Thursday, March 31, 2016

Playlist March

        • Endless Tapes—Brilliant Waves (2016)
        • Bent Knee—Say So (2016)
        • Steve Mason—Meet the Humans (2016)
        • Rokia Traoré —Né So (2016)
        • Joe Bonamassa—Blues of Desperation (2016)
        • Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop—A Love Letter for Fire (2016)
        • Jeff Buckley—You and I (2016)
        • Sand Snowman—A Doll's Eyes (2016)
        • Francis Dunnery—Vampires (2016)
        • Various Artists (incl. Robert Plant)—The Long Road (2016)
        • Ray LaMontagne—Ouroboros (2016)
        • Dave Kilminster—And the Truth Will Set You Free (2014)
        • Julia Holter—Loud City Song (2013)
        • Joanna Newsom—Ys (2006)
        • Bass Communion—Loss (2006)
        • Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry—More than This: Best of (1995)
        • Dead Can Dance—Into the Labyrinth (1993)
        • Red Hot Chili Peppers—Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magik (1991)
        • Lynyrd Skynyrd—Skynyrd's Innyrds (1989)
        • Iron Maiden—Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (1988)
        • The Doors—LA Woman (1971); In Concert (1991)
        • Donovan—Greatest Hits (1969)




Friday, March 25, 2016

Now on Newsstands...

I wrote a feature story about the great American band Shearwater for the current issue of Prog magazine, now on newsstands and available in e-format. To my ears, Shearwater's latest album Jet Plane and Oxbow is the album to beat in 2016. (Here's my review of it in Under the Radar magazine.)

When I interviewed Shearwater frontman/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Meiburg for the story late last year, our conversation drifted into talking about David Bowie. We're both fans and, at that time, we were excited about the imminent release of Blackstar. We had no idea, of course, that David Bowie was at that stage critically ill and would soon no longer be with us...

At the time, Jonathan was already planning to perform every single song from Bowie's Lodger album on Shearwater's tour. In retrospect, the timing was fortuitous as it became a tribute. Shearwater has been performing two songs from the album each night and even performed Lodger in its entirety at Rough Trade Record store. (You can download NYC Taper's recording of that show here.)

I thought I'd share some excerpts, below, about Jonathan's musings about David Bowie, as they didn't make it into the article.

Shearwater's Jonathan Meiburg:

...on David Bowie's Lodger

One of the things were going to do on the tour just for fun, and we’re not going to do it all at once, is we going to cover all of David Bowie’s Lodger record during the tour. Some of it in radio stations and some of it live. It’s been a real pleasure going through that record because it’s such an odd record. And yet, listening to it and dissecting how it was done and how will the different parts fit together, you can learn so much from that record. It’s a great education.

...on the Bowie's Berlin Trilogy

For a long time, I didn’t get the record [Low]. I like the older boy stuff, where he was the funny, wise-cracking cartoon character. Maybe it’s just because I’m getting older, but now the late '70s records that he made seem much deeper and richer to me. They’ve aged better I think.

That [album] and side two of Heroes are so magical and they seem out of time. And you know, just reading about it, what some of the influences were, but nonetheless, they seem to use a lot of devices that were technologically quite new at the time and conjured something that seemed quite timeless. If you put on Heroes and just listen to it all the way through the record, you find yourself two-thirds of the way through, thinking, “Are we still on the same record?” I can’t believe this album has gone this many places. It does it really economically and fast, too. It’s not a long record. It’s a beautiful example of a records ability to distort time and open worm holes in your sense of time.

...on Bowie's stagecraft 

I was watching the Serious Moonlight tour the other day. Partly as a frontman educational video. God he was good! It was from 1982, after Let’s Dance came out. But the material is almost all from previous records and mostly from the Low, Heroes, Lodger stuff. He's got a whole horn section with him and it’s very '80s, but man he just sells that show. It’s astonishing to watch. It’s not alienating, it’s not scary. It doesn’t have any of the emotional energy of that stuff that we were talking about [earlier]. But he so confident in delivering these very alienated songs. As a piece of staging too it’s quite brilliant. Now we expect from big shows all these mechanisms and confetti cannons and lasers. This is much more pared back compared to that. There’s a giant, inflated globe that he does a number of different things with, all of which are really effective. The whole thing probably cost 20 bucks. The whole thing works on an arena size.

...on Blackstar

At this point, David Bowie is in victory lap mode. He can do whatever he wants. I hope he does do whatever he wants.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Playlist: February



  • Joe Bonamassa—Blues of Desperation (2016)
  • Sam Beam & Jesca Hoop—A Love Letter for Fire (2016)
  • Jansen, Barbieri, Karn—Bearable Moons, session outtakes (2016)
  • School of Seven Bells—SVIIB (2016)
  • The Besnard Lakes—A Coliseum Complex Museum (2016)
  • Francis Dunnery—Vampires (2016)
  • Field Music—Commontime (2016)
  • Bent Knee—Say So (2016)
  • Justice Cow—Quone (2016)
  • Bob Marley—Legend (1984)
  • This Heat—This Heat (1979); Health & Efficiency (1980); Deceit (1981)
  • Neil Young—Harvest (1972)
  • The Who—Who's Next (1971)

Sleeve Notes



I am honored to have written the sleeve notes to the newly released Porcupine Tree vinyl box set, The Delerium Years: 1994-1997. It was fantastic to work with the folks over at K-Scope and Carl Glover did a great job designing the box set and its beautiful book.  I interviewed the members of the band for the 7,000 words history of the band during those years. Steven Wilson remixed and remastered the music for this release. As he put it to me:

"There have been two releases of this music before. The first one was basically at a time when people didn’t pay any attention to mastering at all. My mixes were all over the place and I was mixing on anything I could beg, borrow, or steal. So the mixes are thin and tinny and some of them are more fuzzy and muffled. At that point, you sent your tracks off to a CD plant and they just pressed them flat. So the original mixes are quite dynamic, because they are not squashed or anything. But they’re also quite eccentric EQ-wise. They’re painful to listen to.
The second edition, which was the first set of remasters that came out in the first part of the millennium between 2000 and 2005, I tried to remaster myself. I corrected a lot of the EQ levels, but this was the height of the “loudness wars” and I got sucked into it too. I mastered them very loud, very compressed. Again, when I listen to them now, they’re painful. 
So, this time, I think I’ve got them right. Over the last 10 years, I’ve learned a lot—not just for my own music, but from mixing other people’s music—about the quality of sound and not crushing things. So I fixed all the EQ. The dynamics are all there. I’m not saying it sounds great, because the recordings still betray their origins: ADAT tapes with low-resolution recording and some very primitive and mixing on my part. They do sound like independent DIY recordings, which they are. But they have charm. At least they sound as good and warm and vibrant as they ever have. The sound is good as it can be. And, actually, I think they sound good."
Read more about it and purchase it here.

In related news, I am now creating content for Steven Wilson's newsletter. We've just released our fourth issue which features a live audio exclusive. Each issue includes new interviews with Steven about his latest activities, past albums from his vast catalog, and his own music recommendations. It's more like a mini magazine than a newsletter. To subscribe, go here and you'll receive a download of a live version of "Drive Home."

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Now on Newsstands: Tight but Loose

Over the past two years, Jimmy Page sat down for more interviews about Led Zeppelin than at any other point in his career. Of all those many interviews, there were two that stood apart from the rest: Page's consecutive interviews with Dave Lewis for Tight But Loose, the long-running Led Zeppelin magazine.

Most music writers tended to ask Page either tediously generic questions or probed for salacious details about what, exactly, Led Zeppelin got up to inside the Starship, its luxury airplane that included a fireplace. (I doubt an airplane equipped with a fireplace would pass FAA regulations nowadays!) By contrast, Dave asked Page perceptive questions that took readers deep into the creation of music that has withstood the fickle changes of time and fashion. Indeed, Page told Tight But Loose about how the recent deluxe reissues of the catalog, brimming with unreleased material and alternate mixes, enhances the group's legacy.

"It’s like a portal, it’s like a view point into that time when those recordings were made for those particular albums, those classic albums," Page said in TBL issue 38. "And I knew right from the beginning, in thinking about this project, that it was for you, the fans. Because we sort of understand the difference between just hearing Led Zeppelin and really listening to it. I knew that people with that level of understanding would really get off on it, hearing all of these different versions and things that they haven’t heard before."

I first came across Dave Lewis, the world's foremost authority on the band, when he published the book Led Zeppelin: A Celebration in 1990. In those pre-Internet days, the comprehensive guide to the history and recordings of the British four piece was a revelatory education to this young fan. The book, and many others Dave has published over the years, occupy a hallowed space on my bookshelves. His magazine Tight But Loose is also an indispensable read for Zep fans. (It's available as a handsome print publication from here, and also newly available in digital format from here.)

I'm honored to have contributed to TBL over the years. For the 40th issue, I penned an in-depth two page overview about Robert Plant's most recent tour. (I also wrote a short review of Plant's Sept. 2015 show in Boston for Classic Rock magazine.)

Visit http://www.tightbutloose.co.uk/ for details about the magazine plus all the latest news about Led Zeppelin and its members' solo activities.


Sunday, January 31, 2016

Playlist: January


        • David Bowie—Blackstar and entire catalog 
        • Steven Wilson—4 ½ (2016)
        • Shearwater—Jetplane and Oxbow (2016)
        • Field Music—Commontime (2016)
        • The Besnard Lakes—A Coliseum Complex Museum (2016)
        • Fovea Hex—The Salt Garden, Vol. 1 (2016)
        • The Mute Gods—Do Nothing til You Hear from Me (2016)
        • Colleen—Captain of None (2015)
        • Steve Reich—Music for Eighteen Musicians performed by Ensemble Signal (2015)
        • Rush—R40 (2015)
        • Dave Granfeldt Band—Live, 20th Anniversary Tour (2015)
        • Failure—The Heart is a Monster (2015)
        • Shawn Colvin—Uncovered (2015)
        • Porcupine—Carrier Wave (2015)
        • Buddy Miller—Cruel Moon (2012)
        • Fleetwood Mac—The Best of Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac (compilation; 2002)
        • New Order—The Best of (compilation 1994)
        • Moby Grape—Vintage (compilation; 1993)
        • T-Rex—Electric Warrior (1971)

Monday, January 11, 2016

David Bowie (1947-2016)




The song that's been in my head all day is "Where Are We Now?" Except, in my head, the chorus was, "Where Are You Now?"

When I woke up to discover that David Bowie had died, I was completely and utterly aghast. Like everyone else on the planet, really. After all, I'd just spent the previous three days listening to his tremendous new album Blackstar and I'd been marveling at how powerful his voice sounded. The sound of his instrument not only seemed to belie his years, but he sounded vital, full of vigor, and even cheeky. (Listen to how he bellows, "Where the fuck did Monday go?" on the Blackstar song "Dollar Days.")

There had been a time, of course, when rumors of Bowie's ill-health (and professional retirement) circulated as speculative gossip during his decade-long hiatus from public life. Bowie, seemingly ever aware of his persona and public perceptions (and misconceptions) of it, seemed to confirm the gossip with the unheralded 2013 single "We Are We Now." His voice sounded aged and frayed at the ages as he sang a reflective lyric about his past. It was a feint. The release of The Next Day revealed that his voice hadn't lost any of its potency or range. The lead-off title track triumphantly declared, "Here I am, not quite dying." The venerable artist declined all interview requests, allowing long-time producer Tony Visconti to act as an official spokesperson of sorts, but there was no sign of anything amiss. Bowie looked typically handsome in his publicity photographs. In the video for the rocking single "The Stars are Out Tonight," he looked like impossibly cool next to Tilda Swinton, who was dressed up as a younger Bowie.



The Next Day wasn't a revelatory new direction, but the melodies were strong and it continued in the pleasing vein of its two predecessors, Heathen and Reality. (Here's my review of it.) It was the best unexpected comeback since Kate Bush emerged from her own mysterious 12-year hiatus with Aerial. It seemed as if Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke, the European Lodger, and the cool rocker in the Union Jack jacket would be around for many years yet.

I came to David Bowie's music relatively late. As a young boy, I was aware of, and liked, "Let's Dance" and "China Girl" when they were released in the early 1980s. The collaboration with Pat Metheny, "This is Not America," was also an early favorite. A few years later, the single "Loving the Alien" made quite an impression on me. I still rate it as one of his finest moments and he occasionally performed the song live even on his final tour. The next time I became aware of Bowie was at age 14 when I was at a cinema and his song "When the Wind Blows" appeared on a trailer for the animated movie of the same name. I was immediately struck by it. But I was frustrated that I never heard the song again for many years because it wasn't a radio hit.

It was apparent to me even then, even during his most commercial and mainstream period, that he was different. The 1980s were mostly lazy stagnation for Bowie, but he could still release killer singles such as the aforementioned songs and "Absolute Beginners." Then again, that was the decade of his absolute nadir, the duet with Mick Jagger "Dancing in the Street."

As much as I enjoyed Bowie's singles on the radio, and followed the Tin Machine project with interest, I didn't buy a David Bowie album until my early twenties. Credit the single "Jump They Say." It had a snap, crackle, and pop rhythms, an immensely hooky chorus and, above all, a vocal that epitomizes Bowie's cool and attitude.




I didn't buy the parent album of that single, Black Tie, White Noise (a somewhat uneven album that nonetheless contains gems such as the hip-hop jazz funk of "You've Been Around," an uppity cover version of Scott Walker's "Nite Flights," a rousing cover version of Morrissey's "I Know It's Going to Happen Someday," and "The Wedding," Bowie's unabashedly romantic song for his wife Iman.) Instead, I bought the two-disc compilation, The Singles 1969-1993. (Over the years, Bowie issued countless Best Ofs and compilation albums.) It featured all the classic hits, "Space Oddity," "Changes," "Life on Mars," "Fame," "Golden Years," "Ashes to Ashes," "Under Pressure." But The Singles 1969-1993 was also an introduction to songs I'd never heard before, such as "TVC15." It was a gateway to the albums themselves.

Over the years, I've collected 28 Bowie albums in all. They include most of the studio albums, a couple of live albums, and several compilations. I have quite a fondness for Bowie's very underrated run of albums from The Buddha of Suburbia (1993) through to Reality (2003). Many of those records featured Reeves Gabrels, his close collaborator from Tin Machine through to Hours..., on guitar. I remember the first time I saw Gabrels on a television broadcast of a Bowie performance. He wore a boa feather around his neck while he played his guitar with a sex toy. He looked totally badass! His Robert Fripp-influenced guitar-playing was anarchic and virtuosic. Just a few years later, I got to interview Reeves and hang out with him once or twice. Turns out that, unlike his stage persona, he's a mellow dude. Immensely likable and happy to share many stories about his years working with Bowie. To my mind, he deserves credit for midwifing Bowie's artistic return.




The knock on those records from 1989 to 2003 is that they weren't groundbreaking. Critics even chided Bowie for making a drum 'n' bass album, Earthling, in 1997 because he was late to the trend. Which was churlish given the sheer sonic oomph of songs such as "Dead Man Walking" and "I'm Afraid of Americans." Hours..., meanwhile, included Bowie's most autobiographical lyrics ever. The next album, Heathen, was a real highwater mark and ranks among my favorite Bowie records.

The first Bowie concert I ever saw was for the Heathen tour in Boston. I had to pay $120 for a scalped ticket for the small theater. It was worth every dollar. I still recall the gale force of the immense power of Sterling Campbell's drumming. I saw Bowie the next and final time he came to Boston in 2003 for the Reality tour. I went with my friend Heidi who reckons it's still the best concert she's ever seen. Bowie, ever grinning, is one of those frontmen who is in such command an arena that your eyes would follow him around the stage even if the spotlight wasn't on him. That tour was thrilling in the way that it touched on every decade of his career in a wide-ranging and varied setlist.



The weight of expectation for Bowie to create whole new forms of music and bend genres like he did in the 1970s seems unfair. By the 1990s, just about every type of musical genre had already been birthed. But I reckon that Bowie was actually ahead of the curve with perhaps his most overlooked album, Outside from 1995. (Thanks to my close friend Simon for buying me that one for a birthday.)

That album of industrial post-rock arrived at a time when music fashion was in thrall to grunge. The lush and dense production, courtesy of Brian Eno, was at odds with the stripped-down, raw musical ethos of the day. Had the album arrived a few years later, after the release of Radiohead's OK Computer in 1997, or even now, it would be heralded as a near-masterpiece. The sheer quality of the songs on the album is staggering. I still feel a tingle of excitement when I hear the silky seduction of the title track before it explodes in the chorus. The sheer menace and danger of "The Heart's Filthy Lesson" remains undiminished two decades later. What mars the album is the rather silly conceptual story (something about an art thief serial killer—don't ask) and its occasional spoken word interludes. Nevertheless, Outside remains a striking album. As Brian Eno remarked today in his reminiscences, he and Bowie both felt that album had fallen through the cracks.




Of course, Bowie's best work is inarguably the 1970s run of albums from Hunky Dory through to Lodger. Everyone has their personal favorite, whether it be the theatrical glam rock of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars (which owes much to the great guitarist Mick Ronson), or the Philadelphia Soul-influenced Young Americans or the Art Rock of Station to Station (here's my review of it). My fave? Low. The 1977 masterpiece is an album of two halves. Side A is full of killer singles such as "Sound and Vision." Side B is music from another dimension. That side of instrumentals, at once chilly and forboding, yet shot through with moments of melodic warmth, is still some of the most transportive, otherworldly music ever created. Bowie's so-called Berlin trilogy was his zenith as an innovator.




Which brings us back to Blackstar. Bowie and Visconti were keen to once again produce an album unlike anything in Bowie's back catalogue. They succeeded in producing a send-off for Bowie that was at once an emphatic statement of artistic vision and also a farewell. I'd like to think that, in his final days, he enjoyed the rapturous reception the album received. The adventurous album encapsulates everything that I love about the artist. The brilliant adventures in sound. And that voice. David's lyrics didn't always make linear sense (they were often words that had been cut up from magazines and reassembled as provocative phrases), but his voice was so emotionally expressive. That quality, above all, resonated with me the most.

Now that we know Bowie had been battling cancer for 18 months, Blackstar seems to be full of lyrical messages about his imminent departure, not the least of which is in the final song, "I Can't Give Everything Away." The video for Bowie's last single, "Lazarus," depicted the singer and songwriter thrashing about in impossible pain on a hospital bed. We just thought he was being theatrical, just like when he was writhing while blindfolded on a stretcher in the video for "Jump They Say." But now we can see the final image—a man retreating into a wardrobe—for what it was.

The song title "Lazarus" is prophetic. David Bowie knew that even after his death, his musical legacy and fame would live on. We don't know where Bowie is now. But in many ways he's still here with us. Always.


Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Playlist: December


WHY DO ANGELS HAVE TO FALL from tonichilds on Vimeo.

    • Toni Childs—It's All a Beautiful Noise (2015)
    • Steven Wilson—4 ½ (2016)
    • Shearwater—Jetplane and Oxbow (2016)
    • Wolf Alice—Love is Cool (2015)
    • Neil Finn and Paul Kelly—Goin' Your Way (2015)
    • Sonar—Black Light (2015)
    • Marillion—A Monstrously Festive(al) Christmas (2015)
    • Bohren and Der Club of Gore—Piano Songs (2014)
    • Bent Knee—Shiny Eyed Babies (2016)
    • Roxy Music—The Best of Roxy Music (2001)
    • Darkroom—Carpetworld; Daylight (1998)
    • The Golden Palominos—This is How It Feels (1993)
    • Martin Carthy & Dave Swarbrick—Life and Limb (1991)
    • Michael Hedges—Aerial Boundaries (1984)
    • Yes—Drama (1980)
    • Rickie Lee Jones—Rickie Lee Jones (1979)
    • Bruce Springsteen—Born to Run (1975)
    • Joni Mitchell—Clouds (1969)
    • Velvet Underground—Velvet Underground (1969)


Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars: The Great Unifier

I just wrote a newspaper article about why Star Wars: The Force Awakens is that rarest thing: a shared cultural experience that transcends generations, gender, race, politics, and nationality. A look into why this movie is the great unifier at a time of widespread divisions in the world. Here's a link to the article.



With 'Force Awakens,' 'Star Wars' expands its universe (+video)