Wednesday, May 25, 2016

THE MONKEES’ Good Times: The SPAZ Review




It is 2016 and The Monkees are celebrating their 50th Anniversary the very same year I celebrate my 50th Anniversary as a Monkees fan. Way back in 1966 when the TV show first aired and the band had their first hit single (‘Last Train To Clarksville’), I was coming up on my third birthday and my brother was nearing his fourth. My parents sat us down in front of the television and introduced us to a quartet that instantly became our second favorite band (after The Beatles, of course). Mom and Dad often said that the thirty minutes The Monkees were on was the ONLY time during the week when they didn’t have to worry about us getting into any trouble – we were glued to the tube and thoroughly enjoying their zany antics and great songs.

Flash forward five decades, and if my folks were still around they’d be happy to know that I predictably spent 30+ minutes glued to my CD player as I threw on Good Times, The Monkees’ first studio album in twenty years. And then I went back and listened again. And again. You see, I wanted to give this an honest review and not base my opinion on one listen. So, I listened to it a fourth time, a seventh time, etc. And so, here goes…

HIGH POINTS:

Micky Dolenz remains a totally underrated vocalist in the Rock world, and his performances on this album are superb. This guy has more soul now than ever, and you can tell he’s having a good…no, make that GREAT time on these songs. Peter Tork has never sounded better than he does on his two featured lead vocals on the album.  Michael Nesmith takes the lead on three tracks and brings his sincerity, easy-going charm and confidence with him. Even the late Davy Jones gets a turn at the mic thanks to modern technology (but more about that later).

Nesmith and Tork brought their own game to the original Monkees albums, often adding Folk and Country elements to the band’s formula that may not have been part of Don Kirschner’s original bubblegum blueprint. On Good Times, that tradition continues with both members making sizeable contributions to the overall sound and feel of the album. Micky and Davy may have been the lead voices on most of the hits, but Nez and Tork were just as important to the band’s recorded output. When putting Good Times together, producer Adam Schlesinger (Fountains Of Wayne) wisely let them continue adding their own musical stamp to the sessions, which proves just how much he fully understands the chemistry that made The Monkees work.

Instead of choosing between a retro or modern sound, Schlesinger and The Monkees team chose both paths – literally and figuratively. Most of the album was recorded in 2016, but there are a handful of tracks that mix original backing tracks from the band’s heyday with new twists and tweaks. However, these original backing tracks are from songs that were never officially released back then. You’re certainly not getting “I’m A Believer, 2016” or some nonsense like that. What you do get is a spirited duet between Micky and Harry Nilsson on the album’s title track, plus an updated version of the Neil Diamond-penned “Love To Love” featuring Davy on vocals. (My ears may be deceiving me, but this sounds like an alternate vocal take to the versions that were finally released in the ‘80s and ‘90s). “Love To Love” has always been one of my faves, so hearing it with Dolenz and Tork providing new backing vocals is a real treat. Schlesinger and Co. seamlessly blend new with old, making Good Times a consistently engaging listen from beginning to end.

Along with classic songs by Nilsson, Diamond, Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart, and Carole King & Gerry Goffin – plus excellent Tork and Nesmith originals – Good Times includes new songs written for this project by XTC’s Andy Partridge (“You Bring The Summer”), Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo (“She Makes Me Laugh”), Adam Schlesinger (“Our Own World”) and Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard (“Me & Magdalena”). “Birth Of An Accidental Hipster” – penned by Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller – could easily have been on The Monkees’ 1968 album The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees. Dolenz and Schlesinger offer up the album closer “I Was There (And I’m Told I Had A Good Time)”, which finds Micky in fine rockin’ voice. The performance is reminiscent of his playful vocal on “Saving My Love For You” from the Dolenz Jones Boyce & Hart album released in 1976. Unsurprisingly, half of that team - Dolenz and Bobby Hart - appear on Good Times!


LOW POINTS:

I might have to wait another twenty years for another new Monkees album.



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 and criss-crosses generations, mixes them together and lathers it all with love.  Good Times, indeed!


Fifty years on, I still heart The Monkees.







Peace, love and root beer,
Stephen SPAZ Schnee

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

PETER BJORN & JOHN: An EXCLUSIVE Q&A!


NOSTALGIC INTELLECT:

An EXCLUSIVE Q&A with 
PETER BJÖRN AND JOHN’S 
Peter Morén

    Swedish trio Peter Björn and John have created a musical universe that is constantly evolving. However, they’ve managed to retain their unique charm that made them press darlings a decade ago with “Young Folks”. What many didn’t realize is that that hit’s parent album, Writer’s Block, was the trio’s third in a career that has seen them stretch the boundaries of Pop music. While Top 40 radio’s Pop guidelines are pretty rigid, Peter Morén, Björn Yttling and John Eriksson treat them like elastic rubber bands, bending and twisting those guidelines into new and exciting aural avenues. They’ve even managed to carve out musical careers outside of PB&J while never lowering the quality control level on the albums they record together. And can you believe they even collaborated with Canadian hip hopster Drake a handful of years before he became a musical sensation?
    Breakin’ Point, their first album in five years, finds PB&J offering up a collection of songs that are so instantly lovable that you’ll swear you’ve been in love with them for years. Every track on the album is a potential hit single – the melodies leap out and grab hold on the first spin. Their songwriting is based in classic ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s Pop/Rock, but the production, arrangements and inventiveness is thoroughly modern if not outright forward-thinking. They’ve sidestepped the experimental moodiness of some of their past albums and embraced their more playful side. This isn’t an album that tries to revisit their past glories – it creates new ones.
    Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to track down band member Peter Morén, who kindly took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions about Breakin’ Point, PB&J and more…
 

STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: Breakin’ Point is just about to be released. How are you feeling about the album and the reaction to it so far?
PETER MORÉN: I think it’s our best album ever. You’re always supposed to say that but this time I really, really mean it. We played 6 new songs on our recent brief US visit, our first gig in 3 years. People loved the new stuff! Hands down!

SPAZ: It has been five years since the release of Gimme Some. Why did it take so long for this album to come together?
PETER: First off we didn’t work on it every day. There was other stuff going on as well. But even so, MENTALLY it’s been an ongoing thing for four years. We had a couple of false starts finding our feet. We then realized we started recording and producing too fast so we went back to the drawing board to make sure we had a bunch of classic songs. These needed to incorporate great melodies and lyrics, which you could play on a guitar and still make interesting. After that we proceeded to work on production and arrangements. We treated the album more like a bunch of singles rather than just an album. So every song got the love and care it deserved down to every last detail. And to up the ante even more we called in all these producers to add stuff that we wouldn’t have thought of or could pull off. So that took some time as well.

SPAZ: The album is filled with beautifully written Pop melodies, inventive arrangements and that unique PB&J “atmosphere”. Is the process of writing and creating music that much different today than it was when you recorded your 2002 debut album?
PETER: Thanks! It gets harder every time. First off is because you want to do your very best. Also you don’t want to repeat yourself, while at the same time you want to keep that ‘atmosphere’ that is quintessentially “us”. Also we wanted to make danceable modern chart-contenders that could also work on a more mature, introspective singer-songwriter-level. Not really a contradiction, but still. And the three of us sometimes want different things and pull in different directions. We have to find our common ground and love the finished product, which takes time. Maybe it won’t next time? We have learned a lot during this process and made mistakes that we hope we won’t make again. In the early days we sort of just did things on the spur of the moment and that can work nicely too, but not forever. Possibly we think too much now and demand too much of ourselves? But on the other hand if you’re happy and content, then what’s the point in pushing yourself into doing more music? So we keep looking for new goals to reach!

SPAZ: The musical landscape changes rather quickly. As you prepare to release the album, does it feel like a completely different industry than it was the last time you released one together? And is that a little daunting or is it exciting?
PETER: Both. I think the diminished value of the album as a whole is a little sad. This surely is an album in the truest sense but then again it works well as individual tracks. I love the tactile thing of physical records and so does my three-year-old son. There is a magical element that doesn’t translate to streaming. However you have to go with the flow and I just hope people can find our music, whatever way or platform they may use. Streaming is great for when you’re out and about, listening to all sorts of music. A combination of both is what you hope for of course. It’s a bit like comparing good fast-food and fine dining, both are nice and taste good!

SPAZ: Breakin’ Point is packed with potential singles. Do you have an input into what tracks get released to radio or do you leave that to other people? It must be difficult since you are so close to the music…
PETER: We do leave that to others. This time around we especially tried to produce the record like 12 singles so it sort of felt like they were all singles to us. Like a new “best of” ;) But the radio landscape is something for people who work with radio promotion, as they know better. It’s obvious though from just fans and journalists that a lot of people have different favorites from the get go.

SPAZ: The album shows that PB&J are still as relevant as they’ve always been. Did you have a clear idea on what kind of album you wanted to make even before going into the studio or did it grow organically? And was there a particular song that you wrote or recorded when you realized, “Yes, this is all coming together!”?
PETER: This time we had less of a clear idea than we usually have, and maybe that’s why it took a long time. But we surely did still want to feel relevant J. Often in the past we have had a production or style dogma before starting an album. This time that lay more in the songwriting than in the production. We wanted classic pop songs with a current twist, which involved great melodies, words, form and shape in a medium tempo all clocking in under four minutes. There were no super-short superfast punkers or super-long experimental tracks or slow ballads, we managed to stick to that rule for sure! But in addition the word “disco” and “danceable” was also mentioned. When it came to production everything was allowed, really. Any color could be splashed on the black and white canvas that we had sketched. More was for once more and when all doors are open it’s harder to choose. But with the help of the producers we were able to choose wisely in the end.


SPAZ: Was there a particular song that you wrote or recorded when you realized, “Yes, this is all coming together!”?
PETER: It was a different story for different songs. For some we have almost five different finished versions and in the end which one to choose wasn’t that easy. We kept changing them ‘til the very last minute, changing choruses and melodies even. So a clearer deadline could have been helpful. But a song like “Do-si-do” came to shape pretty easy and early on felt great. Also the mix of almost acoustic folk with disco felt like some sort of direction for proceedings. However, when we worked with Paul Epworth on “A long goodbye” in London, that really turned everything upside down from all the versions we previously had; he changed the beat and added a lot of textures. So that was a real turning point for me at least. Sometimes you look for something special that you really can’t pinpoint or describe, and you don’t know what it is until you hear it!

SPAZ: Breakin’ Point is certainly a classic PB&J album yet you continue to shape and improve your “formula” over the years. Is it difficult to grow and create new sounds when you are an established artist and your audience has certain expectations?
PETER: I think the highest expectations are from ourselves. But I agree that keeping your personality through the changes is important. We have a wide and eclectic taste in music between the three of us, and when we boil it down we get the classic PBJ-recipe; the magic is in the combination of us three. It’s hard work but shouldn’t sound like hard work. It should sound effortless, otherwise it wouldn’t be good pop! So let’s just hope the fans and us have the same hopes and expectations!

SPAZ: How much material did you have for the album? Are there finished tracks left over for future releases (b-sides, deluxe editions, etc.)?
PETER: When we wrote songs we had tons of ideas but when it came down to the recording we kind of decided which ones to finish. There was one track “High Up”, released on the INGRID vol. 2-collection last year and another one “Bad taste”, which turned up on the “Breakin’ Point”-7inch and will eventually be released digitally. There’s at least one or two more tracks almost done that might turn up in the future.

SPAZ: What’s next for Peter Bjorn & John?
PETER: Touring, touring and touring.

SPAZ: What are you currently spinning on your record, CD, DVD or Blu-Ray players?
PETER: Talking about streaming…I listen to a lot of music on my phone while running in the woods.
Lately I’ve been digging the new albums from Andersson Paak, Kanye West, Emmy The Great, The Cactus Blossoms, Steve Mason and just yesterday the new one from James Blake which sounded great. At home I mostly listen to records though, and then it might be old stuff on vinyl like Harry Nilsson, Tim Hardin, Paul McCartney, Laura Nyro, Bert Jansch, Go-Betweens and such. I took out Damon Albarn’s Everyday Robots yesterday for a re-spin and it’s still fantastic. And I’ve just rediscovered the sophistopop-classic Meet Danny Wilson (by Danny Wilson). Fine tunes. I often let my son pick, so it can be quite random. I revisited Billy Paul after his passing as well. On DVD, I mostly stream TV-series or movies on Netflix or HBO. Just saw the classic movie To Kill A Mockingbird with Gregory Peck. Old Hollywood sure knew how to do a film. But my DVD-box of Father Ted never has a cobweb on it. Pull that out every so often.

Thanks to Peter Morén
Special thanks to Shari Segalini, Michael Nobrega and Nick Kominitsky


Friday, April 29, 2016

NBCUniversal Announces DreamWorks Animation Acquisition!




NBCUniversal has just upped their game by acquiring DreamWorks Animation. This major acquisition builds on NBCUniversal’s presence in family and animation space. DreamWorks Animation is set to become a unit of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group. Is NBCUniversal/DreamWorks now primed and ready to go head-to-head with Disney in the family film/animation market?  Grab a bucket of popcorn, folks, because this is about to get real!
Here’s what the press release says:



NBCUniversal, a division of Comcast Corporation (NASDAQ: CMCSA), today announced the acquisition of DreamWorks Animation (NASDAQ: DWA). One of the world's most admired family brands, DreamWorks Animation creates animated feature films, television series and specials, live entertainment and related consumer products. The studio will become part of the Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, which includes Universal Pictures, Fandango, and NBCUniversal Brand Development.

"DreamWorks Animation is a great addition to NBCUniversal," said Steve Burke, CEO of NBCUniversal.  "Jeffrey Katzenberg and the DreamWorks organization have created a dynamic film brand and a deep library of intellectual property.  DreamWorks will help us grow our film, television, theme parks and consumer products businesses for years to come.  We have enjoyed extraordinary success over the last six years in animation with the emergence of Illumination Entertainment and its brilliant team at Illumination Mac Guff studio.  The prospects for our future together are tremendous. We are fortunate to have Illumination founder Chris Meledandri to help guide the growth of the DreamWorks Animation business in the future."  

The transaction is expected to close by the end of 2016, subject to antitrust approvals in the U.S. and abroad, as well as the satisfaction of other customary closing conditions.
Following the completion of the transaction, DreamWorks Animation CEO and co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg will become Chairman of DreamWorks New Media, which will be comprised of the company’s ownership interests in Awesomeness TV and NOVA.  Katzenberg will also serve as a consultant to NBCUniversal.

The acquisition gives NBCUniversal broader reach to a host of new audiences in the highly competitive kids and family entertainment space, in both TV and film. It includes popular DreamWorks Animation film franchise properties, such as Shrek, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon.  It also includes a thriving TV operation that is a significant supplier of family programming, with hundreds of hours of original, animated content distributed across linear and SVOD platforms in more than 130 countries.  Additionally, DreamWorks Classics, a large library of classic characters, including Where’s Waldo, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, will become part of the NBCUniversal portfolio, along with a successful consumer products business. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

PET SHOP BOYS/Super: SPAZ reviews the British duo's 2016 release!

     

     Super, the 13th studio album by British duo Pet Shop Boys, is a prime example of why the Electronic/Dance act will never be part of a nostalgic ‘80s package tour – they are too busy moving into the future to live in the past. When they scored their first big hit 31 years ago with “West End Girls,” PSB were a delicious mixture of smarmy Pop and then-modern Electronica. Vocalist Neil Tennant’s deadpan (and slightly campy) vocals and Chris Lowe’s melodic, percolating Euro/Electropop backdrop made for some exciting records back in the day, earning them worldwide success and hits in every corner of the world.  By the ‘90s, their star had faded a bit in the U.S. although they still released innovative and exciting albums that were snapped up by audiences In vastly different time zones than the States. Thankfully, PSB have continued to make fresh, forward-thinking records over the years. They’ve kept on top of Dance and Electronic music trends and have embraced them wholeheartedly.  You’ll still find elements of their ‘80s and ‘90s sound on Super but you’ll be sorely disappointed if you’re looking for “West End Girls 2016” because Neil and Chris have moved on. 


     The Dance music scene has continued to flourish as it evolves along with technology.  Some of the tracks that get played in clubs are merely extended versions of Pop radio hits while a majority are songs specifically created for the dance floor – there will be a vocal hook/chorus followed by a minute or two of instrumental madness before that hook comes back again (and that formula will be repeated throughout the song). Tracks like this don’t necessarily work at Top 40 radio but there’s no denying their charm – a hook is a hook. Neil and Chris embrace both aspects of Dance music – music to groove to and music that moves you – and Super offers up a night out even if you’re spending the night in.


     A few highlights: “Happiness” has a simple hook that feels like a hoedown in da House. “The Pop Kids” has a proper tune that creeps in after a few spins (and is certainly a great choice as a single). “Twenty-Something,” “The Dictator Decides,” and “Sad Robot World” are fine proper danceable Pop song that will appeal to those that haven’t listened to the duo since the late ‘80s (you’ve got some catching up to do, though!). “Groovy” is just that – a great Pop/Dance groover. There are more highlights, but you get the idea.

     Let’s be honest: these guys don’t revel in nostalgia and have no intention of cranking out the same album over and over. On the surface, it may just be a bunch of dance beats but dig deeper and you’ll find the heart and soul of what has made Pet Shop Boys an exciting Pop phenomenon for over three decades.  If you want “West End Girls,” go buy Please or Pop Art. If you want yet another impressive Pet Shop Boys album, then Super fits the bill. (P.S.  And it gets better with each spin, just as a proper album should!).

     And yes, the album lives up to its title! 

Monday, April 25, 2016

STEVE FORBERT/Romeo's Tunes


STEVE FORBERT:

Romeo's Tunes

Stephen SPAZ Schnee takes a stroll through some of the singer/songwriter's best catalog releases



     Ah, Steve Forbert...  38 years ago, he was lauded as 'the new Dylan'... which was a ludicrous tag to shackle anyone with.  First off, there had already been roughly 314 'new Dylans' since the old Dylan released his debut album in 1962.  While a few of them (Donovan in particular) had achieved a certain level of success, the others were swept aside when the next 'new Dylan' came along.  It seemed that every singer/songwriter who played an acoustic guitar and blew into a harmonica was destined to be labeled as the next 'new Dylan'.  And how many guitar-led bands were saddled with 'the new Beatles' tag over the years?  Even the Bay City Rollers were once called 'the new Beatles' but we all knew that they were really 'the new 1910 Fruitgum Company’!
      As for Steve Forbert, he deserved to be called 'the new Forbert' and left to his own devices.  Judging by his recorded output, he was (and is) an extremely gifted and unique artist who unfortunately spent the first part of his career trying to shake the 'new Dylan' tag and move on. It wasn’t his fault that misguided critics decided to slap a label on him but thankfully, he moved beyond that and has forged a successful career – his 2015 album Compromised is proof that he hasn’t lost any of his charm. Ever since he released his debut album, Alive On Arrival, in 1978, he has managed to release a series of albums that sound like no one else.  His songs come from the heart.  Whether he is singing from experience or writing from another person's perspective, he continues to hit the nail on the head each time. He still travels the Folk road that he began his journey on so many years ago, but he has no problem injecting Rock, Soul, Pop, Latin, Bluegrass and Zydeco into his songs. His music is now referred to as Americana but that’s just another attempt to label him.  If you need a simple description, I suppose American IS appropriate but there is so much more to him than one word can describe.
     While he continues to record and tour, his most commercially successful period was when he was signed to Nemperor/Sony in the late '70s and early '80s.  He released four albums (and recorded a fifth) for the label before he moved on. He’s recorded for several labels since leaving Nemperor some 30 years ago yet the majority of his output remains just as riveting as the albums recorded during his so-called ‘heyday’.  Thankfully, he also releases exclusive titles through his own Rolling Tide Records imprint, which has been a great output for rare recordings and reissues. Now that a handful of those titles are now available via retail outlets, I thought it would be a perfect time to tell you about some of them…

 
ALIVE ON ARRIVAL (1978)

     Alive On Arrival is the album that started the ball rolling.  With warm production and Forbert's intimate performances, the album heralded a new talent that, on first listen, didn't seem to fit comfortably in any one genre.  Sure, it's a Folk-centric album, but there's also many other influences floating around including Pop, Rock, Country and Gospel.  Some of those influences make themselves known in a chord change while other times, it's in the subtle nuances of the production and musical interplay.
     Forbert's voice possesses a rasp that is far from the cocky throttle of singers like Rod Stewart.  Forbert, at 23 years of age when this album was recorded, sounds as if he still retains that sense of wonder, excitement and playfulness that most of us lose when we 'grow up'. Now, don't get me wrong... he is far from child-like yet there remains a charm that is hard to describe.  Lyrically, he is right up there with the best of them, touching on issues that are personal but also universal.  He is smart and sharp but down to earth.
     While the album didn't contain a bonafide hit single, the critical raves that the album received raised Forbert's profile and brought some attention to this album.  Though many praised it's Folk-based approach, it is Forbert’s songwriting that really shines through. 

 
 JACKRABBIT SLIM (1980)
 (Deluxe 2CD Edition)

     In the late '70s and early '80s, nearly two years between albums seemed like a lifetime.  Most bands rise and fall in that amount of time.  But then again, most bands didn't release a sophomore album quite as wonderful as Jackrabbit Slim.  Still traveling the same musical ground as the first album, Jackrabbit Slim upped the ante in terms of melodies.  Alive On Arrival certainly had plenty of them, but this sophomore rekkid was more immediate and more satisfying if you were in search of a tune to hang your heart on.  
     While the album cover made Forbert seem even younger than his debut, the songs showed a deeper, more mature understanding of the Pop formula and how he was able to make it work in his favor.  The album's opener, "Romeo's Tune", was a Top 20 single and one of the finest hits to be played on radio that year.  The piano riff on its own is pure bliss, but the song itself sounds so joyful, so romantic and so heartfelt that it was hard to ignore.  While most people may not remember it by the song title, the moment the song starts, their eyes open wide and they gasp "Oh my God, I LOVE that song!".  Yeah, it's that good... 
     Fortunately, I can happily state that it is NOT all downhill from there.  Just the opposite, in fact.  Jackrabbit Slim is chock full of great tunes that are easily some of the best things he recorded during his time on Nemperor Records. Just like on his debut, the songs are all top notch.... only better! The songs have arrangements that are full, spacious and warm... yet the big, slick production doesn't interfere with the songs at all.
     And the bonus tracks?  Pure gold. The excellent 6 minute "The Oil Song" is added to the main album while a second CD is devoted to a handful of studio outtakes (“Witch Blues” is especially worthwhile) and alternate and live recordings. Very much worth your time and money!
  
 
LITTLE STEVIE ORBIT (1980)
(Deluxe 2CD Edition)

No matter who produced his records, Steve Forbert ended up sounding like Steve Forbert. Very early on, he managed to become a unique songwriter that stood out, no matter what type of production he was surrounded by. Since "Romeo's Tune" had been a decent sized hit on Pop radio, it seemed like Nemperor wanted to explore the poppier -even rockier - side of Forbert with his third release so they threw him in the studio with the great Pete Solley. Solley was just coming off the success of The Romantics' first album (also on Nemperor) and their hit "What I Like About You".  While Solley's production may not have been as earthy as Forbert's music was accustomed to, Forbert stepped up to the plate with a fine selection of songs that still sound great today.  OK, so the production is a bit condensed, but the songs are as meaningful as ever and the melodies are more direct and immediate.
      "Get Well Soon", "Song For Katrina", "Cellophane City". "Laughter Lou (Who Needs You?)", "If You've Got To Ask You'll Never Know", and "Lonely Girl" are definite highlights but Little Stevie Orbit is a strong album from start to finish.  There's certainly a lot of joy and energy coming from these songs and that is what makes Forbert who he is - he has a tendency to add charm and vitality to his performances. The bonus tracks here are from the same era and are top notch, with special kudos for "Planet Earth Song". Another winner of an album, although it didn't seem to do much in raising his commercial profile.   
     The bonus CD is a live show taped on Thanksgiving of 1980 and features live versions of tracks from his first three albums plus a few cuts that don't appear on his studio releases. 
  
 
STEVE FORBERT (1982)
(Expanded Edition)

For his self-titled fourth album, Forbert was paired with producer Steve Burgh, who had worked with Billy Joel, Phoebe Snow, John Prine, Willie Nelson and Steve Goodman.  Little Stevie Orbit was a fine album, but it seemed that Forbert's music needed a producer who 'understood' Forbert's roots.  Again, with "Romeo's Tune" in mind, the album Steve Forbert was a return to a folkier feel but this time with a more robust sound.  While it sounds slick and well-produced, album #4 is yet another collection of well-written songs that should have returned Forbert to commercial waters. In my opinion, this is the album that should have followed Jackrabbit Slim - commercial yet entirely unique.
     "Ya Ya (Next To Me)" should have been a massive hit with the catchy horn riff that carries the chorus into the stratosphere. "Listen To Me" is one of his finest, most heartfelt love songs... and that guitar hook is heavenly. The beauty of "Oh So Close (Yet So Far Away" is mesmerizing. "On The Beach" is a great mid-tempo rocker with a catchy little guitar hook. Other highlights include "Prisoner Of Stardom", "Beautiful Diana" and "You're Darn Right". When it comes down to it, this is my favorite album from his Nemperor/Sony period, but that's probably because I adore great Pop albums and that is what Steve Forbert (the album) is.
     Of the bonus tracks, "Suspicion" is a much more successful cover than "When You Walk In The Room" and fits more comfortably with the rest of the album. Then again, I love his version of "When You Walk In The Room", so that is not a complaint whatsoever! There's even two alternate versions of "Listen To Me"... and you can never have too many versions of that song on an album!

 
 DOWN IN FLAMES (3CD)

     Now, here is a real treat for Forbert fans!  Back in the day, I read in one of the music magazines (Rolling Stone? Creem?  Trouser Press?) that Steve had gone into the studio with producer Neil Giraldo (Pat Benatar) to start recording his fifth album.  This was probably around '83 or so.  After that, I read nothing else about the sessions and it wasn't until 1988 that Forbert resurfaced with Streets Of This Town on Geffen Records. With no sign of Giraldo on the album, I pretty much figured that the album never came to be (remember, this is way before the internet so there was no way I could keep tabs on music biz happenings).  Oddly enough, since 1988, I had completely forgotten about Forbert recording with Giraldo...
     Well, lo and behold, Forbert did actually record the album but it was never released!  After many years, Steve got the rights to release the album.  With some rejigging, Down In Flames is that very album and it shows yet another side to Forbert.  Some of the tracks rock harder than his previous work, while others are Forbert at his most sincere.  Listening to this set of songs makes you wonder why this album never saw the light of day. There's even a few Rockabilly tracks that Forbert seems to have a lot of fun with.  To be honest, it's unfair to compare this to his other work because I've been listening to the first four albums for 30+ years and then reviewing this release after only a dozen listens doesn't seem right.  What I will tell you is that this is a must-have for any Forbert fan! "Underwatertown", "What's So Hard About Being Alone" and "Lay Down Your Weary Tune Again" (later recorded for the album Mission Of The Crossroad Palms) are definite standouts. Since it feels like a departure from his previous albums, the songs are not as immediate and need a few spins before they sink in.  But don’t worry, you’ll succumb to its charms
     Down In Flames is a 3CD set, which makes it a must-have for your collection.  Disc One is the 13 track album, Disc Two is demos recorded for the album and Disc Three features live recordings spanning the years 1983-85.  Saying this album is a sweet deal is an understatement!

 
 EARLY ON: THE BEST OF THE MISSISSIPPI RECORDINGS

What a revelation this is!  As the title suggests, this is a collection of tracks recorded in the early ‘70s prior to Forbert’s signing to Nemperor. If you thought Forbert was pretty good with a Pop melody, then you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!  Still trying to find a musical path that he felt comfortable with, Early On finds Forbert experimenting with a lot of musical styles - Rock, Soul, Folk, Country, and Pop. When you think of it, his later recordings were really a mixture of everything he attempts here.  There’s even the original stab at the debut album’s “Going Down To Laurel” that has a different feel yet is just as magical as the well-known released version.  The recording quality varies on some of the tracks here but doesn’t detract from the music being made. Listening to this album is the equivalent of reaching into your pocket and finding a bunch of precious gems that you didn’t know were there. It is safe to say that some of the songs here are the most melodic that he’s ever released. A treasure trove of unreleased material that begs for another volume!


NEW LIBERTY HALF (2013)


The excellent New Liberty Half includes pre-production demos for the album The Place And The Time (2009) and a few other goodies.  A bit more relaxed than the finished album versions, these demos have a nice feel to them – the freshness of new material at the demo stage is always fascinating when you are familiar with the album versions.  Power Pop fans may recognize the name Steve Allen (he of the legendary 20/20), who plays guitar on many of these tracks. The song “Fifty Three Blues” didn’t make it to the album and there are alternate versions of “Beast Of Ballyhoo (Rock Show” and “Stolen Identity”. Finally, “Set the World Ablaze” from 2011 is added to the tracklist as well. All in all, another fine release from the gifted singer/songwriter. He never ceases to amaze.

 
DON’T LOOK DOWN (Live, 2010-2011)

GET YOUR MOTOR RUNNING (Live, 2011)

     I normally despise live albums. I own very few of them. However, since I find it necessary to eventually own every one of Steve Forbert’s releases, I make an exception for him.  And I have to be honest – this is an artist who really delivers in a live setting. A good live performer is able to transfix an audience but a great live performer feeds off the energy of the audience. Listening to these sets, Forbert is truly plugged into his audience and the electricity between him and his fans is enlightening.
     Don't Look Down is an acoustic solo performance recorded in 2010 and 2011 and the connection 'tween performer and audience can be felt as well as heard.  Case in point: how many times has he had to play “Romeo’s Tune” live?  A million times? Maybe more? Well, each and every live recording I’ve heard of that track, Forbert is still giving his all and making it sound fresh and exciting. When this set was recorded, that song was already three decades old and he still treats it as if it was on his most recent album. It might be frustrating for an artist to try to push a new album when all the audience wants to hear is the hits, but you really can't tell with Forbert.  He is truly in his element on a stage.
     Get Your Motor Running finds Forbert backed by the Queen City Fever Band and it is a truly rocking show. He throws in a few surprise cover versions (Elvis' "Heartbreak Hotel", Steppenwolf's "Born To Be Wild" and The Velvet Underground's "Rock & Roll", which segues into his own "You Can Not Win If You Do Not Play") plus a nice mix of old and new Forbert gems.  His old nuggets sound just as vibrant as the newer tracks and he doesn’t hold back in letting loose and having fun.


Now, what are you waiting for?  Time to build up your Steve Forbert CD collection.  And guess what?  There's more to come!

Peace, love and tunes,
Stephen SPAZ Schnee


Thursday, April 21, 2016

PRINCE: 1958-2016





PRINCE ROGERS NELSON
1958 - 2016

Nothing Compares 2 U



"Pop Life....


It seems that the cosmic stardust has finally settled on the golden age of Rock and Roll with the passing of its two brightest lights in only a matter of weeks..two complete originals yet sharing in retrospect an amazing amount of similarities....both were obviously trail blazers but it goes much further than that.


They were both incredibly prolific workaholics who kept us all guessing..both initially paid their dues and struggled artistically to find the hit formula,finally breaking through with futuristic concept albums in Ziggy and 1999..both flirted with sexual imagery and the reinvention of image...as they did musically switching between genres but at the same time creating their own sound....both heavily supported and nurtured fellow artists in writing and producing career saving music...not forgetting that they were gifted with the most amazing vocal ranges. The only main difference was that Prince was the consummate one man band....he could, and did it all...and he really COULD dance!...Bowie was a true cutting edge original, but also an amazing collaborator.


Bowie ruled the 70's...Prince took over in the 80's.


What a legacy they left us with."



Jerry T. Jones (One The Juggler/Glamweazel)

Thursday, March 24, 2016

HAIRCUT 100: An EXCLUSIVE Q&A with guitarist GRAHAM JONES!



Favorite Shirts: 
HAIRCUT 100 Revisited

An EXCLUSIVE Q&A 
with guitarist 
GRAHAM JONES


Haircut 100’s debut album Pelican West remains one of the truly great albums of the ‘80s. Inspired by everything from Jazz and Latin music to ‘60s Pop and Post-Punk, the 1982 album was a breath of fresh air at a time when pretentious ‘Popstar’ posing was more important than making music. From Bob Sargents warm and crisp production and singer/guitarist Nick Heyward’s Pop smarts, to the inventive horn arrangements, Pelican West was an album inspired by many styles embedded in the past, yet sounded modern and fresh. The band’s ability to embrace their influences while also creating their own unique sound is what makes Pelican West a timeless album. It is not rooted to a particular time period, so you can still play it thirty four years later without feeling that the album has dated itself. You can’t say that about other career-defining albums from this time period including The Human League’s Dare, Culture Club’s Colour By Numbers, Duran Duran’s Rio or any number of so-called New Wave classics.
Initially lumped in with the British Jazz Funk movement, Haircut 100 were a true musical phenomenon formed by Heyward and bassist Les Nemes. Guitarist Graham Jones completed the original trio. The band grew into a sextet with the addition of percussionist Marc Fox, drummer Blair Cunningham and horn player Phil Smith. The band’s first three singles – “Favorite Shirts (Boy Meets Girl),” “Love Plus One,” and “Fantastic Day” – became radio hits all over the world, and even earned airplay on the then-still-fresh MTV. To many, this fresh and seemingly wholesome band came out of nowhere and became a sensation. They may have been treated like teen idols in the UK, but other countries  – including the U.S. – focused on the music. The album itself was filled to the brim with great songs, many of which could have easily been a hit had they been released as singles (I’m looking at you in particular, “Lemon Firebrigade”!). When the band released the Pop-tastic post-album single “Nobody’s Fool,” it was obvious that Heyward’s songwriting skills were still top notch.
   However, the band’s massive success proved to be their downfall. Faced with the enormous pressure of writing a follow-up album, Heyward quit the band in the midst of recording sessions. Nick pursued a solo career (the lushly-produced North Of A Miracle contained a few of the songs the band had been working on prior to his departure) while the rest of the band soldiered on. By the time the sorely overlooked and quite wonderful second Haircut 100 album Paint And Paint was released, the band was down to a quartet (Cunningham had also left the band). The band quietly broke up a short time later. Though they have reunited in some form or another over the last decade for live shows, no new recordings have emerged.
Now, with the release of the Deluxe 2CD Edition of Pelican West – featuring additional non-album tracks and remixes – being reissued on Cherry Pop, Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to catch up with H100 guitarist Graham Jones and send him off a few questions in hopes of discovering more about this classic album…

   
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: The definitive double disc version of Pelican West is now being released on Cherry Pop. How do you feel about this reissue?
GRAHAM JONES: It’s a great chance for young ears to hear Haircut 100 and for those who missed out on the 12” mixes back in the 80’s.

SPAZ: There is no doubt that every band member played an important role and that Haircut 100 would have been a different beast if you switched out any of the members. How did the band initially come together?
GRAHAM: Nick and Les were already playing together. It was a form of post-punk that was reminiscent of Talking Heads and XTC. Our girlfriends were school friends so we came together that way. I joined them as the punk member after spending many weekends with Nick and Les in Beckenham (Bowie land in South East London).

SPAZ: Where did the band name come from? Do you remember any of the other names before you settled on Haircut 100?
GRAHAM: We were called Moving England and we decided it didn’t fit our sense of humor. We sat around in Nick’s house throwing names around. Captain Pennyworth, Blue Penguin, Biggest Haystack In The Land all had a chance. Les said to Nick, “Did you just say Haircut 100?” That was the one that made us laugh the most. “You can’t call a band that!”

SPAZ: And how long had the band been together before you were offered a record deal? Did H100 play the live circuit for a while?
GRAHAM: Haircut prided ourselves on not playing the circuit but set up our own ‘pop concerts’ where we served wine and marshmallows! You need to offer something interesting to get noticed and this created the interest. We were signed very quickly.


SPAZ: The band was often lumped in with the Jazz Funk movement in the UK, yet H100 were much more than that. Do you feel the band aligned itself to any genre…or perhaps created your own?
GRAHAM: The Haircuts started life more as a guitar post-punk band, but there were roots in Jazz from Nick, funk from Les, and as the band expanded with the sax and percussion from Phil and Marc, it changed the course of our musical direction. With Blair’s powerhouse American drum style, the Haircuts became a formidable live and studio band. Nick’s quirky and melancholy style gave it the edge and mystery.

SPAZ: For a band of such young players, your sound was far more advanced and mature than most of your contemporaries. What were your influences?
GRAHAM: Everything from Pat Metheny, War, James Burton, Talking Heads, The Clash, The Beatles, Steely Dan, Earth Wind And Fire, Bowie, Flora Purim, The Waitresses, The Associates, George Duke, Orange Juice, The Jam, Brecker Bros., Gil Scott-Heron, Generation X, Lalo Schifrin, Sex Pistols, The Faces, TV soundtracks, etc.

SPAZ: Where did the album title Pelican West come from?
GRAHAM: From Pelican Wharf in Wapping Docks, London. Near to the prospect of Whitby Pub where Nick used to watch Jazz with his dad.

SPAZ: In hindsight, we now know what the ‘hit singles’ are, but when you were recording the album, did you have a clear idea on what tracks you wanted to go with as singles?
GRAHAM: “Fantastic Day” was a clear single before it was even recorded, but the songs developed into singles in the studio with every overdub that was added. That’s the magic of working together with great musicians. The unexpected.

SPAZ: The album is filled to the brim with great songs, many of which are overlooked these days: “Surprise Me Again,” “Snow Girl” and “Lemon Fire Brigade” come to mind. Are there any that you feel are overlooked?
GRAHAM: “Kingsize (You’re My Little Steam Whistle)” was almost a single.

SPAZ: The band achieved great success all over the world. Was it a shock to experience that kind of success outside of the UK? Or even outside of your hometown?
GRAHAM: It was great to be appreciated in the USA for our music alone.


SPAZ: The single “Nobody’s Fool” was released after the album. Was this originally scheduled to be part of the ill-fated second album or was it a stop-gap single in between full lengths?
GRAHAM: “Nobody’s Fool” was just part of the ongoing creative process and was originally recorded by Nick as a Beatles-style demo. We thought it was hit material.

SPAZ: Was it a shock when Nick left or had you sensed it coming? Did you feel confident in moving forward at first or did it take a while to get your confidence levels back up?
GRAHAM: It was a big shock and a massive disappointment. I don’t think we had expected Nick to leave. He felt he was under pressure to ‘deliver’ the goods. It was too much for his sensitive temperament. I don’t think we ever really recovered as a band after that.

SPAZ: The band released the sorely overlooked Paint And Paint in 1984. That second album is a pretty amazing continuation of the band given that your lead singer and songwriter had left. How do you view that album now? And can we hope to ever see it reissued on CD?
GRAHAM: There are some fantastic moments in Paint And Paint and we all have some flashes of brilliance but I feel our musicality was best placed with the full line-up including Nick. We were good but the magic element had gone. Nick said the same about his own solo stuff…He missed the band. I would hope that Paint And Paint will be available with this resurgence of interest in Haircut 100. I always get asked if or when it will be released.


SPAZ: The band has reunited on occasion over the last decade. Any chance of seeing any more shows or even new music from Haircut 100?
GRAHAM: There is always the possibility of something new happening with the Haircuts but what shape it may take next time is anyone’s guess.

SPAZ: What’s next for Graham Jones?
GRAHAM: I’ll continue to keep Haircut 100 in people’s minds. In my other life, I’ll be (and always have been) recording and helping other artists and young musicians to get a start and have the chances we had.

SPAZ: What are you currently listening to?
GRAHAM: The sound of the wind and the roar of the sea.


 Thanks to Graham Jones

Special thanks to Matthew Ingham, Nick Kominitsky and Charles Reddick