Thursday, November 29, 2012

Forgotten Music Thursday: Cotton Mather - Cotton is King (1994)

For reasons unknown Austin musician Robert Harrison decided to name his 90s power pop band after Cotton Mather, a 17th century Puritan preacher who, unfortunately, was quite influential during the infamous witch trials held in Salem, Massachusetts. Nevertheless, Harrison put together a very fine group that released a modestly successful CD, Kontiki, in late 1997.

Noel Gallagher heard Kontiki and he was impressed enough to ask Cotton Mather to tour with Oasis. The exposure helped the Texans' single, "My Before and After," to become a hit. Alternative and indie radio loved the song and the critics raved about the entire album. Great things were expected from the band in the future. However, after a couple of minor EP releases and one more full length CD, The Big Picture, in 2001 Harrison dissolved the group without any further success.

Before Kontiki was released I discovered the band's debut CD, Cotton is King, in a $1.00 cut out bin and was intrigued enough by the cover, liner notes, and lyric sheet to take a chance on it. I wasn't disappointed with my bargain basement purchase and despite the almost unanimous, positive reaction to Kontiki my ears prefer the former album.

On Cotton is King guitarist Harrison's voice may easily remind you of either John Lennon or Glenn Tilbrook, or both. Harrison combined intelligent lyrics to melodic songs with crashing guitars that frequently sound like the rock 'n roll side of Revolver.

The band doesn't fool around, they don't jam, and they never waste a note, but its clear that Whit Williams on guitar, Matt Hovis on bass, and drummer Greg Thibeaux are primarily on board to service Harrison's songs. That could be the reason why there was a constant flow of personnel running through Cotton Mather's revolving door. By the time Kontiki was released only Williams and Harrison remained.

Harrison wrote all twelve songs on Cotton is King and its sometimes humorous, cutting edge lyrics revealed a composer with true talent. "Lost My Motto," "Cross the Rubicon," and "Ivanhoe" are very literate songs. One of the more interesting tunes, "The Words of Shaman Roger," skewers religious cult figures.

Power pop fans who continue to lament the lack of success of the late Alex Chilton's early 70s band, Big Star, should also mourn the loss of Harrison's forgotten quartet too. They are just as worthy.

Listen to "Lost My Motto."

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Bacon Brothers - Live: No Food Jokes Tour (2003)

World renowned actor Kevin Bacon and his Emmy Award winning brother, Michael, who writes scores for TV and movies, released their first of five studio albums in 1997, three years after they formed their band, The Bacon Brothers.

Don't laugh. The brothers are not a novelty act. While Kevin's fame almost certainly earned them attention that other fledgling bands would die for they've managed to show the world they're mostly worthy of the publicity. Both brothers are music lovers who know their way around the stage and the studio. I saw them live in 2009 and they proved they have the goods to succeed. The same can be said about their double set live CD, Live: No Food Jokes Tour, released in 2003.

Kevin plays acoustic guitar and percussion and Michael plays guitar as well as cello. Both siblings sing lead.

While there is nothing remotely alternative or anything that would be considered high art about The Bacon Brothers' work, they're totally serious about what they do and that's playing a fine mix of middle-of-the-road folk-rock that is totally accessible without pandering to the lowest common denominator. Kevin and Michael keep it light and lively on stage, relate to their audience well, know their musical boundaries and, because they do, they succeed.

The nineteen songs from Food Jokes are mostly self-written with the exception of the rocking theme from Kevin's movie Footloose and an Everly Brothers medley that highlights how nicely the brothers can harmonize together.

This concert CD was recorded on February 18, 2003 at Englewood, New Jersey's John Harms Center for the Arts.

Disc two closes with an illuminating thirteen minute interview with both brothers. In it Kevin notes that they wanted to be a band of singer-songwriters and that he was aware that people would be skeptical of them because he was an actor trying to do something he wasn't known for.

If you prefer rock and roll that doesn't go too far afield as well as the more upbeat side of singer-songwriters then you may find a lot to like in The Bacon Brothers.

The concert is also available on DVD.

Follow the band at their website.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Mumford & Sons - Babel (2012)

England's Mumford & Sons have quickly become an international sensation by mining the same musical territory as North Carolina's excellent Avett Brothers. While the band's lineup suggests they are true folkies their high energy music is frequently not for the faint of heart. Together the quartet plays a unique synthesis of rock and folk.

Leader Marcus Mumford's down home banjo picking and Winston Marshall's dobro are ably assisted by Ted Dwane on bass and Ben Lovett on keyboards.

The four mates don't play their instruments in quiet coffee houses where you can hear a feather drop on the floor during a set. Instead, the Mumford men play music with a kick that is readily apparent on Babel, their successful followup to 2009's rookie release, Sigh No More. They're also serious lyricists with a profound confessional tone so fans of singer-songwriters will also find something appealing in their music too.

Babel doesn't suffer from the sophomore jinx. Good songs are everywhere, especially on the album's deluxe edition that adds three extra tracks to the original twelve. Among them is an excellent cover of Simon & Garfunkel's "The Boxer" featuring a guest appearance by dobro player extraordinaire Jerry Douglas. It's an interesting choice that indicates there aren't many light lyrical moments on a Mumford album. "Broken Crown," "Whispers In the Dark," the boisterous title tune, and Babel's big hit, "I Will Wait," are as rowdy as acoustic music can get.

Producer Markus Dravs, who led the way on Arcade Fire's Grammy winning album, The Suburbs, as well as a couple of discs for Coldplay, has manned the sessions for both of the folk-rockers' full length records.

With Babel, Mumford & Sons prove they are a band for people who have always loved rock music but just can't seem to wrap their arms around much of the stuff on the current rock scene.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

The Rise of FM Alternative Rock Radio

This is a rerun of a post that originally appeared here on July 18, 2007.
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Among my oldest memories are listening to my mother's kitchen radio tuned to the music popular with adults of the early 60s. True, those artists included some giants such as Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, and Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass but unfortunately I also had to listen to The Ray Coniff Singers and The Singing Nun.

Then in February 1964 The Beatles arrived in New York to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. It wasn't love at first sight but my conversion came about swiftly and completely. From then on music challenged baseball as a childhood obsession.

The Beatles led me to listen to Philadelphia's only radio station that played rock & roll, top 40 WIBG, 99 on the AM dial. Then I moved on to the more modern, faster-paced WFIL, Famous 56, who usurped WIBG's throne. For those of us living in the northern Philadelphia suburbs we could also listen to the king of all the top 40 stations, New York City's WABC, Musicradio 77, whose signal was actually stronger than WIBG's at night. After dark I also remember tuning in to WCFL, Chicago and CKLW in Windsor, Ontario. Those stations all had one thing in common: very limited playlists.

The top 40 stations were not without their advantages. I was exposed to genres and artists I never knew existed. In the Spring of 1965 my first exposure to black music was on WIBG. I had never heard anything before that sounded like Motown, James Brown, and Ray Charles. I remember hearing my first Beach Boys song, "Help Me Rhonda." WIBG is where I first heard country music. While the styles of music broadcast on these stations varied wildly the listener would only hear the same forty songs over, and over, and over again. WABC even played the number one song every hour!

Broadcasters just didn't seem to care about FM radio. It had been languishing in obscurity for twenty years despite its superior clarity and static free, stereo sound. With FM you could even listen to the radio during a thunderstorm or while driving under an overpass.

Then in July 1965 the bureaucrats at the FCC actually did America a favor. They ruled that any FM radio station that was owned and operated by an AM station would no longer be allowed to simulcast the AM station's programming for more than 50% of the broadcast day. This meant that many FM stations all over America had to come up with a lot of new programming. The deadline for meeting this new requirement was January 1, 1967. The stage was now set for the advent of FM rock radio.

Just as The Beatles arrival on these shores totally changed everything about how I viewed music the new FM programming broadened my horizons even more. "Underground" or "alternative" radio stations were able to experiment and play music the AM stations would never think of playing. WIP, 610 AM in Philadelphia, had an FM affiliate that eventually became WMMR, one of the pioneering FM alternative rock stations in America.

In 1967 a DJ named Dave Herman had an evening show on WMMR called The Marconi Experiment. The show aired from 7 PM until Midnight and played only music that AM radio wouldn't touch. Most DJs were allowed to select their own music. FM played fewer commercials so there was a lot more room for the disc jockey to stretch out with all kinds of musical experimentation. One night Herman played the entire "In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida" with its famous guitar riff and drum solo. It clocked in at 17:05. Pink Floyd's "Saucerful Of Secrets," at 11:57, was another track I remember Herman spinning. I heard Frank Zappa and Jimmy Hendrix for the first time. None of these artists or tracks were likely to be played on AM.

By 1972 GM, Ford, and Chrysler were adding FM radios to their cars as standard equipment. This enabled FM outlets to annually increase their audience and by 1978 they began to win the ratings wars. Today FM remains the dominant radio medium despite the advent of satellite and Internet radio.

So many people had their musical lives broadened by exposure to FM's wide spectrum of music that I believe the 1965 FCC ruling is one of the defining moments in the history of rock & roll and popular music. My tastes, and I'm sure those of a whole lot of other young people, were strongly shaped by what we heard during the years of FM's rise to prominence.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

5 Classic Rock Artists Who Deserve More Love

A few weeks ago Bloggerhythms wrote about 5 classic rock artists who don't deserve our love. Today, we are discussing the opposite scenario, five artists who don't receive enough love. While I'm certain the people listed below are millionaires many times over artistically these five artists have never been rewarded with the accolades they deserve, so today, it's time to give each one a small salute.

Ray Davies
Davies is more appreciated in his own country but in the United States he never got enough recognition. Even though his band, The Kinks, had more than a few hits here he's probably too English for most Americans to relate to in a big way. His voice is very British, pleasantly unique, and enhances the ethnicity of his work. Nevertheless, when you can write great songs with images as powerful as those found in "Celluloid Heroes," "A Well Respected Man," "Waterloo Sunset," "Victoria, and "Muswell Hillbillies" you deserve all of the fame you can get.

Robert Lamm
By the end of the 70s Peter Cetera was Chicago's breakout star because of his great tenor voice but diehard fans are also familiar with Robert Lamm, the man responsible for most of the septet's early string of hits despite his modest vocal abilities. The keyboard player and singer wrote 80% of Chicago's debut album and, while he was pushed into the background as the years went by, it's a safe bet that without his songs the band may have never achieved its initial success. Lamm is responsible for "25 or 6 to 4," "Beginnings," "Dialogue," "Saturday in the Park," and a whole lot more.

David Lindley
The music industry is often awed by his genius but if the general public knows about multi-instrumentalist David Lindley at all it was only as Jackson Browne's right hand man. Lindley's contributions during his ten year stint (1971 -1981) in the famous singer-songwriter's band are incalculable. His fiddle work on "Before the Deluge" almost brings tears to my eyes. Lindley is a virtuoso on any type of stringed instrument he picks up: lap steel, fiddle, banjo, electric or acoustic guitars, bouzouki, and more. He's not flashy, and he can do a lot more than rock out on his axe, which is probably why he's never appeared on lists such as Rolling Stone Magazine's 100 best guitar players.

Stephen Stills
What? Stephen Stills is under-rated? Of course, he is. The guitarist has always lived in the shadows of his more famous and more highly regarded bandmate, Neil Young, but he is a far, far, better singer than Young, and as a musician he always knew when to edit himself, a skill Young doesn't always appear to have. How good is Stills? That's an easy question to answer. After all, he's the hall-of-famer who wrote gems like "For What It's Worth," "Southern Cross," and the quite sophisticated "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes." His solo career has never received the attention it should have.

Bernie Taupin
When it comes to Elton John's songs from the early 70s what do most critics rave about? It's usually Bernie Taupin's lyrics. Taupin is the man who brought the edge to John's early work. He is the unsung hero who put the weirdness in Goodbye Yellow Brick Road's mostly accessible arrangements, the man who wrote about teenage suicide over an almost too happy melody ("I Think I'm Going to Kill Myself"), and the man who put all of the emotion in "Candle in the Wind." It's not too hard to believe that without the talented lyricist as a writing partner John may have just ended up being Reggie Dwight.