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)

Monday, August 7, 2017

Cornershop - "When I Was Born for the 7th Time"

When the Beatles laid down the sitar track to “Norwegian Wood”, it didn’t have a lasting impact. A few artists hopped on the bandwagon (the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” and Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman”), but, by 1968, the fad had more or less played itself out.

Fast forward 30 years, and London is full of British-born Asians, raised with their parents’ culture, but also immersed in the modern music of London’s street scene.

One of these was Tjinder Singh, founder of the band Cornershop. Like Beck, Cornershop fused hip-hop and electronic elements with lo-fi indie rock. The new ingredient was Indian music, with sitars and dholkis sitting side by side with drums and bass guitars.

Cornershop’s earliest efforts straddled Britpop and Indian music, but by the time of the band’s third album When I Was Born for the 7th Time (1997), Singh had learned to fuse these elements seamlessly. The droning tambouras over the drum loops in “It’s Indian Tobacco My Friend” call to mind the trancier elements of dance music. “Butter the Soul” blends a cartoonishly funky groove with hip-hop “scratching” sounds. The album’s hit single, “Brimful of Asha”, namechecks a list of popular Bollywood actors.

Singh and his bandmates don’t exactly “stretch out” (“Brimful of Asha” contains only three chords) but there are some interesting electronic experiments. “When the Light Appears Boy” contains a vocal sample from Allen Ginsberg. “What Is Happening” is a sound collage worthy of Stockhausen. The boldest track is a cover of “Norwegian Wood”, sung in Punjabi (which received Yoko Ono’s blessing).

When I Was Born… would be eclipsed commercially (and critically) by Radiohead’s OK Computer, which came out around the same time, even though a Fatboy Slim remix of “Brimful of Asha” went to #1 in the UK. But When I Was Born… is still worth having. There aren’t that many albums which sound both retro and futuristic.

***1/2 (out of four)

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Allan Sherman - "For Swingin' Livers Only!"

There is an episode of The Simpsons where Homer meets “Weird Al” Yankovic.

Homer: Did you get the two songs I sent you? Which one did you like better?
Al: Actually, Homer, they were pretty much the same.
Homer (under his breath): Yeah… like you and Allan Sherman.

Before Weird Al, there was Allan Sherman. Sherman took popular songs of the day and imbued them with Jewish humor (e.g. “Won’t You Come Home, Disraeli?”, “Bye Bye Blumberg”). In 1963 he hit pay dirt with his Jew-out-of-water summer camp parody “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah”. The song won a Grammy, and the LP would be the last comedy album to reach #1 until Weird Al’s Mandatory Fun fifty years later.

Today we review Sherman’s sixth album For Swingin’ Livers Only. Although his debut LP My Son the Folksinger (1962) remains his best, Swingin’ Livers is still prime Sherman. Jewish references still abound (“Shine On, Harvey Bloom”), but most of the humor here reaches across ethnic boundaries (“Beautiful Teamsters”, “Your Mother’s Here to Stay”). “Grow, Mrs. Goldfarb” (a paean to a morbidly obese woman sung to the tune of “Glow, Little Glow Worm”) is an interesting choice, given that Sherman was overweight himself. “Pop Hates the Beatles” sounds petulant today, but accurately captured the mindset of parents in 1964. The most interesting track, “The Twelve Gifts of Christmas”, satirizes consumer culture (although, as the saying goes, Sherman ain’t seen nothin’ yet).

Special mention must be made of arranger Lou Busch, whose orchestrations supplement Sherman’s humor perfectly. Swingin’ Livers would be the last Sherman album with Busch, and his subsequent albums suffer as a result.

Sherman attempted to keep up with the times (“Draft cards burning on an open fire…”), but as the decade progressed, there was less and less demand for his unique brand of humor. Eventually, his music found its way to a new generation; Weird Al openly acknowledged Sherman as an influence (and included an Allan Sherman album on the cover artwork of his debut LP).

*** (out of four)