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I don’t know anything about music. In my line you don’t have to.

— Elvis Presley.

My love affair with music is now in its fifth decade. Not just listening to tunes but thinking about, reading about, discussing and collecting music is a major part of who I am. As a music ‘consumer’ for so long it’s a new and somewhat scary notion that I could contribute to the experience and knowledge of others (music lovers or those simply bored enough to read this blog) through written reviews.

The intention of this blog is to connect you with music that has been meaningful to me in some way, resonated with my soul and increased my understanding of what it is to be human.

There is no rating system implied in the records I’ll select for review. In fact, some of the albums I love the most will not be represented here because either they’ve been reviewed so many times (Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors and the entire Beatles catalog) or I have nothing to add to the conversation around them as they’ve been reviewed by folks much smarter than me (this ain’t no Pitchfork). However, I reserve the right to break my own rules; it’s my party and I’ll act like a fool if I want.

You’ll find a fairly wide variety of musical genres included, from introspective singer/songwriter to straightforward pop/rock, from loud and obnoxious/anti-social metal all the way to classical and jazz.

As I write these entries, I’ll be thinking about a particular person I know that would benefit from listening to the record in review. It’ll remain my secret as to who that person is but, regardless, what I’d love for you to do is listen to these records in their entirety, end-to-end on whatever medium you prefer ( I guess Spotify, Amazon or Apple will be the most-used); engage with the music even if you hate it at first listen. I’ve missed (or delayed by years) many opportunities to discover a new favorite by dismissing music based on the genre or artist due to my own likes and dislikes. For example, I couldn’t even get through my first listen to Bjork’s “Debut” released in 1993. But something drew me back to the music and, after several spins (on CD) I started to appreciate her vision, aesthetic and artistry. I’ve listened to that record countless times and I now own and love all of Bjork’s albums.

This journey may meander and loop back on itself, I apologize in advance. By the end of it I truly hope that I might have influenced just ONE of you to change their mind or take a chance and experience a record, falling in love with it the way I have.

Comments are welcome! If my opinion irks you, keep it civil and I’ll do my best to respond.

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Bring the Rush

  • Artist: Chevelle
  • Title: La Gárgola
  • Released: 2014
  • Format: Digital Download
  • Genre: Hard Rock/Alt Metal
  • Beverage of Choice: Bourbon and Ginger Beer

Despite having to stave off the inevitable comparisons to Tool over the years, Chevelle have managed to remain relevant and consistent with a distinctive energy and songwriting ability that many of their alt metal peers probably envy. This, their seventh album, displays that cohesive vision and expands on their sound with , I dare say it, funk and pop elements that serve to elevate and expand the music and gives La Gárgola a more radio-friendly and crowd-pleasing sound than many other records in this genre.

The songs are all tightly constructed around a punchy rhythm section, syncopated vocals and riffs that are familiar but also creative and fresh to my jaded ears. I find myself returning to this album when I want a energizing jolt of heavy rock to clear my mind. It’s in the same class as many of the other great metal albums I love but also separate, modern and undeniably ‘different’. Something to do with Chevelle’s take on song structure, ambient space in their layering of guitar, bass, distortion and percussion and even the placement of instruments across the stereo space. Songs like “One Ocean” hint at a potential alternative career in pop, sounding eerily similar to U2 circa “Joshua Tree”.

The heavier tracks like “Jawbreaker” and “Under the Knife” are balanced by the melodic and singalong “Take Out the Gunman” (one of the catchiest and likable ‘metal’ tracks ever), the 90’s-sounding “Twinge” and the aforementioned pop-new-wavy”One Ocean”. Chevelle are no one-trick-pony, that’s for sure.

The band has promised a new album in 2020 and I, for one, can’t wait to hear the progress that they will have made, each album building on the previous , expanding their range and creativity. If you haven’t heard any of Chevelle’s music before, start with La Gárgola but do go back and take a listen to ‘Hats off to the Bull‘ and their debut album ‘Point #1‘ to get a sense of their depth and progression since 1999. They will definitely surprise you and maybe, just maybe, extend your musical appreciation and preferences a tiny bit. Let me know what you think?

Yes You Can

  • Artist: Seasick Steve
  • Title: You Can’t Teach An Old Dog New Tricks
  • Released: 2011
  • Format: Digital Download
  • Genre: Americana/Blues
  • Beverage of Choice: Whisky Sour

Seasick Steve is living proof that age is just a number and talent will find a way. You can read up on his colorful and myth-making life story here but, really, the music is enough.

This album is his fifth release and demonstrates without a doubt that, yes, an old dog can figure out new ways of doing things. The records leading up to this offering are great examples of quintessentially American music with elements of folk, country and blues delivered in a laid-back and low-key style and are well worth checking out. What makes YCTAODNT so refreshing is, paradoxically, the use of studio technology and guest artists like John Paul Jones to produce a set of music that, while still gritty and honest, is also detailed, sonically loaded and emotionally satisfying.

The opener “Treasures” is powered by a hill country sound with simple box guitar, banjo and fiddle that, combined with Steve’s signature growl, is effective in producing a melancholy that only great, authentic country music can induce. The lyrics are part of his mythology of being on the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ looking across the divide to the ‘reglar folks’. A beautifully simple song that is instantly engaging in it’s soulful delivery and ambiance.

While nominally a ‘blues’ album, the music is actually blues-based with elements of rock, folk, country and soul thrown into the melting pot, stirred and poured out in globs of slide guitar-driven wonderment. Blowing the roof off with the title track, “Back in the Doghouse“, “Party” and “Don’t Know Why She Love Me but She Do“, the album is mellowed out with ditties, sing-alongs and trad blues songs like “Burnin’ Up“, “Whiskey Ballad” and “It’s a Long, Long Way“.

Have Mercy on the Lonely” is a country-blues stomp, “Underneath a Blue and Cloudless Sky” is a banjo-fueled jig, as simple and delightful as can be and “Days Gone” goes into overdrive, delivering the goods for anyone with an ear for modern electric blues ( Walter Trout, Joe Bonamassa and company).

Short and sweet this week; I want you to just jump into the deep end with one and enjoy the album as it unfolds in real time. Have fun and let me know your favorite track in the comments if you get a chance.

Magic Carpet Ride

  • Artist: Paul Weller
  • Title: Wild Wood
  • Released: 1993
  • Format: CD/Digital Download
  • Genre: Brit Rock, Psych Rock, Soul, Folk
  • Beverage of Choice: Watermelon Cucumber Cooler

The most challenging aspect to writing this post was trying to pigeonhole Paul Weller‘s sophomore solo album to a specific genre; I gave up. Wild Wood sounds like it could have/should have been recorded in the 70’s and draws on so many, particularly British, influences that there is something for everyone in the sixteen tracks along the album’s course.

I can’t remember why I picked up this CD back when it was first released; at the time The Jam was popular I simply wasn’t interested; the burgeoning NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal) had serious momentum with bands like Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Judas Priest and Saxon capturing my ears (and share of wallet) and I read Circus Magazine, not NME.

When Weller decided to break up The Jam at the height of their popularity and form The Style Council, I took a quick listen and decided the music was boring and aimed at old people. Ah, the vanity of youth. Whatever the truth, when I heard the opening song on Wild Wood in ’93 I was ready for it, having expanded my musical tastes somewhat to blues, folk, pop (gasp), classical and world artists; in any case this album blew me away with its nuanced arrangements, excellent engineering and sheer musicality.

The opener, “Sunflower“, provides the first clue that this music is ‘different’ to Weller’s previous artistic direction; electric guitar, flute, traditional rock beat and ‘live’ vocals ; layers of fill, yet spacey, melodic and engaging. It’s the little flourishes throughout the album that make this such a great experience for musos and casual listeners alike, a master-class in arrangement and depth. Little ‘pip,pip,pip’ Moog sounds, piano runs (sometimes thrown away at the end of song as if Weller has so many ideas he can simply pull a new one out whenever he likes), psychedelic phase effects, hand-claps – everything working in harmony and balance.

Weller’s vocals are weightier (older?) and intimate, hinting at a homemade setup, especially when it’s just him and guitar as on the folksy “Foot of the Mountain“. Lyrically the album deals with the experience of gaining experience; introspective and personal, exposing some of his anxieties (‘am I still relevant’), egoism (‘yes I am dammit’) and regrets (‘I miss you so’). Instrumentally, Weller is in full control of the production, a virtual one-man-band, playing acoustic and electric guitars, bass, Moog, Mellotron, piano, Hammond organ, Wurlitzer, tambourine, strings , blues harp and , most likely, kitchen sink. Whew!

He does have help on the album though with a fairly long list of superb musicians adding professional touches to the songs. Brendan Lynch assisted Weller as producer and also added his prowess with percussion and keyboard elements. “Can You Heal Us(Holy Man)” delivers genuine soul with said musicians creating a Crosby, Stills and Nash vibe; listen to the use of organ swelling under the vocal harmonies and Weller’s voice well-suited to the mid-range folk rock style.

The title track is a crowd-pleasing singalong ; laid back acoustic harmonics, ebb and flow of flute in the background and building to a wonderfully passionate and engaging chorus, Weller’s voice ragged and emotional at the edge. A sophisticated piece of songwriting, it all sounds so simple but listen closely to the stylistic elements and arrangement – absolutely top of the heap.

As I mentioned, Weller seems to have a cornucopia of tunes at his disposal and there are a handful of instrumental interludes for your listening pleasure; motifs, really, bridging songs together and showing off his creativity in a “this one’s on me” kind of statement. Sounding like outtakes from a jam (not Jam) session or rehearsal, nevertheless these elements are interesting and part of the unique fabric of Wild Wood that makes it a great album.

The next few songs draw on trad rock influences like Traffic, The Who, Neil Young, Rod Stewart and Sgt. Pepper -era Beatles (especially on “Has My Fire Really Gone Out?“). Weller’s genius is weaving all these well-known elements into a holistic set of ear-markers that are essentially his; a certain pace/cadence and ebb-and-flow of verse/chorus and instrumental break. His talent as a producer/arranger of a wide variety of musical styles allows him to focus all of it to a sound that is immediately identifiable as ‘Paul Weller’. He has pulled off this magic trick throughout his solo career and I’ve collected all his subsequent releases, enjoying them all but coming back to Wild Wood time and time again to be carried away on the back of the beauty, technical excellence and emotional resonance to be found on this offering.

Weller deserves every allocate, award and dollar he’s received over the course of his lengthy career and, if you give this a listen, I suggest your first spin be on a good stereo system to get the wider effect of the music and then followed up by a headphone session, listening to the arrangements and nuanced layers of craftsmanship on display. Don’t delay, you’ll want to have as many years as possible with this one, I promise!

Rock and Roll Outlaws

  • Artist: Clutch
  • Title: Robot Hive / Exodus
  • Released: 2005
  • Format: CD/Digital Download
  • Genre: Hard Rock/Funk Rock
  • Beverage of Choice: Hard Cider

Clutch have spent their entire almost 30-year career building a loyal fan base without any help from the mainstream music industry and, as such, are still a fairly well-kept secret, even to metal and hard rock lovers. I only turned on to their funky, hard-edged sound in the early 2000’s with the release of the excellent double vinyl album Blast Tyrant. Robot Hive was released the following year with Clutch adding a band member, keyboard wunderkind Mick Schauer, and immediately enlisted me as a lifelong fan in every sense of that overused and overloaded word. It was very sad to learn of Mick’s death in 2019 at the way-too-young age of 46, leaving the band and the world impoverished and mourning the loss of his talent.

Clutch inject both a lyrical and instrumental sense of humor into their work that is catchy, funky, heavy and intelligent all at the same time. Listen to songs like “Gullah“, “Pulaski Skyway” and “10001110101” and you’ll immediately understand. This is music for connoisseurs of alternative, clever and meticulously crafted heavy rock music.

The addition of Schauer’s Hammond and Wurlitzer organ sound to the mix, of course, cemented the deal for me , adding a Deep Purple element to some of the tracks and swinging like crazy on “Gravel Road” and “Small Upsetters“. Bandmates Tim Sult (guitar), Dan Maines (bass), Jean-Paul Gaster (drums) and Neil Fallon (vocals) lay down a solid groove with the guitars mixed way up front next to the vocals on most songs, providing an immediate blast of in-yer-face rock energy. The fact that the music is seriously intricate and layered can sometimes be lost in the rush of tempo and noise. Don’t be fooled, these guys are seriously smart and adept at arrangements that fill the head space with multidimensional (and well-engineered) sound.

Clutch naturally also have a blues-based influence (possibly all the way back to Zeppelin) along with the Sabbath down-groove and straight-ahead rock elements to their music. “Gravel Road” stands out with excellent slide guitar, percussion thunder and heavy, heavy organ vibe in the second half of the song that lifts it from standard blues progression to something Purple or Rainbow would kill to have on one of their albums.

The album concludes with another organ stroll, “Who’s Been Talking” that sounds like a Yardbirds track all grown up. With Fallon’s gruff and powerful vocals mixed a little bit further back, the song sounds like it was produced in the 60’s. Another smart touch demonstrating both the band’s virtuosity and total control of their sound. Clutch know exactly what they’re doing; it’s just a pity that most of the world isn’t paying any attention as they deserve a much wider audience… so spread the word.

Satisfied

  • Artist: The Wood Brothers
  • Title: Kingdom In My Mind
  • Released: 2020
  • Format: Vinyl/Digital Download
  • Genre: Americana
  • Beverage of Choice: Nescafe Clasico Instant Coffee with cream

Now and again Spotify shows its worth as a music discovery tool; despite the seemingly infinite array of derivative and ultimately boring music available through the streaming platform there are pockets of unexplored excellence for the curious music lover. I discovered such a seam of gold recently when the algorithm recommended I listen to a Wood Brothers song based on my playing Justin Townes Earle’s new album The Saint of Lost Causes. The opening song on this new release by the Nashville-based trio sounds like it could have been lifted directly from the sessions for Earles’ well-received offering (recently reviewed here). “Alabaster” is certainly not your grandad’s folk music; progressive, jazzy and bluesy, it hooked me right away and I ended up purchasing the vinyl release within the hour.

And I am so glad I did! The album is immediately accessible but offers up a myriad of nuanced, complex and near-perfect musical moments through the course of its ten tracks and quirky outtro cut “Little Blue (Reprise)“.

The Wood Brothers are comprised of brothers (go figure) Oliver and Chris Wood and Jano Rix (not a brother). Together they swing like no folk trio you ever heard before. Harmonies on “Alabaster” are evocative of a gospel choir and the hip-sway rhythm wonderfully counter-balanced by vibraphone, electric guitar and upright bass. Rix is a versatile force in the group, playing percussion and keyboards that sometimes rock, sometimes swing but are always exactly right for the song. The vocal duties are shared across the songs by the brothers and the aforementioned harmonization is a defining element to their sound. This type of songwriting is a dying art and these guys are at the top of their collective game.

Little Bit Sweet” is a wonderful sing-along track with depth in arrangement and emotional impact, one of my new guilty pleasures. “Jitterbug Love” begins with slide guitar and a blues-based feel that jumps off the vinyl, asserting itself as a great hook on top of the call and response harmonies and guitar work. “Cry Over Nothing” presents a world-weary lyric made palatable by the humorous starting line and flawless delivery; organ and upright bass provide a solid foundation of gospel-tinged southern jam. Rix can play. The song is firmly 70’s but totally relevant to today, timeless and beautifully executed.

Don’t Think About My Death” starts out as eccentric jug music and then rocks out with guitar and lyrically traces itself back to mountain music dealing with love and death and living with both in perfect suspense. In other hands, this could have been a Violent Femmes song. “Little Bit Broken” is jazzy (super bass recording again) with the trio swinging along vocally and a magical electric piano break and then ditto harmonica; at this point in the album you should be fairly convinced that these guys can pretty much play anything, stylistically and technically. What’s missing (if you’re a purist) is banjo – but I’m ok with that as modern retro bands like Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers have used it enough to go round for now.

The One I Love” is the folksiest track on the album with a fiddle, acoustic and shuffle drum arrangement that reminds you that this, after all, a roots-based band. “Little Blue” (you may be catching a little theme going on) sounds like a Harry Connick Jr. tune circa 1994; sharply etched funk rhythm, sleigh bells, vocal counterpoints throughout and a feel-good, head-bobbing outtro. “A Dream’s a Dream” features honky-tonk piano, slide-guitar work par-excellence and a Dylanesque vocal break.

The final full track “Satisfied” provides a fitting conclusion to the album musically and vocally with the band’s full range of instrumental prowess on display and a gospel-tinged delivery that is almost hymn-like. It leaves this old, jaded and almost worn-out listener smiling; transported again by the sheer delight of beautiful music poured into my heart, belief renewed in the power of music to lift the soul, daily fears and anxieties suspended for a magic few moments and I am, truly, satisfied.

A Matter of Grace

  • Artist: The Smashing Pumpkins
  • Title: Adore
  • Released: 1998
  • Format: CD
  • Genre: Alternative Rock
  • Beverage of Choice: Levo 2018 Under the Gun Grenache

Through all the line-up changes, off-stage drama and on-again/off-again personalities that make up The Smashing Pumpkins, it’s truly amazing that their music has always been so tightly connected to the original energy and creativity that marked their first three studio albums. Substitute keyboards and ambient backgrounds for the trademark layered/distorted guitar arrangements on those offerings and you can trace the DNA for the mostly low-key, mid-paced but immersive songs that make up Adore directly to tracks like “Rhinoceros” (Gish), “Luna” (Siamese Dream) and “By Starlight” (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness). This release possibly confused and divided their fan base somewhat with it’s lack of sonic explosions and the return to drum machine (as well as some notable guest percussionists such as Matt Walker from Soundgarden) after drummer Jimmy Chamberlain’s dismissal.

I had been a huge fan of the Pumpkin’s Mellon Collie project and managed to get a ticket to the sold out show for the Adore supporting tour at Universal Amphitheatre in July ’98. Even with the lack of a permanent drummer, the group was amazing; tight, focused, emotional and loud. I remember the entire audience singing every word to the opener “To Sheila” and the huge roar that accompanied the words “Highway warm sings silent poetry”. The rest of the night was sheer magic and was the end of the era with bassist  D’arcy Wretzky leaving the band after a short reunion tour with Chamberlain the following year.

With the somewhat sombre and subdued tone of this album, the band also changed their public persona with a darker look; all of this following the stress that Chamberlain’s drug issues had placed on the band, Billy Corgan’s mother dying and his divorce. I think it’s fair to say that Corgan probably felt that the band couldn’t survive the turmoil and that Adore might be a last chance to release a body of work that would showcase the breadth of his artistry; and it certainly does. The songs are arranged and produced with remarkable clarity, depth and poetic resonance. The album did not initially sell all that well but has grown in reputation (and sales) to become a multi-platinum disc in the USA and many other countries.

To Sheila” is a simply beautiful and intimate poem with Corgan’s typically somewhat obscure lyrics highlighted in a close-up performance accented with cricket ambience, pedal steel, banjo and acoustic guitar. The warm sound envelops the ears and emotions, seductively drawing one into it’s hooks, harmonies and counterpoints. It’s the sonic equivalent of a deep pool of water reflecting a starlit sky; mysterious, quiet and affecting.

The only ‘big’ song on Adore is the eponymously titled “Ava Adore” with a driving bass line and suitable Pumpkins’ layered guitars with a strange love-themed lyrical intensity. Corgan unleashes his vocal power as does James Iha his electric guitar prowess; the rhythm drives the song forward as if thrusting us forward to the heart of the album. Over the course of the next thirteen songs (yes, this is a long album clocking in at 73 minutes and change), Corgan shows us that he can write… and write… and write. The range of styles, moods, production, mixes and lyrical themes is impressive even if we know he is somewhat going all out to impress. When he uses keyboard and drum sequencing there is a Depeche Mode/OMD/Cure influence heard (“Pug“) but the diverse rock and pop sources Corgan has always drawn upon serve him well and some of these songs would not be out of place on a Beatles album, they are that next-level great – evidence “For Martha“.

Adore offers many such sublime moments along its course and, with the definable ebb and flow that makes up a Pumpkin’s release (a glorious mix of Corgan’s vocal delivery, verse structure, instrumentation and arrangement), rings true even to a fan that regards “Zero” as the ultimate Smashing Pumpkins tune. It’s a reworking and reimagining of the core energy of the band with more intimacy and artistic expansiveness than the previous albums. Even if The Smashing Pumpkins had folded their tent and ridden off on the night mare (and I am so glad they didn’t), Adore would stand as a testament to a vision executed with artistry, love, talent and the relentless pursuit of perfection.

Definitely No Logic

  • Artist: Björk
  • Title: Debut
  • Released: 1993
  • Format: CD and FLAC
  • Genre: Pop/Alternative Dance/Trip-Hop
  • Beverage of Choice: Spindrift Grapefruit

I’m guessing that your current assumptions and attitudes towards Björk are binary – you probably either love her or hate her. I haven’t spoken to many music lovers that say “Yeah, she’s good”; they are either passionately for her eccentricities or can’t stand them. I’m in the former camp. This is the first album I bought with her name on it as I had enjoyed some of the guitar-driven music from the Sugarcubes and expected that she would extend their range with some different producers on the album. Turns out that she totally reinvented and overturned their sound to a modern, danceable musical form that also rewards the serious listener with Björk’s singular focus and vision for her art.

Firstly you have that immediately identifiable voice, with an endearing Icelandic-accented English delivery that she hasn’t ever lost/changed; it’s part of what makes her unique and precious to the world of popular music. Her style of breathy, emotional and sinuous vocal delivery brings tension and drama to the songs – sometimes on the beat , sometimes sliding and weaving all over the place in counterpoint and harmony. Debut brings a variety of styles and moods to your ears but each track is distinctively her own with a trademark stamp of authenticity, honesty and humor. Working with producer Nellee Hooper also gave her a collaborator who understood how to use all these elements and breathe life into the music to make it relevant to the times. The album has aged really well, sounding fresh and energetic compared to some of the tired and copy-cat tedium we have on the charts today.

Human Behavior” kicks things off with a great percussive layer of clicks, military snare, timpani and other drums in an immediately immersive mix. Björk’s voice soars and dominates, double-tracked and providing background harmony. Björk, like Bowie was, is always ahead of the times, plugged into what’s happening now but making music that will become what’s next. Amply demonstrated by the next track “Crying“, the sounds are electronic dance music but so specifically arranged and engineered to match her delivery that it becomes something more; not only accessible but also truly artistic. Some influence here from Depeche Mode in the programming and the layers of synth but they give way to a clean percussion and electric piano. The vocals weave through the sharp-edged percussion and bass-line with smooth muscular precision showing off her range and power.

Venus as a Boy” demonstrates one of the key elements of Björk’s canon – beauty. The sounds of bottle, synth bass line, bells, vibraphone, strings, keyboards and tabla are all arranged into a lush and gorgeous density of sound that immediately rewards the careful listener. Another aspect I’ve always associated with her music is sheer joy; joy of living, experiencing, being. At it’s core, it’s the sound of a person expressing the talent and vision they’ve been given, knowing that it will bring joy to someone else even if the lyrical subject line or musical arrangement is unconventional, difficult or challenging. In this case, the album is thematically consistent in that all the tracks are about love in some form, which makes this album even more joyful and pleasurable to experience.

A change in direction for the next track – “There’s More to Life Than This”. Recorded live in a club (actually in the bathroom), it’s a straightforward house dance track with an odd break for some breathy, cheeky and mispronounced lyrics (‘jetto-blaster’) from the very expressive singer. Another eccentric element is a penny whistle or flute in the arrangement – nice to hear as a focal point for dance music! Then a segue to jazz harp and the only song not written by Björk on the album, a ‘standard’ called “Like Someone in Love“. She makes it her own with ambient background noises throughout and her unfiltered and very breathy vocals showing us that she doesn’t need the artifice of art but could have had a great career singing songs written for her in any number of genres. Happily she’s chosen to make music that makes a difference and stuck to her guns throughout the years (and making good money along the way I am sure). Take heart young visionaries, your music will be appreciated if it’s honest and authentically your own, no matter how many people “don’t get it”.

Percussion leads the way again on “Big Time Sensuality” with a driving drum/synth program and high hat insinuating itself on top of the mix in the right speaker throughout. This was a big single off the album in Europe but America didn’t buy in – the sound was ahead of where things were musically in this country at the time. House and trip-hop, club music was an English trend that we started appreciating a couple of years later. I remember visiting London in early 1990’s and being amazed at the music that was being played that we simply didn’t ever hear in the USA. Artists like Massive Attack, Faithless, Tricky and others finally did break through here and converted a generation of fans to alternative dance music but Björk remains my favorite because, having demonstrated her mastery over the form, she moved on to the next album, Post, and delivered a hugely diverse set with only one track that could be labeled ‘danceable’. And then moved on again… and again. She is a genius and, as I mentioned before, should be spoken of with the same respect given to artists like David Bowie and Patti Smith.

One Day” creates ambient tension in the mix with percussion and a subtly dark and moving bass line. This is trip-hop before it was ‘thing’; reminiscent of Tricky without that artist’s fierce vocal attack. Björk’s vocals are typically relaxed yet emotive and weave around the percussion and electronic soundscape providing contrast and dynamic range. The song segues without a break into bird song, more ambient sounds and then Zappa-like horns that are more jazz than pop. “Aeroplane” is a little darker in tone than the rest of the album as it deals with loss and separation. Here she demonstrates a remarkable ability to walk a tightrope between cacophony and accessibility and this is what makes her special. Such abrupt shifts in mood and cadence shouldn’t make sense but she somehow makes it so; relax and go along for the ride, ‘jungle sounds’ and all.

Come to Me” is reminiscent of Portishead, chilly with some house and trip-hop elements. But they most likely took some of their direction from her. Like a lot of her music, it seems simple but is super-nuanced and expertly arranged. Gorgeous strings on this one should remind you that Björk doesn’t make ‘background’ music; it’s art that requires attention, patience and flexibility to appreciate that nuance but ultimately lead to new joys of discovery and expands our notion of what music is. I can’t overstate how important she is in terms of place and time for music lovers; she is ground-breaking, honest and in-your-face. “Violently Happy” is another dance track with spacy keys, huge bass line and percussive foundation. This music has really aged extraordinarily well and is just as enjoyable today as it ever was. I don’t know for sure but I expect that current EDM artists are sampling Björk left and right.

The final track on the album as it was originally released is “The Anchor Song” (there is an extra track on the re-release, “Play Dead”, which doesn’t add anything too special so I won’t review it here). The Anchor Song is a patriotic ode to her native Iceland and has, again, Zappa-esque horns and discordant highlights that only accentuate the purity and impact of her voice which is ‘pretty’ and emotional on this track. The up-close and unfiltered recording gives the listener direct access to the resonance and unique inflections in her voice.

If you don’t already appreciate Björk, give this album more than one listen. I’m an old metal-head and it did take me a while to get to the heart of her music. In there, I found a new love for the sheer vastness of our musical universe and how much there is left for me to discover and enjoy. I hope you get to do the same.

Test the Edge

  • Artist: The Sword
  • Title: Age of Winters
  • Released: 2006
  • Format: Vinyl
  • Genre: Rock/Metal
  • Beverage of Choice: Stone Tangerine Express Hazy IPA

You may recall me mentioning The Sword in a previous post extolling the excellent stoner vibes present on All Them Witch’s ‘Lightning at the Door’ album. I’d picked up this album on CD shortly after it was released (mostly due to the song “Freya” which was featured as a playable track on the video game Guitar Hero II – I was deep into GH at the time) and was already a big fan when I headed out to the incomparable Belly Up in Solana Beach to see them in concert; that’s where I was introduced to ATW (and another band whose music I enjoy, Kadaver). The Sword headlined that evening and did a credible job of blowing the roof off the bar. Focused, energetic and serious, The Sword channeled Sabbath doom with a Texas swagger.

This being their debut album, Age of Winters represents an aesthetic and sensibility that the band have since, if not totally abandoned, at least adapted and ‘modernized’. And good for them, they have a right to move on, although if you read some of the reviews of albums like High Country (2015) or Used Future (2018) you’d swear the band was making a personal attack on erstwhile fans. I love each and every one of their releases; as different as the new ones are, they have a high energy level and represent an artistic direction that will keep The Sword relevant and making music for many more years and that is something to be applauded and grateful for.

Back to Age of Winters then. Think Sabbath but dragged kicking and screaming into the 2000’s with up-tempo, down-tempo, sludge, doom and heavy metal vibes all present and accounted for but hammered out by a young, savvy and metal-educated foursome. The Sword aren’t trying to sound like anybody but themselves and succeed admirably in that ambition. Some of the music swings (like any good band from Austin should swing) but mostly it’s big bass and guitar riffs backed up by crashing kick and cymbals. Lyrics tend towards mythological themes; I’m not sure if any of these tunes were used on Game of Thrones (because I’ve never watched that particular soap opera) but I guess they should have been just because of lyrics like:

“Harken to the howl of the huntsman’s hounds

Or the clarion of kingdoms doomed and drowned

Lost to these lands is lore of the high ones

Sunless skies await the return of the archons”

Lament for the Aurochs

If you enjoy banging your head to huge riffs, discovering supremely tight and imaginative metal or simply want some music that engages your brain and heart on a different level than pop, look no further other than to check out the rest of The Sword’s discography.

Play loud and often!

Coming up Slowly

  • Artist: Xavier Rudd
  • Title: Dark Shades of Blue
  • Released: 2008
  • Format: CD
  • Genre: Rock/Reggae/Singer-Songwriter
  • Beverage of Choice: Milk (from a cow, not the juice of a nut)

From the first notes of the opening track you know you’re in for something ‘different’ with this album. A swirling mix of Weissenborn guitar feedback and then yirdaki (the aboriginal term for a didgeridoo), the sound is familiar for those in the know with Xavier Rudd but more concentrated, heavy and intense. The instrumental track “Black Water” emanates a darker vibe than Rudd’s typically optimistic, peace-and-nature loving compositions and segues without a break into the title track with more big guitar sounds and Rudd’s voice, as ever, emotional and distinctive in pitch and timber.

This is the kind of music I was waiting for Rudd to release after I was introduced to his brand of Australian surf/earth/socially aware and political music on 2005’s Food in the Belly. I heard blues notes all over that album and felt that he could step up the intensity and depth of his output with some heavier focus on drums and guitar; here is the evidence of that suspicion. Even the poppier tracks are darker and more layered with reverb, distortion and Rudd’s excellent slide work. And this is his ‘guitar’ album with acoustic, electric, slide and resonator all used more intentionally and provocatively across the tracks to anchor the music in rock/blues vibes. Rudd’s soloing is wonderful, sometimes channeling Hendrix in spontaneity and expression.

Secrets” is rhythmically a reggae tune but not reggae that you’ve heard before – sophisticated and nuanced, vocals sweeping in and out throughout the track with distortion and Dave Tolley’s drumming emphasizing the heavier aspects in the beat, giving free reign to the resonator guitar to assert it’s own voice, stamping the track with Zeppelinesque voicing and style. Another fine piece of slide guitar solo towards the end of the track – just try and avoid swaying and tapping to this one!

Guku” is more of the regular Xavier Rudd-type sound and structure with it’s aboriginal background vocals, yirdaki and rhythm; great use of the Weissenborn and effects/stompbox to create an aura of longing and nostalgia. “Edge of the Moon” is a blues-based effort extended, once again, to a reggae feel and something of a sing-along.

Lyrically, Rudd stays fairly narrowly focused on themes of nature, social consciousness, relationships to the earth and home. He is outspoken about his Australian natural heritage and is clearly in love with his country if not enamored with the politics and actions of the past. Generally optimistic and hopeful for a future where we are all one, united against hate and violence, Rudd is right on point for this generation and not heavy-handed with his message. Activism without the self-righteousness that so often accompanies it. “This World as We Know It” is an example with solid rock beat, didgeridoo rhythm section and driving guitar/distorted vocals delivering a 1-2 punch along with the political message -not pointing any fingers specifically but acknowledging that as things change, we need to step outside of ourselves and see if it’s change worth adopting.

Shiver” is a quieter track with clear vocals and acoustic guitar accompanied with swirling background vocals. The middle break echoes with tom-toms, organ and harmony and is a wonderful break from the general intensity of the album while being moving and emotionally resonant. “Uncle” starts quietly and beautifully with a chant and then extends into more Weissenborn distortion and high-tom swirling drum pattern, sounding like a U2/Tool mashup. Rudd’s vocals are restrained and distorted, evoking melancholy ; then the beat intensifies and sharpens to create a driving rock foundation for the rest of the track. Rudd displays some great arranging skills along with his instrumental prowess; my favorite (and longest) track on this album as it brings together all the stylistic elements that make Rudd a distinctive and accomplished musician.

Up in Flames” atypically jumps right into a heavy rock riff and sounds like a 70’s throwback, something that Sabbath/UFO/Aerosmith could lay claim to (except for the yirdaki break of course). It’s the most straightforward tune on the album but that also makes it good and satisfying for old metal-heads like me.

The final two tracks are more typically associated with Rudd’s output; “Hope that You’ll Stay” is another change in mood and pace opening with resonator guitar, eastern tuning, tabla and quiet vocals, simultaneously reflective and introspective. Wonderful guitar work from Rudd on this one; listen closely on good headphones for the full effect of all the various guitar parts coming together in harmony. “Home” is a folk song in pattern, vocals and instrumentation (even using strings towards the end) and a fitting conclusion to an album delivered outside the run-of-the-mill music industry and so well-imagined, written and executed. Listen to this one all the way through if you get the chance, the music will reward you in it’s authenticity, richness and soul.

Not Far From Joy

  • Artist: Black Dub
  • Title: Black Dub
  • Released: 2010
  • Format: CD
  • Genre: Rock/Soul/Dub-Reggae
  • Beverage of Choice: Cabernario No.8 – Maipo Valley

At this point, if you’ve read a few of my posts, you may already be sick and tired of hearing about my devotion to Daniel Lanois’ particular genius and production style. If that’s true for you, quit reading, take a break and go listen to some K-Pop because this is all about the ‘Lanois magic’ again. Actually, not so much. He did form this group as a vehicle for some of his compositions and to get out on the road with a real band instead of as solo artist but, in Trixie Whitley, he found an ingenue and force of nature that makes this debut and, so far, solitary Black Dub album come to life.

I had the great fortune and pleasure of seeing the group at Anaheim House of Blues on their tour in 2011 (for a $10 entrance fee!!) and spent the night right up front, entranced at the way Trixie, at 20-something performed like a veteran, her voice soaring over the band, effortlessly dominating the venue. Lanois was his usual laid-back, laconic self on keyboards, a little guitar, harmonizing here and there and generally enjoying himself but letting the band lead the way and clearly reveling in helping a new star come into her own.

The music is not actually completely typical of Lanois, although he wrote all the songs but two (“Last Time” and “Ring the Alarm“). A mixed bag of reggae beats (“I Believe in You“), straight up rock with Lanois trademark production values (“Love Lives“), soulful ballads (“Surely“) and trip-hop/jazz (“Slow Baby“), the album can take a while to adjust to; hang in there because it’s really worthwhile. It took me a few spins to fall deeply in love with the sheer creativity and musicianship ,enjoying the satisfaction of deciphering someone else’s headspace and making it my own.

Back to Trixie; listening to her rich contralto vocals on showpiece songs “I Believe in You” and “Surely” will give you an inkling of just how powerful her delivery is in a live setting. Check out her discography if you get a chance, very different music to Black Dub but nonetheless interesting and diverse, sometimes sounding like Neneh Cherry, sometimes like PJ Harvey and most often just like her ownself (which is a good thing).

The instrumental tracks (“Slow Baby” and “Sirens“) are very typically Lanois’ style, the major difference between these recordings and his own being the excellent musicians with him – Daryl Johnson on bass and jazz session extraordinaire Brian Blade on drums. The interplay is subtle and extremely nuanced, delivering a balanced, involving and immersive musical experience. Listen to these tracks a couple of times, they are NOT filler!

The song the band wrote together, “Sing” is just sheer frivolity and a wonderful live sing-along opportunity. I remember it well from the show and how much fun the band was having together, supporting each other, goofing around and at the same time making every aspiring musician in the crowd jealous at how easy it seemed for them to make a joyful noise. As I’ve stated, you may need to hear this album a few times to truly appreciate the craftsmanship , energy and professionalism that makes it sound so easy to create something new and different. Maybe start with the song “Canaan“, the only Lanois-led vocal track , it’ll sound familiar and you probably won’t quite be able to put your finger on why. That’s his genius – you’ll be pulled in, surrounded and welcomed; relax and enjoy!