Thursday, September 29, 2011

Forgotten Music Thursday: Billy Joel - Streetlife Serenade (1974)

Billy Joel's second Columbia album, and third overall, is among his least remembered records. It was inevitable that Streetlife Serenade, the followup to Piano Man, wouldn’t have the same impact as his major label debut because the earlier platter was such a huge success. While Streetlife will never make any list of Joel's masterworks it definitely doesn't deserve its fate of completely falling off the musical radar. Here, he still presents himself more as a singer-songwriter than the rocker and showman he became during his major hit making years.

Joel, who hasn't recorded a new studio album since 1993's mediocre River of Dreams, still performs Piano Man’s most popular songs in concert today. "The Ballad of Billy the Kid," the arena rock anthem "Captain Jack," and the title track are all staples of classic rock radio. What Streetlife lacks are those kind of songs, the ones that embed themselves in your head for eternity.

Easily the best track on the album is "The Entertainer," a rock 'n roll commentary about what it's like dealing with the business side of making records highlighted by it's pointed lyrics about "Piano Man" being edited down to fit on a single. Joel sings, "It was a beautiful song but it ran too long, if you want to have a hit you’ve got to make it fit, so they cut it down to 3:05." The song is perfect for the baseball stadiums Joel performs in today but he never makes it part of his set list.

The upbeat "Los Angelenos" is an observation on the left coast's biggest town from someone who, at the time, was a transplanted New Yorker. Joel grew up on Long Island, in an area where families had longtime roots. He sounds astonished when he tells us "Los Angelenos all come from elsewhere." It's one of the better songs on the LP.

The rest of Streetlife is filled with decent tunes, the kind that will make you say "that’s nice" when you hear them, but they will immediately disappear from your brain about ten minutes after you stop listening. Among these are "The Great Suburban Showdown," "Roberta," "Weekend Song," and "Streetlife Serenader."

The album also suffers because, in spots, it doesn’t offer the detailed songcraft Joel is known for. There are two instrumentals. Did life on the road prevent him from fully developing "The Mexican Connection" and "Root Beer Rag?" They're both easy to listen to but neither is anything more than pleasant filler.

If you haven't played Streetlife Serenade in a long time, or you have never heard it at all, now is the time to take it out for a test drive. An album doesn't have to be a classic to be satisfying and, if you're worn out listening to Joel's often overplayed radio hits, this may feel like fresh, new music to you. Remember, minor artwork needs love too.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

US Rails

US Rails may have sowed their seeds in Philadelphia but they are currently living all over the globe. Their second CD, Southern Canon, was just completed in Germany where acoustic guitarist Joseph Parsons currently resides. Bassist Scott Bricklin lives in Paris. Ben Arnold (keyboards) still makes The City of Brotherly Love his home as does drummer Matt Muir. Tom Gillam (lead and slide guitar), the only member not from the town where America was born, hails from another, even better musical locale, Austin, TX.

These no nonsense roots rockers have an interesting back story. About ten years ago local college radio station WXPN, 88.5 FM, licensed to the Ivy League's University of Pennsylvania, asked a couple of local singer-songwriters who had already released their own CDs to put a band together for a music festival they were hosting. Parsons, Arnold, and Bricklin teamed up with a fourth member, Jim Boggia, to form the harmony laden, adult-oriented rock band, 4 Way Street, named after an old, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young LP. The new band, thanks to WXPN’s help, acquired a small but loyal following. I saw them live at The Point, in Bryn Mawr, PA, a tiny venue where I attended numerous concerts. 4 Way Street’s gig was the best one I ever saw at the now defunct and greatly missed coffeehouse.

Just as satisfying was the group's one and only CD, Pretzel Park. While the quartet didn’t sound too much like CSN&Y, the CD had very cool, well thought out harmonies that captured the spirit of the famous classic rockers. "Change Gonna Come," "Shoot the Moon," and "Barbed Wire" were the perfect synthesis of four voices blending together for the common good. Other favorites include Parson’s "Ceremony" and Boggia's "Several Thousand." The latter was covered by California Transit Authority, the new band led by former Chicago drummer Danny Seraphine on their debut CD, Full Circle. (I may be the only person in the world to have two different versions of Boggia's song on his ipod.)

Unfortunately, because 4 Way Street was never able to spread their wings beyond the Philadelphia area the quartet eventually went their separate ways. Then last year Parsons, Arnold, and Bricklin, without Boggia, joined forces with Muir (who was an unofficial fifth member of 4 Way Street both live and in the studio) and Gillam in the fledgling US Rails.

While the new outfit's predecessor used a folk-rock template as the foundation for their music the addition of Gillam established US Rails as a real rock band. Vocally, the four and five part harmonies are still there, though less prominent than before, and all five take turns singing lead. Their diverse vocal styles range from Arnold's soft, but not unappealing rasp to Parsons' deep, rich, baritone.

Gillam is a versatile axeman, and while he does get a chance to show off his chops with US Rails his role with them requires that he often exhibit some restraint. However, if he was ever featured in a situation where he could truly cut loose in a jam band or power trio format he could easily scorch your ears (in a good way).

The band's eponymous debut opens with "Lucky Stars." It's a song that sounds as if it belonged to 4 Way Street because all five voices blend beautifully while they tell us how happy they are to be "banging on our drum and strumming our guitars." The song possesses everything that was best about their old band. Parson's acoustic "Gonna Shine" brings their melodic talents to the forefront. It's a sunny pop song that sticks easily in your head. Arnold's "Rainwater" also fits the mold but Bricklin's "Rockin' Chair" is the polar opposite. It's raw and raunchy and is blues-rock at its finest. Gillam's "Shine Your Light" is a rousing rock anthem. Each track is an example of how versatile a band can be when everyone is a talented writer.

Even better is Southern Canon released just a little over one month ago. Bricklin opens the proceedings with the boogie tune, "Heart Don't Lie." He also rocks out with "18 & Lonely." Gillam and Muir collaborate on the rocking "Live Like We Love," while Arnold is sincere when advising us all to "Do What You Love." Parsons takes the pop route again with the uptempo love song, "Heartbeat Away." Two ballads close out the thirteen song set. Arnold wears his emotions on his sleeve with "You're My Home" while Gillam shows he is not just a rocker but also a soulful balladeer on "Old Song On the Radio."

Read more about US Rails at ReverbNation.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Band of Heathens Make Believers of Everyone

Austin's The Band of Heathens often sound like The Grateful Dead. They can improvise with best of the jam bands but they also manage to avoid the interminable extended solos of The Dead because their rock 'n roll is more structured and more song oriented. They can harmonize as well as Jerry Garcia and his buddies did and, as a bonus, when they play with a horn section you can also hear traces of The Band in their arrangements.

The Band of Heathens were born after the core of the sextet, Gordi Quist, Colin Brooks, and Ed Jurdi, all lead vocalists, multi-instrumentalists, and solo singer-songwriters, decided they liked working together as a group after sitting in with each other on stage back in Austin.

Both of TBOH's first two CDs were recordings of live shows, a daring move almost unheard of from a new band. Live from Momo's (2006) and Live at Antone's (2008), were both recorded in their home town. It took them until their eponymous third release (also 2008) for them to actually go into a studio to make an album. Fortunately, their songwriting acumen, singing, and musicianship are all fully developed talents that prove they are just as comfortable in that colder, sterile, more exacting environment.

The Heathens converted everyone into followers on August 9, 2011 during a show that was part of the weekly, free, summer, outdoor music series, Concerts on the Square, in Exton, Pa. The three vocalists/guitarists on the front line were the obvious stars but their organist, Trevor Nealon, and the rhythm section of John Chipman on drums and Seth Whitney on bass were given a lot of room to groove. In fact, many of the evening's best solos came from Nealon's fingertips.

Currently, the best way to learn about Quist, Brooks, Jurdi, and company is to download their new, free (GREAT PRICE!) two hour concert and three bonus studio tracks from their website. It's a great introduction to the group. The show celebrates The Heathens five years together with twenty tunes from Momo's on November 26, 2010. I don't know how long the downloads will be online so you may want to open their gift to you right now. Highlights include well received concert staples such as "You're Gonna Miss Me, "Say," and Odysseus."

Their latest studio CD, released this past April, is Top Hat Crown & The Clapmaster's Son.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice - Jesus Christ Superstar (1970)

Andrew Lloyd Webber's detractors will throw his later Broadway musicals in your face every chance they get but in 1970 Webber was a hot commodity in the rock music world. That was the year he and lyricist Tim Rice put together one of the greatest rock albums of all time, Jesus Christ Superstar.

For those of you unfamiliar with Superstar the double LP was one of the very early rock operas and it taught many music lovers unschooled in the ancient genre what it was all about. Superstar was a true opera, not a musical. It possessed the characteristics of most classic operas: no spoken dialogue, clearly defined characters whose parts were sung by specific voices, reoccurring musical themes, a cohesive story, and a libretto. However, there were two major differences between it and traditional operas. First, Superstar was rock music and secondly, in its original version, the release was strictly a studio production. At the time Webber and Rice didn't have the funds to bring the opera to the stage so they chose a more economical option and decided to record an album in the studio as a one time deal.

Webber and Rice created quite a controversy with their work. To many, Superstar was blasphemous and anti-Christian, let alone inaccurate, and it can be argued that followers of the faith had some legitimate concerns. However, it's possible the loose interpretation of the production's ending and the ensuing ruckus that surrounded it occurred because the composers never considered the work to be a religious statement. Instead, they used the story of the last days of Jesus as a metaphor for what can happen when people become obsessed with celebrity and the cult of personality. The final track, "John Nineteen: Forty-One" is an instrumental named after a passage in the Bible that when abbreviated and paraphrased basically says, "and they laid him in the tomb........" There is no mention of resurrection, saving souls, or afterlife. That, coupled with what many believed was the inherent "sinful" nature of rock music, infuriated the devout Christian community.

Nevertheless, the album was a resounding success. Murray Head's (Judas) "Superstar" and Yvonne Elliman's (Mary Magdalene) "I Don’t Know How to Love Him" were both major hit singles on Top 40 radio.

Jesus was played by Ian Gillan, best known as the lead singer of the British hard rock quintet, Deep Purple. Gillan's most famous vocal is easily the band's riff-filled signature tune, "Smoke On the Water," but his all-time best performance is his very moving, emotional, and almost melodramatic take on side four in which he magnificently portrays the conflicted and tortured Son of God on "Gethsemane (I only Want to Say)." The song should have won Gillan a "Best Vocal Performance" Grammy.

Other highlights included "Hosanna," King Herod’s Song," "The Last Supper," "Damned for all Time/Blood Money," and "What's the Buzz/Strange Things Mystifying." While the album’s songs often feature the traditional rock lineup of guitar, bass, and drums the arrangements are often expanded to include a rock orchestra that gives the production a majestic flair that suits a protagonist who was King of the Jews.

Even with its considerable length Webber and Rice's production is never pretentious because of the depth of its subject matter. Every note of Superstar has significance. Forty years later it’s still unique and one of the most inspired rock records in history.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Edgehill Avenue - Just Out of Sight (2011)

The mighty fine but little known Southern rock outfit, Edgehill Avenue, are back with Just Out of Sight, another workmanlike effort worthy of your consideration. After Rambler, their excellent full-length debut, showed off their musical chops and songwriting capabilities they followed it with a brief live CD, Off the Edge, that proved they're also a great stage band.

As with all of Dixie's best rockers this Kentucky quintet functions as a complete unit. They put the band and the music ahead of personality or stardom. Their new release is an honest, six-song EP that relies on heartfelt lyrics, an appropriately earthy lead singer (Drew Perkins) who complements the songs perfectly, and good musicianship from everyone involved. Even though this mid-tempo disc is not as eclectic as their debut you will still find a lot to like about it, right down to the pleasing cover art.

While Southern rock was extremely popular in the 70s, and it never completely went away, the days when groups like The Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and The Outlaws all reached the top of the American music charts are long gone. There are a lot of rock fans who miss the genuineness these bands offered and we should be grateful to Perkins and his group for their attempts to help the South rise again. Dickie Betts once wrote a song for the Allmans' called "Revival" and that is just what we need. Hopefully Edgehill Avenue can lead the way.

Read more about Edgehill Avenue on their website and buy the new EP here.