Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Klaatu - "Endangered Species"

In the fall of 1976, Klaatu released their eponymous debut album. There were no names of band members, no photographs, no songwriting credits… nothing. This led American audiences to speculate that Klaatu was a clandestine reunion of the Beatles. The rumor was further fueled by the fact that the LP was on Capitol records, the Beatles’ American label.

Eventually, Klaatu was revealed to be a trio of Canadian musicians. The resulting negative backlash ensured their return to obscurity.

However, Klaatu continued to release albums. There was Hope (1977) - criminally underappreciated at the time but now hailed as a prog rock masterpiece – followed by Sir Army Suit (1978).

These last two albums didn’t exactly fly off the shelves, so for Klaatu’s fourth album, Endangered Species (1980), Capitol took matters into their own hands. The album was recorded in LA. Session musicians (including studio veterans Lee Sklar and Tom Scott) and an outside producer (Christopher Bond) were brought in.

No Klaatu album deserves to be called weak, but Endangered Species is generally regarded as their weakest effort. Bond worked extensively with Hall and Oates, and one can hear his effect on the music. The production here is slick and glossy. The multilayered soundscapes of the band’s previous three LP’s are replaced by generic, dated dance pop.

Fortunately, the songs rise above the production. The opening track, “I Can’t Help It”, could have been a hit for Alan Parsons. The Middle-Eastern flourishes of “Howl at the Moon” hark back to Sir Army Suit. “Sell Out, Sell Out” indicates that Klaatu were not completely ignorant of what was happening to them. “All Good Things” is the most poignant a tribute to a pet I’ve ever heard.

Capitol’s attempt to make Klaatu sound like every other Top 40 band proved unsuccessful, and Endangered Species would be the band’s last album to be released in the US. Klaatu’s fifth and final LP (the excellent Magentalane) was released in Canada only.

Endangered Species is only weak when considering the higher-than-normal expectations created by Klaatu’s first three albums. At their best, these guys created music as good and as original as any other band… including that other group on Capitol.

***1/2 (out of four)

Monday, September 17, 2018

Killing Joke - "Pandemonium"

Killing Joke appeared on the scene at the tail end of the punk explosion. Other bands (Metallica, Korn, Soundgarden) would eventually make more aggressive music, but in 1980, Killing Joke’s eponymous debut album was harder and heavier than virtually anything out at that time. (Even the Sex Pistols sounded tame in comparison.)

Technically, Killing Joke would be categorized as “post-punk”: music inspired by punk’s attitude but transcending its minimalism and simplicity. Killing Joke broke away from the pack with noise-guitar, tribal drumming, and dub bass. The resulting sound would influence several genres of music, from metal to grunge to industrial.

After seven more albums and a few lineup changes, the band took a four-year hiatus. The only Killing Joke record to come out during this period was the compilation Laugh? I Nearly Bought One!

While assembling that LP, guitarist Geordie Walker became reacquainted with the band’s original bass player Youth, who suggested reforming the band. The result was 1994’s Pandemonium (the album we are reviewing today).

The riff-heavy title track, with it’s far-Eastern tonalities, picks up where Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” left off. The electronic repetition of “Whiteout” recalls Youth’s remix work for other artists (The Art of Noise, PM Dawn). “Black Moon” borrows a riff from Bauhaus’ “Dark Entries”, while stopping short of plagiarism.

Pandemonium briefly runs out of steam in the middle section. The savagely beautiful “Jana”, in particular, seems to be out of place. But the only serious misstep is the album’s closing track, “Mathematics of Chaos”, in which Walker’s brilliant guitar work is buried beneath a deluge of synthesizers.

Pandemonium eventually gave Killing Joke their well-deserved 15 minutes, especially in the US. (Many Americans thought they were a new band!) Since then, Killing Joke has inspired an entire generation of imitators: Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, and (sadly) Killing Joke themselves nowadays. But Pandemonium is a thrilling listen, ranking only slightly below their early 80’s output.

*** (out of four)

Junkbunny - "Bump"

In an age when any teenager with a computer can make a pristine-sounding digital recording, there’s something about the immediacy of lo-fi recordings that the Panda finds endearing. Today, therefore, we review Bump by Junkbunny.

Junkbunny is one of several musical projects involving Michael J. Bowman (or, as he calls himself, MJB), a songwriter and musician based in New York City. On Bump (2002), MJB is augmented by multi-instrumentalists Alec Cumming and Joel Bachrach.

The music on Bump is melodic, quirky, and refreshingly angst-free, with some songs not even cracking the two-minute mark. The vocals are strong (all three members share singing and songwriting duties). Some melodies (e.g. “Why Don’t You Go Among the Pretty Ones?”) become lodged in your head after just one listen.

Stylistically, this is straight up, fun pop-rock, with occassional punk and country influences (“School Free Drug Zone” and “Normal Human Being”, respectively). But where Junkbunny really shines is in the lyrics. In “Showtime”, MJB thoroughly debunks the myth of the glamorous life of a rock musician:

I’m listed in the Village Voice
But the only people making noise
Are the performers…

The Panda’s favorite track here is “Some Natural History”, in which Bachrach recites a litany of random, made-up zoological facts:

The Patagonian penguin is a most peculiar bird.
He lives on pussy willows and his tongue is always furred.

Bump was released in the UK on Pink Hedgehog Records, and in the US on MJB’s own Semper Lo-Fi label. Used copies still float around on the Internet. It only clocks in at about 25 minutes, but it will consistently be source of great pleasure for your musical sweet tooth.

**** (out of four)

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Joey Molland - "The Pilgrim"

The story of Badfinger is so well known and documented that we will only provide the briefest summary here.

Paul McCartney wrote their first single. George Harrison invited them to play at the Concert for Bangladesh. John Lennon had them play on his Imagine album. With a push like that, they should have been the biggest band in the universe.

Instead, their manager was a crook. While the latter was under investigation, Badfinger’s funds were frozen. With no money coming in, the band members had to go out and get jobs.

This was too much for principal songwriter Pete Ham, who committed suicide in 1975. Another suicide, that of Badfinger’s other main songwriter Tom Evans, followed in 1983.

Today we review The Pilgrim, a 1992 solo LP by Badfinger lead guitarist Joey Molland.

Full disclosure: My own feelings about Mr. Molland are quite negative. While overseeing the mixing of Day After Day (1990) – a recording of a 1974 concert – Molland altered the sequence of songs so that his own compositions took pride of place. Molland also overdubbed vocals, guitars, and a very loud 1990’s-sounding snare drum. In spite of this, I will do my best to judge The Pilgrim on its own merits.

Listeners looking for the sound of classic Badfinger albums like Straight Up or No Dice are going to be disappointed. The Pilgrim is firmly rooted in the arena-rock of the 1980’s. Still, The Pilgrim has its moments. “This n That” is a power pop gem that should have been sequenced far earlier in the running order, while “No One Likes the Rain”, with its Spectoresque wall of sound, grooves along to a “Be My Baby” rhythm.

Mainly, The Pilgrim is a showcase for Molland’s impressive guitar chops. He shreds on the opening track “You Make Me Sick”, and lays down some swampy Joe Walsh-style slide guitar on “Vampire Wedding”. Most impressive is Molland’s emulation of George Harrison’s twin slide guitar sound on “In My Dreams”.

There are no masterpieces on the order of “Baby Blue” or “Day After Day” here. But if you’re starving for song-oriented guitar rock, The Pilgrim fits the bill. Come and get it.

**1/2 (out of four)

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Nitin Sawhney - "London Undersound"

In America we had 9/11. In Britain, it was 7/7. On July 7, 2005, terrorists detonated three bombs on London subway trains (known to locals as “the Underground”), and a fourth bomb on a double decker bus. London Undersound (2008), therefore, is a musical response to 7/7.

Nitin Sawhney has been one of the leading figures in the “Asian underground” music scene since the 1990’s, though the scope of his artistry is considerably wider than this label implies. Classically trained in piano and flamenco guitar, Sawhney also studied sitar, and is fluent in jazz. He has conducted the London Symphony Orchestra, and as a DJ he has mixed manifold genres such as Afro-beat, dubstep, and Asian breakbeat.

Sawhney’s musical background therefore ideally positioned him to formulate a musical response to the attacks in London, one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world.

Once his breakthrough album Beyond Skin (1999) won the South Bank Show Award, Sawhney found himself in high demand, collaborating with the likes of Brian Eno, Shakira, and Nelson Mandela. He was therefore able to draw on a vast reservoir of talent when assembling Undersound, with sundry figures such as Anoushka Shankar and Paul McCartney.

Undersound – not surprisingly – embraces a vast multitude of musical styles. There’s the reggae-influenced “Days of Fire”, the smoky bossa-nova of “Distant Dreams”, and “Daybreak”, an intriguing mixture of Teental lyrics and breakbeats, to name just a few.

Interspersed between the songs are a number of spoken-word “Interludes” (including government minister Jack Straw’s controversial statement that he’d prefer Muslim women to not wear veils).

The term “world music” is thrown around all too often among music circles. However Nitin Sawhney’s London Undersound is one album which is truly global.

**** (out of four)

Monday, April 30, 2018

MC5 - "Kick Out the Jams"

To say the MC5 were ahead of their time is to put it mildly. The Detroit quintet played a fast, aggressive style of hard rock that foreshadowed heavy metal, punk, and grunge.

Under the influence of their manager John Sinclair (founder of the White Panther Party), the MC5 was one of the first bands to openly embrace left-wing politics. They were the only band to perform (for eight hours straight!) at the ill-fated 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago; the show was stopped by police for inciting a riot. Today we review their 1969 debut Kick Out the Jams.

The MC5 were part of a proto-metal movement in Detroit that also included the Stooges. But they also drew from free jazz; many songs emulate the cacophony of John Coltrane and Sun Ra.

Concerned that the wild energy of their live shows couldn’t be captured in a studio setting, Kick Out the Jams was recorded at a 1968 concert in Detroit – a wise move. The gratuitous use of “mother and the f-word” in the title track drew some ire; Hudson’s department stores refused to carry the album. The band responded with a full-page ad declaring “F*** Hudson’s!”  Hudson’s then refused to carry any album from Elektra (the MC5’s label). Eventually, the MC5 were dropped from Elektra.

The quintet’s follow up album (Back in the USA) was produced by Jon Landau (who would go on to produce Bruce Springsteen). Landau exerted more control over the project than the MC5 felt was appropriate. The counterculture politics were gone, while the musical focus was distilled down to a fast-paced blend of 50’s rock (foreshadowing the punk movement a few years later). The band cranked out one more album (1971’s High Time) before collapsing under the weight of drugs. (Two of the band’s members would spend time in federal prison for drug-related offenses.) They would never reunite, until after the untimely death of vocalist Rob Tyner in 1991.

Let us then, remember the MC5 in their prime. Let us “kick out the jams”.

**** (out of four)

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)