Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Bucket List: Rod Stewart - Every Picture Tells A Story (1971)

There was no doubt about it. "Maggie Mae" was my favorite song of 1971 and the album it came from, Every Picture Tells A Story, had Rod Stewart standing at the top of the rock 'n roll mountain and looking down on everybody else. Stewart never made a better record as a member of the Jeff Beck Group, The Faces, or as a solo artist.

The disc is one of the best rock albums of any era for two reasons. First, Stewart was once a great vocal interpreter of other people's work and, song for song, the album's arrangements were a lot more colorful and musically diverse than most of the standard rock productions of the period. Yes, electric guitars were prominent, but so were mandolins, fiddles, pianos, and lots of acoustic guitars. As Every Picture Tells A Story, and his other albums recorded during the late 60s and early 70s prove, Rod the Mod was a master at making soulful, bluesy, folk-rock during an era when most Brits were turning their amps up as loud as possible and rocking out as hard as they could. He often showed us that sometimes a little musical subtlety can go a long way.

While his self-penned songs "Maggie Mae," "Mandolin Wind," and the title track are all uniformly excellent Stewart's choice of covers is outstanding. Arthur Crudup's "That's All Right," The Temptations' "(I Know) I'm Losing You," and Tim Hardin's "(Find A) Reason To Believe" all became special in his hands. He loved to cover Bob Dylan and at the time he was one of the best interpreters of Dylan's music. Here his choice is "Tomorrow Is A Long Time." All of the cover songs sound as if they were written especially for this album.

The disc featured a host of sidemen including his band mates from the Faces.

Every Picture Tells A Story makes what happened to Stewart's music in future years all the more frustrating and disappointing. Once he decided that being a celebrity was more important than music his days as a meaningful artist were over. Today his work is a sad state of affairs. He is neither Frank Sinatra nor Michael Buble and he should never have tried to be either.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Los Straitjackets And Southern Culture On The Skids At World Cafe Live, Philadelphia, PA, 5-17-09

Nashville's Los Straitjackets wear Mexican wrestling masks while performing an all instrumental repertoire of high volume surf music made for dancing. The influences of Dick Dale, Carl Wilson, The Ventures, and mid-60's mainstream guitar rock are readily apparent. Group founder, Danny Amis, speaks only Spanish on stage, except for the smattering of English he uses when announcing their songs and CD titles.

North Carolina's Southern Culture On The Skids (SCOTS) are a quartet who honors it's Southern roots by poking fun at themselves. They wear bowling shirts, ill fitting and wildly unmatched clothing, and throw fried chicken into the audience. Bassist/vocalist Mary Huff has the largest and highest hairdo we've seen since Dolly Parton and the B-52s. In between songs she picks up a mirror sitting on her amp and proceeds to fix her hair, flipping it around as needed to further cultivate the image. SCOTS sing about fried chicken, double wides, shotguns, and pickups.

Rock fans may wonder if these two very different and veteran bands paired together for an evening of music will appeal to the same audience. The answer is yes. Despite their completely different images SCOTS and the four masked men have more in common than one might suspect. Credit must go to the concert promoters who saw the similarities.

Instrumentally the quartets are identical. Both lineups include two electric guitars, bass, and drums, nothing more. Surf-rock lead guitar is part of the mix for both groups, especially with Los Straitjackets. Their music is simple, straightforward and not over-arranged. Neither band takes themselves too seriously. Unlike U2, they are not trying to change the world. Both bands succeed because they're good composers and musicians so stage shows that may be nothing more than mere gimmickry in less talented hands never get in the way of the music. Otherwise their shticks would grow tiresome quickly.

Los Straitjackets opened the evening. Their set was highlighted by a cover of the Chantays' oldie, "Pipeline" and a surprisingly effective rock arrangement of Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing."

SCOTS set included all of their best known stuff including "Voodoo Cadillac," "The Camel Walk," "40 Miles From Vegas, and "8 Piece Box."

Monday, May 11, 2009

Mikky Ekko - Strange Fruit (2009)

Newcomer Mikky Ekko is a hard act to label. Where does he fit within the framework of rock & roll? His music doesn't offer any of the long solos, recurring themes, or suites so common in prog-rock (so categorizing his debut CD as such would not be totally accurate) yet it's a description that fits. Ekko cites a huge number of musical influences. Among them are Beck, The Pixies, Bjork, Sigur Ros, Tom Waits, Elliot Smith, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Radiohead, Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan, The White Stripes, Nirvana, and Soundgarden. To this listener's ears his mostly low-key, brief, thirteen minute, five song, EP clearly shows traces of Radiohead as well as Bell X1, Pink Floyd, and Smile era Beach Boys. His vocals are reminiscent of Freddie Mercury in a mellow mood.

As is typical with a lot of prog-rock the lyrics are often not easily transparent so the listener must be in a thinking mood to fully appreciate them. However, since melody and sound textures are more important to Ekko's songs they are thoroughly fulfilling anyway.

Ekko is a Nashville native who proves that not everybody in town twangs and wears a cowboy hat. The CD was produced by Tim Lauer in his Nashville studio with Ekko co-producing. No biographical information is available.

You can listen to clips from the EP on Mikky Ekko's MySpace page.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

An Interview With Diane di Stasio

On April 12th Bloggerhythms posted a review of Vox Eterna, the debut CD by Diane di Stasio. I was so captivated by her wonderful voice that I wanted to understand what made this immensely talented singer tick. I wanted to know her influences, her musical background, and her career plans for the future. Many of those questions are answered in this ten question, e-mail interview she agreed to do for Bloggerhythms. Thank you Ms. di Stasio for your time.

Below is the interview.
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CR: Based on the brief biographical information I have it appears your career has been primarily as an opera singer. Is opera your first love? If so, why then, did you make your first release a pop album?

DiD: Initially, growing up, my first love was rock music. It was later in my teens and early twenties that I developed a love for the beautiful opera melodies, especially from the Bel Canto and Romantic periods (e.g. Bellini, Puccini and Verdi). I have always loved and had a great appreciation for rock voices, and the belief that the intense passion and emotion expressed in both the rock and opera genres have a lot of similarities. I felt it natural in this first album to fuse both styles together – vocally having more of the operatic/classical/ethereal feel and instrumentally with a touch of rock.

CR: Tell us a little about your musical history, background, and education. Do you play an instrument?

DiD: I would say that my musical history growing up was eclectic. I took ballet for eight years as a child which had a classical, instrumental influence. I began listening to rock music from junior high on listening to everything from the Beatles, to Queen, to AC/DC… also enjoyed dance/club music as well as the great jazz singers – Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald.

My musical education began with an Opera Scholarship at the University of Southern California (U.S.C.), finishing it up at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. I play a little piano, but not enough to accompany myself during a performance.

CR: How was the music chosen for the CD? Who chose the titles and why?

DiD: Some of the titles on the CD were songs that I had recorded as demos a couple years ago which Billy Smiley had heard and loved and wanted to include them on this debut CD – ie. "Fra Nuvole e Acqua," "Frozen," "Dream." The other songs were selected through a collaborative effort between me and the producer. The two covers were also selected by me and Billy. We both had listened to over 200 to 300 covers before we narrowed it down to "Nights In White Satin," and "Fields of Gold." We both felt that these two covers were a wonderful fit for my voice and for the overall sound of the CD.

CR: Many singers just come into the studio and sing whatever the producer and the record company tell them to sing. Your media kit indicates you had a hand in the arrangements. What kind of input did you have? For instance, whose idea was it for Brendan Smiley's guitar solo closing out "Shadows?"

DiD: Billy and I talked at length about how we wanted the songs to sound and how we would fuse styles together instrumentally. I brought more of the classical/ethereal elements and Billy brought in the rock elements. ie. the combination of the orchestral with the rock elements – as in "Fra Nuvole e Acqua" and "Nights in White Satin" as well as just having electronic grooves as in "Take Me There" and "Find A Place to Breath." The vocal line that takes the place of the flute from the original version of "Nights…" was an idea that I presented. I just kept hearing my voice sing the flute part in the song. I also had input for the arrangement of "Shadow" and how I wanted it to sound, but the actual electric guitar part was all Billy and Brennan’s doing… love it!!!

CR: I noticed that on the song, "Kiss," you share a composing credit. Do you write on a regular basis?

DiD: I have not always written on a regular basis, but have started to more often in this last year. I would like to have more writing credits on the next album.

CR: In the future do you have any plans to record opera or will you stay working in the pop world?

DiD: I primarily want to work in the pop world, but would like to continue fusing elements of the classical/opera styles and sounds with the popular ones.

CR: Will you be touring in support of the CD?

DiD: Yes!!! Both the label and I have plans to do a tour in support of this CD. I would very much like to do an international tour going into Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

CR: What kind of music do you listen to for pleasure?

DiD: For pleasure, I primarily listen to jazz and instrumental classical but I also enjoy listening to rock and dance music.

CR: I've seen your video of "Silent Night" (The Jimi Hendrix mix). If it's OK with you I'd like to post it as part of this article. My question is, aren't you afraid of alienating both rock fans and opera fans with performances such as this one? I like this video a lot but many fans who enjoy the electric guitar solo may be put off by the operatic style vocal that follows it and vice versa. The two genres seldom mix well or resonate with the same fans.

DiD: I would agree that these two genres seldom mix well but in this version of "Silent Night" I believe that the fusion of the two styles does work very well. What’s most important when combining differing styles of music like in this version of the song is how it is approached vocally and with the arrangement. As you notice, I’m not singing out in a full operatic voice with lots of vibrato. Instead I used more of an airy, easy sound with very little vibrato which I believe helps in making this blending of the two genres work. I’d like to mention two other collaborations, in combining both rock and classical elements that have worked beautifully – the duet sung between Freddy Mercury of Queen and opera soprano Montserrat Caballe and the duet "Misere" between Andrea Bocelli and Italian rock singer Zucchero.

CR: Finally, what are your musical goals? Would you like to produce, or is singing enough?

DiD: I would love to have more of a part in helping produce my upcoming projects as well as a hand in producing the stage shows for tours.

Finally, even though it's not Christmas time, here is Diane di Stasio and Brennan Smiley performing a live version of "Silent Night (Jimi Hendrix Mix)."