Thursday, February 8, 2018

Big Jim Sullivan - "Lord Sitar"

Guitarist Big Jim Sullivan was one of the most prolific British session musicians of the 1960’s, playing on over 700 charting singles in the UK. He obtained the moniker “Big Jim” to distinguish him from another well-known British session guitarist, Jimmy Page (known in recording circles as “Little Jim”).

Today, however, we examine his contributions in the world of sitar. Once George Harrison played the Indian instrument on the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” in 1965, it became all the rage. Richie Havens, Steve Howe (Yes), and Justin Hayward (Moody Blues) all took a stab at the instrument. A few – Harrison, Brian Jones, and Sullivan – studied the sitar seriously.

In 1969 EMI released Lord Sitar (the album we are reviewing today), a collection of pop instrumentals with Sullivan playing sitar as the lead instrument. Sullivan was under contract to Polydor at the time, so his name doesn’t appear in the liner notes, leading many listeners to speculate that Lord Sitar was George Harrison. (There is a Beatles connection, however: three of the tracks here are covers of Fab Four songs: “I Am the Walrus”,  “Eleanor Rigby”, and the Harrison-penned “Blue Jay Way”.)

As far the music itself? Lord Sitar is decidedly a “period piece”. The opening track (“If I Were a Rich Man”), in particular, would not be out of place in an Austin Powers movie. The main drawback is the track selection. (“Daydream Believer”? Really?)

But when Lord Sitar is good, it’s great. A cover of Los Bravos’ “Black Is Black” is surprisingly effective, and the Who’s “I Can See for Miles” is as exciting – in its own way – as the original.

Lord Sitar wasn’t the first integration of Indian music into pop rock. (Earlier examples include the Folkswingers’ Raga Rock, Vincent Bell’s Pop Goes the Electric Sitar, and Sullivan’s own 1968 album Sitar Beat.) But it paved the way for the “Asian underground” that would emerge 30 years later.

*** (out of four)

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Buggs - "The Beetle Beat"

Americans first became acquainted with The Beatles via Meet the Beatles, released in January 1964. Before you could say “fab”, the market was instantly flooded with cheap imitations (Do the Beetle, Beat-a-Mania, etc).

In his book Rock Rarities for a Song – Budget LP's That Saved the Roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Brian McFadden asserts, “no other imitation Beatles album generates as much speculation as The Beetle Beat.  The main reason is that this LP is just so darn good.” Needless to say, I had to check it out.

The liner notes state that The Beetle Beat was “recorded on location in England”. In fact, the songs on this album were recorded by The Coachmen V, a New Jersey group.

As was the fashion with records like this, the tracklist consisted of a couple of well-known Beatles songs (“I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You”), padded out with filler. In this case, the remaining songs were retitled to sound more British (“Swingin’ Thames”, “Big Ben Stomp”). One track (“Soho Mash”) is actually a cover of “Just One Look” by Doris Troy!

The label, Coronet, was one of those fly-by-night outfits that released music without the artists’ consent or (in this case) their knowledge. When The Beetle Beat came out, it was attributed to a band called The Buggs. The four half-lit faces on the cover were actually male models. Bassist Bill Osmolski recalled that the Coachmen V “never got paid a cent.”

Coronet rereleased The Beetle Beat in 1966 as Boots a Go Go, cleverly not printing the tracklist so people wouldn’t know it was the same album. Individual songs were rereleased here and there under different titles. (“Mersey Mercy”, for example, appeared on a compilation album as “Sassy Sue” by the Submarine Spitfires.)

History records nothing further of the Coachmen V, although one of them -Gary Wright (“Dream Weaver”) - did okay for himself. If nothing else, The Beetle Beat serves as a cautionary tale of all that is wrong with the music business.

* (out of four)

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Pink Beam - "2017 Singles"

Last year, Pink Beam released their first full-length album Big Vacation ( The music, while somewhat scrappy, showed a lot of promise. This year, the Rockford, IL quartet is back with 2017 Singles, a three-song EP.

The growth from Big Vacation to 2017 Singles is impressive, considering that the two discs are separated by less than a year. The singing is better. The songs are more concise. While Big Vacation exuded an indie rock vibe, 2017 Singles, with its huge guitar sound, would not be out of place in a stadium.

So, what separates Pink Beam from the hundreds of other indie rock bands? First, melody. John Tallman’s high-pitched tenor (stretched to the limit on “Wrote Me a Letter”) enables the band to tackle hook-laden choruses most singers don’t have half the voice for.

Then there’s the lyrics. Yes, the lyrics are clever, but Pink Beam reaches beyond the “too cool for school” attitude that most indie bands settle for. Take “Boys on the Side”, for example. “The look in her eye when she hangs me out to dry / It’s a habit that’s so hard to break.” Depressing? Perhaps, but absolutely true.

The highlight of the disc is the closing track, “Did You Ever Really Think You’d Fall in Love?” It starts out as a midtempo rocker reminiscent of Big Vacation. Then, at the two-minute mark, the tempo slows and we’re treated to exquisite falsetto harmonies. The drums and guitars get heavier until the whole affair dissolves into electronic noise.

If 2017 Singles is any indication, Pink Beam is destined for great things. If (rather, “when”) they embark on their first staduim tour, I hope it includes a stop in northwest Pennsylvania.

**** (out of four)

Abigail Foster's Photosynthesis Machine - "Prozac Is the Dam and I Am the Dynamite"

In the early 2000’s Justin Hoenke fronted the indie pop-rock band Zomo. Afterwards, he released experimental music under the name Belsapadore ( Earlier this year, he released Prozac is the Dam and I Am the Dynamite under the moniker Abigail Foster’s Photosynthesis Machine.

On his Bandcamp site, Hoenke explains how, having been prescribed Prozac for years, he no longer wanted to live in a muted world. Prozac is a chronicle of the turbulent period when Hoenke weaned himself off the mood-altering drug, akin to Eminem’s Relapse. Consequently, Prozac is a journey from dark to light. Hoenke explains that, “I would totally understand if someone… couldn’t make it through the first five tracks. But… you’ve got to go through the shit to get to the sunshine.”

There is an impressive amount of variety in Prozac’s ten tracks. The disc kicks off with “The End of Everything”, an ominous, Floydian instrumental utilizing Far Eastern tonalities. There are avant-garde electronic pieces (“08112017 – 37”) reminiscent of Belsapadore, and calmer, pastoral works (“Hey Little Cardinal”, “Sail Away”). The melodic rocker “Sail Out to Sea” would be a great choice for a single.

The highlight of the disc is “U R A BLACK HOLE”, a sound collage of electronic elements and musique concrete in the vein of the Beatles’ “Revolution 9”. Prozac closes with “The Beginning of Everything”, a haunting piano ballad drenched in Lennon-esque echo.

With Prozac (an album on which he plays every instrument himself), Hoenke solidifies his reputation as one of the most innovative artists in northwest Pennsylvania.

**** (out of four)

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Deuble and Vogan - "Ridin' Through Time"

The country music duo of Deuble and Vogan hail from Bemus Point, NY (a resort community about 30 minutes east of the Pennsylvania border). Jody Deuble previously played in Deuble and Welling; Dan Vogan toured nationally with the Cambridge Band, opening for Pure Prarie League, Vince Gill, and the Flying Burrito Brothers, among others.

After Deuble and Welling ran its course in the early 90’s, Deuble placed an ad looking for a lead guitarist to start a new project. Vogan answered the call, and the rest is history.

Together, Deuble and Vogan have given no less than 1500 performances throughout the tri-state region (western New York, northwest Pennsylvania, and northeast Ohio) over the last twenty years. Today we review their 2011 album Ridin’ Through Time.

Neither Deuble nor Vogan is a particularly strong vocalist. This is most evident on the more melodic tracks (“Picture on the Wall”). However, the songs are well-structured, with clever lyrics, interesting chord changes, and catchy hooks. And the instrumentation is top-notch. Vogan embellishes the songs with lap steel, banjo, dobro, and some tasty lead guitar.

Moreover, there’s an impressive variety of music on this album: romantic ballads (“I’ll Love You Like a Lover”), bluegrass (“Pig in a Pen”), and bro-country (“You Got Those Curves”). The songs are thematically diverse, too. “Thank You Sir” expresses gratitude to a father; “I’ll Pick You Up When You Fall” is sung from a parent to his daughter.

The highlight is the ominous “Cowboy”, which both opens and closes the CD (the latter in an extended version).

There’s not a lot of respect for songwriting in the tri-state region. At one venue, a local songwriter was recently told not to play any original material. Fortunately, there are still musicians like Deuble and Vogan keeping the art of songwriting alive.

*** (out of four)

Monday, September 4, 2017

Fisher and Marks - "It's a Beatle (Coo Coo) World"

Al Fisher and Lou Marks were a comedy duo in the classic “straight man / funny man” vein (i.e. Abbott & Costello, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, et al ). The Philadelphia duo were favorites of Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., and were accorded “junior” status in the Rat Pack. Their real names were Al Fischera and Lou Franco, which perhaps explains the title of their 1963 album Rome on the Range. After the Beatles hit it big worldwide in 1964, Fisher and Marks responded with It’s a Beatle (Coo Coo) World.

The LP is an interesting curio in that it lampoons Beatlemania from a “grown up” perspective. This territory had already proven to be fertile soil for comedy – for example, Allan Sherman’s “Pop Hates the Beatles” (sung to the tune of “Pop Goes the Weasel”):

Most of the material is funny enough. Highlights include “Paul George John and Ringo” (sung to the tune of “On Top of Old Smokey”) and “Ringo Ringo Little Starr”.

As you can imagine, this theme was not enough to sustain interest for the duration of a long-playing record. The jokes about Ed Sullivan and mop tops were padded out with non-Fab tracks such as “Bela n’ Boris” and “The Real Fisher and Marks”.

An interesting bit of trivia: It’s a Beatle (Coo Coo) World was released on the Swan record label – a label whose main claim to fame was releasing “She Loves You” before the Fab Four were signed to Capitol.

** (out of four)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Tortoise - "Millions Now Living Will Never Die"

“Post-rock” is a term coined by critic Simon Reynolds (Rolling Stone, the New York Times, etc.), who described it as “rock instruments used for non-rock purposes.” Specifically, post-rock bands use guitars and drums to create timbre and textures not typically encountered in rock.

One of the early founders of American post-rock is the band Tortoise. Unlike most underground bands at the time, Tortoise eschewed the punk rock of their peers in favor of other genres like dub, electronica, and Krautrock.

Each of Tortoise’s seven studio albums is excellent; however, the Chicago band reached its zenith with their second LP Millions Now Living Will Never Die (1996).

Millions begins with “Djed”. This bold, 20-minute track (which takes up half the album) is essentially a suite, with various movements in different genres. “Djed” begins with an ambient “thunderstorm” section, which eventually gives way to a chugging "motorik" groove. After a few minutes, the drums drop out and we start hearing the nuanced repetitions characteristic of minimalist music (a la Philip Glass, Steve Reich, et al).

At about the 14-minute mark the sound starts cutting out, making you wonder if your CD is defective. In fact, it’s engineer John McEntire systematically alternating silence and sound, in a rhythm suggestive of a South Sea Island ritual. Eventually the track closes out with slow indie rock.

This is not to say that the other tracks pale in comparison. The atmospheric, tempo-shifting “Glass Museum” may contain the best use of the xylophone in rock music. The bass guitar-led “The Taut and the Tame” sounds like something that Yes might have produced in the mid-70’s. The closing track, the somber “Along the Banks of Rivers”, would not be out of place in a spaghetti Western.

You can hear Millions in its entirety at

After that, let your “Tortoise phase” begin.

**** (out of four)