Archive: Reviews

On the playlist, or crate digging the bargain bins

My main intent with collecting vinyl is to acquire albums I have on CD that were created before 1990, the year when the transition to CD started to take hold.

But occasionally I’ll run across a bargain that’s too hard to pass up. Wall of Sound, a record store in my neighborhood, moved up the street, so the store held a garage sale. I came away with a bunch of stuff for $0.50, as well as a number of grabs from a box of freebies. Jive Time Records has bins full of 99-cent deals, and Everyday Music has understock priced under $3.

As a result, I’ve ended up with albums I would never have purchased otherwise, and there’s nothing like discovering something likable that’s was gotten for cheap.

Here are the acquisitions, the good with the bad:

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London Chamber Orchestra: Minimalist

[London Chamber Orchestra - Minimalist]Back in the late ’80s, the London Chamber Orchestra recorded a series of albums on Virgin Classics, which then marketed them more like rock releases than classical.

Each album in the 9-disc series had distinctive, templated covers. The LCO moniker occupied a corner in big Helvetica type with an abstract image dominating the remaining surface. It was a far cry from the yellow label branding of Deustche Grammphone or the low-budget art of Naxos.

These albums are long out of print, the recordings butchered on various compiled reissues. The ensemble’s reading of Vivaldi’s concerti and Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante pop up on other EMI Classics releases.

One album has managed to maintain its integrity despite numerous reissues and cover changes: Minimalist. In fact, the album is scheduled for another reissue on Feb. 12, 2013.

Of the discs in that original series, Minimalist was the only one to feature modern music from American composers. At the time, major labels were finally coming around to minimalism, with Nonesuch cornering recorded premieres by Philip Glass, Steve Reich and John Adams.

Minimalist was one of the first albums not released by Nonesuch to focus on these three composers.

I had actually bought the album around the time it was released — as a Christmas gift for my piano teacher. I didn’t get around to buying a copy for myself till 2012, when I found an original Virgin Classics pressing at Silver Platters.

By then, 23 years had passed since that initial gifting. Back then, I had only listened to a scant number of works from each composer. Today, only two of the works were unfamiliar to me.

Minimalist was intended to be a crash course in the works of Glass, Reich and Adams, and it serves that purpose well. Although each composer has been tagged with the minimalist brand, their individual writing styles couldn’t be any more different.

Adams doesn’t go for the level of abstraction as Glass and Reich. Reich’s harmonic language is more adventurous than Glass or Adams, his rhythms more syncopated. But Glass is the most accessible, his harmonic and rhythmic language clearest of the three.

LCO selected the right works from each composer to highlight these differences.

Adams’ Shaker Loops strikes just the right balance between intellectual rhythmic exercise and programmatic storytelling. It’s certainly a good choice as an introduction to his output.

Reich’s Eight Lines highlights the signature syncopation that drives his work, while being just the right length to fit on a minimalist showcase.

Company is one of Glass’ most recorded works, and LCO jumped on that bandwagon early. It’s too bad so many other chamber orchestras followed in their wake. Thankfully, LCO also include Glass’ Façades.

The only odd man out is Englishman David Heath. He’s no minimalist, and the dissonance of his contribution, The Frontier, clashes with the harmonies of his American counterparts.

It’s also the most interesting work on the disc. There’s a bit of a rock attitude underpinning The Frontier, and it’s a nice contrast to the high-mindedness of the preceding works.

Despite that jarring addition — or maybe because of it — Minimalist hangs well together as an album. So well, in fact, it’s been immune to butchering. (Mostly — some of these recording appear on other EMI compilations.)

Looking back, I made the right choice giving this album to my piano teacher. I’d probably direct other curious listeners to it in the future.

 

Oriental Love Ring: In This World

Oriental Love Ring: In This WorldOriental Love Ring first formed in Honolulu in 1988, and the only recording of theirs I possessed was a single track from a cassette compilation titled No Place to Play. For all I knew, it was the only recording by the band that existed. But that song, “Damage”, was so damn good, it made me a fan.

Too bad I was still too young to see them play live. By the time I had that independence — more commonly known as “college” — the band had already split up.

I no longer have a cassette player, but the Hawaii Punk Museum made No Place to Play available online. On a lark, I decided to search the web for Oriental Love Ring and discovered the band had reunited and released an album of new songs in 2010.

“Damage” hinted at what the band could achieve, and In This World fully realizes it.

There’s not a single dead spot on the album. Guitarist Beano Shots wrote or co-wrote the lion’s share of the tracks, and his melodic gift hasn’t dimmed since his days in the Squids.

Peter Bond sounds perennially youthful with his soaring tenor, and he and Shots weave their guitar riffs beautifully on such tracks as “Prayers to an Empty Sky”, “Disconnected Girl” and the title track.

Not surprisingly, Bond’s contributions to the album, “I Know You Know”, “Take Me to the Moon” and “Tonight”, have the bite of his later band, Spiny Norman.

Original drummer Bryan Brudell used electric drums on “Damage”, forever dating the song (in a good way, as far as I’m concerned.) Larry Lieberman opts for a more organic sound, and he’s in lock step with bassist Chad Ikezawa.

In This World arrives 20 years after Oriental Love Ring first split up. The band says they’re doing this out of fun, and it sure does come across in the finished product.

This album is also something of a weird wish fulfillment for me. Oriental Love Ring were playing at Wave Waikiki at a time when I was still learning how to drive. “Damage” spurred my imagination and made me wonder about all the stuff we didn’t hear. As it turns out, some pretty damn good music.

 

Duran Duran: A Diamond in the Mind

Duran Duran: A Diamond in the MindI can’t say I was all that thrilled when Duran Duran released Arena in 1984. It was a live album, which meant it sounded nothing like the meticulously-crafted studio albums that I put on repeat on the family turntable.

Back then, I hadn’t yet gone to any concerts, so the idea of live album-as-souvenir didn’t really resonate with me. I just knew I preferred the studio version of “Is There Something I Should Know?” over the one that opens Arena.

I’ve since gone to a number of Duran Duran shows, and I have a better appreciation of Arena now. But the album was recorded so early in the band’s career that it really doesn’t tell the whole story — just that part known to most people.

A Diamond in the Mind rectifies this gap and makes the incredible leap of sounding so polished, it could pass itself off as a studio album.

The Manchester show recorded for the album in December 2011 followed a fraught-filled summer when Simon Le Bon lost his voice and the band didn’t know if he’d get it back. The worldwide tour set to begin then was hastily rearranged to give Le Bon time to recuperate.

And did he ever.

He sounds better on A Diamond in the Mind than he does on the band’s most recent studio album, All You Need Is Now. He’s got some really power behind his pipes now, and his tone is clearer than ever.

Duran Duran have been touring for three decades, so the show comes off flawless. But that probably has as much to do with advances in mobile recording technology as it does the band’s natural showmanship. Every part of the band can be heard, and with Nick Rhodes armed with software samples, he can fill out all the missing parts that wouldn’t travel well.

In a way, A Diamond in the Mind is a bit too perfect. Arena had a lot of raw energy that made many of the songs sound coke-fueled (which they probably were.) Even the band’s SXSW showcase had a few flubs that came off as charming than ill-prepared.

The cleverest moment on the album comes at the end of “The Wild Boys”, where it segues into a brief quotation of “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. More of this, please.

Most importantly, A Diamond in the Mind fills the gap missing since the release of Arena. Now we have a(n official) live album that includes “Notorious”, “Ordinary World” and “Come Undone”. The picture is more complete.

 

Gossip: A Joyful Noise

Gossip: A Joyful NoiseBy comparison, Gossip’s second album for major label Sony Music, A Joyful Noise, is a less rocking album than their debut Music for Men.

The synths get a heavier hand this time around, and the guitar work of Brace Paine is more embellishment than driving force. The production is slicker, perhaps even watered down, and Beth Ditto’s usually fiery performance turns darker.

But it’s the album I like more.

Part of my resistence to Music for Men was the stark contrast to Standing in the Way of Control. Gossip was already transforming from a garage band trio to the current incarnation of dance band, and Standing in the Way of Control was the pivot, an album that dipped more than a foot into the new sound while retaining most of the old.

With A Joyful Noise, the transformation is complete, and it bears little or no resemblance to what came before. And that makes it easier to evaluate on its own terms.

And the songs on A Joyful Noise are far catchier.

“Move in the Right Direction” is as much an affirmation of the band’s creative direction as it is a dance floor anthem. Gay bars would do well to jump on remixes of this track.

“Get a Job” stakes the same lyrical terrain as Björk’s “Army of Me” with a bit more funk.

Gossip really knows how to hit a chorus, as evidenced on “Casualties of War”, “Involved” and “Get Lost”

For a dose of the old band, “Love in a Foreign Place” recalls the fire of the pre-major label days without indulging in nostalgia.

Folks who liked the rock sound of Music for Men will probably be disappointed by the full embrace of dance on A Joyful Noise. But listen beyond the surface, and the these tunes sink in easily.

 

Tokyo Jihen: Shinyawaku

Tokyo Jihen: ShinyawakuThe dissolution of Tokyo Jihen in February 2012 spurred EMI Japan to flood store shelves with Tokyo Jihen releases. In addition to a 6-track EP (color bars), the label released a live compilation (Tokyo Collection) and a b-sides collection (Shinyawaku). In February 2013, a comprehensive boxed set is scheduled.

If taken as an album in its own regard, Shinyawaku could stand along side Sports and Otona as the best Tokyo Jihen had to offer. The album had a diverse range of material, from disco and dirty funk to covers of Rodgers and Hart and Brenda Lee.

In particular, the band’s take on the obscure Ned Doheny track “Get It Up for Love” — translated as “Koi wa Maboroshi” — injects a shot of energy into the too-mellow original. “Pinocchio” could have been an incredibly lush track if Shiina Ringo recorded it for her own solo work.

“Gaman” and “Kaban no Nakami” offer the straight-ahead rock at which Tokyo Jihen excels but at times went missing on the albums proper.

Like Sports and Otona, Shinyawaku has little in the way of filler, which is odd considering the fact these tracks served no other purpose than to fill out single releases.

Which then brings up the point: how did these tracks not end up on the album?

Tokyo Jihen’s weakest album, Goraku, could have been strengthened with the inclusion of “B.B.Queen” or “Pinocchio”.

“Kao”, a coupling track from the single “Gunjou Biyori”, is a lot more interesting than some of the tracks that made it onto the band’s debut, Kyoiku.

As tight a collection Shinyawaku may be, it’s also a document of Tokyo Jihen’s missteps. A lot of this material is just too good to have been stashed away on individual singles, and their compilation onto a single release shouldn’t overshadow the main canon.

 

ZAZEN BOYS: Stories

ZAZEN BOYS: StoriesHere’s a startling statistic: ZAZEN BOYS has lasted longer than NUMBER GIRL.

Mukai Shuutoku’s watershed band lasted 7 years, whereas ZAZEN BOYS will be turning 10 in 2013.

There’s no mistaking ZAZEN BOYS as anything other than Mukai’s personal sonic canvas. NUMBER GIRL didn’t survive one member leaving. ZAZEN BOYS has survived two line-up changes. Despite the longevity, it doesn’t seem Mukai really zeroed in on the band’s core sound until recently.

I’ll admit I was nervous about the release of Stories. It’s been more than a half decade since ZAZEN BOYS III, an album of pointless noise-making that made me question Mukai’s creative direction. 2008’s ZAZEN BOYS 4 provided a course correction, with Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann easing Mukai into the world of synthesizers.

Would Mukai be able to reign in his freak outs without the guiding hand of an outside producer? Stories provides the answer, and all signs point to yes.

One good thing did come out ZAZEN BOYS III — it established a benchmark for how weird ZAZEN BOYS can get. Stories doesn’t reach that far, but it’s still a fairly avant-garde work.

Instead of working with the concept of melody, chords or harmonic rhythm, Mukai fashions long strings of melodic ideas — most of them only vaguely tonal — into a punctured texture. Very few tracks on Stories have a steady beat, and most of them don’t have anything resembling a hook.

“Potato Salad” has the shifting rhythms Mukai explored in “Himitsu Girl’s Top Secret.” “Kigatsukeba Midnight” is some strange form of be-bop where the stated melody never turns into an improvisation. “Sandpaper Zarazara” could almost be considered minimalist if Philip Glass decided to sound more like Thurston Moore.

At the same time, Stories has some of the most melodic material Mukai has written in a long time. “Heartbreak” has a bona fide guitar hook, and Mukai sings a real melody. The album’s title track could have been a lost work from Mukai’s collaboration with pop singer Leo IMAI. The synth-heavy track is almost danceable.

Even the concluding track “Tengu”, a clash of keyboards, guitars and drums, is threaded together by Mukai’s mouthy but coherent vocals.

It’s taken a decade, but Mukai seems to have found how far he can push his boundaries. Stories doesn’t alienate, but it stays true to its avant-garde core.

… And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead: Lost Songs

... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead: Lost Songs… And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead loves them some prog rock, and at times, that influence has bogged down their albums. 2011’s Tao of the Dead was split into two parts, the second a 16-minute, single track epic. I can’t say the album left much of an impression with me.

Lost Songs, by contrast, scales back those bigger gesture to offer perhaps the most straight-forward — and fastest — … Trail of Dead album in their discography.

“Open Doors” opens with the band’s usual typhoon of guitars, but it’s on the second track, “Pinhole Cameras”, where the album takes off.

If anything, the tracks from that point onward have one tempo marking — fast as fuck. It’s not till half way through the album does the pace gets ratcheted down.

“Up to Infinity” and “Pinhole Cameras” have all the familiar … Trail of Dead tricks — breaks in the middle of song, Conrad Keely and Jason Reece doing their best to bust the heads of the vocal mics, and guitars. Lots and lots of guitars.

This time, the mid-song breaks aren’t the vast, meandering detours of the past and in fact, provide a nice reprieve from all the intensity.

The songwriting on Lost Songs is some of the focused the band has produced since Madonna or Source Code and Tags. I’d probably go as far to say the DNA of “Mistakes and Regrets” found its way into every track on the album.

I do have to confess that I don’t have much of a connection to prog rock itself, so when … Trail of Dead reign in those tendencies, I find myself enjoying their albums a lot more. And I enjoyed Lost Songs quite a lot.

 

Out magazine features rock acts with queer members

The year-end issue of Out magazine includes a short feature on queer musicians in metal and hardcore bands. The article has a sidebar focusing on specific albums from bands mentioned in the feature.

I’ve always had better luck finding interesting music by gay artists from Out than from its hard news cousin, the Advocate. In fact, I’ve written about the Advocate’s music coverage before, but now that the Advocate is little more than a supplement, it’s up to Out to pick up the slack.

Unlike the Advocate, Out is willing to feature music with the most tangential relationship to gay audiences. If one member of a 10-piece band is an out musician, they have a shot at being covered. Just so long as the music is decent.

And the music featured in this metal/hardcore feature is actually pretty decent. Unlike four years ago, I skipped Myspace and went straight to Spotify.

I’ll admit God Seed and Nü Sensae weren’t my cup of tea, but Torche and Gaytheist were. It also helped that Out compared the former to Hüsker Dü and the latter to Fugazi. I’m not sure if the comparisons are totally on target, but of the four bands, Torche and Gaytheist struck that right balance of aggression and melody.

These albums join a really good line-up of 2012 releases by gay artists.

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Scissor Sisters: Magic Hour

Scissor Sisters: Magic HourI don’t mind Jake Shears. In fact, I rather like him when he’s wearing as few clothes as possible. But I wouldn’t want him to serenade me.

Shears’ voice is an acquired taste, something a lot of listeners seem to have acquired faster than I have. And I’ll admit the band’s party rock is out of sorts among the headbanging rock and tortured chamber music that make up most of my collection.

But I follow Scissor Sisters because they’re big figures in gay circles, and they’ve made a success out of their queerness.

Given this sense of ambivalence, it was quite surprising to see Magic Hour end up on the year-end favorite list. This album is perhaps my first step toward becoming a Scissor Sisters convert.

Simply put, I enjoyed this album far more than I did Night Work. The vibe is a lot more fun. The tunes are much more memorable. If the point of a Scissor Sisters album is to make you get up and move, Magic Hour succeeds where its predecessor did not. And I don’t dance.

“Let’s Have a Kiki” was the first track to seep into my consciousness. It’s hard not to fall in love with Ana Matronic’s sassy phone message intro.

“Only the Horses” came next with that gorgeous chorus. When he’s not trying to be a Gibb brother or Prince, Shears can really deliver. “The Secret Life of Letters” is another track where Shears, stripped of all affect, sounds remarkable.

The vaguely Latin rhythms and acoustic guitar of “San Luis Obispo” is the kind of stretching I’d like to see the band do more of. As for the rest of the album, there’s hardly a misstep. “Somewhere,” in particular, concludes the album with another winner of a chorus.

At some point, I may explore the band’s first two albums, but for now I’ll consider Magic Hour the album to recommend for Scissor Sister skeptics such as myself.