Thursday, August 26, 2010

Forgotten Music Thursday: Alison Moyet - Voice (2004)

I've always been leery of albums where singer-songwriters cover classic songs of bygone eras.  It usually signifies a reluctant contractual obligation to their record company or the artist is in a phase of his or her career where artistic ventures are no longer a priority and the commercial ones have taken over.  Frequently these works are recorded after the musicians have passed their prime, and are on the downward slide, as a way to keep the gravy train running with minimal effort.  A case in point is Rod Stewart who unfortunately has released four CDs of generic standards.

Cover albums also reveal the quality of a singer's voice.  Most composers who write for themselves make sure all of their songs are written in their vocal range so the singer's liabilities either go unnoticed or are minimized.  A true sign of vocal excellence comes when a singer nails somebody else's song.  If the work is out of reach of the vocalist's capabilities the listener knows it immediately.  Anybody who has heard Coldplay's Chris Martin sing "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" will understand what I mean.

Although largely unknown in America, one of Great Britian's most popular singers of the last twenty-five years is Alison Moyet who released Voice in 2004. It's one of those rare cover albums that is truly a labor of love and also one of the few cover albums that can be considered "art" in its truest definition.

Moyet's vocals are simply wonderful on the appropriately named Voice. Every song here is recorded for a reason and her extensive liner notes explain each song's inclusion. Some are featured because she simply loved the music.  Several others are featured because they evoked certain familial memories and emotions.

Moyet's cover of the 60s chestnut "The Windmills Of Your Mind" is perfect.  The same can be said of jazz standards "Bye Bye Blackbird" and George and Ira Gershwin's "The Man I Love."  She covers two Elvis Costello songs: "Almost Blue" and "God Give Me Strength." The latter is one of his more recent collaborations with Burt Bachrach.  Both songs are included here for no other reason than Moyet greatly admires them. She also sings modern versions of works by classical composers George Bizet and Henry Purcell.

However, the star of Voice is not the songs.  It is Moyet's totally exquisite singing showcased against musical arrangements that never get in the way.  This CD is a must hear for anyone who wants to experience vocal music at its finest.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Beatles Live at Wembley Stadium, London, England, August 22, 2010

What may have been the most publicized concert of the last forty years finally took place last night at London's famous Wembley Stadium when The Beatles reunited to celebrate the 70th birthdays of both Ringo Starr and The Beatles' founder, John Lennon. It was their first live performance together since their infamous rooftop concert in January 1969 that was raided by police in the movie Let It Be. The super-hyped event came off without a hitch and all proceeds went to charity.

A few minutes before he took the stage Lennon said that, "Even though we don't see much of each other anymore we're all bound together by this incredible history. We've put our past problems with each other behind us and we are all looking forward to making music for everyone tonight." Knowing that this would be the last time all four members would ever play together he also said that the most famous and influential rock band in history would be giving it everything they've got despite the passage of time.

Each Beatle has refused to succumb to personal problems over the years. In one way or another they are all survivors which is why the former mop tops were looking forward to last evening so much. Lennon survived a nearly fatal assassination attempt, Harrison overcame cancer, Starr finally beat his alcoholism, and McCartney mourned the death of his beloved wife, Linda, followed by a disastrous marriage and a very public breakup that the press covered endlessly.

It was an evening of both greatest hits and a few surprises. The quartet agreed that except for one song, Lennon's "Imagine," that the entire event would consist of only The Beatles' music, no other solo works were allowed. They were accompanied by a 40 piece orchestra conducted by their mentor and producer, George Martin.

As expected, McCartney was the showman and did most of the talking on stage. We all know that Lennon is not exactly a wallflower but he and Harrison only chimed in occasionally. They mostly just played the music. Starr isn't shy either but because he was stuck behind his drum kit most of the evening he didn't say a whole lot. There is no need to get into how good this concert was. With these consummate pros fully motivated the night was almost perfect.

So, let's wait no longer and get right down and dirty with the set list.

The boys came rocking right out of the gate with a perfect "Drive My Car." Then McCartney got the girls screaming as he instantly broke into one of their classic Beatlemania hits, "All My Lovin." They swooned like it was 1964 all over again. Lennon took the lead on "Day Tripper" with some phenomenal fretwork by Harrison. The opening segment ended with "Got To Get You Into My Life," complete with Martin's brass section making their first appearance of the evening.

After a few very quick set changes Lennon sat down at his keyboard, the lights switched on over Martin's pit orchestra, and The Beatles first ever live performance of "Strawberry Fields Forever," astounded the crowd. It was followed by "A Day In The Life," "All You Need Is Love" and "Penny Lane." Then Ringo, front and center on stage, away from his Ludwig drum kit, and without the rest of the band, serenaded the crowd with Lennon's overly-campy "Good Night" from The White Album. A double string quartet accompanied Paul on one of his crowning achievements, "Eleanor Rigby." The backing vocals by Lennon and Harrison sounded like they were back in Abbey Road Studios.

The orchestra disappeared into the mist as the Liverpool guys came out rocking again with the loud, single version, of "Revolution." McCartney displayed The Beatles' influences with one of only two non-originals played during the evening, the raucous "Long Tall Sally." "Paperback Writer" followed, and a screeching version of "Taxman" just blew everyone's mind. Harrison's electric guitar was on fire. Then came a surprise with another tune from the fabulous Revolver LP, Lennon's often forgotten gem, "And Your Bird Can Sing." "Back In The USSR," "Dear Prudence," "Things We Said Today," "Ticket To Ride," "Let It Be," "If I Needed Someone," and "Hey Jude" took the crowd into intermission.

As Paul McCartney walked on stage alone as the second half began the anticipation of the crowd was rapturous because the fans couldn't believe what they had just witnessed in the perfect first half of the evening. The cute Beatle sat down on a chair with his Martin acoustic guitar as the only stage light flashed directly on him. He would be the first of the group to play a solo acoustic segment, offering up "Yesterday," "And I Love Her," "Blackbird," and "I Will." Paul said a quiet "thank you" and exited as he high-fived Lennon who entered the stage and took his seat. Out poured an emotional version of "Julia," fan favorite "In My Life," and "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away." For this last one Starr came out with his tambourine to assist and even the flutes from Martin's orchestra joined in at the end, just like they did on the record. Then John walked over to the baby grand and sang the "best version" (his words) of "Imagine" he ever played. Without saying anything he waived to the crowd and then it was George's turn. On his favorite instrument, the ukulele, Harrison played "Something" followed by "Here Comes The Sun" on guitar.

Next the quiet Beatle gave everyone what is possibly the evening's highlight. He strummed the very soft, solo acoustic version of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" that was never released until Anthology 3 in 1996. Then suddenly, the lights came on, and without missing a beat, all four Beatles were back on stage segueing into the full band arrangement of the famous rock classic from The White Album complete with guest star Eric Clapton joining them to replicate his great solo from the original. (As a side note it would have really been amusing if he and George suddenly broke into "Layla" since they were both married to that song's subject but alas, it didn't happen, and Clapton left with a bow.)

These old guys still had a lot of energy left as the greatest hits and more continued pouring out.  The next set began with "Rain,"  and continued with "Come Together," "A Hard Day's Night," "The Long and Winding Road," "I'm Looking Through You," "We Can Work It Out," and "I Feel Fine." Ringo led the sing-a-long with a pleasing version of "With a Little Help From My Friends."

The crowd was now high as a kite with a lot of help from their friends on stage. By this time the seven decades old Starr, who worked hard all night, was hanging on for dear life behind his drumkit but he summoned up the strength to play some of his best stuff ever on "Birthday." Wembley was now in full frenzy. As McCartney usually does for his shows The Beatles also started their final set with "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" morphing it into the full "Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End" medley complete with the orchestra and the three-way guitar freakout that closes Abbey Road. Finally, with Paul's dramatic closing lyrics, "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make," Wembley went black as the crowd screamed louder and louder for more.

Then there was the encore. All four Beatles gathered around a microphone for an acapella version of "Because." Then John and Paul duetted with only Harrison's acoustic on "Two of Us." They topped off the evening with a concert closer from very early in their career, The Isley Brothers' "Twist and Shout" followed by "Get Back," and "I Saw Her Standing There."

When it was all done, Harrison was crying with joy, happy he participated in something he swore he would never do, and he thanked the audience profusely.

When asked what he thought of the concert, Mick Jagger, who was in attendance, was obviously jealous. All he could say was, "Wow! If I knew Johnny and the boys would get that kind of reaction I would have had "The World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band" perform only once every forty years or so, just like this."

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Grip Weeds - Strange Change Machine (2010)

I had never heard of New Jersey's The Grip Weeds until I read this article about them in my local community newspaper, The Reporter. When I checked them out they instantly reminded me of another Jersey band, The Smithereens.  Then, while doing research for this article, I found out that The Weeds drummer, Kurt Reil, has a history working with Pat DiNinzio's veteran pop-rock outfit so the similarities are probably not a coincidence. Reil and his bandmates have also frequently been compared to early versions of The Byrds and The Who.

Kurt, who also serves as the group's lead singer, is joined by his brother, Rick, on rhythm guitar and by the drummer's wife, Kristen Pinell, on lead guitar.  Pinell also works some flute and harmonica into their repertoire. The three made their first CD together in 1994 after forming in the mid-80s. College professor Michael Kelly rounds out the quartet.  He was the last to join the band in 2003, stabilizing the lineup after a series of bassists came and went.

The band's name is a cool bit of trivia. They are named after Private Gripweed, the character John Lennon played in the 1967 movie How I Won The War.

Left to Right: Kristen Pinell, Kurt Reil, Michael Kelly, and Rick Reil
Strange Change Machine, the band's fifth release, is a twenty-four track, double disc set with over eighty minutes of music on it. As do most bands who love 60s rock, The Grip Weeds write melodic songs to go along with their loud guitars and crashing drums.  While their sound is more rooted in the psychedelic late 60s than it is in the early British Invasion years their power pop still sounds modern enough to satisfy the younger listeners who may cross their path.

All four members wrote music for this album and there is a cover of Todd Rundgren's "Hello It's Me" that is very similar to the original version but still nicely played.

Not all of the songs from the music player below are from Strange Change Machine but listen anyway and you'll hear one of the finest unheralded power pop groups around today.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Diane Birch - Bible Belt (2009)

Twenty-seven year old Diane Birch is an up-and-coming, gospel-tinged, rhythm and blues loving rocker with a very soulful voice, some cool piano chops, and the ability to write meaningful songs without straying outside of the mainstream. Her recent concert at WXPN's Xponential Music Festival paved the way for my purchase of her debut CD, Bible Belt, released last year.

First, some biographical information is necessary. Birch's parents were Seventh Day Adventist missionaries who only allowed classical and sacred music in their home. Her father preached around the world in Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Australia before returning home and settling in Portland, Oregon when she was ten years old. Birch began taking piano lessons at age seven and when she was old enough she moved to Los Angeles where Prince heard her perform. She quickly accepted his invitation to jam with him. After her future manager heard the singer's work on her MySpace page the keyboardist moved to London to write most of the words and music for Bible Belt. Currently Birch lives in New York City after signing her record deal.

According to Birch's website Bible Belt is so named because of the huge affect religion has had on her life and music. None of the thirteen songs are sacred works but there are constant religious references and metaphors throughout the disc accompanied by gospel style lead and group vocals that are heavily interwoven into the arrangements.

Birch's very literate and personal lyrics make her a genuine singer-songwriter. The upbeat "Valentino" is about an imaginary friend of her youth, a character based on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, someone she created to cope with her solitary, restricted home life. "Don't Wait Up" is about the rebellious "goth" period of her teenage years. "Rise Up" wholeheartedly challenges her parents beliefs: "My mama tells me I won't get through the pearly gates, 'Cause I ain't sorry for my sins and all my mistakes. Mama I don't know if I'm goin' up or down, but I know heaven's gonna be one lonely town." "Fire Escape" and "Ariel" are genuine love songs. "Magic View" was inspired by her move to The Big Apple.

The CD features Lenny Kaye from Patti Smith's band, Adam Blackstone of The Roots, and Cindy Blackman who has played with Lenny Kravitz. Steve Greenberg, formerly the head of Columbia Records, who currently runs Birch's label, S Curve Records, produced the disc with help from drummer Mike Mangini and soul singer Betty Wright who is best known for her 1971 million selling single, "Clean Up Woman."

If you get a chance to see Diane Birch live please do not pass it up.  Her strong performance was even more vibrant and dynamic than her recorded material which you can sample right now by listening to the wonderful "Valentino." Better still is this live version of "Don't Wait Up" with Daryl Hall and the late T-Bone Wolk filmed for Hall's online music show, Live from Daryl's House.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

D. B. Rielly - Love Potions and Snake Oil (2009)

Where has D. B. Rielly been all of our musical lives? It isn't fair that he has been holding out on us all of these years because I can say without a doubt that Love Potions and Snake Oil is one of the best debut CDs I've heard in quite awhile.

Rielly is a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who plays guitar, banjo, mandolin, various percussion instruments, and even accordion on five tracks. His music can be heard on more than forty independent recordings and films and his work has been praised by the likes of B. B. King, Phil Ramone, and many others. He has played The Apollo Theater, Lincoln Center, and The Montreaux Jazz Festival.

While Rielly is a resident of New York City his taste in music makes him a fish out of water. All ten self-penned tunes are pure Americana and are heavily influenced by zydeco, blues, and any other American roots music that seeps into his brain. Rielly is a modern man making new music from our past. It's alt-country for rock 'n rollers.

"One of These Days" opens the self-produced disc with some pure cajun accordion over a dance beat that is a perfect choice to get your party started. There are some nice ballads, "One Day at a Time," "Love Me Today," "Don't Give Up On Me," and the album's first single, "Save All Your Kisses." It's always hard to avoid cloying cliches and syrupy imagery while writing love songs but Rielly gets his point across without falling into those traps. "We're All Going Straight To Hell" and "I Got A Girlfriend" show off his very dark and irreverent sense of humor. "Got A Mind" is a serious banjo blues about one man's independent idea of how justice should be served.

The CD case is a welcome surprise too. While most artists are cheapening their packaging, favoring soft, easily damaged cardboard over more rugged jewel boxes, Reilly has delivered the disc in a classy tin box, a nice touch you won't enjoy if you buy the album digitally.

I'm sure Rielly would love to win a Grammy and get rich but Love Potions and Snake Oil is truly a labor of love not calculated to maximize units sold. Music of this ilk may have a sizable cult following but platinum sales are most certainly a pipe dream and that, unfortunately, is a real shame.

Here are the official videos for "Save All Your Kisses" and "I Got A Girlfriend."