CD Review: Styx, Big Bang Theory

Well, rock me over with a feather – Styx‘s new CD is damn good. Since it’s a collection of covers, fans who’ve stuck with the band all this time may have less reason to complain about Dennis DeYoung’s absence than they otherwise would. Or not. In any case, those who loved Styx for “Lady” and “Babe” might want to look elsewhere for their Styx fix – this is a guitar-heavy rock album with not a single keyboardy ballad. But its song choices are inspired, and with a few exceptions the interpretations are both loving and powerful.

The band, which since 1999 has included singer-keyboardist Lawrence Gowan along with original frontmen Tommy Shaw and James Young, does a fine version of the hard-to-cover “I Am the Walrus,” but won me over with The Who’s “I Can See For Miles,” sung by Shaw in a clear tenor that has lost neither its sweetness nor its authority through the decades. Shaw is less well suited to “Summer In the City,” which is listenable but in my opinion calls for ballsier vocals. But “Can’t Find My Way Home” is an excellent (if obvious) choice to focus on his strong high register (although it’s hard to imagine anyone really screwing up this incredible Blind Faith classic). The acoustic guitar work is exquisite.

Shaw also sings the blues-rock standard “One Way Out” with a good amount of soul, and the band, including longtime drummer Todd Sucherman and new bassist Ricky Phillips, really kicks out the jams on it. But the CD’s highlight for me is the Gowan-sung “Salty Dog,” a beautiful Procol Harum opus done by Styx with drama and passion.

A surprise one-minute version of “Find the Cost of Freedom” leads into an effective cover of Free’s “Wishing Well,” which, along with “I Don’t Need No Doctor” (Humble Pie) and the very obscure “Talkin’ About the Good Times” (The Pretty Things) show the band’s ability to make something new and vital out of songs pulled from pretty deep in the classic rock catalog. Gowan is not DeYoung; adding him to the mix seems to have turned Styx into the full-tilt rock band it always seemed to only partially be.

Which is interesting, because James Young, always Styx’s “heavier” element, is still a big part of the band, and his vocals are the same as they ever were. Which is to say, they haven’t gotten worse. OK, I was never much of a Young fan. To me, he always sounded heavy-metal-lite, or as if he were trying a little too hard to be bad-ass. Still, I rather like “It Don’t Make Sense (You Can’t Make Peace),” a scruffy, late Willie Dixon shuffle with which I was not familiar. And “Locomotive Breath” is another song that’s pretty much impossible to mess up; this version won’t blow your mind, but it does have some vocal harmonies and octaves that add something to Tull’s original conception. Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” seems too gutsy a song for Young to convince on, though the wailing guitars and tribal drumming rock as hard as they can.

The CD closes with a slowed-down, acoustic-y version of Styx’s own “Blue Collar Man.” This wasn’t a great song in the first place, but it does well by this new version, with Shaw at his most emotional, and piano by the late Johnnie Johnson, whose appearance (along with that of original Styx bassist Chuck Panozzo) points up the links that connect modern rock to the classic bands of the genre and further back to the origins of rock and roll. The best cover CDs do this, and this is one such.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

CD REVIEWS: Gentle Giant – Freehand & In a Glass House

Recently I read Jan Swofford’s justly lauded biography of Johannes Brahms. Listening to, thinking, and talking about little but Brahms for several weeks, I discovered that among casual classical music listeners appreciating Brahms’s music is commonly thought to require more concentrated brain power and deeper understanding than music by certain other composers, such as Mozart, or, ironically, the highly mathematical Bach.

Brahms’s not entirely fair reputation as the thinking person’s classical music has a more recent analogue among progressive rock bands: Gentle Giant, indisputably one of the genre’s greats, is often thought of – when remembered at all – as a band that made intricate, interesting but rather soulless music. Now, founding member Derek Shulman’s own DRT Entertainment label is re-releasing seven of the band’s albums, along with additional material, affording an excellent opportunity to both re-evaluate this classic music and expose new audiences to it.

Progressive rock’s star has fallen pretty low. When we think of bands like Yes, Rush, and Emerson Lake and Palmer we tend to remember the hyperseriousness and symphonic bombast that characterised those bands at their worst, forgetting their musicianship and originality and the excitement they engendered in audiences who in the ’70s looked to rock – hard as this may be to believe today – for musical adventure, not just pretty faces and a beat, or sullen anger.

Current bands that accept the moniker “progressive rock” tend to be of the heavy metal variety; we don’t apply it to inventive bands with a lighter, often humorous touch, like They Might Be Giants or Primus, whom we tend to think of instead as one-of-a-kind oddities. But they’re not. Even a band with a unique, unmistakeable sensibility and sound doesn’t exist in a vacuum either in space or in time. It’s well worth recalling the history going back to the late 1960s of extraordinarily creative, composed concert music played by rock bands to large and cheering, if stoned, audiences.

Exhibit A: Gentle Giant at the Calderone Theater in Hempstead, New York, where I saw them in the late 1970s. Just a bit earlier, in ’76, they’d recorded a live album there called Free Hand. It and In a Glass House (from the same year) are the first two releases in the current 35th anniversary reissue series. Remastered, the recordings sound fresh, not at all dated. Free Hand is the slightly more pop-oriented, playful record; In a Glass House has longer, more avant-garde pieces (though the band does rock out sometimes, as in “Experience” and “The Runaway”). Together the two releases demonstrate the band’s mastery of a whole orchestra of instruments and their absorption of a head-exploding variety of forms: from hard rock, soul and the Beatles to Stravinsky, Celtic dances and mediaeval canons.

Saying Gentle Giant’s music is cerebral just means that it makes your brain dance, and what could be wrong with that? Not that you couldn’t move your body too to songs like “Just The Same” and “Free Hand.” It’s accessible music that’s loaded with musicianly wizardry but in spirit only a modest leap from the serious pop-rock of The Moody Blues, Jethro Tull (circa Warchild or Thick as a Brick), or Gentle Giant’s own earlier, pop incarnation as Simon Dupree and the Big Sound. This is the right time for a reconsideration of Gentle Giant, and the high quality of these reissues bodes well for the rest, due later this year.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

Book Review: Baby of Bataan

Escaping difficult family circumstances, Joseph Quitman Johnson enlisted in the US army at the age of fourteen and was stationed with the 31st Infantry in the Philippines in April 1941. After Pearl Harbor, his coming-of-age adventure turned into a nightmare of combat and suffering. Johnson survived shelling and hand-to-hand combat, escaped from the famous Bataan Death March, and ended up a Japanese prisoner of war for nearly four years. Through illness, injuries, the deaths of his buddies and the sometimes extreme cruelty of his captors and conditions, the underage Johnson lived to tell the tale through a combination of quick wits, constitutional toughness, heroism and sheer luck.

Johnson’s account of his childhood and of his time stationed in the Philippines before the US entered the war is as interesting as the later war stories. Scrounging to help his mother put food on the table, traveling the country, working the stables with his father and encountering the era’s greatest celebrity, Seabiscuit – these tales are sketched just enough to give a clue as to where the strength of character came from that enabled Johnson to survive his later ordeals. The characters he meets on the streets of Manila during leaves, the trouble he gets into, and the pleasures and pitfalls of life on the base all come vividly to life on the page. Having fallen for a young pregnant Filipino prostitute, Johnson saves her from a terrible fate, then – when the war is about to come to the city – personally engineers the rescue of all the girls in the church-run refuge for unwed mothers where he’d found her a home.

Johnson’s time in combat is full of the confusion, terror and unexpected heroism that seem always to characterize the battlefield, no matter what century or who the combatants are. After his capture, he is starved, beaten, worked to the bone, imprisoned in the Japanese equivalent of the Hanoi Hilton, flung into the holds of hell ships, and forced to witness friends’ executions, but through it all he retains the core of his humanity and never loses sight of his captors’. He remembers the small mercies along with the terrible cruelties, and he makes no excuses for seizing every possible advantage in order to survive.

It’s a privilege to read this first-person account from the Greatest Generation. Johnson’s excellent memory for both circumstantial and emotional detail make it a captivating and moving memoir. Do not approach this book expecting a literary masterpiece. Johnson’s workmanlike prose is not aided by the editing, which seems cursory at best (grammatical imprecision and missing punctuation abound). But it’s far better to have this story in slightly rough form than not to have it at all. There have been many World War Two memoirs, but this may well be one of the last to be published. The reason it is remarkable, however, is the reason every such story is remarkable. Each is both unique and universal, and we cannot have too many of them. They remind us how terrible it is when armies of human beings go into battle, and how decisions to send them there must be taken for only the very best of reasons.

Baby of Bataan is available here at

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

INDIE ROUND-UP for May 5 2005

It’s only natural that a male-dominated music industry should use its promotional juggernaut to turn attractive female singers into icons. What’s more interesting is when it tries to reverse the process and turn icons and other cute things into singers. Lil Jon, who is collaborating with the much-less-stupid-than-she-looks Paris Hilton on a CD, is quoted in the New York Times as saying that people told him “‘You’ve got to be kidding, she can’t sing,’… But it didn’t really matter to me because she is sexy. And if you can capture that on a record, she could easily sell a million quick.” Meanwhile Paula Abdul is in trouble for allegedly coaching an American Idol contestant with whom she was also secretly romantically involved. The thought of Paula Abdul – a good dancer and choreographer, not a bad actress, but not even remotely a singer – “coaching” a contestant in a singing competition just made me laugh. Then there’s J-Lo – ’nuff said.

INDIE ROUND-UP for May 5 2005

CD: Third Road Home, Venus In Retrograde

So, call me a wacko, but I prefer singers who can sing, like Third Road Home’s Trinity Demask. The Colorado singer-songwriter and her husband, multi-string-guy Tom Demask, have created (mostly in their living room) a very nice-sounding Americana CD. In well-written songs documenting the landscape of life, the contrast between Trinity Demask’s plaintive tone and the lyrics’ mostly positive outlook gives the whole production the natural tension that good music is all about. There’s nothing adventuresome about Third Road Home, but with vivid lyrics, good melodies and strong choruses – as in the lively songs “Awakening,” “Come Undone” and “Whatever Is,” the sturdy ballad “True North,” and the lovely, whispery “Not the Same” – you don’t need to reinvent the wheel or jump off any cliffs to make a beautiful sound.

The songs can go slightly awry when their lyrics do too much telling and not enough showing. “Here With You Today” has some vivid lines (“Joy rides and broken-down cars/Searching for clarity in smoky bars/Desert sun, icy rain/Hearing that same old song again” but also some dry wordiness: “All the timely misfortunes, all the turns that left me open/Decisions that I feared from opportunity had led me astray/Have led me here to you today.” But the only sizable flaw on this CD is the inclusion of a few weak non-originals. The boring “Make It Plain” and the awful “The Distance Between You and I” stick out like sore thumbs (and not just because of the misbegotten grammar) from this otherwise sweet-sounding and tasteful collection. Fortunately Trinity Demask, the group’s main songwriter, writes as well as she sings. She and her able partner and team have made a valuable addition to the acoustic-Americana shelf.

CD: Arlan Feiles, Razing a Nation (The Ballad of a New Lone Ranger)

Moving from the music of sweetness to the music of pain, we encounter Arlan Feiles, a folk troubador from New York City with a penchant for war stories. Sometimes you can really hear in people’s music where they make their home, and the passionate intensity in Feiles’s voice and melodies does indeed suggest the oppressiveness that sometimes makes city life tough to bear. The songs are about soldiers, sometimes literally, other times using battle imagery to express a lover’s feelings, almost always looking at life as a battle to be fought. “I Fell” is a rare exception, a simple love song with only a tiny touch of melancholy.

Throughout the CD Feiles’s quavery voice, half Adam Duritz and half Dave Matthews, stands front and center against the plain acoustic-guitar background. Other than a little harmonica, occasional piano (all played feelingly by Feiles) and a few backing vocals, that’s all there is, but it’s enough.

The CD is almost a concept album, an extended tableau of one man’s stand for honor and love against opposing forces. My only complaint is that there’s too much sameness of tone to merit a thirteen-song, 50-minute opus. Once you get seven or eight songs in, you’ve gotten the picture and the singing is starting to sound whiny. (But don’t miss the Dylanesque “I Will Come For You” near the end.)

EP: Central Services, self-titled

If you’re in the mood for some jaunty rock with one leg in the late 60s and one in the present, you could do a lot worse than Central Services. Moving from deft power-pop to wavy acoustic grooves, the Seattle group has a knack for harmonies and hooks. Kevin Emerson, who is also the drummer for Math and Physics Club, has a controlled, airy tenor that isn’t terribly strong but works nicely with the band’s delicate arrangements. His sensibility as a songwriter has a subtle dark side, too, as evidenced by “Perfect Drug.”

Their press materials reference Fountains of Wayne and Ben Folds, but they’re neither as hard as the former nor as syrupy as the latter, and their sound harks back to the era of the Byrds and the Turtles as much as it nods to contemporary pop fauna. Though there’s nothing quite as catchy here as “Stacy’s Mom” or “Eleanor,” it’s a promising start for Emerson and his talented crew.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

National ID Cards for US Citizens

When I was a kid I did quite a bit of traveling with my family, mostly in Europe. What made America different from the other countries, my Dad would tell me, was that we didn’t have to carry identification just to exist. In America, a policeman couldn’t just stop you on the street and demand that you prove who you are.

If the Republicans who control the Legislature have their way, that America will soon be but a nostalgic memory. Under a proposal from Rep. David Dreier (R-CA), you’ll need to carry a new type of electronically encoded Social Security card. But “it’s not a national ID card,” Dreier explains. “It will only be required for people looking for a new job.”

Ah. So if you never need to change jobs, or if you prefer to remain unemployed (or perhaps join the everpresent underground economy), you can do without the card. It’s comforting to know our civil liberties will be protected thus. The card will even say, “This card shall not be used for the purpose of identification.” Well, then I guess everything’s just hunky-dory.

Across the pond in Britain, a proposal for national ID cards is a huge issue, but so far there’s been little evidence of a public outcry over the US proposal. Let’s hope the American citizenry catches on soon. But the odds are against it. The sneaky bastards are attaching this so-called “Real ID” to the bill funding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Al Barger’s notes in these pages notwithstanding, my guess is the American public is going to just roll over and take it.

Incidentally, it’s also yet another unfunded mandate to the states, whose driver’s licenses are being co-opted and turned into these de facto national identity cards. States’-rights advocate Ronald Reagan has probably been turning in his grave at least since “No Child Left Behind.” Now he must really be in a spin cycle.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]