RICK DERRINGER – All American Boy

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Rick Derringer has had a long career. From being a member of the McCoys (of ‘Hang On Sloopy’ fame), to sterling work with Edgar and Johnny Winter during their glory years, to releasing many solo albums, there’s plenty to enjoy. ‘All American Boy’, Derringer’s first solo outing from 1974 is one of his best (though I would argue that the first half of his solo career, up to 1980 is well worth investigation).

Kicking off with the evergreen classic ‘Rock N Roll, Hoochie Koo’ (Derringer’s best known solo recording), you’ll have a fair idea of where the next forty minutes is headed.
‘Joy Ride’ is a short high-gear instrumental. The drum sound here is excellent and while the overall effect is unashamedly 70s, this is the sound of a band of musicians at the top of their game. On the other hand, ‘Cheap Tequila’ is never a track I find myself eager to listen to. It sounds like it was designed as fun, but in the end, takes itself too seriously. It has a southern rock meets country feel and although jaunty, is never destined for classic status.

‘Teenage Queen’ is soft around the edges with a slightly west coast appeal. It’s typical of other songs Derringer released in this vein, but it’s still great listening, with beautiful vocals, subtle guitar work and nice orchestration to flesh out the sound. ‘Hold’ follows a similar pattern, again beautifully orchestrated, but the final product seems more polished, with a definite nod to the genius of Todd Rundgren. Definitely a contender for the album’s best track.

‘Uncomplicated’ is simple, stompy American rock, following a similar path to ‘Rock N Roll, Hoochie Koo’ and while ‘The Airport Giveth’ follows a similar formula to the Todd Rundgren inspired material, there’s something a bit less focused, giving it a slightly dated feel. Though somehow, possibly due to exposure to a fair amount of Rundgren, Carole King et al, I still quite like it. ‘Jump Jump Jump’ is pure genius, seeing Derringer explore a more spacious, bluesy style, though not up to the blues levels he’d go to after his early 80s sabbatical. For best results, check out the blistering live version of this from 1980’s ‘Face To Face’ LP.

The quirkiness of ‘Teenage Love Affair’ again goes for the same effect as ‘Uncomplicated’, but remains one of the rare times where this collection of songs misses the mark. ‘Time Warp’ is a driving instrumental clocking in at just under three minutes, though due to the intensity of the arrangement it feels longer. It sounds like the underscore for a car chase in a 70s cop film, merged with guitar riffs which tip the hat to ‘Heart Of The Sunrise’ by prog-rock behemoths Yes. ‘Slide on Over Slinky’ a pop-blues, the kind at which Derringer often excelled throughout the decade, is a welcome addition here.

‘All American Boy’ is a great solo debut, paving the way for other Derringer releases throughout the 1970s, most of which have something to recommend them. If you’ve enjoyed this and haven’t yet done so, check out 1980’s ‘Face To Face’: which although patchy, contains the aforementioned superb live take of ‘Jump Jump Jump’ and the wonderful pop of ‘Runaway’.

November 2007

FLEETWOOD MAC – Bare Trees

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For most people, the history of Fleetwood Mac is divided into two distinct eras – the blues years with Peter Green at the helm (1967-70) and the California pop years driven by the talents of Buckingham-Nicks (from 1975).

After Peter Green’s departure in 1970, the band entered a wilderness period. To begin with, Jeremy Spencer took the helm. The resulting album, ‘Kiln House’ was a nasty affair – easily the worst in Fleetwood Mac’s catalogue – it’s only standout track being the haunting instrumental ‘Earl Grey’. Jeremy Spencer then went out for groceries and never returned. His replacement, Bob Welch, helped drive the band away from blues based material and towards the adult pop which would make them their fortune. However, his first album with the band –1971’s ‘Future Games’ – was instantly forgettable.
In 1972, the same line-up returned to the studio to work on a follow up. The resulting album, ‘Bare Trees’ was a marked improvement. In fact, several decades later, it still sounds decent.

With Danny Kirwan’s ‘Child Of Mine’ the album starts with best foot forward. Its uplifting mixture of California pop and guitar boogie is easily compared to Delaney & Bonnie, although with a tougher edge. As expected, McVie lays down a solid bassline, never flashy, and Kirwan and Welch indulge in top notch almost Allman Brothers style guitar interplay. Christine McVie’s organ work bubbles just under the surface. You have to ask why the band sounds so vibrant here, when on the preceding album exactly the same line-up sounded lost and tired? Maybe on ‘Future Games’ they’d not found their footing together…

Christine McVie takes the helm for ‘Homeward Bound’, a piano-led pop rock workout with punchy edges. It’s not quite got the finesse of her later songwriting, but here she proves that she’s more than a valuable addition to the band. Bob Welch turns in a great guitar solo, which at the end becomes twin lead with the addition of Kirwan. ‘Spare Me a Little of Your Love’ points further in the direction Christine’s writing would later take the band, with its almost perfect arrangement and plain emotion. ‘Sunny Side of Heaven’ is a gorgeous instrumental piece, with all members putting in top performances – particularly of note is Kirwan’s understated lead work. It would have been so easy for him to overstep the mark and play something flash, but he opts for lyrical soloing, creating a beautiful end result.

‘Bare Trees’ also features less immediate material. ‘Danny’s Chant’ features Kirwan in aggressive mode. At the beginning, he plays a spiky guitar riff through a wah-wah pedal leading into a groove with heavy accompaniment from the rhythm section. With hindsight, I wonder if he’d already begun to feel out of place in the band, with Welch’s material becoming stronger. ‘Dust’ features some nice vocal harmonies, but ultimately, the end result is slight.

‘The Ghost’ is softer, with its slightly jazzy tendencies. A strong chorus shows the potential behind Welch’s songwriting in a way that little of ‘Future Games’ ever did. I often hear an influence from Stephen Stills in Welch’s best work with Fleetwood and this is no exception. His other key number here, ‘Sentimental Lady’ (later re-recorded for his ‘French Kiss’ solo record), is little more than easy listening singer songwriter fare. The title cut offers mid-paced pop that’s fine, but now sounds like the most dated thing the album has to offer. Again, there’s some decent interplay between Welch and Kirwan, so at least it’s got that going for it.
The album closes with a home recording of an old lady reading her own poetry. Apparently Mrs. Scarrott lived near the band’s communal home. I’m not sure why they chose to include it – maybe it was just in keeping with the hippie spirit of the times…or maybe she kept making them jam.

Like most of the albums Fleetwood Mac recorded during the first half of the 70s, ‘Bare Trees’ could never be called classic in the traditional sense, but has more than enough to recommend it.

January 2010

THIRD EYE – Recipe For Disaster

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Hailing from Denmark, Third Eye are a progressive metal outfit featuring Michael Bodin (ex-Prophets Doom), Martin Damgaard (ex-Sweet Leaf) and Per Johansson (ex-Crystal Knight/Fate) and in terms of heaviness, they’re up there with the mighty Symphony X. For their debut album they’ve taken a bold step: ‘Recipe For Disaster’ is a concept piece about a man diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Obsessive Compusive Disorder (OCD) late in life. I feel I should warn you before going any further that although this album is musically great, it’s lyrics are mostly rubbish and in terms of vocal abilities, Per Johannson’s voice is grating at best. With regard to the concept, it’s only really clear that there’s a concept at all since the band points it out in the introductory sleeve notes! In terms of linear storytelling, I can’t follow this at all. Presented with a concept album with a medical theme, it’s hard not to think of Queensryche’s classic ‘Operation: Mindcrime’, but while Third Eye are gifted musicians, any hope they had of creating a 21st Century ‘Operation: Mindcrime’ seems to be lost in translation.

As a listener, you’re not broken in gently… ‘Solitary Confinement’ begins with a crunchy riff, combined with a punchy rhyhmic quality which quickly demonstrates the band’s musical abilities. A solid rocker, this it’s certainly one of the album’s more straight ahead pieces aside from an occasional off-kilter feel which helps bring it firmly into the progressive metal field. ‘Recipe For Disaster’ follows swiftly and things are taken up a couple of notches. Martin Damgaard’s complex drum work is one of the track’s main features – his angry double bass work provides a great deal of power. This track sees the first appearance of the growlier end of Per Johannson’s vocals; in places he alternates his wailing voice with an angry shouting. I’m guessing as listeners, this shouting approach is meant to represent the frustrations within the album’s central character; it doesn’t quite work though and from a listener’s perspective, it soon becomes more than aggravating. ‘Dark Angel’ sounds better on the surface, as the vocals have been tempered a little. While Johannson’s voice is a strong one, it’s not the easiest to listen to – and even at its most melodic it’s has an edge which some may call “an acquired taste”.

‘Six Feet Under’ pretends at the outset that it’s the album’s big ballad. During the intro, it’s easier to spot why Johannson’s vocals have been compared to Queensryche’s Geoff Tate in another review – the lower part of his range bares a passing resemblance, albeit not a very tuneful one. I suspect anyone comparing Third Eye to Queensryche was just looking for an easy (for that, read ‘lazy’) comparison – like comparing all melodic rock bands to Bon Jovi or Def Leppard. Once the band take a heavier stance, ‘Six Feet Under’ loses most of his promise. The hard edged riffs can be heard better elsewhere on the album. ‘Eye of Envy’ provides a decent amount of riffing, this time leaning a little farther away from prog and farther towards power metal. While this is technically brilliant on all fronts, it’s still unlikely I’d be reaching for it before Symphony X (hey, I’m fairly picky about this kind of thing), but it’s not hard to imagine big fans of Symphony X and Evergrey finding plenty to get their teeth into here. It’s also worth noting that one of the guitar solos is played by Finn Zierler (from the excellent goth/prog metal band Beyond Twilight).

‘Psychological Breakthrough’ reinforces the band’s power metal elements and as such is the album’s angriest moment. Again, I think lyrically it deals with the feelings of frustration within the protagonist, but sadly it has too much anger and no real direction. The lyrics comprise half-formed spite directed at a neighbour (“I say hello, you say goodbye / I smile and you send me a dead letter file”), backed up with lots of “You make me sick / I wanna spit it out” and “you stupid fuck”. Not good at all. At this point, I’m beginning to lose any patience I had. In contrast, ‘Darkness Into Dawn’ features the band’s softer side. Andreas Schumann’s bass work is subtly funky – in fact, there are more subtle elements here than anywhere else on the album and it’s great to hear the band relax and stretch out, albeit temporarily. Per Johansson’s vocal is misplaced though – he still tackles his job at full pelt, oversinging at nearly every step. Business as usual for ‘Snake In The Grass’ and ‘Sacred and the Profane’: in a build up to the album’s big finish, Third Eye plod through a couple of pieces of prog metal by numbers, offering no variation on anything they’ve played previously.

Closing the album is the ten minute epic ‘The Psychiatrist’. After a slightly unsettling intro featuring a conversation between our protagonist and a futuristic automated medical machine, ringing guitars and an uncharacteristically melodic vocal come to the fore. The main riff has a solid chug which sounds natural between the verses and initially the track shows a great amount of promise (although Johannson’s voice creeps into annoying territory before too long). Beneath the heavy parts of the song, Andreas Schumann’s rolling bass work has a great deal of power and a few of the twin lead guitars recall mid-80s Iron Maiden (never a bad thing).
However, any of the track’s good points are undone once the second part of the song appears… Under his medical haze, we hear the thoughts in our protagonist’s mind: “Take this/Eat this/Drink this/Cat piss”… Cat piss? Surely they could have come up with something better? This is swiftly followed by “Do that/Do this/Take that/Read this/Take that/Who cares? They care!” and by this point, I’m not caring all that much, believe me. Three guitar solos towards the end of the track restore some faith – one each played by Michael Bodin and Thomas Kuhllman, and one played by Finn Zierler.

‘Recipe For Disaster’ isn’t a terrible debut if you look at the big picture – it’s got some moments of fantastic musicianship and a great production job, especially considering it’s on a small label – but its weak points are very damaging to the end result.

May 2010

DIO – Holy Diver

The name Ronnie James Dio will mean many things to his fans.  He was the first (and arguably best) frontman with Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow; he was the man who gave Black Sabbath an almighty kick up the arse when he replaced Ozzy Osbourne; he was one of the most recognisable voices in hard rock and heavy metal, but for all those fans, regardless of which band he happened to be fronting, Dio was the man who gave 100% every time.

Never was this attitude more obvious than on ‘Holy Diver’, released in May 1983.  Having left Black Sabbath following high tensions a few months previously, Dio was not about to take things laying down: his new eponymously named band – featuring his Black Sabbath mate Vinny Appice, Vivian Campbell and an old Rainbow bandmate, Jimmy Bain – rocked as hard (if not harder) than any outfit Dio had previously been associated with.

Stripped of the lengthy, pompous guitar solos which dominated early Rainbow, but retaining the heavy crunch of Sabbath, this debut by Dio (the band) turns things up a notch.  The opening number ‘Stand Up and Shout’ comes full throttle, embracing the energy of the then recent New Wave of British Heavy Metal – faster than anything Rainbow or Sabbath could muster even in their wildest dreams – and instantly commands attention.  Vivian Campell’s guitar work is fantastic and has a real edge; in many ways, his work throughout this album represents him at a career best, even though he was an eighteen year old not far into a long musical journey.  Of course, despite the sharp musical edges, it’s Dio who remains the true star – his huge soaring voice careening above the extremely tight band.  Always a master of knowing his vocal strengths, Dio accentuates lots of the two syllable words throughout the song, making excellent showmanship of “desire”, “fire” etcetera.  When his performance is combined with his on-form musicians, ‘Stand Up and Shout’ becomes a fantastic opener.

Things slow down to a menacing stomp for the title cut.  Viv Campbell’s guitar riff tips the hat to Ronnie’s tenure with Sabbath, yet his playing has the lighter tone which Tony Iommi’s approach often lacks.  Appice provides fantastic accompaniment on the drums, his pounding approach counterbalanced by some subtle hi-hat work.  The vocal performance brings out all the best elements in RJD’s performance – the stressed ‘ah’s are used to fantastic effect – and his delivery is so effortless, as a listener you’re totally sucked in by his enthusiasm and self-belief it’s easy to ignore the ridiculousness of many of the lyrics.   ‘Straight Through The Heart’ may not have as much energy as some of ‘Holy Diver’s more upbeat moments, but it has just as much power.  Driven by Appice’s solid drumming, Dio turns in a masterful performance with a suitable amount of gusto; Campbell’s guitar work here cannot pass without comment either: here he offers one of the album’s sludgiest riffs, replete with squealy horse noises (technical term).

‘Don’t Talk To Strangers’, another of the album’s undisputed high points begins gently before breaking into a classic hard rock riff; it’s Ronnie’s lyrics that give the track it’s long-lasting charm, though – full of paranoia, we are warned not to dance in darkness and that heaven and hell are closer together than you might think; Ronnie in turn plays the part “of master, of darkness, of pain”.  Vocally he’s at the top of his game, his delivery loaded with over-pronounced words, adding weight to the slightly sinister air.  Similarly, ‘Invisible’ has a very dark vibe; Ronnie’s lyrics are total flights of fancy here – a lesser vocalist would make it all sound more than a bit silly – but as always, his total dedication and faultless delivery mean it’s nothing short of superb.  Viv Campbell’s mid paced guitar riff stands as one of the album’s heaviest.  In short, it’s a timeless piece of leather bound metal – as heavy as the heaviest moments of Black Sabbath’s ‘Heaven and Hell’, but Campbell’s sharp guitar sound is far superior to Tony Iommi’s stylistic muddiness. (As great as ‘Heaven and Hell’ is, try playing it straight after ‘Holy Diver’, and the difference between the two guitarists’ styles is astounding.  ‘Heaven and Hell’ may be of the Sabs’ best albums, but it’s severely lacking in any real punch when compared to ‘Holy Diver’.)

‘Holy Diver’ also offers a couple of slightly lighter moments in ‘Gypsy’, ‘Caught In The Middle’ and ‘Rainbow In The Dark’.  The sound of ‘Rainbow In The Dark’ in particular looked forward to the stadium rock which dominated the 80’s.  Ronnie’s rudimentary keyboard work during the intro (and the sections which bridge the verses) ages the song a little and could be seen as the album’s only weak point.  Despite that, it remains an excellent chorus driven single.

‘Shame On The Night’ has a superbly menacing quality and  here it’s Jimmy Bain’s pulsing bass work which drives the piece, but yet again, no matter how punchy the arrangement, it’s Dio’s vocal prowess which remains its defining element.  His voice here is pushed to even more extremes, but at no point does he ever sound like it was a struggle.  Viv Campbell’s guitar work focuses largely around an intimidating riff (particularly evident during the track’s closing moments), and in all, this track presents the Dio band at their most outright angry.  It’s an effective closing statement – one which undoubtedly leaves the listeners wanting more.

‘Holy Diver’ is Dio’s greatest post-Rainbow release – it may even be the greatest release featuring Ronnie on vocals. It’s a genre classic; and for anyone who has ever heard it and subsequently fallen in love with it, the magic never fades.  The years may pass, but Ronnie James’s commanding performance retains every bit of its bombastic brilliance.  His vocal talent remains unsurpassed. A man loved by his many peers and fans, he will never be forgotten and ‘Holy Diver’ stands at the peak of his musical legacy.

(Ronnie James Dio  10.07.42 – 16.05.10)

May 2010

THE POSTMARKS – Memoirs At The End Of The World

I was introduced to this album by The Postmarks by my friend Walt, a lover of Squeeze and kitschy sci-fi television.  Since we share so many tastes I had to check it out, even though the Belle and Sebastian-esque monochrome sleeve art sent alarm bells ringing.  My dislike of Belle and Sebastian (aside from the odd song) is well known amongst my internet chums, so I figured Walt would be unlikely to recommend my listening to something which would be too much like them.

There are a couple of twee moments which I imagine may appeal to Belle and Sebastian’s many devoted followers, but that doesn’t really mean The Postmarks share much in common with them.  The Manhattan based outfit have a degree of twee and kitsch values, but the majority of their music is borne from lush soundscapes evoking sixties film music, particularly that of John Barry.  This third outing sees Postmarks regulars Tim Yehezkely (vocals), Jonathan Wilkins (drums) and Christopher Moll (guitar) augmented by Brian Hill (bass) and Jeff Wagner (keys).

Despite the strong sixties feel, there’s something more modern, circa 1990s, in The Postmarks’ sound. Maybe it’s the Saint Etienne style pop element. Like Saint Etienne, with The Postmarks, plenty of sixties pop influences are present – and maybe even more so, since The Postmarks’ sound never employs any of the nineties dance-pop vibes which made Saint Etienne so difficult to pigeonhole.  It’s hard to say which of The Postmarks’ musical elements hold the key to their retro themed style.  The cinematic arrangements are vital, yet Yehezkely’s wistful voice – often more tuneful than Sarah Cracknell, but never as sultry as Beth Gibbons on Portishead’s ‘Dummy’ – is charming and perfect for the sound The Postmarks set out to achieve.

‘No One Said This Would Be Easy’ begins the album with an almost perfect snapshot of The Postmarks’ typical sound: lush strings come in waves; the guitars and keys add more depth and the sound of castanets adds a touch of extra drama.  Tim Yehezkely’s vocals could easy get lost if the music were overplayed; however, despite the overblown nature of the arrangement, somehow the music and light vocal manage to create a natural sounding union.  Staccato piano and a bouncing beat are at the centre of ‘My Lucky Charm’ which is closer to straight ahead pop.  A multi-tracked vocal is used to good effect and an infectious, upbeat chorus makes decent (but light) use of a sixties horn arrangement.

‘All You Ever Wanted’ provides another standout track.  The verses concentrate on woozy eastern drones combined with acoustic guitar – and you could be forgiven for thinking it’s not really going anywhere.  Then the chorus kicks in.  While it’s not instantly singalong, it’s a chorus with a more upbeat quality and the horn sounds give it a totally feel-good vibe.  ‘For Better…For Worse’ breaks continuity with most of the album, since its kitsch sixties elements are pushed aside completely.  This track is almost pure nineties pop – and while I’m not keen to mention Saint Etienne again for fear of labouring a point, they tend to be one of the bands (if not the band) huge chunks of this album’s sound recalls the most. (Walt had said it was like having Sarah Cracknell arranged by John Barry and if you’re looking for The Postmarks’ essence diluted to one sentence, that’d be it.)
In contrast to ‘For Better…For Worse’, ‘I’m In Deep’ is very gentle which allows the listener to slowly drown in its arrangement and the hushed vocals call to mind the softer work of the New York trio Ivy (a band with a strong connection to The Postmarks; The Postmarks were discovered by Ivy’s Andy Chase, who signed them to his Unfiltered Records label).

‘Go Jetsetter’ goes for broke in the pop stakes with its sixties soul beat driving the melody while Tim’s vocals add a summery air; the addition of brass sounds here help to reinforce the retro feel.  While it could do with a more memorable chorus, the other elements are strong enough to make this an almost perfect example of the kind of pop The Postmarks produce during their more upbeat moments.  In contrast, ‘Theme From “Memoirs”’ does exactly what it says on the tin – the sound of a film-less film theme. It’s an almost James Bond pastiche – imagine a cross between classic John Barry and Gene Pitney’s ‘Town Without Pity’; the twanging reverb of the guitars are complimented with string sounds and a breathy wordless vocal. ‘Si Tu Vieux Mon Couer’ represents the only time the album really misfires; the bigger elements of The Postmarks’ sound are played right down, the French vocal is just that little bit too twee and the whole thing comes off like mid-60’s cult singer songwriter Margo Guryan but without any real charm.

The album closes with a couple of reprises: Firstly, ‘Go Jetsetter’ appears in a more eighties guise.  With a bigger punch and stripped of most of the usual Postmarks sound, it ends up a sort of Cars/Black Box Recorder hybrid.  This harder edged arrangement allows a greater look at the pop songcraft which lies at the heart of the band’s work.  Closing the album, ‘My Lucky Charm’ (which appeared near the beginning with an upbeat arrangement) makes a second appearance, slowed right down to a chill-out vibe.  While this second look isn’t as good as it’s upbeat counterpart, on its own merits it holds up as a decent track – it’s best element being the sparingly used brass sound.

‘Memoirs at the End of The World’ is an album which is mostly pleasing and seems instantly familiar.  Since the musical arrangements have the feeling of John Barry and touches of Burt Bacharach for a postmodern generation, you’d be forgiven that the cracks could show before long, but thankfully, its cinematic approach provides just enough depth to stop it becoming too saccharine.

May 2010