Friday, January 13, 2017

TIFT MERRITT: An EXCLUSIVE Q&A


STITCH OF THE WORLD:

An EXCLUSIVE Q&A 
with 
TIFT MERRITT


STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: STITCH OF THE WORLD is just about to be released. How are you feeling about the album and the journey you took to make it?
TIFT MERRITT: I’m feeling really proud of this writing, these performances. I feel really, really lucky to have worked with this cast of characters. Marc Ribot is my favorite musician and one of my favorite human beings. He’s plugged into the sun. And I am forever grateful to Sam Beam for his input and generosity. To be in conversation with him about songwriting gave me a new eye on lyrics, on what to look for in third verses, on countermelody. But honestly, I don’t know that I ever truly have perspective on my work. I just have the sense of having had a creative experience that hopefully opened me more and will inform my next creative experience. I think that is what it is all about.

SPAZ: The album is just as intimate and warm as your past releases. The production really brings the songs to life. Is there a particular approach you take to recording? Is it a natural process to get the sounds and feel you are looking for?
TIFT: Thank you. That is what I am always after: warmth and intimacy. As well as energy! The energy of this record is much in part to the speed at which we recorded! Four days. As well, Jay Bellerose’s drumming is a very strong engine and gives much clarity and fire. I’m always interested in singing where sincerity and raw energy meet. Sometimes intimacy can drain the power out of things on behalf of closeness or delicacy. It’s a balance that is not always easy to strike.


DAVE RAYBURN: "Dusty Old Man" reunites you with more of the inventive guitar work of Marc Ribot, who also appeared on 2012’s TRAVELING ALONE. When did you first work with Marc, and what do you feel he brings to the table with your songs? 
TIFT: Marc is absolutely plugged into the sun. He’s the finest of the fine. As a lead player, he is so attuned to rhythm, to pushing the song along. He is minimalist and high energy at the same time, and never runs out of ideas. Marc is one of the smartest people I know as well as one of the kindest. If I could work with one musician from now until the end of time, it would be Marc. There is no one like him.

SPAZ: “Love Soldiers On” is quite beautiful. The haunting guitar work harkens back to early Rock ‘n’ Roll while the song itself is timeless. Is it difficult to create something that reaches back to your roots yet also looks forward?
TIFT: Thank you. That is an awfully nice thing to say. I think, at the end of the day, creating something that pushes forward but also honors a tradition is really the sweet spot for me, the place I’m reaching for.  I always want to bring something new from inside myself, push forward to something new sonically and lyrically. But I’m not operating in a vacuum or exploding a form. I love abstract painting for the way so much can be gathered in just a few strokes. Maybe it is like that. You take everything you’ve learned and gather yourself and make a mark. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

SPAZ: STITCH OF THE WORLD is your sixth album. Are you still learning how to get exactly what you want while working in the studio, or do you find yourself discovering new ways of expressing yourself musically with each new release?
TIFT: I am much more comfortable in the studio now than when I began. It is a kind of performance that I really enjoy, but it is tricky to create the immediacy of live performance without being present at the performance. I hope I’ll always be learning and thinking about how to make the next album. That’s the good nature of it. I always feel at the beginning of what I can do, whatever I have just learned being the door to the next place. I really like making records live off the floor rather than overdubbing lots and lots. I really love summoning a performance on the spot, finding the right parts, keeping some space and air.
DAVE: How did your working relationship with Iron & Wine's Sam Beam come about and how instrumental was he in fashioning new material with you?
TIFT: I am such a fan of Sam as a musician and as a person. I will always be cheering for him. He was an angel in this process — he gave me confidence to jump. I sent him all my songs and I was very scared of my writing at that point. I didn’t know whether any of it was good. When he said, I love these and I can tell you have been working really hard, it was like the sunshine came out! He encouraged me so kindly and he taught me a lot about what third verses can do, about what chord structures can do and about how counter melodies can bring things to life. PLUS he lent his beautiful, warm voice. I adore him and his family.


DAVE: How heavily did recent transitions in your personal landscape weigh on the new album's content?
TIFT: Writing in and of itself is such a completely personal experience. Observation — seeing something in a new way — is a big part of writing, but without an emotional connection, it is just clinical and cold. Writing is, I think, one of the most intimate things I do — I spend time, presence and energy with something, I give as much of myself to it as I can. So whatever I am writing about is personal.
My personal landscape and questions about my life will always permeate my work, of course. And yes, this was a very difficult album to write because I didn’t have perspective on myself or what was happening to me. I think it must take many years to have perspective on a divorce, or any big changes. I was scared as hell. I was very sad. But I had to write and press on. A finished song stands on its own, an experience in and of itself, and gains a distance from whatever seed began it. I always hope my songs feel intimate and real and honest, but they are not journal entries.
I really love moving in and out of intensity in the studio, summoning a performance live, and then putting it down again and having a beer and a laugh. It’s like you have set something free after you perform it right. Maybe that is why it can sound relaxed.

SPAZ: Judging by the way radio approaches Country Music today, a lot of the more traditional, roots-based Country artists are now being relegated to the Americana genre. Does it bother you that people have to even categorize what you do? On one hand, it is helpful for fans of a certain genre, but on the other hand, real artists don’t want their art to be put in a box…
TIFT: I think this is probably an age old question that takes new forms every decade, every time a record store has to be rearranged. I don’t think about it that much and I never have. I think about how I organize music in my own mind or in my own record collection. It’s good to have a musical family tree, a way of relating things, a way of finding things, a path into discovering other music. But that is more about musicology than it is about marketing. I’m really proud to be a part of a tradition of songwriters and storytellers.

DAVE: It would be hard to escape the comparisons of your vocal style to that of Emmylou Harris (who coincidentally holds high accolades for you); however, there are other shades of influence in the mix that could be attributed to an array of lesser known singers. Are there any unsung heroes that you would acknowledge as having indirectly helped in shaping your style over the years?
TIFT: I would have to say that Kitty Wells is someone who really influenced me in the beginning, the way she really sings the heart of every pitch. I spun her records over and over. And Jean Shepherd. There are so many amazing vocalists — Aretha, Linda Ronstadt. Dusty Springfield’s intimacy. Maria McKee. What a sensational voice. I recently was talking to someone about Rod Stewart in The Faces and that’s some badass singing too.


DAVE: What was your reaction to the news that Don Henley chose your song “Bramble Rose,” from your recently-reissued debut album, as the lead-off track on his recent CASS COUNTY album?
TIFT: I really couldn’t believe it. I was hungover when I got an email from him and I just kept rereading it, especially when I got to the part about Mick Jagger, thinking it couldn’t be real. I was on tour with Andrew Bird and I danced all around the bus when I first heard. It was a very lovely thing for me, a tremendous gift from him, and I am deeply grateful.

SPAZ: What’s next for Tift Merritt?
TIFT: Well, I’m gonna go tour this album and I am going to try to be a really good mom to my little daughter. I’ve got a stack of books by my bed I’d like to read if I can find a minute. The rest I can’t figure just yet. I’ll keep you posted.

SPAZ: What are you currently spinning on your CD and record players?
TIFT: A friend just sent me the complete John Coltrane Atlantic years. That’s been on the record player. I played my daughter a bunch of Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon recently. It is really a blast to listen to records with her and think, “This is the first time you’ve heard Paul Simon,” for example. I really love Hiss Golden Messenger’s new album and Angel Olsen’s new album. I am about to have a Leonard Cohen marathon too.

Thanks to Tift Merritt
Special thanks to Steve Dixon and Nick Kominitsky


TIFT MERRITT
STITCH OF THE WORLD

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

GOLDEN EARRING - Complete Studio Recordings: Behold the 29 CD box set!





From their debut Just Ear-rings from 1965 till the tribute to their hometown The Hague from 2015 – all 26 studio albums by Holland’s most legendary rock band are collected in a monumental box Complete Studio Recordings, augmented with no less than three CDs full of non-album tracks.

Rinus Gerritsen and the little bit younger George Kooymans as kids live in the same area of The Hague and in 1961 decide to start a band. The two inspired musicians take on three band members and soon are ready to conquer the world as The Golden Earrings. In 1965 they get their first record deal with the prestigious Polydor label and soon after that their debut album Just Ear-rings is released containing the first hit single Please Go. In the ‘60s they continue to score many hits and in doing so lead the way for all Dutch Beat bands that follow. The Earring has some line-up changes in their first years, but when Cesar Zuiderwijk joins Barry Hay, George Kooymans and Rinus Gerritsen in 1970, finally the line-up is perfected: this formation rocks harder than ever before and it won’t take long before they travel around the world with their monster hit Radar Love.

Throughout the years Golden Earring released no less than 26 studio albums. Next to that, dozens of songs were released but not on official albums including classics like That Day, Sound Of The Screaming Day, Another 45 Miles, Holy Holy Life and hard to find songs, like So You Want To Be A Rock’n’Roll Star / L.A. Woman and You Gun My Love. In total no less than 307 songs, that for the first time are compiled in this box set Complete Studio Recordings, including extended liner notes per album by respected music journalist Tjerk Lammers. So turn the volume up to 11 and hear how a little beat band from The Hague turned into the biggest and best Dutch rock band ever!


Contains the following CDs:

Just Ear-rings (1965)
Winter-Harvest (1967)
Miracle Mirror (1968)
On The Double (1969)
Eight Miles High (1969)
Golden Earring (1970)
Seven Tears (1971)
Together (1972)
Moontan (1973)
Switch (1975)
To The Hilt (1976)
Contraband (1976)
Grab It For A Second (1978)
No Promises… No Debts (1979)
Prisoner Of The Night (1980)
Cut (1982)
N.E.W.S. (1983)
The Hole (1986)
Keeper Of The Flame (1989)
Bloody Buccaneers (1991)
Face It (1994)
Love Sweat (1995)
Paradise In Distress (1999)
Millbrook U.S.A. (2003)
Tits ’n Ass (2012)
The Hague (2015)
Non-album Tracks 1 (1965 – 1969 Golden Earrings)
Non-album Tracks 2 (1969 - 1980)

Non-album Tracks 3 (1982 - 2003)

Monday, January 9, 2017

2016: THE BEST ALBUMS OF THE YEAR




THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2016*

(*- That I  actually heard)

By

Stephen SPAZ Schnee

Making year-end lists is always difficult for me.  Since I purposely don’t stream music, I’m limited to listening to the titles I purchase or promos I receive here in the office. Because of this, there are so many releases that I never get a chance to hear. Over the last few weeks, I have read many year-end lists and, again, I realize that I am not in sync with many of my friends and other music journalists. This means that I am either terminally unhip or wholly unique.  I’d like to think the latter, but I’m afraid that most people consider me the former.

I listen to a LOT of music each and every year. 2016 was filled with amazing reissues and stunning new releases.  It was difficult to choose the following 30 titles from all of the releases I listened to (a few hundred at least, but only half of them earned more than one spin).

Unfortunately, I pay more attention to physical titles and seldom connect, emotionally, to albums I’ve only heard through various digital platforms.  I’m old-school, which means I need to be able to hold a tangible piece of product in my hands in order for me to focus on it. Streaming online is kind of like going to a friend’s house to listen to an album and not fully investing time and money into the experience.  (For the record, I’m not as anti-streaming as I used to be but it is a last resort if I really want to hear something.  I’d much rather go over to a friend’s house and hear it…)

I prefer to list them alphabetically because the albums that made my TOP 20 are titles that really stood out.  They are the albums that I went back to numerous times throughout the year. They never lost their magic over repeated spins - they just kept better each time I heard them.  Like the Top 20, the next 10 titles on my list are only separated from the first 20 because TOP 30 just sounds awkward.

This list features longtime favorites and new artists. Each album touched me in a different way and I connected to them for different reasons.  I recommend each and every one of them. They are all magical. I can only hope that you find something here to investigate and enjoy.

Again, this was a very difficult list to make.  I heard plenty of great albums in 2016 and there are many that I’ve yet to hear. But I had to go with what got the most spins...


My Top 20 albums of 2016 
(in alphabetical order):

ABC/The Lexicon Of Love 2
Martin Fry has kept the ABC name alive and while he has not been prolific over the last 20 years or so, he makes each release count.  This album is the best ABC album since BEAUTY STAB (an overlooked gem) and is a very worthy sequel to the band’s beloved debut THE LEXICON OF LOVE. This is pretty much everything you loved about early ABC and more.


THE BEAT featuring RANKING ROGER/Bounce
Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger were the two frontmen in The (English) Beat before leaving that band and forming General Public.  Once GP split, they went their separate ways (Dave to the U.S. and Roger to the UK).  Wakeling has toured and has been recording with his version of The English Beat while Roger has been doing his bit to keep the name alive in the UK. Roger’s version of the band have released BOUNCE, an absolute joy of an album that is actually the Beat’s most consistent full-length since their debut.


PAUL CARRACK/Soul Shadows
Still one of the UK’s finest vocalists, Paul Carrack continues to record and tour long after his involvement with bands like Ace, Squeeze and Mike & The Mechanics. Though fans of those bands would prefer to hear more Pop and Rock oriented material from Carrack, his heart is drawn to Soul music and SOUL SHADOWS continues to explore that genre. Mostly self-penned, Carrack also plays practically every instrument on the album and it is released on his own label. Yes, there is a Carrack cottage industry going on here and it is pure, lovely and full of emotion. Releasing his albums on his own label has allowed him to explore all aspects of Soul (with Pop and Rock flourishes) without major label interference.  And when Carrack gets to do things HIS way?  Pure magic.


THE EXPLORERS CLUB/Together
What a treat. The Explorers Club – like Jeffrey Foskett and The Wondermints before them – channel the spirit of the Beach Boys in more ways than one.  The harmonies are exquisite. The songs are amazing. However, the album isn’t just an homage to Brian Wilson & Co.’s influence – it is a love letter performed by a band that understands the inner workings of what made The Beach Boys tick. At times quite stunning, this is an album that needs the love and attention of a nation at odds with itself.  Peace and love, man.


FISCHER-Z/This Is My Universe
Whether he is recording under his own name or the band name Fischer-Z, John Watts has yet to release a bad album. Sure, some are better than others but he’s yet to release anything that registers lower than ‘really good’ on the Richter scale. THIS IS MY UNIVERSE is yet another solid platter from an artist that is unafraid to challenge himself with each release.  FZ’s sound has evolved over the years, finally merging with his solo work, which tended to be more stripped-back and loose.  Nearly 40 years on, Watts remains as relevant as ever.


STEVE FORBERT/Flying By Night
FLYING BY NIGHT is a surprise release, coming just a year after his previous album COMPROMISED (he usually releases an album ever 2-3 years).  And while that album made my list for 2015, this release is even better.  From what I understand, this album was quickly recorded to be released when Forbert did a tour overseas. The songs were, for the most part, previously written bun unreleased.  Whatever the case, it is a wonderful album that actually feels more relaxed than his last few albums. What I love about Forbert is his ability to travel his Folk path and remain true to his musical calling while also realizing that a good melody draws in listeners just as much as a good lyrical tale.  The album is a lo-fi feast of great songs written and performed as only Forbert can. 


THE FRIGHTNRS/Nothing More To Say
One of the things I love about early Ska and Reggae recordings is their haunting quality. The hollow, monaural, echo-drenched (and Dub-inflected) production almost howls at the moon. Though joyful and carefree, you can almost feel the speakers weeping as the sounds swirl around the room. Daptone Records’ first Reggae signings, The Frightnrs fully understand the core of what made those recordings so special. Recorded in mono, NOTHING MORE TO SAY blends Reggae and classic Soul together, creating something that sounds both modern and retro. While I immediately fell in love with its haunting vibe, it wasn’t until I did some research that I discovered vocalist Dan Klein had passed away before the album’s release. Now, the album feels even more haunting than before.


PHIL JUDD/Unique
Nobody creates music quite like Phil Judd. This former Split Enz, Swingers and Schnell Fenster frontman has seen his former bandmates achieve fame and fortune while he toils away, creating music that is mind-bending, multi-layered, thought-provoking and truly UNIQUE. Phil shines his bright creative light into dark places, sounding at odds with the world but accepting of the rain that has dampened his parade.  His music is sometimes scary, sometimes heartbreaking and often times beautiful - UNIQUE is always riveting. Phil Judd has been a recording artist for 45 years and he still finds something new to say and comes up with interesting ways of saying it. UNIQUE is most certainly an apt title for an album by a unique, intensely creative and continually relevant artist in the fifth decade of his career. While this album may be the least commercial entry in my Top 20, its rewards are plentiful to those who like to submerge themselves into something quirky and murky. The magic of the wobbly wizard is still pulsating through his veins!


LATIN QUARTER/The Imagination Of Thieves
THE IMAGINATION OF THIEVES, is perhaps Latin Quarter’s finest full-length since their 1985 debut album, MODERN TIMES. This release is chock full of lovely moments that evoke a time when songs were written from the heart and not on an assembly line.  Vocalist, writer and guitarist Steve Skaith, who released the excellent acoustic LATIN QUARTER: BARE BONES album last year, is still a master of melodies. He has a way with a tune that reaches down deep and massages your heart while the lyrics keep your brain cells working overtime. Sometimes, the songs may take a few spins to really sink in but they provide the ultimate payoff – you become emotionally vested in the music.  Far more gentle and acoustic than their ‘80s releases, Latin Quarter has changed with the times while staying true to their cause. Their sound now is earthy, warm and inviting. There’s no denying that keyboardist/producer/songwriter Steve Jeffries has become an integral part of the band’s sound. As on Skaith’s solo album last year, his keyboard work enhances the beauty of the melodies, creating an ethereal feeling that floats around Skaith’s still brilliantly earnest vocals. Just listen to the beautiful piano melody on “Dylan Thomas Was Right” to fully understand how important his musical input is. 


THE LEGAL MATTERS/Conrad
The Legal Matters personify the sound of Power Pop. Their music manages to include huge portions of Power Pop’s three key ingredients — melodic hooks, luscious harmonies and shimmering guitars. They also manage to squeeze in plenty of warmth, heart, and honesty. The band’s three members – Andy ReedChris Richards and Keith Klingensmith –have been making music separately for years (Andy as An American Underdog, Chris with The Subtractions and Keith and Chris with The Phenomenal Cats) but once they combined forces as The Legal Matters, they became arguably the finest indie Pop band in the U.S. The Legal Matters follow-up their smashing debut with an album that lives up to expectations… and then some! Not only have they come up with yet another batch of great songs, the trio have upped the vocal harmony ante on CONRAD. The harmonies are so airy, light and beautiful that they sound like they are literally floating above the music. CONRAD is far from a carbon copy of their debut – it is more like an upgrade with bonus features.


LOOK PARK/Look Park
Although it has been five years since Fountains Of Wayne released their last album, 2011’s SKY FULL OF HOLES, singer/guitarist Chris Collingwood has been working hard on mixing up his proven songwriting ‘formula’ and approaching the songs in new and more intimate ways. Produced by Mitchell Froom, this ‘debut’ album is a collection of well-crafted songs that retain the melodic charm of FOW but take Chris in new and exciting directions. One of producer Froom’s earliest claims to fame was his work with Crowded House, and Look Park travels a similar musical path as those albums from the Kiwi band led by Neil Finn. The album is filled with great melodic hooks, yes, but the album is warm and intimate. These are songs you fall in love with, and like true love, the album only gets better with time. The production is lush yet intimate and Collingwood approaches each track with a tenderness that was not as apparent as on his work with FOW. “Stars Of New York,” “Breezy,” “Minor Is The Lonely Key,” “You Can Come Round If You Want To,” and “Crash That Piano” are absolutely lovely without being maudlin or too mellow (not that either of those are bad things). Surprisingly, there is very little electric guitar on the album – acoustic guitar, piano and mellotron create an atmosphere that is inviting and melancholic. In essence, LOOK PARK is a beautiful piece of work. It is Pop and it is powerful – it’s just not Power Pop. Don’t fear, FOW fans, Chris has delivered the goods and they are glorious.


RAY MASON/The Shy Requester
It is difficult to explain Ray Mason’s charm to the average music fan. Normally, I like to say, “Imagine Neil Young fronting NRBQ” and most of them say, “Who is NRBQ?” so that comparison doesn’t really work.  When I suggest that his albums kind of slightly resemble David Lindley’s ‘80s releases with El Rayo X, I get blank stares as well. Anyway, I love Ray.  I’ve got a stack of his solo releases going back 20 years or so and he’s never let me down.  Usually working with a band, Ray occasionally releases albums that feature nothing more than his songs, his voice and his Silvertone guitar.  THE SHY REQUESTER is one of those albums. No frills but filled with heart, the songs are nothing more than simple observations taken from Ray’s life… almost like a diary with a reverb pedal and twang bar.  Honest and pure, Ray Mason continues to be one of America’s greatest hidden treasures. So, if you love Jonathan Richman, Nick Lowe, Neil Young, David Lindley, NRBQ, Dave Edmunds and the like, Ray is your man. 


 
IAN McNABB/Respectfully Yours
I normally don’t purposely make time for albums consisting entirely of cover versions.  However, this is Ian McNabb we are talking about here.  Since his days fronting The icicle Works in the ‘80s, Ian has been one of the most consistent singer/songwriters to emerge during the Post-Punk/New Wave movement in the UK.  On RESPECTFULLY YOURS, this Mercury Prize-nominated Liverpudlian musician has given his own spin to songs by artists as varied as The Bee Gees, Echo & The Bunnymen, Randy Newman and Black Sabbath (among others). Instead of boring us with faithful renditions of these tracks, McNabb has shaken them from their foundations and rebuilt them from the ground up. Thankfully, the song’s melodies are still identifiable and familiar. However, they FEEL different and evoke different emotions from the listener. Laid back, unassuming, passionate and without pretension, Ian definitely handles these songs with love and respect.


 
THE MONKEES/Good Times
GOOD TIMES is the band’s best full studio offering since 1967’s PISCES AQUARIUS CAPRICORN & JONES album and definitely one of the best albums of 2016. It is filled with songs that are short, sweet and filled with the Monkees magic that has really set them apart from their contemporaries in the ‘60s and even today. Does it sound like a classic ‘60s Monkees album?  No, but it does feature all the elements that made those albums stand out: great songwriting, production, performances and vocals. Good Times is modern and filled with more energy and excitement than a Chuck E. Cheese during a six year old’s birthday party! From joyful (“You Bring The Summer”, “She Makes Me Laugh”) to melancholic and lovely (“Me & Magdalena”, “I Know What I Know”), this is a feast for those who like hook-filled slices of Pop that rarely exceed the three minute mark. It is more than a great Monkees album  – it is a great album PERIOD.  If you dig the swinging’ ‘60s, Power Pop, Jangle Pop and a dash of Soul and Psych-Rock, then this is an album you should take home and snuggle with.  It spans many generations, mixes them together and lathers it all with love.  GOOD TIMES, indeed! Micky Dolenz remains one of Rock’s most underrated vocalists while Michael Nesmith sprinkles some of his genius onto a few of the tracks as well.


 
MOTORAMA/Dialogues
Listening to DIALOGUES from Russian Post-Punk band Motorama is like revisiting the ‘80s without having to get out of your seat and bother with the time machine. At the same time, it still features all the accoutrements of modern technology so you never feel entirely out of your element. Imagine, if you will, FAITH-era Cure joining forces with POWER, CURRUPTION & LIES-era New Order! While the production is certainly not as ambitious and glossy as today’s modern recordings, that is part of its charm.  This is melodic, dark, hopeful and mysterious. If you’re a fan of slightly dark and very melodic ‘80s music, this is one that should light our fire.  With that being said, it also stands on its own two feet as a great modern indie album that you need to check out… pronto!


 
OSCAR/Cut and Paste
How’s this for an obscure comparison – Martin Rossiter of Gene meets Damon Albarn (Blur) with some Dan Black thrown in for good measure. Oscar creates music that successfully blends Britpop with Electronic Pop, adding some great songwriting into the mix. Instantly lovable, this is music that is edgy enough to be considered cool by the indie kids but hook-filled enough for their folks to dig it as well.  Oscar may not take that as a compliment, but it truly is high praise!


PACIFIC SOUL LTD/The Dance Divine
 Based in L.A., this trio – Norman Kelsey, Teresa Cowles and Adam Marsland – are chiefly known for their individual work with many Indie Pop-flavored outfits over the last two decades. Inspired by their mutual love of Soul, Pop and Funk, the three combined their talents and have released THE DANCE DIVINE, an album packed to the brim with songs that combine their Pop smarts with a distinctly soulful edge. This trio knows that there is no Soul without soul and they bring plenty of it to the table. Like vintage AM radio from the mid-‘60s to mid-‘70s, THE DANCE DIVINE crackles with pure love and energy. Remember when you could listen to a Top 40 station and hear artists like The Delfonics, Paul McCartney, Bill Withers, The Four Tops, The Partridge Family, The Bee Gees, Stevie Wonder and Edison Lighthouse in the same music block? Norman, Teresa and Adam sure do, and THE DANCE DIVINE mines those memories to great effect. Mix in a dash of Disco and a flick of Funk. Add in some Beach Boys harmonies and a Motown groove and you’ve got one hell of a party platter.


THE ROOMATES/Church Bells Ringing
Released on the El Toro label, The Roomates’ 2016 release is an absolute gem. Call them Doo Wop, call them ‘50s retro.  It doesn’t matter.  What matters is that you need to hear this.  The music is so simple and carefree on the surface, yet there’s so much feeling and emotion.  It is perhaps the most uplifting album I’ve heard all year.  This is an album that will clear the clouds on a rainy day and make the birds sing more joyfully on a sunny day.  By the end of the album, you’ll be grinning from ear to ear.  The album doesn’t possess the haunting feel of classic Doo Wop from the ‘50s but then again, the inspiring vibe of the album might get lost if that layer of sadness was added to the songs on this album. A real treasure.


NEIL SEDAKA/I Do It For Applause
Celebrating 60 years as a recording artist, Neil Sedaka is still touring and, thankfully, writing and recording as only Neil can.  A sequel to his piano and vocal only album THE REAL NEIL, I DO IT FOR APPLAUSE takes things one step further by focusing completely on new material and not the mixture of new songs and classic hits as he did on the previous release. At 77 years old, Neil’s keen sense of melody is still intact and he continues along the same musical road he’s been traveling down since the late ‘60s – classic Pop from the heart. As he stated some 45 years ago, the ‘tra la la’ days are over and he proves that on this album. There are no nods to his ‘50s or ‘60s recordings at all. I DO IT FOR APPLAUSE is Neil in the here and now. He still sings about love, life, hopes and dreams. He still knows how to connect, emotionally, with the listener. Surprisingly, his voice is showing very little sign of age although there are a few moments that his voice sounds a little less powerful than it did on “Solitaire” or “You.” Then again, you have to remind yourself that this guy was wowing our grandparents, our parents, us and OUR kids. He’s a Rock ‘n’ Roll legend, a Pop songwriting genius (yes, genius!) and a survivor. Show him some love. Again!


 SETH SWIRSKY/Circles And Squares
He’s an acclaimed author, filmmaker and songwriter (“Tell It To My Heart” by Taylor Dayne is one of his best known songs) yet Seth Swirsky sounds most comfortable as a recording artist. CIRCLES AND SQUARES is a lovely album from top to bottom. Relaxed, melodic and full of musical twists and turns, Swirsky combines the sweetness of McCartney with the wide-eyed adventurous spirit of Brian Wilson. Whether he is a member of The Red Button or a solo artist, Seth Swirsky is completely in tune with the music he creates. He works from the inside out, crafting glorious slices of Pop music and makes it look so easy.  In a sense, CIRCLES AND SQUARES is a loving homage to those that influenced him throughout his career. Swirsky is the real deal.  A name you need to remember and an artist you need to add to your collection!


The next 10 (21-30)
(In alphabetical order):

ANTON BARBEAU/Magic Act
JIMMY BARNES/Soul Searchin’
CHRIS de BURGH/A Better World
FLASHBACK CARUSO/Flashback Caruso Memorial Barbeque
BRUCE FOXTON/Smash The Clocks
JEREMY & THE HARLEQUINS/Into The Night
NADA SURF/Peaceful Ghosts
NICK PIUNTI/Trust Your Instincts
STATUS QUO/Aquostic II –That’s A Fact!
THE SYN/Trustworks

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

CROWDED HOUSE: The DELUXE EDITIONS review!


CROWDED HOUSE
The Deluxe 2CD Editions

SPAZ reviews the recorded legacy of Neil Finn & Co.

I interviewed Neil Finn a few years back and told him – off the record - that he and his brother Tim were ‘ordinary men with extraordinary talents.’ He replied with a chuckle, “I’ll take that!” While listening to the Deluxe 2CD Editions of all seven of Crowded House’s studio albums, I’m reminded about just how accurate my description of the Finns was… and is. While Tim and Neil are both exceptional at making music, their paths as artists have pulled them in slightly different directions. Tim has remained the more serious of the two while Neil still retains a playful energy that has been apparent since his days with Split Enz.  Tim has always been the one ‘in charge’ (i.e. the big brother) while Neil has played the role of the more sensitive and unpredictable little brother. In a sense, he always seemed to be in awe of his older brother but not fully aware that he is every bit his equal. Regardless of commercial success, the Finn Brothers remain enormously talented and inspiring artists.  However, I’ll focus on Neil’s Crowded House output for now (which includes a few significant appearances from Tim)…
First, a very brief history…
Crowded House rose from the ashes of Split Enz, New Zealand’s greatest musical export. Fronted by Tim Finn, the Enz began to make waves when their debut album, MENTAL NOTES, was released in 1975. By 1977, co-founder and musical genius Phil Judd left the band and Tim Finn chose to move forward with the Enz. Recognizing that his younger brother Neil was an extremely talented chap, Tim invited him to join the band. Within three years, Neil had penned “I Got You,” the band’s first worldwide hit. By 1984, Tim had decided to go solo and Neil moved ahead with Split Enz for one more album before deciding that he wanted to pursue different musical avenues.  He split the Enz but retained the services of drummer Paul Hester for his new band. Eventually, Neil brought in Nick Seymour – brother of Hunters & Collectors’ Mark - to handle bass duties for this new band that would eventually be christened Crowded House. And the rest is history (and sort of covered in the reviews of each release)

And now, about the DELUXE 2CD EDITIONS… All of them include new expanded packaging with informative booklet and a bonus CD containing an abundance of previously unreleased recordings and non-album tracks. I’m not going to go into depth about the bonus material apart from telling you here and now that every disc is essential. To hear working demos, early versions, rough mixes and previously unreleased songs is mind-blowing, especially if you’ve been a fan since the beginning.



CROWDED HOUSE (1986):  Neil Finn stripped away the excesses of the Enz’s full sound and approached songwriting differently on this debut from the trio. Still retaining a knack for writing a great melody, Finn’s songs and performances felt more emotional than his work with the Enz. Perhaps finally allowing himself to take charge of his music, Neil is far more confident on this set of songs. A lot must be said of Mitchell Froom’s production – tight, warm and inviting. Sounding more like an American band than anything Finn-related before or since, Crowded House’s stripped down sound was fresh and invigorating in 1986… and sounds remarkably timeless today. “Something So Strong,” “Now We’re Getting Somewhere,” “World Where You Live,” and the gloriously beautiful “Don’t Dream It’s Over” were songs that became the foundation of a career that reached far beyond the global popularity that the Enz once strived for.  Speaking of the Enz, the album includes a re-recording of “I Walk Away,” a song from their under-appreciated SEE YA ROUND album. CROWDED HOUSE was not all fun and games, though. There are moments of sadness - “Hole In The River” being one of them – that help balance the mood of the album.  And the band proves that they can rock out on “Love You ‘til The Day I Day”. The remaster here sounds clear and warm.  The bonus disc is filled with 17 tracks including non-album cuts, demos and live and studio oddities.  A brilliant package that follows the band from its infancy up through the debut album.



TEMPLE OF LOW MEN (1988): The previous album’s joy was apparent on first listen – you could feel the excitement oozing out of the grooves.  Strangely enough, this sophomore effort takes a detour and heads into darker territory. Still filled with the same melodic charm of the first album, TEMPLE OF LOW MEN seems to be a subconscious retaliation against the goofiness that the band was known for in videos and on stage. Deeper, more meaningful and perhaps a direct result of the pressures of fame (second time around for Neil), TOLM is an achingly beautiful album that is far more atmospheric than the jovial CROWDED HOUSE.  While that debut was a treat, TOLM is built on layers of melody and emotion. More tellingly, this was the first full album that revealed that Neil Finn had picked up the melodic, heartfelt Pop smarts that Paul McCartney dropped in the early ‘80s.  Yes, Neil Finn’s songwriting chops were that good.  Not many artists can crank out a standard rocker like “Kill Eye” and make it soar.  Then what about “Never Be The Same,” “When You Come,” “I Feel Possessed,” “Into Temptation” and “Better Be Home Soon”?  Glorious melodies mixed with just the right hint of melancholy and thoughtfulness. “Sister Madly” recalls the joy of the first album but the rest of TOLM took the band to the next level.  So much for the sophomore slump! The bonus disc is filled with 21 tracks including non-album cuts, demos and live and studio oddities.  And yes, it includes the ByrdHouse tracks recorded live with Roger McGuinn.



WOODFACE (1991): Combining the best elements of their first two albums, WOODFACE is a triumph on every level. The genesis of the album began with a batch of demos that Neil recorded with his brother Tim for a proposed Finn Brothers album. Instead of halting the momentum that CH had been building, the decision was made to add Tim to the band’s line-up (Neil returning the favor that changed his life?) and record those songs that they had been working on.  It’s fair to say that that was a brilliant idea, on par with that one guy who created heaven and earth. While not every track is a home run (the seemingly anti-American “Chocolate Cake” was a poor choice as a first single and lead track), WOODFACE should be considered one of the finest straightforward Pop albums released in a post-Beatles world.  Tim and Neil have always sounded great together and to hear them carry on that sibling tradition in Neil’s band is quite emotional. “Four Seasons In One Day,” “She Goes On,” “It’s Only Natural,”, “There Goes God,” “As Sure As I Am”… the list goes on.  And I didn’t even mention “Weather With You,” their huge European hit and a definite fan favorite.  Mitchell Froom, who twiddled the knobs on the first two albums, works his magic here as well. WOODFACE didn’t raise their profile much in the U.S., which is unforgiveable. Seriously, I’ll never forgive America for not making this album the biggest selling release of 1991. That’s almost as bad as voting Trump into office! If you only buy one Crowded House album, WOODFACE would be your best bet. It is not only their finest moment, it is also one of the greatest albums of the ‘90s. The bonus CD includes those precious Finn Brothers demos, studio outtakes and demos and more.  Absolutely ESSENTIAL!



TOGETHER ALONE (1993): Sad and somber, TOGETHER ALONE seems more of a sequel to TOLM than a direct follow-up to WOODFACE. With Tim leaving the band during the tour for WOODFACE and the addition of keyboardist Mark Hart to the line-up, it seems as if the band chose to shake things up altogether and brought in British producer Youth to handle the production.  Recorded in New Zealand far away from the temptations of city life, TOGETHER ALONE is a lovely album indeed.  If the term ‘Ethereal Rock’ has not been invented yet, then I’ll volunteer to tag this release as the first Ethereal Rock album ever.  Moody, sulking and filled to the brim with life-affirming melodies, this is an album that stands apart from the three previous albums but also fits comfortably right next to them.  Though sonically different from TOLM, it still travels down the same dark road, unafraid to be beautiful and slightly scary at the same time. “Kare Kare,” “Fingers Of Love,” and “Private Universe” are haunting, as is the lovely “Walking On The Spot”.  However, the band does manage to kick up some dirt with songs like “Locked Out,” “Black And White Boy” and “In My Command.” They also return to the Pop sound of old with “Distant Sun” and “Pineapple Head.” Though the band sounds more subdued, TOGETHER ALONE sound like an album created by a band still filled with creativity, talent and ambition.  Sadly, original drummer Paul Hester quit the band and CH replaced him with a touring drummer (Peter Jones). They decided to call it quits before they were able to record album #5. The bonus disc here includes demos plus live and studio oddities. P.S.  The album does feature appearances by former Enz members Eddie Rayner (who played live with CH in the early days), Noel Crombie and Tim Finn.



AFTERGLOW (1999): Released for the fans that were devastated by their break-up, AFTERGLOW features a handful of non-album b-sides plus previously unreleased tracks that never made the albums.  While all of them are definitely worthwhile, the ‘mood’ of the album is not consistent.  But that isn’t the point, is it?  As a collection of rarities, it is a wonderful addition to any collection. “Anyone Can Tell” and “Recurring Dream” are worth the price of AFTERGLOW alone. And let’s be honest, even a track that the band deemed unworthy of an album release at the time is far more superior to some artists’ entire catalogs! The bonus disc does feature the three ‘new’ tracks that were included on the RECURRING DREAM collection (1996): “Instinct,” “Everything Is Good For You,” and “Not The Girl You Think You Are,” which sounds like a WHITE ALBUM outtake.



TIME ON EARTH (2007): Here in the U.S., this is an Amazon-only release so I’ll just briefly talk about it. Two years after the suicide of original drummer Paul Hester, Neil, Nick, Mark Hart and new drummer Matt Sherrod released the first Crowded House studio album in 14 years.  Although Hester is not on the album, he is a major part of it. Lyrically, almost every track deals with Hester’s death, either directly or indirectly.  The album is a very somber affair, although Neil Finn brings some gorgeous songs to the table. However, since the breakup of CH, it seemed as if Neil Finn was tired of being ‘Neil Finn’ and slightly altered his songwriting style – he became more reflective and experimental. As many artists are quick to admit, writing for a band and writing for yourself are two different processes.  TIME ON EARTH – not surprisingly - initially began as a Neil Finn solo album (with Nick Seymour on bass) but Neil changed his mind and had Mark Hart come and add his keyboard work to some of the songs. Sherrod was chosen as the band’s new drummer and they completed the album as a four piece. TIME ON EARTH became the fifth official Crowded House album. The sense of playfulness is gone, replaced by a more reflective spirit.  Touching and personal, the album warms its way into your heart after repeated spins. The bonus disc contains more demos and studio outtakes.  “So Dramatic” is one of Finn’s finest moments, sounding more McCartney than McCartney has sounded since 1980. (P.S. So much for being brief...)



INTRIGUER (2010): INTRIGUER is an entirely different beast than TIME ON EARTH. More confident, experimental and musically rich, INTRIGUER is an album that shows Finn moving forward and not attempting to relive the CH days of old. In fact, there are very few moments on this album that recall the band’s salad days. The album feels fresh and exciting although Finn’s catchy melodies no longer recall his influences. Neil Finn seems to be comfortable being Neil Finn, an artist unafraid to change things up whenever the hell he feels like it. INTRIGUER is an album that doesn’t sound like a nostalgic money-grab – this is a band moving forward. “Saturday Sun,” “Archer’s Arrows,” “Either Side Of The World,” and especially “Twice If You’re Lucky” are just as good as anything the band has recorded in their catalog. The album may be too different for some fans, but we must allow our favorite artists to grow and create the music they want to create.  Otherwise, they just end up going through the motions… and I don’t think Neil Finn plans to be doing that any time soon. The bonus disc is filled with live, demo and previously unreleased recordings.

Crowded House’s recent shows in Australia are said to be their last but I sure hope Neil changes his mind.  Or maybe he should just get the Enz back together and play somewhere close to me in Orange County, California.  Or do a Finn Brothers tour. Or record another solo album.  Or…..

Peace, love and pancakes,
Stephen SPAZ Schnee