Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Wheels on Fire-Liar, Liar

Here is evidence that exciting rock ‘n’ roll can not only come from the most unlikely of places (Athens, Ohio), but also be recorded in this century (2010 to be exact). Perhaps it was the humdrum and indeterminate band name that prevented this group from ever crossing my radar. The four-piece not only had the Memphis sound down, namely the Reigning Sound, but they accomplished it without a bass player.  While previous releases had them leaning in the direction of more rough & tumble rock ‘n’ roll in the realm of the Pagans, New Bomb Turks, and the swaggering seventies Stones, Liar, Liar presents them successfully expanding their sound out to the ‘70s melodic pop ‘n’ roll regions of the Real Kids and the Beat. With its prominent whirling keyboards, soulful vocal delivery and pop sensibilities, it was this third and final one on Germany’s Alien Snatch Records that proved to be the charm. Initial listens had me pulling a stockpile of expressions out of storage and Lyres records off the shelf. On “Bad Lie,” they proceed to burst out of the gate, quickly work up a storm and fire on all cylinders. The little vocal inflections at the end of “Sarah” and interspersed throughout “Looking at You” initially threw me for a loop as I could not quite place where I heard them before, then I recalled they were probably inspired by a David Byrne or David Johansen scat. The incendiary “Losin’” is testimony that they were well attuned to a long gone past which allowed them to skirt the transient hipster trappings of their time, while successfully bringing in street-level characters like “Long Tall Sally” into the darkened alleys of the 21st century.  The surging & shuffling minimalism of the Subsonics informs “Ambulance” which arrives on the scene "where the people were dancin’ in street/where the music never sounded so sweet.” The party rages on with “Looking At You” before heading back to the Reigning Sound of “Stick Around” that is unadulterated, straightforward and brimming as tomorrow morning’s black chicory coffee. “Chasin’ UFOs” has them exploring the murky smear of night through the brambles with keyboards that reach a boil like a bubbling cauldron.  Lastly, “I Wanna Know” unspools with the radio “ahn” somewhere between “Heart” by the Remains and Modern Lovers' “Roadrunner." Bucking the trends, they understood what they were good at and they worked feverishly within that framework. This rudimentary intuition is at the essence of rock ‘n’ roll and allowed the soulful quartet to connect the sound and spark of the past to the chain reaction of the present.

Friday, November 13, 2020

The Red Birds (Akai Tori)-Prayer (Inori)


I first encountered the Red Birds when I came across their colorful picture sleeve 45 of “Kami Fusen” (Paper Balloon) in their native land at a flea market surrounding the Tō-ji temple in Kyoto. Although they appear on the vibrant cover of this 1973 release like the ultimate Japanese sunshine pop band, the song starts as a slow burner before turning an unforeseen corner of chugging guitar chords before their co-ed harmonies interlock and lift the song to the stratosphere. Akai Tori (the Red Birds) were pretty prolific in their short span that ran from 1969 to 1974. Of their 10 albums released in five years, Inori (Prayer) surfaced to be the most intriguing in spots, yet bewildering as a whole. In general, it’s not dependent on MOR covers of boring Western hits (e.g.”You’ve Got a Friend,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water”) or the more cloy trappings of early ‘70s soft rock that time stamp their other albums. The album starts especially strong with the versatile group quickly establishing a countervailing direction from their previous efforts. “The World of Nothingness-Birth” could be best described as an approximation of taiko in space before segueing into the curvilinear lushness of  “Awakening.” which sounds like Cold and Bouncy-era High Llamas warmed by “Sun Goddess” from Ramsey Lewis. Elsewhere, “Malibu” casts the vibe of prime Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66. “Niji Otaou” ("Sing a Rainbow") features Junko Yamamoto's pleasant female vocals which are reminiscent of those later heard on the Pen Friend Club albums. Despite the enchantment found in some of these individual songs, the album frequently goes off the tracks with missteps like the old-timey silliness of “Rakuda-chan.” In other moments, its momentum is thwarted by plodding and scorched out filler material like “Hoshi” and ”Ishi." “Kioku.” ("Memory") reprises the space-age waterbed sound of “Awakening” as a male voice recites a monologue that contains some sort of The World Without Us contemplative message by way of Rod McKuen. The lofty a cappella choral title track of “Inori” ("Prayer") fittingly concludes this stylistically incongruent album. This Handel composition is once again as unanticipated as all the preceding songs that are only held together by some loose conceptional ecological theme.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Gregorio Paniagua-Batiscafo

While there have been several proposals, including Japanese offers, to reissue this 1980 ahead-of-its-time recording, none have been accepted by its creator Gregoria Paniaqua until this year of years. This baroque hoedown has been remastered and restored to its full glory by the always interesting Madrid-based independent Munster Records. The instrumental record immediately casts a forkloric atmosphere while further listens will reveal visionary approaches along with a playful sense of both voyage and discovery. On the whole, it sees around corners and flows along with a continuity like Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle, the 2011 reclamation of the Beach Boys’ Smile, Eiichi Ohtaki's A Long Vacation, or Khyber Mail by Sohail Rana. 

Kraut Folk & Celtic Disco
The term Kraut folk has been thrown around this record and the opening song “Dragon,” surging forward with a Motorik rhythm, comes into direct alignment with the neologism.  After an interlude of breakwater and seagulls, “Plancton'' washes ashore under a festive and fanciful atmosphere with its expansive employment of violas. The song is also adorned with everything and the kitchen sink including the actual musical use of a zucchini scraper! Cutting through the kitchen counter clutter, “Kyrie Nicolai” is playful, effervescent, and evokes prancing through a medieval village. The lavishly melodic “Ciao” features perfectly placed beats and unexpected accompaniments like an Egyptian sistrum which reinforce and enhance the composition.

“Spaghetti Alla Milanese'' with its insistent beat merges the record back on the imaginary musical Autobahn only to be sidetracked to regions ruled by the bombo. “Preludio Balsamico Y Chacona'' sounds closer to Brazilian Tropicália in that it's an aural equivalent of a Henri Rousseau painting than the unclassifiable Iberian sounds which predominate the record. The title track “Batiscafo” is dazzling Celtic disco reminiscence of the High Llamas. It would come as no surprise if Sean O'Hagan of the High Llamas has an original issue of "Batiscafo" in his extensive record collection.

Ambitious & Adventurous
With melodies so instantly captivating, it’s difficult to grasp how the individual instruments and found sound sources fit together so seamlessly to create the overall multidimensional sonic atmosphere. Each listen will reveal there is much beyond its curvilinear edges as striking details and intricacies emerge. At times, it even seems like the strong melodies are built on sands as they begin to shape shift like the amorphous clouds depending on the context, conditions and situations. “Batiscafo” is a welcomed and sweeping work of art and contrast to this vicious 2020 world. On another level, this vibrant record is an expression of Paniagua’s innate musicality and ability to intertwine disparate elements together into a comprehensive and unified whole. Connecting and expressing both subtle undercurrents and panoramic perspectives is always a challenging, but a worthwhile pursuit regardless of year.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Isobel Campbell-Never My Love & There is No Other

It was one of those musical moments where everything coalesced to make the world whole again.  It was a time when a song presented a moment of balance and an overall sense of tranquility-exactly when it was needed.  

At first and from a distance, I thought I was hearing Astrud Gilberto’s cover of “Never My Love” from her 1968 Windy album. To my surprise, it was Isobel Campbell’s interpretation of the Association’s 1967 hit record. I then recalled that Scottish singer-songwriter Isobel Campbell was slated to release an album here in upended 2020.  Further investigation revealed that her 5th solo album actually arrived way back in January and this cover was culled from Voices in the Sky, a bonus EP comprised mostly of covers. Surprisingly, “Never My Love” was never a hit in the UK and for some reason the Association’s layered harmonic sound never caught on in the UK like the Beach Boys. It could be postulated that Campbell’s move from Scotland to Los Angeles might have spurred this cover of a cover. Besides being tailor made for Campbell, the relatively lengthy glockenspiel solo on the outro makes her rendition truly distinctive.  

Even though it has been 14 years, you can depend on Campbell to deliver the finest in spare, hushed and understated 21-century sounds in the tradition of Marianne Faithfull and Claudine Longet recordings from the ‘60s. On one level, these are the unintentional sounds of a spring & summer that never happened-bypassing a cruel Southern California bummer that has seen a historic mission torched on the forefront and a city surrounded by raging wildfires.

Chris Szczech, the Los Angeles-based recording engineer and mixer at Sonora Recorders, supplies the studio, frame & canvas for Campbell to layer her trademark sound. The lite psychedelia of “Rainbow” leans in the adventurous direction of Rita Lee while incorporating a gamelan which makes this song stand out.  Overall, she delivers a smooth, breezy and atmospheric listen, however a deeper immersion will reveal some of the factors which have truly knocked the world out of balance. For instance, the loping “Heart of it All” seemingly captures the spirit of the open country in the chorus, but the verses disclose the obvious incompatibility of our ways with all the surrounding beauty. “Hey World” reminds me of “Hey, Love” by the Coronados and the shuffling eclecticism of Jonathan Richman before the backing gospel chorus kicks in. “There is No Other” is both a paean to the city and a sonic document of her physical and stylistic transition from UK pastoral folk to amorphous Californian adult contemporary.  Her attempts to reconcile the contrasting forces of dark and light elevate her music to merely being shelved as Whole Foods background sound. Los Angeles is imbued in the grooves with lyrical indentations which act as an assessment of city far from the optimism seen and heard in Jackie DeShannon's LA. Still, Campbell does taps right into its atmosphere of all things under the sun that make it unlike any place in the world.

Despite her noble attempts to raise needed awareness of the escalating numbers of those experiencing homelessness, “Boulevard” stretches on too long like one of those drab moments of late ‘90s R.E.M. album filler. In these lackluster moments, she could use a touch of the fluidity heard on albums like Kadhja Bonet’s 2018 album Childqueen. Still it’s good to hear these beguiling, relatively sparsely adorned, and smooth songs that generally succeed. Like those two albums from Those Pretty Wrongs, this album is also instilled with the hope, promise and costs of the golden dream.  During this summer of reckoning and wreckage “There is No Other” is a transitional release, while “Never My Love” is a transcendent moment finding a way towards a better world.  

Saturday, August 01, 2020

The Hot Shots-Wise Up, Watch Out

In the grand tradition of the Japanese preserving and celebrating aspects of vanished Americana, the Hot Shots formed in 1995.  They were first embraced by the West Coast swing music scene which was still reelin’ in 1997 when the Hot Shots were ascending their first American stages in California.  After a few singles and the departure of co-founder Rockin' Enocky, they returned to the U.S. in late 1998 to record this debut album at Ecco-Fonic Studio in Los Angeles with Deke Dickerson. Released in 1999, “Wise Up, Watch Out” presents a sound that smartly avoids the trampled road of over-the-top rockabilly and ventures out to the rural routes of country-tinged rock ‘n’roll, honky tonk, rhythm & blues along with some Latin flair. The one and only Chie Kodama sets the tone on her acoustic guitar and her vocals makes each song shine brightly, while joyfully expressing her innate love and conviction for this music. “Pretend” co-written by Chie along with bass player Hiroshi Shishikura gets things rolling in a refreshing manner with a slightly bucking rhythm and twangy fills provided by Yuichiro Matsushita. “Tell Me Baby” is an understated lovely ‘50s pop number composed by Chie and capped off by her declarations of “I Wanna Know Right Now/”I Wanna Know Right Now” in sincere Joey Ramone style. Hank Cochran’s “A Little Bitty Tear” is delivered by way of Wanda Jackson with some impressive fretwork replacing the orchestrated strings originally applied by Capitol Records to Jackson’s single. The upbeat “A New Idea On Love” is such an obscure cover that the only background information I could find was that it was probably written by Mickey Baker of the renowned and much sampled ‘50s duo Mickey and Sylvia. Clinching the matter, is detecting a “Love is Strange” guitar quote in proceedings. Furthermore, its intertwined co-ed vocals shoots this one across the starlit Western skies like one of those dashing and delightful Judy & the Loadies songs. The album closes with “Guitar Battle” where Deke Dickerson and Yuichiro Matsushita trade off runs and riffs in classic Merle Travis & Joe Maphis fashion. Deke Dickerson plays a fitting and supporting role as producer, along with providing some backing vocals and accompaniment which brings forth further dimensions to the overall sound and presentation. You couldn’t ask for a better start for a combo that thankfully is still actively performing, recording and releasing records that are each distinctive in their own vintage sounding way, while overall expanding and expressing the vast possibilities of heydays to come. 

Sunday, July 19, 2020

The Yellow Payges-Volume 1 & Crowd Pleasers

With its galvanizing wake up call of “We’re Completely the Same” Daniel Hortter delivers an opening salvo for the times on the driving “The Two of Us.” Hortter has mentioned that the song was derived from the intolerance that he and his black girlfriend faced for being in an interracial relationship at the time. Musically, this jolting and fierce song stops listeners in their tracks to be in the now with a sound similar to Rare Earth, Eric Burdon and Arthur Brown. Propelled by copious congas, “Little Woman” sweeps down like the cool Canadian air mass known as the Guess Who before spiraling into a guitar freakout.  The flared-out and heavy duty "Crowd Pleaser” enters the scene with its propulsive drumming and flashes of wah-wah slotting them somewhere between Blue Cheer, Black Pearl and Deep Purple. Being such an evocative and monster song, it's surprising that "Crowd Pleaser" has not yet been tapped to be featured in a television series and/or on movie soundtrack. After all this righteous ruckus, “Never Put Away My Love For You,” surprises listeners with its softness bordering on Bee Gees wispiness. This offset sound is actually not a stretch at all as the Yellow Payges were even known to have the smooth Herman's Hermits hit “There's a Kind of Hush” in their 1968 live repertoire. Given they first made their name as the house band at The Hullabaloo on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, versatility was their calling card and this adeptness allowed them to span several '60s crosscurrents. In their current configuration, they were able to pull off impressive live covers of Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston’s “It Takes Two” and the epic "River Deep – Mountain High,” All roads lead to their showstopper “I’m a Man/Here ‘Tis” as it demonstrates their unwavering devotion to gritty rhythm & blues and the rough & tumble influences of Bo Diddley, Yardbirds and Eric Burdon and the Animals in particular. With its vocals through a megaphone effect, primal production and Daniel Hortter on harp, “I’m a Man/Here ‘Tis” sounds either like it's from 1966 or something from a garage punk band that Crypt Records would have unleashed in 1996.  This rave up builds and builds before being topped off by an incendiary drum solo pounded out by Danny Gorman. Volume 1 presents an overall hard-edged iteration of the band stamped with metallic tinges and some road wear so prevalent during the late hours of the '60s.  It's almost a blessing that the standout selections contained within never became national hits as they might now be cursed by classic rock radio redundancy. Nonetheless, they more than paid their dues during the upended late '60s with the results being songs that continue to endure with a message and delivery for the ages.

Volume 1 was actually the tip of the iceberg as the band had an extensive past that stretched back to 1965 and the surf music scene of Torrance and the Sunset Strip of Hollywood, The band went on to appear with the Byrds, the Leaves, the Seeds, the Doors, Love, Buffalo Springfield, Grateful Dead, Turtles and even toured 6-months with the Beach Boys. They were all set to tour Japan in 1968 with Eric Burdon and the Animals, but things fell through. Yet, it might have been fortuitous as the Animals encountered problems with visas and the Yakuza. On a side note, Volume 1 surprisingly appeared in the Japanese record store racks upon my visit to Osaka in 2019.  Upon inspection, this particular disc didn’t travel over the Pacific to reach Time Bomb Records as Big Pink Music of Korea remastered and reissued Volume 1 in 2015.

2013 L to R: Daniel Hortter, Danny Gorman (drums, the Palace Guard), Michael Rummans (bass, the Sloths), Dave Provost (guitar, Droogs, the Textones, Davie Allan & the Arrows) 
The music industry probably pressed them to be the next Grass Roots, while their true direction aligned them in the direction of the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds and R&B. In that regard, the hard working band from Torrance were one of the most commercially successful mid-sixties acts of the Long Beach/San Pedro/South Bay scene that produced the Music Machine, the Merry-Go-Round  the Sons of Adam, Things to Come, Power and the adjacent Westside act the Sloths. Michael Rummans of the Sloths joined the Yellow Payges in 1967 and then again during their 2013 reformation. His topflight bass playing reminded me of Bruce Foxton of the Jam. Not settling in or on one particular style may have smudged the Yellow Payges in their and/or Uni Records’s attempts to make them a national household name. Their aptly named posthumous singles collection "Crowd Pleasers" presents a refreshing variety of songs that are stylistically diverse as AM radio's Top 40 of the time with occasional descents into the freeform FM underground.  Still, being all things to all people is exhausting and possibly led to their demise.

Their first single “Never See the Good In Me” features Daniel Hortter’s almost scat like singing accompanied by some coiling sitar runs which assert their presence and attests to their adventurous approach from the start. The sweeping showdown of "Jezebel" under its Southwestern shadings is my favorite rendition I have heard thus far of this oft-covered rockabilly/garage staple. With a stinging fuzz lead riding over the galloping rhythm guitars, harmony galore and all strapped together by a bending bass "Our Time is Running Out" is their most magnificent single ride and side in their 45 rack. The Jimmy Webb inscribed "Sweet Sunshine" makes for another highlight that rises and rises on the energy of its radiant, soulful and poppy chorus. "Judge Carter"is decent horn rock a la the Buckinghams with an especially noteworthy overlapping horn outro. If "Just What I was Looking For" resembles a languorous Monkees song, it’s not a coincidence as it was written by Goffin/King who regularly lavished the Monkees with their gifts of composition.  Featuring a jingle-jangle folk-pop sound and going back home theme, "Home Alone" is their great lost buried B-side. Decorated by a Hammond organ and complemented by early Cryan' Shames-ish chiming guitars, "Home Alone" (like the aforementioned “I’m a Man” on its top side) elusively avoids to sound like its release year of 1970-by five intense years! The Complete Yellow Payges Singles '67-'70 reveals so many additional sonic layers, facets and dimensions of this highly regarded and competent band, all while being extremely listenable. Their current live performances attest to their undeterred way of approaching the present moment with soul, wisdom and idealism of the mid-sixties and making the most of the opportunity to continue creating sounds that are needed and now.

Daniel Hortter in 2019 wearing the yellow blazer for the first time in 50 years.
Danny Gorman on drums.