Sunday, June 14, 2015

WAXING OUR EARS (June 2015)

The concept is this: It's my mid-year round up.  I will be posting as many reviews reviews as possible until I catch up.  We will see.

Here is everything as of June, 2015....

Enjoy.
-Pat Pierson (editor boy)
________________________________________

ROMAN A CLEF
Abandonware 
(Infinite Best)

It's interesting to note that if anyone hears this album, most will not get the obvious reference point which is mainly Prefab Sprout's Steve McQueen (aka Two Wheels Good) LP from 1985. And as much as THAT's the point, in the end it's neither here nor there (although I will make note of it as you will see). This ain't The Rutles.  

In many ways it's an obvious decision to unearth what should've been a template for future generations and throw it out to the general public of 2015.  What the hell.  To me it felt like the most obvious of choices that modern pop should've made, and sure there was some sonic kinship with Tears For Fears, but in the end, nothing ever quite captured the overall magic and fleeting wonder that Steve McQueen had. Well, that is, until now.

But here's some back info on Prefab Sprout:
What made Prefab Sprout so unique were several converging forces surrounding the muse of singer-songwriter Paddy McAloon. Quirky and idiosyncratic, Paddy had debuted in 1984 (Swoon) with a heady batch of twisted songs that were sometimes too busy for their own good. It also lacked what would be the key forces that created the ultimate pop machine Prefab Sprout became from 1985-1990; producer Thomas Dolby and drummer Neil Conti (who joined after the recording of Swoon).  
Wendy Smith & Paddy McAloon 1985

Years later, stories would expose in closer detail what made Steve McQueen such the astonishing accomplishment, especially in light of such a so-so, yet ambitious, debut.  These deets were the involvement of producer of Thomas Dolby who really created a sound for the band, mixing the all important co-ed vocals of Paddy and Wendy Smith to optimum effect.  Glorious glorious.  And the other very very integral addition of a drummer who so unselfishly lit the performances of the band with some existential intangible verve. It was also Dolby who dug through the already overflowing basket of songs to really help focus in on something cohesive and striking. The end result was one of the greatest albums of all time. 

Fast Forward To 2015:
So, here's something that throws the universe of pop a very strange curve ball.  Not that something substantial and genius shouldn't come out of an American-based indie pop collective, but usually, it's a mixed bag.  
Roman A Clef

Roman A Clef is the project of two members of A Sunny Day In Glasgow (Ryan Newmyer and Jen Goma) and producer Kurt Fledman from Ice Choir. Studious and introspective beings they must be to connect with such a distant source and deliver fresh, a set of eight songs that capture the rush of fleeting magic.

This is flat out exquisite pop song craft with performances to match.  They GET the drummer element (although one or two songs have drum machine) and they are truly inspired. Songs are from the heart, but not mawkish.  Everything lives and breathes to expand what seems like a restrictive synth pop mode.    

My only complaint: It's too short.  Here's hoping for Part II.


MY MORNING JACKET
The Waterfall  
(Capitol)

Surprise surprise...  Well, sort of... 

Coming into this I had never fully jumped into the band's output. The only album that totally hooked me was Z.  Beyond their other obvious LP highlights, my favorite stuff has been scattered about on soundtracks (the numerous tracks for Cameron Crowe's film Elizabethtown) and tribute albums (their epic take on The Band's "It Makes No Difference"). 

Too often I sensed that they were not comfortable with being too comfortable.  And that's an admirable stance for a band based in the verities of classic rock.  It's also a very Neil Young thing to do. 

But I always knew they were a great band who could deliver.  They always come across as inspired and intense.  Their only drawback would be when they over extend or try too hard to be something they're not.  Here, they hit the balance perfect.   

The Philly soul moments are on point while their adventurous streak enhances the more challenging material.   In time, the album holds strong with great hooks and an underlying spirit fueled by Jim James' real life experiences.  It's their inhereant wanderlust that has always been part of their magic.  

A newfound lyrical depth (call it wisdom) ties this beaut of an LP together.  Quite the stunner.


RALEGH LONG
Hoverance  
(Gare Du Nord) 

There once was an acronym known as RIYL which stood for "Recommended If You Like."  I always found it way too long and hard to remember and preferred my friend (and fellow Yeah3 scribe) Matt Mac Haffie's "Brings To Mind" as a much more fitting term.

Funny, but as I scan the small amount of press online and check out his Facebook page, there has yet to be any mention of the artists Ralegh falls into context with most significantly. Those artists would be Mojave 3, Beachwood Sparks, and High Llamas.

Main reason those are the ones who jump out is the voice.  It's a soft, yet substantial one with not a ton of range. In the hands of such a gifted artist it's able to transcend and deliver a song deep from a unique heart.  And it all sounds perfectly in place.  And of a place. It's the kind of classic mellow sleeper you always dream of but realize few can deliver. 

There's a smart and economic use of strings in the best early 1970s kind of way.  Think Paul Buckmaster circa 1970-71 and Elton John's Friends soundtrack.  There's also a good sense of brevity with several tracks clocking in (or just under) 2 minutes.  That may be where the Nick Drake connection lies.  10 songs that know their welcome and some that know when to stretch out a little.

The music is mostly piano based, but there's that cool indie folk vibe that has been the stock trade of many a wistful tunesmith these past 15-20 years. Artists like the Pernice Brothers,   Even Johansen (Magnet) and the aforementioned Mojave 3, despite small dividends, have shown the willingness to bear their souls with profound sensitivity and a sharp sense of musical intuitiveness.  

What's that mean?   It's like reinventing the wheel.  Or, at least with the basic tools of pop music, they can once again prove that the uniqueness of the human artist has a way of plying a trade with something very warm and familiar and is able to stand out if they've got the gift.  Ralegh is one.

THE LILAC TIME
No Sad Songs 
(Tapete) 

It's hard to start with Stephen Duffy, especially since most people don't realize the scope of his body of work.  Not that it really matters, but he started out in Duran Duran before Simon Le Bon joined and soon split the band and the college they were attending to pursue his own thing, changing band names like underwear until he hit on Tin Tin (no relation to the early 70s band).  

Duffy's Tin Tin (like the early 70s one) became a one hit wonder with the synth pop smash, "Kiss Me" which put food on the table for a bit of time until it all dried up. By the second half of the '80s Duffy took the unfashionable route of neo-folk, most likely spurred on by the success of bands like The Smiths and Prefab Sprout who had brought into the post-punk world a sense of introspection with brave musical creations. It felt like a fresh take on the middle 1960s.  

Duffy formed The Lilac Time (a band name he grabbed from a Nick Drake lyric) in 1986 and sought out a more traditional path than The Smiths (no dirges or songs about comas, etc.) and Prefab Sprout (no jazzy chord changes).  Between 1987 and 1991 the band created a run of solid timeless British folk pop, despite never having any substantial breakthrough on the charts.  Shameful, considering the magnificent highs that some of it scaled. 1989's  Paradise Circus and 1991's  Astronauts were their most substantial works during this run.

Duffy's fateful choice to go solo during the Brit Pop boom of 1992-1998 netted him some deserving respect.  Like other elder pop statesmen (Haircut 100's Nick Heyward and The Specials' Terry Hall) in search of valid career footing in that all too clique-heavy buzz-crazed UK pop scene, Duffy reinvented himself and stood tall with intelligent pop-savvy records that were welcome additions to stuff like Blur and Pulp.

In 1999, Duffy reformed The Lilac Time with his brother, Nick.  Since then, the band has been his constant source of musical output.  1999's return to band-life, Looking For A Day In The Night, was a true majestic masterpiece.  An unrecognized classic.  

Over these past 16 years, the band has kept the course with varying degrees of greatness but never quite as sharp and inspired as his late 90s work.  Of course, such a dip only meant he was human.  The overall consistency was still very impressive with nary a sense that the aesthetic and artistic vision was in peril.

It seems like Stephen knew that the muse needed a break.  No Sad Songs is the band's first release since 2007's Runout Groove.  And the wait has been to our benefit. The songs and performance have a consistency more in line with his highest achievements.  The catch with all Lilac Time albums is that the listener needs to give the music time to open up and sink in.

No Sad Songs, like all of their best moments, sounds best during changes of season where there's reflection and down time.  Very few songwriters are as aptly gifted as Stephen for striking such a tone.  The only change in scenery now, is a sense of optimism (ergo the title) which is most likely tied to Duffy's marriage to band member Claire Worrall.  But it's hardly a change in musical setting.  The stark, yet rich production captures the acoustics very much the way fans have known since the debut.  And in the hands of inspired musicians like this, it never gets old.

Welcome back.

FATHER JOHN MISTY
I Love You Honeybear 
(Sub Pop)

For those who don't know, Joshua Tillman (our beloved Father John Misty) spent many a year out in the wilderness of the DIY world as this desolate voice with minimal backing cranking out LPs and EPs at an almost early 70s Elton John pace.  He was also a member of Fleet Foxes between 2008 and 2012.

During those years he remained relatively obscure most likely due to the fact that most of his releases varied little in musical approach despite a vast and fervorous lyrical scope full of twisted Americana and literary dye. 

Upon reflection (I discovered this backlog after the fact) it can all sound like a never ending outtake reel of early Red House Painters recordings. Tillman's voice bears a strong resemblance to RHP singer Mark Kozelek's. 

It wasn't until 2012 when he appeared as Father John Misty (his various musical outpourings between 2003-2012 were as J. Tillman) that he expanded his sonic palette. With Fear Fun he went legit, expanding into rock and psychedelia (or, as the kids like to call it, Chamber Pop) whilst never losing his dark folk underpinnings.  Finally, Tillman's song craft was given the technicolor treatment.  And the results were nothing less than brilliant.

Here in 2105, Tillman's return was quite the buzz and rightfully so.  The brilliance was intact. I Love You Honeybear is on equal footing with its stunning predecessor. 

After countless spins these past months many ghosts of the past enter and exit. Whether it's a whiff of some late '60s movie theme (think Midnight Cowboy) or some lost Glen Campbell song from the pen Jimmy Webb, there's an intense sense of inspired beauty that never sounds like duplication.  

Tillman's deeply personal and sometimes shocking lyrics keep the jarring reality of his worldview front and center.   Modern day musical counterpoints (at least from the past 20 years) are the aforementioned Red House Painters, Pernice Brothers, Grant Lee Buffalo, My Morning Jacket, and Ed Harcourt.  

Seeing as this year unfolds, this already classic LP will definitely stand high and mighty amongst the year's best.  And it is one the most exciting success stories in indie land.  Someone who has got the magic touch.  And that voice from the gods. 

For the ages.


GARY FRENAY
File Under Pop Vocal  
(Northside) 

Gary's history dates back to the 1970s with The Flashcubes, who are still a real creative machine this far on. Their 2012 tribute to Roy Wood (Sportin' Wood) aptly showed they were still a force to be reckoned with and had something substantial to add to the 21st century pop landscape.  

The same goes for this, his third solo album, which, conceptually, is a more fully realized LP than his other solo works (1993's mostly acoustic Armory Square and 1996's eclectic Jigsaw People).  From the song choices down to the big scope production and the sharp packaging, FUPV showcases Frenay's gifts full scale.  

A couple of key things have changed since his last solo outing nearly 20 years ago. Frenay's circle of musical friends has grown, including his son (literally) Nick Frenay who figures prominently on some of the more Bacharach-style instrumentations.  Also, modern technology has allowed producer/drummer Tommy Allen to create an album that sounds like a big budget production without ever stepping foot in a gigantic studio with a wrecking crew. 

Beginning with a few choice tracks, Tommy and Gary slowly brainstormed a relatively modest concept for a pop album.  And as time progressed, the bigger (LP) picture appeared.  Frenay's vision of creating a body of songs inspired by the classic pop that emanated from AM radios between 1964 and 1975 took hold.

Gary Frenay
Not that it's an odd approach, but the stoic nature needed to create an album these days with the wishes that whoever hears it will take the time to let it play without interruption is, shall we say, wishful thinking.  But alas, FUPV does exactly that.  That is, if you are willing to let it into your crazy 21st century tech-filled world.  These tunes may harken back to the melodic sensibilities of previous eras, but they are truly modern.  

Frenay, with Allen's assistance, has enlisted an array of musicians to color and shape songs that stylistically reference Elvis Costello, Todd Rundgren, Burt Bacharach, The Carpenters, and Brain Wilson.  All of it is done with eyes looking forward.  Which is an uncanny and thrifty musical trick.  Skilled boys these men be.

Out of the gate, FUPV begins in classic Frenay power pop fashion with "Blue Topaz" which brims with Attractions-like verve and some twists that echo the Costello-McCartney classic, "Veronica." That's followed by "I Forgot How Good Love Feels;"  a natural '70s pop tune fitted with an '80s Tears For Fears "Everybody Wants To Rule The World" outline.  A gem.
drummer/producer- Tommy Allen

Other standouts: a stellar take on the rare Brain Wilson tune, "It's Like Heaven" (a la Shaun Cassidy's 1978 version).  Frenay's version fleshes it out further with some innate harmony vocals (a break near the song's end) and some killer Harrison-esque slide guitar.  

The sleeper track is "We Could Be Brothers" which, unlike most of album, doesn't have an immediate musical pinpoint.  Whereas others connect to some distant melodic source of inspiration, "We Could Be Brothers" gathers power as it progresses with  production and performance.  Incredible feat, considering some of the players were nearly 7000 miles apart.  

Frenay's love for classic adult contemporary pop (Burt Bacharach, The Carpenters) is unabashed on tracks like "It's Your Heart" (a dead ringer for an outtake from Costello and Bacharach's Painted By Memory) and "You're Only Hurting Yourself;" a not so distant cousin for what sounds like Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds' lost follow up hit to "Falling In Love."

Frenay & Son (Nick)
"Everything But Love" is the other classic in waiting dating back to Frenay's days with Screen Test. Timeless pop that seems effortless but is the product of a craftsmen at his peak, akin to Marshall Crenshaw's most effective and introspective tunes. Marshall, not so accidentally, appears on the track.

As the cries of the Death of The LP echo across the planet and get blogged about via Bob Lefsetz and the like, it's artists like Frenay who so valiantly remind us that such things are for fools who deny themselves the ability to open their ears and allow that crazy byproduct known as time to be part of their lives. (Yeah, I know it's easier said than done.)  

Of course, the great songs are a definite plus. With Frenay you're in good hands.





4 comments:

  1. I am in the minority who still listens to a phsyical cd and listens to it from start to finish- no snigle downloads (or any) for me. I absolutely love this album. Just great recording and lyrics. I thought "We Could Be Bothers" stood out from first listen, along with "It's Like Heaven". So refreshing to hear this infulenced by the glory AM radio days. Fantastic review. And thanks Gary to keeping this music alive. And what a perfect title for the album!

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