FIRECRACKER – Born of Fire

Firecracker is a project featuring Stefan Lindholm and Pontus Larsson of Vindictiv and Tommy Korevik of Seventh Wonder.  Before looking at the songs, it needs to be noted that this CD comprises work recorded prior to Lindholm, Larsson and Korevik having any success – some sources claiming it to be a Vindictiv demo from 2005.  Regardless of that, though, ‘Born of Fire’ with its hybrid of Swedish style hard rock and progressive metal influences contains some stand out moments.

The opening of ‘Blind Date’ offers one of my favourite intros on the album, with Lindholm announcing his presence by offering a flurry of notes.  In contrast to the shreddy bits, his more melodic, vibrato-led work has a great tone (although sadly, throughout a proportion of this disc, it’s the faster and edgier styles he favours).  Tommy Korevik’s vocals are very confident, a hybrid of Dream Theater’s James LaBrie at his most tuneful (on the softer parts) and any number of prog-metal vocalists on the louder parts.  Despite not having a particularly original vocal approach, Korevik has a decent set of lungs and his style is perfectly suited to most of the material here.  Not to be outdone by Lindholm, the mid-section of this track features a blistering keyboard solo by Pontus Larsson, who in turn, almost gets upstaged by Lindholm once again, upon making return for another fretboard hammering.
‘Second Self’ begins with a melodic metal intro with a classic sound, reminiscent of mid-eighties Iron Maiden, before leaning farther towards progressive metal once Korevik begins singing.  There are some off-kilter rhythms during this number and Hasse Wuzzel’s drum work is the key here with its double bass parts.  During ‘Gamekeeper’s Song’, though, some of the drums are so aggressively pneumatic, I’m not entirely convinced they haven’t been subject to some pre-programmed assistance or some post-production studio trickery.  A pity, since some of the more aggressive drum parts of this song seem to detract from one of Korevik’s best performances – especially from a melodic viewpoint.
The first of two instrumental numbers, ‘Instru(metal)’, gives each of the musicians time to stretch out.  If you’re looking for metal guitar work, Lindholm’s performance throughout this number is first rate (if a little wearing in places); Wuzzel’s drums take the pneumatic approach once again, but here they’re far less intrusive.  Larsson’s keyboard work is an equal match for Lindholm’s fretboard theatrics and those who enjoy prog-metal keyboard solos should enjoy this, especially those who enjoy keyboard word at the more squealy, extreme end of the spectrum.  The only downside is that bassist Frederik Forlkare sounds like he’s contributed some really decent work here; but sadly, his bass is so low in the mix it’s hard to pick out the intricacies of his playing, especially once Lindholm and Larsson get going.
‘Back Broken’ begins slowly with a chugging rhythm, before Linholm starts soloing frantically. This track seems to lose its way fairly quickly due to an odd time signature and a vocal melody which Korevik struggles to make scan properly. Despite this, his performance still remains decent. The interplay between Lindholm and Larsson is tight (as Vindictiv fans should expect), but it’s not quite enough to maintain interest over the song’s near six-minute playing time.  ‘The Refrain’ begins with a strong melodic bent, as Korevik delivers an effortless performance.  Unusually, Lindholm’s guitar work is far more restrained, complimenting Wazzel’s sporadic drum rhythms very well.  Korevik’s voice occasionally lapses into theatrical grandeur, but even so, it’s a track which best demonstrates his range.  By the time it comes to the guitar solo, Lindholm steps things up a gear (as expected), contributing edgy playing which is tempered nicely with more melodic moments.
Closing the album, ‘Speed Devil’ does exactly what is says on the tin.  In a textbook example of Swedish metal (a la Yngwie Malmsteen), Lindholm and Larsson trade off guitar and keyboard solos respectively, seemingly as fast as they can manage while retaining a tune.  Not being a musician myself, I find it harder to appreciate this on a technical level even though there’s clearly a truck-load of skill involved.  If I’m going to listen to virtuoso instrumental rock stuff, I’d much rather spend time listening to Gary Hoey, Jan Cyrka or Eric Johnson – y’know, the chaps who approach things from a song-based angle, even if they’re playing instrumentally.
Despite most of the musicianship being top notch, I’ve always found similar levels of shredding hard to cope with in long doses (especially true when it comes to stuff like ‘Speed Devil’) and a few more obvious vocal hooks and choruses would have made this all the more appealing.  That said (personal preferences aside), as an album, ‘Born of Fire’ achieves its goals.  Forget the chaps from Vindictiv, though: it’s Tommy Korevik who is the big draw here (for me, at least) and fans of Seventh Wonder should give this a listen – especially if they’ve not heard any of this material previously.

April 2010

THE BIRD AND THE BEE – Interpreting The Masters Volume 1

Signed to the Metro Blue imprint of the legendary Blue Note label, The Bird And The Bee is a electronic pop duo comprising of Greg Kurstin and Inara George (daughter of Little Feat legend Lowell George).

The first couple of albums by the duo are fine as far as electronic based pop is concerned, but every once in a while, something comes along which you’re not expecting. Such is the case with The Bird And The Bee’s third release, ‘Interpreting The Masters, Vol. 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates’. It doesn’t really need to be said, but for years now Hall and Oates have been considered very uncool and it’s possible that, had any other electronic duo tackled this, it’d be with “ironic” smiles on their faces. However, given Inara’s parentage, there’s a fair chance this is done with a love of the original tunes – it’s even likely her father knew the velvety voiced one and his moustachioed companion. The end result is a mixed bag, but often interesting listening for those with more than a passing interest in Hall & Oates. There are a few excellent covers here, alongside some okay ones and, thankfully, nothing comes out terribly.

Firstly, why they bothered covering ‘Maneater’ and ‘I Can’t Go For That’ is the biggest mystery surrounding this release. The Bird & The Bee are a talented pair and it’s probable they could have put more of their own stamp on this pair of eighties tunes.  However, they choose to play things as straight as they can: ‘Maneater’, in particular, even sounds like it’s been created from the same drum loop… Inara’s voice is fine, but aside from a couple of interesting keyboard sounds, compared to some of the other stuff featured on this release, this is very workmanlike, despite a cameo vocal from Garbage’s Shirley Manson. Similarly, ‘I Can’t Go For That’ utilises a few unnecessarily harsh keyboard sounds as well as a few fills borrowed from 80s soul-pop. While Inara’s voice here is enjoyable, there’s something uninventive about the end result.‘Kiss On My List’ is a little better – that’s mainly due, once again, to Inara George’s performance. This is a decent cover, even though the stabbing keyboards which drive the original are completely absent and the closing guitar part has been replaced with a really nasty keyboard solo.

The best of the bunch here are the takes on the 70s Hall and Oates material, and arguably being better songs from the outset, so too are The Bird & The Bee’s take on them. The electronic nature of The Bird And The Bee’s music means that a couple of these have been given a proper re-imagining. ‘Sara Smile’ features Inara at her vocal best, a smooth voice which really pulls in the listener. Musically, the drum beat gives the song a good amount of depth, but never quite drops into full trip-hop mode. The classic ‘Rich Girl’ begins with noises which sound like they’re created for a children’s song, while the main thrust comes from a pre-programmed loop which is pure Casiotone. The hand-claps are a little unnecessary and some of the arrangement could’ve been a little more subtle, but somehow it has more than enough charm to make you forgive any shortcomings. Their version of ‘She’s Gone’ could well be one of the most perfect examples of electronic pop ever. Fantastic multilayered vocals are used against a well-crafted loop (I can even ignore the Casio samba elements); the bass sounds add a decent amount of bottom end despite not being very natural sounding. Granted, they had a belter of a song to work with, but this, alongside ‘Sara Smile’ could be reason enough to give this a listen.

The version of ‘One On One’ improves upon the original (if you’re a Hall and Oates fan yourself, you’ll understand this isn’t a claim to be made lightly). The version here is still a slow-burning, soulful affair, but this arrangement actually beats the drum programming from the original. It’s still all programmed, but most importantly, they’ve done away with that horrible Casio samba (they obviously realised having used one for ‘She’s Gone’, using another would have been extravagantly bad taste). The music concentrates on sporadically used chords against a heavily reverbed drum sound. During the instrumental breaks, the lead also employs some harder electronic treatments. Also, Inara’s voice is well suited to the song (far be it to suggest Daryl and John weren’t, there’s just something about ‘One On One’ which sounds like a weak link compared to most of their ‘H2O’ album).

This release also features one original composition: a single release, ‘Heard It On The Radio’ is supposedly designed to fit the mood of the rest of the disc and conjure an AM radio mood. It’s fairly successful in its attempt. While the verses have a slightly funky dance/pop vibe, slightly Moloko-esque, the guitars during the chorus are reminiscent of Rick Springfield and that style of feel-good 80s pop/rock – and this track more than makes up for a couple of the Hall and Oates numbers not quite hitting the spot.

If you liked The Bird and The Bee previously, their take on a selection of Hall and Oates’s tunes should leave you smiling. There’s something about this release which feels as if it were made for iPods and summer days; and for the rest of the year, file it under “quirky and fun”. However, it’s entirely possible that most Hall and Oates fans are not going to be very tolerant of this kind of meddling.

April 2010

URIAH HEEP – Very ‘Eavy, Very ‘Umble

As the optimism of the late 60s crumbled, music became darker. In 1970, Deep Purple (Mark II) recorded their genre-shaping masterpiece ‘In Rock’ and, Black Sabbath, in their debut, gave the world something which would be seen as of the first truly heavy metal albums. That same year, Uriah Heep released their debut, ‘Very ‘Eavy…Very ‘Umble’, an album which often gets overlooked.

Heep fans hate that the band often gets referred to negatively as a poor man’s Deep Purple (especially given that Uriah Heep’s music drew from a broader palette than Purple’s as their respective careers wore on). Fact is though, Uriah Heep are always likely to be mentioned in the same breath as the Purps, purely based on the music contained within the grooves of ‘Very ‘Eavy…’ – some of the songs tread a similar path of blues and hard rock (with a smidgeon of prog) as the Deep Purple output from ‘In Rock’.

Before delving into the tracks on the record, it should be noted that ‘Very ‘Eavy…’ is a little bit of a mess, band line-up wise. The album features David Byron (vocals), Mick Box (guitar) and Paul Newton (bass) on all tracks. Keyboard player Ken Hensley lends his chops to most of the album, but a couple of songs were recorded prior to his appointment. Likewise, although Nigel Olsson is the best known drummer from the sessions, he only appears on two tracks – the majority of the drum work having been performed by Alex Napier. Put simply, Uriah Heep weren’t exactly a cohesive unit in 1970. Luckily, though, ‘Very ‘Eavy…’ contains some cracking tracks.

Opening the album is one of the band’s best known songs, ‘Gypsy’. This is one of the tracks which is largely responsible for the Purple comparison – combining, as it does, slabs of Hammond organ work with a monolithic guitar riff. ‘Dreammare’ takes a similar hard rock approach, but tempers it with psychedelic blues elements. Mick Box’s aggressive guitar work throughout is the tracks main focus, but lots of pompy harmony vocals (something of an early Heep trademark) help give the band an individual quality. A melodramatic cover of ‘Come Away Melinda’ (previously recorded by Judy Collins, Harry Belafonte and others) highlights a softer side to the band. David Byron’s aching (dare I say crooned?) vocal is complimented by sounds from a mellotron and a fantastic bass line.

‘Real Turned On’ remains an unremarkable rock number despite a decent riff and is probably the album’s weakest track. It achieves its goal, but up against the rest of the material there’s not much to make it stand out. The epic ‘Wake Up (Set Your Sights)’ is another moment where Deep Purple comparisons are almost unavoidable. The Hammond organ comes in waves and Mick Box’s guitar work occasionally slips into Ritchie Blackmore territory, while Byron’s powerful voice more than occasionally wanders into similar territory as classic Ian Gillan. There’s an element weaving in and out which is reminiscent of Deep Purple’s under-rated Mark I line-up too (actually, there are elements of ‘Come Away Melinda which share similar traits to Deep Purple’s fledgling pre-1970 line-up; interesting how people only lazily compare this album to Deep Purple Mark II’s work… It shares just as much in common with the Mark I stuff). It should never be considered second-rate compared to Purple though, no matter what line-up it most resembles. This album represents a band who bring enough of their own talents and flourishes to make it hold up beyond all the easy comparisons. The unmistakable Heep harmonies make well-timed appearances during ‘Wake Up (Set Your Sights)’, but it’s the track’s more subtle elements which make it a winner. Alex Napier’s hard rock drumming is full of jazz flourishes (his work here is excellent and you have to wonder why he did not want to stick with the band) and Paul Newton’s bass runs are not only complex, but beautifully played. Forget ‘Gypsy’ – it’s this track which really should be the album’s most treasured song.

Rolling Stone famously slated ‘Very ‘Eavy…Very ‘Umble’ upon release and they weren’t alone in their dislike of Uriah Heep. Granted, the album is unlikely to be part of the public consciousness in quite the same way as the early Zeppelin, Purple and Sabbath classics, but it’s a solid debut. Uriah Heep would go on to record more adventurous albums than some of the music found on ‘Very ‘Eavy…Very ‘Umble’ would suggest, but despite its stupid Dickens-referencing title, this first outing from Uriah Heep is a fine start to a long career.

February/April 2010

JEFF BECK – Emotion & Commotion

I first became aware of Jeff Beck in the mid-80s. My first proper exposure to his work was via his short set on the ‘ARMS’ charity concert video, where he – alongside Fernando Saunders, Simon Phillips and regular collaborator Tony Hymas – played superb versions of a handful of his better known instrumental tunes, complete with a rare outing of ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ to finish (but we’ll gloss over that). A few years later, the BBC used tracks from his then current album ‘Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop’ as the soundtrack to the Comic Strip TV film ‘South Atlantic Raiders’. After hearing some of that, I knew I had to get one.

Over the following years, I caught up with the rest of Jeff’s back catalogue, in addition to hearing each of his new releases as they came out. 1999’s ‘Who Else?’ and 2000’s ‘You Had It Coming’ featured some very vibrant work, as you’d expect from a man who has always been keen on pushing musical boundaries and taking his guitar playing to new levels.

On paper, ‘Emotion and Commotion’, Beck’s 2010 release could have been great. Jeff Beck, accompanied in places by a 64 piece orchestra, produced by Trevor Horn? What could go wrong? But surprisingly, this (an album marking Jeff Beck’s return to the studio after a seven year break), is mostly lacklustre. Trading in a lot of his distinctive guitar styles for a more relaxed, atmospheric approach may have been Beck’s choice, but I’m unsure as to whether that choice was a good one. It’s also disappointing to note that of the ten pieces of music on this album, only two feature a Jeff Beck writing credit. That said, Beck contibuted nothing to the writing of ‘Wired’ (his jazz-rock masterpiece with Jan Hammer and Narada Michael Walden) and that turned out great.  The big problem with ‘Commotion & Emotion’ is an over-reliance on cover tunes (and not always inspiring ones at that), as opposed to great new material written by Beck or his bandmates, though keyboard player Jason Rebello contributes a couple of decent numbers.

Opening with Benjamin Britten’s ‘Corpus Christi Carol’(previously covered by Jeff Buckley), the soft and atmospheric guitar part is so distinctly Beck, yet it sounds like he’s just wandering effortlessly through the piece; if you want this kind of atmosphere, you’ve heard him do it time and again but better (see ‘Where Were You’ from ‘Guitar Shop’ for a start). This leads into ‘Hammerhead’ – the first of a couple of high spots and the first of the two Beck compositions.  It doesn’t set the world on fire in the way you know it could’ve, but it’s decent enough. Beck makes good use of wah-wah pedal during the intro, before the rest of the band join with something best described as a bluesy swagger. The Latin shuffle based ‘Never Alone’ (written by Rebello) could’ve been promising. I could tell you Jeff’s guitar tone is beautiful, but the end result is uninspiring.

From here, things go from okay to fairly pointless. It may be well orchestrated, but why should Jeff Beck want to cover ‘Over The Rainbow’? More importantly, why should you want to listen to it? Unless you’re very patient (or about to go into a retirement home) chances are you don’t. His guitar playing is subtle and the song is treated respectfully with the right amount of wistfulness, but ultimately this is filler material. A similarly uninspiring and predictable cover of ‘I Put a Spell on You’ follows. This could have been great, since it features Joss Stone on guest vocal and she’s in particularly good voice, but the resulting arrangement sounds like any decent-ish band churning out an oft covered song, exactly the way you’d expect. Is this the same Jeff Beck who recorded an edgy rendition of the blues standard ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’ at the beginning of the 21st century with Imogen Heap?? If so, where’s the fire gone? Let’s have some passion!

Imelda May steps in on vocals for a cover of ‘Lilac Wine’ (best known to most people via a version recorded by the hideously over-rated Jeff Buckley). Her voice suits the song very well, but Jeff’s contribution seems to be limited to the occasional jazzy noodle or bit of vibrato at least until near the end when he gets to perform a solo, but again, it’s nothing to write home about. ‘Serene’ (the album’s other co-write) starts gently, building to a funky shuffle which promises a great deal. Jeff’s lead playing here sounds like the lyrical playing from the past, but there’s a feeling he’s done this all a hundred times before – often better. The high point during this track is the lead bass work by Tal Wilkenfeld. Despite feeling a little obvious, it manages to be one of the two or three numbers here which show any real promise. ‘Nessan Dorma’ gets a work-through with strings (again beautifully arranged) and with Jeff’s guitar replacing the vocal, but it doesn’t sound like anything you’d want to listen to more than a couple of times.

‘No Other Me’ is the only time this album tackles anything with an edge. Written by Joss Stone and Jason Rebello, this is worth checking this album out for. Joss Stone’s voice tackles to the song at full volume, while the musicians give her suitably hard backing; that’s not to say it’s presented without any subtlety though: Well-reknowned drummer Vinnie Colaiuta’s hi-hat and drum work is fantastic and Tal Wilkenfield’s slightly disjointed bass work is striking. During the chorus sections, Stone’s distinctive wail could strip paint from walls and Colaiuta’s drum work is very aggressive. Throughout the song, Beck almost takes a back seat chipping in with ringing guitar chords. Everything here really works. At the song’s end, Beck just starts to play what sounds like what could be a really great solo – and frustratingly the song fades; it seems Beck’s decision to sideline any major fretboard work has been taken to the absolute limit.

The album closes with ‘Elegy For Dunkirk’, composed by Dario Marianelli. As expected, the orchestration is great, but beyond that, there’s nothing much happening. Jeff Beck plays vibrato-filled guitar notes sparingly as Olivia Safe adds light operatic vocals. It provides a gentle ending to a mostly gentle album.

Emotion and commotion? Only fleeting moments of either, I’m afraid. If you’re looking for the Jeff Beck who recorded some fantastic guitar instrumental works throughout the years, there’s little for you here. Aside from a couple of tracks (that storming Joss Stone effort, especially), this sounds mostly like easy listening music played by a sexagenarian for other sexagenarians to enjoy. I have a great deal of respect for Jeff Beck and never thought I’d be reviewing one of his albums so negatively, but ‘Emotion & Commotion’ is unlikely to be filling a lot of my listening time.

For those who wish to hear a genuine legend at his best, I suggest checking out the following: ‘Wired’ (Jeff’s 1976 jazz-rock masterpiece); ‘Guitar Shop’ (one of the best guitar rock instrumental albums ever) and ‘You Had It Coming’ (an experimental mix of rock guitar and electronic drum loops and stuff). Those are the ones to get if you want to hear Jeff not only at his best, but to get a feel for the range of his playing. If you enjoy those and check out others later, it’s highly likely you’ll hear ‘Emotion & Commotion’ eventually…just don’t expect much from it.

April 2010

TALLY HALL – Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum

Welcome, ladies and gents, to ‘Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum’, bought to you by a bunch guys better known for the colours of their skinny ties than their names. Collectively, the guys in ties are Tally Hall – a power pop/college rock ensemble from Michigan.

The opening number ‘Good Day’ (winner of the 2004 John Lennon Scholarship Competition) brings many classic power pop influences to the fore: take Ben Folds’s piano, Jellyfish’s knack for a catchy melody and Sugarbomb’s instant pop-friendliness, add a twisted barber-shop choir of multi-tracked vocals, and essentially, you’ve got what makes up the heart of this opening track and the main thrust what drives the handful of good tracks on the album. ‘Taken for a Ride’ recalls the stompy elements of ELO’s ‘Mr Blue Sky’ (as well as utilising the Sparky’s Magic Piano vocal noises) and despite my abject hatred of most of ELO’s work, have to concede that this works well. The slow section near the end of the song reminds me of The Polyphonic Spree, which is especially pleasing.

‘Greener’ makes excellent use of spiky rhythm guitars and occasional Cars-style keyboards; the chorus isn’t quite as hooky as some of the other material, but once again for power pop connoisseurs, it ticks enough of the boxes. The slower ‘Just Apathy’ is the album’s most mature piece of songwriting; its style of adult pop is far more in the Ben Folds camp, but even so, is still very much welcomed among the power pop elements here. Another great number, ‘Two Wuv’, features a riff that sounds like ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’ coupled with an arrangement which sounds like a Weezer cast-off. Bass-led verses with obsessive lyrics eventually give way to a chorus with multi tracked vocals. A sugary hook completes the picture during this slightly wrong ode to Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen. This tale of unrequited love with a major quirk brings me nicely onto the rest of the album’s tunes.

In addition to the bits of power pop goodness, the band have recorded another half a dozen songs which are so annoying I’m almost at a loss for words. It’s hard to know with the album’s quirkier stuff whether Tally Hall are playing things for laughs or not – and I really hope they are. ‘Welcome To Tally Hall’, mixes bad rap elements with a casio keyboard – think Barenaked Ladies meets Hot Action Cop and you might have some idea where we are. The multi tracked vocals on the chorus sections are quite pleasing, but it’s not enough to stop me reaching for the skip button most of the time. ‘Banana Man’ is a Harry Belafonte inspired calypso, complete with funny vocal (look, if it’s not Harry Shearer doing this on the soundtrack for A Mighty Wind, it’s not happening, okay? And you can keep your banana). The mid section goes a little Barenaked Ladies again, but if you haven’t tried to claw your ears off by that point I’d be surprised. ‘The Bidding’ offers one of the worst misfires, matching an R‘n’B style vocal (that’s the 21st century soul/dance rubbish ‘n’ bollocks, as opposed to rhythm and blues) with occasional bursts of rock guitar. I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to hear ‘Haiku’ ever again, either – Hawaiian inspired calypso music which sounds like a blatent Barenaked Ladies rip off was one of the last things this experience needed.

For those looking for excellent examples of power pop, ‘Marvin’ offers a handful of really great songs; likewise for those who like albums with surprises (I’m trying not to use the word novelty here) then it’s a museum of musical curios. This album has been likened to Brian Wilson’s ‘Smile’ elsewhere on the net. That’s a little bit of a lazy comparison; where ‘Smile’ acted as a musical soundtrack to one man’s well-documented breakdown, ‘Marvin’s’ is has far fewer sinister undertones. …But that’s not to say it’s necessarily fun.

A frustrating album, indeed: it’s novelty elements are sure to frustrate all but the most tolerant of power pop fans, and yet those who appreaciate Tally Hall purely on a quirky, superficial level probably won’t appreciate the quality of songcraft featured during the album’s two or three great tunes. What were they thinking? More importantly, what were Atlantic Records thinking when they picked this up three years after it was first released and then added new bits and smoothed out the edges? Surely a waste of time and resources…

I would have much preferred it if they’d concentrated on making more music in the vein of ‘Good Day’ and ‘Two Wuv’. If they had, this album could have been a power-pop classic.

April 2010