The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Sixteen): Elizabeth

Although this Philadelphia-based band debuted during the reign of a certain Queen with the same name, Elizabeth never enjoyed the success or the tenure of that estimable lady. Formed by Steve Weingarten (lead guitar and vocals), Bob Patterson (guitar and vocals), Jim Dahme (guitar, flute, and vocals), Steve Bruno (organ and bass), and Hank Ransome (drums), Elizabeth released one eponymous album in 1968 before calling it a day shortly thereafter.

The album itself is filled with accessible, “radio-friendly” songs. Here are a few of the standouts:

“Not That Kind of Guy,” the opening number, is a catchy song with an early Beatle-esque sound (similar to “Taxman”).

“Mary Anne” is a lovely jazz song with some elements of folk sprinkled in. Think of it as a less tragic version of “Eleanor Rigby.”

The fifth song, “You Should Be More Careful,” is the true highlight on this album. A cautionary tale about picking up strange girls at bars, this song is a force of nature that never lets up. Weingarten, employing a “fuzzy” guitar sound, breaks out into a twisted guitar solo that is worth listening to several times over.

“Alarm Rings Five” is a gentler tune that features some solid organ work courtesy of Bruno and beautiful flute courtesy of Dahme.

With elements of jazz, folk, and psychedelia, Elizabeth‘s sole album fits nicely into the proto-prog/acid rock music of the late ’60s. The music and lyrics will not necessarily captivate all listeners, but this album is worth a listen for psychedelic or jazz rock aficionados.

Stay tuned for number seventeen!

The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Fourteen): Circus

This Circus closed after a brief tour in 1969 – our loss, in my humble opinion. Formed by Mel Collins (of King Crimson fame) in the late ’60s, Circus produced only one eponymous album in their brief existence, but it’s a gem. Collins takes centerstage here on sax and flute, but fellow bandmates Ian Jelfs (vocals and guitar), Kirk Riddle (bass), and Chris Burrows (drums) more than hold their own.

The majority of the songs (five out of eight, to be exact) are covers – but dull and uninspired they are not. And the three original songs (all penned by Collins) would be worthy additions to an early Soft Machine or Giles, Giles, and Fripp album. Here are (more than) a few highlights:

Circus opens up with a cover of the Beatles’ classic “Norwegian Wood,” and it is one of the better interpretations of any Beatles song I have ever heard. Rather than relying on melodic vocals (although Jelfs does sound somewhat Beatle-esque in his singing), the band members allow their instruments to do most of the work for them. Collins is absolutely superb on the sax, and the middle of this lengthy cover includes some fun interplay between the drums and guitar.

“Pleasures of a Lifetime” – Collins’s first contribution to the album – opens with a gentle acoustic melody, but picks up the pace about halfway through thanks to Burrows’s deft handling of the sticks.

The cover of Henry Rollins’s “St. Thomas” is a great upbeat tune, featuring top notch work from Jelfs on guitar and Collins on flute.

“Goodnight John Morgan” is another original tune and, alas, an all too brief one. I suggest listening to this one as you sit at a smoky bar late at night with a scotch in your hand while the rain pelts the roof above you. Collins’s sax will put you into that kind of mood.

“II B. S.” (a cover of a Charlie Mingus classic) opens with a funky bass riff that doesn’t let up. Percussion anchors this tune, but Collins once again shines through on the saxophone.

The last two songs – a cover of The Mamas & the Papas’ “Monday Monday” and a cover of Tim Hardin’s “Don’t Make Promises” – feature masterful work on the flute courtesy of Collins.

Sadly, Circus couldn’t deliver the same quality of material for a second album, and they split up, Collins going on to replace Ian McDonald in King Crimson. But at least we can enjoy this hidden gem, which sounds as fresh and as lively as it did when it was released over fifty years ago. For those who enjoy jazz fusion mixed with a healthy dose of psychedelic rock, you will not want to miss this under-appreciated effort.

Stay tuned for number fifteen!

kruekutt’s 2019 Favorites: Reissues and Live Albums

Here are the reissues and live albums from 2019 that grabbed me on first listen, then compelled repeated plays. I’m not gonna rank them except for my Top Favorite status, which I’ll save for the very end.  Links to previous reviews or purchase sites are embedded in the album titles.  But first, a graphic tease …

Continue reading “kruekutt’s 2019 Favorites: Reissues and Live Albums”

The Big 2019 Fall Prog (Plus) Preview!

What new music, live albums, reissues (regular, deluxe or super-deluxe) and tours are heading our way between now and All Hallows Eve?  Check out the exhaustive (and potentially exhausting) sampling of promised progressive goodies — along with other personal priorities — below.  Click on the titles for pre-order links — whenever possible, you’ll wind up at the online store that gets as much money as possible directly to the musicians.

 

 

  • August:
    • Dave Kerzner, Static Live Extended Edition: recorded at the 2017 Progstock festival.  Kerzner’s complete Static album in concert, plus selected live highlights & new studio tracks.  Pre-orders ship in late August.
  • August 30:
    • Sons of Apollo, Live with the Plovdiv Psychotic Symphony: recorded at Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s Roman amphitheatre (the site of previous live efforts from Anathema and Devin Townsend).  Available in Blu-Ray, 3 CD + Blu-Ray, and 3 CD + DVD + Blu Ray versions.
    • Tool, Fear Inoculum: Tool’s first album in 13 years.  Available via digital download, as well as “a deluxe, limited-edition CD version (which) features a 4” HD rechargeable screen with exclusive video footage, charging cable, 2 watt speaker, a 36-page booklet and a digital download card.”  Really. 

Continue reading “The Big 2019 Fall Prog (Plus) Preview!”

A Deeper Shade of White: Notes on “The Beatles”

In the 1997 movie Men in Black, Agent K (aka Tommy Lee Jones) spoke truer than he knew:

This is a fascinating little gadget.  It’s gonna replace CDs soon.  Guess I’ll have to buy ‘The White Album’ again.

Fast forward to the 50th anniversary Super Deluxe edition of The Beatles — my copy is #0112672, if you’re interested — my fifth purchase of the 1968 album.  Following the first CD release in 1987, Agent K’s prophecy was swiftly fulfilled, with 1998’s “30th anniversary limited edition” (CD #0438243), then 2009’s mono and stereo remasters each promising better sound and a more complete listening experience.  So does this new box provide anything previous versions haven’t?  And does it shed any new light on the “White Album’s” ultimate stature, both in the Fabs’ catalog and in rock history ?

Continue reading “A Deeper Shade of White: Notes on “The Beatles””

The Albums That Changed My Life: #2, Rubber Soul by The Beatles

by Rick Krueger

I’ve already written here about how, in late November 1977, this album grabbed me and has never let go.  Rubber Soul is (to paraphrase my previous comments) a sharp, cogent take on the folk rock fad of the time, mixing in flavors of soul, Indian ragas and Baroque elegance, with words matching the music’s new maturity.  It’s the sound of the Beatles downshifting and heading for new destinations, ready to move beyond shaking their moptops to a big beat and basking in the resulting screams.

There are no duds on either the British or the American versions of this album.  The UK Rubber Soul kicks off with “Drive My Car” — an exuberant Stax pastiche, a knowing mutual flirtation sketched in three-part harmony, topped with that goofy “beep-beep-yeah” tag on the chorus.  The US version, in contrast, starts with “I’ve Just Seen A Face” (from the British Help!) — Paul McCartney breathlessly singin’ and strummin’ a tale of new infatuation, a stream of consciousness laced with unexpected internal rhymes. Neither was at all typical of the Fabs; both sound wonderfully fresh, setting the tone for a different kind of Beatles record.

How many changes can you ring on the classic love song?  Rubber Soul shows how far the genre could stretch: surrealism with sitar (John peppering “Norwegian Wood” with non sequiturs a la Bob Dylan); break-ups with a backbeat (Paul’s “You Won’t See Me,” eventually covered with even more swagger by Anne Murray); suffering with added social comment (John’s “Girl,” featuring a chorus that’s just the title word and a deep, frustrated breath).  Ringo Starr does a country heartbreak turn on “What Goes On”; George Harrison glumly protects his personal space on the Byrds homage “If I Needed Someone.”  And this isn’t even including Paul’s earnest “Michelle,” which, if you were an easy listening artist and had already done “Yesterday,” quickly became the next Beatles tune to cover.

But what’s made Rubber Soul my ultimate touchstone for all things Fab is John’s “In My Life.”  It’s hard to top the reflectiveness and wisdom of these lyrics (in fact, I would argue that Lennon’s most famous songs are far less mature).  Every year they resonate more for me:

There are places I remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I’ve loved them all

But of all these friends and lovers
There is no one compares with you
And these memories lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new
Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more

Set to a lovely mid-tempo lope, with George Martin’s getting his Bach on for a gracious piano interlude, “In My Life” is evidence enough that, after Rubber Soul, both the Beatles and rock music would never be the same.   Listen to the album here:

Other Favorites by the Beatles: Well, the whole catalog, really.  But other favorites among the favorites are (as I’ve mentioned before), A Hard Day’s Night, Revolver, Abbey Road, and whatever Beatles album I’ve listened to last.

Related Favorites:

The Byrds: Essential Byrds (compilation); There Is A Season (box set); Sweetheart of the Rodeo.  Inspired by A Hard Day’s Night, the Byrds added Dylan, folk and country to the mix and made magic.  “Turn Turn Turn” is another song I never tire of hearing.

Cheap Trick: Heaven Tonight; At Budokan.  The Fab Four (pure pop version) of the late 1970s.  With added harder rock and wacky stage moves.

The Chipmunks: The Chipmunks Sing the Beatles. The first album my parents ever bought me.  Apparently I was tired of The Sound of Music.

Marshall Crenshaw: Marshall Crenshaw; Field Day,  The pride of Berkley, Michigan, replete with Beatlemania stage credentials.

The Smithereens: Blown to Smithereens (compilation); Meet the Smithereens (cover version of the complete U.S. album Meet the Beatles).  The Fab Four (pure pop version) of the late 1980s.

 

The Beatles: All My Loving

by Rick Krueger  (Thanks to Brad Birzer for his encouragement in the comments on his Sgt. Pepper at 50 post.)

“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!”

— William Wordsworth

I was definitely young — just over 2 years old, in fact — in February 1964, when this came on my grandparents’ TV:


It’s the first thing I remember.  It felt like Wordsworth’s “very heaven.”  And it instantly led to the first two things I remember wanting: Beatles records, and a Beatles wig.

My birthday is in November, so I have no idea how my parents pacified me till then.  I have a vague memory that my mom re-purposed a yellow fringed toilet seat cover and I became a blond Beatle for a while.  Whether that’s fact or imagination, you can see the outfit I got when I turned 3 after the jump:

Continue reading “The Beatles: All My Loving”

The Catholic Imagination of Roland Orzabal: Tears for Raoul

Review retrospective: Tears for Fears, RAOUL AND THE KINGS OF SPAIN (Sony, 1995; Cherry Red, 2009).

Twenty years ago, Roland Orzabal (born Raoul Jaime Orzabal de la Quintana to an English mother and a Basque/Spanish/French father) released the fifth Tears for Fears studio album, RAOUL AND THE KINGS OF SPAIN.

Overall, we should remember, 1995 was a pretty amazing year for music—really the year that saw the full birthing of third-wave prog.

Raoul's mythic mother.
Raoul’s mythic mother.

Not all was prog, of course, but there was so much that was simply interesting.  Natalie Merchant, TIGERLILY; Radiohead, THE BENDS; Spock’s Beard, THE LIGHT; The Flower Kings, BACK IN THE WORLD OF ADVENTURES; Marillion, AFRAID OF SUNLIGHT; and Porcupine Tree, THE SKY MOVES SIDEWAYS.

As the time that RAOUL came out, I liked it quite a bit, but I didn’t love it.  The first five songs just floored me, but then I thought the album as a whole fizzled in the second half.  Or course, when I write “fizzled,” I mean this in the most relative sense.  Even Orzabal’s weakest track is far better than most musicians will ever achieve in and with their best.

So, I’m judging one TFF song only with another by TFF.

There’s a bit of interesting history behind the release of the album.  This would be the second of only two albums that appear under the name Tears for Fears without Curt Smith.  Whereas the first, 1993’s stunning ELEMENTAL dealt with the breakup of the twosome, RAOUL tells a mythical story about himself.

More on this in a bit.

So, not only was this the last album without Smith, it was also the first album on the new label, Sony.  Previously, Tears for Fears had shared label space with Rush: on Mercury Records.  Mercury had gone so far as to release promo copies of RAOUL, complete with different artwork and a different track listing.  I’ve never actually seen a copy of the Mercury promo, but I’d love to get my hands on one at some point.  Instead of the tracks “Hum Drum and Humble” and “I Choose You,” the original listing had “Queen of Compromise.”

Since its official release in 1995, there have been three different versions of the album: the Sony 12-track original; a deluxe cigar box edition; and the 2009 Cherry Red edition—the original release remastered, five b-sides, and acoustic versions of the tracks “Raoul and the Kings of Spain” and “Break it Down.”

Not surprisingly, given Orzabal, the b-sides are every bit as good as the full-blown tracks, and the acoustic version of “Break it Down” is quite moving with its additional line: “No more walls of Berlin.”  My favorite of the b-sides is “War of Attrition,” a martial exploration of relationships that simply slide out of existence.

Though written and produced in a post-LP/vinyl world, RAOUL has, for all intents and purposes, two sides.  Tracks 1 through 5 make up the first side, and the seven remaining tracks, bookended by versions of “Los Reyes Catolicos,” make up the second side.  This isn’t surprising either, given that SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR and ELEMENTAL have the same structure.  Orzabal has never embraced the term “progressive,” identifying it with Pink Floyd, but he is certainly the most experimental pop musician alive—rivaled only by Paul McCartney, Robert Smith, Andy Partridge, and Peter Gabriel.  From my perspective, Orzabal is the greatest living pop musician, but I think this would be open to debate.  And, of course, the debate would demand a proper definition of pop.

Side one of Raoul is jaw dropping.  The first time I played the second track, “Falling Down,” for fellow progarchist, Kevin McCormick, back in late 1995, he replied, “Wow.  It’s just so earnest.”  I’ve never read or heard a better description of the song.  It is, utterly and essentially, earnest.  There exist both revelation and humility in the song, perfectly intertwined.

Some of us are free

Some are bound

Some will swim

Some will drown

Some of us are saints

Some are clowns

Just like me they’re falling down

All five songs of side one—again, as I’ve defined the sides—flow so readily from one to the other.  No break in sound.  Essentially, these are five parts of a single track.  While my favorite track is “Falling Down,” “God’s Mistake” is also a standout.

And, frankly, so is the finale of side one, “Sketches of Pain,” an obvious and intelligent allusion to Miles Davis’s “Sketches of Spain.”  As with “Falling Down,” this track is confessional without mere navel-gazing.

Side two, gives the listener snippets of what can really only be described as a mythic autobiography.  And, yet, despite the autobiographical nature of the entire album, side two seems to look at the life of the protagonist from a broader perspective than side one.  If side one is confessional, side two is almost historical and analytical.

What if, as family history has suggested, Roland had been Raoul, descendent of the Catholic kings of Spain?  Naturally, this side begins with a version of “Los Reyes Catolicos”:

When time is like a needle

And night is the longest day

A home is a cathedral

A place where a king can pray

Ghosts all gone

Ghosts all gone

The following track, “Sorry,” explodes into a bitterness that emerges every once in a while in TFF songs.  Accusations and questions fly.  “Do you love or do you hate?  Why do you hesitate?”

“Humdrum and Humble” begins with an experimental loop before transforming into a clever pop song.

“I Choose You,” a piano ballad of emotional depth follows.

Immediately after comes an up-tempo song filled song effects as well as some appropriate absurdities, “Don’t Drink the Water.”  This is pure pop sweetness.

The penultimate track, “Me and My Big Ideas,” sees the return of soul diva, Oleta Adams.  Much as they had on “Sowing the Seeds of Love,” she and Roland offer a meaningful—if not downright profound—duet, balancing the strengths of each other well.

The album ends with a softly building version of “Los Reyes Catolicos.”

My blurry picture of TFF in Denver, June 2015.
My blurry picture of TFF in Denver, June 2015.

Like all of the music of Tears for Fears, this album holds up very well, even after twenty years.  Indeed, the flaws I thought I perceived when this album first came out simply don’t hold up.  I don’t think the flaws have disappeared as much as I simply didn’t understand or appreciate what Orzabal was doing in 1995.

In hindsight, I appreciate the art and the choices he made to make this art.  Not that he needs my appreciation, but Orzabal certainly has it.

The Highlands are Alive with the Sound of NAO

North-Atlantic-Oscillation

A review of North Atlantic Oscillation, The Third Day (Kscope; October 2014).

Tracks: Great Plains II; Elsewhere; August; A Nice Little Place; Penrose; Do Something Useful; Wires; Pines of Eden; Dust; and When to Stop.

NAO: Sam Healy (lead vocals, guitar, and keyboards; Ben Martin (drums); and Chris Howard (bass).  The Third Day mixed by Sam Healy.  Artwork by Ross Macrae and Brendan McCarthy.

Highest recommendation.

***

What do you do with a problem like Sam Healy? Queue image of an Irishman-turned-Scotsman dancing around a high mountain top. Oh, and did I mention, he’s really, really smart? That is, really, really smart. Or, did I mention this already?

Of the many joys of editing progarchy for the past two years, one of the greatest has been getting to know a whole slew of truly creative, interesting, serious, perfectionist artists. Of those who reside at the very top of the top—at least in this editor’s not so humble opinion—sits Healy, dressed as an Austrian nun or not. His correspondence reveals that Sam always has that twinkle, that spark in his eye and soul. Though, he doesn’t believe in the latter, it’s there in abundance.

When I received a review copy of The Third Day, North Atlantic Oscillation’s latest aural ecstasy, I scratched my head, a little confused. This isn’t the first time I’ve been a bit perplexed by NAO’s music. When I first received a copy of the band’s second album, Fog Electric, I set it aside for a while as I just didn’t understand what it was trying to accomplish. When I picked it up again, months after its release, I realized how brilliant it was. It hit me over the head, truly a Eureka! moment. For some reason, it just took some time and several listens “to get it.” Now that “I get it,” I regard it as one of the finest albums I’ve heard in my almost four decades of listening to rock music.

This wasn’t the case, for whatever reason, when I first listened to NAO’s Grappling Hooks. That first album by the band grabbed me from the opening moments. I found it as enticing as possibly imaginable. What attracted me most to Grappling Hooks was the way in which Healy’s voice matched the music—and the music, Healy’s voice—so perfectly. The vocals sound like some of the best of early rock—the rock of my mom’s generation, the late 1950s—but mixed with the complicated and layered sonic delights made possible only by the most modern production and engineering. And, certainly, the unique quality of Sam’s ear. Well, the two of them.

Of course, there’s always the flow of the music as well. This matters for any band and any album, but none more so than for NAO. The secret to each of the band’s albums is figuring out the flow of the thing. Why did the band place this song next to this song? Or that song next to that song? Sometimes—in fact, quite often—NAO loves throwing in a curve ball, especially when the music pretends to change tracks. When you look at the chronometer, though, you quickly realize what you thought to be a track change was merely (and, by merely, I mean with genius) a shift in time signature or in the mood of a single piece. How often has it happened that I’ve looked down to see what the “new track” is called only to see the track information indicating there is still two or three minutes left of the piece you had thought had already flown by.

As evidence for the deep mystery and flow of each NAO album, simply check out the album cover of the forthcoming The Third Day.

NAO, The Third Day (Kscope, 2014).
NAO, The Third Day (Kscope, 2014).

What’s going on here? Pagan, zodiac, Plotinian, and Christian symbols intermixed (intermixing?) on some kind of biotechnology. Layers, of course, but with the infinite loop pointing us toward . . . well, whatever is beyond infinity. Only Buzz Lightyear and William Shatner really know. Under the DaVinci-esque biotech sundial doobob is a flat, Jonathan Ive type computer chip. Add in Hugh Syme-like characters and fonts from the previous two Rush albums, and you might—just maybe—start to understand the convoluted riddle that is a NAO album. I’m getting a bit dizzy just looking at the image.

Steady, Birzer, steady.

Well, I must admit, I was even more perplexed by The Third Day than by Fog Electric. I wanted so badly to like it when the review copy landed in my inbox. After all, I really like NAO and Sam. But, my reaction was somewhat muted. What was going on? It all sounded a bit “samey” to me (I’m having a hard time writing this now, as I’m laughing that it ever sounded “samey”; and, by the way is “samey” even a word?). As with Fog Electric, The Third Day took about a month and a number of listens for me to absorb. Now, though, I think I “get it.” In fact, it’s mind-bogglingly good.

Far from the neoterist “samey” the album is complex, musically as well as lyrically. It is brilliant, stunning, and glowing. While I like the entire album, tracks 6 through 10 are especially good. Far more than on the first two albums, NAO wears its influences a bit more openly on this album and especially with these last five songs. Elements of Radiohead and the Beatles emerge without trepidation. Whereas I thought Anathema almost mimicked Radiohead on their latest release, NAO honors them on The Third Day. If anything, the homage paid to Radiohead and the Beatles only increases my respect for the complete honesty of Healy and co.

Well, I’ve gone on long enough. My summary—buy the album as soon as you possibly can. NAO is, unquestionably, one of the most important and most interesting bands on the current scene. Sam Healy and co. are the future of our beloved genre.