Iron And Wine: The Shepherd’s Dog (Revisited)

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PopMatters is doing some heavy lifting in the service of setting the historical record straight. Starting today, they are assessing the Top 100 albums of the last decade.

I contributed a couple. The first (which, incidentally, I would put in my personal Top 10, and, in fact, I did so, back in January 2010) is The Shepherd’s Dog, from Iron & Wine. A masterpiece that I return to often.

Exhibit A:

Sam Beam spent the better part of the decade crafting his incarnation of the sensitive singer/songwriter. That type of musician is a dime a dozen and always has been, so it is often that much more difficult for such an artist to separate himself from the pack. Intimate but not unsophisticated, Beam’s whispered vocals and acoustic guitar sound like short stories from the south: this was Flannery O’Connor’s favorite music, if it had existed while she lived (and his first few albums could have existed in the mid-20th Century). Some folks prefer the stripped down solo efforts; others came on board when he collaborated quite fruitfully with Calexico. Both camps (and especially the fans who loved it all) still could not have imagined the masterpiece Beam was about to drop toward the end of 2007.

Exhibit B:

It is not any sort of radical departure so much as a Technicolor enhancement of everything that was so great before: The Shepherd’s Dog has virtually all of the same elements of Iron & Wine’s best work, but it is more expansive and layered. There is a texture and richness that suffuses every second of this album, every sound evidence of a master songwriter soaring at an unprecedented level of confidence. And the songs are still short stories, but the poetry in them seems more refined and purposeful. Strings, slide guitars, reverb and echo, percussion and Beam’s voice: almost impossibly clear and natural, listening to him sing is like watching ice melt into a stream—it is natural, beautiful and inevitable. He has never sounded better, and considering how great he had always sounded before, this is rarefied air to be certain.

Exhibit C:

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The Once and Future King: ‘SMiLE’ and Brian Wilson’s Very American Dream

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Icarus soars too close to the sun. Othello, vulnerable and halfway crazy, mistakenly trusts the evil Iago. The product of a celebrated cultural era sets out to fictionalize some of the forces that made his ascent—and disintegration—possible (hint: he is the same author who opined there are no second acts in American lives). The captain of a sinking ship, obsessed unto madness by a malevolent mammal, takes his crew with him under the water into oblivion. A small man, armed only with a sling-shot, takes aim and slays the giant. The underdog gets off the mat to dethrone the champion, the nerd flies out of a phone booth, the orphan slides a magic slipper on her foot, a kid who would be king pulls the sword from the stone…

Get the picture? All of these elements are, to varying extents, contained within this epic Tragedy that detours into Comedy and ends up as Romance. And the rest is History: the construction, dissolution and redemption of one man’s very American Dream.

Speaking of America and dreams, there is one overriding rule. We want our artists to earn it, to mean it, and sometimes the world sees to it that they suffer. If any single artist left it all, every scrap of his ambition and energy, on the table, it’s Brian Wilson. He did not pay the ultimate price; he did not die. But for an unconscionable number of years—and years that got broken into months into weeks into hours into minutes into seconds like all the grains in a sandbox—Wilson had to reconcile himself to what must have seemed an irreconcilable verdict: a senseless world declared that he was insane. And then, having to live with a failure only he could be accountable for, even if blame could fairly be laid at the rubber souls of almost everyone that surrounded him.

For anyone new to the story, or unfamiliar with the intricacies therein, it might be useful to summarize what has long been rock and roll’s ultimate cautionary tale. There was this band called The Beach Boys and they crafted best-selling pop confections about cars, surfing and girls. Driven by the increasingly determined—and restless—frontman, the group dropped Pet Sounds on a mostly unprepared world. How influential was it? Paul McCartney who, at that time, brooked competition from no other mortal not named John Lennon, was intimidated, and ultimately inspired by what he heard. In typical Fab Four fashion, he and his mates rose to the challenge and first Revolver, then Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band followed. Of course, Pet Sounds was not a commercial success, at least compared with previous number-one-with-a-bullet efforts from admittedly less complicated times. This did not sit well with some of Wilson’s sidemen, particularly the Kiddie-Pool deep Mike Love.

When “Good Vibrations” dominated the charts in late ’66, it was a gauntlet thrown as much as a premonition of greater things to come. The Beatles got there first and Sgt. Pepper became the undisputed artistic and cultural event of 1967. SMiLE, initially—and tellingly—entitled Dumb Angel, was supposed to be the Beach Boys’ counterpunch. Impossible as it might be to imagine, Brian Wilson was poised to share the stage with Lennon/McCartney. It doesn’t compute to contemporary minds because decades of blank space and unfulfilled promise did what history always does: vindicate the winners. But Wilson, as much as his peers across the pond, was edging the idiom toward the avant-garde, and the arresting results of “Good Vibrations” could be seen as an opening salvo. SMiLE, then, was going to be the band’s masterpiece, and possibly the crown jewel of the Summer of Love. It very well might have put The Beach Boys, not The Beatles, on the top shelf critically as well as commercially.

But it wasn’t meant to be. Wilson lost first the goodwill and support of his brethren and then, his mind. (Not unlike the other sad casualty of ’67, Syd Barrett: it was an escalating intake of drugs—especially the LSD he credited with unlocking the doors and assisting the great visions— that accelerated his southward spiral.) And so, the work in progress was mostly scrapped and the shell-shocked group cobbled together the odd, occasionally sublime—if ultimately underwhelming—replacement, Smiley Smile. In the ensuing decades those aborted sessions—the strange fruits of Wilson’s measureless mind—became rock music’s Holy Grail. The material simply could not find the light of day; Wilson was too far gone and the results allegedly too impenetrable for public release.

And now, in a real-life Deus ex machina, rock’s scariest horror story has been transformed into pop music’s Dead Sea Scrolls. Salvaged from oblivion with the blessing—and assistance—of the man who made them, in late 2011 we received the opportunity to hear them, in full (or as full as we can reasonably hope) for the first time. The results must be considered as close to an unvarnished approximation as possible of Wilson’s original vision, and they are miraculous. Like a bombed and burned-out cathedral, there is dirt and dust aplenty, and the stained glass is, in places, broken and filled with cobwebs and strange empty spaces. This dirty authenticity only adds layers of meaning to the overall impact.

First reaction: it’s difficult, bordering on unreasonable to believe the current incarnation of SMiLE—modeled as it is after Wilson’s crucial but now less significant Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE from 2004—is comprised mostly of uncompleted drafts, bits and pieces. It sounds that great; it feels that complete.

Second reaction: I kept finding myself thinking much less of Sgt. Pepper and more of two later Beatles works, The Beatles (White Album) and Abbey Road. It’s all in here, and where The White Album is a glorious, murky mess, these SMiLE sessions are more like wave after wave crashing onto soft sand. There are moments that conjure the acoustic bliss of “Julia” and “Mother Nature’s Son”, the surreal parlor music of “Martha My Dear” and “Don’t Pass Me By”, the baroque touches of “Long, Long, Long” and “Good Night” and the kitchen sink chaos of “Wild Honey Pie” and (of course) “Revolution 9”. And where Lennon/McCartney got some wonderfully satirical licks on topical—and enduring—American history via “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” and “Rocky Raccoon”, Wilson was clearly attempting to tackle the whole mythical cycle of westward expansion. As such, SMiLE might be best understood, or appreciated as a psychedelic tour of forward motion, incorporating sounds and sights (and smells and tastes) invoking myriad aspects of Americana. We are treated to chanting, cowboy movie theme music, field studies ranging from Indian to Hawaiian, cool-ish jazz, tone poems with classical elements, cartoonish sound effects, Musique concrete and a yodel thrown in for good measure. And most of all, tons and tons of the best harmonizing you’ve (never) heard, until now.

To me, and I’ve written about it (http://bullmurph.com/2010/10/05/love-is-old-love-is-new-another-appreciation-of-abbey-road/), the high-water mark of harmonizing, with due respect to Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby Stills and Nash and even earlier Beach Boys material, remains Abbey Road (and it is still astonishing to consider the trajectory The Beatles took, starting with the glistening sheen of the early hits to the mano-a-mano glory of Rubber Soul to the all-in, panoramic sweep of their final work). All that notwithstanding, I’m unsure I’ve heard anything approaching what is happening, on a purely vocal level, throughout SMiLE. It is instructive here to note the bonus tracks, particularly the “SMiLE Backing Vocals Montage”, which make it abundantly obvious how these sounds were stacked, shuffled and overlaid to create miniature symphonies of human voice. To hear these efforts come to fruition in songs as radically different as “Wonderful” (the aforementioned yodel, along with harmonies to rival Side Two of Abbey Road), “Do You Like Worms” (the previously described faux-Hawaiian chanting) or the pinnacle of harmonies and emotion in “Wind Chimes” (of which more, shortly).

One can—and should—recognize that, beginning with Revolver, The Beatles had the inclination, and money, to spend as much time in the studio as they saw fit, tinkering and tailoring until they were satisfied. They also, for understandable and well-documented reasons, had collectively grown weary of touring. Wilson too, had no stomach for the hustle and grind, even in the better days, but of course his band mates did (and still do). For the undeniable advancements of Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, Lennon and McCartney enjoyed a mutual focus and solidarity, not to mention the quite capable services of Harrison, Starr and the invaluable George Martin. Wilson, by comparison, was trying to hit a grand slam with no one else on base—or on board (and he just about knocked it out of the ballpark before a Tempest blew in and suspended play for almost a half-century). Needless to say, unlike the environment in the Beatles’ camp, the SMiLE sessions comprised the inevitable tension of a band following the unsteady lead of its eccentric yet brilliant conductor, with one eye on The Road and all this entailed: adoring crowds, fat wallets and the safety of hit singles.

“Don’t fuck with the formula,” Mike Love supposedly complained as the material grew too complicated—and unconventional—for his liking. Love’s words, and the attitude that prompted them, serve not only as a succinct summary of the internal forces Wilson found himself confronting (even in an increasingly fragile state of mind he was still the de-facto leader and resident visionary, something Syd Barrett abruptly ceased to be well before his eventual ouster), but also represents the rapacious imperatives of any commercial enterprise: keep it simple, appeal to as many people as possible and above all, never leave any opportunity for money on the table.

That Wilson lost this battle, ostensibly a victim of his own excesses and weakness, says a great deal about the ugly side of the unbridled ‘60s. Like Syd Barrett and too many anonymous psychedelic foot soldiers to count, LSD was a major incentive for creativity and expansion, but it carried a cost. By Wilson’s own reckoning, acid played an essential role in his stylistic and compositional progression, but it also hastened some of the off-kilter internal mechanisms that preyed on his confidence, if not his ability to cope. The already controversial and clownish Mike Love comes off worse than ever the more one thinks about these circumstances and what was at stake in late ’66 and early ’67. Shouting not-so-sweet nothings in Wilson’s ear would be unfortunate enough coming from a record company executive; coming from a fellow band mate, especially one who had gained a great deal more fame and wealth than he ever could have done on his own, is unforgivable.

What has tended to get lost or forgotten in the shuffle of sensationalistic trivia is that Wilson did not go down without a hell of a fight. He may not even have gone down at all so much as he was forced down, which makes the proceedings Tragic with a capital T. There can be no doubt that a primary instigating factor in Wilson’s meltdown was his utter lack of guile. Remember, the Beach Boys were square. Wilson forced them, through a combination of will and his own curious brand of genius, to be successful. They were always more than a little corny, and that formula worked on the clean-cut, if innocuous early singles. SMiLE illustrates the struggle of a naïve but proficient artist chasing the white whale inside his own head. He was making it up as he went along and just about nobody was along for the ride. Much of this can be more easily understood by hearing the numerous takes of the eventual tour de force “Heroes and Villains”. He knew what he was after, and he convinced, cajoled and begged his compatriots to cross the finish line. The results more than validate his obsessive effort: the song is masterful, complex but accessible, intense but assured, the fully realized vision of a unique talent.

So where does that leave us? Assuming that SMiLE is superior, ultimately, to Pet Sounds, how profoundly does its belated release shift of perceptions of the ‘60s; of rock and roll history? First, in what ways does it alter our well-ingrained admiration of Pet Sounds? It shouldn’t, necessarily. Put simply, just as everyone is, correctly, comfortable with The Beatles having several albums represented in what we acknowledge as the upper echelon (think Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, White Album, Abbey Road, which typically land in the Top 20, if not Top 10, of critical lists), SMiLE must correspondingly assume its overdue but welcome place in the pantheon.

Now, the fun begins. Where does it go? Is it better than Pet Sounds? In terms of ambition, scope and execution, this writer has no problem putting it at the top of the heap. And, the unthinkable: is it better than Sgt. Pepper? Yes. More influential? Obviously not. More popular? Not even close. More important to the band’s development? Hardly, since unlike The Beatles, The Beach Boys retreated, getting back to where they once belonged. But taking it on a song-by-song basis, is it superior? Unquestionably.

Now, the real fun: not much can stand alongside “With a Little Help From My Friends” and “A Day in the Life”. You can even throw in “She’s Leaving Home” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” if you must. Can even those four stand comfortably alongside “Heroes and Villains”, “Surf’s Up”, “Cabin Essence” and—take your pick—“Do You Like Worms” or “Vega-Tables”? We can leave aside “Good Vibrations” to accompany “Strawberry Fields Forever”, both released as singles in ’66. It could even be conceded that, based on the above, The Beatles best songs edge out whichever ones we can throw up against them. But, as is the case with most classic albums, it’s the odds and sods that make the ultimate case for greatness. Consider the opening salvo of “Our Prayer”, and remember Wilson remarked that his desire was to write a “teenage symphony to God”. The creepy acid-washed “You Are My Sunshine”; the gorgeous segue of “Look (Song for Children)” into “Child is the Father of the Man”; the quirky, Zappa-esque romp of “Holidays”; the pre-Abbey Road majesty of “Wonderful”; the Beatles-meet-Beefheart “The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow)”; the presciently prog-rock “Love To Say Dada”.

And, above all, the dark gem of the lot, “Wind Chimes”. This, more than anything else The Beach Boys did (and only Love and The Doors came close, or tried), seems to provide the until-now unheard and definitive counterpunch to the phoned-in feel-good anthem that did dominate the summer of ’67, “All You Need is Love”. Calculated if not entirely cynical, “All You Need is Love” is LSD-Lite, the calm before the White Album aftermath. As a complete and consistent artistic statement, only Love’s Forever Changes (similarly embellished as it is with horns, strings, and harpsichord, with harmonies and a sense of dread lurking around every other note, occasionally threatening to move in and suffocate everything) presages the ugliness around the corner like “Wind Chimes” does—and it does so with a feeling and lack of self-consciousness that seems all the more remarkable, today. Perhaps Syd Barrett’s “Jugband Blues” delineates the harrowing descent, breaking down in real time, better than anything else. “Wind Chimes” splits the difference, and does so with the benefit of Wilson’s inimitable combination of innocence, wonder and frailty.

What results is a product that defies anything any hipster or detractor—of any generation—can credibly dismiss. SMiLE is earnest, it is honest and it is almost entirely unique. Its arrival explodes, or at least expands, the already rich narrative of 1967. It is at once the story of what was and what could have been. The question could be asked: does it represent what should have been? Probably not. Maybe the world would not have been ready for this. Maybe SMiLE would have come out and been laughed off the shelves. Maybe music would not have changed (for better, for worse) if this enigmatic masterpiece had been able to go toe-to-toe, a musical rumble in the jungle, with Sgt. Pepper. The only answer is that we can never know.

There is undeniably a cognitive dissonance listening to this, trying to make sense of it, all these years later. As awkward, or uncomfortable, or awe-inspiring as it is to hear 1966 with today’s ears, it cannot be overlooked—attention must be paid. Assessing SMiLE and giving it its deferred due need not detract from everything The Beatles are worshipped for doing. This is, nevertheless, paradigm-shattering stuff, and most welcome to honest and open minds. How often does an artifact come along that radically disrupts, and reconfigures, an established understanding of history? How exceedingly seldom does this happen, if it ever does? It has happened here and everyone has reason to be very happy it did.

In the final analysis, the vision that sustained SMiLE was undeniable; delicate yet capable of withstanding an uninterested world—which is pretty much precisely what happened. The music, this beauty, bears witness to a dream—at times dark yet always unadulterated—and it remains Wilson’s, and our, triumph.

*Originally published in PopMatters, 8/26/2012.

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Reappraising Jethro Tull’s ‘Minstrel in the Gallery’

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Jethro Tull, again? Seriously? Yes, seriously.

The reason Tull warrants continued discussion is because unlike just about all other prog rock acts of the mid-‘70s, they were—in their businesslike, seemingly obligatory fashion—cranking out one masterful effort each year.

In 1975, progressive rock was, we now know with the benefit of hindsight, already on its way to the dinosaur pit. Pink Floyd was, arguably, hitting their prime stride, releasing possibly their most cohesive and satisfying album Wish You Were Here, but many other acts from the great old days were on the ropes, running out of steam or gone altogether. Yes was on a hiatus, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and The Moody Blues were not dead but shells of their former selves, Rush was just getting into the game, and King Crimson had called it quits. Genesis soldiered on, and made a string of respectable albums with Collins at the helm (and then made a longer string of increasingly commercial, successful albums), but many would agree that things were never the same once Peter Gabriel rolled up his freak flag and went it alone.

So, aside from Pink Floyd, who were now an album every-other-year (at best) outfit, Jethro Tull were the kings of the hill, in terms of consistency and quality. The benefit of hindsight makes their proficiency, and the quality of the work, more obvious and more important to acknowledge. Where some (much?) of the material from prog rock’s heyday is decidedly of its time (for better or worse) and, lyrically, is often acknowledged with a wink and a shrug, Jethro Tull’s work in general, and on Minstrel in the Gallery in particular, needs no defense nor any nostalgia to be appreciated.

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One of the reasons the genre seemed stale or at least more than a little played out, circa 1975 (hello Emerson, Lake & Palmer), is because the formula was no longer sufficient to inspire fresh work, or at least be heard with fresh ears. Indulgence for indulgence’s sake was rightly losing favor with a wider audience, and at the mid-way point of a new decade, new approaches were necessary. As the first punk bands proved, a radically different approach would be rewarded. Punk, with its lo-fi lack of proficiency or pretense, was in almost every regard anti-prog (for better or worse).

So Jethro Tull, never especially fashionable, soldiered on without much regard for critical acclaim from the so-called establishment, powered by the industrious engine of Ian Anderson, who was just hitting his stride.

Discussion of Anderson’s lyrical prowess is inevitable, and appropriate, and mentioned in previous reviews. Where he did not shy away from autobiographical elements (especially on Benefit), his specialty was linking the personal with a reporter’s eye for both absurdity and the universal (especially on Aqualung); on Thick as a Brick he displays a sociologist’s eye for societal mores, and in his inimitably impish way, took his sledge hammer to all manner of very British sacred cows (class, religion, etc.); on A Passion Play he used every tool in his musical and intellectual arsenal. On Minstrel in the Gallery we have less of the sneering post-adolescent angst and rage and more of the wizened perspective of an adult who has toured the world, seen some things and is able to comment accordingly.


If the title track is a bit too literal (get it? The musician seeing himself in the crowd…), it’s also a tour de force of sorts that, in Andersonian fashion, takes the piss out of the cult of self/celebrity while also offering some quite poetic observations on the ways artist and audience interact:

The minstrel in the gallery
Looked down on the rabbit-run
And he threw away his looking-glass
He saw his face in everyone

Anderson, who has always been an underrated acoustic guitar player (most folks, understandably, see him as the wide-eyed and one-legged flautist), started pushing himself, notably during the band’s Holy Trinity. While his work, pound for pound, on A Passion Play may be his best, Minstrel in the Gallery represents his most singular and sustained acoustic achievement: his work throughout is memorable and masterful.


It would be a mistake to describe this as either an acoustic or restrained affair, as evidenced by “Cold Wind to Valhalla” (containing some of Martin Barre’s tastiest shredding), as well as the rocking sections of the title track and “Black Satin Dancer”, but the acoustic is ever-present and it’s easy to see how these tunes grew from solo excursions to full collaborations. If it’s once again necessary to single out drummer Barrie Barlow for the way his busy sticks augment and embellish the proceedings to delightful effect, than let it once again be stated.

The secret weapon here, more so than any earlier album, is David Palmer, previously employed to judicious and exhilarating effect (think the soaring orchestral flair toward the end of Thick as a Brick, or the subtle, gorgeous string embellishments on “Reasons for Waiting”) is now a full equal; for the first time it’s both appropriate and accurate to draw comparisons to what George Martin was doing for The Beatles: not “merely” adding dignified touches here and there or inserting informed color commentary at key moments, but completely in the mix, the orchestral effects as important as the guitars and keyboards. (Not for nothing, either, since this album is so heavy on the acoustic touches, the fastidiously remastered sound does, indeed, bring out nuances and touches not previously detectable.)

Palmer takes already remarkable compositions to that rarefied “other place” on the album’s twin highlights, “Requiem” and “Baker St. Muse”. On the former, a gentle tone poem, we can now appreciate, courtesy of the previously unreleased early version, the way this simple (sounding) song evolved from whimsical allegory to a fully realized and devastating take on the clichéd romantic break-up. (Initial lyrics describe a leaf; the final song replaces the leaf with a bird, which of course works as British double entendre for a woman).

Well, my lady told me, “Stay”
I looked aside and walked away along the strand
But I didn’t say a word, as the train time-table blurred
Close behind the taxi stand:
Saw her face in the tear-drop black cab window
Fading in the traffic watched her go,
And taking in the morning, heard myself singing, “Oh Requiem”
Here I go again, it’s the same old story…
Well, I saw a bird today, I looked aside and walked
Away along the strand.


As with previous Steven Wilson-supervised special editions, we get refined sound courtesy of the 5.1 surround and remix, as well as a truly generous and authoritative booklet complete with lyrics, anecdotes and interviews. Much of that material ranges from quirky to superfluous but, of course, insight from the actual band proves priceless. Most fans will concur that Minstrel in the Gallery seems as autobiographical as any Tull album, before or after, and there is a vulnerability and sensitivity that the songwriter (obviously, with hindsight) was simply growing into.

Anderson himself provides salient insight into his writing process, and also does a service for anyone who has tried to understand (or explain) the impulse to turn the “personal” into something less self-involved and applicable: “As a lyric writer I think that leaving some space is an important ingredient, that you don’t answer all the questions in the lyrics, you do leave the listeners to put something of themselves into the scenario and think about it in the light of their own experiences, or indeed experiences they’ve not yet had.” (Liner notes.)

Perhaps the finest distillation of the aforementioned reportorial eye, balancing obvious autobiography with imagination, is “Baker St. Muse” which, put plainly, showcases Anderson and his band at an absolute pinnacle of composition and execution. Polite golf-claps all around (but more, as ever, reserved for Barre and Barlow), an especially hearty hurrah for Palmer, and all-time hero status for Anderson, who would never again display this combination of brilliance, confidence and creative attainment. It could be considered (yet another) semi-side long suite, or else an epic prog statement (like Thick as a Brick or A Passion Play) in miniature, or it could, correctly, be appraised and appreciated on its own terms: a story of how the present-day minstrel prowled the streets looking about for explanations, or at least inspiration. We see the (usual?) parade of freaks and outcasts but, for once, the songwriter turns the microscope on himself and we see some of the concerns and obsessions that feed that distinctive muse.

For anyone curious, but unsure, about whether this 40th Anniversary edition is a compulsory acquisition, consider the (requisite) bonus discs. As mentioned, there is the 5.1 remaster and the Steven Wilson remix; there’s also a complete concert from July 1975 (Paris) that has never before been available. On one hand, it’s yet another sampler of hits (“My God”, “Cross-Eyed Mary” and, of course, “Aqualung”) but on the other, it’s a document of one of the best Tull line-ups. There are also the odds and sods of demo versions and out-takes (like the delightful lark “Summerday Sands” and, even though, like the master take, it’s less than one minute long, the alternate version of “Grace” is a special treat for Tull enthusiasts.

To summarize, these annual remaster projects are appropriate because Jethro Tull was making an album every year in the ‘70s; they are necessary because even people who tolerate prog rock or give it a courteous mention still limit themselves to a handful of “classic” albums that few people will protest. One need not be a prog aficionado to understand that many outstanding efforts were produced as a matter of course in the early and mid-‘70s; Minstrel in the Gallery is one of them and it’s a crime to think fans who think they know aren’t aware of this near-masterpiece.

*Originally published 8/5/15 in PopMatters, my latest installment for my series on prog rock, The Amazing Pudding.

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Talking Jive, Mingus and John Goodman

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Today is the day. For John Goodman, that is.

And for you, if you are inclined to check out his new book, Jive-Colored Glasses: A Jazz Memoir.

And you should be inclined.

Here’s my take, blurb-style. (Full disclosure: I happily received an advance copy of the book and even more happily offered up my praise, accordingly):

We live in curious times, where we fondly recall and/or fictionalize some of our favorite things from the so-called good old days, where Old-Fashioneds were both drinks and philosophies, but the soundtrack is something contemporary and clueless–nostalgia without the nuance and names dropped without the knowledge. So how refreshing, and timely, to have an authentic guide from the old school to explain what mattered and why. John Goodman was there, and we are fortunate to have a first-person account of the great old days, someone with the inside scoop, who can articulate what we did right, what we still haven’t figured out, and why being engaged and bearing witness is our collective obligation. Our understanding of the proverbial then-and-now is profoundly insufficient without this vital document.

More on this project, and its author, at his blog.

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In July 2013–just about exactly two years ago to the day–my review of Goodman’s book, Mingus Speaks, dropped at PopMatters. Check it out, below.

Charles Mingus did not do small.

He was a big man, with big appetites, big ambitions, big grievances, big passions, big skills, and above all, a big vision.

By any reasonable criteria, he easily ranks as one of the foremost musicians and composers in American history: the scope of his recorded works is vast, varied and awe-inspiring. He can—and should—be included on any list alongside his hero Duke Ellington, and only Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk led as many remarkable bands and produced such a staggering body of work.

Like Ellington, Mingus wrote his autobiography in his music. Unlike Ellington, Mingus was never accorded remotely the same measure of respect, money and corresponding opportunities. As a result he was a constant cauldron of insecurity, anger and, more than occasionally, fear. Certainly not the first or last man in America to see his brilliance misconstrued, undermined or (worst by far) ignored, Mingus, as much as any 20th Century icon, had sufficient cause to feel aggrieved.

That this man with a chip on his shoulder the size of a skyscraper was able to remain as productive and positive as he did is a testament to his will, and a defiant commentary on our not-so-awesome American tradition of failing to appreciate or embrace our geniuses while they share air with us.

It is, therefore, instructive to learn more about the forces that drove Mingus, and the impulses that, at times, derailed him. He could be his own worst enemy, as the burnt bridges, ruined relationships, and botched business deals demonstrate. Still, if he occasionally terrified the musicians in his employ, he frequently drove them to do their best work. The list of artists and industry veterans who stood by him (some of whom, like his widow Sue Mingus, actively promote his legacy to this day) is considerable.

John Goodman’s Mingus Speaks is a collection of previously unpublished interviews and recollections from bandmates, club owners, and jazz critics. While the various biographies on Mingus (Gene Santoro’s Myself When I Am Real: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus is especially recommended) are illuminating, and the liner notes from his albums occasionally revelatory, there can be no substitute for hearing the colossus account for himself. Beneath the Underdog, his infamous autobiography, is required reading for any Mingus (or jazz) fan, but its digressions and frequent forays into obvious fiction fail to provide sufficient perception or clarity.

In these collected interviews, mostly conducted in the early ‘70s when Mingus was rebounding from years of turmoil, we get everything we’d expect: tall tales, candid insights, score settling, and the full range of topics that fascinated and inspired him. We get, in short, Mingus’s side of the story, which is particularly poignant considering he would succumb to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 1979 (at the entirely too young age of 56).

For people like myself, who can never get enough of Mingus, much of this book is an exhilarating ride, an essential addition to our understanding of what made him such a unique and enduring iconoclast. He accounts for his proficiency, and the decades of practice, false starts, frustration and triumphs. He also takes every opportunity to discuss the men who encouraged him, ranging from obscure or unheard of to acknowledged masters like Fats Navarro and Charlie Parker. His theories (some fascinating; some preposterous) on everything from the Watts Riots to his controversial eviction from his loft (in 1968) are like many of his compositions: breathless, all-encompassing, unswerving. His consummate abilities (as a bassist, songwriter, jazz ambassador) are acknowledged by everyone who speaks of him.

Here are a handful of the literally hundreds of quotes I could pick from, which confirm what we know and, if anything, add additional layers to a man whose heart hung on every utterance—yet often managed to remain an enigma:

Mingus is a peculiar combination of perfectionist and… someone who always wants to experiment (Dan Morgenstern).

Well, Bud (Powell), Fats (Navarro) and Bird—they’re like saints to me. They gave everything. I think they really thought they were telling the people…the message, the spirit to live (Mingus).

I don’t think there is anybody in the music field who… he has not threatened to kill at one time or another, including his best friends (Dan Morgenstern).

He’s such a beautiful man. I’m glad he doesn’t talk, man, he says more with his silence and his music (Mingus, on Monk).

I feel a divine connection with eternal life when I write. I feel like something better than me is coming out of me (Mingus).

John Goodman deserves credit and praise for his work here. For starters, most of the interviews (with Mingus; with others) were conducted when he was a jazz critic for Playboy, and the intent was to compile them for a book. For a variety of factors, it was not meant to be, but Goodman was never able to stop thinking about it. The result, finally, provides something for everyone: it contains the history of Mingus, a history of jazz (which can also be found in his discography), astute reflections on American culture—from Mingus; from others, especially Goodman himself—and yet another testament to a titan who looms ever larger. Perhaps in the final analysis, this difficult project, an obvious labor of love, further sets the record straight and stands as something Mingus himself would undoubtedly endorse.

What more needs to be said?

(Speaking of Mingus, readers of this blog will know I’ve had more than a little to say, and as those of us in the know already know, enough can never, ever, be said of Mingus. Get hit in your soul HERE, HERE, and HERE.)

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‘Pedro’ Is a Glorious Romp Full of Stories That Only Pedro Martinez Can Tell

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Any public figure, particularly an artist or athlete, is assured notoriety and immortality if they are known simply by their last name (think Bird or Beethoven), their nickname (think Bono or Babe) and, in rare instances (such as Elvis), their first name. Pedro Martinez, undoubtedly the preeminent pitcher of his era, did not take long to ensure he would be loved, loathed and feared, and during his career (especially his never-to-be-equaled run in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s), if someone said “Pedro”, there was no question who was being discussed.

As such, Pedro is a natural if inevitable title for his autobiography, written with veteran baseball scribe Michael Silverman. Anyone who worshipped at the mound Pedro dominated during his heyday understands he mostly let his performance on the field speak for him. Certainly, “Petey” was seldom timid to express himself, defend a teammate, or blast an opponent. He was also one of the wittiest and most amusing superstars of his time. Still, as smart and opinionated as Pedro has always been, fans—especially Red Sox fans—have been waiting impatiently for him to write about his experiences before, during and after he terrorized and, at times, owned, major league baseball.

A quick summary that scarcely does his achievements justice: eight-time All Star, three-time Cy Young winner (could, and should have been five Cy Youngs), World Series champion. Playing for mediocre, at times downright awful teams, Pedro was the rare ace who could carry a franchise on his scrawny shoulders. If he had been surrounded by the talent Greg Maddux had for most of his career in Atlanta, it’s difficult to imagine how much more impressive his stats would be. Not for nothing, he played in the bruising AL East (having to face designated hitters instead of easy-out pitchers each outing) during the peak of the steroid era—when hitters (think Brady Anderson or Barry Bonds) went from skinny sluggers to beefed-up mashers seemingly overnight. The point being, Pedro played in a time of almost unparalleled offensive production and he still put up numbers that stagger statisticians.

This book does not disappoint: Pedro discusses the privation of his homeland in the Dominican Republic, his odyssey through the minor and major leagues before becoming the King of Fenway Park, when each of his starts was an authentic event. Like so many future legends (Michael Jordan leaps to mind), Martinez was inspired by his setbacks, and he used the slights and doubts from myopic coaches and talent scouts as the motivation to prove himself. Pedro’s status was in flux for many years, and everywhere he went he encountered the same uncertainties: too skinny, too temperamental, insufficiently durable, a diva. The list goes on, and Pedro had a chip on his shoulder the size of the Green Monster, especially before he commanded the accolades and awards.

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Pedro was not only one of the best pitchers ever, he was one of the most savvy (with an injured arm he nevertheless came on in relief—using smoke and mirrors when his fastball was unavailable—to shut down the Cleveland Indians and get the Sox to the ALCS in 1999, one of the gutsiest and most memorable outings in postseason history) and unquestionably one of the most stubborn and, at times, inscrutable. As such, his memory is as sharp as his tongue and while he’s quick to name names (the haters, the skeptics), he also extols virtually everyone who helped or encouraged him, including coaches, host families and other players—especially older brother and role model Ramon, and the catcher with whom he worked to become the self-described “alpha male” of the American League, Jason Varitek.

Always fearless, Pedro never shies away from discussing the various controversies that dogged him. He feels he never got a fair shake with the Dodgers, the team that called him up from the minors, and he relishes every opportunity to remind (fellow legend) Tommy Lasorda how wrong the Hall of Famer’s assessment was. Traded to the Expos, Martinez came into his own, but also developed a reputation as a headhunter. Understanding the need to pitch inside, Pedro was never shy to back someone off the plate, and like Roger Clemens and Bob Gibson, if chin music was called for, Pedro was always happy to send a message. Considering his lithe frame and the fact that, early in his career in the National League he had to come to the plate several times each game, no one can say Pedro did not walk the walk.

Pedro’s direct and unflinching assessment of the steroid era, and the big-time players whose legacies are forever damaged by it, is a highlight. Also delicious is his recounting of the time he infamously assessed the ludicrous “curse of the Bambino” and offered up an epic quote for the ages: “I don’t believe in damn curses. Wake up the Bambino and have me face him. Maybe I’ll drill him in the ass.” The import of this bravado for a snakebitten, suspicious Red Sox nation can never be underestimated, and Pedro will forever have all-time hero status for his (large) part in facing down the Yankees and flipping the script on the “evil empire”.

Like any renowned athlete, Pedro is revered for his results on the field. Like only the most exceptional public figures, it’s his personality that makes Pedro one of the most beloved players on a franchise filled with authentic legends. It’s debatable if any pitcher (or athlete?) combined such intensity and ebullience and whose very presence was so irresistible.

The only complaint, which is probably inevitable with any co-authored book, is that we don’t get Pedro’s unfettered perspective. We miss his “voice”, both the figurative in reading, and the literal: his unique accent and mischievous streak are best appreciated in hearing him talk. One wonders if hearing Pedro on an audio book would be more satisfying; one also wonders how much better (if less formal and official) this work would be if Pedro discarded convention—which would be utterly appropriate for him—and gave us a less filtered account. Naturally, we know when Sullivan is behind the wheel, as the clichés pile up like discarded dip in a dugout. Of course, no one is reading this book for the prose so much as the stories.

Pedro is a control freak to the end: while his candor is most welcome, anyone looking for trash talk or the inside scoop on his years in Boston will be disappointed. In the end, Pedro insists on being totally in control, and we get only what he wants to offer up. Perhaps because he, understandably, remains so confident and is content, Pedro has no axes to grind, and it’s to his credit that we don’t get score-settling or unnecessary minutiae. Nevertheless, some fans will probably come away wanting more (more scoop, more controversy), and that is, of course, precisely how Pedro wants it.

*This review originally appeared at PopMatters on 6/20/15.

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Schizophonia: Cantorial Recordings Reimagined

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There is a common theme that connects Yoshie Fruchter with his occasional partners in crime Jon Madof and Aram Bajakian: They all play guitars. More, they have all recorded on John Zorn’s Tzadik label, establishing themselves as vital contributors to the NYC downtown music scene. Perhaps most important, all three share a keen appreciation and knowledge of history: Employing their spiritual heritages and a profound appreciation for culture(s), these men refine the art of making the Old into the New.

Yoshie Fruchter has demonstrated over the last decade that he’s a musician and composer to take seriously, and enjoy. His band Pitom’s first two releases, Pitom (2008) and Blasphemy and Other Serious Crimes (2011) are splendid explorations of traditional Jewish music sandblasted with jazz, rock and metal. His presence—in concert and on record—in Jon Madof’s Zion 80 brings a muscular yet intelligent frenzy to the proceedings.

His latest project, an obvious labor of love, uses Jewish cantorial recordings as a source of extraordinary musical dialogue. Fruchter describes the undertaking as “an exploration of cantorial music found on 20th century recordings and re-imagined through a contemporary lens”. That Fruchter has the knowledge of this material—much less the inclination to reinterpret it in his own weird, wonderful way—should underscore the seriousness, and passion, imbuing these reworked arrangements.

The results are, unsurprisingly, spectacular. This effort can be considered a kindred spirit to the alternately dark and ebullient music Fruchter has already made, but Schizophonia takes things to an advanced level, both conceptually and in execution. Where he’s previously invoked—lovingly, coyly, ironically—Jewish tradition (in general) and cantorial songs (in particular), this endeavor is necessarily all-in, and where Yoshie has trod the thin line between inspiration and escape, this time out he carves his own unique, almost quixotic turf. He pulls it off, and in the process has set the bar for ways we can imagine intersections between the old school, the spiritual and the evanescent. At times, you can practically smell the incense in a place of worship; in others you can see the sweat from a brightly-lit stage; when it all comes together it is delightfully disorienting: hearing an ancient world with tomorrow’s ears.

A safer, less satisfying project would take the more predictable route by putting proper songs into a purely musical context. On this outing, there are no half measures: the lyrics (in Yiddish) are sung by Fruchter himself, and he acquits himself quite capably—particularly on opening track “Shir Hashirim”. Indeed, while his singing voice is never less than pleasant or effective, the ways he tweaks vocals, via overdubs and effects, only underscores the otherworldly source material. This is music that rewards all the senses: it makes you think, and it is difficult not to imagine other times and places, even as they are clearly—and occasionally surreally—filtered through the here and now.

Lest anyone, at this point, be concerned this is an exercise in indulgence or an overly academic snoozefest, let it be clearly stated that Cantorial Recordings Reimagined is filled with smoldering life. Fruchter can rock out with the best of them, and while his style is original, there are inevitable maestros some of the playing will call to mind. Where a love and familiarity with Robert Fripp has been apparent (especially on the first Pitom release), the two guitarists this writer keeps hearing traces of are Steve Hackett (Genesis) and jazz genius Sonny Sharrock (notably on second track “Tzur Chayenu”, which features a mid-song vocal meltdown that mutates into a tasty dose of postmodern prog).

Several of the songs, especially “Wehoser Soton”, wouldn’t sound out of place on Mr. Bungle’s California, and there is an exotic use of placid and intense that might make one fondly recall Santana’s Caravanserai. And a shout-out to the aforementioned Madof is entirely warranted, as he covered some of this ground on his masterful record The Gathering. (Cantorial Recordings Reimagined could, in some ways, be seen as a consummation of the creative gauntlet Madof threw down on his track “Jeremiah”.)

Bassist Shanir Blumenkranz adds another notch to that iron man belt, his status as avant-garde go-to guy more secure than ever. Brian Marsella, whose contributions to Zion80 have been celebrated elsewhere, is the essential X-factor on this session: his steady, inventive hands drive several songs, and standout track “B’Rosh Hashonoh” is like The Tony Williams Lifetime meeting John Zorn’s Electric Masada, only mellower and Jewish-er.

Fruchter carves out some space for himself on the fifth and sixth tracks (“Shir Hamalos” and “Vehu Rochum”), showcasing his ability to do light and dark, or gentle and heavy. Only Madof has previously mixed the tritone and the synagogue so successfully, and how many musicians would even attempt to mesh gloomy and reverent in such a fashion? Another highlight is “Brich Shmeh”, wherein Fruchter really gets into his own thing, alternating between banjo, Sharrockian shredding and, with the assistance of Marsella and percussionist Rich Stein, a swinging (!) Eastern vibe.

The proceedings are brisk and, fortunately, Fruchter does not stretch the material—or himself—too thin. There’s no repetition and several stylistic avenues are explored. Cantorial Recordings Reimagined, after multiple listens, certainly prevails as a continuation of previous projects, but carves out wholly new territory, mixing rabbinical, metal and sophisticated jazz, all in the service of some deeply spiritual, utterly convincing sounds.

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The Moody Blues: Masters of the Mini Epic

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The Moody Blues have not aged particularly well.

And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

To be sure, more than a handful of their songs are as timeless as any rock music can be, whatever that actually means and for whatever it’s worth.

But The Moody Blues, as much as any other progressive band, invoke a specific era, and genre, when the type of music prog bands were making made sense in ways that would never fly, these days. And if that makes some of us nostalgic for the great old days of prog rock, so be it.

Music aside, so many of the progressive acts of this era were aspiring to write poetically (the results, of course, were all over the map); the Moody Blues were actually writing poems (the results, of course, were all over the map). It would be a tad too much to decree them the thinking man’s prog band (unless the opinion was offered, derisively, by those who feel the mere word progressive could, and should, be replaced by the word pretentious. In any event, if any band was trying to elevate the lyrical and conceptual discourse, The Moody Blues certainly threw their chapeaus in the ring, for better or worse.

In addition, the Moody Blues, who came into their own several years before the bigger and better/badder bands that followed, such as Yes, ELP and Rush, are perhaps the only act to be pre- and post prog. In the aftermath of their breakthrough, 1967’s Days of Future Passed, a proto-prog, pseudo-symphonic masterpiece combining pretension, audacity and excellence, the Moody Blues helped define the soundscapes for the post-Summer of Love letdown.

The Grateful Dead established themselves (in large part due to their dead-icated fans) as the de facto curators for altered states of consciousness (nevermind what an uninspired cop-out that’s always been, anointing one band, ostensibly because of their noodling excellence, as the soundtrack for getting stoned, even as Pink Floyd is the more satisfactory choice in any event). The Moody Blues had grander aspirations, and came as close as any of their peers to approximating, musically, what such experiences could feel like, and signify.

The Moody Blues projected a more cerebral sensibility, even by prog-rock standards. While some of this was, clearly, by design, some of it had to do with other unavoidable factors. For one, several band members were already in their mid-to-late ‘20s by the time the band became famous. Obviously, that’s not “old” for most of us, but it’s but practically ancient by rock music standards. There’s also the not insignificant matter that, like some of their prog-rock compatriots, the Moody Blues looked (and sounded) more like college professors than Tiger Beat pin-ups. When it comes to art in general and music in particular (and progressive rock most especially) looks could not be less relevant. But let’s face it: no musician (or artist) has ever been hindered, at least early in a career, by being super easy on the eyes.

So in that regard, the Moody Blues were very much like their closest prog cousins Yes, King Crimson, and Emerson Lake and Palmer. That is; faceless for the most part on their album art, and their emphasis was squarely on their music as opposed to band members’ personalities. They were, in short, the kind of band ideally suited for the genre that placed integrity above all other concerns.

None of this, of course, would matter one bit if the band was not capable of making memorable music. And for a run that lasted from 1967 to 1972 (seven albums in six years!), the Moody Blues evolved from being perhaps the earliest practitioners of the prog aesthetic to, in their finer moments, some of its more brilliant ambassadors.

While so many of their contemporaries were writing novels in the form of side-long suites, the Moody Blues were masters of the short story. Occasionally hinting at magnificence, most fully realized on Days of Future Passed and nearly there on In Search of the Lost Chord and On The Threshold of a Dream, many of their better songs function as condensed epics like “Legend of a Mind”, “Isn’t Life Strange” and “Melancholy Man”.

In a sense, they avoided the pitfalls of pretension by keeping it (relatively) simple. Of course, at times they were not quite ambitious enough; as many of their albums are laden with listless ballads (Justin Hayworth giveth and Justin Hayworth taketh away). There are also, inevitably, the numbers that are inseparable from the era of their conception, in all the bad ways (a cursory glance through the song titles will give these away without requiring a single note played).

Other than the category-merging masterpiece Days of Future Passed, they never had the one indelible album that we can reference as an unassailable selection for the canon. In Search of the Lost Chord came closest and On the Threshold of a Dream might be their most consistent stylistic statement, but virtually each album has at least one if not several definitive, top-tier tracks. Taken together they comprise a very worthy and vastly underrated addition to the prog idiom.

First, a few words about their 1967 attempt at immortality, an album that holds up quite nicely, especially compared to so much of what was being made at the time (including certain songs from the sacrosanct Sgt. Pepper). Thinking big, and very much outside the box, the band commissioned session musicians—cheekily dubbed The London Festival Orchestra—and borrowed a page from the Beatles, letting these seasoned classical players do with their straightforward songs what George Martin did so often for Lennon and McCartney. The conceit, a definite candidate for their first fully realized “concept” album, is a day in the life (no, really), and the sections are broken into morning, afternoon and evening.

While the songs that found their way to radio, “Forever Afternoon (Tuesday?)” and “Nights in White Satin”, both written and sung by the always reliable Justin Hayward, laudably represent the whole, a deeper dive, as usual, reveals the treasures unfairly obscured by the hits. The extended sequence that takes us from “(Evening) Time to Get Away”, through “The Sunset” and into “Twilight Time” (the sections bridging the aforementioned tracks that open and close Side Two) showcase the considerable strengths of the band.

Hayward’s range and ebullience are easy to notice and gravitate toward, plus his unerring sense of songcraft never hurt, as the tunes that became hits underscore. But Mike Pinder, Ray Thomas and John Lodge, all excellent vocalists (and writers) in their own right, provide some welcome contrast and color to Hayward’s golden glow. Pinder in particular functions as a solemn alter ego for Hayward, and is responsible for some of the band’s more somber and enduring songs. As the orchestra swells and harp chords wind down the excitement, the music (and lyrics, and voices) echo the gradual onset of evening. Pinder’s “The Sun Set” is modest in scope, compared to the awesome if ever-so-slightly overwrought ballads that precede and follow it, and the singer, as he would in subsequent efforts, brings exactly the “voice of God” authority the material compels.

A few words about the poetry. Everyone who has heard “Nights in White Satin”—in other words, everyone—has heard “Late Lament”. You know, “Breathe deep, the gathering gloom…” The words are courtesy of drummer Graeme Edge, resident poet and deep thinker. Although Pinder typically recited the poems on the albums, Graeme’s contemplations became thematic touchstones that the band used to open and close their first three albums. Dated? Yes. Well-intended? Certainly. Worthwhile? Of course, though it’s hard to not smell the patchouli and envision the flared trousers while listening.

Confident and determined, the group set out to make an album even better than Days of Future Passed. In some regards they succeeded, and if the second and third efforts, In Search of the Lost Chord and On the Threshold of a Dream aren’t start-to-finish masterworks, they certainly contain some of the band’s all-time best work. In addition to John Lodge’s slight but irresistible “Ride My See-Saw” and Hayward’s vocal tour-de-force “The Actor”, we have the one-two (or one-two-three) punch of “House of Four Doors” (parts One and Two) and “Legend of a Mind”. If Lodge’s mellotron-laden meditation on art, existence and epiphany practically screams ’60s!! it does so with eloquence, spectacular harmonies and genuine feeling. Indeed, Thomas’s “Legend of a Mind” is one of the band’s ultimate triumphs: an ostensible shout-out to Timothy Leary. It really uses the controversial doctor (and how ecstatic he must have been to hear himself immortalized in such fashion) as a commentary on the possibility of expanded consciousness, not yet a cliché in 1968.

The even more ambitious, follow-up On the Threshold of a Dream sort of combined the thematic twists and turns of the previous two albums, looking at a day, only instead of taking it on literal terms (as with Days of Future Passed), a single day might be said to represent eternity. Or something. Edge’s “In the Beginning” mixes hippie ruminations with Strangelovian cynicism; if you could smell the hash before, you can taste the acid now. And this is definitely the band’s psychedelic album: it’s not so much that the material deals with the obligatory inner-space explorations, it tries to capture, with words and music, elements of the sounds, colors, shapes and emotions these journeys can encompass.

The Moody Blues go for broke, aesthetically, on the psychedelic suite that closes Side Two: “The Dream” (another poem from Edge) into Pinder’s stirring and profoundly affirming “Have You Heard” (Parts One and Two, naturally). And in between, the interlude/centerpiece “The Voyage”. A bit of avant-garde whimsy, a touch of Stravinsky, a full measure of aspiration, more mellotron than you can fit in a freight train, chirping flutes and crashing snares, et cetera. If you think it sounds hopelessly dated, well, you’re right. You should also consider what today’s pre-programmed beats and auto-tuned atrocities are going to sound like in 40 (or four) years.

After this, it wasn’t a case of diminishing returns so much as a steady stream of solid releases with at least one and up to three real keepers per album: some obscure, others everyone who ever listened to classic rock radio in the ‘80s or ‘90s has heard a thousand times. For evidence of the former, consider Hayward’s downright rocking “The Story in Your Eyes” and Lodge’s insufferable “I’m Just a Singer (In a Rock and Roll Band)”; for the latter, “For My Lady” (Thomas) and “Isn’t Life Strange” (Lodge), which uses strings and sweet-and-sour harmonizing as effectively as anything from Days of Future Passed. It’s a genuine epic in miniature if ever there was one.

From the uneven but typically worthwhile A Question of Balance, we have the two songs that truly comprise the yin-yang of this band at their best. First, Hayward’s finest moment, album-opener “Question”. If he had his moments where he veered altogether too close to melodrama, he hits the mark, for all time, on this miniature epic (those words again). It’s a vocal performance that can sing alongside anything anyone else in rock music has put on record. I tend to feel about Justin Hayward as a singer the way I do about Keith Emerson as a keyboard player: they both could have received acclaim and professional approbation for lending their talents to orchestras and/or operas, but how wonderful that they made their own mark, unwilling to live a preordained existence. For whatever crimes of pretense or however much some of the material, inevitably, sounds tied to the time of its creation, they were put on this Earth with a gift, and they proved more than equal to the challenge.

On the other extreme, Mike Pinder’s “Melancholy Man” is not only the reliably subdued counterpoint to Hayward’s irrepressible conviction, it might be the best thing the band ever did. As has hopefully been established already, the Moody Blues made scaled-down extravaganzas their calling card, and in hindsight their restraint and dexterity seems almost valiant. On “Melancholy Man”, the music matches the mood, and Pinder manages to sound commanding and vulnerable, sometimes at the same moment. And special kudos to the man who did as much as anyone to introduce our beloved mellotron to popular culture; where would progressive rock be without this quirky, uniquely bizarre instrument?

Arguably, in the final analysis, though a second-tier prog act in comparison with titans like Jethro Tull, Yes, King Crimson and, of course, Pink Floyd, the Moody Blues brought a seriousness, and influential craftsmanship to rock ‘n’ roll composition. The result: a handful of near-misses (or second-tier prog masterpieces) and over a dozen tunes that, taken together, constitute quite a career. These songs, as a collective statement, stand tall amongst work done by their prog brethren. If, at times, they are inexorably tied to a different time, they certainly made definitive statements of purpose. At other times, more than a few of their songs sound as fresh, original and evocative today, and will resonate during any decade.

Originally published in PopMatters on 11/21/2014

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Jon Madof’s Brilliant Corners: Zion80 ‘Adramelech’

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Jon Madof has been making many people—like this fan—happy for over a decade. The scope of his projects, particularly the trio he masterminds, Rashanim, has been a source of ceaseless delight. During the last few years Madof has concentrated his focus on a bigger, more ambitious undertaking: Zion80.

Where their self-titled debut release was an expert mash-up of, as Madof himself describes the band, Shlomo Carlebach meets Fela Kuti, the new release Adramelech has the collective tackling Volume 22 (!) of John Zorn’s epic Book of Angels series. That would be the same John Zorn whose productivity makes Johann Sebastian Bach seem like a slacker. In fact, he released two new albums as I typed that last line. Just kidding, mostly.

Zorn is nothing if not a visionary, but even by the incredibly high standards he’s set for himself, the idea of letting other musicians tackle each new volume of his Book of Angels has been a gift that giveth much. For one, and most obviously, it’s a plethora of new material, itself something—in terms of depth and achievement—that will only accrue import in years ahead. We’re too busy living through his superhuman career in real time to properly appreciate exactly how locked in and, really, untouchable he is.

Jon Madof has already established himself as one of the more sensitive and successful interpreters of Zorn’s material. His recording Masada Rock remains one of this writer’s favorite of the dozens of discs featuring brilliant musicians doing Zorn. It’s a must-have for anyone who is remotely enticed by the notion of klezmer meets surf guitar meets speed metal meets world music with a free jazz sensibility. And who isn’t enticed by that?

Where Zion80 was a raucous but controlled, fiery but focused free-for-all, something you could shake your head and ass to, Adramelech manages to go deeper and be, if possible, more encompassing. It also comes with a welcome edge and, like the previous disc, insists on being grappled with on its own terms. In this regard, it’s quite consistent with much of the work Zorn and Madof have done. But this is not merely a more-is-more celebration of Zorn with Madof at the helm. Rather, it taps into what is most special—and rewarding—about the Radical Jewish Culture that Zorn has been curating at his Tzadik label: music that spans time (we’re talking centuries) and crosses cultures, yet somehow, in ways that are both delirious and delightful, is totally of the here and now. It’s cutting edge history, made by musicians who know and respect tradition, but are dissatisfied with labels and the limitations of genre. Perhaps this is why you won’t hear this music on the radio. It’s also why people will be listening to this album one hundred years from now.

There’s nothing not to recommend about this release, it is further evidence that virtually everything Madof touches turns to sonic gold. The album is stellar from start to finish but picks up steam as it goes along. A few highlights have to include “Shamdan”, which mixes guitar-driven jamming alongside saxophonic frenzy in ways the only debut hinted at. On “Metatron” the groove gradually breaks down into inspired chanting that is equal parts disarming and deep, an authentically felt religious vibe (a la Madof’s masterpiece, The Gathering), Gregorian chants in the mosh pit—with yarmulkes flying every which way. Each player gets an opportunity to stride to the forefront, and those moments are picked wisely and utilized judiciously: there are no wasted notes or indulgent moments; this execution is precise and methodical.

The two tracks that close out the session exemplify everything—on micro and macro levels—that make this project so unique and fulfilling. On the macro level, there is the obvious and absolute realization of Zorn’s compositional objective: dense but accessible notes delivered with distilled emotion; music your mind can dance to. On the micro level, Madof has amassed an impeccable ensemble of players, and each individual acquits himself wonderfully. And herself, in the case of Jessica Lurie, whose flute solo on “Nehinah” is so tasty, filthy and ferocious it would make Ian Anderson wet his knickers. It’s a high point on an album full of them. Brian Marsella makes the most of his moments in the spotlight (his techno-punk intro to “Nehinah” is top shelf stuff), and Shanir Blumenkranz continues to bolster his credentials as one of the most versatile and significant bass players on the scene. His fuzzed-out bass propels “Ielahiah”, setting a brooding, intense, and heavy tone for the entire piece, which circles its way into a guitar dual between Madof and Yoshie Fruchter. As Madof stalks and strikes, Fruchter hammers out a stuttering cascade of stark notes, the brutality escalating into a climax that offers unbelievable, affecting release.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing that music today, by virtue of so many streamed services catering to every taste, can be cataloged according to specific genre and style. One problem, of course, is that music is increasingly roped into predetermined corners, and increasingly created with these considerations in mind. Rare, indeed, is an endeavor that might genuinely appeal to listeners who create playlists dedicated to trance, or jam-band, or world music, or jazz, or metal. Zion80 is throwing a lot of styles on the table, but it’s never forced or facile. It is challenging but rewards an adventurous and intelligent audience. It can be enjoyed without obliging analysis (and should be seen live if at all possible), but for the person who brings some measure of cultural awareness and curiosity to the table, the only corners being navigated are the brilliant ones Thelonious Monk imagined, back in the days when your music was as serious as your life.

This review originally appeared at PopMatters on 11/14/14

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Sleater-Kinney: The Woods

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PopMatters is doing some heavy lifting in the service of setting the historical record straight. Starting today, they are assessing the Top 100 albums of the last decade.

I contributed a couple. The second (which, incidentally, I would put in my personal Top 10, and, in fact, I did so, back in January 2010) is The Woods, from Sleater-Kenney. It looks like this was their swan song and, if so, it’s a hell of a note to go out on.

Exhibit A:

Sleater-Kinney was quite correctly considered by many folks to be the best band around during the late ’90s and early 00?s. I am certainly not going to argue. They had the typical trajectory that builds a loyal and unwavering fan base: each album, starting with Dig Me Out (1997) got a little bit better, and the ladies were increasingly able to harness the raw punch of their live shows with studio experimentation.

The Woods is, one can claim with reasonable confidence, Sleater-Kinney’s finest hour: a wonderful anomaly that balances painstaking performance and blissful abandon. Five seconds into the first track, “The Fox”, there is little question that it’s on. And it stays on. “The Fox” displays the cacophonous ecstasy patented by The Pixies and brings it into Y2K, featuring Corin Tucker’s most impassioned vocals ever. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how you open an album.

Exhibit B:

Everyone knows that women can do anything men can do, and often do it better. The Woods rocks as hard and drops jaws as low as anything anyone else did this decade. It’s difficult to try and pick and choose highlights here; the entire album is one extended highlight. The album trudges along, angry and eloquent, leading up to the ultimate one-two punch which, if it has to represent the end of this epic band’s career, is an inimitable way to go out. The 11-minute “Let’s Call It Love” (maybe their crowning achievement?) doesn’t segue into “Night Light” so much as explode into it. Along with the feedback bliss from “What’s Mine Is Yours” and the once-in-a-lifetime vocals of “The Fox”, the transition into the album’s coda is one of those moments. Too good for words. And it is an achievement, evidence of a band that has taken things to that other place and made a defining statement.

Exhibit C:

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Iron And Wine: The Shepherd’s Dog

Sheperd's-dog

PopMatters is doing some heavy lifting in the service of setting the historical record straight. Starting today, they are assessing the Top 100 albums of the last decade.

I contributed a couple. The first (which, incidentally, I would put in my personal Top 10, and, in fact, I did so, back in January 2010) is The Shepherd’s Dog, from Iron & Wine. A masterpiece that I return to often.

Exhibit A:

Sam Beam spent the better part of the decade crafting his incarnation of the sensitive singer/songwriter. That type of musician is a dime a dozen and always has been, so it is often that much more difficult for such an artist to separate himself from the pack. Intimate but not unsophisticated, Beam’s whispered vocals and acoustic guitar sound like short stories from the south: this was Flannery O’Connor’s favorite music, if it had existed while she lived (and his first few albums could have existed in the mid-20th Century). Some folks prefer the stripped down solo efforts; others came on board when he collaborated quite fruitfully with Calexico. Both camps (and especially the fans who loved it all) still could not have imagined the masterpiece Beam was about to drop toward the end of 2007.

Exhibit B:

It is not any sort of radical departure so much as a Technicolor enhancement of everything that was so great before: The Shepherd’s Dog has virtually all of the same elements of Iron & Wine’s best work, but it is more expansive and layered. There is a texture and richness that suffuses every second of this album, every sound evidence of a master songwriter soaring at an unprecedented level of confidence. And the songs are still short stories, but the poetry in them seems more refined and purposeful. Strings, slide guitars, reverb and echo, percussion and Beam’s voice: almost impossibly clear and natural, listening to him sing is like watching ice melt into a stream—it is natural, beautiful and inevitable. He has never sounded better, and considering how great he had always sounded before, this is rarefied air to be certain.

Exhibit C:

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