Don’t sleep on Bent Knee!

This isn’t a proper review, in part because even after 7 or 8 listens I am still trying to wrap my head around the beautiful, paradoxical wonder of this album. Rather, it’s more of a “you really need to check out Land Animal from Bent Knee—you can listen to it streaming here” sort of post.

The band, which was formed in 2009, is based in New England and consists of six members. From the band’s site:

Lead singer and keyboardist Courtney Swain’s soaring vocals are instantly arresting. Guitarist Ben Levin is one of the most dynamic and versatile guitarists around, shifting between the raging and raucous to the sublime and meditative. Bassist Jessica Kion and drummer Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth combine into an enthralling rhythm section that’s equal parts powerhouse and nuance. Violinist Chris Baum’s kinetic violin work provides drama, grace and intrigue. World-class producer and live sound designer Vince Welch weaves it all together with a captivating, expert touch.

My first Bent Knee song was the whip-lash, jaw-dropping cover of Johnny Cash’s dark nugget “You Are My Sunshine,” which demonstrates well the band’s rather unique mixture of technical dexterity, cathartic bombast, cerebral coolness, and inverted, addictive catchiness. (Did I mention “paradoxical” earlier? Yep.) This opening paragraph from the band’s bio page might sound a bit hyperbolic—but if it is, it isn’t by much:

Bent Knee is unlike any band you’ve ever heard. Its borderless sound combines myriad influences from across the rock, pop, minimalist, and avant-garde spectrums into a seamless, thrilling whole. Its new album Land Animal—Bent Knee’s first for InsideOutMusic/Sony—takes its sound to a new level. It offers a suite of songs full of addictive hooks, lush melodies and enthralling twists and turns that capture the reality of life in the 21st Century—a reality of people and nations in the midst of tumultuous change. It also communicates a ray of hope and desire for listeners to embrace the fact that they’re not alone in their struggles.

In some songs, especially in more serene passages or sections that bear some faint resemblance to orthodox pop music, I hear Kate Bush and even Sia (“Hole” is perfect example of the latter). In the more “out there” moments, when Swain unleashes her blistering, gorgeous wail, I hear snatches of Fleming & John (a criminally-ignored husband and wife duo) and early Björk (oddly enough, when she loses her mind at times on the 1990 jazz album “Gling Gló”). But these reference points are merely suggestive, as the whole of Bent Knee is, again, hard to describe, a mixture of orchestral-ish passages, raw but tight guitar, polyrhythmic craziness, classically-imbued moments of open tenderness, angst-packed explosions, and much more. (The bass lines, for example, are worth the price of entry.)

The songs are certainly songs—there is no noodling or needless wandering here—but they are also soundscapes. A perfect case in point is the title song. For those looking for progressive rock that is both a bit unsettling and strangely comforting, Bent Knee is worthy of your time:

Pretentious NRO “review” of prog rock fails in multiple ways….

… including the following:

(us.fotolia.com/pathdoc)

It’s condescending. And clichéd. Those of us who have followed prog for more than 20 minutes, unlike Mr. Kyle Smith, author of “Prog Rock: A Noble but Failed Experiment” (NRO, June 15, 2017), are all too familiar with the chortling and snorting that progressive rock is silly, outlandish, over-the-top, nerdy, self-indulgent, and—yes, you guessed it—pretentious. Kudos (I guess) to Smith for recycling all the usual jabs and wrapping them up in a few sentences; it must have taken some talent to do so:

Progressive rock is the nonpolitical description that stuck to the pretentious, arty, classical-and-jazz-influenced bands, most of them English, who created the music fad of the early 1970s. With their mystical themes, their surreal and sci-fi album covers, their outlandish costumes (capes, fox heads), their obsession with faeries and aliens and loopy 20-minute synthesizer solos, bands such as Peter Gabriel–era Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer led rock down a bizarre sonic detour first mapped out by the Beach Boys on Pet Sounds and the Beatles on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Prog rock was the exclusive domain of a certain kind of nervous, experimentally minded, cautiously intellectual young white guy. It was nerd rock. College rock. Dungeons & Dragons rock. Pimply-virgin rock.

This reminds me of how I was told, growing up in a Fundamentalist home, that all rock music was “of the devil,” that it was all about sex and drugs, that most albums featured nefarious, masked lyrics, and that it involved little talent (but plenty of hedonism and self-destructive behavior). In fact, there is a small element of truth to some of this, just as Smith’s smirking descriptive contains some shards of truth, while missing so much it becomes nothing more than a weird form of cultural virtue-signaling. Neither approach—the sophisticated sneering or the fundamentalist frothing—provides much in the way of context or content. Which is unfortunate, since the context and content of prog—then and now—are quite fascinating. Continue reading “Pretentious NRO “review” of prog rock fails in multiple ways….”

The best musical tribute to Chris Cornell so far…

Back in March 1994, shortly after Soundgarden’s masterful Superunknown was released, Melody Maker‘s Everett True wrote a detailed and often insightful piece about the band on the road (in Tokyo, specifically). Chris Cornell spoke openly with True about his struggles with depression and fear:

“I write songs best when I’m depressed,” Chris tells me. “No one seems to get this, but Black Hole Sun is sad. But because the melody is really pretty, everyone thinks it’s almost chipper, which is ridiculous. Fell On Black Days is another one. Like Suicide is a perfect example.”

We’re they inspired by specific events?

“Fell On Black Days was like this ongoing fear I’ve had for years. It took me a long time to write that song. We’ve tried to do three different versions with that title, and none of them have ever worked. Someday we might do an EP…

“It’s a feeling that everyone gets. You’re happy with your life, everything’s going well, things are exciting – when all of a sudden you realise you’re unhappy in the extreme, to the point of being really, really scared. There’s no particular event you can pin the feeling down to, it’s just that you realise one day that everything in your life is F—–!”

Exhibit A for a “chipper” version of the huge hit is this snappy, big band-ish, “are you kidding me?” version by Paul Anka (yes, the same Paul Anka who wrote the lyrics to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”—one of the very few Sinatra songs I find annoying, even revolting). And in the past few days, understandably, there have been a number of singers and bands playing the song as a tribute to Cornell, who took his life on May 18th, after a reportedly ragged show at Detroit’s famous Fox Theater.

Continue reading “The best musical tribute to Chris Cornell so far…”

The shocking death of Soundgarden’s legendary Chris Cornell [Updated]

Chris Cornell at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. (Wikipedia)

Update: There are now reports from the medical examiner that it was a suicide. Baffling and confounding.

——-

I awoke this morning to two texts from close friends. The first was terse and direct: “Chris Cornell has died.” The second:

“Just heard about Chris Cornell. Sad day for the music world. I’m in Detroit on my way to Florida. It’s all over the news here. Soundgarden played here last night. I doubt he killed himself.”

The first friend had accompanied me to Cornell’s stunning July 2016 concert at The Hult here in Eugene. We both agreed it was a remarkable show; it was even better than a solid 2013 show at a smaller venue just five minutes from my house. We marveled at Cornell’s range, presence, lyrics, musicianship.

Now we are both stunned by his sudden death in a Detroit hotel, not long after a Soundgarden concert that reportedly concluded with Led Zep’s “In My Time of Dying”—a staple in recent solo shows by Cornell.

There are reports that the death may have been a suicide. If so, that would be even more shocking. There had been ups and downs, but Cornell had avoided the deep dives into oblivion that eventually swallowed up Kurt Cobain, Andrew Wood, and Layne Staley. And had, over the past two decades, thrived both personally and professionally.

Cornell was a drug user in his early teens, then drank heavily (and apparently used drugs on occasion) during the heyday of Soundgarden in the 1990s. He hit bottom in the late ’90s as the band broke up and then his first marriage unraveled. Even then, however, he produced his (arguably) finest solo album “Euphoria Morning” (later updated to “Euphoria Mourning”), which demonstrated that he was not just about grunge, but could dip into gospel, blues, and folk. After a stint in rehab, he joined up with three members of Rage Against the Machine to form Audioslave, one of the finest supergroups in recent memory, producing three studio albums of muscular, confident rock that further demonstrated Cornell’s prowess as a songwriter. Several songs for movie soundtracks followed, including “You Know My Name”, the theme song to the 2006 James Bond film, Casino Royale. And Soundgarden’s 2012 “King Animal” was a solid, often brilliant, return for the legendary band.

Since the early 2000s, Cornell’s personal life appears to have been thriving. He married Vicky Karayiannis in March 2004, and by all accounts was a devoted husband and father. His most recent solo album “Higher Truth” was well received, revealing a mature and confident artist who was still trying new things as a songwriter and musician. In interviews, Cornell was thoughtful and funny; he seemed to embrace his fame without taking himself too seriously, which is not an easy thing to accomplish amid the fame and challenges of being a musician.

Again, I’m simply stunned. My God grant Chris Cornell peace and provide solace to his family during this most difficult time.

One CEO’s 50 (or so) favorite pop albums

seal1

Inspired by Brad’s fascinating and very New Wave-ish post “My 49 Favorite Pop Albums”, I decided to try my hand at listing the same. One difficulty, it turns out, is defining “pop”. Brad didn’t list Radiohead’s “OK Computer” (one of my Top 10 pop/rock albums) because he figured it was too proggy, which is hard to disagree with. But I have it in my list, and also included a couple more albums that are certainly in the realm of prog: “Queen II”, “Point of Know Return”, and “A Momentary Lapse of Reason”. But, on the whole, I think most everything here fits on the “pop” spectrum, even if it veers into rocky territory (Muse, Journey, Soundgarden) on occasion.

Also, I could have easily included several more albums by Sinatra and Torme, and I feel a bit guilty to not have anything by, say, Nancy Wilson, Sarah Vaughn, Rosemary Clooney, or Nat King Cole. But I’ve tried to capture a certain breadth chronologically while being true to what I like and return to. And that is a key criteria: all of these are albums I revisit and never tire of.  Finally, it might be surprising that the only artist who shows up here three times is Seal. But no Beatles? Rolling Stones? Simon and Garfunkel? Lady GaGa? Go figure!

1950s-60s:
Frank Sinatra: IN THE WEE SMALL HOURS (1955)
Frank Sinatra: SONGS FOR SWINGIN’ LOVERS! (1956)
Mel Tormé: IT’S A BLUE WORLD (1956)
Roy Orbison: IN DREAMS (1963)
Mel Tormé: THAT’S ALL (1965)

1970s:
Van Morrison: MOONDANCE (1970)
Elton John: ELTON JOHN (1970)
Queen: QUEEN II (1974)
Queen: NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1975)
Kansas: POINT OF KNOW RETURN (1977)
Electric Light Orchestra: OUT OF THE BLUE (1977)

1980s:
Journey: ESCAPE (1981)
ABBA: THE VISITORS (1981)
Asia: ASIA (1982)
The Police: SYNCHRONICITY (1983)
Big Country: THE CROSSING (1983)
Mr. Mister: WELCOME TO THE REAL WORLD (1985)
John Fogerty: CENTERFIELD (1985)
The Moody Blues: THE OTHER SIDE OF LIFE (1986)
Sting: NOTHING LIKE THE SUN (1987)
Pink Floyd: A MOMENTARY LAPSE OF REASON (1987)
Sam Phillips: THE INDESCRIBABLE WOW (1988)
Kate Bush: THE SENSUAL WORLD (1989)
Van Morrison: AVALON SUNSET (1989)

1990s:
The Choir: CIRCLE SLIDE (1990)
George Michael: LISTEN WITHOUT PREJUDICE, VOL. 1 (1990)
U2: ACHTUNG BABY (1991)
Seal: SEAL (1991)
Tori Amos: LITTLE EARTHQUAKES (1992)
Maria McKee: YOU GOTTA SIN TO GET SAVED (1993)
Chris Isaak: SAN FRANCISCO DAYS (1993)
The Cranberries: EVERYONE ELSE IS DOING IT, SO WHY CAN’T WE? (1993)
Sarah McLachlan: FUMBLING TOWARDS ECSTASY (1993)
Seal: SEAL (1994)
Portishead: DUMMY (1994)
Soundgarden: SUPERUNKNOWN (1994)
Jeff Buckley: GRACE (1994)
Jars of Clay: JARS OF CLAY (1995)
The Mavericks: MUSIC FOR ALL OCCASIONS (1995)
Duncan Sheik: DUNCAN SHEIK (1996)
Radiohead: OK COMPUTER (1997)
Seal: HUMAN BEING (1998)
Burlap to Cashmere: ANYBODY OUT THERE? (1998)
Moby: PLAY (1999)

2000 on:
Martin Sexton: LIVE WIDE OPEN (2002)
Muse: BLACK HOLES AND REVELATIONS (2006)
Brandi Carlile: THE STORY (2007)
A Fine Frenzy: ONE CELL IN THE SEA (2007)
Sia: SOME PEOPLE HAVE REAL PROBLEMS (2008)
Sara Bareilles: KALEIDOSCOPE HEART (2010)
Lake Street Dive: BAD SELF PORTRAITS (2014)
Kevin Max: BROKEN TEMPLES (2015)

Richard Barbieri’s Prog-Electronica Genius

richardbarbieriI was first exposed to that exotic, amorphous musical genre called “electronica” in junior high by a friend who listened to what we called “weird stuff”. I’m not even sure what it was; some of it was from Japan. It made a dent in my memory banks, however, because until then my musical interests had been confined to some classical (Brahms! Mozart! Good!), Top 40 rock (Queen! Also good!), and lots of mediocre CCM (Not good!). During my high school years I listened to a good deal of The Alan Parsons Project, in part because of the huge hit “Eye In the Sky”; I eventually collected all of the APP albums. Parsons, of course, has straddled the worlds of progressive rock and mainstream pop/rock with his production prowess, writing, and work with keyboards and Fairlight programming. In hindsight, his music opened the door in various ways to music that was more overtly electronic.

(A quick, semi-related aside: A good friend in high school, who spent a lot of money on a fabulous car stereo system, liked to alternate between playing—very loudly—the raunchy rap of 2 Live Crew and the muzak of Yanni: the first to demonstrate his system’s bass; the latter to show off it’s high end. I’m not sure which music scarred me more.)

In the late Eighties and early Nineties there was an explosion of so-called “New Age” music (which had been around since the Sixties and whose identity has been hotly debated for decades), much of which was ambient or involved whales bellowing, birds chirping, and flowers clapping their petals. I mostly  ignored it, but did eventually latch onto the music of Patrick O’Hearn, whose solo albums on the Private Music label were lush, complex, mysterious, evocative, and never boring, even at their most sedate. O’Hearn, like all of the finest electronica artists, is the master of tone and mood; the music is rarely about virtuosity—unlike wide swaths of prog rock—but about constructing layers and movements. I liken it to a painter who builds layers of luminosity into his work through patient precision (more on the visual arts parallel in a moment).

Not surprisingly, there was a lot of cross-pollination going on between some “New Age” artists and various progressive rock groups and musicians. O’Hearn, who has legit jazz chops—he studied with jazz giant and bassist Gary Peacock—played with Frank Zappa as a youngster, and then with the new-wave band Missing Persons; the Private Music label featured a number of musicians with deep ties to progressive rock. (Another good example of this relationship can be found in Jon Anderson’s albums with Kitaro and Vangelis.) In the 1990s I bought several albums by Moby, Portishead, Björk, Aphex Twin, and Massive Attack, even while I ignored (for whatever reason) other key artists (Brian Eno, for instance).

Richard Barbieri is, of course, no stranger to prog fans, being a key member of Japan and Porcupine Tree and having worked in a number of other settings. His new album “Planets + Persona” [Kscope Music] is his third solo album, following 2005’s “Things Buried” and 2008’s “Stranger Inside”, both of which I enjoyed quite a bit. The three albums are similar in many ways, but this new album seems, to me, to be warmer, more organic (or acoustic), and more contemplative. Geno Thackara, at AllAboutJazz.com, explains it so: Continue reading “Richard Barbieri’s Prog-Electronica Genius”

Big Wreck’s “Grace Street” is bold, beautiful, and bedazzling

In my mini-review of Ian Thornley’s outstanding Secrets I described the Big Wreck bw_gracestreetsinger/guitarist/writer’s solo effort as “acoustic, reflective, mellow, mournful, defiant, sad, and yet shot through with a sense of cautious hope.” The new Big Wreck album Grace Street has its reflective and mellow moments—”Useless” is a mesmerizing, melodic gem and “Motionless” is a soaring mid-tempo number—but the key, overlapping descriptives surely are “defiant” and “hope”. If I were to channel my 17-year-old self (30 years ago!), I would simply say, “This albums kicks ***!” Since reuniting in late 2011, the Canadian rockers have produced three must have albums: Albatross (2012), which includes one of my favorite rock songs, period;  Ghosts (2014), nominated for “Rock Album of the Year” at the 2015 Juno Awards; and now Grace Street. As many others have said, this band deserves far more attention for consistently producing albums filled with aural delights.

The opening song, “It Comes As No Surprise”, is apparently inspired in part by Thornley’s divorce and is equal parts bombast and vulnerability, with wall-of-sound guitars bringing to mind the Von Hertzen Brothers (fans of that group’s 2015 “New Day Rising” should embrace Grace Street readily), while the vocal harmonies remind me of something from Moon Safari or even the Beach Boys. While Big Wreck is not straight prog, it certainly embraces some prog elements—similar, I think, to how Queen used complex vocal harmonies, unusual chords, and elaborate guitar passages:

The second cut, “One Good Piece of Me”, is about as AOR-sounding as the band gets (the opening riff is pure Asia, circa 1983), the sort of song that would have chewed up the radio back in the Eighties, with its power chords, anthemic vocals, and driving bass. “Tomorrow Down” has more of a grunge sound, with Thornley sounding very much like Chris Cornell, especially in how he moves from seductive to snarling at a moment’s notice. “You Don’t Even Know” is loping ear candy, a blues-inflected, hand-clapping (yes, actual hand claps!) number that would—wait for it—make Los Lonely Boys proud, with the sort of tasty guitar solo that Thornley excels at.

The middle section of the generously timed album (just shy of 70 minutes) is simply brilliant. “Useless”, as hinted at above, is a sonic and musical marvel, described by Thornley as one of his favorites. “A Speedy Recovery”, the longest track (7:38), is the very definition of an earworm, with incredibly catchy drum/bass parts, swelling guitars, hypnotizing chorus, soaring vocals, and another glorious guitar solo:

“Motionless” displays Thornley’s astounding range atop a bed of layered sonic sweetness, while “Digging In” has a more raw, classic rock sound with several overt Led Zep shout outs. “The Receiving End” could have easily fit on Chris Cornell’s most recent solo album, replete with mandolin, some slide guitar, and some falsetto. “Floodgates” is equal parts grunge and funk—Extreme, anyone?—with bassist Dave Mcmillan laying down some fabulous bass lines.

The final three cuts have plenty to offer fans of prog: “The Arborist” is built on some deceptively snaky guitar parts, with plenty of minor-keyed darkness around the edges; “Skybunk Marché” is a 7-minute long instrumental with all sorts of guitar gifts; and “All My Fears On You” is a surging, Pink Floyd-ish closer with a classic Thornley solo bringing the album to conclusion.

The Prog Report, in its glowing review, states: “At times channeling Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and other 70’s acts combined with their own unique style, ‘Grace Street’ is an exhilarating and refreshing rock album, one that is already one of the year’s best.” That’s as good of summary as you’ll find of what is an early entry into CEO’s Top 10 Rock Albums of 2017.