soundstreamsunday #113: “Violence” by Parquet Courts

ParquetCourts_AndrewSavage_Kuti“Violence” erupts from Parquet Courts’ Wide Awaaaaake! (2018) in a riot of barbed slogans, proclaiming and exclaiming over everything from the “blazer of the Trail of Tears” to prison TV shows, against a dark drums’n’organ funk.  The band have drawn comparisons across their productive years to Pavement, Beastie Boys, the hyper-literate NY punk cognoscenti, but here it’s all about Fela Kuti, whose rage for justice could be so perfectly captured and balanced by song.  This has potential for ruin, but any clutter occasioned by the band’s first-world-problems environment — hipster Brooklyn, studied post-modern-punk hothouse — is swept aside by passion and presentation from the wordy, rappy, throaty first verse as it bleeds into chorus:

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It’s a powerful gut punch, coming off an album where the band varies tempos and styles enough to keep the hot sonic onslaught interesting instead of just relentless, a party rock record by a group going out on groovy African limbs, a get-down politics album (in the grand tradition).  Nothing here not to love — shake your butt, pump your fist.

*Image: Parquet Courts singer/guitarist Andrew Savage considers Kuti, from “Bands Buy Records – Parquet Courts”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqZTK_NneOA.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week (although…sometimes we miss one or two here and there), and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

The Madeira, Center of the Surf: Rick’s Quick Takes

Believe it or not, the online version of Encyclopedia Britannica includes an article on surf music, which defines the genre’s core sound (invented by Dick Dale) this way : “a distinctive style of electric-guitar playing that fused Middle Eastern influences, staccato picking, and skillful exploitation of the reverb amplifier (which he helped Leo Fender develop) to create a pulsing, cascading sound that echoed the surfing experience.”

Fast forward to today, and surf music (like progressive rock) continues as a strong, if insular subculture — doubtless one in which debates on “is [insert band name] really surf music?” find fertile soil.   In theory, The Madeira fit Britannica’s definition perfectly — at least as they describe themselves:

“The Madeira plays surf music born of screaming wind over the sand dunes of the Sahara Desert, deafening echoes of waves pounding the Gibraltar Rock, joyous late-night gypsy dances in the small towns of Andalucia, and exotic cacophony of the Marrakesh town square. It is the surf music of the millennia-old Mediterranean mysteries.”

And honestly, that’s exactly what the band’s new live album, Center of the Surf, sounds like.  Whether on roiling, high-speed workouts like the title track, “Leviathan”, “Hail Poseidon” and “Dilmohammed” or slower-burning explorations like “Into the Deep,” the Madeira’s drive and intensity never flag.  Ivan Pongracic’s scorching lead lines and Patrick O’Connor’s unflagging rhythm work serve up all the guitar you can stand and more, breaking through to surf nirvana; Todd Fortier on bass and Dane Carter on drums pump up the adrenaline, barreling through with unstoppable power and momentum.

And just when it seems Center of the Surf can’t get any more exciting, The Madeira are joined onstage by surf music historian/rhythm guitarist John Blair and Jonpaul Balak on second bass guitar.  The results on “Tribal Fury”, “Sandstorm” and “Intruder” are even more immersive: the thickened texture, intensified groove, and vaulting solo lines both amp up the thrills and bring out the lush romanticism at the core of the band’s melodies.

The audience at Surf Guitar 101’s 2017 convention erupts with delighted applause and encouragement at every opportunity throughout the Madeira’s set — and their reaction’s on the money!  Center of the Surf is music that bursts the boundaries of its genre; it’ll connect with anyone who loves rock composition and performance at its highest level.  Recorded and mixed by Beach Boys go-to producer Mark Linnet, this is a gleaming, glorious winner of an album.  Order it (and the rest of the band’s catalog) from Double Crown Records.

— Rick Krueger

In Concert: On the Road with Utopia

Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, 20 Monroe Live, Grand Rapids, Michigan, May 15, 2018.

Thirty minutes into their opening set, Utopia had played just three songs — the entirety of the sprawling “Utopia Theme”, a five-minute instrumental chunk of the half-hour epic “The Ikon” and the extended progressive soul workout “Another Life.”  Todd Rundgren seared and soared on guitar; Kasim Sulton dexterously laid down the thunder on bass; Willie Wilcox channeled the jazz drumming greats he grew up on; and tour keyboardist Gil Assayas adeptly covered piano, horn and synth parts originally done by three people.  All that, plus pin-sharp four-part harmonies.  No wonder that Rundgren’s first words to the audience were, “we call that ‘The Blizzard,’” before Utopia stepped “out of the notestream” with a hard-rocking take on The Move’s “Do Ya.”

Surprisingly for a tour marketed to fans of classic pop-rock (their first in 33 years), the first half of Utopia’s show leaned on proggier repertoire; the precision-tooled flurries of notes kept coming, whether packed into tight unison licks or splattered across plentiful solo slots.  There were lots of stellar vocal moments too: Rundgren traveled effortlessly across his multi-octave range on “Freedom Fighters” and “The Wheel”; Sulton played a genial McCartney to Todd’s acerbic Lennon on the gritty “Back on the Street” and the yearning “Monument”; and the choral build of “Communion with the Sun” fit perfectly with the giant pyramid & sphinx projected on the back screen.  All in all, impressive, well-wrought stuff, performed with enthusiasm and landing with maximum impact.

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soundstreamsunday #106: “Deserted Cities of the Heart,” by Cream

Cream1A worthwhile imaginary history: Eric Clapton doesn’t leave the Yardbirds in March 1965. He stays, compromised but successful, and the band’s psych-garage boilerplate “For Your Love” is the first in a clutch of similar vocal-fronted hits that eventually morph the band into a second string Moody Blues.  Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page never join the band, thus there is no Jeff Beck Group (thus no Rod Stewart, no Faces), and no Led Zeppelin. Clapton’s presence in the Yardbirds corks those possible future bottles. And, of course, there’s no Cream, and as such possibly no Jethro Tull or Black Sabbath, and, most definitely, no Mountain. There’s an argument here against Hendrix as well….

Such are Great Man theories of alternate history. Easily corruptible, but fun as thought experiments, and this one makes as much sense as any. Cream’s influence on rock is so profound, their catalog so fundamental, that their absence would have set transatlantic rock down a very different path. Cream backgrounds and informs every subsequent in-unison bass’n’guitar heavy hook (read: stoner rock), every song where a tom-obsessed drummer plays a rhythmic lead, every power trio, and every rock-based long form live jam (growing out of the “rave ups” that made the Yardbirds the scenemakers they were in Clapton’s day).  Even if you’re not a huge fan of Eric Clapton — and I’m not — and you could create similar wouldnahappened scenarios with his Cream co-pilots (and geniuses in their own right) Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, it was Clapton who was the tortured searcher, who saw the productive warring of Baker and Bruce as a positive, and was the driver of Cream with its wheels of fire, perpetually in a state of just passing through.

When they issued their last proper album in August 1968, Cream were so popular that their twin LP swan song went platinum, the first double rock album to do so.  Its studio disc summed in spirit Cream’s first two efforts, Fresh Cream (1966) and Disraeli Gears (1967), while the live disc showcased Cream’s already legendary, and loud, performance prowess, and the tensions banked therein:  it’s a sly joke when at the end of their cover of Robert Johnson‘s Crossroads — a song still played on rock radio 50 years after its recording — we hear Jack Bruce say, “Eric Clapton, please, for vocals.”  Yes, Clapton’s vocals were integral to Cream even as they were secondary to Bruce’s, but it’s his guitar playing that’s the thing, never more so than on “Crossroads,” and Bruce’s toast could just as easily be a wheedling needle as props.  It’s as if Bruce was continuing a conversation that moments before he was playing on his bass: whaddya got, and where else can you go?

The dense, thick battle lines of Cream’s live show were the Mr. Hyde to their studio work, where interpretations of electric blues standards sat next to original songwriting cutting directly to proto-prog poetics, the product of Bruce and his songwriting partner, Pete Brown.  The combination of forms made for a catalog that could put “Spoonful” or “Outside Woman Blues” or “Born Under a Bad Sign” back to back with weirdly beautiful non-blues like “I Feel Free” or “World of Pain” or “Those Were the Days.”  These last were intrigue, fanciful psychedelic flights, for the young Clapton, the blues purist whose work would never again be so adventurous or influential as with Cream, his traditionalism reconstructed by the Band’s Music from Big Pink (July 1968), which left him awestruck.  Playing go-between for Bruce and Baker, in the wake of Big Pink, must have seemed an almighty chore whose fruit was withering.

Of artfully told lost love, “Deserted Cities of the Heart” is Cream ’68 in full studio flight, a richer sound afforded by rapidly advancing recording technology (although still short of the breathtaking step Led Zeppelin would make just months later on their first album) and the psychedelic mood further defined by producer Felix Pappalardi, whose string contributions add dynamic breadth and sweep to the dramatics and roadmap his work with Mountain.  Three versions here: the original studio recording, with its dark and perfumed paisley fully intact; the original live version pulled from the same set of songs the band used to put together Wheels of Fire‘s live disc (and which appeared on Live Cream II in 1972); and its last incarnation, from 2005’s reunion show, before things turned bad again between Bruce and Baker and Clapton got bored, containing an interesting energy, as Bruce brings the goods in the wake of his liver transplant, and Clapton and Baker play with a subtle restraint retooling the song’s psychedelia towards a jazzier, bluesier roll.  The spark is still clear, igniting the air, and we fall to our knees thankful that Clapton left the Yardbirds.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday #105: “Light My Fire” by the Doors

doors3The Doors built its finest work around straight-ahead rock’n’roll, adding a whirling, baroque jazz samba momentum from the alchemy of keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger, and drummer John Densmore, all schooled in the post-bop cool permeating, by the mid-1960s, the many stripes of a blossoming California pop music scene.  Jim Morrison brought the goods of fame, an impassioned thunderhead vocal whether singing his own lyrics or Krieger’s (the band’s most successful writer), and a hip pin-up beauty boosting the band’s pop darling status.  (There is great irony here, as the New York Factory crowd crowed over Morrison’s veneer — with appropriate Warhol-esque fascination — and Morrison himself did everything he could to make and then deface his pretty boy shell, revealing the rot within, in one of rock’s most infamous stories of self-creation/immolation.)  At the core of Elektra’s push to advance American rock in the wake of the British Invasion, the Doors — along with label mates Love, the Stooges, and the MC5 — subverted from within, using their musicianship and Morrison’s undeniable charisma to chart a course for a freedom in pop music that contained the seeds of both progressive rock and punk.  In this they were like the Velvet Underground, although their east coast analogue never achieved anywhere near the popular impact of the Doors (V.U.’s influence notwithstanding).

Of their six studio albums with Morrison, all of which have their strengths, the self-titled debut is the Doors’ most cohesive LP.  Released in the first days of 1967, it counterpointed the hippie cheer of the Sgt. Pepper era, playing to rock’s shadowy furies and heavily influenced by the day-glo punk creep of Love, a band greatly admired by Morrison and which, although still months away from its masterpiece Forever Changes, had already taken the dive into the seamy pop noir that Los Angeles inspired in those who saw desperation in greater relief the brighter the sun shone.  It was a darkness with extreme definition, fascinating to both Arthur Lee and Jim Morrison, and the Doors came out of the gate startlingly fully formed in concept and execution, with Manzarek’s keys and Krieger’s unusual, flamenco/finger-style guitar conjuring a smooth jazz carnie ride driven by Densmore’s muscular but lithe drumming.  Nothing else sounded remotely close to the Doors, thanks in large part too to producer Paul Rothschild and engineer Bruce Botnick, who used the studio as if they were recording a jazz group, attaining a clean, lively separation absent from the period’s rock recordings.  Chalk this up to Elektra’s genius and artist-first philosophy.

Krieger’s “Light My Fire” was the band’s first great success, although its shortened radio single eviscerates its midsection, which contains one of rock’s great guitar solos and instrumental interplay that made its artists’ statement clear: this wasn’t the Wrecking Crew or session players, but a group intent on pushing limits as a band, as if that in itself meant something.  Even the simple final line — “Try to set the night on fire” — Morrison treats as life or death (to this day few singers can build towards and deliver the final utterance of a song as Morrison could).  More revolutionary for its time than it now might seem — and diminished by Oliver Stone’s clunky telling of its creation — “Light My Fire” and the first Doors record as a whole established the notion of a rock group as artistically independent from its record company, a sea change in American music in the late 1960s.  For all of the attention focused on Jim Morrison’s histrionic deterioration and Ray Manzarek’s eulogizing of the Lizard King, the Doors were a cooperative, artistic effort that continues to influence, and haunt, rock groups that hew the edge.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday #104: “Frankenstein” by the Edgar Winter Group

EdgarWinterWhen psychedelia and blues came together in Cream’s quickfire trio of studio albums in the late 1960s, it created a blueprint for blues-respecting bottom-heavy rock that would rule the airwaves for at least a decade.  In their roots and early trajectories, the Winter brothers, emerging out of the heartland of Beaumont, Texas, were not unlike north Florida’s Allman brothers, both heavily influenced by Cream’s fluid use of blues, and yet Johnny and Edgar never attained the pioneer status afforded Duane and Gregg.  Johnny’s traditionalism would keep him defined (and confined) as a blues revival hotshot guitarist, which in America was radical but also too far ahead of its time (it would be Stevie Ray Vaughan who would reap those rewards further on up the road).  Edgar, a rock’n’roll survivor, still touring as of this writing, was always a crowd-pleaser with a ton of chops on keys and sax, but never really pushed beyond his pair of early 70s funky, AM-friendly, rock/pop/jazz fusion hits, “Free Ride” and “Frankenstein.”  Maybe he didn’t need to.

“Frankenstein” started out in the tradition of Cream’s “Toad” and Led Zeppelin‘s “Moby Dick,” pieces with giant riffs whose sole purpose was to surround drum solos.  It even began life entitled “Double Drum Song,” ending up with its final title (after also being called “Synthesizer Song”) as the result of the intense tape cutting that reduced its time to a length that made it palatable for radio.  It was a huge success, an inventive and striking instrumental representative of American good time rock in the early 70s.

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soundstreamsunday #103: “Every Hungry Woman” by the Allman Brothers Band

Allmans1Southern Rock’s manifesto is like no other rock album.  The Allman Brothers Band, released in November 1969, carries a hard sonic power absent from its closest temporal and spiritual brother, the Band’s Music from Big Pink (1968), and tight, sharp-cornered riffing missing from the work of the Grateful Dead, who the Allmans resembled in their two-drummer, double guitar form and in their tendency to stretch out in live performance.  Mostly, though, the group had the brothers themselves: Duane, a guitar sharpshooter whose session work had honed his chops — including a wicked slide technique — to a razor’s edge; and Gregg, whose organ playing and lyric writing demonstrated a finesse far beyond his 21 years, and whose voice was a soulful, ragged howl coming from a place of honest truth.  In an era when the integrity of white blues bands was, rightfully, beginning to be questioned, along with the plantation politics of the music industry, no one, not even Lester Bangs, argued with the Allman Brothers Band’s authenticity or the singular chords they struck, as they effortlessly crossed over into country and jazz, articulating a maturing musical vision for the American South.  That they were an integrated band was interesting (in 1969 much of Georgia, the Allman’s home base, still segregated its schools), but it was what underpinned that fact that made their music ascend: a fascination with next steps, set against a background of a changing rock vocabulary, so that every member of the band was important.  While Duane and Gregg receive much of the attention as the band’s geniuses (and they were), guitarist Dickey Betts’s influence on the band, particularly his use of the major pentatonic scale, went a long way towards defining the Southern Rock sound, while the rhythm section of Berry Oakley, Jai Johanny Johanson, and Butch Trucks provided a propulsive force but also a lithe one, booty shaking, more akin to what Carlos Santana was putting together on the west coast than anything coming out of the blues or country scenes of the time.

Paraphrasing the Rolling Stone Record Guide‘s review of the Allman’s Live at Fillmore East (1971), even when the band went long form, when they jammed, there weren’t any wasted notes.  At a scant 33 minutes, the Allmans’ first album is similarly lean, a killer hard rock set that proved to be less of a template than an opening salvo (1970’s Idlewild South shows voracious growth, as does 1972’s Eat a Peach, Duane’s death notwithstanding).  While “Dreams” and “Whipping Post” are the album’s jaw-dropping closers, this is a record with no filler whatsoever.  “Every Hungry Woman” is a favorite, metal crunch up against slide guitar sirens, organ moans, and an epic swamp beast of a riff.  The dueling guitars in the solo section say more in their few seconds than many bands say across a career, and Gregg’s roar channels some deep beast that must’ve drunk from the same watering hold as Ray Charles and Charley Patton.  Inimitable.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.