Thursday, May 31, 2007


Now that's what I call music.

Luomo - Let You Know

Buy Paper Tigers here.

Luomo website

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Great Pop Masterpiece

The legend of Michael Brown is pretty familiar to pop music geeks of a certain age. He was a precocious 16-year old music student in 1966 when he formed the Left Banke and wrote, arranged and recorded "Walk Away Renee" and "Pretty Ballerina." Both of those songs were hits, and it seemed like the Left Banke, and Michael Brown, were on their way.
But to those to whom much is given, much trouble is also given, and Brown, never comfortable on stage, and perhaps (unfairly) feeling the band could not keep up with him, soon split, and a year or so later, ended up producing and writing songs for a band called Montage. That didn't work out and the band broke up after making one album. (Despite the fact that it is probably the weakest album with which Brown was ever associated, his signature is unmistakeable.)
A couple of years later, Brown hooked up with a singer/bass player named Ian Lloyd and formed a band called the Stories, who were, in many ways the third point in the pop triangle of Big Star and the Raspberries. But while the Raspberries and the Stories shared an obvious debt to the Beach Boys, the Stories were strongly piano-based while the Raspberries and Big Star were all about ringing guitar chords. And even though all three bands relied on strong melodies and soaring harmonies, the Stories' music was much more firmlyy rooted in Brown's classical training and a love of a frenetic, almost Glenn Gould-like bed of keyboards.
The Stories released two albums in which Brown participated, but then he and Lloyd fought and Brown split again. Shortly afterward, the Stories actually had a hit, with Hot Chocolate's "Brother Louie," but one listen to that song and it's obvious that Brown had nothing to do with it.
Brown dropped off the map for a few years, and then resurfaced with a band called the Beckies, from St. Louis. I don't know how he found those guys. On paper, it was an unlikely match: young fresh faced innocents from the Midwest teaming up with a by-now battle scarred, paranoid New York music veteran.
However - a big however - the album they released in 1976 (called The Beckies) is, in my mind, a POP MASTERPIECE. Maybe THE pop masterpice.
Now, I may be alone in thinking this. Certainly no one has thought enough of it to reissue it on CD. Even when I first purchased it, in the summer of 1976, I found it in a cut out bin for $1.99 in a second hand record store on 12th Street and Broadway in NYC. But the fact that I remember so clearly the circumstances of the purchase says a lot about how important the album has been for me.
I have been listening to this record off and on for 31 years now, and it still sounds as fresh to me as the first day I heard it.
It's a sneaky record, I will admit. It's easy to hear it as a bland '70's pop/rock JoJo Gunne/Crabby Appleton wannabe (especially considering that it came out at a time when so much interesting and edgier stuff was going on musically in New York City.). But listen closely: the subtleties of Brown's writing, arranging and producing soon become obvious. The stops and starts, the bed of keyboards, the string arrangements, the counterpoint in the harmonies, the classical echoes in the solos, are all musical themes Brown had explored before, (albeit never as as successfully.)
The Beckies was the last album Michael Brown worked on. I have no idea what has happened to him. There is a fan website that has downloads of radio interviews with him in 2003, but I haven't listened. As a rock and roll romantic, I don't want anything messing with my image of Brown as the Villonesque artist manque. He is that great tragic figure, the musical genius who could never find a home. I would say that it's a shame, and I can't even begin to imagine what he would have created if he could have harnessed the demons that seem to have kept him from staying active. At the same time, I have to say that the Beckies album is a glorious way to end a career.

The Stories - Darling
The Stories - Please, Please

The Beckies - River Bayou
The Beckies - On the Morning That She Came
The Beckies - Fran

(Check out Gooder'n Bad Vinyl, a sharity blog featuring a great selection of out-of-print vinyl downloads.)

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Voxtrot, from Austin, Texas, has released three EPs in the last year and a half, each one more subtly original than the last. In the process, the band built a huge international fan base. (They sold out a week's worth of shows in New York City in no time last fall.)
Consequently, there was a lot of curiosity about what their first full length album (called Voxtrot, and released this week on Playlouder / Beggars Group Records) would sound like. (And quite a lot of pressure to be as good as, if not better than their three EPs, without repeating themselves.)
As the review in the New York Times on Monday said, no need to worry. Voxtrot has outdone themselves in every way. The production, by Victor Van Vugt, fleshes out their sound, adding instrumentation and weight without sacrificing the focus on the songwriting. The performances, by lead singer and songwriter Ramesh Srivastava, Jason Chronis, Mitch Calvert, Matt Simon, and Jared Van Fleet are original and self assured. The songs themselves are idiosyncratic pop gems, echoing everything from early Paul McCartney to XTC to fellow-Austinite Britt Daniels. And yet, there is never any doubt that it is Ramesh who is writing these songs. Melodic without being cloying, lyrically intensive without being pretentious or verbose, they are serious without taking themselves too seriously.
Voxtrot - Kid Gloves
Purchase Voxtrot at
Voxtrot MySpace.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Miracle Fortress

Miracle Fortress, the brain child of Montreal musician Graham Van Pelt, is streaming their new album on their MySpace site, and it's worth putting up with the crappy MySpace music player to experience it.
The album, Five Roses, will be released next week on Secret City Records, and can be ordered here.
Check it out, it really is brilliant.
PS: I posted a song from the album a couple of weeks ago, and you can still download it.

The National Lights

The National Lights, from Richmond, Virginia, have released an album called The Dead Will Walk, Dear, on BloodShake Records, and it's lovely (in a full moon shining through the pine trees in a lonely forest in Kentucky sort of way.) I have found myself listening to it a lot lately - in the car, on my way to work, on my computer at work. One song flows into another so seamlessy that the album seems to be over in the space of time one song usually takes.
Everything works: the 21st-century folk arrangements, the self-assured production by Chris Kiehne Jr., the background vocals by Sonya Cotton.
What I love best is the way the warm, accessible melodies by group leader Jacob Thomas Berns very sneakily suck you in, and then you slowly become aware that most of Berns' songs are about death and dying. The Dead Will Walk, Dear is an album that wraps itself around you. It's only later that you realize you are being warmed by a shroud.
I am hesitant to post a single song, because, as I said, one of the album's strengths is its cohesiveness. It really should be heard in its entirety. But what the hell, here is the first track.
National Lights - Better For It, Kid
Order the album here.
Learn more about the band here.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


In the May 14 issue of The New Yorker there is an article about guitar maker Ken Parker by Burkhard Bilger that should be fof interest to anyone who either plays guitar or has tried to play it. Or, for that matter, anyone who has surfed Ebay fantasizing about vintage Gibsons, Martins and Fenders. Among the things I learned was that building a guitar is like building a cathedral - you are always balancing the practical need for support and the aesthetically-driven desire for pure tonal beauty. I also learned that you will never get rich making guitars by hand. Your descendants might, but you probably won't.
In honor of guitar makers and players everywhere, I am posting a song about guitar strings by Guy Clark, a pretty fair luthier in his own right.
Guy Clark - Black Diamond Strings
(The song has an interesting verse about Rodney Crowell and his father, JW, and mother, Causette.)

Listen to audio clips from Burkhard Bilger and Ken Parker

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

(I Am) Superman

The other day, my wife, Sara, and I were discussing REM, and she mentioned how much she loved the song "I Am Superman." I was happy to be able to point out to her that REM's version was in fact a cover of the original, which was the b-side of the only hit by a '60's pop/bubblegum LA group called The Clique, whose hit, "Sugar On Sunday," was written and originally recorded by the greatest of the pop/bubblegum LA groups, Tommy James and the Shondells. Oh, what a wonderfully tangled web we weave.

The Clique - (I Am) Superman
REM - (I Am) Superman

The Clique - Sugar On Sunday
Tommy James and the Shondells - Sugar On Sunday

Special thanks to my son Walker for finding the Clique cd in our apartment when I was convinced I had put it in storage.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Toni Price

Toni Price represents everything that is both awesome and tiresome about the Austin music scene. She is an amazing singer, with a richly sensual voice, who could easily have a larger career if she wanted to. But she rarely tours, and rarely makes the kind of records that could expose her to a wider audience. She has been content to make records in Austin using local musicians and producers, recording material by little known Austin and Nashville songwriters or obscure blues standards, and she is best known for her long running Tuesday night Hippy Hour at the Continental Club
I am not at all critical of her decision to stay local. I think that can be really healthy. Just like the best restaurants buy local produce from local growers, sometimes the best music is made by local artists who are totally steeped in their own environment.
But the tiresome part is that localism gets worn like a flag, and then it becomes parochialism. Your audience doesn't grow, it just becomes more fanatic. Your choice in material narrows, and you proudly refuse to grow stylistically.
I used to go to Price's Happy Hour gigs a lot when I lived in Austin. Week in and week out, the music was great. She was backed up at the time by three great Austin guitar players, Scrappy Jud Newcomb, Casper Rawls and the late Champ Hood. I always had a good time, even though Toni's cult of weird little hippy girls and fat bikers was a little off putting.
Now, out of the blue, Toni Price has announced she is moving to San Diego, so no more Hippy Hours. And even though I left Austin ten years ago, I will miss knowing that, if I was there, I could always find her at the Continental Club on Tuesday evenings.
Toni Price - Tumbleweed
Loose Diamonds (with Toni Price) - Hanging On

Toni Price on MySpace