Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Book Review: John Bonham: A Thunder of Drums by Chris Welch and Geoff Nichols (Led Zeppelin drummer biography and analysis)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2004. Reprinted with permission.

Ask any aspiring drummer for his influences, and odds are the name John Bonham will appear on his/her top five list. Voted the second most influential drummer ever by Rhythm readers (only Buddy Rich was higher), John "Bonzo" Bonham's effect on modern drumming (especially hard rock and heavy metal) cannot be overestimated. Not bad for a working class bloke from Redditch in a band that was only recording for a decade.

Unfortunately, John Bonham: A Thunder of Drums is only partially successful in capturing that in print. The book is divided into two portions: rock journalist Chris Welch covers the biographical portion while drummer/writer Geoff Nichols analyzes Bonham's style.

Welch is thorough, I'll give him that. He combines research with personal experience to give a full readout of the important events (musically speaking, primarily) in Bonham's life. However, he utilizes such pedestrian prose that his portion is only interesting from an informational standpoint. I can't see myself reading his chapters over again.

Nichols, on the other hand, writes with such passion for the instruments and with such a true appreciation for Bonham's oeuvre that his two chapters of analysis are a joy to read. John Bonham: A Thunder of Drums will be going on my music reference shelf on the basis of his input alone; specifically his coverage of each album individually and his picking out of representative songs on which to focus.

As a fan of Led Zeppelin, I appreciate Welch's depth of research and I feel I learned a lot about Bonham's place in the band's legacy. However, Geoff Nichols' analysis taught me more in the way of Bonham's place in the creation of the band's sound. As a drummer, I find that infinitely more valuable.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Black Ice by AC/DC

There are few things in this crazy world that you can really depend on, but the sound of an AC/DC song is one of them. Since their beginnings in the early 1970s, their sound has changed very little — even through a change of frontmen that, in retrospect, was more drastic than it seemed at the time — except that more modern producers have removed the tinny sound of their early records and replaced it with a deeper one that truly does their music justice.

Now, I'm not saying that AC/DC are the best band ever, but they're certainly one of the most consistent, and Black Ice is just one more example of this. Of the fifteen songs on this, their first studio album since 2000's Stiff Upper Lip (and the first to feature lyrics by vocalist Brian Johnson since 1988's Blow Up Your Video), only a couple are not up to the level of their brethren. The rest of the album is a solid lineup of concert anthems, the kind of rock n roll at which the boys from Australia have always excelled.

Johnson's comment that "we found out what we were good at, and that was rock n roll" may have been what inspired the group this time around, given that there are three songs on Black Ice with "Rock n Roll" in the title (and one called "Rocking All the Way"), including the first single, "Rock n Roll Train," whose chorus actually says "Runaway Train." (But God forbid someone confuse them with Soul Asylum!)

The lyrics have never been the high point on any AC/DC album (except, as stated above, when it comes to their consistency). This time, if anything, they are a bit tamer than usual, with what seems to be much less innuendo (possibly something to do with the album being primarily available through Wal-Mart in the U.S.). But arena-rock songs aren't about intelligent words, anyway, to wit this verse from "Rock n Roll Train":

One hot Southern belle
Son of a devil
A schoolboy spelling bee
A schoolgirl with a fantasy

Those words don't mean anything, but when Johnson wails them, well, you just want to wail right along with him. Luckily, the musicianship on Black Ice is strong enough to carry the album. Though it's the heavy-metal/hard-rock listenership that most fully embraces them, AC/DC has always been, at its heart, a blues-rock band, and several songs bring this right to the front. Witness the riff on "Decibel" that sounds lifted right from Beale Street, with Johnson surprisingly deft at using his lower register vocals in accompaniment.

In fact, most of the second half of Black Ice is saturated in blues rock, and it's so far my favorite portion. Don't get me wrong: I love a good fist-pumping riot as much as the next guy, but there's just something about that white-boy blues that brings it on home for me. There's not enough "Stormy May Day" to go around in my opinion — Angus uses a slide(!) and reminds me of Led Zeppelin's "In My Time of Dying." (Incidentally, "Skies on Fire" reminds me of another Jimmy Page track from his best solo album, Outrider.)

But whatever you think of the band's style, if you're a fan, you'll be enthralled by Black Ice. Even my three-year-old son is already a fan of "the train song" and "Big Jack" (which he thinks is actually about Big Jet from Little Einsteins, and I don't correct him because I think it's cute), so there's another potential fan on the way up. Luckily, the odds are that, by the time he's old enough to pay money for his own albums (in whatever form they're available by then), AC/DC will still be playing the same kind of hard rock grounded by Phil Rudd's journeyman 4/4 beat, Chris Williams's unwavering bass, and Malcolm Young's invisible rhythm — and I'm really glad they are.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Schoenberg and Sibelius: Violin Concertos performed by Hilary Hahn, violin, with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra

The sole violin concerto written by composer Jean Sibelius is my single favorite piece of music. I've heard several recordings of it, from Jascha Heifetz (stunning) to Maxim Vengerov (disappointing save for a rousing finale), and any new recording excites me with the possibilities.

Hilary Hahn's recent recording of the Sibelius violin concerto, under the baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, is nothing less than gorgeous. Her tones are pure, and she extends the slow parts, squeezing every last bit of emotion out of them. Salonen and the orchestra offer commendable support. In contrast, the violinists I've heard before this (all men, if that matters) seemed to be interested more in just hitting all the notes perfectly. Hahn opened a new door for me.

The Schoenberg violin concerto paired on the disc was written using the composer's pioneering dodecaphonic (or 12-tone) technique. Schoenberg himself pronounced it "unplayable" (with pride!), but Hahn gives it the old college try and manages to draw a discernible melody out of the dissonance. This is definitely the more challenging listen of the two pieces, but repeated tries are most definitely rewarded, especially for those interested in the history of modern classical music (Schoenberg is the undisputed progenitor of such phase, so I'm reserving judgment until I can get my head around it properly with a few listens. Also, I have no frame of reference, never having heard it before.

Twenty years ago, Salonen led violinist Cho-Liang Lin in a recording of the Sibelius violin concerto (paired with the violin concerto of Sibelius's fellow countryman Carl Nielsen) that has since become a classic. I have no doubt that this Hahn performance will achieve an equal level of respect over time.

Monday, May 5, 2008

There Will Be Blood by Jonny Greenwood (film score)

In addition to the terrific acting from star Daniel Day Lewis (and to a lesser extent, Paul Dano in a dual role), there were two major plusses about Paul Thomas Anderson's film There Will Be Blood. The first is, I had no idea where the story was going. In an age where it seems that one movie is pretty much like another, this is a welcome surprise.

The second additional plus was the terrific modern-classical score from Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood (including portions of his Popcorn Superhet Receiver). It is the first in recent memory that both calls unnecessary attention to itself (mostly due to its use of dissonance during particularly dramatic scenes) and remains true to the film.

Most of the time, when I notice that I'm hearing a score, it's because it's particularly bad. A good score, most of the time, should be like a good editor: if they're doing their job, you won't notice them. But Greenwood's music outdoes itself on both fronts, making the music from There Will Be Blood also the first score since Danny Elfman's peak in the early 1990s that I am actually considering purchasing on CD.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Hopeful and the Unafraid by Jason Anderson

Jason Anderson is one of the most interesting singer-songwriters working today. He is both prolific (see his song-a-day project) and endlessly creative. His forte is arena rock straight from the E Street school, but he's not afraid to delve into other genres as it suits his muse.

The driving goal of The Hopeful and the Unafraid was to recapture the live sound of the concerts Jason Anderson has been performing practically nonstop over the last few years. It was recorded in Chicago at Soma Studio over a day and a half in January 2006 (except for "Wanting and Regret," a 2004 recording from the Massachusetts sessions that eventually produced On the Street) — and it does have a rawer sound than his previous two albums from K Records.

Anderson is a master of the slow build leading up to an emotional blowout, and this is shown to great effect on "El Paso" (which, at nearly eight minutes, sounds like the live version of a studio track — quite an accomplishment since it is the studio version) and the next track, "July 4, 2004" (which musically channels Paul Westerberg).

When Anderson sings "I love this part," it reminds me that I love that part, too: when he repeats a refrain and gets so caught up in his own effort (as he also does in "Hold On" from New England) you would think he was listening to a favorite tune by someone else. It's a snapshot of a moment and adds to the immediacy Anderson is trying to achieve.

The Hopeful and the Unafraid also contains two definite power-pop masterpieces that get the blood pumping. "This Will Never Be Our Town" has an infectious hook and effectively carries over the pedal steel from "Wanting and Regret." And "The Hopeful and the Unafraid" has lyrics that could be self-reflective: "We couldn't get it out of our heads till the morning / That song that we just kept on singing." I was singing right along with him by the end — and it wouldn't leave my head the next day, either.

By the time the banjo came out on "Ohio" — with an opening that begs to be sung along with — I was ready to follow Anderson in whatever musical direction he wanted to go. "Watch Your Step" merely cements that. Anderson has a fascinating ability to write songs that remind me of other songs I like, instantly making a song I've never heard before sound like a familiar old favorite that I can't wait to hear again. And he has certainly found his perfect vocal counterpart in backup singer Juliet. She enhances the lyrical melody without ever taking away from his lead.

Though The Hopeful and the Unafraid is only available as an LP, a free CD of the album comes with every purchase (along with information about a different free mp3 album), so you really get three albums for the price of one. While this may not musically be Anderson's best album, it is probably his most instantly accessible, and should definitely be a first purchase for anyone who has seen him live.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Glow Pt. 2 by the Microphones (2008 deluxe remastered reissue)

I can't believe it has been seven years since The Glow Pt. 2 was first released (and six years since I first heard it). Now, listening to the 2008 reissue with 20 additional tracks (subtitled "Other Songs and Destroyed Versions") — available on 2 CDs or 3 LPs — the most amazing thing about revisiting it is not that it still stands up, but that it still seems very ahead of its time, even today. (The extra tunes are interesting in context — especially the "destroyed" versions that comprise 14 of the 20 additional tracks — but are not vital to the casual listener.)

The Glow Pt. 2 has long been described as Phil Elverum's masterpiece, and I have to still agree. Its songs flow together wonderfully whether you listen to them individually or in mind of the improvised concept (tied together sonically by the tugboat sounds played underneath throughout — they're very clear during the quiet spots).

And listening with headphones enhances the experience. In fact, I would have to say that the sonic depth is so amazing that headphones are vital to experiencing the full majesty of The Glow Pt. 2. And Elvrum's sweet, high voice adds to the effect. On no other album have I felt as if the music entered through my ears and swam around for a while, not quite able to escape.

This is all because Elvrum (later Elverum) was not afraid of experimentation. Each song has its own distinctive sound. The dual acoustic-guitar sound at the front of "The Moon" has to be heard to be believed. (For the origin of that sound, listen to "The Pull" from It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water.) And his creativity is always surprising. What seems at first like noise, after a few listens unfolds itself like a blooming bud to reveal all its layers. Only after repeated listens do you come to appreciate the imagination — one would almost say "genius" — involved in the making of The Glow Pt. 2.

But even such a personal record cannot be done alone — not and remain faithful to its analog roots. Several of Elvrum's friends helped out. Most noticeable are the angelic voices of Khaela Maricich (of The Blow) and Mirah on a few tracks. I became a Mirah-phile through my research on this album. In fact, over the past six years, I have become rather well versed in the K catalog — from Little Wings to Tender Forever, from Beat Happening to Old Time Relijun — and it all started with this album.

For a while, Elvrum seemed to embrace his soundscaping abilities, agreeing to produce albums for his friends (Mirah's C'mon Miracle and Jason Anderson's New England come first to mind), but after the release of the more ambitious (but less accessible) Mount Eerie, things took a different turn. He changed the name of his band to the name of that album, and the music became more stripped down and even indie-er than ever before once he opened his own label, P.W. Elverum and Sun. (For example, one of the first Mount Eerie releases, Eleven Old Songs from Mount Eerie, merely contained Elverum's vocals accompanied by an old Casio keyboard.) The last we heard from "the Microphones" was a live album that managed to consist of all new material (Live in Japan February 19th, 21st, and 22nd, 2003) and a 7" single containing a couple of daily-life-oriented protest songs ("Don't Smoke" and "Get Off the Internet").

But, though Elverum is currently serving a different muse than the one who led him to create The Glow Pt. 2 (and I don't fault him for that — you've got to follow your bliss, and he does it to the hilt), it's nevertheless great to be able to go back in time, so to speak, and recapture the days when a guy with a vision, immense creativity, and some friends combined to make the first great album of the 21st century.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Tout Seul dans la Forêt en Plein Jour, Avez-Vous Peur? by Woelv

Woelv is multi-instrumentalist Geneviève Castrée. Québécoise by birth, she now lives in the Northwestern United States. Tout Seul dans la Forêt en Plein Jour, Avez-Vous Peur? [All Alone in the Forest in Broad Daylight, Are You Scared?] is her attempt to understand the American mindset, partially by going deep inside herself (as in "Sang Jeune [Young Blood]"), and partially by putting herself in the mind of characters she has no connection with (such as "L'homme qui vient de marcher sur une mine [The man who stepped on a mine]").

Since the entirety of Tout Seul is sung in French — a language I do not speak even passingly, though I occasionally recognize a few words that have similar counterparts in Spanish, another language I know only slightly better — it is even difficult to grasp on the most basic level without help. Luckily, the liner notes have been translated into English.

But I listen to music mostly at work, where reading liner notes would be inconvenient at best. So, I decided to make the leap and take Tout Seul at face value, treating Castree's voice as just another instrument. (Therefore, be warned that any song titles here in English are merely my attempts at translation.)

Castrée (who sometimes appears on others' records under Geneviève Elverum) is the wife of Phil Elverum of the Microphones, Mount Eerie, and D+. He is one of my favorite artists, and his presence is deeply felt throughout Tout Seul. His voice appears on "(réconciliation)" and "Deux Corps [Two Bodies]" and his typically heavy drumming features on "Drapeau Blanc [White Flag]" and "La Petite Cane dans la Nappe de Pétrole." Others are less specific, such as the guitar on "(réconciliation)" sounds like the one he used on "The Moon" (from The Glow, Pt. 2).

Castrée's voice carries similarities to Mirah and The Blow's Khaela Maricich with an occasional belt of Bjork and a bit more soft palate. The most effective track on Tout Seul was "La Mort et le Chien Obèse [Death and the Overweight Dog]," which punctuates a rolling bassline and multi-tracked vocals with Castree's howling — left and right, far and near — until it dominates the soundscape.

On the downside, Tout Seul is only 36 minutes long (including the 12-minute title track, two-thirds of which seems to be a slowed-down recording of an airplane taking off). Each track seems to reside in its own emotional space — which can be a little jarring when three songs of around one minute's duration appear one after the other — but the spare instrumentation (is that a cello on "Sons Mon Manteau"?) is the thread that binds it all together. Repeated listens reveal further depth, but all in all, this kind of subjective musical journey is difficult to critique, as it is by its very nature so intensely personal.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Last Man Standing by Jerry Lee Lewis (duets)

The title of Jerry Lee Lewis's new album refers to his legacy as one of the original founders of rock 'n' roll. The legendary Sam Phillips's Sun Records studio was the launching pad of many of the greats: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison. Of that stellar group, Lewis is the Last Man Standing — that is, he is the only one still alive.

But don't let the morbidity of the album's title put you off, because Last Man Standing showcases "The Killer" at his best. Even at 71, he still knows how to, in the words of Chuck Berry, "keep a-rockin' that pi-a-no."

Despite a guest list that reads like the membership rolls of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Last Man Standing is a "duets" album in name only — this is a Jerry Lee Lewis album through and through. Lewis has an amazing ability to make people like Jimmy Page (on "Rock and Roll"), Bruce Springsteen (on "Pink Cadillac"), John Fogerty (on "Travelin' Band"), and Mick Jagger (on "Evening Gown") look like unwelcome guests on songs that they wrote.

Lewis, who proclaimed himself one of only four great stylists in music history (in company with Al Jolson, Jimmie Rodgers, and Hank Williams), plays them as if he wrote them, and it often seems like he did, with rhythm and melody changes suiting them more to his individual style. It's like he's saying to his fellow legends, "Last Man Standing is my album, and you're lucky to be on it."

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Retox by Turbonegro

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2008. Reprinted with permission.

Ever since the release of its widely acclaimed Apocalypse Dudes (the album closest in their discography to a masterpiece), fans of Norwegian "death punk" band Turbonegro have been clamoring for a suitable followup. But the intervening decade had only resulted in a breakup, a subsequent reunion and two albums of subpar material, so there was only disappointment.

Now, though, it appears that Turbonegro is back to its old tricks, and Retox is the result. From the opening track, "We're Gonna Drop the Atom Bomb," the old influences are there. The seasoned listener will detect traces throughout the album of various metal bands from the 1970s and '80s, from classic Judas Priest and Iron Maiden to the relatively modern stylings of Faith No More.

Though the songs by Happy-Tom and Euroboy form the basis of the experience, it is Hank von Helvete's vocals that truly carry the day on Retox, deftly riding the line between parody and tribute. Tongue firmly in cheek, Turbonegro crafts solid hard rock songs with a combination of wit and sincerity.

But fans should never fear: Turbonegro is above all a heavy metal band, and their songs' topics reflect a very male-focused mentality that, surprisingly, resonates genuineness. Covering subjects from the perils of aging ("Hell Toupee") to the benefits of being overweight ("Everybody Loves a Chubby Dude"), the men of Turbonegro are definitely coming to terms with their insecurities.

Oh, who am I kidding? With songs like "Stroke the Shaft" (with the warning "the head's off-limits") and "I Wanna Come" ("I wanna come, to the party at your house. I wanna come, but I can't get off" [the bus]), the fellows of Turbonegro are really just still teenagers at heart (and elsewhere) and are showing on Retox that they're just out to have a good time.

And I have to admit that there's a real sense of freedom in just letting go, popping this CD in the car (alone, of course — no one but another Turbonegro fan would understand), and screaming about assisted masturbation on the way to work. Retox's final track is an eight-minute epic that asks the musical question "What Is Rock?", and I have to admit that the answer for me is, "This album is." Nobody is producing music like Turbonegro, and though that's probably a good thing, I for one am glad that they are.

Children's Music That Adults Can Stand

With two young children, I spend a lot of time in the car listening to XM Kids, channel 116. (There is another children's station called Radio Disney, but they seem to basically play edited pop songs.) A lot of what is broadcast is the usual silliness, but occasionally my ear perks up to a song that seems to have a little more going for it than the rest.

As a sort of public service for other parents looking for music that is appropriate for kids but isn't the same old treacle, below are some album recommendations (often based on hearing only one song) of some children's music that I found myself humming later on in the day, and even admiring.

  • Asylum Street Spankers: "You Only Love Me for My Lunch Box" (from the CD Mommy Says No! — children's music on eclectic instruments, with a lyrical wink to the adults).
  • Barenaked Ladies (aka "BNL"): "Crazy ABCs" (from the CD Snack Time — the alphabet song for the Extraordinarily Literate crowd).
  • Michael Bublé: "Spider-Man Theme" (available as an MP3 download).
  • Steve Goodie: "Harry's Wand" (from the CD Pottered Meat — music from Fountains of Wayne's "Stacy's Mom" with lyrics summarizing Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban).
  • Jessica Harper: "Stay Three" (from the CD Hey, Picasso* — a great all-around CD; here's my full review).
  • Peter Himmelman: "Feet" (from the CD My Green Kite — the beat is seat-swayingly good, and it's educational, too!).
  • Jack Johnson and Friends: "Upside Down" (from the CD Sing-A-Longs and Lullabies for the Film Curious George* — another great all-around CD with appearances from Ben Harper and Matt Costa, and a cover of a White Stripes song).
  • Mr. Saxophone: "Welcome to the Jungle Gym" (from the CD Songs from the Treehouse — music from Guns N Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" combined with funny lyrics about the playground).
  • Justin Roberts: "Pop Fly" (from the CD Pop Fly — an infectious chorus, and it really captures what it's like in the outfield).
  • Secret Agent 23 Skidoo: "Luck" (from the CD Easy — brilliant musicianship, thoughtful and intelligent lyrics, and a banjo on a rap song!).
  • The Sippy Cups: "Dear Prudence" (from the CD Give Peas a Chance — with covers from the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Ramones, and others, how can you go wrong?).
Albums with a * are highly recommended because — so far, at least — they stand up to repeated listens.
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