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Riffs, Rants, & Rumors: Chris Stamey’s Cure For The ‘Lovesick Blues’

Chris Stamey learned at least some of his craft directly from the late legend Alex Chilton, as a member of the erstwhile Big Star frontman’s backup band, so he could safely be considered a torchbearer for the kind of power-pop craftsmanship Chilton and company exemplified. From his days in Sneakers with Mitch Easter to his classic early-’80s albums as a member of The dB‘s and his subsequent solo career, Stamey has created a vivid body of work that encompasses hushed, fragile ballads, raw, ragged rockers, and more. Earlier this year, he rejoined The dB’s for a long-awaited reunion album, the excellent Falling Off The Sky, and while the iron is still hot, he’s got another release in the works. Lovesick Blues, due out early next year on Yep Roc, is Stamey’s first solo album since 2005, and with its elegant, artful arrangements and autumnal tones, it definitely falls more in the fragile-ballad camp for the most part. FYI, the title track is not the old Hank Williams tune; but going strictly by feel, the record could just as easily been named after the ethereal ’80s b-side that gets a richly deserved reworking here—”Occasional Shivers.” Since Stamey was game for answering a few questions in advance of the album’s release, it seemed cruel to make his admirers wait months for word about what he’s got in store. Continue reading ‘Riffs, Rants, & Rumors: Chris Stamey’s Cure For The ‘Lovesick Blues’’

Riffs, Rants & Rumors: 10 Creepy 2012 Cuts for Halloween

Horror movie marathons and macabre costumes may seem like the most ubiquitous of perennial Halloween phenomena, but if you come in for a closer look, you’ll realize that spooky songs rank right up there as well. Every year, when the end of October draws near, we’re subjected to the same sad stream of “terrifying” tunes all over again. The line has to be drawn somewhere, so why not start now? If you’ve had enough of hearing “Monster Mash,” “Thriller,” and the Ghostbusters theme for the umpteenth time, try a fresher crop of creepy cuts this Halloween, all taken from 2012 releases and unconditionally guaranteed to put some eerie in your ears. Continue reading ‘Riffs, Rants & Rumors: 10 Creepy 2012 Cuts for Halloween’

Riffs, Rants & Rumours: The Strawbs Story – From Prog Rockers to Acoustic Alchemists

“There we were with the two most successful producers of the 1970s working together,” says Strawbs leader Dave Cousins, recalling the initial sessions for his band’s first proper album. The producers in question are Gus Dudgeon, who helmed all of Elton John’s biggest albums, and Tony Visconti, whose work helped make stars of David Bowie and T. Rex. Unfortunately, the punchline that finds parallels throughout The Strawbs’ career is that the band’s aforementioned sessions took place in 1968, when both producers were unknown quantities. The original version of what would become 1969’s Strawbs was scrapped by an unhappy record exec, and the band was made to start over again.

It’s part of a phenomenon that’s practically a running joke in Strawbs lore for instance, the bass player on those ill-fated sessions happened to be a young John Paul Jones, but in that pre-Led Zeppelin period, the name impressed no one. At the start of the ‘70s, The Strawbs’ acquisition of hotshot keyboardist Rick Wakeman hastened a move towards prog rock, but Wakeman would soon depart to fulfill his true prog destiny with Yes, leaving Cousins and company in the lurch. Continue reading ‘Riffs, Rants & Rumours: The Strawbs Story – From Prog Rockers to Acoustic Alchemists’

Riffs, Rants and Rumors: Mark Eitzel Won’t Be a Stranger

Mark Eitzel is almost pathologically disinclined to talk shit. Even in situations where it might be in his best interest to offer up some sort of self-serving statement, he seems practically honor-bound to push a pin into the balloon. For instance, in analyzing his upcoming release, Don’t Be a Stranger, the erstwhile American Music Club singer/songwriter admits his affection for the record but immediately follows up by observing that he usually hates his own albums. “It’s hard to be subjective about the things you make,” he explains. “Actually, if I was a real rock person I’d say ‘No, it’s fucking great, it fucking rules, it’s the best thing the world has ever fucking seen!’ That’s what I should be saying. ‘This turd I just took is the best thing I’ve ever done.’ I respect people like that; we need them. No, we don’t,” he recants, “they become Presidential candidates.”

So it’s no great surprise to venture into Don’t Be a Stranger and encounter songs like “Oh Mercy,” containing the wry lines “I’ve got party talk for all your party guests/my topics include facism and rising crime/and when I outline the coming doom of the USA, well that’ll insure everyone’s good time.” Despite having earned enough critical plaudits for his songwriting to fill a grain silo, Eitzel is similarly unsparing of himself in looking back at 2009’s limited-edition Klamath. “I didn’t want it to be [a small pressing],” he says, “but I could only afford to make, like, 500 of them. The album’s genesis was me at a friend’s place in Happy Camp [Calif.], and it was so beautiful up there. The first piece I wrote was an electronic piece, to the absolute horror of my fans, but I really love electronic music, even though I’m no good at it. I wrote this electronic piece about a tree, and it started from there.” At the mention of his earlier electronic-oriented album, 2001′s The Invisible Man, Eitzel says, “That was another mistake. I’ve done a lot of electronic music but I stopped because the people who buy my records hate it with every fiber of their being. But I still make it for myself. I’m a songwriter, you knowI get booked at Americana festivals [laughs].”

Continue reading ‘Riffs, Rants and Rumors: Mark Eitzel Won’t Be a Stranger’

Riffs, Rants and Rumors: Renaissance’s Prog Rock Rebirth

“It’s something that I didn’t think I’d be doing again” is the first comment out of Annie Haslam‘s mouth about the revitalization of Renaissance, the legendary British prog-rock band she led to fame in the ‘70s. On such classically tinged art-rock milestones as Ashes Are Burning, Turn of the Cards, and Scheherazade & Other Stories, Haslam’s crystalline vocals blended with Michael Dunford’s deft acoustic guitar work and John Tout’s vivid keyboard flourishes on epic tracks brimming with invention and energy in equal amounts. Renaissance was a leading light on the ‘70s progressive rock scene, but since the ‘80s, their live activities have been sporadic, and the 2001 release Tuscany has been their only studio album since 1983’s Time-Line.

“I kind of wound down my solo singing career in about 2002,” says the Bolton-born songbird, who now makes her home in Bucks County, Pa., “and started painting, which is my other love, just as much as singing. I’ve been painting nonstop since 2002 now. So I didn’t really have any interest in going back into music, I liked the fact that it was just me, and not a lot of other personalities to deal with. Then Michael Dunford contacted me in 2008, and before he opened his mouth, I just knew. He said, ‘Annie…’ I said, ‘No.’ [Laughs] And that’s basically how it started up again.”

A revamped Renaissance ended up touring in 2009-’10, playing their classic cuts for grateful fans. Soon, some new work found its way into the set list. “We added a new song Michael and I had written together called ‘The Mystic & The Muse,’ expains Haslam, “We don’t ever remember having a standing ovation for a brand new song, which we had every time we played it, so that was very encouraging for our future writing.” Before long, Renaissance was embarking on two equally ambitious projects—staging a new tour to perform Turn of the Cards and Scheherazade & Other Stories in their entirety, and putting together their first new album since 2001.

Turn of the Cards was really one of our most popular albums,” says Haslam of the full-album shows they started doing in 2011, “with ‘Mother Russia’ and ‘Running Hard’ on it, and Scheherazade we felt was really a huge album—when Michael and I decided to do that, we were talking about it and we both thought, ‘My gosh, this is a huge piece of work to give to the musicians to do.’ It was huge when we did it [originally]. Actually it was probably bigger [to undertake] in the ‘70s, because we didn’t have the technology. They pulled it off though, it was brilliant. I love that piece so much, ‘Scheherazade’ in particular. When I’m onstage I get so into the music that I just barely remember to come in with the tambourine and come to the front of the stage. There’s a lot of music in it so I kind of step back, and I just get lost in it.”

Continue reading ‘Riffs, Rants and Rumors: Renaissance’s Prog Rock Rebirth’

Riffs, Rants and Rumors: The Grateful Dead Come Alive in ‘Dark Stars and Anti-Matter’

For many people, The Grateful Dead have always been a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. The band’s slavishly devoted army of Deadheads (which still exists today, turning up to see Furthur, the band that includes erstwhile GD singer/guitarist Bob Weir and bassist Phil Lesh) connects to the jazzy fluidity of the band’s instrumental improv, the killer catalog of classic songs penned by Jerry Garcia, lyricist Robert Hunter, and company, as well as the slightly stoned sense of bonhomie that has always emanated from the psychedelic warriors’ core. The Dead’s detractors, on the other hand, deem the band’s jams overlong and sleep-inducing, abhor the hippie aesthetic the group always embodied, and take issue with their hit-and-miss approach to vocal intonation. Apart from those who have never heard them, almost everyone has a strong opinion about The Grateful Dead, winding up either in the love or hate camp sooner or later.

So if someone’s going to write a critically-balanced book about the band, who better than one of the few music fans—and certainly one of the only rock critics—who has found himself on both sides of the fence at various points? Granted, veteran music journalist Gene Sculatti (author of 1982′s seminal Catalog of Cool and 1985’s San Francisco Nights: The Psychedelic Music Trip, among others) isn’t exactly objective when it comes to the subject, but among rock writers, he’s in a unique position to discourse on the Dead—he was there from the start. “I always get caught in the middle,” says Sculatti, whose new Rhino eBook bears the self-explanatory title Dark Stars & Anti-Matter: 40 Years of Loving, Leavin, and Making Up With the Music of The Grateful Dead. “Because I saw them in the beginning, and most of the records I still evaluate in terms of, ‘Does this resemble the way it was then, live?’”

Sculatti first saw the band at San Francisco’s famed psychedelic-era venue The Avalon Ballroom in the spring of 1966, about a year in advance of the first Grateful Dead album. “That’s one of the greatest gifts anyone ever gave to me,” says Sculatti, “to be there then and see that. You’re 18 or 19 years old…this brand new thing that’s never been before is springing up and you happen to be there a couple of feet from it. It’s just incredible to read in the paper about some group with a crazy name like Big Brother & The Holding Company or something and go to this place where it was and see it with light shows and everything that accompanied it. And that’s when I started writing, because there was a little paper there in Frisco. That was my impetus too for writing about the Dead this time—there were things I hadn’t said about seeing them at that time.”

Continue reading ‘Riffs, Rants and Rumors: The Grateful Dead Come Alive in ‘Dark Stars and Anti-Matter’’

Riffs, Rants and Rumors: How Tom Trumped Bruce on ‘Live Anthology’

Within the upper echelon of “heartland rock,” at this late date, it all boils down to a crucial question: Springsteen or Petty? The third member of the Holy Trinity, Bob Seger, more or less took himself out of the game over the last couple of decades, while John Mellencamp’s never really been much more than a dim reflection of the others to begin with, so at this juncture—with all the aforementioned Americana rockers having reached sexagenarian status—it’s basically about Bruce and Tom.

Even the members of roots-rock royalty are only ever as good as their bands, be they E Street, Silver Bullet, or Heartbreakers, and there’s no better measure of a great band’s prowess than the mark they make in concert. So the ultimate proving ground in the recording realm becomes not the studio album but the live anthology. But we’re not talking about your standard-issue live album here—both Petty and Springsteen have released those. No, a grand-scale summary of the concert repertoire is what’s really required to take the artistic temperature of an act in this arena (pun only partially intended).

In this context, one might suggest that Springsteen made a crucial mistake by playing his hand too soon, releasing the three-disc box set Live/1975-85 in 1986, even though he couldn’t have known how many subsequent years of concert triumphs he’d be excluding from the collection. But to call a spade a spade, Bruce’s biggest blunder in our little imaginary competition was in valuing strength over subtlety. They don’t call him The Boss for nothing—Springsteen’s sound has always been about larger-than-life statements delivered with an almost Wagnerian grandeur. As he’s the master of the mode, it’s often thrilling, but it also precludes the possibilities inherent in a lower-key lean, especially live, and that’s where The Heartbreakers come into the picture.

Where the inspirations for the E Street approach come from Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound productions and Roy Orbison’s pathos-ridden rock operettas, the comparatively laconic Petty and his Gainesville gang were modeled more after the supple, sinuous feel of the famed Southern soul sessionmen of Muscle Shoals, AL, the minimalist R&B grooves of Booker T. & The M.G.’s, and the laid-back country funk of J.J. Cale. Those are the roots The Heartbreakers bring to bear while breathing life into Petty’s tunes, but while there’s nary an ounce of flash or bombast to be found anywhere near a Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers concert, there’s no shortage of soulful fire and pure rock & roll energy either. With characteristic caginess, Tom waited another quarter-century after Bruce to bring out his big live box set, simply dubbed The Live Anthology, released at the tail end of 2009. In its deluxe version, it took five CDs, two DVDs, a Blu-Ray disc, and a wealth of graphic-oriented extras to tell its tale of a band with three decades-plus of tasteful-but-torrid road-rocking behind them.

Continue reading ‘Riffs, Rants and Rumors: How Tom Trumped Bruce on ‘Live Anthology’’

Riffs, Rants and Rumors: Peter Hammill Plays Truth or Consequences

What the hell is a Van der Graaf Generator anyway? That’s the question a lot of people were probably asking back in 1969, when the first album by a young British band of that name appeared. In fact, a Van de Graaff generator (note spelling) is a device that creates electrostatic energy, but the group named after that machine generated an electricity all their own. By the early ‘70s, after releasing such cult-classic records as He To He, Who Am The Only One, and Pawn Hearts, Van der Graaf Generator had established a musical reputation as the Richard III of U.K. prog-rock bands, reveling in the dark underbelly of the human condition and casting a crooked half-smile upon creation as something slightly sinister simmered in the background.

While the initial incarnation of the band fell apart in 1978, Van der Graaf returned to active duty in 2005 with Present, as a trio featuring original members Peter Hammill, Hugh Banton, and Guy Evans. Incredibly, the 21st century version of the group turned out to be just as vital-sounding as the original ensemble, and they’ve recorded four albums together so far, with the fourth, ALT, out on July 3. Prolific VDGG frontman Hammill also just released a new solo album, Consequences (he’s maintained an active solo career since the early ‘70s), and he’s currently busy touring America with his Van der Graaf bandmates.

“The new band album is kind of an unusual one because it’s kind of improv,” says Hammill. “I know a lot of Van der Graaf is pretty out there, but this is out there even by Van der Graaf standards. That’s coming out more or less simultaneously with the tour, but on the tour we’ll be doing comparatively normal songs. On the new album…it’s all instrumental for a start, which is not normal for Van Der Graaf, but basically it’s stuff that built up since 2005. Every time we got together for a rehearsal period or for a recording period, there would always be some element of improvisation that was recorded. We’ve got a long track record individually and collectively of doing things that are not really in any rock area, they’re more sort of musique concrete sounds, so that’s more or less what this new record, ALT, is about. Basically, the material built up over a period of years until it reached a kind of critical mass and we went, “Okay, actually, this is not our usual stuff, but it’s also part of our story and our history, so now is the right time to put it out.”

Continue reading ‘Riffs, Rants and Rumors: Peter Hammill Plays Truth or Consequences’

Riffs, Rants and Rumors: Getting Drunk and Stupid With Dots Will Echo

Dots Will Echo is a computer programming term and a duo from New Jersey. Dots Will Echo are melodic power-poppers and Crazy Horse-backing-Captain Beefheart sonic provocateurs. Dots Will Echo are a brand new band that’s been around since the ‘80s. Dots Will Echo are wild-eyed rock & roll maniacs and amiable suburban family men. Dots Will Echo are Nick Berry and Kurt Biroc, though Dots Will Echo was once Nick Berry and a bunch of other guys, and has occasionally just been Nick Berry. Dots Will Echo has a double-length album coming out July 24 on Sufjan Stevens’ label, Asthmatic Kitty, entitled Drunk Is The New Sober/Stupid Is The New Dumb.

To make sense of all the above, let’s go back to the beginning with the stalwart tender of the Dots Will Echo flame, singer/songwriter Nick Berry. “I started writing songs when I was nine,” remembers the Garden State native, “maybe younger. I remember being a little kid, I had a friend down the street, and we wrote songs as a kind of competition, I didn’t even play an instrument at the time.” But Berry’s interests took a more outré turn while he was still in high school. “I was in an avant-garde band,” he says, recalling that group’s theatrical onstage escapades, “My friend Roy had built a gigantic instrument he called a Googis…he had rented a truck to get it to this one gig, and the guy [the truck driver] had taken off. He had no way to get it home, so he took a hammer and destroyed the thing onstage. We had a song called ‘Rubella,’ which was just all guitar feedback and oscillators, and at one point we would just lean the guitars up against the amplifiers and then run out into the audience screaming. And every time we did it, it was the kind of thing nobody could process [laughs], these people just had the look of a deer in the headlights. One gig there was a dog there, and I started chasing this dog around the audience…blowing free jazz on a clarinet while this dog is barking. And the guy that owned the dog joined the band.”

Continue reading ‘Riffs, Rants and Rumors: Getting Drunk and Stupid With Dots Will Echo’

Belle and Sebastian’s Stevie Jackson Steps Out

Scottish indie-pop icons Belle and Sebastian have never exactly been publicity hounds. They’ve continually avoided putting their photos on their album covers and even routinely leave their names out of their album credits. But their anonymity doesn’t originate from a desire to generate mystery, it has more to do with a dedication to collectivism and seemingly, a genuine humility. Between the band’s anti-star aesthetic and frontman Stuart Murdoch‘s dominance of the lead vocal and songwriting duties, it’s frequently assumed that Murdoch is the brains behind Belle and Sebastian, but that’s an untruth. In fact, other members of the band have long been contributing on both of those fronts, and none more so than guitarist Stevie Jackson, who has penned and sung such B&S staples as “Seymour Stein” and “The Wrong Girl” among many others, and seems to be something of a right-hand man to Murdoch. So it was probably inevitable that Jackson would eventually step out on his own, which he’s now done with his first solo album, the cleverly titled (I Can’t Get No) Stevie Jackson. Continue reading ‘Belle and Sebastian’s Stevie Jackson Steps Out’


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