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)

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Aphrodite's Child - "666: The Apocalypse of St. John"

Aphrodite’s Child is not an easy band to describe. The Greek quartet (whose principal songwriter Vangelis would go on to “Chariots of Fire” fame) released three albums between 1968 and 1972. Today, we review their third album, 666: The Apocalypse of St. John.

Nominally based upon the book of Revelation, the double album tells the story of a circus act based on the apocalypse – while the actual apocalypse takes place outside the tent. It’s a more cohesive concept than Sgt. Pepper, but less so than Tommy or The Wall.

The music can be loosely classified as psychedelic prog rock, but the band also draws from a wide variety of other genres, most notably jazz (“Tribulation”), funk (“The Beast”), and Middle Eastern music (“The Lamb”).

The falsetto-based “Four Horsemen” foreshadows the classic Yes sound. Jon Anderson cited 666 as an influence (and went on to collaborate with Vangelis). “Hic et Nunc” (“Here and Now”) could have easily been a hit single. The album’s most memorable track, “∞”, consists of a woman chanting “I was, I am, I am to come I was” while faking (or having) an orgasm.

666’s penultimate track, the 19-minute “All the Seats Were Occupied”, is a sound collage incorporating samples from the previous songs. Its swirling chaos is similar in nature to the epilogue of Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.

This is not to say that 666 is flawless. Some of the spoken word passages are cheesier than Kraft macaroni. (“Seven Trumpets”, in particular, sounds like it could have come from a Monty Python skit.) But the instrumental passages are deftly played, and Demis Roussos’ liturgical-sounding lead vocals are truly unique. 666 may not be as essential to your record collection as 2112 or The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, but it certainly paved the way for both.

*** (out of four)

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Sharon'SISTER - "Steeped"

Spare Parts was a cover band that played extensively throughout Toronto and southern Ontario in the 1990’s. In 1996, they released Steeped, an album of their original material under the moniker Sharon’SISTER.

What distinguishes Sharon’SISTER from other melodic hard rock bands is the strong caliber of the songwriting. Steeped boasts several standout tracks: the opener “I’ll Find My Way Home”, “Head Under Pressure”, the ebullient title track, and – perhaps the best song on the disc – “Give Me Love”. Other highlights include the power ballad “I Still Believe” and a cover of U2’s “Running to Stand Still”.

Then there’s the incredible musicianship. Lead vocalist Maureen Leeson is one of the finest singers I’ve ever heard. (Imagine the power of Ann Wilson with the tone purity of Ella Fitzgerald.) The rhythm section consists of the powerful yet precise drummer Duanne Welsh and the subtle (but funky) bass playing of Jaimie Vernon.

Be sure to play Steeped loud; otherwise it'll be drowned out by the "party in the back".

The only fly in the ointment is Geoff Wilson’s “hair metal” guitar sound (already obsolete long before 1996). Still, Sharon’SISTER rocked solidly enough that, when Terry Draper of Klaatu released his first solo album, he chose them as his backing band. (

Sadly, Sharon’SISTER appears to have broken up, but in 2013, Steeped was released digitally with six bonus tracks, including killer covers of Janis Joplin’s “Move Over” and the Beatles’ “Oh! Darling”.

So… why didn’t Sharon’SISTER make it big? Was the band’s melodic hard rock at odds with the grunge and rap dominating the charts? Was it because their female lead singer wasn’t built like Shania Twain? Whatever the reason, Steeped is yet another entry in a long list of albums that never found the audience they deserved.

**** (out of four)

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Pink Beam - "Big Vacation"

The Rockford-based trio Pink Beam first came on to the scene with their debut EP For You, I’m Over the Moon (2014). In 2016, the band added a second guitarist and recorded their first full-length album Big Vacation.

The diverse array of styles on Big Vacation thwart any attempt to categorize Pink Beam, but a reasonable description might be “melodic garage rock”. The playing is ragged (John Tallman’s high-pitched wail, in particular, is an acquired taste), but the melodies here are strong, keeping Big Vacation from being just another “indie” album.

There are no roaring guitar solos. The vocals are buried deep in the mix. Big Vacation is decidedly a team effort, with the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

As stated before, Big Vacation is indie garage rock, but within that framework Pink Beam covers an impressive variety of genres: Merseybeat (“Floozy”), noise-rock (“Vitamins”), dreamy psychedelia (“Sleep When You Are Dead”), and relaxed 6/8 shuffles (“Michael”). No two songs on this disc are the same.

The themes are dark (“This I Where I’m From”, for example, chronicles the lives of a few denizens from Rockford’s lower strata), but the overall vibe of Big Vacation is fun.

So, who do Pink Beam sound like? Weezer comes to mind, obviously, but so do The Shins, The Allah-Lahs, and that *other* melodic rock band from Rockford.

It’s a shame I missed this album when it came out last year, but I’m going to make up for lost time and wear this disc out.

*** (out of four)