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)

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 stadium 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)