Friday, January 31, 2014

My Amazon Reviews: Boys Like Girls "Love Drunk"

3 Out Of 5 Stars

In the span of time from their debut to their second album, "Love Drunk," Boys Like Girls jump from punk-pop emo band to all out boy band power pop. This is not a completely bad thing, as the super sugar choruses and duet with Taylor Swift show. But the evolution is not without some speed bumps.

First off, the good stuff. The lead off track, "Heart Heart Heartbreak" is pure adrenaline hormonal rush. The repetitive title kills it in the chorus, making for a great little earworm. Then the title track revisits the zing of their debut. Then comes the head scratcher. "Two Is Better Than One" is a ballad, but strip some of the electricity out of it and factor in Taylor Swift, and you have a country tune that would have fit just as nicely on one of Swift's albums than it does here. It also shows that lead singer/guitarist Martin Johnson can work his way around a sappy ballad with the best of them. It's the hookier tunes that play to the band's punkier roots, like "Contagious" that work the best.

That's where things go somewhat awry. Propulsive emo-pop and power pop are great for the guys that need girls and the girls that break their hearts. But the new addition of strings and syrup (like the closer, "Go," which limps the album to its end) make for the kind of song the band isn't quite up to yet. Add a southern accent and ditch the auto-tune, and these would be country ballads. While they make this country pop hybrid work much better on the follow-up, "Crazy World," it's a tough sell on "Love Drunk." It's as if Boys Like Girls suddenly took on a split personality and couldn't decide it they wanted to stay true to their Boston Emo roots or just pack up the cats and relocate to Nashville.

That's the issue with "Love Drunk." You get two distinct bands on this album, the whiz-bang pop of the debut, and the country-pop that would dominate the next album. Boys Like Girls were in transition, and while "Love Drunk" did debut in the top ten, their three albums are essentially the work in progress of differing mindsets. There's plenty to like on the album. What there isn't? Consistency. Hence the solid C grade.


Passings: James "Jim" Woland

Throwback Thursday or Flashback Friday: I was deeply saddened today to hear of the passing of my High School Drama Coach Jim Woland. There were only a few teachers in High School that I ever thought changed me for the better, and Mr Woland was one of them. I auditioned for my first play in 1976 and was subsequently cast in several others, including a lead and several major supporting roles, plus a few ensemble casts. He was one of the reasons I had a Communications and Theater Arts major when I shipped off to college.

He demanded nothing less than the best of his students, be it in class, the HS Newspaper (where I was a staffer) or on stage. He had many friends in NYC who worked on Broadway and often incorporated their techniques into our performances at PHS. Most of us who worked under him (and many of those who just knew the man) felt he was worthy of Broadway work, yet he was content to work with students and then theater organizations in the Harrisburg area to the delight of all who had the opportunity to work with him.

He also had the uncanny ability to create terrific sets using the bare minimum of supplies that were offered in a High School setting. He took to my father's junk yard for old auto parts once to have rusted mufflers along the stage for a performance of Hamlet, and stage crews could also be seen painting over flats that has seen years and years of cutting, nailing and pasting. He even had me once write some original lyrics for a song used in one of his productions, something that I am proud of to this day. Like I said earlier, he could draw the best work from the barest of bones, and we all loved him for it.

Unfortunately, like many of my High School acquaintances, I didn't keep up with him. I met him once at a random event and came out to him. He was not surprised. The picture of me is from one of Mr Woland's directorial efforts, a production of Story Theater, where I was part of the ensemble, and also sang. Sophomore year, 1977.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

My Amazon Reviews: Eagles "The Long Run"

Did you do it for love? Did you do it for money?
3 Out Of 5 Stars

The last Eagles album of their initial run was also their weakest. Coming off the triumph of "Hotel California," the same pitfalls that they sang about on that album now befell the band. Drugs, dissent and an impossible to meet demand kind of doomed "The Long Run" before it was even released, but then the weakness of the bulk of the album didn't help the situation, either. "The Long Run" is the first album since their debut to feature obvious filler, and some of it was even desperate sounding.

The two initial singles, "Heartache Tonight" and the title song did do the band proud. Don Henley employs his jaded sense into "The Long Run," asking his lady friend if she measures up to her expectations, while teasing that "all the debutantes in Houston, baby, couldn't hold a candle to you." Heartache Tonight" is a chant along number from Glenn Frey and rocks out pretty well.

But then you start getting to the questionable material. "In The City" was already a modest solo hit for Joe Walsh, so there was not much point to adding it here in an Eagle-fied version other than to fill up time. "Teenage Jail/The Greeks Don't Want No Freaks" are kind of goofy, but they'd gone to great lengths on both "Hotel California" and "One of These Nights" proving that they could fill an album without penning songs that ventured into an approximation of self-parody.

That not withstanding, there are three other songs that keep "The Long Run" from being a total dud. Timothy B Schmidt rises to the occasion with his R'n'B inflected "I Can't Tell You Why" while Don Felder and Walsh do a slinky twin talk-box guitar riff on "Those Shoes." Then there's another masterstroke from Henley, who penned what sounds like it could've been an outtake from "Hotel California," the melancholy "The Sad Cafe." Once again, he ruminates on the loss of Californian innocence and wonders where all the good times have gone. After all, Eagles themselves could have been one of those fledgling bands to use the likes of a "Sad Cafe" to get their start. It's kind of ironic that a song lamenting humble beginnings closed out an album that was the sound of Eagles' imminent collapse.

"The Long Run" was basically that. Once they squeaked this album out, the infamous Long Beach incident took place and the band would stay apart until, as Henely oft put it, "Hell Freezes Over." But "The Long Run" was the end of a band that went out, not with a bang but a whimper.


Passings: Folk Legend Pete Seeger

From Billboard Magazine: (The picture is one I took at The Newport Folk Festival's 50th Anniversary.)

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger, the banjo-picking troubadour who sang for migrant workers, college students and star-struck presidents in a career that introduced generations of Americans to their folk music heritage, died on Monday at the age of 94.

Seeger's grandson, Kitama Cahill-Jackson said his grandfather died at New York Presbyterian Hospital, where he'd been for six days. "He was chopping wood 10 days ago," he said. Seeger - with his a lanky frame, banjo and full white beard - was an iconic figure in folk music. He performed with the great minstrel Woody Guthrie in his younger days and marched with Occupy Wall Street protesters in his 90s, leaning on two canes. He wrote or co-wrote "If I Had a Hammer," "Turn, Turn, Turn," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" and "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine." He lent his voice against Hitler and nuclear power. A cheerful warrior, he typically delivered his broadsides with an affable air and his banjo strapped on.

"Be wary of great leaders," he told The Associated Press two days after a 2011 Manhattan Occupy march. "Hope that there are many, many small leaders." With The Weavers, a quartet organized in 1948, Seeger helped set the stage for a national folk revival. The group - Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman - churned out hit recordings of "Goodnight Irene," "Tzena, Tzena" and "On Top of Old Smokey."

Seeger also was credited with popularizing "We Shall Overcome," which he printed in his publication "People's Song," in 1948. He later said his only contribution to the anthem of the civil rights movement was changing the second word from "will" to "shall," which he said "opens up the mouth better."

"Every kid who ever sat around a campfire singing an old song is indebted in some way to Pete Seeger," Arlo Guthrie once said.

His musical career was always braided tightly with his political activism, in which he advocated for causes ranging from civil rights to the cleanup of his beloved Hudson River. Seeger said he left the Communist Party around 1950 and later renounced it. But the association dogged him for years.
He was kept off commercial television for more than a decade after tangling with the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. Repeatedly pressed by the committee to reveal whether he had sung for Communists, Seeger responded sharply: "I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American."

He was charged with contempt of Congress, but the sentence was overturned on appeal.
Seeger called the 1950s, years when he was denied broadcast exposure, the high point of his career. He was on the road touring college campuses, spreading the music he, Guthrie, Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter and others had created or preserved. "The most important job I did was go from college to college to college to college, one after the other, usually small ones," he told The Associated Press in 2006. " ... And I showed the kids there's a lot of great music in this country they never played on the radio."

His scheduled return to commercial network television on the highly rated Smothers Brothers variety show in 1967 was hailed as a nail in the coffin of the blacklist. But CBS cut out his Vietnam protest song, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," and Seeger accused the network of censorship. He finally got to sing it five months later in a stirring return appearance, although one station, in Detroit, cut the song's last stanza: "Now every time I read the papers/That old feelin' comes on/We're waist deep in the Big Muddy/And the big fool says to push on."

Seeger's output included dozens of albums and single records for adults and children. He also was the author or co-author of "American Favorite Ballads," "The Bells of Rhymney," "How to Play the Five-String Banjo," "Henscratches and Flyspecks," "The Incompleat Folksinger," "The Foolish Frog" and "Abiyoyo," "Carry It On," "Everybody Says Freedom" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone."
He appeared in the movies "To Hear My Banjo Play" in 1946 and "Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon" in 1970. A reunion concert of the original Weavers in 1980 was filmed as a documentary titled "Wasn't That a Time."

By the 1990s, no longer a party member but still styling himself a communist with a small C, Seeger was heaped with national honors. Official Washington sang along - the audience must sing, was the rule at a Seeger concert - when it lionized him at the Kennedy Center in 1994. President Clinton hailed him as "an inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them." Seeger was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 as an early influence. Ten years later, Bruce Springsteen honored him with "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions," a rollicking reinterpretation of songs sung by Seeger. While pleased with the album, Seeger said he wished it was "more serious." A 2009 concert at Madison Square Garden to mark Seeger's 90th birthday featured Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Eddie Vedder and Emmylou Harris among the performers.

Seeger was a 2014 Grammy Awards nominee in the Best Spoken Word category, which was won by Stephen Colbert. Seeger's sometimes ambivalent relationship with rock was most famously on display when Dylan "went electric" at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Witnesses say Seeger became furious backstage as the amped-up band played, though just how furious is debated. Seeger dismissed the legendary tale that he looked for an ax to cut Dylan's sound cable, and said his objection was not to the type of music but only that the guitar mix was so loud you couldn't hear Dylan's words.
Seeger maintained his reedy 6-foot-2 frame into old age, though he wore a hearing aid and conceded that his voice was pretty much shot. He relied on his audiences to make up for his diminished voice, feeding his listeners the lines and letting them sing out.

"I can't sing much," he said. "I used to sing high and low. Now I have a growl somewhere in between." Nonetheless, in 1997 he won a Grammy for best traditional folk album, "Pete."

Seeger was born in New York City on May 3, 1919, into an artistic family whose roots traced to religious dissenters of colonial America. His mother, Constance, played violin and taught; his father, Charles, a musicologist, was a consultant to the Resettlement Administration, which gave artists work during the Depression. His uncle Alan Seeger, the poet, wrote "I Have a Rendezvous With Death."
Pete Seeger said he fell in love with folk music when he was 16, at a music festival in North Carolina in 1935. His half brother, Mike Seeger, and half sister, Peggy Seeger, also became noted performers.
He learned the five-string banjo, an instrument he rescued from obscurity and played the rest of his life in a long-necked version of his own design. On the skin of Seeger's banjo was the phrase, "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender" - a nod to his old pal Guthrie, who emblazoned his guitar with "This machine kills fascists."

Dropping out of Harvard in 1938 after two years as a disillusioned sociology major, he hit the road, picking up folk tunes as he hitchhiked or hopped freights. "The sociology professor said, `Don't think that you can change the world. The only thing you can do is study it,'" Seeger said in October 2011.
In 1940, with Guthrie and others, he was part of the Almanac Singers and performed benefits for disaster relief and other causes. He and Guthrie also toured migrant camps and union halls. He sang on overseas radio broadcasts for the Office of War Information early in World War II. In the Army, he spent 3 1/2 years in Special Services, entertaining soldiers in the South Pacific, and made corporal.
Pete and Toshi Seeger were married July 20, 1943. The couple built their cabin in Beacon after World War II and stayed on the high spot of land by the Hudson River for the rest of their lives together. The couple raised three children. Toshi Seeger died in July at age 91.

The Hudson River was a particular concern of Seeger. He took the sloop Clearwater, built by volunteers in 1969, up and down the Hudson, singing to raise money to clean the water and fight polluters.

He also offered his voice in opposition to racism and the death penalty. He got himself jailed for five days for blocking traffic in Albany in 1988 in support of Tawana Brawley, a black teenager whose claim of having been raped by white men was later discredited. He continued to take part in peace protests during the war in Iraq, and he continued to lend his name to causes. "Can't prove a damn thing, but I look upon myself as old grandpa," Seeger told the AP in 2008 when asked to reflect on his legacy. "There's not dozens of people now doing what I try to do, not hundreds, but literally thousands. ... The idea of using music to try to get the world together is now all over the place."

Long Time Gone

I've been a negligent blogger of late. Not only have I been skipping days of posting, I've been neglecting my Amazon reviews profile. Lots of things going on to take up my time, not the least of which has been the multiple series of snow storms that have hit Philadelphia and the fact that our snow blower blew out after the second to last one. We live on a corner property, which means twice the sidewalk and half the fun, plus a fairly long two car driveway.

There was Mid Atlantic Leather, which went well for me. I sold many a book over the three day vendor market, and was stationed next to these guys, who couldn't resist posing with an author of some renown.

Then there's my Doctor. My Doctor kind of gave me hell/forced me into a New Year's resolution after my checkup revealed both a significant weight gain and noticeable blood sugar increase. So I have dusted off the stationary bike and have started using it every other day. I started with 10 minutes at a time (good grief was I out of shape). I'm now up to a half hour and crossed the 9 miles mark today with help from a special playlist on my iPod specifically of upbeat songs...mostly of 80's new wave and alternative music. So far so good.

Tonight's playlist was this:

"Firework" Katy Perry
"I Do The Rock" Tim Curry
"You Can't Hurry Love" DL Byron
"Back In Black" AC/DC
"Killer Queen" Queen
"Burn Three Times" Utopia
"We Don't Have to Take Our Clothes Off" Jermaine Stewart
"Venus" Television
"Real Cool World" David Bowie

My Amazon Reviews: Lorde "Pure Heroine"

Oh My Lorde
4 Out Of 5 Stars

New Zealander Ella Yelich-O'Connor (aka, Lorde) comes on like Adele or Lana Del Rey with big beats on the debut "Pure Heroine." Hard to believe that such a big voice is coming from a teenager, but she has the depth and blue-eyed soul power of women two times her age. Match that big voice up with some hip-hop percussion, and you have some potent combinations. The whole album is a solid from start to finish, although you can't beat the singles for pop thrills.

By now, you've likely heard "Royals" and "Team," with their seductive grooves and shimmering electronic sound. This is teen-angst at its best, and Lorde plays her age to the maximum. She has the knack for teen girl melodrama like Del Ray (or to court another teen sensation, Taylor Swift), as seen in "White Teeth Teens" or the saga of high school class strata in the opening "Tennis Court."

"Baby be the class clown,
I'll be the beauty queen in tears,
It's a new art form,
Showing people how little we care."

She has mastered both the yearning want and detached view of a typical teen, and the music matches her personality. "Glory and Gore" serves as more than a song title, it's the way Lorde pushes at her material. She's self-confident, of solid voice and the will to attack her subjects head on. It takes a special kind of new songwriter to have mastered these multiple personalities the way Lorde does, and she has done so here. "Pure Heroine" keeps the music in a match to the singer, the background throb of the electronics to the self searching and expressive lyrics of her debut. There's a huge potential for growth here.


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

My Amazon Reviews: Pearl Jam "The Essential Pearl Jam"

Very Evenflow
4 Out Of 5 Stars

What Pearl Jam did, maybe even unwittingly, was to weld the thick sludgy minor-chord sound (and general angst) of grunge to arena size rock choruses and guitar power. In doing so, they managed to quickly outshine their nearest peers (Nirvana) commercially and ultimately become the vanguard for rock through the 90's. Along with Red Hot Chili Peppers and maybe Soundgarden, they shaped the sound of a decade and thrived to see their success sustained creatively.

"The Essential Pearl Jam" (a repackaging of Rearviewmirror, as reflected in the title) reflects (har har) that 12 years between Ten and Binaural in solid fashion, even if does lean heavily on the first three albums. It also offers a dozen later track to show that, even while the band's spotlight had faded somewhat, albums like No Code were better even while the band purposely was making music that antagonized fans expecting more of "Jeremy." Treats like "Do The Evolution" and "Man Of The Hour" sound just as powerful as any of the pre-Vs. material.

And for those who argue that Eddie Vedder is a big old sourpuss, they miss out on fun stuff like the tribute to old 45's "Spin The Black Circle" or the totally un-ironic cover of "Last Kiss" (that actually hit the top ten in 1999). Guitarist Stone Gossard rips some particularly innovative riffs through the proceedings here, and it's worth noting that Goassard (as well as the rest of the band) usually co-wrote the band's songs. On "Rearviewmirror," they are divided into two CD's, with an "Up" disc of rockers and the "Down" side of more pensive or acoustic material.

It is the second disc where more of the interesting material lies for me. I've always personally felt "Better man" to be the best song Pearl Jam ever wrote, and the closer, "Yellow Ledbetter" is a damn good blues number with Mike McCready hitting a terrific facsimile of Jimi Hendrix. There is plenty of meat spread between the two discs, and for the casual radio fan of Pearl Jam, this is a great sampler at a fine price.


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

My Amazon Reviews: Danny Wilson "The Best Of Danny Wilson"

Say 10 Hail Marys
3 Out Of 5 Stars

For a band that only recorded two proper albums, Danny Wilson (a trio as opposed to a single person, their name came from a Frank Sinatra movie), this "Best Of" holds together very well. Combining the best from their debut "Meet Danny Wilson" and the less well received "Be Bop Moptop," you get the best songs from each album.

American audiences will likely recall the signature hit, "Mary's Prayer." The remaining 10 songs showcase the band's sophisticated mixture of immaculate production and pop-craft, taking obvious inspiration from middle-period Steely Dan and following the trail of fellow travelers Prefab Sprout. Lead singer and songwriter Gary Clark has a pretty good blue-eyed soul voice, and the lyrics twist and turn in an enigmatic way (again, teasing out that Steely Dan influence). There's the moody "Broken China" - here in a live version - and the peppier "The Second Summer Of Love" from "Be Bop."

The only problem is that "Mary's Prayer" set such a high benchmark for the band that it became impossible to replicate the success afterwards. There are a couple of B-Sides here, including a chipper take on the standard, "Get Happy." Given the intricacies of their debut and the fact that "The Best of Danny Wilson" is a mere 11 songs, a couple more from the debut would have made this a more satisfying collection. Given that you can still find "Mary's Prayer" on the debut and any number of 80's compilations, I can only recommend this to the most ardent fans.


Friday, January 10, 2014

My Amazon Reviews: Bastille "Bad Blood"

Out from Under The Weight of Living
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Quite accomplished for a debut, Bastille's "Bad Blood" takes a lot of influences and blends them into some seamless pop. Far from being another 80's revivalist band, they take their compositions semi-seriously, but not so much as to be pompous. The opening vocal chant to "Pompeii" sets a tone of grandiose things to come, but then settles for a neat pop hook and sing-along chanting. It's much the same though "Bad Blood," songs that come on strong and morph into feel good poptime.

There's nothing wrong with that, as anyone who follows my reviews will note that I'm a sucker for a well done pop CD. Bastille make clean, clear (no loudness wars!) sounding songs that stick like candy. They love the cinematic production and the fact that you can hide darkness with a deceptive arrangement (using "Laura Palmer," the fictional murder victim of David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" is the most obvious giveaway) shows that parlor trick. Heck, even the CD cover is a movie poster mock up.

For a change, the grandeur and the sugar mix well. There are plenty of good songs to choose from here, from the warning cry of "Weight of the World" to oft told tale of "Daniel In The Lion's Den." Lead singer and songwriter Dan Smith has a solid grasp of songwriting and sense of what it takes to sell the drama. "Bad Blood" is one of my favorites for 2013.