Author Archives: carleolson

As “My Wayward Son” approaches 40, it carries on its commercial ways

Kansas’ “Carry On My Wayward Son”, from the 1976 album Leftoverture, was the band’s breakthrough hit, reaching #11 on Billboard and ushering in the Golden Age of Classic Kansas (c. 1976-1980). As Kerry Livgren noted in the excellent documentary “Miracles Out of Nowhere” (see my Progarchy review), the song came to him rather suddenly and it is loaded with hooks, bursting forth like ears of corn in a Kansas cornfield (as, yes, that’s a rather corny but apt metaphor). If, by chance, you’ve never heard the song (yeah, right), here it is performed live circa 1976:

(Is Steve Walsh a madman, or what!?) The original 7″ single of the song was an edited 3:26 version; the entire song is two minutes longer. Thus, the single has more of a classic/hard rock feel, while the album version–especially in the context of the entire, brilliant Leftoverture–is much more proggy. Regardless, what is surprising, nearly four decades later, is how this hard rock/prog song continues to make appearances in somewhat unexpected places. Such as beer commercials (full disclosure: I drink only micro brews):

Apparently the song has been played several times in the drama “Supernatural” (which I’ve never watched), including in some rather striking forms:

Not surprisingly, the song has been covered a number of times. But the Wikipedia (boo! hiss) entry on such covers missed one of the more interesting renditions, performed by the all female Christian rock band Rachel Rachel back in 1991, on the debut album “Way To My Heart”. In the video for the song, Kerry Livgren joins the band to play guitar; however, much of the guitar on the studio album was actually played by producer/guitarist/vocalist Dan Huff–who fronted the group Giant (“Last of the Runaways” is a scorching album), has played guitar on Madonna albums, and produced Megadeth, Keith Urban, Faith Hill, and a bazillion other artists:

Finally, what is perhaps most refreshing about the success of “Carry On…” (as well as “Dust in the Wind”) is the lyrical content. The song isn’t about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, but peace, searching, and ultimate rest: “Nothing equals the splendor/Now your life’s no longer empty/Surely heaven waits for you.”

Miracles (and Music) Out of Kansas

kansas_miraclesIn one of my first posts here at Progarchy.com–“A Pilgrim’s Prog-ress”–I wrote about the key role that Kansas (the band, not the state) played in opening the doors to prog for me:

Around 1985 or so, I bought a copy of “The Best of Kansas”. That opened the door to prog. There was something about the mixture of Livgren’s lead guitar, Steinhardt’s violin, and Steve Walsh’s amazing voice, along with lyrics soaked in spiritual longing and Americana, that grabbed me by the scrawny neck. Over the next three or four years, I ended up collecting everything by Kansas, Kerry Livgren (solo and with AD), and Steve Morse (solo, Dixie Dregs, etc.). My favorite Kansas albums are “Song for America” and “In the Spirit of Things”, although they weren’t the chart-toppers that “Point of Know Return” and “Leftoverture” were.

Early on in the documentary, “Miracles Out of Nowhere”, which was released in March, drummer Phil Ehart emphasizes that it was Livgren’s song writing, Steinhardt’s violin, and Walsh’s vocals that made Kansas such a distinctive-sounding band in the 1970s. He is surely correct about that, but he also, in saying so, humbly passes over another key to the band’s steady rise and eventually rather surreal success (or miraculous, a consistent theme in the documentary): he own unassuming, balanced personality and rooted, yet deeply musical, drumming. As Garth Brooks, one of several rather surprising guests, marvels in recalling his first Kansas show: “It was the first time I’d seen a drummer play actual notes!”

Miracles and music: those are the two constant themes throughout the documentary, which begins with childhood memories and concludes with 1977’s “Point of Know Return”, Kansas’ fifth album and the apex of the band’s commercial success (it hit #4 in the U.S. and featured the band’s biggest hit and best-known song, “Dust in the Wind”). That album is, arguably, a fitting conclusion to the documentary as the band would soon learn there really are points of no return; or, in the words a certain young lady, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”. It wasn’t long, in fact, before Walsh departed, then Livgren, and then the band entered into the post-classic-Kansas era (I provide some details here). Read the rest of this entry

60 Years, Twelve Albums, One Man’s Favorites

(us.fotolia.com | Zarya Maxim)

(us.fotolia.com | Zarya Maxim)

I began writing this post several months ago, in January, carried along on the brief rush of excitement that comes with a new year. “2015! How about noting a bunch of anniversaries of great albums?” And, in fact, one of the great strengths of Progarchy.com is the sense of music history and the awareness of anniversaries: “Forty year ago….thirty years ago….twenty-five years ago…twenty years ago…”, as opposed to the dominant model out there, which is “Forty minutes ago…thirty seconds ago…twenty tweets ago…” But then life overwhelmed me and the burst of focused energy dissipated for a while. Now it’s back. Best strike while the vinyl is hot—or something along those lines.

The idea here is very simple: I listen to hundreds of new albums every year, along with hundreds of older albums that I come back to for various reasons; but how much of that music has real staying power? And what, in the end, makes a person return repeatedly to This Album rather than That Album? Sure, of course it is because of impeccable taste and a rare instinct for timeless music. (Duh.) But there is a wonderful mystery to it all, for so much of what resonates in a particular album comes from accidental things: the time, the place, the event, the moment. Certain songs bring back great memories; certain songs make you want to jump off a cliff (yes, I’m looking at you, Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical”).

But it isn’t simply a matter of nostalgia, which can only go so far; it is, I hope, more often a matter of discovery, of hearing something new—or, in some cases, hearing something old and suddenly hearing it. Really hearing it.

My criteria is this: what albums from 60, 50, 40, 30, 25, 20, and 10 years ago do I still listen to now on a regular basis? And never tire of hearing? And why? With that, here goes!

sinatra_torme1955: In the Wee Small Hours by Frank Sinatra and It’s a Blue World by Mel Tormé. I was not raised on Sinatra’s music; quite the contrary—I was raised on decent hymns and mediocre to rotten “Christian” music; I hardly paid attention to Top 40 pop and rock until I was in junior high. And I didn’t really listen to Sinatra or Tormé until a dozen years ago. Prior to that, I simply didn’t “get it”. Then I did. Why? I’m not sure. But since then, I’ve collected some 1300 Sinatra songs. The Chairman of the Board produced many classic albums, but this one is my personal favorite: dark, lush, aching, beautiful, gut-wrenching, perfect. I sometimes fall to sleep listening to it, especially when it’s 2:00 in the morning and I’m wide awake. Sinatra had the rare gift of making you, the listener, believe The Voice was singing only to and for you. It’s impossible to describe; it simply has to be heard and experienced. And don’t forget: Sinatra is the God Father of Prog. Really. Sinatra, by the way, was born a hundred years ago this year.

Tormé did not have the edge or darkness of Sinatra, nor did he ever plumb the depths of emotional despair as did  the legend ten years his senior. But Tormé had range, talent, and genius to burn, not just as one of the greatest vocalists of the 20th century, but also as an accomplished songsmith (he penned 250 songs or so), fabulous arranger, top-notch drummer (and decent pianist), novelist, biographer, author, actor, screen writer, consummate showman, and collector (guns, cars, movies, etc.). It’s a Blue World is a lush, impeccable set of songs, likely influenced by Sinatra’s Wee Small Hours. While Sinatra packs an emotional punch, Tormé thrills with pure beauty and dazzling musicality, all delivered with an effortless ease that reminds me of watching Roger Federer play tennis at Wimbledon. Bing Crosby, asked late in life to name his favorite musicians, named only one vocalist–Tormé–saying, “Any singer that goes to hear this guy sing has got to go and cut his throat.” For a taste, check out Tormé singing Duke Ellington’s “I’ve Got It Bad, And That Ain’t Good”. Read the rest of this entry

50 years after Them, Van Morrison cuts one of Those “Duets” Albums

The number “50” is off—an 18-year-old Van the Man actually joined Them in April 1964 (thus, 51 years on)—but it’s fitting, as playing with time is something Morrison mastered early and continues to do very well, as singer, van-morrison_duetssongwriter, and player. In 1966, Morrison and Them performed a series of shows at the Whisky a Go Go; the opening band was The Doors, and the two Morrisons—Jim and Van—performed together. On his new release (his 35th studio album), Duets: Re-working the Catalogue, the Belfast Cowboy performs with several singers who were born after the Sixties: Joss Stone, Michael Bublé, Clare Teal, Gregory Porter, Morrison’s daughter, Shana. Many of the other guests have been there and done that, including Bobby Womack (who died last summer), Mavis Staples, George Benson, Steve Winwood, PJ Proby, Taj Mahal, Mick Hucknall, Natalie Cole, Georgie Fame, and Chris Farlowe.

Those sixteen duet partners encompass blues, jazz, blue-eyed soul, rock, R&B, gospel, and pop, all of which are genres that Morrison mastered long ago, in addition to Celtic, country, and skiffle. No, there’s not a lick of prog on this or any other Morrison album, but there is, I suggest, a certain spiritual connection with certain forms of progressive rock, especially in the mystical journeying of Astral Weeks, the joyful, ecstatic visions of Moondance, and the epic, spiritual wanderlust of Avalon Sunset and Hymns to the Silence. Part of the genius of Van Morrison is that he largely ignores prevailing musical trends, yet is able to connect to a wide range of listeners because of a certain timeless quality to his songs, which are consistently melodic and memorable. My first real initiation into Morrison’s music was in the summer of 1991, when a friend played Avalon Sunset for me; I was instantly hooked, and quickly began acquiring all of Morrison’s music. In my 2002 essay, “The Incarnational Art of Van Morrison,” I reflect on the various spiritual and mystical themes in Morrison’s music. Read the rest of this entry

Zac Brown + Chris Cornell = Southerngarden

Chris Cornell cemented his reputation long ago as one of the greatest rock vocalists ever, first with Soundgarden in the 1980s and ’90s (and currently), and then with Audioslave in the early 2000s. But Cornell, who is now 50 years old, has a rather intriguing history of crossing genres, beginning with “Temple of the Dog” (1991), which was certainly rock, yet with hints of gospel and folk. His surprising 1997 version of “Ave Maria” (on “A Very Special Christmas 3”) indicated an interest in music far outside the usual grunge/metal arena. And with his 1998 song “Sunshower” (on the “Great Expectations” soundtrack), which became a hit without ever being released as a single, and “Euphoria Morning” (1999), his first solo album, Cornell further demonstrated his ability to sing (and write) within numerous genres. His 2009 album, “Scream,” caused plenty of screams—from fans who welcomed the electro-R&B-Timbaland-produced songs and from those who hated it and saw it as a sign of the apocalypse.

In recent years, Cornell has written and performed a hit song for a blockbuster movie (“You Know My Name”, the theme song for the 2006 James Bond film, Casino Royale), sang lead on the funky, Euro-fusion tune “Lies” with Gabin, and crooned a mellow, old-school duet (“All I Have To Do Is Dream”) with Rita Wilson on Mrs. Tom Hanks’s 2012 solo album, “AM/FM.” And in his various solo acoustic tours [see my October 2013 review of one such show], Cornell has always played some left field tunes, such as Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean,” which he first played unplugged many years ago as a slow-burning blues song (and inspiring a similar take from “American Idol” winner David Cook in 2008).

There are more examples, but that’s enough of an intro to Cornell’s latest collaboration, which was released last week: the single, “Heavy Is the Head,” with the Zac Brown Band, which appears on ZBB’s forthcoming album, “Jekyll + Hyde”. I’ve enjoyed the ZBB’s past albums, which are a mixture of Souther-country-rock, traditional country, and some Jimmy Buffet-type tunes, and I expected I would enjoy the tune. In fact, I think it is a great cut; it is far heavier than expected and is a near perfect marriage of Southern/country rock and grunge, hence my use of the word “Southerngarden”. The song is built on a distorted, grungy bass line, which leads into some distorted guitar and Cornell’s somewhat menacing vocals; it builds over some fine riffs and, at the 3-minute mark, a nifty Soundgarden-ish breakdown and some trademark wailing. Here is a recent performance for SNL, marred only by a bad mix (the vocals are pushed too the back):

Big band and jazz guitar take bold journey to “Dark Side of the Moon”

It is, as AllAboutJazz.com notes from the top, a “bold concept”: A big band and a jazz/fusion guitarist reinterpreting (“covering” isn’t it at all, not by a long shot) Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”—that modest little 1973 album that sold a bazillion copies and cemented Waters, Gilmour, and Co. as rock legends. The chances of such an audacious project going sideways, celebratingdarksideupside down, or simply “splat” are fairly high. Most Floyd purists, I suspect, would dismiss it immediately, and most jazz purists would be right behind them. (I hope I’m wrong, but I think that’s a fair guess.) That would be unfortunate, because “Celebrating the Dark Side of the Moon” is a stunning album, a splendid example of what can happen when exceptional jazz musicians take on exceptional rock/prog material with an equal measure of respect and experimental energy.

The album is the brain child of ACT-director Siggi Loch (ACT is a German label focused on contemporary jazz), and Stefan Gerdes and Axel Dürr, producers for the NDR Big Band; they enlisted legendary composer and arranger Michael Gibbs and the wildly eclectic, always surprising guitarist Nguyên Lê. The sleeve notes read, in part:

Nguyên Lê enlightens the Floyd’s repertoire – pure happiness – and enchants it with the collusion of the NDR Bigband and its brilliant soloists, deploying new sound-textures created by the uplifting orchestrations of Michael Gibbs. The arrangements here – Gibbs wrote three, Nguyên Lê wrote the others – provide choice settings for inspired improvisations and also reveal other compositions which appear as natural extensions of the original opus. The guitarist’s playing sparkles with those fiery, oriental accents we’ve learned to love, sustained by guests he can trust: Jürgen Attig, Gary Husband, or Youn Sun Nah, whose chalice is brimming with magnetic grace. “Celebrating The Dark Side Of The Moon” is no simple tribute to a record which made history. It fervently expresses the re-creation – exempt from all imitation – of a score which you can hear in filigree. This is a palimpsest. The writing can still be (re)read, with warm hues forged by respect for the original matrix and the multiple expressions of its identity. Like a principle of Life.

The playing throughout, no surprise, is top of the line; but what really jumps out is the muscular, bold, and detailed quality of the arrangements, as well as the propulsive fluidity of the solos and ensemble playing. Yes, you know you are hearing Pink Floyd songs, but you hear them in a new and invigorating way. Lê is especially dynamic; he plays the vocal parts in several songs, and his tone is as rich and expressive as any vocal, bringing out melodic qualities deep in the original material. Listen, for example, to “Money,” with the solo starting at the 1:00 mark:

The other stunner is South Korean singer Youn Sun Nah, whose solo work has always demonstrated a willingness to push—and sometimes simply flatten, by virtue of her power and precision—musical boundaries, moving from sweetness and light to primal, raging darkness at a moments notice (check out her rather harrowing version of “Enter Sandman”). Here she is singing “Breathe”:

The Telegraph gave the album a begrudging decent review, stating, “The remarkable thing is that eventually, the album persuaded me to forget the original. It does this very cleverly, by confirming and subverting our expectations at the same time.” Meanwhile, AllAboutJazz.com concludes its far more positive review by saying, “Nguyên Lê’s CTDSOTM is an ambitious, uplifting and frequently exhilarating project whose textural layers and conceptual riches are gradually revealed upon repeated listening. It should appeal to Floyd freaks, progressive big-band addicts and the musically curious alike.” I hope so!

“King Crimson: Live At The Orpheum” = 5 Stars

It’s not surprising that AllAboutJazz.com, one of the best jazz sites out there, will occasionally review albums that aren’t fully or even remotely jazz. But it may be a bit surprising how often the site features reviews of prog albums. But jazz and prog have a lot in common, not least the interplay of tradition and innovation, composition and improvisation, individuality and group interplay. Oh, and the curious fact that no one is really able to provide a succinct, satisfactory definition of either “jazz” or “prog”. And, of course, many prog groups and artists have feet in both worlds; names such Bill Bruford, Tony Levin, Jean-Luc Ponty, and King Crimson come to mind (there are many others). Speaking of King Crimson, the band’s newest release, “Live At The Orpheum,” rates a 5 star review from AllAboutJazz.com’s John Kelman, whose encyclopedic knowledge of the band is evident in his detailed review:

Based on the group’s two-night run at San Francisco’s legendary The Warfield, the groundswell of support was not just well-deserved; this was, it turns out, one of the best Crimson lineups ever…perhaps, even, the best, with the possible exception of the ’72-’74 lineup recently documented in the third of three consecutive box sets to be released in as many years, Starless (Panegyric, 2014). This was a Crimson that may have been taking a good look back at its long legacy but this was no retro band; King Crimson 2014 was truly, well, as 21st century as they come. kingcrimson_liveattheorpheum

There’s even an argument to be made that despite the mid-’70s Crim’s reputation as fearless and often ear-splitting improvisers, King Crimson 2014 is an even better unit because, with the addition of Collins’ reed and woodwinds and three drummers who also bring electronics and, in the case of Rieflin, keyboards to the mix, this is a group that can play virtually anything from the group’s 45-year repertoire, and do it in ways that previous, smaller incarnations could not—all with perfect intuition and dynamics. Jakszyk is a singer and guitarist who, while as riveting and talented as Belew, is a more integrated band member than his immediate predecessor, whose presence somehow seemed to dominate every incarnation he was in over the course of nearly three decades. Not that Belew’s dominance was necessarily a bad thing, but it was, in some ways, self-limiting. And with Levin back, the group has a groove-heavy bassist capable of everything from Chapman stick and fretted and fretless basses to upright bass. Like Levin, it would seem that King Crimson 2014 has the chops to do just about anything.

A truth made all the more clear on Live at the Orpheum, the new line-up’s first official release, recorded during its two-night Los Angeles run prior to moving north to San Francisco. It’s a great reminder to those who saw the tour just how special this incarnation was, while allowing those unable to catch the shows to get some idea of what all the hubbub was about.

There will inevitably be those who will criticize co-producers Jakszyk and Fripp’s decision notto include an entire performance but, instead, make it a vinyl-length recording—the double-disc CD version also includes the stereo mix in 24/96 Hi-Res on a DVD-A—that only includes about a third of the group’s live set. But there are two approaches to compiling a live release. One, the relatively easy route, is to present a full show (or a composite taken from multiple nights) that may represent the overall best performances while still containing all the inevitable minor imperfections that are part and parcel of any live performance—barely noticed, if at all, at the time but, with a permanent document, there to be heard time and again. The other, a more time and work-intensive approach, involves listening to each show’s multitrack tapes in minute detail to identify the absolute best performances and then make any necessary minor (but not necessarily quick or easy) adjustments to remove those imperfections, creating a document capable of standing up to detailed scrutiny and of more lasting quality. A show, after all, is a fleeting thing, while a recording is intrinsicallypermanent.

Clearly Crimson opted for quality over quantity, but that meant, with just three months between the tour’s end and the release of Live at the Orpheum, the work required to sift through hundreds of hours of high resolution multi-tracks may simply have been too great to manage anything more than its 41 minutes.

Based on the end result, however, Live at the Orpheum more precisely documents how King Crimson 2014 sounded; rather than a “warts and all” live recording put together on the quick, it suits—and, perhaps most importantly, respects—the detail, complexity and unbridled energy of the group’s shows.

Read the entire review.

My favorite Album of 2014, Redux

flyingcolors_2ndnaturecoverAt risk of annoying those who waded through my New Year’s Day post on my favorite prog/rock albums of 2014, I’m (re)posting my #1 pick from that list, as I think it stands alone just fine as a review. And because I think so highly of this album. Oh, and because I don’t post nearly enough on this fine blog, so maybe this can count toward my post total! By the way, a recent issue of PROG magazine (Issue 51 2014) raved about this album—but did get into the lyrical content as I do below.

“Second Nature” by Flying Colors. Every once in a while—perhaps once every few years—I hear an album that I listen to again and again…and again: Jeff Buckley’s “Grace”, “OK Computer” by Radiohead, and Soundgarden’s “Superunknown” come to mind. I’ve now listened to this album 75 times or so (according to my iTunes), and I’ve not tired of it at all. Not even close. If anything, I like it more than ever, and I’m confident I’ll be listening to it for years to come. There are numerous reasons for my obsession with “Second Nature,” but I’ll note just a couple of big ones. It begins with the album title, “Second Nature,” which certainly references that this is the group’s second studio album and the fact that making music, for these five masters, is second nature.

But it finally points to the intertwining, overarching theme of the album, which is that of spiritual awakening, ascent, and transformation, the movement from putting off the “old nature” and putting on the “new nature,” spoken of by Paul the Apostle in his letter to the Ephesians (4:22-24). The arch can be seen in the opening and closing lyrics. “Open Up Your Eyes” is a song of self-examination and spiritual assessment:

Dream, empty and grey
A story waiting for a place to begin
Hands, laying all the best laid plans
But where do we leave our mark
In this life?

There is reference to original sin, echoing Eliot’s “Four Quartets”: “Torn, wearing the disease you mourn/Like a deep freeze it burns.” And then the promise and the hope is proffered: “Open up your eyes and come awake/You will be created now”—itself a reference, I’m quite certain, to the Apostle Paul’s various exhortations to rouse oneself from spiritual slumber and to be made a “new creation.” The language of redemption and salvation are shot through the entire album; in many ways, this is the most open and covert Christian album I’ve ever heard (up there with early King’s X), and the approach is perfectly balanced and executed.

“Mask Machine” laments the layers of deception inherent in the dominant, de-sacralized culture, “With love for sale and gold for dirt/I’ll worship every fleeting aching.” The song “Bombs Away” furthers the lament and confesses the sad state of the first and fallen nature: “Run by my instincts/I’m high on the freeway/And I’m scared I’ll come down.” But there is a recognition of the vocation to transcendence: “I’d love to be found” and, “I need to find a way beyond.”

The next four songs, “The Fury of My Love”, “A Place In Your World”, “Lost Without You”, and “One Love Forever” are love songs—but for whom? Or Whom? There is a certainly ambiguity in the first two, as if nodding to the face that earthly love is itself a reflection of heavenly love: “Singing I surrender/I surrender/Tearing all the walls away/I’m giving you a place.” but by “One Love Forever” the ambiguity is gone, replace by clarity and knowledge of the God-sized hole in the human heart: “One love forever/For one consuming hole inside/One love forever/… One love for all time/Is calling/Our eyes contain eternity.”

The final two songs, “Peaceful Harbor” and “Cosmic Symphony”, mark the apex of the redemptive ascent: arrival and contemplation. And the music, amazingly, more than matches the rather mystical topic at hand. “Peaceful Harbor” is a soaring, ecstatic hymn: “I’ll look beyond/With this bedlam behind me/And I embrace the sky/My soul will cry/May your wind ever find me.” The final song is both prog heaven and, well, a hopeful glimpse of heaven: “I’m searchin’ for the air but I’m stuck here on the ground … And when I get to walk the streets/Without this burden on my feet/I know I’ve been called home…”

The monumental final, three-part track, “Cosmic Symphony,” is deeply emotional but resolute in nature. Once again, Eliot comes to mind (“Preludes” and “The Hollow Men” in particular), with references to scarecrows and cigarettes, with descriptions both abstract and apocalyptic: “Shrinking violet wounded by her mother/Old men sleep while porcelain screams take over/And the wolf disguises her undying lover.” There is a recognition, it seems, that redemption comes through acknowledging our limits in this temporal realm: “I’m searching for the air but I’m stuck here on the ground now…” But the conclusion, again, is one of hope in the world beyond: “And when I get to walk these streets/Without a burden on these feet/I’ll know I’ve been called home…”

Secondly, as indicated, the music perfectly carries and conveys the rich lyrical content. We all know that these guys can play anything; what is especially striking to me is how they play as a band, for the sake of the music. There are no solos for the sake of solos; everything is at the service of the songs. Steve Morse, who I’ve been listening to for 30 years now, continues to amaze with his ability to play with such precision and economy, yet with such soulfulness. See, for example, his solos in “Peaceful Harbor” and “Cosmic Symphony”. Morse is always distinctly Steve Morse, and yet he has an uncanny—humble, really—ability to serve the music at hand (I also think of his masterful work on Kansas’ criminally underrated “In the Spirit of Things”). Neal Morse and Carey McPherson have apparently mind-melded as vocalists; at times it is hard to say who is singing, nor does it matter. The amount of energy and love they have poured into this album is obvious. Dave LaRue is the epitome of virtuoso bass playing that is rooted and melodic; his brief solo near the beginning of “Cosmic Symphony” is a piece of sheer beauty—again, at the service of the song. And Mike Portnoy’s playing is so very tasteful, with all sorts of meticulous detail.

In short, this is, for me, a magical album. Thank you, Flying Colors!

From Carl’s Critical Kitchen: A Baker’s Dozen of Tasty Prog/Rock from 2014

guitar-and-music-paper-1927

“Guitar and Music Paper” (1927) by Juan Gris

In the process of putting together an end-of-the-year book list for CWR, I came upon my 2004 post on my favorite books and music of 2004. The music list is quite interesting, with just one overtly prog album (Pain of Salvation’s “Be,” which is, in hindsight, one of my least favorite POS releases), and a fair amount of jazz (no surprise) and country (some surprise). I’m glad to say I still listen to much of the music on that list.

This year, I’ve decided to break my music picks from 2014 into three categories: prog/rock, jazz, and the kitchen sink (country, electronica, weirdness). I want to emphasize “favorite” here because there were so many releases I simply didn’t get to, despite uploading over 6500 songs in the past 12 months. Ah well!

And I’m going to try to keep it short and simple, with the exception of my thoughts on my #1 pick in prog, which is also my Favorite Album of the Year. What is it? Read on!

Favorite Prog and Rock Albums of 2014:

12. “Live at Rome Olympic Stadium” by Muse and “Tales from the Netherlands” by Mystery. Muse is about as proggy as a mega-selling, world-famous band can be, known for putting on live performances that are equally energetic and well played. This July 2013 performance is no exception, with the trio ripping through nineteen of their eclectic songs, ranging from from electro-tinged funk (“Panic Station”) to Queen-ish pomp (“Knights of Cydonia”) to Floyd-ish slyness (“Animals”). The DVD is very impressive, not only because it was filmed with HD/4K cameras but also because the band is at the top of their game.

Mystery is fronted by Benoit David, who was lead singer for Yes for a short time a few years ago, before illness led to his firing. David never seemed comfortable with Yes, but his work with Mystery is of the highest caliber. The Montreal-based group is lead by multi-instrumentalist Michel St-Père  (guitars, keyboards, bass, production) and has an epic, soaring sound built on fabulous melodies and exquisitely structured songs. The production, for a live album, is excellent, and David (who has since left the group) is in top form; this is not easy music to navigate vocally, yet he nails it at every twist and turn.

11. “Magnolia” by Pineapple Thief. Bruce Soord has more talent in his toes than most alt-bands have in their entirety, whether it be as a writer, producer, player, or singer. I’ve enjoyed everything from Pineapple Thief, but this collection of incisive, beautifully burnished tunes is Soord’s best work yet, the sort of intelligent, catchy, and detailed modern rock that deserves to be all over the airwaves. Classic Rock magazine sums it nicely: “Small but perfectly formed pockets of 21st century prog.”

10. “The Ocean At the End” by Tea Party. I was thrilled that this Canadian trio (now based in Australia) got together again after several years apart; I still listen to their early albums (“Splendor Solis”, “Edges of Twilight”) which feature an overt Led Zep vibe with a brooding, even epic, melancholy, rooted in Jeff Martin’s powerful voice and bluesy guitar playing. The latter quality is more in evidence here, and the rocking cuts (“Brazil” and “The Cass Corridor”) are the least enjoyable for me. The highlights are the dark cover of “The Maker,” the aching “Black Roses”, and the tour de force “The Ocean at the End”. Distinctive, powerful, emotive rock.

9. “Beyond the Visable Light” by Ovrfwrd. This album made a late charge on my playlist, as each listen revealed deeper layers of detail, melody, and interplay. The four-man group from Minneapolis is instrumental only, with an emphasis on group dynamics and song structures that are complex but very accessible. There is a lot of territory covered in the 5-song, 48-minute-long album, with grungy, propulsive passages melting into subtle, jazz-ish sections, and then giving way to Deep Purple-ish organ, and so forth. Great use of piano throughout, which brings a distinctive detail to the entire, enjoyable affair. Read the rest of this entry

Frank Sinatra: Grandfather of Prog Rock?

sinatra_studio

Sinatra in studio in the 1950s, during his Capitol years.

“Well, yes, of course,” you said, upon reading the headline. “Everyone knows that Old Blue Eyes was not just a crooner, but a prog crooner, and thus the grandfather of prog rock! Does it really need to be said again?” Yes, it probably should, despite the abundance of articles on the topic (ahem). Especially since today marks what would have been The Chairman of the Board’s 99th birthday if he was still among us. Sinatra was born on this day in 1915, in Hoboken, New Jersey, and would go on to be one of the best-known, best-selling musical artists of the 20th century, rivaled in sales and popularity by only a handful of artists and groups.

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that Sinatra was a “prog rocker”. I might be a Sinatra fanboy—I have over 1,200 Sinatra songs in my iTunes library and listen to some of his music nearly every day—but I’m not insane. At least not that insane. What I am saying is that Sinatra did a number of things on the musical front that were either quite unique or very notable (and probably little known to most people), that pointed toward key elements and attitudes making up what we now call “prog”.

Here, then, are five things that make The Voice the Grandfather of Prog:

1). Sinatra was the first pop artist to record and release a “concept” album. Take it away, Will Friedwald:

A landmark in American music, The Voice, recorded and released in 1945, is generally regarded as the original pop “concept” album: this was the first time a singer and arranger (the brilliant Axel Stordahl) assembled a program of songs in a distinct mood and tempo, so that one song would flow into another in a consistent program (even though it was initially released as a collection of single-track 78RPM discs).

Prior to Sinatra, singers were usually just one part, out of many, of big bands, and they released singles, of course, due to the limitations of the time. While other artists (Bing Crosby) established themselves as solo artists before Sinatra, it was Sinatra who took his individual talents to heights previously unimagined—and did so, in part, by honing in on carefully making albums with specific thematic concepts. Friedwald, who is a fabulous writer, has penned the definitive book on Sinatra as a musician (leaving aside the matters of Sinatra the movie star, scoundrel, lover, friend of the mob, etc.), titled, Sinatra! The Song Is You: A Singer’s Art (1997; 550+ pages), which covers all of this in great and fascinating detail.

2). Sinatra made an art form out of the concept/thematic album, especially (but not only) during his Capitol years, crafting albums that are, frankly (yep), perfect in every way. Although Sinatra wrote almost no songs, he handpicked the songs and put together the sequences; it was common knowledge that while Sinatra had great respect for the musicians and arrangers who worked on his albums, he called all of the shots. And that, for the time, was progressive. Friedwald notes that Sinatra was, in many ways, more interested in the lyrics than the melodies (in fact, he often irritated songwriters with liberties taken with their melodies). And so while Sinatra never recorded lengthy songs (I think that “Soliloquy”, from “Frank Sinatra Sings Rodgers & Hammerstein” was the longest, at just over 8 minutes long), his thematic albums had a certain “prog” quality in that they were a suite of songs based around particular emotions and ideas.sinatra_comeflywithme

His 1954 classic, “In The Wee Small Hours,” for instance, is an aching, gorgeous examination of late night solitude, fragility, and heartache, while 1955’s “Songs For Swinging Lovers” is an energetic, cocky, and effusive collection. Both focus on love (of course!), but do so with an emotional and musical palette that is remarkable, supported by the astounding arrangements of Nelson Riddle. It is probably not a coincidence that Sinatra was something of a manic-depressive (by many accounts, he hardly ever slept), and that Nelson had some of the same up-and-down in his emotional DNA.

My two favorites are both from 1957, and demonstrate Sinatra’s remarkable range. “Close To You” is one of Sinatra’s least known albums, featuring the singer with just a string quartet, singing songs of lament and loss that retain a certain lightness and warmth that is harder to find in the harrowing, gut-wrenching releases, “Frank Sinatra Sings Only For the Lonely” (1958) and “No One Cares” (1959). “Close To You” reveals Sinatra’s love for a classical sound; he loved classical music, especially Puccini and Ralph Vaughan Williams, and had a massive collection of classical music (he expressed disdain for rock music, but mellowed in that regard a bit in the late 1960s). The other favorite is “Come Fly With Me,” which is packed to the brim with big brass, lush orchestra, and exotica, taking listeners on a veritable tour of the world, from the Isle of Capri to New York to Vermont to London to Paris to Hawaii to Brazil to…well, you get the point. So, in short, many years before the Beatles and the Who, Sinatra had already mastered the concept album, something that is part and parcel of prog music.

3). Sinatra was an actor—and I’m not talking about his roles in movies, which ranged from classic (“From Here to Eternity,” “Manchurian Candidate”) to sometimes horrible. He was an actor whenever he sang, bringing an authenticity, believability, and direct engagement to songs that is remarkable considering the range of material he sang. When he sang, “I’m a Fool To Love You,” you were certain he was going to jump off a cliff at any moment; when he sang “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” you witnessed a man in the midst of profound romantic angst; and when he sang “Nice ‘n’ Easy” you knew, well, that he was not going to be alone for the evening. And while most of his songs were about love and romance, songs like “Old Man River” and “Soliloquy” revealed an ability to connect in other ways as well. And his renditions of religious songs such as “Ave Maria” and “The Lord’s Prayer” demonstrate a tasteful balance between emotion and reservation. The theatrical abilities of Sinatra are worthy of admiration by prog enthusiasts, because great prog employs a sense of theater, oftentimes in full-blown, dramatic fashion.sessionswithsinatra

4). Sinatra used the studio as an instrument, quite a while before any rock artists did so. This is covered in fascinating fashion in Sessions With Sinatra: Frank Sinatra and the Art of Recording (2004), by Charles L. Granata. “Frank Sinatra was a master of the art of recording,” writes Granata, “His work in the studio set him apart from other gifted vocalists; and performers old and new, vocal and instrumental, emulate his accomplishments to this day.” We often talk of this or that musician as an artist, but Sinatra—whatever his failings and flaws—was An Artist. And he was also keen to use technology to the hilt; in this, he benefited from being with Capitol when numerous innovations and advancements were being made, including the advent of stereo sound, which Capitol took up in 1957. His detailed preparation for recording was legendary, and his ability, in studio, to adjust, make changes, and address challenges (wrong notes, etc.) was exceptional.

5). Sinatra drew upon a wide range of musical styles and made them his own: classical, jazz, Tin Pan Alley, folk, blues, and even, later on, some rock (with mixed results, admittedly). He sang and recorded in small groups and with entire symphonies, with big bands headed by Count Basie and with chamber quartets, with blues and jazz players, and with bossa nova master Antonio Carlos Jobim. Even up to the end, he experimented with different styles and took risks, the sort of attitude and approach one would expect to find in a proto-prog musician. Sinatra insisted that he just was a pop singer, but he was widely regarded as a top-notch jazz singer, as Michael Nelson explains:

Sinatra was not a jazz singer in the classic improvisational mode and never had claimed to be. Yet clearly he individualized every song he sang, a hallmark of jazz, and he cited jazz singers as his most powerful musical influences—Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, and especially Billie Holiday and the early Bing Crosby. Jazz musicians, for their part, had always been Sinatra’s strongest admirers. In a poll of 120 musicians by New York Times jazz critic Leonard Feather, Sinatra received 56 votes as the “greatest ever” male vocalist, 43 more than anyone else. Among those who chose Sinatra were Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Oscar Peterson, Billy Taylor, and Carmen McRae.

In sum, Sinatra was a populist who was a true artist, an experimenter who drew deeply on traditional forms while constantly pushing at the edges, a dramatist who channeled deep emotions into focused works of high popular art, and a visionary who used concept albums and technological advances to expand and develop his musical vision and vocabulary. Happy birthday, Old Blue Eyes!

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