Monday, July 21, 2008

The Cat Empire - So Many Nights (2008)

Those Australian mates known as The Cat Empire are a hard bunch to categorize because there is nothing traditional about their rock n' roll. The band's best known CD, Two Shoes, did not have a single guitar lick on the entire sixty minute disc. A solo trumpet is one of their featured lead instruments, and on their latest CD, So Many Nights, they may be the only band featuring a turntable accompanied by a string section. They also are lucky to have keyboardist Oliver McGill who is possibly the best unknown jazz-rock pianist in the business. Every solo he plays is absolutely amazing.

So Many Nights is a party disc that is just as much fun as the sextet's earlier work. It's also a little more traditional in both its songwriting and arranging without sacrificing any originality or quality. There are even a couple of tunes that someone may want to classify as ballads. The band offers us a taste from a full buffet of musical genres, including pop, rock, funk, jazz, reggae, ska, even some light hip-hop, frequently jumping styles in the same song.

So Many Nights does have a little acoustic and rhythm guitar added for flavor but the most important and influential rock instrument of all time is still never featured as a lead instrument. The Empire Horns, the band's unofficial part time horn section, are joined this time around by the just as unofficial Empire Strings. The point of all of this detail is that from track to track you will never know what musical surprise is coming your way next, and despite what may sound like a messy hodge-podge of songs, the band still manages to provide the listener with a unique sound that is totally identifiable as The Cat Empire.

Primary lead singer Felix Reibl's compositions are superior to those of alternate lead singer and trumpeter Harry James Angus. He is a better vocalist too. Reibl's title track is getting some deserved radio airplay. At fifteen songs the CD is a little too long, but overall, So Many Nights is another fine effort by a unique band that deserves the success that is coming their way.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Dennis Wilson - Pacific Ocean Blue (1977 - LP) (2008 - CD)

In 1977 the music world was stunned to learn that the first Beach Boy to record and release a solo album was middle Wilson brother, Dennis. This was a shock because Dennis was always assumed to be the least musically accomplished of the three brothers. In fact, their mother had to force brothers Brian and Carl to accept him into the band at the time of The Beach Boys formation. As drums were the only remaining open instrument in the new band's lineup Dennis secured his place in the group by beating the skins.

Dennis loved touring for the sex, drugs, and rock n' roll lifestyle. However, he didn't enjoy the slower pace of the recording studio nearly as much. He was absent from many of The Beach Boys studio recordings and was often replaced by session drummers. Another reason he was an unlikely candidate for a solo album is because as James William Guercio, Pacific Ocean Blue's Executive Producer, said about Dennis in the liner notes, "Someone forgot to tell him he didn't have a great singing voice."

But Pacific Ocean Blue proves that on the days he was in the studio Dennis must have paid close attention to Brian's superbly detailed production methods because, just like Brian's songs, the drummer's are meticulously crafted. The album is an excellently arranged package of twelve Wilson originals. A few of the songs feature small touches of his famous band's harmonies (Carl sings backup on the album) and at times Dennis also emulated Brian's penchant for weird percussion sounds. Mostly though, the songs have a much rougher and bluesy sound due to the singer's very raspy and not always appealing voice. His lead vocals help create a wide gap between his solo work and a typical Beach Boys track. The bottom line is if the late drummer's voice is not your cup of tea, and that is a distinct possibility, Pacific Ocean Blue will probably not be for you.

Pacific Ocean Blue peeked at number 96 and had an eight week run on the on the Billboard charts in the fall of 1977. This is the first ever release on CD of this long out of print album released on Guercio's label, Caribou Records. The complete LP is on disc one with four previously unreleased solo tracks. Disc two contains Wilson's followup, the still unfinished and never before released, Bambu. Because this lost LP was never completed the instrumental tracks are not as slick sounding so Wilson's rough vocals are a better fit.

For Beach Boys completists this CD is an absolute must. The rest of you may want to sample Dennis Wilson's compositions and lead vocals on post-Pet Sounds Beach Boys albums before making your purchase.

The double disc comes with an excellent, lavishly detailed and photographed, forty-four page booklet.

Monday, July 07, 2008

The 2008 Mid-Year Review

Normally around the 4th of July I post my top 5 CDs of the first half of the year. Unfortunately, this year I haven't had the time to listen to enough new discs to compile a good list. Even so, I believe I have already found my number one CD of 2008. Shelby Lynne's new Just A Little Lovin' continues the superb streak of releases she has issued starting with I Am Shelby Lynne in 2000. It remains to be seen over the next six months if anyone can top her Dusty Springfield tribute. If someone does it will be quite an accomplishment. Here is the original review.

New albums from this year that I haven't had the opportunity to hear yet are piling up rapidly. One of the many waiting in the wings is Iraq by Black 47. Let's hope one of my favorite bands can recover from their disappointing Elvis Murphy's Green Suede Shoes of three summers ago. Let's All Go To Bed, the third CD from Austin's hard-rocking country band, The Mother Truckers, has just hit the streets and there is also new music from Los Lonely Boys that I'm sure I'll enjoy. Veteran classic rocker, Robert Lamm, the eclectic musical brains behind Chicago, has just issued his long anticipated bossa nova tribute on an independent label. Snippets from Lamm's website indicate that The Bossa Project will continue his long line of fine solo works. Also, let's hope that So Many Nights matches The Cat Empire's previous disc, Two Shoes.

Considering what I've written above it may seem contradictory to say that I've actually heard a lot of new music this year, just not a lot of new complete CDs. The biggest musical influence in my life this year is the XM Radio and subscription I received as a Christmas gift from my wife. For those of you familiar with XM's music channels here are a list of my favorite XM stations.

60s (XM6) - Complete with fast talking DJs and top 40 radio jingles this station is the real deal. They even do occasional tributes to many famous 60s top 40 stations such as WABC, Music Radio 77 from New York City and WFIL, Famous 56, Philadelphia. If you're interested XM also offers the 40s on XM4, the 50s on XM5, and so on. There is a decade for almost everybody.

X Country (XM 12) - The rock 'n roll and outlaw side of country music. Don't expect to hear any of this stuff on commercial FM.

Deep Tracks (XM 40) A classic rock station without the hits. Deep Tracks will play Led Zeppelin 4 but not "Stairway to Heaven" or "Black Dog." However, you may hear "The Battle Of Evermore," "Four Sticks," or "When The Levee Breaks."

Starbuck's XM Cafe (XM 45) This station is advertised as The Sound Of Starbuck's. If you've ever looked at the music sold in one of Starbuck's coffee shops you'll know exactly why the station is so named.

The Loft (XM 50) It's billed as acoustic rock but The Loft is really the softer side of the genre. They play everything from America and Poco to the quieter songs of REM and Radiohead plus a lot of singer-songwriters. The Loft is my favorite XM station.

Bluesville (XM 74) Featured are Bobby Blue Bland, Muddy Waters, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton, plus a host of artists most of us have never heard of before. Bluesville is top notch and a real musical education.

Fine Tuning (XM 76) Fine tuning may be the most eclectic station in the XM lineup. In an hour you can hear Beethoven, The Beatles, John Coltrane, the California Guitar Trio, Bela Fleck, Joan Baez, Yes, Gentle Giant, and even some world music. I don't like everything they play but if you're in the mood this is a great place to hear something very different.