A Summer of Perfect Pairs

Submitted for your consideration: perfect pairs that have been engaging my two ears and two eyes for the past two months, recalled as a Michigan summer enters its last hurrah …

Three of A Perfect Pair: Live Albums


I’m thrilled that Esoteric Recordings’ reissue series from British folk-proggers Renaissance now includes 1976’s Live at Carnegie Hall;  recorded over three sold-out nights at the legendary New York venue, this set has been a favorite since high school days.  It captures Renaissance’s essence: Annie Haslam’s clear soprano vocals soar over Michael Dunford’s spacious acoustic guitar, John Tout’s supple piano and keyboard work, Jon Camp’s agile bass and backing vocals and Terry Sullivan’s orchestral drumming.  Members of the New York Philharmonic join the band for most of the set, bringing out the delectable French and Russian flavors of extended classics like “Can You Understand”, “Running Hard” and the “Song of Scheherazade” suite.  A bonus disc of BBC session versions show that Renaissance could conjure up the same magic without the orchestra as well.  If you don’t know this worthwhile band’s music, Live at Carnegie Hall is a perfect introduction.

As is a pair of new live albums from the Norwegian trio Elephant9!  Recorded during an extended Oslo residency, Psychedelic Backfire I and Psychedelic Backfire II (the latter with Dungen guitarist Reine Fiske sitting in) are two sets of unremittingly scorching jazz-rock improvisation.  Organist/keyboardist Ståle Storløkken spins out one mesmerizing solo after another, whether by himself or trading licks with Fiske, while bassist Nikolai Hængsle and drummer Torstein Lofthus stoke relentless, hard-driving grooves.  Whether subjecting Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” to a Bitches Brew-era Miles-style breakdown or building unstoppable momentum on “Habanera Rocket”, the music captured here is endlessly inventive and thoroughly compelling.

Continue reading “A Summer of Perfect Pairs”

Yet Another Best of 2012

10. Flying Colors – At first I thought this was more “pop” than “prog”, but I kept coming back to it throughout the year. It’s prog, and it’s very good!


9. Neal Morse – Momentum. Neal stays true to his beliefs, while delivering the best album of his solo career. Full of energy and great melodies, he, Randy George, and Mike Portnoy create a masterpiece with this one.


8. Jeff Johnson & Phil Keaggy – WaterSky. A beautiful set of ambient pieces that were recorded while on retreat at a lodge in rural Texas. The sympathetic interplay between Johnson’s keyboards and Keaggy’s guitar is simply wonderful. My students request this music while working on math problems! Continue reading “Yet Another Best of 2012”

Spirit of Talk Talk: A Well-Deserved and Respectful Tribute

The sound experience which I prefer to all others, is the experience of silence.

John Cage

A shared pleasure among some of the writers of this blog is an appreciation for the 1980’s British group Talk Talk. They began as a slick synthpop band, but quickly outgrew that genre. By the time they released Colour of Spring, their third album, their music had become something unique and very special.

Spirit of Eden came next in 1988, and the music press was utterly befuddled when confronted with a real work of art that had an almost sacred feel to it. In my 1992 edition of Rolling Stone Album Guide, J. D. Considine rated Spirit of Eden one star, saying, “Good bands usually improve over time, while bad bands generally just fall apart. But Talk Talk took a different approach with its musical growth; instead of getting better or worse, this band simply grew more pretentious with each passing year…..by Spirit of Eden, Mark Hollis’ Pete Townshend-on-Dramamine vocals have been pushed aside by the band’s pointless noodling.”

What Considine and other critics didn’t get was Mark Hollis’ and producer Tim Friese-Greene’s desire to pare the music down to its absolute essentials. This included the use of silence as a compositional element. Spirit of Eden works, because everything extraneous is ruthlessly stripped away, and we are left with the beauty of the bare structure of the melodies. Just as the most effective way to get an audience’s attention is to speak softly, Talk Talk used space and “pushed aside” vocals to draw the listener into their music. And a funny thing happened. As the years passed, the reputation of Talk Talk grew in stature, and Spirit of Eden is now seen to be the visionary and influential work of art it was back in 1988. Case in point: it’s hard to imagine Radiohead’s Kid A ever being released without Talk Talk’s groundbreaking work.

Which brings me to the topic of this post: a Talk Talk tribute album that has recently been released by Fierce Panda Records. Spirit of Talk Talk is a 2-disc collection of Talk Talk songs interpreted by 30 different artists. Alan Wilder, of Depeche Mode and Recoil fame, is the executive music producer and supervisor. James Marsh, the artist whose distinctive visual style was as much a part of the Talk Talk experience as their music, has done the cover art (Marsh loves visual puns: look for the clock in the cover shown above).

Tribute albums can be dicey affairs, often being attempts by deservedly obscure artists to get some attention. Spirit of Talk Talk is an album of respectful and sensitive interpretations of the original songs, while providing new insights into them. Imagine how even the poppiest early songs from The Party’s Over would sound if they were done in the style of Laughing Stock, and you get an idea of what this collection sounds like. The song selection favors tracks from Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, with some songs getting two different interpretations.

The first track, “Wealth”, performed by Lone Wolf, sets the tone for the album with a beautiful rendition that is almost liturgical in its plea to

Create upon my flesh
Create approach upon my breath
Bring me salvation if I fear
Take my freedom
A sacred love
Create upon my breath
Create reflection on my flesh
The wealth of love
Bear me a witness to the years
Take my freedom
Let my freedom up
Take my freedom for giving me a sacred love

Other highlights include a smoldering Duncan Sheik/Rachael Yamagata duet on “Life’s What You Make It”, King Creosote’s folk-polka performance of “Give It Up”, an intimate acoustic jazz performance of “April 5th” by the Matthias Vogt Trio, and the final song, “I Believe In You” by Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, whose hushed, multi-tracked vocals conjure up echoes of Thomas Tallis.

One of the most pleasant surprises for me has been hearing the Laughing Stock songs in a new light. I had not fully appreciated their beautiful melodies and lyrics until these interpretations showed me new facets of them. It’s been like seeing an old friend after several years’ absence, and discovering even more reasons for the friendship.

Even though it has been more than twenty years since Talk Talk has recorded, it is nice to see them finally get the praise and respect they deserve. Since it seems unlikely we’ll ever hear Mark Hollis sing again, we’ll have to make do with Spirit of Talk Talk. Fortunately, Fierce Panda has offered us an excellent and worthy substitute.

Lone Wolf Performing Wealth: