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Gov’t Mule: Revolution Come, Revolution Go

I love the Idea of the blues; a cyclical chord progression repeated over and over again.  Simplicity of structure leaving room for intricacy of improvisation, and passion of voice.  The blues have arguably carried music as we know it for the last hundred years or so; via birthing of genre, or fusion with other genres somewhere along the way.  Led Zeppelin, probably my all time favorite band is more or less a harder rocking blues outlet.  In no means do I mean to discount the genre, but I must say — with its signature simplicity comes a unique musical danger.  Sometimes blues music can be outright boring.  Luckily Gov’t Mule’s latest effort does its best to solve this problem.

Gov’t Mule (known to true fans simply as “Mule”) is the side project of Warren Haynes (former member of the Allman Brothers Band) that has since become its own entity.  Mule is a “jam band”, which seems to mean “whatever the heck said musicians feel like playing”.  Yes, their sound is absolutely one of the south, but where a lesser musical act may see this as a fence, not to be breached, Haynes and company seem to look at their classification as more of a loose suggestion.  The band never really breaks genre, but they do show a remarkable willingness to branch out and do things that are atypical for a southern rock outfit.  Certainly, there is plenty of steel guitar, and keyboard to be heard, but we also are treated to many songs that use two guitars for a much heavier sound.

Hard rock, gospel, and blues all come to a perfect head in “Dreams and Songs” which falls almost in the exact middle of the record.  Opening with an impassioned slide riff (think Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”) that separates this emotional ballad from the rest of the album.  Haynes’ stirring voice delivers on one of those rare choruses that sends a shiver down your spine, and raises up the hairs on your arms, and a choir joins in near the end; as if the song needed something to make it sound even more beautifully.

My verdict as far as recommendations go is this; Revolution Come, Revolution Go is hard-rocking enough to engage fans of other music, but true to its roots just enough to please southern rock fans as well.

Tom Morello & Bruce Springsteen: The Ghost of Tom Joad

WITH THE GHOST OF OLD TOM JOAD!

I was twelve years old, experiencing a musical coming of age.  At twelve, I was reaching the age where the music I listened to was not just whatever played on the radio, or what my parents listened to; I was now making intentional choices about the sounds I wanted to hear.  The world of music fascinated me, and as a budding guitarist, I began to study musicians; their techniques and their styles (usually without being able to duplicate them).  The easiest way to do this was to watch live performances, and the music channel was a gold mine of such recordings.  From age twelve to thirteen, concerts were pretty much all I watched by myself.  One day I was watching the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th anniversary concert, and given that it featured such acts as Jeff Beck, Paul Simon, and Bruce Springsteen, the rest of my family was interested.

The acts went by, and after maybe an hour (forgive my lapse in memory, It’s been a while) Bruce Springsteen came onstage.  He played for a very long time.  I’m talking extremely long.  So long, I had even begun to lose interest.  Then, the Boss began to speak again; “I want to bring out one of the greatest guitar players in rock and roll, and a great voice from Rage Against the Machine and The Night Watchman…Tom Morello.

They began playing a song that, for the most part sounded like a Bruce Springsteen song, nothing more, nothing less.  Bruce stiffened up and belted out the first verse.

Man walks along the railroad track
He’s goin’ some place, there’s no turnin’ back
The Highway Patrol chopper comin’ up over the ridge
Man sleeps by a campfire under the bridge

After the first verse, Tom stepped up to the mic and began singing the second.  I was surprised at how unorthodox his voice was.  He followed pitch loosely and trailed off with the last word of each line; and yet, it was just what the song needed.  They led into a solo, where Bruce seemed to tighten every muscle in his body, and Tom Morello did some weird stuff (as he does) that I knew enough about him to expect.  The performance was entertaining, but it became mind-blowing when Tom Morello began his second solo.

The last shall be first and the first shall be last

Armed with an array of space age effects Morello launched into a 10 note ascending and descending scale, which is about as close to the melody as he stuck for the rest of the ordeal.   Then, for about fifteen seconds, he played the same note, over and over… It gets crazier.  Morello now does something that I cannot accurately describe; flipping his pointer finger above and below the neck of the guitar hammering certain notes.  This led into a delayed series of scales each going up a half step, but echoing throughout creating a discordant web of noise before finally doing his impression of a hip-hop turntable to top it off.  Like Morello himself with his high strapped guitar, and untrimmed guitar strings, this solo was the perfect unorthodox addition to this rousing folk ballad.

I won’t say this performance changed my life, but I did try for about a week to learn how to make record scratching sounds with my guitar, before finally giving up and citing the reason for doing so as the simple fact the I am not Tom Morello.  It also sent me into a bit of an obsession with Morello that has since faded away (mostly); I still follow his work with supergroup Prophets of Rage, ignoring their vague politics, and sticking around till the break to hear whatever weird sound Morello is going to make next.

For those unfortunate enough to have never seen this performance, here it is, in all its glory.  I recommend grabbing whoever is nearby, switching to full screen and turning the volume up as high as your device will allow.  It’s just better that way.  Enjoy!

Retroactive Reviews: David Bowie – Scary Monsters (1980)

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Recently, my dear friend the Optimist asked me if I would be willing to contribute to this distinguished blog, and I agreed to do so almost immediately. Having been a subscriber from the beginning, it’s a real honor to be able to submit my own thoughts here.

I’ve always been a huge music geek, so it was only natural that I should immediately think of album reviews. The question was: where to start?

In recent years, David Bowie has become my favorite solo artist in music. I was very excited for prior to its release; all too unfortunate for the world that he should die just two days afterward, and for me that I was left to discover what I didn’t know of his musical backlog in the artist’s memory.

Thus, I kick things off here with what I hope to become a semi-regular series with a review of 1980’s Scary Monsters, my favorite of his. (It is a major point of mine that “greatest,” “best,” and “favorite” are three different things. “Greatest” carries the most weight, the highest impact for the rest of an artist’s career, or for the music world in general. “Best” is the artist’s most solidly “good” work – really, there’s not a clunker on the album anywhere. “Favorite” is your personal preference. With those definitions in mind, I think we can all agree that The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, an absolutely astounding and beautiful album, is Bowie’s greatest work. But I find that I prefer the refined sound of Scary Monsters, which gives it the edge.) (I put all of that in parentheses with the intention of providing a brief aside. It turned into another paragraph. I’m leaving it.)

At the close of the 1970s, David Bowie had just wrapped up his “Berlin Trilogy” of collaborations with Brian Eno. Sober and ready for a commercial success, he began work on his next album in a different manner. Whereas previous albums such as Lodger credit Bowie, Eno, and guitarist Carlos Alomar all as songwriters, Scary Monsters, with the exception of “Kingdom Come” (written by Television’s Tom Verlaine), was crafted solely by Bowie.

Upon starting the album, the listener is greeted immediately by unidentifiable sounds – a rattling here, a clicking there, and then, after a count-in, the unmistakable guitar of King Crimson’s Robert Fripp. A voice speaks in Japanese, and then Bowie begins to wail with the same powerful, heart-wrenching emotion exhibited on the final verses in “‘Heroes’.” “It’s No Game (Part 1)” is perhaps the perfect opening to this album, catching you off guard, grabbing you by the collar and shaking you around a bit, making sure you’re totally into it.

“Up the Hill Backwards” opens in 7/4 time, then settles into a charming little verse in a more familiar rhythm. The title track following it, a bit unnerving, exhibits a whining guitar and the lower end of Bowie’s voice (ha! Low! Bowie pun! Ahhhaha…anyway.).

“Ashes to Ashes” is the real standout track on the album, almost certainly its best. Modulated piano and a very groovy bass give way to a subdued keyboard as Bowie describes the truth about Major Tom. Keep an ear out for the echo in the background on the second chorus (“I’ve never done good things…”). Good stuff.

“Fashion” was the second single from the album, but I admit I’ve never been fond of it. The track reminds the listener of Bowie’s Young Americans days, which I, for one, would prefer to forget. Definitely the weak point here, though I’m sure many folks disagree.

Side 2 opens with “Teenage Wildlife,” my other favorite track – a scathing attack on the “new wave” trends of the time.

A broken-nosed mogul, aren’t you?
One of the “new wave” boys
Same old thing in brand new drag
Comes sweeping into view
As ugly as a teenage millionaire
Pretending it’s a whiz-kid world

“Scream Like A Baby” features perhaps Bowie’s most musically interesting verse, followed by “Kingdom Come” (the weak point of Side 2), “Because You’re Young” (a number in the same musical vein as “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)”), and the album closes with “It’s No Game (Part 2), a much calmer reprise of the opening track – featuring noises at the end similar to those that begin the album.

This is Bowie: creative, enjoyable, and just a little bit unnerving.

Album rating: 8.5/10

Profile: The Edge

The Edge Performing In 2009

I have a certain respect for guitarists that sound like themselves; Jeff Beck, Eddie Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix.  Players who have an instantly recognizable sound.  Those tend to be the ones I enjoy listening to the most.  Nobody sounds like himself more than the Edge.

Born David Evans, The Edge is a fascinating musician.  Unlike most mainstream guitarists, listeners actually have the ability to chart his evolution as a player.  We hear his novitiate playing on Boy become the digitally processed sounds on Songs of Innocence.  On Boy’s live recording of “Cartoon World” there is constant feedback, a whine that carries throughout the song.  We hear The Edge audibly screw up; it is one of the most natural instances of musicianship ever committed to vinyl.

Edge plays a kind of power chord that is very rare in rock, in general really.  He cuts out certain notes from the chord, the ones that make it sound full and whole.  Without the low end, the chord sounds purer, and more striking.  11 O’clock tick tock for example, is the song it is because of Edge’s chord structure.

The heart of Edge’s playing is his intimate understanding of the guitar, both its inner workings and sounds, as well as how those things can be used to augment a song.  his first guitar was one that he and his brother Richard built from scrap.  He does more than just play his instrument, he fine tunes it to make exactly the sound he wants.  One of the most amusing parts of It Might Get Loud is when Edge, during his sound check spends a solid fifteen seconds searching through his 100 plus effect presets muttering “where’s pride?”.  His songs are so varied in terms of effects, assaulting the listener with a bevy of different sounds, many of which are largely unnoticeable.  “Get On Your Boots” begins with a fuzzed out riff, which is quickly silenced.  The guitar’s output becomes reduced to strummed ghost notes and a sound that can only be described as walrus-like.  In the chorus, he goes for sustained one-strums with heavy distortion.  At about 1:20, he plays an instrumental interlude with only about twelve notes, adding the perfect touch to the song.

The Edge singing in London (also 2009)

Also characteristic of Edge’s sound are lead parts absolutely drenched in echo.  Songs like “Wire” tend to be delayed to a dizzying degree.  Aside from sounding cool, it greatly increases the effect of the songs rhythm.  In a way, it is Edge, not Adam that is the band’s rhythm player.  In “Where the Streets Have No Name” Edge’s intro carries the whole song looping back, and repeating notes, as though some ghost guitarist is playing along, repeating his notes a beat or two afterwards.  Edge is simply a master of the delay effect.  It’s not something he uses for added sustain, or a cool sound (the limit to which I’ve taken it in my own playing) instead, the delay, and any effect he uses are as much a part of the instrument as the strings and the pickups.  Rather than a filter thrown over the pictures he paints, his uses of effect are entities within the shots themselves.

Above all the Edge does not rely on spectacle.  I’ve never heard him shred on a song though I’m sure he is more than capable of carving up the fretboard with ease.  His solos are not an exercise in self-gratification, they just happen to be what the song needs at that very moment.  He metes out just the right amount of miracle into everything he does.  He can play a spectacular solo, but you can be sure it isn’t about him, it’s about the song, and the atmosphere that his playing adds to.  He creates sonic landscapes with his solos, auras of completion; little bows that wrap up the song perfectly.

The reason I like the Edge is a nebulous, ill defined, and ever changing thing.  I respect his dedication and his humbleness; I am constantly floored by his inventive guitar tones; but most of all, I like listening to the Edge because I know that there is more to come.  He is no one trick pony, he wears many hats, and still has yet to try them all on.  He has imparted nearly 40 years of musical beauty upon the world of music, but he’s not done yet.

Nelly’s Echo: Live at the Avenue

From left to right: Thomas Morris (drums), Jordan Parks (bass), Kameron Ralls (keys), and Nelson Emokpae (guitar/vocals)

The website nellysecho.com describes Nelly’s echo as “neither a band nor a solo musician, but a concept of the musical experience associated with its creator and led by guitarist and vocalist Nelson Emokpae”.  This is definitely evidenced by the band’s ever revolving lineup.  I’ve seen the band three times, and to the best of my knowledge it’s been a different assortment of musician’s each time, with the only player in common being Nelson Emokpae, its frontman.

I saw the band for the third time on friday night, on “The Avenue” in White Marsh, Baltimore.  The newly renovated plaza has had its brick covered ground replaced by a giant turf field.  People sit on blankets in front of a small, slightly elevated stage.  A local high school rents out lawn chairs, while neighboring restaurants hawk beer and pretzels under tents along the edge of the field.

When the band finally takes the stage, they play The Cure’s “Lovesong”.  It takes a moment to recognize the song as it is.  It is restyled as a soulful reggaefunk jam, with the familiar synth progression, replaced by intonations of ooohs and aaahs.  With scarcely any pause, they launch into “Waiting on the World to Change” a John Mayer hit.  You haven’t heard the song until you’ve heard it with a go-go beat.

Nelly’s Echo play a variety of covers throughout the night.  They range from the touching rendition of “Hallelujah” to the bizzare “Fast Car” with a verse from “Uptown Funk” inserted midway through.  No genre of music is out of bounds.  Emokpae & Co. cut songs up and twist them beyond immediate recognition before weaving them together into a patchwork quilt of music that is somewhat original, somewhat borrowed, and all excellent.

Midway through, the band takes a break.  Pop music blares from the speakers as Emokpae steps down from the platform and mingles with the crowd.  A young boy runs over to request a song.  Nelson smilingly obliges.

It’s almost definite that not everyone there is a fan of reggae or funk, and yet, looking around, I saw nobody that wasn’t having an absolute blast.  Emokpae, Morris, Parks, and Ralls radiate passion in their playing, something that the crowd can clearly detect.  As they play “Purple Rain” near the end of the show, Ralls half-jokingly waces his arm too and fro in time with the music.  Phones are produced, and brightness levels are turned to the maximum.

The atmosphere Nelly’s Echo creates live is a powerful but intimate one.  I’d love to see them blow up, and be recognized for their great music, but for the time being I’ll take them where they are right now; small, but formidable, playing great music everywhere they perform.

Profile: Jack White

 

If you’ve been to a sporting event in the last ten years or so, seen a movie trailer, or just possess a set of ears, you almost definitely have heard the opening riff to “Seven Nation Army”.  The real irony is that Jack White, writer of the most famous chord progression in music is a name unknown to many people.

White is a guitarist with a distinct sense of style.  The problems come, not when he plays music, but when he opens his mouth otherwise.  He simply feels like a remarkably inauthentic person.  In It Might Get Loud he expands upon a number of suspicious sounding events from his childhood.  He talks about his seven brothers and sisters, but the only one he really mentions by name is Meg White, who we now know to be his ex-wife.  He also discusses his living situation as a kid — sleeping on a mat so he had room for all of his instruments.

In a New Yorker article by Alec Wilkinson, published in March, White claims to have almost become a priest.

White was an altar boy, and during high school he was accepted at a seminary in Wisconsin. “I was thinking I might become a priest,” he said. “At the last moment, I learned I couldn’t bring my guitar.”

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/03/13/jack-whites-infinite-imagination

Check out this tidbit of insanity from the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

Yeah, because that’s definitely how a stewardess would talk.

If indeed White’s backstories are a giant web of fabrications (a fact of which I have little doubt) he probably isn’t the first musician that this is true of.  However, he is without a doubt the most painfully obvious.  By the way, did I mention his real name isn’t even Jack White?

These are just personal details though, and they are of minimal importance to the music.  When it really becomes bothersome is when Jack’s inconsistencies relate to his music.  In It Might Get Loud he explains his choice in instruments.  He plays an Airline — a plexiglass guitar that supposedly came from a department store — and stresses a minimalistic approach to rock.  His influence is Son House, specifically his song “Grinnin’ in Your Face”, which consists simply of clapping and singing.  It is while listening to this record in the film that he talks through technology, and its role in making music.

“Technology is a big destroyer of emotion and truth. Auto-tuning doesn’t do anything for creativity. Yeah, it makes it easier and you can get home sooner; but it doesn’t make you a more creative person. That’s the disease we have to fight in any creative field: ease of use.”

This standpoint could be rebellion against The Edge, whose style relies almost entirely on technology — or simply his grab at anotherness.  What I do know is less than an hour of film later, White shows the camera a custom-made guitar that has a green bullet microphone installed into its body.  Don’t get me wrong, this is awesome; but you know what else it is? Ease of use.  Rather than interest, White’s statements only confuse.  What exactly is classified as ease of use?  The octave pedal that He uses to create the low bass sound in “Seven Nation Army” certainly wasn’t around during Son House’s time.  Technically, if one were to completely shun everything that was considered to propagate “ease of use” they should be slicing their speakers with razor blades to create distortion, or — jumping even further backwards — playing resophonic guitars, electrics are too accessible.

In the film, white takes his cheap guitar, and drops it on the floor.  He begins stomping on it, running his foot up and down the frets almost as if he is finishing off a vanquished enemy.  An ear grating sound comes from the amp.  He looks like he’s in a fight, because, well, he is.  In an interview with Guitar Player, he said “I always look at playing guitar as an attack. It has to be a fight. Every song, every guitar solo, every note that’s played or written has to be a struggle.”  This is not idle talk.  the violence of his M.O. comes across in his playing.  “The Switch and the Spur” by the Raconteurs is a prime example.  When White plays his solo, his solo has the feel of a near finished struggle; of choking the life out of something.  Watching him play this song, you can even see the aggression in his movements on the fret board.  Pay attention to just how high he bends the string at 2:45.

What White lacks in profundity of speech he makes up for with great, and well varied music.  White has made himself a part of a great many groups and projects over the years.  The White Stripes, of course, but also the lesser known Raconteurs, and Dead Weather, as well as his own solo material.  His multifariousness is clearest on “Yellow Sun” a Raconteurs song that features springy keyboards and acoustic strumming.  The chorus is sung in harmony, with what seem to be three voices, one of which is ridiculously high.

Another great song is “Steady as She Goes”.  The song opens with a bass riff that sounds like a slower more subdued take on “Superfreak” by Rick James, followed by a chilling tremolo riff on the guitar.  This song goes to show how well Jack White’s playing can work with other people.  The Raconteurs are really the first time White has worked with a group of more than two for an extended period of time, and I’ll always argue that its the best music he’s ever produced.  Something about creative control being divided must bring out the best in him.

White’s forays into electronic music are not remotely displeasureable either.  The Dead Weather’s “Bone House” is rife with artificial drum sounds and buzzing synthesized chord progressions.  This music violates the very principles Jack White claims to stand behind, but it is great stuff nonetheless.

The thing about Jack White that I hate is not necessarily his eschewing technology, but the fact that he claims to, but doesn’t.  If he were to abandon this bizarre and falsified musical code, I would be very grateful, but White is a man of showmanship, and his propensity for charade will likely never cease.  My resolution, is to ignore his theatrics, and simply enjoy the great music he produces.

As for anyone looking to delve into White’s vast musical catalogue, I recommend Consolers of the Lonely, by the Raconteurs as a starting point.

Profile: Jimmy Page

Few Guitarists have had an impact upon music as profound as Jimmy Page.  He has a propensity for riff driven rock, of which the influences can be heard as far and wide as Rage Against the Machine, to the revivalist blues of The Black Keys.

It’s not the riffs that make his music great however, (well, maybe a little) Page’s playing is driven by tension and dynamics.  In “Ramble On”, the rapid crescendos and decrescendos make it more than just another rock song.  The soft strumming shifts to crunching distortion like a punch in the face.

Much has been made of “Stairway To Heaven’s” resemblance to “Taurus” by the band Spirit.  The similarity is fact, indisputable, but Taurus’s lethargicity Page’s interpretation of the melody.  The song builds over five minutes of quiet arpeggio.  The listener at the edge of their seat, they wait impatiently for John Bonham’s flam, followed by a descending tom fill, and they want to jump for joy when it finally does.

Page is an exceptional talent, one of the best to ever pick out a tune on six strings.  Paired Bonham’s thumping, deliberate rhythms and Robert Plant’s vocals, (which would sound horribly out-of-place anywhere else), and you get a rock band with a certain Je ne sais quoi not found among many of its contemporaries.  If you’ve never given Led Zeppelin a shot, please, enlighten yourself immediately.  (Zeppelin IV is a great place to start).