,” with Dusty Hill’s new wave-friendly, slowly bobbing bass line, glossy overlay of guitar chords, and spiky, electric fills from front man, Billy Gibbons, proves to be a successful reinvention of the band’s sound while staying true to their roots, the moments where the band dips back to those roots while displaying their accomplished expertise are frequent across the album’s ten tracks.

A track that might go unnoticed if not for its tantalizing title, “A Fool For Your Stockings,” is another in a long list of ZZ Top’s hazy, sunset-beyond-the-mesa blues numbers paying homage to Buddy Guy (to these ears, anyway) with effortless, loving devotion.  Women tend to beguile Billy Gibbons, it seems, and the object of this song’s lyrics has him hopelessly in love, or what passes for it on the seedy side of Houston.  Shift gears to the weirdest song in the entire ZZ Top repertoire, “Manic Mechanic,” which sounds more like something coming out a studio gestation while hanging out with DevoFrank Beard drums his way out of a cage made from cowbells and wood blocks while the voice of a drag race competitor (presumably Gibbons aping a tire-iron-swinging gorilla) talks smack to his challengers.  No singing here, kids, but “Mechanic” will leave you both bewildered and smiling.  This was a favorite of the aforementioned Tim O’D, and his mouthing of Gibbons’ daffy bravado (lips puffed out, voice down low – “You want to race?”) is an unforgettable moment of hilarity from my teen years.

It doesn’t get more traditional than the Robert Johnson-penned, Elmore James-popularized, “Dust My Broom,” and our tres hombres are ever-eager to nod to their influences.  Gibbons sounds as if he was born singing and strumming the song, but age has added extra gravel to his pipes and taught him the value of a deftly-wielded slide bar.  And the tones, the tones…  The true magic of the band is found right here on this cut, with guitar effects that have been carefully chosen over time to provide that perfect blend of grit, sting, and warmth.  Following suit, “Lowdown In The Street” could have easily found its way on to one of the band’s earlier records, as it relies on a familiar, funky-bluesy shuffle that so many have now identified as a signature sound.

CDs will never match the clarity and warmth present on high-quality vinyl versions of classic recordings.  But, for many of us, CDs are the devil we must deal with when faced with budget and space limitations.  Buyer beware when snatching up ZZ Top’s tunes in hard copy digital, as the band and its fans have been dealt a great injustice by ignorant record label executives.  While you’re waiting for past mistakes to be corrected, you can trust that Degüello remains relatively similar to the vinyl version – enough that you can still appreciate all the little nuances that made it nearly perfect in the first place.

- Mark Polzin




Rush – Rush

by TW on January 20, 2014

Rush 1st album

Rush – Rush

As mentioned in a previous column, I’ve planned to fill some glaring holes in my collection in 2014, focusing on some undoubted classics.  One such album is the debut from Canadian legends Rush.  I’d somehow navigated through my high school, college and early adult life without owning this prize, largely because I’ve had several friends who’ve owned the album, and it was never absent from someone’s turntable for too very long.  The record’s rock radio staples, “What You’re Doing,” “In The Mood” and the permanent fixture to every major market’s Friday afternoon “quitting time classics,” “Working Man” are more evident now than when I’d first discovered the band 30 years ago.

Rush’s debut record is sometimes looked upon with disfavor by Rush purists, as it marks the only time that longtime drummer and lyricist, Neil Peart, did not hold down the percussionist slot.  Original drummer John Rutsey lasted with the band through the release of the debut and up until about two weeks before setting out on tour to support Uriah Heep and Manfred Mann.  So for many, the very early stages of the band’s development include elements that would not be counted amongst those contributing to the band’s forthcoming fame.

With that being said, Rutsey was, by all accounts, an excellent drummer, though not possessed of the polyrhythmic prowess of his replacement.  And through mid-1974, his contributions to the group’s formative sound were considerable.  The lockstep grooves of bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson would remain regardless of the person sitting behind them on the riser, however.  Their friendship, more a brotherhood, is the backbone supporting Rush’s signature sound.  That element is prominently on display, as are Lifeson’s stinging, layered guitar tracks and Lee’s throat-shredding vocals, long a problem for many fair-weather Rush fans.

At 21 years old, few musicians are possessed of the confidence with which Rush tears through their debut’s set.  But Lee and Lifeson (both just turning 60 last year) command a swagger that saw them likened to Led Zeppelin’s Plant and Page by a press unsure what to make of the Canadians.  But hearing the opening fade-in of “Finding My Way,” burst wide open by Lifeson’s power chords and Lee’s shriek, it’s evident that Rush was never really the Zep-clones they were made out to be.  To me, the influence comes more from Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience.  Adopting the “power trio” configuration, and regularly using the blues as a touchstone, Rush did not employ the wider dynamics, nor folky experimentation of Led Zeppelin.  They were more a mixture of their British blues revival heroes and a blue collar neighborhood bar band…but a really mind-blowing bar band.

Listening closely to “Finding My Way,” you can pick out some of the guitar ideas Lifeson would use on the band’s breakthrough, 2112.  The ideas were gestating, but not yet fully formed.  And without Peart involved to add his high-concept lyrics, the band muddled through ruminations on girls and relationships.  Aiming for that elusive radio hit, they also took stabs at pop-friendly lyrical concerns like friendship on “Take A Friend.”  Not much more than a choogling blues number, it’s elevated by some killer Lee harmony vocals and vocal effects (the echo on “so good!”).  But the trio bash it out as if it were a well-known standard.

But for me, like most fans of this album, the sparks fly on Side 2.  The brilliant riff behind “What You’re Doing” should be enough to have Rush inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on its own.  God knows how many times Lee and Lifeson practiced their lines until perfection was achieved, but I reckon they could play the song in sync in their sleep nowadays.  And it was this over-the-top arena rock that would give them a connection to their first American fans.  The sassy “In The Mood,” with its guy-on-the-prowl lyrics and another unbelievable riff fits perfectly alongside “What You’re Doing.”  Memorable for Rutsey’s cowbell as much as for Lee’s cliché “hey now, baby”, it’s unlike anything else in the Rush catalog, and it’s celebrated for its silliness by both the band and its fans.

The band’s most Zep-like moment can also be found on side 2 in “Before And After.”  It’s there that we see an uncharacteristic dip in the volume levels on the song’s beginning, much as we might see on a quieter moment from Houses Of The Holy or Led Zeppelin III.  But this a song of contrasts, and it’s not long before the sturdy, rather funky, riffing gets cranking.  It’s not a tune that fans mention very often, but it’s definitely stood the test of time no worse than any of the album’s “hits.”

Closing the album is the song that made Cleveland take notice, “Working Man.”  It was probably a given that any tune playing to a market of factory workers which mentioned both a grueling work schedule and the reward of an ice cold beer at 5 o’clock would have no trouble connecting with fans across the border in the rust belt.  And so history was written and Rush began their ascent to an unusual arm’s length fame that they enjoy to this day, by first wooing radio listeners, then embarking on punishing tour schedules.  What I find odd, though, is that the underlying message of “Working Man” seems to be ignored by most listeners.  It’s not a celebration of the nine to five, but a condemnation.  The audience is challenged to check if they might be living their lives a lot differently, framing their lifestyle as empty and repetitive.  Ah, but we’re easily distracted by frothy malt beverage and guitar solos that make our ears bleed!

Rush is not an album that adds much to the group’s mythology.  The symbolism, in-jokes, and recurring concepts surrounding their work hadn’t yet been formed.  There’s no mention of a “Xanadu,” “Fear Trilogy” or “Solar Federation” to be found.  It really fits in much better with the party rock records and early ‘70s hard rock by Aerosmith and KISS in your collection than it does with sweeping prog masterpieces like Genesis‘ Foxtrot or King Crimson‘s Lark’s Tongue In Aspic.  And while it’s not usually remembered as one of the best Rush albums, it’s still a rock classic, not meant to be absent from a serious collector’s stack for decades, as in my case.  So, I’ve repented and bought the Mercury remastered CD version.  What’s your excuse?

-Mark Polzin

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Deep Purple-Audio Fidelity Collection

Deep Purple – The Audio Fidelity Collection 

From 1970-73, the Deep Purple “Mark II” lineup of Ian Gillan, Ritchie Blackmore, Roger Glover, Jon Lord and Ian Paice released four albums that set a new standard for heavy rock/metal: In Rock, Fireball, Machine Head and Who Do We Think We Are. And it was from these releases that the band garnered the most popular acclaim and success. Several radio hits emerged including “Highway Star,” “Woman From Tokyo” and the riff-driven anthem “Smoke On The Water.”  But dig a little deeper (pun intended) into these recordings beyond the FM standards and you’ll find nuggets galore. In this case, the nuggets are 24K Gold.

That’s because Audio Fidelity has re-reissued the quartet of classics in a limited edition, numbered, 4-CD box set of 24K Gold discs titled Deep Purple – The Audio Fidelity Collection 1970-1973. I say “re-reissued” because Audio Fidelity first released these discs individually in limited editions several years ago. They quickly sold out, and those who didn’t strike early were forced to pay big money in the secondary market for what became very collectible releases. With remastering courtesy of Steve Hoffman, the sound is digital done right – the discs are sourced from the master tapes and restored as faithfully as possible to retain an analog quality in a digital medium. The sound across all four recordings is full, open and consistently excellent. The discs are also HDCD-encoded, so you can take advantage of that Microsoft technology should you have a HDCD-capable player. Otherwise, they are compatible with any CD/DVD player.

In Rock blew the doors open for the band, unleashing a torrent of blistering sound with the lead-off track “Speed King.” It opens with a burst of band noise and feedback and then glides into a gentle, hymn-like organ bit from Lord that tails off into silence before the hammer drops. Guitar, bass, drums and organ pound out power chords, as Gillan belts out a ferocious update on Little Richard and hits from the past. The seat belts stay locked tight with “Bludsucker,” a chugging full-speed rocker that just kicks ass. The hypnotic “Child In Time” became a concert favorite, and it’s easy to see why as even the studio recording has a burning intensity, thanks to a remarkable performance by Gillan. His voice had awesome, often frightening power in the early 70s and you can be serenaded all over again.

Of these four albums, Machine Head has received the lion’s share of fame, but the follow-up to In Rock, 1971’s Fireball, is the superior record. Every facet of the band is on display here: heavy rock, country-rock (!), blues, psychedelic and humor. Listen to “No One Came” for a hilarious look at life through the eyes of a wannabe rock star. As I listened to this collection, it struck me how “bluesy” and “drumsy” these tunes are. The Purple sound may be heavy on guitar and organ, but the glue that holds it together is Paice’s incredible drumming. And his drums sound great here. Listen to the explosive opening of “Fireball,” as Paice flies across his kit in a Buddy Rich-like flurry. In fact, Purple classics including “Fireball,” “Smoke On The Water,” “Woman From Tokyo” all begin not with a guitar riff or blasts from Lord’s organ, but drums alone.

Fireball’s “Strange Kind Of Woman” and Machine Head’s “Lazy” show how the Blues can be supercharged into something completely fresh, riding high on some killer Blackmore riffs.  “The Mule” is another personal Fireball favorite, awash with psychedelic chording and Paice’s hypnotic drum pattern.

Not much has to be said about Machine Head, as several of these tracks have become permanently burned into the ears and minds of generations of rock fans. But I will mention that Blackmore’s guitar solo on “Highway Star” was hugely influential to an upcoming generation of guitar shredders such as Yngwie Malmsteen, who locked into Blackmore’s Fender Stratocaster sound and approach. It’s one of the greatest solos of all time. And I’ve always thought “Never Before” was a sleeper track.

Likewise, Who Do We Think We Are is a much underappreciated effort. If you haven’t listened to the entire recording, or just shut things down after the lead-off track, “My Woman From Tokyo,” it’s been your loss. The album is brimming with grooves and attitude. The roundhouse riffs that power “Super Trouper” and “Rat Rat Blue” are something at which the Mark II lineup excelled. And the deft interplay between Blackmore and Lord is truly special.

A side note: Where I live in northern Wisconsin, we’ve seen a lot of snow already this winter and the local roads I travel are very rough. During a recent daytrip, I took a handful of Redbook CDs with me and listened to them throughout my travels. One of the discs I tried to play in my vehicle kept skipping and hanging up every time I hit a bump in the road. I became frustrated and reloaded the disc player with the Audio Fidelity In Rock CD. To my surprise, the disc played with no hiccups or hang-ups even when I traveled over bumpy patches. The same was true of the other three Purple 24K CDs.

Conclusion? This is not only a set of great-sounding discs, but also very stable and highly readable under trying conditions. These are landmark recordings that Deep Purple fans will enjoy for years to come. If you missed them the first time around, here’s your chance.