Ah, the 1980s. New Wave, pop metal, MTV and the Top 40. Forget tracking likes and shares on social media to understand a slice of a target audience. When something was a hit, the whole country knew it — whether or not everyone liked it. Educational publisher Scholastic, for one, had mid-80s kids all figured out, and B.K. Taylor, Samuel B. Whitehead and Jovial Bob Stine (R.L. Stine of Goosebumps fame) had their fingers on our funny bone. They created huge sheets of 80 stickers lampooning video games and our favorite music, and Scholastic sold them for $1.50 through its highly anticipated monthly book orders in 1984-85. We plastered them all over our book covers, our folders, our notebooks, our sticker books, and yes, even our Trapper Keepers. 

The humor on these gems still holds up, especially for GenXers, but certainly today’s music connoisseurs can find the humor in those that poke fun at superstars Michael Jackson, Van Halen, Ozzy Osbourne, Prince, Bruce Springsteen and Def Leppard.

If kids today don’t know who the Go-Gos, Elvis Costello, Duran Duran, Billy Idol, The Police, John Cougar (Mellencamp) or the Cars are, well, here’s an opportunity for some cross-generational bonding — and much laughter, especially if, during your reminiscing, you can find old Solid Gold clips, ads for Walkmans and pictures of people fawning over Huey Lewis. Those were the days.  

Some things don’t change, though. What kid today won’t be able to identify with “If it’s too loud, you’re too old?”

Here are 75 of the 80 stickers from that “Rockstickers” poster, copyright 1984, Scholastic, ISBN 0-590-36822-2. Click on each one to see it up close and personal.

And now MTV isn't even radio.

And now MTV isn’t even radio.


In the grand scheme of things, we do live next door to Mars. Is this also the
world’s only Tito Jackson sticker?


The 30-minute “Thriller” video was less creepy than this sticker.


When’s the last time you even pondered Adam Ant?


If only the mystery sticker would have had us
Guess Who the rock star was… it would have made more sense.


Change Walkman to “earbuds” and this one translates just fine. 
I have often wondered who taught Def Leppard to spell.


Pick up some vinyl at your local record store on Record Store Day this month
(or make any day Record Store Day) and scratch that itch!


That explains those chiseled features…


Duran Duran – the jokes here are the same same.


If you close one eye, does it still sound the same?


Some questions just shouldn’t be asked.


Is this supposed to be a compliment to the band?


As opposed to a Big Mac attack, I presume. Better than having a heart attack, though it’s possible that’s going on as well, here. Maybe he just found out his
copy of Rumours isn’t collectible.


Do you suppose anyone ever followed the instructions
and slapped this sticker on Billy Idol?


Remember when Marilyn McCoo was everywhere?


Chuck Berry: “Do as I say, not…”


Wait, I thought Billy was her idol…


What do you suppose tops the charts in Egypt?

– Cathy Jones

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Yes – Yesshows

by TW on April 4, 2014


Yes – Yesshows

I’ve always been a big fan of the band Yes, and all their various incarnations and side projects.  But the band has built quite a sizable discography in their 40-some years of existence, so I’ve got a few holes in my collection.  I took a stab at filling one of those holes recently when I picked up the 2011 CD version of Yesshows on the Friday Music label.  This double-live album was originally released in time for the Christmas shopping season in 1980. The new CD version corrects a ridiculous flaw found on the vinyl version and also adds two bonus tracks to the double disc set that were not found on previous CD versions.  Yesshows is typically not as well-regarded as the band’s first live album set, Yessongs, and there are good reasons for that fact, but when I dove in to give it my first listen, I was very pleasantly surprised at the outstanding performances therein.  In the next few paragraphs, I’ll let you know what you’re in store for if you plan to buy this set, and I’ll also fill you in on the criticisms leveled against the record so you can decide for yourself if it’s one you’ll want to own.

In 1980, Yes was in the process of falling apart after a successful world tour with a new line-up.  In an odd twist of fate, the two members of the new wave group, The Buggles (of “Video Killed The Radio Star” fame), Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes found themselves “replacing” vocalist Jon Anderson and keyboardist Rick Wakeman.  The sole studio album with this line-up, including founder Chris Squire on bass, Alan White on drums, and Steve Howe on guitars, was 1980’s Drama, a very heavy and very satisfying session.  But Horn’s desire was to return to music production and his newly formed ZTT record label.  Squire and White also left, setting out on the winding path that would eventually lead to the next incarnation of Yes.  This left only Howe and Downes, who’d abandon the Yes banner, moving on to form Asia soon afterwards.  Situations such as this cause panic in the minds of the bean counters at record labels, so Atlantic cobbled together stored live recordings from an aborted attempt at another triple record set (like Yessongs) and foisted it on the unsuspecting moms and dads trying to buy Christmas presents for their kids.  First, the band had absolutely no participation in the approval of Yesshows’ content.  That may be a cause for pause amongst purists.  Second, the album includes songs recorded between 1976 and 1978, from tours for different albums and with two different keyboard players, and includes absolutely no material from the then current line-up of the band.  There’s one more criticism that has to do with one of the performers, but I’ll address that in just a bit.  Criticisms aside, Yesshows is really an excellent document and includes thrilling execution of complex material throughout.

Opening with an excerpt from Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” the band joining in to play along as they mount the circular stage, the energy shifts to the bass-heavy, Squire-written, “Parallels.” From a November 1977 show in Rotterdam, the group, especially the rhythm section, are in splendid form.  Wakeman accompanies them on keyboards at this juncture, playing a wild synthesizer solo and providing melodic support during Howe’s incendiary turn in the spotlight.  There’s nothing routine about “Parallels,” but the band is so incredibly tight that they make the song sound as if anyone could play it.  The band then scales it back for the Anderson song, “Time And A Word,” a more lightweight piece, the likes of which caused great unhappiness with band mates Squire, White, and Howe.  Knowing this, you can tell that Wakeman is doing quite a bit to buoy somewhat restrained solos from Howe and Squire’s bass line isn’t as free and easy as it may have been had he written the tune.  The difference a year makes is evident, as this performance is from London in 1978.

Without warning, mind-bending slide guitar alerts us to the start of “Going For The One,” the title track to that studio album.  Howe is again aflame, but then again this show was during the 1977 tour, when he seemed to be more comfortable with the band’s direction.  It may be that the album’s assemblers sequenced the songs to disguise the band’s growing discontent, but I’m unsure if it was intentional or haphazard.  In any case, Howe’s soloing is unbelievably fast as he demonstrates just how he became included in the pantheon of legendary rock guitarists.  You will be hard-pressed to find anyone with a similar approach to Howe’s, he’s that unique and distinctive, and his live performances can put studio recordings to shame.  The first disc concludes with the near-23 minute “Gates Of Delirium” in its entirety.  Co-written by the band’s 1976 line-up, which included Patrick Moraz on keyboards during a Wakeman hiatus, it’s as complex and engaging as any of their material from earlier years.  I’d been warned that Moraz was a poor substitution for Wakeman, but that warning was totally unnecessary.  The two men have different styles, neither qualitatively better than the other’s.  The major difference is that Moraz tends to favor synthesizers more than Wakeman, but that’s only a quibble.  Based on Moraz’s performance at Cobo Hall in Detroit back in August of ’76, I’m certain we’d have been dazzled by other contributions had he stuck around longer.  In fact, his preference for the synthesizer gave an important balance to the grumbling, churning rhythm section while adding a futuristic element to the piece.  This is one of Yes’ most amazing compositions, and I dare say this may also be the best version available.  The deliveries are chillingly perfect on the section where the band strips things back to allow Anderson some time in the spotlight.  Deftly placed bass tones, stinging and retreating guitar in the higher register, cymbal rolls for emphasis, and a ghostly set of synthesizer chords provide exactly what is necessary and nothing more, letting Anderson’s voice ring out devoid of competition.

Disc Two begins with the Anderson/Squire composition, “Don’t Kill The Whale.”  Anderson had always been accused of including hippie-dippy concerns into his lyrics, and this one seems truly borne of the “Save The Whales” campaign stemming from the ecology movement during the ‘70s.  It’s only with decades more to reflect on this topic that we understand Anderson to be right.  The destruction of peaceful cetaceans, with their alien yet detailed methods of behavior and communication, amounts to near-cannibalism.  Hippie-dippy that!  This song and the one that follows, the 28-minute “Ritual” were also recorded in London on the day after the “Time And A Word” performance.  And here’s where we can thank the folks that oversaw the latest CD version.  The original double album split “Ritual” over Sides 3 and 4 of the record.  That lack of care smacked more of this release being nothing more than product instead of an artistic statement.  By properly splitting the record’s contents over two CDs, “Ritual” is featured in its entirety, providing better context for the otherworldly percussion solo, and there’s even room at the end to include some extra material.  This provides for uninterrupted enjoyment of yet another lengthy, detailed song, which probably hastened the punk movement just a smidge more, but I digress.  If you’re reading this, you’re not put off by the “jazz odyssey” noodlings of a proper prog rock ensemble, so this is a feast for you and me, and hopefully a final call for anyone owning Yesshows on vinyl to knuckle under and upgrade.  The Anderson song, “Wondrous Stories” finishes out the original contents of the package, and is culled from the same night’s set in Rotterdam from which “Parallels” was taken.

If an unblemished “Ritual” isn’t enough to convince you to upgrade, consider the bonus cuts.  If you look at the list of songs so far, you’ll notice there are no “hits”.  This is another thing that makes record label types cringe, so our extra tracks are “I’ve Seen All Good People” and “Roundabout,” which ought to elicit a cry from the casual fan of “Oh, yeah!  Those guys!”.  “People” is pulled from the same night in London on which they performed “Ritual,” so it’s not like the label tacked on a random version from just anywhere.  “Roundabout” comes from the same tour, but was the version heard by the crowd in San Francisco, or rather the Oakland Coliseum.  You know both of these songs, so there’s really no description necessary.  I’ll just add that “People” sounds very different without the recorder and with the crowd clapping along to the beat on the “Your Move” section, but you can actually hear Chris Squire’s background vocals much better.  Also, Howe totally nails that weird solo, but I can do without the cliché band introduction where each player does a riff in response to Anderson’s calling out their names.  “Roundabout,” however, sees the band beat the living piss out of the song in a very brutal, both good and bad, reading.  Everyone’s in fine form, but they are probably becoming a bit bored with playing the song every night.  This results in a rude run-through which accents the portions that require muscle, but sounds a little sloppy when finesse is needed.

So, warts and all, that’s Yesshows.  I’m very glad that I bought it, but I’m not a rabid Yes fan.  I’m not quite so picky about the line-up or the song choices, because I know that the quality is quite good overall.  If you’re in my tree, you’ll add this one to your collection as well.  If you’re a more casual fan or a die-hard, you’ll either pass it by or pick it up in order to complain about it.  It’s your money.   

-Mark Polzin

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Roy Orbison – Mystery Girl

by TW on March 31, 2014

Roy Orbison-Mystery Girl

Roy OrbisonMystery Girl

Yes, I’ve been on a bit of a Roy Orbison kick lately.  Coincidentally, I’ve just read about the 25th anniversary re-release of his 1989 masterpiece and return to solo material in the months shortly before his untimely death, Mystery Girl.  It looks like there are some goodies involved with the new package, but I’m not sure they’re enough to make me double up on my own copy of the original (a Virgin Records cassette).  But anyone that still owns tapes like I do will hear them break down over time, so who knows?  While I debate the merits of an upgrade, let’s take a trip back in time to check out the reason for the reissue in the first place – this is an outstanding album.

Established artists were tripping over each other to line up gigs with the newly energized Orbison.  Several of them managed to hop on board the Mystery Girl sessions, which had a number of different folks sitting in the producer’s chair and Roy’s wife, Barbara serving as the Executive Producer.  No matter whose turn it was to record their contribution, everyone stepped forward with the intent of honoring their hero while crafting music that was not drastically dissimilar from the sounds that made him famous.  Case in point: the opening track and big Top 40 hit, “You Got It” was penned by Roy in collaboration with ELO leader and fellow Traveling Wilbury, Jeff Lynne and another Wilbury alumnus, Tom Petty.  So 3/5 of the Wilburys on guitars and vocals, with Lynne playing nearly every other instrument, was enough to ratchet up another win with radio listeners.  With Orbison wandering purposefully up and down his considerable register, the song fell right in line with Orbison’s catalog and included nods to some of his dramatically-charged weepers from the ‘60s.

Later into the side, the then-current guitarists from Fleetwood Mac, Billy Burnette and Rick Vito, plugged in for a run through Burnette’s “(All I Can Do Is) Dream You”, with the differently-spelled T Bone Burnett at the controls.  With another T Bone, Wolk this time, on bass and Mickey Curry on drums, Burnette and Orbison go off on a rockabilly tangent, leaving a whole lot of “sha-la-la-la”s behind them in the vocal mix.  Lynne later returns to the booth to capture the sweeping showcase for Orbison’s amazing tenor, “A Love So Beautiful.”  Anyone familiar with some of the extravagant synthesizer and string arrangements Lynne created with ELO (the album, Out Of The Blue, in particular comes to mind) won’t feel too out of place when hearing this one.  It’s pretty much devoid of anything you might call “rock and roll”, but Roy’s old pal and (yet another) Wilburys member, George Harrison strums some wonderful acoustic guitar in support to make up for it.

Two tracks on Side 2 are bound to make the biggest impression on listeners, however.  The opener, “She’s A Mystery To Me,” the title track of sorts, is also a bit of an experiment for longtime Orbison fans, Bono and The Edge from U2.  While the Irishmen co-wrote the song together, The Edge was nowhere near the studio.  Instead, it’s Bono himself at the controls, and only he and Orbison playing guitars!  With then-Heartbreakers Howie Epstein on bass and Benmont Tench on piano and string arrangement, and ably backed by session veteran and Wilburys drummer Jim Keltner at the skins, it’s a track that takes us in some unexpected directions – all of them revealing.  There’s a bit of gloom hanging in the air that might have crept in from David Lynch’s use of “In Dreams” in his film, Blue Velvet, but that darkness works a magic spell on us, drawing us in closer, and then steaming up the windshield in front of us.  My hope was that we’d hear Roy put his voice to use in situations similar to this on future recordings, freeing him up from an occasionally stifling style developed in decades past to update and modernize his music.

Next up is another stunner – Roy’s reading of Elvis Costello’s “The Comedians.”  If ever a song was written with a specific singer and delivery in mind, it’s this one.  Costello’s homage to “Running Scared” is complete with teenage drama and the mildly acidic observations of someone becoming sick of hanging with the same old crowd of idiots.  The contrast between the flashing lights of the song’s carnival setting and the heartbreak of the song’s protagonist are classic Orbison as is his powerful delivery at the song’s close.  The record would definitely not feel complete without this song’s inclusion.  T Bone Burnett whistled up the hired hands in the guise of David Rhodes, Mitchell Froom, Jerry Scheff, Keltner again, and the ubiquitous Mike Utley of Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band arranging strings.  The song was carefully crafted by disciplined session players and Burnett and Orbison could have rested on their laurels had this been the only song they’d completed together.  Phenomenal!

Those are really the highlights of Mystery Girl; more than enough to interest me into making a purchase back in the day.  So, what’s the deal with the reissue?  As I understand it, Roy’s sons have actually cobbled together a new song from their dad through the wonders of studio technology.  So, there’s that.  The package also includes demo versions of most of the record’s tracks, so this is always a lure that pulls in those that must leave no holes in their collections.  But what actually interests me more is a bonus DVD which includes a documentary on the making of Mystery Girl and a handful of promo videos for the singles released from the album.  There’s so little archival footage of Orbison available to the public that these inclusions make it feel more like Sony’s having an appropriate celebration.  Join in if you missed out on this record the first time around, or bust out your old copy like I did for some fond memories of a sadly missed legend.

-Mark Polzin

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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