Sunday, November 15, 2015

Playlist: November

  • Steven Wilson—4 ½ (2016)
  • Shearwater—Jetplane and Oxbow (2016)
  • Anna von Hauswolff—The Miraculous (2015)
  • Chris IsaakBecause the Night (2015)
  • DeerhunterFading Frontier (2015)
  • Joanna NewsomDivers (2015)
  • ReignsWidow Blades (2011)
  • Ryan AdamsLove is Hell, Pt. 1 (2003)
  • Sigur Ros - () (2003)
  • David BaerwaldA Fine Mess (1999)
  • MansunSix (1998)
  • Patty GriffinLiving with Ghosts (1996)
  • King CrimsonThrak (1995)
  • Brian Eno & Robert FrippEssential (1994)
  • PJ Harvey4-Track Demos (1993)
  • no-manLoveblows and Lovecries (1993)
  • JellyfishBellybutton (1990)
  • Living ColorVivid (1998)
  • Peter GabrielSecurity (1982)
  • Roxy MusicAvalon (1982)
  • Jaco PastoriusWord of Mouth (1981)
  • Jeff BeckThere and Back (1980)
  • Nick DrakePink Moon (1972)

Monday, October 26, 2015

Now on Newsstands

Prog magazine asked me if I'd interview Perfect Beings for its new issue, now on newsstands (and also available digitally—here's the list of contents). I hadn't come across the Los Angeles-based progressive rock band. As soon as I heard their grabby single "Helicopter" from their debut album, I eagerly took on the assignment.

The five-piece group should appeal to fans of Yes, King Crimson, XTC, Jellyfish, and Supertramp. Singer Ryan Hurtgen writes the main melodies and has an appealingly naturalistic and emotive voice. Until two years ago, Ryan hadn't listened to progressive rock. But then he met guitarist and producer Johannes Luley, who broadened Ryan's music horizons. Result? The formation of one of the most exciting new prog bands I've heard in recent years. Read more about the band in the current issue of Prog and, in the meantime, visit the the official Perfect Beings YouTube channel.The band's superb new album, Perfect Beings II, is out now. Visit

Also on newsstands: the new issue of Classic Rock magazine. I reviewed Robert Plant's recent show here in Boston for the magazine. Over the past year, I've been fortunate to see three different shows by Plant. This was the best of the three (and the 26th time I've seen my all-time favorite singer). To get a feel for just how great the show was, check out this video of Plant's performance of "The Lemon Song."

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Playlist: September

  • Shearwater—Jetplane and Oxbow (2016)
  • Richard Barbieri + Jan Linton—Cosmic Prophets (2004)
  • Kansas—Kansas (1974)

Musings on music reviews

photo: Camilo Rueda López (Creative Commons)

Joan Anderman, former music writer for The Boston Globe (before she voluntarily left to co-found the band Field Day), recently wrote, "I listened to records and went to concerts and decided whether they were good or bad, although as time went by, I began to worry that there's no such a thing as good and bad, only people who can persuade you that they know the difference."

So true.

I've been thinking along similar lines. As a professional journalist, I've reviewed a fair number of albums over the years and continue to do so (links to many of them are collected in the bottom half of the rail to the right of your screen). Lately, I've been wondering whether my opinions on music are worth a damn.

Music writers, both professional and amateur, typically present their reviews as some sort of objective truth. The critiques in professional publications carry the imprimatur of Official Truth. Words (and often grades) coming down from on high.

But they're not necessarily right or wrong. When you get down to it, music tastes are entirely subjective. That may seem to be stating the obvious, but many people will still claim that there are only two types of music, good and bad. And proclaim themselves reliable arbiters in determining which is which. If it were only that easy.

"But wait," I hear you object, "Are you telling me that Right Said Fred isn't crap? What about The Village People?"

In my opinion, yes. But, earlier this month I read an essay in The Guardian by British journalist and broadcaster Pete Paphides in which he wrote about how the song "Go West" by the Village People, later covered by The Pet Shop Boys, reduces him to tears. To my ears, it's a camp and cheesy song. But for him it's a song with a far deeper meaning about sexual freedom and its cost. about the American Dream. His essay reminded me just how subjective this stuff is.

Is there a role for music criticism, then? Music reviews don't matter the way they used to. Prior to the information revolution of the Internet, music writers wielded clout because their reviews typically arrived before the release of an album. It was more difficult, back then, to assess the music oneself because you had to wait for songs to show up on the radio or hope that you could listen to a release in a record store. Nowadays, music listeners would much rather decide for themselves by going to YouTube. Recommendations by peers and friends are far more influential than the scribblings of pro journalists. Indeed, the wonderful democratization of the Web means that we can all now be critics, whether it's on Amazon reviews or in the comments section under a YouTube video.

The best music writers, of course, are able to place music inside a historical context and offer observations about what, if anything, the writer is trying to say and how well they achieve that goal. (Great music writers can have a field day dissecting, say, the art—and artifice—of Lana Del Rey.) Music writers can also provide valuable signposts and recommendations to artists that one may have missed—curation is incredibly valuable at a time when there's an overwhelming number of new music released each week. I particularly love reading the stunning prose and witty observations of The Guardian's lead music writer, Alexis Petridis. And I never miss out on the weekly musings of music omnivore Andre Salles (a writer whose broad taste across genres resonates with my own tastes) over at Tuesday Morning 3 a.m.

Having said all that, never forget that every music critic is merely expressing an opinion. His or her critique is filtered through very subjective set of preferences—as well as his/her personal circumstances and what they're seeking from music. A song can strike one in very different ways depending on one's mood. A piece of music that never did anything for you at one time may suddenly seem incredibly moving and profound when you hear it at a different time in one's life. Same picture; different frame of mind.

That's not to say that music critics can't offer valuable and objective criticisms. (Though even these may seem subjective to some.) For instance, one can call out an artist if they've been lazy with the lyrics by resorting to "moon" and "June" rhymes or verses that don't make sense. Similarly, if the artist may not have progressed and may be repeating themselves. Or they may release an album that seems nakedly calculated to be a commercial hit rather than a personal statement.

...and yet many listeners will love those albums and songs because of, or in spite of, those very reasons.

What about guilty pleasures? Everyone has them. It's music that we'd blush to admit liking because we think it's something that we like in spite of what our head—and popular opinion—is telling us our response should be. Recently, the virtuoso art-rock guitarist Markus Reuter said something profound to music journalist Anil Prasad in an Innerview.

"When I hear people talk about 'guilty pleasures,' I think that concept is ridiculous. The peer group you belong to is usually why people think of certain music as guilty pleasures. Perhaps you belong to a group of people who like the goth scene, which means you can’t enjoy Eurodance. It’s largely to do with belonging to groups. Why should you feel guilty about enjoying something? I say come into the music with an open heart and indulge in the emotional experience. Don’t let the style of music, the sound or the scene influence what you feel when you listen to music."

I'm more wary, now, of casting aspersions on music that I hate yet others like. If you like Celine Dion, it would be churlish for me to complain if her music makes you happy or elicits an emotional response. If you're an ardent fan of Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine I say, "Have a nice day...but please don't turn up the volume."

My music collection is filled with so many bands and artists that are terminally unhip and which others wouldn't rate as "cool." Everyone's taste is just as valid as mine, even when I'm sure they're wrong. Each and every person in the world can proclaim that they have the best taste in music—and I love that!

Monday, August 31, 2015

Playlist: August

  • Shearwater—Jetplane and Oxbow (2016)
  • David Gilmour—Rattle that Lock (2015)
  • Patty Griffin—Servant of Love (2015)
  • Foals—What Went Down (2015)
  • John Metcalfe—The Appearance of Colour (2015)
  • Gary Clark Jr.—The Story of Sonny Boy Slim (2015)
  • Beach House—Depression Cherry (2015)
  • Vennart—The Demon Joke (2015)
  • Mew—+ - (2015)
  • Riverside—Love, Fear and the Time Machine (2015)
  • Grasscut—Catholic Architecture/Beacons (2014)
  • Calexico—Garden in Ruins (2006)
  • Peter Gabriel—Secret World, live (1994)
  • Steve Hackett—The Tokyo Tapes (1998)
  • Peter Case—The Man with the Blue, Postmodern, Fragmented, Neo-traditionalist Guitar (1998)
  • Frank Zappa—Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar (1981)
  • Friday, July 31, 2015

    Playlist: July

  • Grasscut—Everyone was a Bird (2015)
  • Nils Frahm—Music for the Motion Picture Victoria (2015)
  • Elbow—Lost Worker Bee EP (2015)
  • Tim Bowness—Stupid Things that Mean the World (2015)
  • Gary Clark Jr.—The Story of Sonny Boy Slim (2015)
  • The Acorn—Vieux Loop (2015)
  • Henrik Freischlader—Night Train to Budapest Farewell Tour (2015)
  • Speedy Ortiz—Foil Deer (2015)
  • Rock Candy Funk Party—Groove is King (2015)
  • Buddy Guy—Born to Play Guitar (2015)
  • Joe Satriani—Shockwave Supernova (2015)
  • Polar Bear—In Each and Every One (2014)
  • David Gilmour—Live in Gdansk (2008)
  • David Gilmour—On an Island (2006)
  • Reigns—We Lowered a Microphone into the Ground (2005)
  • Patty Griffin—Impossible Dream (2004)
  • David Gilmour—About Face (1984)
  • David Gilmour—David Gilmour (1978)
  • Led Zeppelin—Coda (Deluxe edition reissue) (1982)
  • Led Zeppelin—In Through the Out Door (Deluxe edition reissue) (1979)
  • Led Zeppelin—Presence (Deluxe edition reissue) (1976)
  • Wednesday, July 29, 2015

    New on Newsstands

    My most exciting musical discovery of late is a purely independent artist named Rian Adkinson, who is based in Georgia. I hadn't heard of him until Prog magazine just asked me to interview him for its latest issue. Rian is primarily influenced by Steven Wilson, Marillion, The Pineapple Thief, Genesis, Yes, Rush, Talk Talk, etc., but his album isn't overtly prog.  

    Highly recommend you go to iTunes and just buy Rian's album, Villain, which is fantastic from start to finish. You can stream the album on his website here. For starters, listen to the songs "I'll Be the Lightning" and "Les Revenants"—in a perfect world, those two songs would be megahits. The whole album is brimming with great pop-rock melodies. 

    Also in the latest issue, I wrote a short news piece about Francis Dunnery's upcoming studio album, Vampires. Intriguingly, the great songwriter, guitarist and singer has elected to re-record 14 tracks from his first band It Bites. (If you only know It Bites for the band's top 10 hit single "Calling all the Heroes" in 1986, dig deeper - that song is about as representative of the band as  "Hi Ho Silver Lining" is of Jeff Beck's ouevre.) Dunnery's looking to record some of that pop-prog band's best songs in a more organic style that won't sound as dated. 

    Read about that and more in the new issue of Prog, available at Barnes & Nobles, good newsstands, and also available digitally. Find out more at:

    Tuesday, July 07, 2015

    My Book in Billboard Magazine

    Billboard magazine has a piece about the book that I wrote for Hugh Syme and Rush about their 40 years of collaborations on album covers.

    Veteran rock journalist Gary Graff interviewed Hugh about The Art of Rush (now available via or on the merch stand of the band's R40 tour) as well as his predictions about the band's future. As a bonus, the Billboard piece also includes Rush drummer Neil Peart's foreword to the book.

    It was an honor to be asked by Hugh to write this book and a joy to work with him (and Neil, Alex, and Geddy) on the 272-page tome, an opportunity for Hugh's artwork to enjoy the limelight it so richly deserves.

      Rush Art Director Hugh Syme on the Stories Behind the Band's Iconic Album Covers

    Forty years ago, Hugh Syme designed his first album package for Rush, 1975's Caress of Steel....


    Thursday, July 02, 2015

    Joy Williams interview

    I recently interviewed Joy Williams (formerly of The Civil Wars) for Under the Radar magazine. It was a very intimate conversation in which we she described how the death of her father, her crumbling marriage, and the demise of The Civil Wars transformed her as an artist. The singer calls her new album, Venus, a "coming of age" album. Follow this link to read my in-depth profile interview with Joy.

    The video below is one of my favorite songs on Venus, a very good album.