Saturday, July 24, 2010

It’s Raining Sounds of The Waterboys

Waterboys main man Mike Scott has been posting some interesting sounds on his SoundCloud page (under his Twitter nom de keys, MickPuck). The music ranges from his own mash-ups of familiar and unfamiliar music from the last half century, as well as demos and live cuts from Scott’s solo career and his work with The Waterboys.

Two recent additions really struck my fancy and are worth checking out: The first being a solo piano and vocal demo of “Don’t Bang the Drum” (click here to listen), from 1985’s This Is the Sea album. As Scott explains, it was recorded at a London studio in March 1985 during demo sessions for all the songs in consideration for The Waterboys’ next album. It’s a raw and spartan rendition. While certainly no comparison to the epic final version – with its lengthy Roddy Lorimer trumpet intro, frenzied sax playing of Anto Thistlethwaite and generally bombastic climax – the core essence of the song remains evident in the simple chords and solitary, impassioned vocal of this demo.

The second outstanding recent post is a rousing live version of “When Ye Go Away(click here to listen), which first appeared on 1986’s Fisherman’s Blues album. This version was performed by the “Water-Trio,” comprising past and present Waterboys Mike Scott (vocals and guitar), Steve Wickham (fiddle) and Sharon Shannon (accordian). It was recorded at Dean Crow Theatre in Athlone, Ireland in 2004.


The “Water-Trio” of Sharon Shannon, Steve Wickham and
Mike Scott in Cambridge, England, 2007.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Fables ... Revisited

I recently picked up the new remastered release of R.E.M.’s 1985 LP Fables of the Reconstruction. Fables was the first R.E.M. record that I bought as a fan when it first came out, having fallen under the Southern-gothic-meets-Byrdsian-folk-rock spell of the collegiate circuit darlings in the wake of their stellar 1984 album, Reckoning.

In fact, now that I think about it, like many people my age, R.E.M. was a significant part of the soundtrack of my college years. I listened to Fables quite a lot back in the day, but it has been a very long time since I last spun the disc (vinyl platter long since replaced by CD). My memories of it are of a transitional, inconsistent album that, nevertheless, had its share of worthwhile moments. Upon now listening to the new remastered release, I’m pleasantly surprised at how well the album has aged (the same certainly can’t be said for all of R.E.M.’s catalog).

Fables was the first R.E.M. album to show that they could be more than a jangly Rickenbacker -totting pop band with alluringly mumbled vocals. While Fables may only have shown sporadic hints that the group had more edge and a wider palette of sounds and song structures than previous efforts suggested, it did establish a foothold for new directions that would be further explored and developed on the next few albums as the band matured and gained renown.

Not long after its release, Fables began being maligned – not least of all by the band itself (despite guitarist Peter Buck’s revisionist claims to the contrary on the CDs new liner notes; sorry, Peter, I have interviews from the mid ’80s depicting the disgruntlement). The album was disparaged as an under-rehearsed, under-produced and unfocused record. Perhaps in the shadow of the much more polished sound and songs of the next few R.E.M. releases, that criticism may have held up more at the time than it seems to now.

While the band’s 1987 release, Document, remains one of my all-time R.E.M. favorites, representing several steps of departure from the sound of the band’s early years, hearing these records now I think Fables more than holds its own against the band’s immediate follow up, 1986’s more commercially successful Life’s Rich Pageant.

Even at the time, it was clear that Fables represented some kind of evolutionary step for the band. Now, in hindsight, its place as a transitional touchpoint in the band’s history is even more pronounced. Fables has one foot planted in R.E.M.’s early foundation (represented by the Chronic Town EP, Murmur and Reckoning) and the harder-edged sound that would play out on the band’s next few releases.

The songs on Fables plainly fall into one of two categories, with “Feeling Gravity’s Pull,” “Old Man Kensey,” “Can’t Get There From Here” and “Auctioneer (Another Engine)” representing new, darker, more aggressive and instrumentally diverse forays, while “Maps and Legends,” “Driver 8,” “Life and How to Live It,” “Green Grow the Rushes” (based on a traditional English folk tune), “Kohoutek,” “Good Advices” and “Wendell Gee” (with the addition of banjo) harken back to whence the band came.

Beyond serving as a reminder of this, the Fables reissue also tweaks the sound of the original album in a few interesting ways. The remastered sound is evident right from the start in the much more prominent cello on the hauntingly dark and dissonant opening track, “Feeling Gravity’s Pull.” At first, the improved clarity on the backing instruments is a bit off-putting in its recasting of the song (compared to that which was emblazoned on our memories so long ago). But, while the supportive instruments like the cello, piano, harmonica and harmony vocals are now more distinct, the guitar, bass and drums remain undiminished. The backstage lights are a bit brighter, but the spotlight still shines on Stipe’s vocals and Buck’s alternately chiming and distorted arpeggios.

On the other hand, the trumpet on the album’s hit single, “Can’t Get There from Here” – which was plenty prominent on the original release, and one of the more notable steps of departure for the band – does not seem to have been jacked up in this new edition. It sounds about the same as it did on the original.

In a less definable way, “Life and How to Live It” seems to shine brighter in this revisit. That may be the result of remastering or simply proper aging and new context. Similarly, this release reminds me what a great pop song “Driver 8” is – marrying that old-timey Southern folk imagery (not to mention Stipe’s ongoing railroad infatuation) with the band’s characteristic upbeat jangle.

Overall, the Fables remaster also proves a powerful testament to Mike Mills’ importance to the band. His instrumental prowess on bass, piano and whatever else he might have picked up speaks for itself, even if others sometimes got the credit. But without his subtle, yet essential, harmony vocals, R.E.M. would not be the same band. Drummer Bill Berry also adds a spark that doesn’t seem to have been matched, even by more technically adept drummers in the wake of his retirement a decade or so ago.

Meanwhile, Stipe’s vocals, while not entirely discernable, have more clarity than on the band’s previous releases. There’s also a pleasant restraint to his singing on Fables compared to his more frequent over-the-top performances of later years. “Good Advices,” “Green Grow Rushes” and the elegiac album closer “Wendell Gee” are among some of Stipe’s strongest studio performances of the era.

Given the smorgasboard of new and old sounds comprising the record, the sequencing on Fables works really well, seamlessly taking the listener into new terrain while never straying too far from familiar paths. The way in which the folky harmonies of “Life and How to Live It,” one of the songs most reminiscent of the band’s previous releases, lead into the engagingly sinister, yet melodic, opening guitar and bass riffs of “Old Man Kensey” is a powerful juxtaposition that amplifies the menacing tones of the latter. (Even now, listening to “Kensey” I’m reminded of how, back in the day, a good friend always referred to this song as “Old Man Lindsay” in my presence. It was, and remains, one of my favorite songs on the album.)


In addition to the updated master, the new edition of Fables also includes a disc of demo versions of the songs on the original release, as well as three additional tunes from the period (at least two of which should be familiar to R.E.M. fans). These “Athens Demos” are basically live-in-the-studio rehearsals from January 1985, recorded between the end of the 1984 tour and the band’s departure for the Fables sessions in London,

While interesting, there’s not much extraordinary in the demos. Standouts include a rawer, stripped down, but still quite polished, version of “Can’t Get There from Here,” featuring an extended coda and Stipe’s “Thank You, Ray” (a la Elvis) studio banter; and “Maps of Legends” in which Stipe’s overdubbed background singing sometimes competes with his lead vocal – creating a slightly distracting discord in the song and undermining what is, otherwise, one of stronger tunes of the period.

The non-album songs are “Hyena,” which was featured in live shows at the time and later appeared on the follow-up album to Fables; “Bandwagon,” a strong but traditional R.E.M. sounding outtake; and “Throw Those Trolls Away” – the only song in the set that I hadn’t heard before – featuring the classic refrain: “Don’t be a loser.” Ironically, the latter is a throw away outtake that seems to be an embryonic version of “I Believe,” later to appear in more developed (and significantly improved form) on Life’s Rich Pageant.

Priced at $22 or more, I would only recommend this new deluxe edition of Fables to hard-core fans. However, it does serve as a good impetus to dust off your old copy of the record (be it vinyl or CD), or pick up a new CD if you don’t have it, and rediscover the pleasures of some of the better music of the mid ’80s era.


A bootleg, quasi pro-shot, video of R.E.M. performing “Can’t Get There From Here” at Merideth College in Raleigh,N.C., 5/27/85 … about six months before I saw them at The Mosque Theatre in Richmond, Va. I can’t get over how Buck, who had switched from primarily playing hollow-body Rickenbackers to playing mostly Fender Telecasters, moves like a cross between a young Keith Richards and Pete Townshend. Gotta love Stipe’s boxcar hobo look, too.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Friends As Curators? ... Social Media & Customized Magazines

Yesterday’s Associated Press report on a new Apple iPad app that produces personalized “magazines” – really a collection of links – curated by those in one’s social networks (i.e., Facebook and Twitter) is an intriguing prospect that shows the tech sector’s continuing creative thinking in the face of the publishing industry’s wheel spinning and teeth gnashing.

We’ve all heard about how our society is moving from the information age to the “social age” in media and technology. This new app, called Flipboard, represents one of the more interesting and progressive steps in that transformation. In a nutshell, Flipboard creates a visually engaging consolidated news feed – based on links (to articles, pictures and video) that those in your social network have posted to Facebook or Twitter. The assumption being, if it’s stuff your friends like, you’ll be interested, too.

Here’s the quintessentially Apple-esque promo spot for the app, featuring Flipboard CEO Mike McCue (his partner in the venture is ex Apple iPhone guru Evan Doll) :

There is, however, at least one potential problem with this otherwise clever, useful and interesting app. Namely, the current trend by some of the world’s most reputable media companies (Time Inc., The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist et al) to put the most succulent fruit of their labors behind pay walls. If this trend continues and expands, as some industry insiders anticipate, some of those “socialized” links won’t offer much beyond a graphically appealing headline or image and a bit of teaser copy. The real meat of the content will be locked away out of reach – until you pay for it. Of course, this won't just be a problem for Flipboard, it’ll also affect the value of the links on FB and Twitter, too.

So beyond your friends own photos, videos and text-based diatribes and, inevitably, a plethora of YouTube videos, more substantial news reports and thoughtful analysis could be quite lacking in your Flipboard “magazine.” That, I imagine, is a surmountable problem. For the right price and/or degree of market penetration, I’m sure the media companies in question will be glad to work out deals with the Flipboard folks that will unlock those content doors.

If that happens, then consider me enticed. Off course, I’d want to make sure such an app had preference settings to control who exactly in my social network was curating the content appearing in my daily “magazine.” Having experienced the ... uhh ... “breadth” of our social networks for a while now, I doubt any of us would want every one of our long-lost buddies feeding that stream.

Flipboard will certainly be something I’ll be keeping an eye on in coming months. I just might have to get an iPad sooner than I thought.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Song Says It All!

Obvious lip-synch, but what phrasing! (Couldn’t find video of The Who doing this back in their early Tamla/Motown-loving mod days.)

Monday, July 5, 2010

You Don’t Know Jack ... But You Will

A couple of months ago a friend gave me a CD that he’d been involved in. He asked for my feedback, with the unspoken hope that I would write something good about it on this blog. Because I respect his musical skill and sensibilities, I agreed to listen to it and give him my opinion, though I doubted I’d publish anything about it since his description as he handed me the CD (“kind of in the vein of Dave Matthews or Jack Johnson”) suggested that it wasn’t particularly my cup of tea music wise. Nevertheless, he assured me that it was quite good, especially given the tender age of the players, some of whom have a ways to go before they’re out of their teens.

The CD in question was Generation of Need, by Jack Babineau, a young Rhode Island singer/songwriter. When I got down to listening to it, the Dave Matthews influence was evident right away, less so with the Jack Johnson sound. I did also hear some shades of Ben Harper (sans the gritty pedal steel) and John Mayer in the tracks. However, I was most struck by the maturity of the songwriting and the well-defined, sophisticated sound of the recording.

Instruments are subtly interwoven, yet crisp and well-defined. Most songs are built around a foundation of layered guitars, starting with Babineau’s driving acoustic and the frequent interjection of electric guitars of various hues. Solid bass and surprisingly adept drumming (compelling, but not over-busy) flesh out the sound. Understated, but essential, keyboards add nuance and distinction to most of the tracks.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that the young star and his band mates’ raw talent is featured in the refined setting of Emerson Torrey’s accomplished production and juiced by the guest appearances of other renowned local music industry vets such as James Montgomery (adding resonant blues harp), Mark Cutler (on country-blues style slide guitar) and Richard Reed (whose keyboard skills seem to grace all of the album’s best tracks), as well as Torrey’s guitar and piano contributions. (Torrey’s teenage son, Jake, is one of the three guitarists in the band.)

Babineau’s lead vocals are band-leader worthy and effective in delivering his catchy and thoughtful lyrics. The song arrangements are tight and the playing is sharp throughout. But the secret weapons that really give this release a major label sound are the well-executed harmony vocals and the production – studio effects are adroitly employed, never over done.

While the whole 30-minute CD is easy to enjoy, the standout tracks are the title track, a muscular song in which potent electric guitars are juxtaposed against an acoustic foundation; the funky “Love Now,” in which the soulful backing vocals and driving beat recall The Rolling Stones in their glory years; and “Keep It On,” which elicited some nostalgia for me, harkening back to the short-lived early 1990’s collection of local studio pros and an acoustic duo from Maine known as The Walkers (beneficiaries of Atlantic Records’ brief infatuation with New England bands at the time, which saw The Raindogs, Young Neal and The Vipers and The Walkers all signed to the label).

So what I originally considered kind of an obligatory favor to a friend turned out to be an unexpected gift. I will continue to give Generation of Need the occasional spin in the CD player and keep an eye on what these young fellows do in the future with their budding talent and benevolent mentorship.

Jack Track-by-Track

No Excuses – The most Jack Johnson-esque song on the CD; not one of my favorites, but it has grown on me with repeated listens. With a decent chorus, a mildly shuffling beat and bouncy acoustic guitar, it provides a fitting lead in to the rest of the affair.

From the Outside – One of the more Dave Matthews-esque songs on the CD, and a good one at that. A funky, buoyant beat is fleshed out with meaty organ fills and soaring lead guitar lines – all complementing the assured verse vocals, a strong chorus and outstanding harmony. This was one of my 15-year-old daughter’s favorites – she, like her dad, being of impeccable musical taste. :-)

Blossom Street – The tempo slows a bit for this more predominantly acoustic tune. Tasteful acoustic guitar glides over subtle electric guitar and piano. The sound builds in instrumentation as it progresses, but it maintains its simple clarity. A heartfelt love song and another superb production.

Generation of Need – Undoubtedly the best song on the CD, the title track is still acoustic driven, but things get considerably more funky and heavy. The electric guitars rock up the chorus, while the Dave Matthewsy vocal phrasing works particularly well on this ode to the age of anxiety, miscues and greed. Multi-layered electric guitars cut loose amid a swirling frenzy of effects to create a satisfying climax. Fun time for all, no doubt!

For Today – This piano-driven ballad is the other Jack Johnson moment on the CD. Nicely restrained vocals are well-suited for the romantic lyrics. Eventually, it evolves into Power Ballad Land, with a big chorus and arena rock guitar. Overall, my least favorite song on the CD, but one that shows the musicians’ ability to tackle different styles.

Keep It On – This bluesy, Walkers-esque, acoustic tune, sparked by James Montgomery’s harp and Babineau’s staccato R ’n’ B flavored vocals, is another stand out track. Quite good, indeed.

Love Now – The funkiest tune on the CD is my second favorite. The acoustic guitar takes a back seat to the funky bass, slick wah-wah guitar and soulful vocals, including potent female harmonies. “We need the love now,” indeed.

Conformity – The CD closes on a strong note with another upbeat acoustic guitar-driven song (with understated R ’n’ B guitar and piano). Tasteful slide guitar added by Mark Cutler, along with more soulful female vocals and a relatively unadorned blues-rock electric guitar solo near the end make this track another vivid homage to the vintage Stones sound.