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]

What Should I Wear?

Got an interesting voicemail message today: apparently Congressman Tom Reynolds (R-NY) would like the pleasure of my company at a dinner with President Bush and the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Business Advisory Council.

I remain on a number of business mailing lists dating from when my wife and I had a corporation, and I suppose each party works off some sort of registry of companies from which it can seek support. But is the Congressman inviting executives from every company in the state? What if they all accepted? They’d need the world’s biggest pizza.

Maybe the price of admission is very high. Events listed on the NRCC’s events page seem to cost $500 and up for an individual, which doesn’t seem outlandish, although I suppose one with the President in attendance would be at the top end of the scale.

Maybe I really am special. Maybe they read my review of the Tuvan Throat Singers concert and want to discuss international relations. Maybe President Bush wants to invite me to Camp David for a heart-to-heart. Hey, I’m willing to give anyone a chance.

Privacy Groups Combat “Policy Laundering”

Responding to a new sort of globalization, the American Civil Liberties Union and two affiliated groups have announced an initiative to monitor and publicize the practice whereby governments, in the name of security, make cooperative agreements with one another in order to “escape domestic legal and political controls.”

The new generation of RFID-enabled passports, which the US is instituting for its own citizens and also requiring of other nations with which it has visa-waiver agreements, is an example. The privacy groups say that by presenting the rollout of this technology as the result of an international agreement intended to help fight terrorism, the US State Department can claim that the international community endorses the policy while in reality the other nations have been coerced into going along.

“In more and more areas, we are seeing security agencies pushing anti-privacy measures before international groups and foreign governments instead of through the domestic political process,” said Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Project. “This is the strategy we call policy laundering. The security agencies and law enforcement are ‘going global’ – and so must the protection of civil liberties… Law enforcement, military, and intelligence agencies from different nations are increasingly working together out of the public eye to amass new powers.”

Jim Harper, director of information studies at the libertarian think tank the Cato Institute, has said (in an article in Wired) of the plan to embed RFID chips in passports: “In the U.S., it’s a non-starter politically.” It is difficulties caused by that kind of attitude that the privacy groups say policy laundering is intended to avoid.

Tom Ridge, the former US Secretary of Homeland Security and a member of the board of Savi Technology (an RFID contractor for the Department of Homeland Security), is one who believes in the use of RFID technology for personal identification. “It’s another security measure embedded in the U.S. economy,” Ridge said. “Biometrics and RFID will make us safer.”

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

Real Liberal Values

The entrepreneurial spirit that made the US the world’s dominant economy can’t thrive without a strong middle class. But the middle class is being squeezed like a lemon, and soon nothing will be left but the pits.

Our national future dims every day as we fall behind other regions of the world in education, science and technology, culture, and progress towards a just society. When hard-working wage earners can just barely afford to make ends meet, we can’t save money, and we often go into debt and then try to resolve these debts by using the services of companies such as CreditAssociates and others. Then, no longer in the habit of saving, we spend what disposable income we have on iPods, video games, wildly overpriced children’s clothing, and gas-guzzling SUVs.

These habits have the curious effect of propping up the economy by pushing our trade deficit higher and higher. As long as we continue to buy their products, the Chinese and Japanese continue to finance our debt. This house of cards may come crashing down dramatically, or drift away on a breeze, but it certainly cannot stand for much longer. And when it falls, what’s left of the US middle class will be really screwed.

But we’re screwed already. Our federal taxes are used not for the infrastructure of our economy and investments in our future but on a military that’s employed in costly misadventures. Meanwhile the Bush team further reduces the tax burden on the wealthy, not even pretending to believe in any trickle-down economic theory. The benefits to the rich are pure giveaways.

The Democrats in Congress bear a share of the blame. They are as much in thrall to the robber barons as the Republicans are. Worse, the robber barons have actually become indistinguishable from the ruling politicians. The Bush family beds down with the Saudis; Cheney’s corrupt company is conveniently the only one that can handle fuel deliveries in Iraq (did anyone believe that one?); legislation is not only influenced but actually written by representatives of industry, then rubber-stamped by the supposed representatives of the people.

John McCain recognizes it: we must get big business out of the business of the people. But how? Our elected representatives depend on their business pals to get and keep their positions of power. Measures like term limits are useless, as they can always be overturned in the next term. Campaign finance reform bills are like chickens put under the care of the fox.

Liberal values – not far-left socialism, not Quaker pacifism, but the solid American liberal values that brought us, among many other benefits, the 40-hour work week, safety nets for the elderly and infirm, support for the arts (the lifeblood of a society), and, for a time, the highest standard of living in the world – retain some currency, if not with Democratic politicians, at least with Democratic voters. Liberal values hold that government has its place as an essential element in the construction of a thriving and just society. Liberal values hold that the goal of a just society is, in fact, a worthwhile one. (When was the last time you heard a Republican, even with all their railing against the judiciary, mention justice?)

Liberal values are what gave us a strong middle class in the first place. Without a return to liberal values, our country’s collapse will continue, for only united with a sense of its own value can the middle class make a comeback. If substantial segments of the middle class continue to vote Republican, they will vote themselves out of existence, and with them, the hopes of our nation.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

Chips Off The Old Block

The models are about my height – just under six feet tall – yet seem to tower over me in the elevator. Their posture, their svelteness, their perfect hair and the unearthly regularity of their features gives them the aura of demigoddesses. It’s painfully difficult not to stare at them.

The models are on their way to a shoot at a photography studio located in the same building where I work, in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. In fact, this area is known as the Photo District for its concentration of studios and supply houses. But my block has a lot more variety than that would suggest. It is without a doubt the only place in the world where you can find a shooting range (the West Side Rifle & Pistol Range), a strip club, an architect, a major art supply house, and a neogothic church housing a legendary nightclub, all on one block.

There are also more standard businesses: a caterer with a storefront, a couture women’s clothing store, a parking garage. But it’s a noteworthy, newsworthy block, anchored on the west end by Avalon, the nightclub formerly known as the Limelight, Peter Gatien’s notorious den of drug dealing and violence (cf. the recent Macaulay Culkin-Seth Green movie Party Monster.) In the middle of block lies the subdued-looking entrance to the VIP Club, a strip club whose previous owners, according to a recent article in the New York Post, were extorted out of $2.5 million by the Gambino crime syndicate. (These clubs somehow always manage to stay in business, though. Must be the quality of the martinis.) At the eastern end of the block – to make up for all that hard living, I guess – lies a Vitamin Shoppe.

New York City, with its thousands of blocks, is both unfathomably huge and sublimely small. In the very building where I work, a prestigious recording studio – since moved to more spacious quarters elsewhere – birthed Halley DeVestern‘s Sugar Free album. I worked on that album in 1996-97, years before my current day job. We got lunch at the Lemon Lime diner around the corner then; I get lunch there now – but less often, since I’ve started eating healthy. Now I often bring a salad from home and, on nice days, sit in Madison Square Park in the shadow of the New York Life Building’s golden spire. I used to work in that building. I probably used to work in your building, too. I’ll bet you used to work in mine. Let’s have lunch! I’ll fix your computer, and you can sing me a song.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

The Bayoil Indictments

So, it seems a Texas oilman (hey, isn’t there one of those in the White House, too?) and two others have been indicted in the corruption scandal surrounding the Iraqi oil-for-food program of the 1990s. The UN, along with business interests from France and Russia, has been taking a lot of heat about the very same affair from anti-internationalist right-wingers in the US. Maybe this’ll shut them up for a bit. Yes, fellas, follow the money and you’re bound to find some corruption no matter what country you’re in.

These guys face up to 62 years in prison. If they’re convicted, I think they should be made to share a cell with their alleged partner in crime, Saddam Hussein. With limited shower privileges.

CD Review: Victor Wooten, Soul Circus

A “musicians’ musician” is one known primarily as a virtuoso sideplayer rather than an artist in his or her own right. Though such players are usually not household names, major stars utilize their services, and less gifted musicians – especially those who play the same instrument – hold such individuals in awe.

Among electric bassists Victor Wooten stands at the top of the musicians’ musician pantheon. He’s had a substantial career as an artist, but among music fans he remains best known for his work with Bela Fleck. There may be several reasons for this, but one is the mixed focus of his previous solo work. While the musicianship is never less than stellar, some of the work has been too smooth-jazz for many tastes, while at other times Wooten gets into an 80s pop vibe that has needed more hookier songwriting to pull off.

It’s a pleasure to report that, taken a whole, his new CD is his best work yet. Like a lot of virtuoso solo work, it’s complex and self-referential, but it’s almost never self-indulgent, and it boasts solid songwriting, a modern, accessible sound, and smoothly integrated contributions from various guest artists.

“Victa” is the type of personal statement that will be very familiar to rap fans, introducing the artist and his attitude. “Prayer,” one of the disc’s very best tracks, has a simple but tasty hook that sticks in the mind; the different time signatures in verse and chorus somehow add to the grooviness. The highly rhythmic “Natives,” another top track, features Native American Grammy-winner Bill Miller on vocals, flute and percussion.

A jazzy instrumental cover of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love” is followed by the fun and funky “Stay,” whose verse is in 11/8 time. You might not be able to march to it, but you sure could dance to it. “On and On” features the vocals of guest Saundra Williams, whose extreme laid-backitude works better in the background than in front; the song has a pretty chorus, but more powerful lead vocals would have improved it. (The draggy rap by Arrested Development’s Speech, who makes more inspired contributions elsewhere on the album, seems dropped in from nowhere). “Cell Phone” is gimmicky fun, committedly a rap song and featuring cell phone rings actually integrated into the music in an unusually intelligent and pleasurable use of such sound effects.

The title track has a rich soul groove (and if you’ve never heard vocal “slap bass” here’s your chance). “Higher Law” is just so-so, but it’s always interesting to see an all-around player like Wooten (aided by older brother, guitarist Regi) take on rock. In contrast, “Ari’s Eyes” is that rarity, a soft ballad explicitly inspired by the artist’s child that’s not cloyingly sweet. Maybe that’s because it’s mostly instrumental. Normally, hearing someone sing about how much they love their kid just makes me want to retch.

This CD won’t induce any such feelings. Without blatantly showing off (except in the funky ode “Bass Tribute”), Wooten and his team – which includes numerous other members of his preteternaturally talented clan – inject enough variety to satisfy many tastes, while maintaining enough of an overall vision to make the CD hang together well. You could listen carefully and follow the notes and lyrics on the website – that would increase your appreciation of the album – or you could just put it on in your car and hit the highway, or put it on at home and seduce your music-loving lover. Your choice.

Available at

[Cross-published at Blogcritics.]

INDIE ROUND-UP for April 7 2005

This week’s crop of indie releases proves that the slightly amateurish can be more satisfying than the slickly professional(ish) – it’s all about inspiration and having something original to say.

INDIE ROUND-UP for April 7 2005

CD: Tim Young, Red

If you pine for the time when people could simply write songs and sing them, not caring whether someone called them rock, pop, folk, blues, country, or psychedelic – if you miss, I suppose, the late 60s and early 70s – you’ll particularly appreciate this batch of heartfelt songs from New York City troubador Tim Young. Young’s unschooled, urgent vocal delivery and lo-fi aesthetic combined with his solid and energetic guitar playing and fertile creativity places his music at the intersection between urban folk, heartland rock and outsider music.

I mention outsider music because Young’s vocals sometimes get so enthusiastic they become what one might call unmusical. But even with his flaws Tim Young is impossible not to like. Many of the songs are well-crafted; all illustrate the human condition in its complicated glory and shame. The title track, for example, uses nearly surrealistic lyrics to say something that seems both unclear and deeply important:

One time I wanted red hair
I wanted it black I wanted it red
I’m alive I’m not dead
Go on get lost see if I care…
I live in the clouds under the cemetery
So dark in here I can hardly see

“Disaster” sums up this dark take on life in more straightforward fashion: “I’ve done drugs I’ve gone straight/nothin’ ever eased the wait.” But in contrast, another track I really like is the love song “Reason.”

In his wide thematic variety, Young doesn’t always hit the mark; “Torture” sort of is. (Well, it’s not a pleasant listen anyway.) But the unlikeable moments on this long, sixteen-song collection are few. If you like this music at all, you won’t mind listening to a long CD of it. If you need a sonic reference point, think Eric Burdon or Them, but with a softer, more lyrical side and a touch of country. Really, Tim Young mixes genres until there is no genre, just songs. And while there may not be anything on this disc as catchy as “Gloria” or “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” there’s a full hour of meaningful music.

Available at CD Baby

CD: Jack Rooney, What Goes Around

Jack Rooney is another inspired amateur, and I mean that in the positive sense of the noun. “We all contribute our own uniqueness to this world,” he says in his liner notes, “and in that sense, we are all artists.” It’s a good point and a very nice take on humanity. Like Brian Eno circa “Another Green World,” Rooney makes mood pieces, some with vocals, some spacey, others in a light symphonic rock style. The vocals, which carry mostly positive, inspirational messages, are mixed low and sung largely without inflection. This is effective for the style, but at times Rooney’s lack of vocal technique is a drawback, as in the title song, an inspiring track with a hummable melody that’s just a little spoiled by poor intonation.

The primary instrument is the grand piano, which Rooney plays deftly. Then he layers on synthesized tracks, including percussion, which lean some of the music towards modern electronica. The CD would benefit greatly from professional production and mastering, but even in this raw state it’s warm and affecting. Without ever being unmusical, Rooney’s music reminds one of a state or time of innocence, when we weren’t all so jaded and perfectionist about how things “should” sound.

Jack Rooney’s previous CD is available at CD Baby.

EP: Courtney C. Patty, Silhouette of Me

It all goes to show that packaging and production aren’t everything. Singer-songwriter Courtney C. Patty has been on the Pacific Northwest music scene for some time now and released three previous CDs. Her new EP sounds lovely, her performances on guitar and piano and her accompanying musicians are first-rate, and her promotional package and artwork are professional-looking. But on the evidence of this recording, she has yet to find a distinctive voice as a writer and singer.

Strange to say, but even now, halfway through the new decade, female singer-songwriters are copying (consciously or not) Natalie Merchant‘s vocal mannerisms, as is evident right away in this EP’s opening track, “London Bridge.” It’s the best song of the four, but its tale of a relationship’s denouement seems tired, and it just grates on me when people sing “between you and I.” The song has a pleasing acoustic-rock groove and a good chorus, but its promise isn’t fulfilled in the rest of the set. In the underwritten “April Shower” Patty combines a Tori Amos breathiness with that little-girl delivery that too many singer-songwriters use as a shortcut to indicate vulnerability.

The two closing ballads are pretty enough, and tell heartfelt stories, but the music is just too bland to hit home. One wishes Patty’d let loose vocally a bit on these tracks, instead of keeping her voice so close to her chest. The whole EP is a bit like that: writing that’s not quite inspired enough to shine through the tightly controlled performances.

Available at CD Baby

[Cross-published at Blogcritics]

Render Unto Jim…

I’ve had it with remixes.

We started to hear a lot more of them after Moby‘s 1999 album Play got so much, um, play. Today I heard several new remixes of classic Doors songs by the famous likes of Paul Oakenfold and The Crystal Method. Nowadays, indeed, most every time you search the Internet for a certain famous or “classic” song you find remixes.

I never liked ’em much, and now I’m really tired of ’em. So many of them merely set samples from the song over boring dance tracks. What’s bad about that is not the chopping up of the originals but the loss of the chord changes. If you’re going to call it a remix, it should be a re-setting of the actual song. If you keep the melody and remove the chord changes, it’s not the song. A melody and its underlying chords are interdependent, and if you take one of them away, it doesn’t matter what else you add, you’re still left with not-the-song. (I know, a song can be sung a capella. But in that case the listener’s mind supplies the chords silently, or makes them up if the tune is unfamiliar.)

I have nothing against sampling of the sort we typically hear in rap and other mainstream music, that is, re-using another artist’s materials to make a new artistic statement. Nor have I anything against interpreting an old song in a radically new way. What I’m tired of is being told, “Check out my remix of [whatever]” and finding it’s merely the original song disemboweled.

Not-So-Naughty Bits

Maybe it’s because I work in computers for a living and know firsthand the perils of Version 1.0 (of anything), but when it comes to technology, I’m no early adopter.

I’m a Mac specialist, but I learned to use OSX only when I had to support other OSX users. I’m a musician and a music fan, but I only checked out filesharing when I finally felt obligated to have an informed opinion about it. My wife and I were probably the last among our friends to get a DVD player, and we just bought our first digital camera.

We’re even waiting to have kids until technology can make sure they don’t come out depressed. 😉

I think I’m accelerating, though. I just downloaded my first BitTorrent file – a mere four years after the technology debuted.

No, I didn’t really need a collection of 700-odd music files contributed by this year’s crop of South By Southwest (SXSW) festival bands, though I’m happy to have it. And yes, someone could have collected all these MP3s on a single DVD and distributed it by old-fashioned mail. But that would have been a waste of plastic and postage. And more important, it would have been much less cool.

BitTorrent is a true P2P (peer-to-peer) technology. Shared files are served up from the users’ hard drives, not a central server. All you need is a lightweight piece of software and a small text file (the .torrent file) that serves as a pointer to the large file you wish to download. There are other P2P providers such as μTorrent
or Tixati. They all perform the same function and can use the same .torrent files so in the end it’s really down to your preference.

There are BitTorrent “tracker” servers, but they do not host files; rather, they assist your computer to search the Internet for other computers that are sharing or acquiring the same file you want. (A new iteration called eXeemâ„ ¢ even eliminates the tracker servers.) Your computer joins the “swarm” and your client software starts to download bits and pieces of the file from its various sources and put them together on your hard drive. Simultaneously, your computer begins to “serve up” to other members of the swarm the bits it has already downloaded. “Seeding” is encouraged. “Leeching” is not.

I don’t expect to be using BitTorrent to download files that weren’t intended to be shared this way. To download files with BitTorrent you may need to use the best vpn for torrenting just so you don’t get into any trouble with your ISP. I feel guilty downloading songs (though I’ve been known to do it), and I expect I’d feel proportionally guiltier downloading something much bigger, like a movie. Getting my feet wet by downloading a huge (2.6 GB) collection of music by artists of no doubt highly variable quality, most of which I probably won’t have time to listen to anyway, seems rather appropriate, in fact. I contributed to my first swarm, and I contributed to the argument that P2P’s legimitate uses justify its existence and necessitate its availability.

BitTorrent is an incredibly useful and clever technology. It’s being used to distribute magazines like this one, operating systems like Linux, jam band concert recordings (with the blessing of the artists), and, in commerce, as a way for folks with limited bandwidth at their disposal to distribute their digital products more widely than they otherwise could.

It’s also being used extensively for infringing purposes – notably, to share movies. But don’t do that. 🙂

A final note: I also tried downloading a small pornographic Torrent file. Purely for research purposes, you understand. But to view my downloaded file I had to go through such a rigamarole of digital red tape that I gave up. If the governments of the world really want to protect us from cybercrime and cyberterrorism, they should just ask those who run websites like and the rest of the Internet porn industry how it’s done.

More on the Moron

Shame on me. For all my complaints about Maureen Dowd, I somehow failed to notice that she was the only regular female columnist at The New York Times. For that, shame on the Times. In her column today Dowd points out that the Washington Post also has only one female regular.

The situation is actually worse than Dowd thinks, for the number of good female columnists at the inappropriately nicknamed “Grey Lady” is actually zero. Double shame on The Times. Her call for more female columnists is worthy of heeding. And I won’t deny there’s some truth to her complaint that

[w]hile a man writing a column taking on the powerful may be seen as authoritative, a woman doing the same thing may be seen as castrating. If a man writes a scathing piece about men in power, it’s seen as his job; a woman can be cast as an emasculating man-hater. I’m often asked how I can be so “mean” – a question that Tom Friedman, who writes plenty of tough columns, doesn’t get.

My personal observation is that this gender bias has been reduced since the advent of the blogosphere. Maybe the popularity of forums where men and women can post and comment on an equal footing, without having to worry about making a boss or editor happy, has encouraged more opinionated women to speak out (anonymity can be a benefit too), and maybe men are seeing that they can have heated discussions with female antagonists just as easily as they can with fellow men.

Whatever the cause, I believe Dowd is wrong about bloggers. Female bloggers may not equal their male counterparts in numbers (yet), but the female contributors to the blogs I follow (such as the multiblog Blogcritics and the wide-ranging Making Light) are at least as vociferously opinionated as the men.

As for her audience, Dowd notes that although she gets a lot of mail from male readers wanting her comments on their opinion pieces but that “women hardly ever send their own rants.” I suspect that’s because the women are too smart to waste their time corresponding with an intellectual pipsqueak like Dowd. Maybe it’s only men who’ll waste their time reading and reacting to the poor writing and unclear thought processes of such a pundit-wannabee. Only men – like, um, me. Hey – did I just prove my point, or refute it? Hmm…

CD Review: The Matthew Skoller Band, These Kind Of Blues!

The Matthew Skoller Band makes solid, harmonica-heavy, Chicago-style blues. Skoller’s husky voice, like Stevie Ray Vaughn’s, contrasts nicely with his ace band’s smooth (but mercifully un-slick) arrangements, while his virtuoso harp playing lends both pathos and sheen to many of these mostly original tunes.

This, the band’s fourth CD, opens with a couple of straightforward rolling-blues numbers, but moves on to a more interesting musical statement in what I think of as the “lyrical” blues mode with the unabashedly political “Handful of People.” Over a swelling two-chord obbligato in the gloomy key of A Minor, Skoller indicts the Bush Adminisistration for wars and social inequity. Whatever your politics, this is good blues, but right-wingers beware: you might have a hard time tolerating these lay-it-on-the-line lyrics.

However, by “lyrical blues mode” I’m not referring to lyrics – though they are important in this as in nearly all styles of blues – but rather to that sweet and passionate musical idiom that was fashioned out of blues basics starting in the 1960s by icons like B. B. King, James Cotton, John Mayall, and Jimi Hendrix in his “Wind Cries Mary” mode. Skoller’s mastery of this difficult mix of earth and sky, muscle and mind, make him more than just a talented musician and writer.

The title track is a straight-ahead rock-and-roll blues of a type any tight band could do, but when Skoller and Co. slow down for the soulful “Let The World Come To You,” they come to the real heart of the album. Decorated by wonderfully subtle Hammond organ from Sidney James Wingfield, flavored by Brian Ritchie’s cooing shakuhachi (a Japanese wooden flute I’ve never before heard in blues), and featuring a scintillating guitar solo by either Lurrie Bell or Larry Skoller, this six-and-a-half-minute epic has got a little of everything in perfect measure – even some gospelly backing vocals. It’s a real slow-blues treasure.

“Wired World” is a funny complaint about being too reachable. Though it’s not about love, it seems almost a tribute to the Vaughn Brothers’ “Telephone Song.” (The hooky “Julia” also has that sunny Stevie Ray Vaughn style.) But “Stolen Thunder” is the CD’s standout uptempo track. The lyrics seem to refer to a talented friend who’s wasting his life in a world of drug dealing. The single chord and insistent beat evoke musically the frustration and hope laid bare verbally in the chorus:

I wonder if I tried could I save him?
Ya think if I tried I could save him?

The answer, one fears, is no. But the refrain sure stays with you.

“Down At Your Buryin'” is a James Cotton cover where Skoller and his band show their ability to adapt a dark and angry country blues to their own style, with a wailing, almost unearthly harp solo from Skoller, very earthy piano from Johnny Iguana, and the welcome return of that ghostly shakuhachi.

The CD closes with a drawling, hip-hop remix of “Handful of People” by rapper J.A.Q., who’s right down with Skoller’s politics. The remix was an inspired idea, an interesting change that still goes down smoothly with the rest of the album.

Highly recommended for all blues fans.

Reality Bats

The use of performance-enhancing substances by baseball players and other athletes raises ethical, legal and medical questions aplenty. Angry sports columnists like this one are having their say, as are athletes past and present. But commissioner Bud Selig’s announcement that baseball won’t be modifying its record books based on revelations about steroid use reminds us that this is an existential matter as well.

If someone cheats and sets a home run record, it isn’t quite like cheating at poker. The artificially enhanced slugger really did hit that many home runs, unfair advantage or no. Should we simply consider steroid and hormone use as an evolutionary change in the game, like harder balls or smaller ballparks, as Mike Schmidt seems to be suggesting? A pitcher who pitches in a hitter-friendly ballpark, for example, is going to give up more homers. That’s an accepted reality of a game that doesn’t have standardized ballparks, and it’s just too bad for that pitcher that his circumstances will be reflected in his record; analysts and fans will note it informally, but the record books won’t.

Using steroids is unfair in a fundamentally different way, however. If you take steroids, having bigger muscles than the other guy isn’t a matter of luck any more than it’s a matter of hard work. It’s clearly cheating. What a Pandora’s box would be opened, if authorities like Selig decided that record books should be rewritten! But what an open sore of unfairness remains if they’re not! We will always have seen the games we’ve seen, but what was their meaning? What reality will the record books, not to mention our memories, reflect?