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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Lisa Marie Presley: Back in Action

Monday night at Philadelphia’s World Café Live venue, Lisa Marie Presley took the stage for what she termed her first concert in seven years. And despite being the daughter of Elvis and having what might minimally be described as a colorful background, when the music starts such aspects are irrelevant.

The concert was a late addition as the first stop on a brief tour, the set list focusing squarely on her new album Storm and Grace. Generating a growing number of positive reviews for its diversion from rock to a rootsier, organic feel, the album’s shift in approach matches well with Lisa Marie’s voice. That carried over into live performance.

Presley is not a belter or a stunt singer, but an effective communicator with a matter-of-fact delivery that still conveys emotional content. She’s closer to Stevie Nicks than Adele, but it works well in a direct, no-frills way. Sometimes all you want is to get the point across.

Presley's band – husband Michael Lockwood on guitar, backed with keyboards, drums, bass and the very talented multi-instrumentalist Doug Pettibone – ably built the right musical atmosphere. Pettibone was particularly impressive, not surprising considering his long stint with Lucinda Williams and sessions with everyone from Mark Knopfler to Keith Richards. Meanwhile, Lockwood deployed a different guitar on just about every song – perhaps indicative of the family financial resources.

If there was any flaw with the set, it was that Lisa Marie initially seemed to have not considered that she was going to have to interact with a live audience between songs. That led to some awkward silences or exchanges with the more vocal members of the crowd that ran along the lines of, “We love you, Lisa Marie” followed by a “Well, I love you, too” return.

“I need to get my stage legs back,” Presley noted early in the 50-minute set. But by the end of the concert, she had done just that, warming to the crowd and ably demonstrating that she deserves to be known on musical merit alone.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Back on Top

My second post here at FRANK BLANK MUSIC was a lamentation over the glacial pace of ZZ Top’s recorded output. Well yesterday, after waiting nine years – nine years! – a collection of new ZZ material reached my open ears.
Texicali is a four-song EP, billed as an advance preview of the untitled – Soon to be released? Eventually to be released? Never to be released? –full-length ZZ Top album that the trio has been collaborating on with super producer Rick Rubin since what seems like the last Ice Age. The EP is only available as a digital download via iTunes.
I almost hate to say it: it was worth the long, long wait.

Texicali staggers into existence with “I Gotsta Get Paid,” a song that personifies one of the old descriptive adages that the Tops themselves made up decades ago: “ZZ Top, he sound like four flat tires on a muddy road.” Or maybe it’s more “ZZ Top, he be like a fine plate of barbecue: he bear down on the meat and ease off the potato salad.” Whatever – flinging mud or sauce, this is the real deal, with a whole lot of bearing down going on from the first notes of the opening track. The amazing rhythm section of Dusty Hill and Frank Beard lope along in relentless low gear while Billy Gibbons takes the wheel with everything from nods to Jimi to sheets of stuttering distortion. Guitarists hold Gibbons in high esteem for his dedication to tone, and there’s a stunning abundance of wild sounds throughout this opener and the three songs that follow.
“Chartreuse” picks up the pace, upshifting into the Texas shuffle tempo that has fueled some of ZZ’s greatest songs, ending on a cloud of slide noise that drops into the opening of “Consumption,” a typical Top tale – at least lyrically - of a “mean mistreater killing me by degrees.” Musically it’s the band at its rawest, with sections breaking down and rising back to life.

ZZ Top mines the blues, Atlantic City, NJ, May 26, 2012

But with ZZ Top, it always comes back to the blues. While early Top blues like “Blue Jean Blues” and “Just Got Back from Baby’s” were simply low down, “Over You” glows with an uptown sheen over its dark heart, strings supporting Gibbons’ tale of woe. But that sophistication is OK – Billy’s no longer a young string-slinger from Texas, but a man with far-flung interests in everything from African art to hot rods. What matters, though, is the heart and soul of Gibbons’ solo, his wide string bends aching as they soar, collapsing into the near-primitive sound of strings grinding frets.

The Blank Family meets the Tops. And Gizmo (lower right), too? And Gizmo, too...

Texicali comes at a time when ZZ Top has just launched the band’s latest round of road work. While the 1980s hits still get their airing, what’s promising is the band’s new insistence on digging deep in the trio’s massive catalog. In Atlantic City ten days ago, “Vincent Price Blues” emerged in mid-set – a song I’d long ago given up hope of ever hearing live.
In “I Gotsta Get Paid” Gibbons sings, “ZZ done put 25 out the door…” Well, that number’s just four if you’re counting new songs here in 2012 – but they are pretty damn fine. C’mon boys - don’t stop now.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Everything is The Monkees

I first learned of the death of Davy Jones of The Monkees via a tweet from Philadelphia Daily News Eagles beat writer – and music fan - Les Bowen:
“Dang, Davy Jones. When I was 11 I didn't know Monkees were cheesy/fake; thought they were coolest thing. Saved my allowance, bought records”
Of f the top of my head I replied:
“Saw them at Mid-South Coliseum Memphis when I was 12. Next show: Hendrix, Spectrum when I was 13. Things changed fast then. RIP...”

Tour program from my encounter with The Monkees.

But it got me to thinking about the nature of change, and what The Monkees were in the context of their time.

In 1967, to be blunt, The Monkees were considered pop crap. If anyone even bothered to analyze what they were, he or she would come to the conclusion that they were a manufactured trifle, marketed mainly to young girls, though roping in enough young boys (like Les and yours truly) to make that audience a sizeable demographic as well.
In 1967, if The Monkees got any coverage in mainstream publications – daily newspapers, the weekly news magazines – it was in the context of, “this is stupid calculated music for dumb tweens and teens.”

The late Davy Jones in his natural element.

If you wanted to read anything that even remotely presented The Monkees as something cool or something to be taken seriously? Well, 16 Magazine and Tiger Beat were the place to go, magazines created specifically to cater to those dumb tweens and teens.

The appropriately-named 16 Magazine.

So here we are in 20012 and what do we have? Stupid calculated music is embraced – celebrated! – by “serious” media outlets seeking only to market anything to anyone.
Lady Gaga! Enrique Iglesias! MIA! Pitbull! Chiddy Bang! Tyga! Anything that ever emerged from American Idol!
The “artists” who once would have been considered nothing more than fodder for 12-year-olds are now pablum for the whole family, worthy of NFL halftime shows and reviews and analysis in your daily newspaper or weekly news magazines or blogs or social media outlets ad nauseum who all seem blind to a fundamental fact: these acts are still “stupid calculated music for dumb tweens and teens.” It’s just that adults are now so stupid they’re on board too.
Now, everything is The Monkees.
So long, Davy…


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Coolest Science Teacher Ever!

Popular music and science are not exactly a horse-and-carriage combination. When they meet, the alliance is most often remarked upon as a curiosity.

The Swedish band Meshuggah has become known as practitioners of “math metal” based on a repertoire standing on complex structures and demanding polyrhythmic precision.

Montreal's DBC released a literate concept album called Universe in 1989, exploring the scientific concepts behind the Big Bang theory through a suite of songs bearing titles like “The Genesis Explosion” and “Primordium.”

Pat Metheny with the Orchestrion. Had Terry Gilliam's Brazil had a concert scene...

From a performance perspective, the application of scientific mechanical theories was at the very heart of Pat Metheney's Orchestrion project, in which the guitarist constructed a stage-sized mechanical apparatus based on the principles of early 1800's music machines.

But the unification of music and science – and the desire to express wonder over the theories that govern our day-to-day existence – is at the very heart of Bjork's Biophilia.

Bjork's idea of rock.

Bjork is currently in the midst of a series of shows in New York, some at the conventional Roseland Ballroom in Mahattan. But the most intriguing of the performances are the ones being staged in Queens at the New York Hall of Science. There, the Icelandic artist is not only singing but bringing with her an educational series that is installed in the museum. Her goal is to not only present a series of evening concerts but to inspire children to explore the world around them, from the microscopic to the galactic, through a series of interactive workshops linking music and science. Her desire to use her celebrity to implement change at a fundamental level flies in the face of the activities of all too many entertainers.

I had the opportunity to attend Bjork's concert at the Hall of Science on February 12, and the unique setting was immediately apparent: this was the first time I've ever walked by Titan/Gemini and Atlas/Mercury rocket assemblies on my way into a concert venue. And what a venue it is. Originally constructed for the New York World's Fair in 1964, the Great Hall is an intimate, undulating room with walls of concrete and blue glass rising stories above the floor. The room was designed to evoke a sense of deep space, and it was a stunning setting for Bjork's in-the-round performance before an audience that was both seated and standing.

The performance area within the towering Great Hall.

As one might expect at a Bjork concert, traditional rock instrumentation was in short supply. The singer was supported by harps, percussion, pipe organ, celeste, electronics, and the sonically and visually stunning Graduale Nobili. The latter is a choir consisting of 24 young women from Iceland whose vocals and physical deployment in ever changing configurations provided colorful visual accents that complemented the eight large screens above the small stage.

Bjork herself is a wonder on stage, swaying to her material's complex rhythms which seem to resonate within her as solidly as most of us gravitate to traditional rock 4/4 time signatures. Although illness had forced her to cancel the February 9 Hall of Science concert, her voice on this night was in full flight, easily sweeping from the guttural to the heavenly.

Beginning the night with the restrained intro to the Biophilia track “Thunderbolt,” Bjork's pensive opening was shattered by searing synth pulse, more aggressive than the studio version and given additional life via the large hanging Tesla coil that unleashed bolts expressing the energy visually. “Moon” was made more hypnotic as the screens repeatedly displayed a progression of shadow across the lunar surface timed to the music. The majestic highlight of the night may well have been a dramatic redesign of the song “Isobel” (initially released in 1995) which soared on waves of intricately arranged choral voices. 

The gravity harp, designed by MIT's Andy Cavatorta. As each cylinder rotates, strings of varying length are plucked by mounted picks as the armatures swing back and forth.

Solstice” - the final song of the set – brought the evening's most ethereal moments, Bjork accompanied by the four swinging arms of the gravity harp, a delicate ending appropriate in light of the title. Following a frenetic two-song encore - initiated by Bjork requesting that the seated audience join the standing crowd - came the only traditional song of the night: a rendition of “Happy Birthday” sung by all for a surprised member of the choir.

Bjork, resplendent in red hair and inflatible dress, confirms the Tesla coil (center left) is operational.

A number of the songs from Biophilia were introduced during the concert by the voice of famed British naturalist Sir David Attenborough. If such a presence calls to mind science as somber and staid scienctic analysis, Bjork was happy to shatter that perception. This was a night of vibrant expression, and of communicating the fundamental thrill of science and all the aspects of the cosmos that, in Bjork's words, “whirl around me, and make me wonder.”

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Bill Frisell and Freddy Koella

Bill Frisell is one of the most respected – and adventurous – guitarists active today. Labeling him a “jazz guitarist” just imposes unnecessary constraints on his body of work. On January 30, at Philadelphia’s World Café Live, Frisell showed why this is so, tangling such easy descriptions with a brilliant set by his Beautiful Dreamers trio project.

Beautiful Dreamers (left to right): Eyvind Kang, Bill Frisell, Rudy Royston.

Armed with his familiar white Fender Telecaster, Frisell began the night with a quiet, hesitant, and nearly discordant duel with the amplified violin of Eyvind Kang. But the extrapolation gained urgency and solid musical footing with the entrance of Rudy Royston’s drums, becoming more insistent and providing a forward surge to the duel between the instrumentalists.

As the set moved on, sonic images were called to mind ranging from Starless and Bible Black-era King Crimson and the first iteration of Mahavishnu Orchestra to the tonal vistas of Radiohead’s more challenging music. But underlying those sweeping tendencies was a grounding in traditional blues and jazz progressions, given further weight in the selection of the songs performed, which included “It’s Nobody’s Fault but Mine” and “Goin’ Out of My Head.”

Dreamscapes: the effects of Eyvind Kang (foreground) and Bill Frisell (top).

Much has been made of the extent to which Frisell’s sound is sculpted by guitar effects, but the real focus should be on how he deploys the electronic arsenal at his feet. Frisell’s use of effects is so musical that – with the exception of the more obvious and strident reverse swells that swooped through some of the most energetic moments – it’s easy to ignore the fact that effects are even in use, so beautifully does he subtly arrange their use in service to the music.

Beautiful Dreamers at World Cafe Live.

For all of the fantastic music of the Beautiful Dreamers’ set, the encore offered the evening’s most sublime journey: a stunning rendering of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” As Kang crafted a loop that set up the familiar repeating string descent phrase of the song’s latter half, Frisell deftly cast sonically glowing harmonics into his fretted melodic runs.

The standing ovation that the large crowd offered Beautiful Dreamers was a testament to the abundance of musical highlights that had been shared with them during this singular performance.

Another guitarist known for bold creativity is Freddy Koella, a long-time associate of Willy DeVille and many others but likely best known for his stint in Bob Dylan’s band during 2003 and 2004.

Bob Dylan and Freddy Koella on stage in New Orleans.

Koella teamed with fellow guitarist Larry Campbell to spur Dylan to some of his most intense moments in recent years. The alliance was not without its controversy: some Dylan fans thought the French guitarist’s go-for-the-throat approach to his solos was too fiery. As Freddy himself once told me of his Dylan period, “I did a blockage when I was playing with him. I didn’t want to know anything,” he admitted. “My wife or my dad, they wanted to make me read all those fan mails and stuff, but I completely refused. I just wanted to be on the moment, and play with him like he would be anybody else, and enjoy it. So, of course when you are in a position like that, you cannot make everybody happy – it is impossible. And I was aware of that. But it didn’t bother me.”

Despite the detractors, many others – your host included – found Dylan shows of the Koella era to be thrilling and unpredictable. As the online Bob Dylan Encyclopedia notes, “Freddy (as he prefers to spell it) was Dylan’s best-ever lead electric guitarist (and just might be the best electric guitarist altogether since the heyday of Hubert Sumlin)… Freddy played by living on the edge, like Bob, fusing Django Reinhardt and Carl Perkins and playing as if it were 1957 now.”

Freddy Koella plays slide on an old Danelectro guitar.

In 2005 Koella released his first solo CD, Minimal. As its title indicated, the one-man music within was a dramatic step back from the forceful attacks unleashed on the Dylan tours.

Last year, Koella followed up his first release with a new solo project, Undone. This latest effort is definitely a moody, late night album, sometimes calling to mind Twin Peaks soundtracks, or even the sonic vibe of Freddy's best-known employer on Dylan’s Time Out of Mind album. Undone is instrumental and rich in atmosphere, a mix of solo guitar and band tracks.

Subtly using the dynamics of a live band on the tracks accompanied by upright bassist David Piltch and drummer Jay Bellerose, Koella explores clever hesitations in "Trio." "Walking in G" may be in G, and may be a walk, but it's an intriguing one, mimicking a distinctly unsteady gait. When soloing, Koella’s not just flying off the face of the earth, but working his accompaniment, restrained and deep in the sparse groove.

Cover art, Freddy Koella's Undone.

By the time the final track eerily fades into silence, it's become clear that Undone is a beautiful, involving recording, one with a title that "refers to taking apart the forms of blues, folk or classical music," as Koella has said. And after hearing "Elephant" cruising along on a pulse that's nearly bossa nova, with Freddy weaving his decidedly nontraditional lines, I came to a realization: although Freddy Koella and Bill Frisell are guitarists from far different backgrounds, the idea of the two collaborating is one that I'm pretty certain would lead to some fascinating music.

Maybe someday?

My 2005 interview with Freddy Koella:

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Techno Pop?

A less than thrilling ride on the Chairlift...

Yesterday I ventured through a winter afternoon’s wind to Philadelphia’s World Café Live. The reason was to witness radio station WXPN’s weekly “Free at Noon” concert, which usually emanates from this venue and is broadcast on the station and its affiliates.

I’ve grown to be distrustful of a WXPN endorsement when it comes to new music; just this week I heard extravagant fawning over shallow pap that literally sounded like a cross between Black Eyed Peas and Yo Gabba Gabba.

But the description of New York’s Chairlift as an “electronic duo” piqued my interest. At the least, from a musician point of view, I decided it would be interesting to see what equipment they are using and hear how they use it. After all, in the most extreme cases of eMusic, rather than seeing musical improvisation and mastery over an instrument, you are witnessing the firing of events - whether the initiation of rhythm patterns or the launching and manipulation of loops. It’s kind of a different skill set entirely. Instead of continually creating music, once you’ve fired an event you’re off to the next one. As a result, the on-stage success of a technological-reliant artist often comes via the presentation.

Sadly, Chairlift’s presence on the World Café Live stage proved to be a case of false advertising – rather than an electronic duo, I encountered a five-member band with traditional instrumentation.

Chairlift at World Cafe Live – not quite electronic, not quite a duo.

Chairlift came across as a very talented high school band with an 80s electro fixation – think Our Daughter’s Wedding or early Human League. Focal point Caroline Polachek doesn't have an unpleasant voice, but seems lacking in self-assurance when it comes to building rapport with an audience. Despite the high-profile nature of the gig, Polacheck only made one remark other than “thank you,” and that was after the radio broadcast had concluded. No one else seemed inclined to step into the between-song void either.

I guess here in 2012 I should be happy that they were using actual instruments, but the fact that Chairlift is freshly signed to Columbia Records and on the verge of releasing an album next week speaks as much to the wasteland that major labels now wander as it does to actual talent being bestowed upon the world. As for the personnel expansion from duo to five-piece, based on what I saw Chairlift’s core duo of Polacheck and Patrick Wimberly are at a stage of artistic maturity where the conjuring up of gripping visions to support an electronic performance is impossible.

Of course, the undisputed standard for presentation of such technological ambiance is Kraftwerk.

Ohm sweet ohm – Kraftwerk at work, 2004.

Surprisingly, though, Kraftwerk not only presents a compelling experience in concert, they also belie the notion of their performances consisting of nothing more than clinical, digital recreations of their influential music. The German founders of an entire genre of music released a fabulous DVD titled Minimum-Maximum (a titled shared by audio-only CD and SACD releases) in 2005. Documenting the group’s concerts of 2004, the footage revealed that Kraftwerk taking a very organic approach to their stage work, building their songs live as opposed to merely launching audio clips and canned rhythm.

Presenting electronic music live as a vivid, breathing entity presents a huge challenge to those whose sound emerges from circuitry and memory rather than strings and sticks. Based on Chairlift’s all-too-conventional concert for WXPN, it’s a challenge that was not accepted.