Monday, May 28, 2007

The Cat Empire - Two Shoes (2005)

The Cat Empire, from Melbourne, Australia is currently all the rage in their homeland. Two Shoes, which went double platinum in the land down under, was recorded in Havana, Cuba in late 2004 at the famous Estudio Egrem where The Buena Vista Social Club laid down many of their tracks.

It's not easy to label The Cat Empire. The band plays a lot of ska and reggae, a little hip-hop, and they even work a turntable into their act, but where Two Shoes really shines is with their excellent Latin jazz arrangements. If you must apply a label to the Aussie sextet call them a rock band even though there is nothing traditionally rock 'n roll about them. There is no guitarist on the album but there is a three piece Cuban horn section.

The Cat Empire are not only versatile composers they also write imaginative lyrics. The CD opens with these great lines from the song "Sly": If frizzy hair was a metaphor for festival time/Then this woman is a goddess of that festival shrine." Their lyrics can be both humorous and full of social concerns.

In addition to "Sly" other highlights include "The Night That Never Ends" that begins with a slow Dixieland jazz chart and ends with a rousing Latin brass band chorus. As good as the whole disc is nothing tops the pure Latin jazz of "Sol y Sombra" highlighted by keyboard player Olliver McGill's outstanding two minute jazz piano solo that is the heart of the song and the best thing on the CD. "The Car Song" is another standout.

I normally do not list band personnel but an exception is made here just so you can get a better idea of what these guys are all about. The Cat Empire members are:

Felix Riebl: vocals, chariotti, percussion
Harry James Angus: vocals, trumpet, recorder, resonator (How many of you young people can connect Angus's first two names with his instrument?)
Olliver McGill: piano, keyboards, recorder, tubular bells, backing vocals
Will Hull-Brown: drums, antics, shouts
Jamshid "Jumps' Khadiwala: turntable, tambourine, clave, shouts
Ryan Munro: double bass, bass guitar, backing vocals.

Two Shoes was not yet released in The United States when word of mouth got them booked at last year's Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee. The disc appears to be finally getting noticed in America in 2007 but not before they released their followup, Cities, that is available on their website.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Beach Boys - California Dreaming

I don't usually post stuff like this because I've never been a fan of music videos but one of my all time favorite bands, The Beach Boys, recorded a great cover version of The Mamas and Papas' hit, "California Dreamin" in 1986, 20 years after the original. The video and song are a perfect match.

This video is now making its way around the Internet because tomorrow The Beach Boys are releasing another anthology called The Warmth Of The Sun. I can hear you saying "just what we need, another Beach Boys compilation." However, this one is very different and very cool. The four surviving main members of the band, Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, and Bruce Johnston, each picked their favorite songs for inclusion on the CD. There are a few surprises, and a few songs that casual fans probably have never heard before, including this version of "California Dreamin'."

Please note that the preacher is played by the song's composer, Papa John Phillips and the guitar player in the balcony is Roger McGuinn.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Young Dubliners - With All Due Respect, The Irish Sessions (2007)

Irish bands love to embrace their roots. The Young Dubliners, the Los Angeles based Celtic rock quintet, are back with an album of fired up arrangements of traditional Irish folk songs and cover versions of more modern fare from Irish rockers like Shane McGowan.

With All Due Respect, The Irish Sessions is a joyous romp through music the band truly loves played in the style of an uproarious Irish pub rock band. The Irish Sessions is fast and loud (except for 3 ballads) and yet it sounds totally Irish because the tin whistles and uilleann pipes fit in easily with the usual rock band lineup. Keith Roberts' band has always been a hard rocking outfit whose anthemic mainstream rock is spiced with just enough bar band and punk sensibilities (as their love of McGowan proves) to avoid sounding too cliched.

This album is an Irish party from start to finish. It will make people who can't dance want to stomp their feet and even make teetotallers imbibe some Guinness. It's been a long time since I've heard a rock album that is this much fun.

Read more on With All Due Respect at the Celtic Lounge who interviewed Keith Roberts about the CD.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Chicago - Stone Of Sisyphus (Unreleased)

Stone of Sisyphus (SOS), the infamous, mysterious, unreleased, and widely bootlegged CD from Chicago recorded in 1993 is a major improvement over their 1980's escapades into male diva territory. It is great to see the band taking pride in their work again, but despite claims on the Internet that this lost album ranks with their greatest and most renowned works one should take note: Stone of Sisyphus is not the second coming of CTA. How could it be? Jimi Hendrix’s idol, Terry Kath, is long dead, and the wildly interesting times that both spawned and had a major influence on their early music are gone with him.

That said, SOS is their best and most eclectic set of original songs since their mid-70s heyday. It offers a mix of styles in which the band tries everything. The title track and "Get On This" are loud, straight-ahead, 90s arena rock primarily written by and featuring their former guitarist Dawayne Bailey. The latter song offers some of the most off the wall lyrics ever recorded by Chicago, including a line about Jesus kissing the Devil. The title track is one of the highlights of the album. There is Peter Cetera like balladry that is best exemplified by bassist Jason Scheff’s "Bigger Than Elvis." The song is a very nice tribute to his father, Jerry Scheff, who played bass with Elvis Presley for many years. There is a lot of R&B influenced rock, most of it from the pen of Bill Champlin, and a Robert Lamm song, "Sleeping In The Middle Of The Bed Again," that is heavily influenced by and is almost rap-like in its arrangement. Some of this stuff works and some of it does not.

The horns appear on all twelve tracks and are often prominent in the arrangements, but they never "drive" a track as they once did, and just as often they seem to be mere ornaments added to a song just to prove to us this really is Chicago. However the only time the horns are passed over completely in favor of synthesizers, as they were in the 80s, is the synth "sax" solo weaving its way all through Scheff's "Let's Take A Lifetime." Why the band finds it necessary to do things like this when they have a fine woodwind player, Walt Parazaider, in their midst is a mystery to me. Synths and other electronic keyboards frequently replace electric lead guitar. Lamm’s piano, if present, is buried deep in the mix. Scheff too often screams his vocals in order to produce an emotional, dramatic effect that in the end only sounds like the screaming it really is. He is much better when he sings in his natural voice.

On the plus side, the best composer, as usual, is Lamm and his offerings prove, at least artistically, that the band should have allowed him to compose the bulk of the material over the years. His "All The Years" is an outstanding song that is the only reminder of CTA and his semi-rapper mentioned above is a surprisingly accessible entry. The entire original horn section, still led by James Pankow’s arranging, sounds great (they always have).

Rumors abound as to why SOS was never released but I don't believe all of the reasons have ever been made public. SOS is better than most of what is played on commercial rock radio these days but it remains an interesting, but overrated, underground legend to this day.