Monday, December 30, 2013

The Best Music of 2013

In the past, I've compiled numbered lists of my favorite albums of that year. I've decided not to do that this time around. Quite simply, I'm not sure how to rank and compare albums from genres as divergent as prog, indie rock, jazz, blues, folk, electronica, pop, world music and classic rock. Nor is there much point to such an exercise. This year, I've decided to limit myself to noting my 21 favorite albums of the past 12 months. They aren't listed in order of preference, though I will say that my absolute favorite record of the year was Steven Wilson's The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories). I've hyperlinked to the albums I've reviewed or written about.

The video of the top of this post is for Vertical Horizon's "Instamatic," featuring Rush's Neil Peart on drums. (Look carefully and you'll spot me lurking in the background of the video.) It was my great pleasure to write the sleeve notes for Vertical Horizon's Echoes from the Underground this year. Matt Scannell, the band's singer, songwriter, guitarist, and producer, created the best Vertical Horizon album to date, full of fresh stylistic departures in the band's pop sound. It's one of the year's most consistently strong records.

Best Studio Albums

The Besnard LakesIn Excess, Imperceptible UFO
Boards of Canada—Tomorrow's Harvest 
David BowieThe Next Day
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds—Push the Sky Away 
Elvis Costello and The Roots—Wise Up Ghost
Francis Dunnery—Frankenstein Monster 
Nils Frahm—Spaces
John GrantPale Green Ghosts 
Patty GriffinAmerican Kid
Laura MarlingOnce I Was an Eagle
Queens Of the Stone Age—…Like Clockwork
Rovo and System 7 (feat. Steve Hillage)—Phoenix Rising
Otis TaylorMy World is Gone
Richard Thompson—Electric
Emiliana Torrini—Tookah
Rokia Traoré—Beautiful Africa
Jonathan Wilson—Fanfare
Steven Wilson—The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories)
Laura Veirs—Warp and Weft
Vertical Horizon—Echoes from the Underground 
Anna Von Hausswolff—Ceremony

Best Live Album
Portico Quartet—Live/Remix

Best Soundtrack album
Boss, Original Soundtrack—Brian Reitzell

Best Covers album
ShearwaterFellow Travelers

Best Reissue
Yes—Studio albums box set, 1969-1987

And, finally, my Song of the Year (at least, one that wasn't penned by Steven Wilson), may just be Amplifier's "Matmos." (The parent album, Echo Street, is good, but a little uneven.) Here, below, is the video.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Now on Newsstands: Francis Dunnery interview

I interviewed Francis Dunnery for a big feature in the current issue of Prog magazine, which is now on UK and US newsstands. In the interview, Dunnery talks in-depth about his incredible career over several decades.

I've been a fan of Francis Dunnery for quite some time. In 1987, when I was but a young teen growing up in South Africa, I took a chance on a cassette copy of the album Big Lad in the Windmill by Dunnery's first band, It Bites. The British band scored something of a novelty hit in 1986 with the absurd, yet catchy, song "Calling All the Heroes." I could tell there was something interesting about the band just from that one song and purchased the album in a bargain bin. I loved it. It was poppy but ambitiously so and Dunnery's guitar work stood out. In retrospect, I realize this was probably the first sorta prog album I ever bought, though I wasn't particularly aware of prog-rock as a "genre" at the time even though I loved Pink Floyd.

It Bites created an even better and far more progressive follow-up album in 1987 titled Once Around the World. For all its catchy songs, it never really took off for the band. Nor did the next album - the more rock-oriented (and awfully titled) Eat Me in St. Louis in 1989. Around that time, I moved to Manchester in the UK and got to see It Bites perform on what would become their last tour. (At least, until they reunited several years ago with new guitarist and frontman John Mitchell.)

It wasn't the last time I saw Dunnery, however. I still remember the day that I opened up an issue of Q magazine (an indispensable source of music news in the pre-Internet years) and read that Dunnery was joining the band of my favorite singer: Robert Plant. Dunnery played some great guitar parts on Plant's exceptional 1993 album Fate of Nations. I caught four shows on that tour, too, and it was quite evident that the singer and guitarist enjoyed a great rapport on stage. Indeed, Dunnery later told me,
"I don’t think Robert invited me to the band for my guitar playing. He’s not that keen on my guitar playing! He invited me into his band more for my energy. I’m quite uplifting to be around. I’m always up and I try to keep my energy warm and friendly. I think he appreciated that. And I didn’t want anything from him - and he knew it. I think I was one of the few people who wasn’t trying to get him to put one of his songs on my CD. I was just hanging out. I had plenty of money at the time, I had a record deal, I had a publishing deal, and I had a manager. All those things he had. So, I think it was easy for him to give me the job rather a lot of the guitar players who came to audition who quite frankly played the Led Zeppelin music a lot better than I did."
Francis is being rather modest about his guitar playing. His technique would trip up most people's fingers - check out the video below - and he's a virtuoso acoustic player. Dunnery can also play very emotive solos. (Hear, for example, his guitar solos on the It Bites songs "You'll Never Go to Heaven," "Still Too Young to Remember," and "The Ice Melts Into Water." Or solo tracks such as "Jackal in Your Mind," "Immaculate," "Grateful and Thankful," "Blinded By the Memory," and the 2009 version of "Staring at the Whitewash.")

Given his superior axemanship, Dunnery's next move was something of a shock: He eschewed lead guitar heroics on a lushly produced modern R&B-influenced solo album titled Fearless. Dunnery wisely sought to sidestep getting pigeon-holed as a guitar hero. He wanted to showcase formidable his talents as a songwriter, which he further showcased on the next album, 1995's punk-raw album Tall Blonde Helicopter. Dunnery's solo career since then has been just as wildly unpredictable - excitingly so - as he's veered from style to style. A truly progressive artist. I've bought every album. The one constant in his career has been his confessional style of songwriting and his fearlessness is laying his soul bare.

Dunnery's brand new album, Frankenstein Monster (available at is yet another delightful stylistic swerve. It sounds like a long lost treasure from the 1970s. That's because it it kind of is. These songs were all written by Dunnery's older brother, Barry, who was in a short-lived band called Necromandus. They were managed by Tony Iommi and Melody Maker described their sound as "Black Sabbath plays Yes's biggest hits." But their 1973 album wasn't released until 1999 and they never received the fame they deserved. (Here's David Fricke's appreciation for Necromandus in Rolling Stone.) Following Barry Dunnery's death several years ago, Francis has re-recorded these songs anew as a tribute to him.

Frankenstein Monster is notable for being Dunnery's most guitar-heavy album ever. The solos on this record are ridiculously exhilarating. And also beautiful - take a listen to the gorgeous guitar solo around the three minute mark of this track.

In fact, you can stream (and also purchase) the entire Frankenstein Monster album over at Bandcamp. For starters, watch the music video for the title track, below, which is the only original song Dunnery wrote for the album.

A wonderful talent with a discography well worth exploring.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Playlist: December

  • Jonathan Wilson—Fanfare (2013)
  • Neil Finn—Dizzy Heights (2014)
  • Imogen Heap—Sparks (2014)
  • Butterfly Boucher—Happy Birthday Flutterby (2013)
  • YES—The Studio Albums 1969-87 box set (2013)
  • Midlake—Antiphon (2013)
  • Marillion—Brave Live (2013)
  • Marillion—"Carol of the Bells" digital single (2013)
  • Steve Hogarth and Richard Barbieri—Arc Light (2013)
  • Shearwater/Low—"Novocane"/"Stay" split 7" single (2013)
  • Shearwater—"This Year"/ "Black River Song" 7" single (2013)
  • John Wesley—Disconnect (2014)
  • Rush—Vapor Trails Remixed (2013)
I'm hugely enjoying Jonathan Wilson's second album, Fanfare. It sounds like a blend of Meddle-era Pink Floyd, Laurel Canyon folk, and the sound of Pacific Ocean Blue by Dennis Wilson (no relation). Moreover, it features songs co-written with Roy Harper (Wilson produced Harper's latest album) and includes the likes of Graham Crosby and Graham Nash and Jackson Browne. You can very much hear all the influences, but Wilson's channeled them all through the funnel of his own vision - It's a grand and ambitious record that pays off in every way. Watch this music video above - at the 3:15 mark, the song plunges down the rabbit hole into an utterly sublime and trippy guitar solo.

 Marillion has released a brand new charity single, a brilliant and fun version of "Carol of the Bells."


And, finally, here's Shearwater's cover version of Frank Ocean's "Novocane," which is available on a 7" single they split with Low for Record Store Day.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

My interview with Shearwater

Track-by-Track: Shearwater on “Fellow Travelers” - The Complete Interview

By Stephen Humphries

For Under the Radar magazine's Track-by-Track feature, we go in-depth with an artist about each song on their new album. This week the magazine features of Shearwater's Fellow Travelers. It's an album of cover versions of songs by bands and artists that Shearwater has toured with over the years, including St. Vincent, Coldplay, Wye Oak, and Clinic.

There's an added twist to the concept behind Fellow Travelers - Shearwater invited most of those artists to guest on the album, but not on their own songs.

 As regular readers will know, Shearwater is my favorite American band with a unique sound that emulates the spirit of late era Talk Talk without sounding like that group. Among Shearwater's fans: Robert Plant, Steven Wilson, and Marillion's Steve Hogarth.

I interviewed frontman Jonathan Meiburg about each of the songs on the band's new album of cover versions. Read the whole thing here. (But first, check out the music video for "I Luv the Valley, OH!" above.)

Shearwater fans should seek out the recent limited edition 7" single that Shearwater split with Low. Shearwater did a brooding version of Frank Ocean's "Novocane" that I can't get enough of. Low turned in a beautiful, haunted version of Rihanna's "Stay." Also a must-have: The limited edition 7" single that came as a bonus from early orders of Fellow Travelers at You need to treat your ears to Shearwater's slow-creasting tsunami of a cover version of "Black River Song" by Angels of Light (Michael Gira's band outside of Swans).

Finally, here's the band's cover version of "Fucked Up Life" from Fellow Travelers.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Now on newsstands: Yes

One of my most fun assignments was to fly to Las Vegas to attend a Yes-themed Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy Camp and write about it for Prog magazine. (The new issue is now on UK newsstands and very soon available on US newsstands, including Barnes & Noble. Or, if you can't wait that long, just download the issue onto your Kindle or iPad via iTunes.)

You may have heard about the Rock ’n’ Roll Fantasy Camp (or seen the affectionate spoof on it in The Simpsons episode with the Rolling Stones). The institution gives amateur musicians an opportunity to get up on stage to jam with bands and artists such as Steve Vai, Joe Perry, Slash, Judas Priest, Jeff Beck, Def Leppard, Sammy Hagar, Roger Daltrey, and many other luminaries.

In decades past, this sort of thing would be unheard of. The closest that rock fans could get to their idols was a front row seat at a concert. (The exception to the rule: Attractive women with the wiles to get backstage.) Indeed, rock 'n' roll camp founder David Fishof says, “When I was touring with rock bands, the bands always went out the back stage door, and out of the back door at hotels. They didn’t want to interact with fans. They were scared of them."

More than that, bands reveled in the fact that they were inaccessible and remote because it made them seem mythical.

Yes bass player Chris Squire admitted to me, “Back in the ’70s, one often hired a publicist to make sure that there was a bare minimum of interviews with the press as it was generally thought that this would increase the artists' mystique."

Nowadays, Squire and the other members of Yes are active on social media, interacting with fans, answering questions and offering music recommendations.

As Squire put it, "In the last 10 years, we have been increasingly been made aware of the fact that we now live in the world of social media and conversely from the past we have now been recommended by our current webmasters that interaction is a part of general life."

Fishof observes, "Bands now realize that these fans are the ones that kept them alive and they’re more appreciative.”

This year, Yes met some of their biggest fans at the rock 'n' roll fantasy camp. It was wholly new territory for all the band members except drummer Alan White. He'd participated in 10 previous camps and felt very much at home. He seems to enjoy the chance to mentor amateur musicians.

"I have had people in my class who kind of noodle," said White. "They want to prove they can do all kinds of stuff but I keep telling them, ‘Stop!’ They’ve got to listen to what’s going on around them. They benefit from it by the final day by being able to get up there with confidence and play the music and feel good about it. Some people are really, really good. You don’t have to say a word, you wonder sometimes why they’re at the camp because they’re such excellent musicians."

Part of the fun of reporting the story was meeting the amateur musicians themselves. Case in point, Gary Birch, a Software application architect from St. Paul, Minnesota, who told me, " I literally have been dreaming about standing on stage and playing with Yes since 1972. I don’t know if you could ask for anything better."

His wife, Janell, observed, "I listened to Yes since we got married since 1978. I tell you, we just needed to come here because I just wanted to support this whole camp with Yes because he looks younger, acts younger when he’s around this."

The band members in Yes were all friendly and happy to chat about their camp experience. I was particularly impressed with new singer Jon Davison, a sweet guy and one helluva singer.

Yes is currently working on new material for an album. Next year, they'll tour the UK and Europe to perform their albums The Yes Album, Close to the Edge, and Going for the One each night. Here's my recent interview with Yes guitarist Steve Howe about the tour.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Playlist: October

  • Steven Wilson—Drive Home (2013)
  • Shearwater—Fellow Travelers (2013)
  • John Wesley—Disconnect (2014)
  • Arcade Fire—Reflektor (2013)
  • Pearl Jam—Lightning Bolt (2013)
  • Patty Griffin—Silver Bell (2013)
  • Rush—Vapor Trails Remixed (2013)
  • Rovo and System 7 (feat. Steve Hillage)—Phoenix Rising (2013)
  • Francis Dunnery—Frankenstein Monster (2013)
  • Sheryl Crow—Feels like Home (2013)
  • Godsticks—The Envisage Conundrum (2013)
The last thing the world needs is another review of the new ARCADE FIRE, so I'll brief in my assessment of Reflektor: This album is an incoherent mess, albeit with some lovely songs.

Steven Wilson often says that its crucial to create an album in a vacuum. An artist needs to isolate himself from outside expectations and pressures. Arcade Fire could've used that advice before writing Reflektor. Other bands have been in this position before - R.E.M. with Monster, Oasis with Be Here Now and Coldplay with X&Y. Each of those records - all of them problematic - represented a moment when those bands had crossed over into megastardom and each band was aware that all eyes were on their next album. Arcade Fire has responded with an album that wants to be big and Important.

The album's release was preceded by a special half hour special after Saturday Night Live. It boasted celebrity cameos by Bono, Ben Stiller, James Franco, Michael Cera, Aziz Ansari etc. It struck me as very self congratulatory and hubristic to embrace their hip status and show off their celebrity rolodex. I worry that they have bought into their own hype and lost the common touch, the earthy connection with their audiences that propelled them to popularity in the first place.

The album is as self-conscious and self-important as their TV special.

Much as I like the lead single, "Reflektor," the song is way too long for such simple (if hooky) chorus. There are several songs should have been edited down in length as they outstay their welcome. And the album should have been pruned from a bloated double album to a single disc. My fave songs on the album: "Joan of Arc," "Awful Sound (Oh Erydice)" and "Afterlife."

I cannot fathom why SHEARWATER isn't as big as Arcade Fire. Their new album of cover versions - Fellow Travelers, released November 26th - is an hugely enjoyable stopgap release between studio albums. I interviewed frontman Jonathan Meiburg about the album for a piece that will run next month. More on that soon.

I've been a fan of FRANCIS DUNNERY since around 1986 when I first heard It Bites. He's never compromised his artistic instincts during his adventurous solo career and so fans never know what type of album he'll release next. His new album, Frankenstein Monster (available to buy at his website), is one of his finest releases and showcases why he's one of the most special lead guitarists on the planet. (His guitar skills have been commissioned by the likes of Robert Plant, Ian Brown, Carlos Santana and Lauryn Hill.)

The album is a tribute to Necromandus, the early 1970s British band founded by Francis's older brother Barry. Melody Maker once described Necromandus as "a sort of Black Sabbath play Yes' greatest hits". But the band’s sole album, recorded in 1973, was shelved and only belatedly released in 1999. Barry Dunnery died in 2008. Francis Dunnery has resurrected those songs on Frankenstein Monster. Apart from the great title track, which Francis wrote (here's the music video), the album consists entirely of cover versions. You can listen to the entire album here.

For starters, take a listen to the guitar solo on track 13, "Ho Ho Your Sandwiches." It's unspeakably beautiful...

A progressive rock band that I've been enjoying of late is GODSTICKS from Wales. Imagine what Sweet Billy Pilgrim would sound like if they had Steve Vai and Frank Zappa on guitars. Check 'em out at

The best prog album I have heard lately is "Phoenix Rising" by ROVO & SYSTEM 7 (feat. Steve Hillage). First, check out this Mahavishnu Orchestra cover version on it: Then watch the music video for lead single "Hinotori" above (the album version is about 12 minutes long).

Finally, STEVEN WILSON caps the best year of his storied career with a new EP, Drive Home, a CD and DVD package that consists of unreleased and live material. Below is the live version of "The Watchmaker" from Steven's 2013 masterpiece, The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories).

New on Newsstands: Avril Lavigne

I interviewed Avril Lavigne, the pop star renowned for wearing more black eyeliner than Cleopatra, for the current issue of American Way, the in-flight magazine of American Airlines. You can read it here.

I was surprised to discover that she's a very shy person. You wouldn't that from her public persona—a rebellious, small-town sk8ter girl who wears ties over wife beaters. (Avril has a girly side, too: She
has two rooms full of Hello Kitty collectibles in her house, including a pink Hello Kitty couch and paintings.) She's no push over, mind. Lavigne famously rejected her record label’s attempts to turn her into the next Britney Spears. “I told them, ‘I have to write my own songs,’” recalls Lavigne. “I was able to tap into who I am and what I wanted my sound to be, which was different from anything on the radio at the time, which was Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, Britney Spears – very bubblegum pop.  I was a chick with a guitar and it was so different from anything out there.”

Monday, September 30, 2013

Playlist: September

  • Goldfrapp—Tales of Us (2013)
  • Nine Inch Nails—Hesitation Marks (2013)
  • Emiliana Torrini—Tookah (2013)
  • The Blind Boys of Alabama—I'll Find a Way (2013)
  • Sheryl Crow—Feels like Home (2013)
  • Trentemøller —Lost (2013)
  • Elvis Costello & The Roots—Wise Up Ghost (2013)
  • It Bites—Map of the Past (2012)
  • The Mahavishnu Orchestra—Birds of Fire (1973)
  • Rush—All the World's a Stage (1976)

Monday, September 16, 2013

Now on newsstands: Elvis Costello + The Roots

The new issue of American Way, the flight magazine of American Airlines, includes a brief interview I did with Elvis Costello and The Roots about their utterly superb album, Wise Up Ghost. (You can read the piece here.)

"It just came out of some curiosity about what would happen if we started putting our ideas together. And we did it without really saying more than a few words to one another," Elvis told me during our phone conversation. "I’d played with The Roots on the Fallon show on a couple of different occasions and they had come up with a great approach to some songs from my catalog. The last time I went in to do a couple of Bruce Springsteen songs – they were doing a run of nights from Bruce’s catalog. So we played a bunch of different music together and we started laying things down. We didn’t really tell anybody we were doing it."

Elvis somehow managed to fit into the band's busy schedule. The band's iconic drummer, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, told me that their gig as the house band for Jimmy Fallon means that they often work 17 hour days, so Elvis sometimes had to record with them as late as 1 a.m.

By all accounts, they had wonderful chemistry from the off. "Kirk is a wonderful guitar player," Costello told me. "Everything from the sousaphone to the percussion to the keyboards that Ray Angry and the other guys put in is just tremendous."

For his part, Questlove was impressed with the Costello’s lyrics as well as the beauty he brought to the album’s two ballads. “‘Tripwire’ is about love in the time of the Apocalypse,” explained Questlove. “‘If I Could Believe’ was his song about grieving the death of his father.”

"There’s no conventional harmony to the bulk of the songs," added Costello. "And then when that comes along in a couple of songs like ‘Tripwire’ and ‘If I Could Believe,’ then it’s a real genuine release,” says Costello. “I found that very stimulating and very provocative.”

Wise Up Ghost is one of my favorite albums of the year. Check out the video for the lead single, below.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Now on newsstands: Elbow and Blackfield interviews

I wrote lengthy features about Elbow and Blackfield for the new issue of Prog magazine, now on UK newsstands (£5.99 in WHSmith) and very soon available on US newsstands, including Barnes & Noble. Or, if you can't wait that long, just download the issue onto your Kindle or iPad via iTunes.

I thought I'd share a few tidbits from both interviews that ended up on the cutting-room floor...


I wrote about the new album by Blackfield, the band consisting of Aviv Geffen and Steven Wilson, which marks a new era for the band. Technically, Blackfield isn't supposed to be a duo anymore. Wilson stated that he'd only be a guest contributor on this new album because he is focused on his very successful solo career. Turns out that the situation isn't that simple - as I explain in my article, Wilson was extensively involved in Blackfield IV. The album includes guest vocals by Vincent Cavanagh from Anathema, Brett Anderson from Suede, and Jonathan Donahue from Mercury Rev. I chatted to Geffen at his home in Tel Aviv - here's a few excerpts that didn't make it into the piece.

“In a way, it’s the most balanced album," said Geffen, his accent as heavy as the black eyeliner he often wears on stage. "It has songs like ‘Pills,’ which is the classic Blackfield sound, and on the last song you’ve got some dubstep. There are many angles on this album.”

Geffen is definitely the leader of the group now and that portends some stylistic changes. As he explained, “I’m a good friend of Coldplay, for example, and I think Blackfield should go in that path.”


I also interviewed Guy Garvey, the singer of Elbow, about each of the British band's albums and got a glimpse into the progressive direction of their next record. Elbow is one of Britain's biggest bands but, alas, hasn't become anything close to a household name in the USA. (Elbow's "Grounds for Divorce" was, however, recently used for a jeans ad on US television.)

If you've not listened to Elbow, seek them out. Their distinctive sound consists of the Peter-Gabriel-like vocals of Guy Garvey, one of rock's most literate lyricists, and the exploration of the space between notes. Their understanding of light-and-shade dynamics (which is influenced by Talk Talk) creates an intimate grandeur. If you've never heard them, check out the videos at the end of this piece.

Garvey is always a wonderful interview (here's a link to my previous chat with him) so I thought I'd share some of the stuff that didn't make it into my story.

Guy Garvey on...

Elbow's mega-hit "One Day Like This":
"The effect is has on an audience, especially in an arena, is so overwhelming. It's an extension of the themes that we tried to include on Cast of Thousands. I think, a lot of the time, a band will shy away from big, joyous sing-a-longs. I think, sometimes that's right. But often it's wrong. It's quite vain and, in many ways, it's a little selfish to deny those moments. Thousands and thousands and thousands of people got married to that song, for obvious reasons. That's more important than the fact that it accompanied two Olympic games with the BBC, it's more important than the fact that people have covered it, that's it's blown up and changed our fortunes. The best thing about it is that ordinary people fell in love to, and got married to, our music.

On the album format:
I read some statistics the other day, 16 to 25 year olds are going back to the album as a format. It was a music industry survey. And 16 to 25 year olds are missing that feeling of ownership. They're realizing that, if you listen to an album from start to finish, you can lose yourself within it and maybe even change the way you think about something. We've always been an album band.  We're very good friends with I am Kloot. You probably know that Craig and I produced their records. For them, song is the end product. The recording is a version of the song. But the song is the art. Whereas, for us, the album is the end product and everything else is just versions of that.  

About the next album, which was mooted to have a song titled "Cold Morning" on it:

"Cold Morning"? Wow. It's actually been sidelined. I am sure it will be [a future B-side]. This is something about the album-writing process. You start somewhere, you have enough songs for a record and then you take the best one and that becomes your benchmark - everything has to reach that grade. And you keep doing that until you're told that you're out of time and that's when you start finessing your record, tying up the loose ends. We would never actually release an album without deadlines! We would just keep improving it forever.
About his song contributions to King Kong: The Musical:
3D - Robert Del Naja - from Massive Attack, I did some singing and writing for their last record. Love working with those boys. Rob's got a very free way of working. The first time I went to that studio, I sang for nine hours over various beats and bits of demo music they had. I used all the lyrics that I hadn't used on the previous Elbow record. Some woeful themes and we discovered some melodies. Rob says he's still harvesting from that one session. Every now and then, he'll be working on a tune and he'll see what he hasn't used from that session and they'll chop it up and retune it and sometimes even re-sing it and sometimes they don't. 
Rob called me up and said, 'I'm involved in King Kong: The Musical.' We both laughed for five minutes. He said, 'It looks spectacular. The ape's going to be great.' He said, 'I've never done anything like this and they're asking for a lyricist.' I said, 'Well, I have absolutely no experience of musical theater. I've never been to a musical. ' I said, 'Yeah, why not. It's a bit of a challenge.' 
The director was really enthusiastic about the song I've written for them. It was really good fun. It was so different than writing songs from my perspective for Elbow. I was given a character with a backstory. I was allowed to extend the backstory, as well, in order to find a lyric. Who knows what it'll sound like when it's finished, but Marius de Vries, the musical director, has worked with Elbow before. He's a wonderful man. I love working with him and I love working with Rob. It looks stunning. My first musical theater experience will be going to see a musical with some of my words in it!
When is Elbow going to sell a Rubik's cube modeled on the cube on the cover for The Seldom Seen Kid?
I had the exact same idea! They made some mock-ups, but Rubik's refused to manufacture a pure white cube. We got in touch with them and they said the only way they could do it would be to sell us naked Rubik's Cubes and they would sell us white stickers and we'd have to put them on by hand. No one at the record company was prepared to do that! So, the band have got one each. There's about 10 in existence. I've got one in my bedroom at home.






Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Playlist: August

  • Washed Out—Paracosm (2013)
  • The Civil Wars—The Civil Wars (2013)
  • Elvis Costello + The Roots—Wise Up Ghost (2013)
  • Blackfield—Blackfield IV (2013)
  • Volto!—Incintare (2013)
  • Tedeschi Trucks Band—Made Up Mind (2013)
  • Laura Veirs—Warp and Weft (2013)
  • Travis—Where You Stand (2013)
  • Franz Ferdinand—Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action (2013)
  • Karnivool—Asymmetry (2013)
  • Jesca Hoop—Phonograph/Moon Rock Needle (2013)
  • David Bowie—Aladdin Sane (40th Anniversary reissue) (2013)
  • Yes—Close to the Edge (Steven Wilson remix) (2013)
  • Peter Case—The Man with the Blue, Post-modern Fragmented, Neo-traditionalist Guitar (1989), Wig (2010)
  • Rilo Kiley—More Adventurous (2004)
  • The Waterboys—This is the Sea (1985), Live Adventures of the Waterboys (1998)

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Now on newsstands...

I interviewed John Grant, former vocalist for The Czars, for the latest issue of Under the Radar magazine.

It was the most harrowing interview I've ever done. Grant, who is gay, told me about the torments he endured during his childhood, which ranged from self-loathing over his secret sexual identity to getting beaten up outside his home by a bigot and not being able to tell his family why it had happened.

Grant told me, in unstinting detail, about his later years of drug and alcohol addiction and sexual promiscuity. Underlying all of it was serious depression.

There are parts of Grant's life I didn't even touch on in the piece, such as his struggle to overcome agoraphobia during his twenties or how he fell in love with his straight drug dealer, who once tried to kill himself on Grant's couch (and previously set fire to the house). John Grant has lived a life - and then some.

The good news is that he's doing better now. He told me how much music played a part in lifting him out of his condition and providing him a channel to get focused and exorcise those demons. Now clean, sober and cautiously optimistic, Grant has received some of the best reviews of the year for his second solo album, Pale Green Ghosts. His previous solo record, Queen of Denmark, merited similar plaudits and was named Mojo magazine's album of the year.

Take a listen to the great title track of Pale Green Ghosts below. A great showcase for the singer's tenor. Oh, and if you've never checked out Grant's former band, The Czars, you really owe it to yourself to get The Ugly People VS. Beautiful People for starters....

This issue of Under the Radar also features a forward looking cover story on British sensation Charli XCX (I've no idea what you'd call her if you met her in person - perhaps Charli?) as well as features on the new albums by The National, Primal Scream, Sigur Ros, and the wonderful Laura Marling.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Playlist: July

  • Anna Von Hausswolf—Ceremony (2013)
  • Joseph Arthur—The Ballad of Boogie Christ (2013)
  • Elvis Costello + The Roots—Wise Up Ghost (2013)
  • Blackfield—Blackfield IV (2013)
  • Santana—Viva Santana! (1988)
  • Boards of Canada—Tomorrow's Harvest (2013)
  • Gary Hoey—Deja Blues (2013)
  • Jon Hopkins—Immunity (2013)
  • Volto!—Incintare (2013)
  • Radiohead—The Bends (Box set edition) (1995)
  • Theo Travis + Robert Fripp—Follow (2013)
  • David Sylvian—Secrets of the Beehive (1987)
  • Queens of the Stone Age—Like Clockwork (2013)
  • Trentemøller —Lost (2013)
  • Sound of Contact—Dimensionaut (2013)
  • Beth Hart + Joe Bonamassa —Seesaw (2013)
  • Rush—All the World's a Stage (1976)
  • Goldfrapp—The Singles (2012)
  • King Crimson—Cirkus (1999)
  • Rokia Traoré—Beautiful Africa (2013)

I've been listening to some of the best albums of 2013 so far: Boards of Canada, Jon Hopkins, Elvis Costello +The Roots, and Rokia Traoré from Mali (take a listen to the single off her superb latest album, released in the USA on September 24, below).


And then there's my latest musical discovery: Sweden's Anna von Hausswolf. Her main musical instrument is a church pipe organ and she sounds like a cross between Kate Bush and Maria Lindén from I Break Horses. Add in some cool and unearthly guitar and the result is brooding music with appropriate song titles such as "Deathbed." The single, "Mountains Crave" (see music video, above) is lovely but only hints at how strange, yet beautiful, the album Ceremony is. One of the best things I've heard all year.

Gary Hoey’s new album, Deja Blues, is another new discovery. Guitar fans out there will be aware of Gary as one of America’s premier rock guitarists. He grew up near Boston and harbored a desire to attend the Berklee School of Music but his family was too poor to afford it. So, instead, Gary would hang around outside the school to find people who could give him guitar lessons. In the late 1980s, Gary got his big break. When a Boston radio station interviewed Ozzy Osbourne, the singer told them he was looking for a new guitarist. Gary Hoey called into the radio station and played his guitar over the phone for Ozzy. That got him a ticket to go to Los Angeles. In the end, Gary didn’t get the gig with Ozzy – it went to Zakk Wylde – but Gary went on to have a successful career creating mostly instrumental albums in the vein of Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. In 1993, he recorded a cover version of “Hocus Pocus” by Focus that became a top 5 hit single on the Billboard charts. As Gary proudly notes, he managed to be in the charts at the same time as Nirvana. Gary’s soundtrack to the surf movie The Endless Summer II was also a big seller.

Deja Blues is the guitarist’s 11th studio album and his first foray into the blues.

So many famous rock guitarists have tried to follow Gary Moore’s path of crossing over to the blues and the results tend to be horrible because, unlike Moore, they don't really get the feel of the music. A lot of would-be crossover artists just end up shredding and throwing in a zillion notes a second rather than letting the music breathe and swing. But on Deja Blues, it's apparent right from "Boss You Around" that Gary gets the groove and soul of the blues. He plays what's right for the music.

Gary says that the album is influenced by Stevie Ray Vaughan, Gary Moore, B.B. King, Albert King, Robert Johnson and Elmore James. Bonus points to Gary for not sounding like the countless Stevie Ray Vaughan imitator clones out there. And he has a really good voice. Gary says that this is where he wants to be from now on – he wants to spend the rest of his life playing the blues. This album validates that impulse. Below is a taste of the album...

Friday, May 31, 2013

Playlist: May

  • Laura Marling—Once I was an Eagle (2013)
  • Joseph Arthur—Graduation Ceremony (2011)
  • The Besnard Lakes—Until in Excess, Imperceptible UFO (2013)
  • Steve Mason—Monkey Minds in the Devil's Time (2013)
  • Amplifier—Echo Street (2013)
  • Marillion—Radiation (2013 remix)
  • Rokia Traoré—Beautiful Africa (2013)
  • Steely Dan—Katy Lied (1975), Aja (1977 )
  • Patty Griffin—American Kid (2013)
  • The National—Trouble will Find Me (2013)
  • Bruce Soord and Jonas Renkse—The Wisdom of Crowds (2013)
  • Joe Bonamassa and Beth Hart—Seesaw (2013)
  • Joe Satriani—Unstoppable Momentum (2013)

Friday, May 10, 2013

My Isla Fisher interview


Now in seatbacks on American Airlines planes: My cover story interview with Isla Fisher for American Way in-flight magazine. The truly delightful Isla is the star of two movies this month, "The Great Gatsby" and "Now You See Me." But you needn't buy a plane ticket to read my piece - you can meet the girl who tamed Borat by following this link.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Playlist: March


  • David Bowie—The Next Day (2013)
  • My Bloody Valentine—M.B.V. (2013)
  • Depeche Mode—Delta Machine (2013)
  • Low—The Invisible Way (2013)
  • Amplifier—Echo Street (2013)
  • Bass Communion—I (1998), II + III (1999), Atmospherics (1999), Molotov and Haze (2008)
  • Henry Fool—Men Singing (2013) 
  • Steely Dan—Can't Buy a Thrill (1972), Pretzel Logic (1974 )
  • The Waterboys—The Waterboys (1983), An Appointment with Mr. Yeats (2011)
  • King Crimson—Larks' Tongues  in Aspic (40th Anniversary box set) (1973)
  • The Cocteau Twins—Milk and Kisses (1996)
  • Taj Mahal—Maestro (2008)
  • Patty Griffin—Flaming Red (1998), American Kid (2013)
  • John Grant—Pale Green Ghosts (2013)
  • Rush—Rush (1974), Fly By Night (1975), Caress of Steel (1975), 2112 (1976)

Back in January, I saw a paparazzi shot of David Bowie in the streets of New York. He looked typically dapper in a flat cap and was carrying a shopping bag. I remember thinking how sad it was that he'd retired from music. Bowie's final tour, which I saw twice, was incredible. He was enjoying a purple patch with the fairly good Reality album and, especially, its magnificent predecessor, Heathen. It felt as if Bowie's great creative momentum had been cut cruelly short by health issues following a heart attack.

Bowie's surprise return—a masterstroke of mystique and publicity—more than took care of unfinished business. The Next Day is so good that I have cravings to listen to it.

The Next Day is a prickly album with sharp edges rather than a complacently cozy one. It has enough energy to power the Manhattan grid. And it's his most stylistically varied record in a while, touching on various sounds from his career.

"If You Can See Me" is almost prog rock. "Heat" owes much to the influence of latter-day Scott Walker. "Where Are You Know" is wistful and emotional. And "Valentine's Day" has a killer twist in the lyric and a guitar riff to match.

This album is great driving music for the car. By the time I reach late-in-the-batting order songs such as "I'd Rather be High," "Boss of Me," "Dancing Out in Space," "How Does the Grass Grow" and "You Will Set the World on Fire," I have to be careful not to floor the pedal over the speed limit. Just great tunes that I want to sing along to. Even "Dirty Boys," a song that initially did nothing for me, has suddenly bloomed into a favorite.

A lot of writers and fans and friends have spent much of the past month arguing over where The Next Day stands in the Bowie pantheon. The reviews have been almost overwhelmingly positive even as some naysayers claim it's overrated and that the adulation for the album says more about how much we miss artists of Bowie's caliber than the music itself merits. To me, that's all very academic. And boring. I'm planning to listen to all 24 of the Bowie albums that I own in succession and maybe that'll give me some context and comparison. But I don't really care about ranking it right now, to be honest. All I know is that this album is tremendously exciting, energetic, stuffed with great tunes and highly addictive.

It's good to have you back, David.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Playlist: February


  • Steven Wilson—The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories) (2013)
  • Atoms for Peace—Amok (2013)
  • Colin Edwin + John Durant—Burnt Belief (2012)
  • Otis Taylor—My World is Gone (2013)
  • Henry Fool—Men Singing (2013) 
  • David Sylvian—Dead Bees on a Cake  (1999)
  • Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds—Push the Sky Away (2013)
  • Max Richter—Vivaldi's Four Seasons Recomposed (2012)
  • Howling Bells—The Loudest Engine (2011)
  • Richard Thompson—Electric (2013)
  • Miles Davis—Bitches Brew (1970)
  • Jesca Hoop—Kismet (acoustic re-recording) (2013)
  • Ghosting Season—The Very Last of the Saints (2012)
  • Peter Gabriel—So (25th Anniversary special edition)  (1986)\
  • Foals—Holy Fire (2013) 
  • Henrik Freischlader Band —House in the Woods (2012)
  • The James Hunter Six—Minute by Minute (2013)
  • King Crimson—Larks' Tongues  in Aspic (40th Anniversary box set) (1973)
  • Santana—Caravanserai (1972)
  • The Sundays—Static and Silence (1997)
  •  Boss, original soundtrack—Brian Reitzell  (2013)
  • Taj Mahal—Maestro (2008)
  • Patty Griffin—American Kid (2013)
  • John Grant—Pale Green Ghosts (2013)
Sorry for a longer list than usual. It includes some of the albums I've been listening to since last month and its mix of progressive rock, indie rock, alt-country, blues, folk, electronica, jazz, and classical reflects my schizophrenic music tastes. As usual, I won't write about each of the albums I'm listening to (too time consuming!) so I'll just hone in on three worthy new releases that may not be on your radar.

It's only February and I am already pretty sure that Steven Wilson's third solo album, The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories) will be the best album I'll hear in 2013. It is a flawless album. I wrote a cover story about Wilson (best known as the singer-songwriter-producer-guitarist of Porcupine Tree, one of his many diverse projects) for the current issue of Prog magazine.

Raven... is a decidedly old-school progressive rock album with modern virtues. The songwriting is memorable and though there are lengthy instrumental sections, the songs are tightly arranged so that there's no noodling and not a note wasted. It's a record of sublime beauty that will take you places. For starters, check out the (literally) haunting music video for the title track at the top of this blog. Then try this video, below, which excerpts the end section from an epic track titled "The Watchmaker."

(P.S. Porcupine Tree fans should also investigate the fine new album of instrumentals by Colin Edwin and John Durant.)

I'm knocked out by the latest album by Otis Taylor. In a just world, Taylor would be widely recognized as one of the great artists of our time. No exaggeration. He is nominally a bluesman, but the Denver-based musician's ouevre is much broader than that. (Ever heard blues played with a banjo?) His music incorporates elements such as jazz, folk, rock, and African rhythms. He is arguably the most progressive blues musician since Taj Mahal. Otis Taylor calls his style of music "trance blues." Indeed, his music is richly atmospheric and hypnotic.

Taylor releases an album a year. And every record is killer. He never repeats himself and gives each album an individual sound. With My World is Gone, Taylor has managed to outdo Contraband, which was one of my favorite records of 2012.  Taylor's voice is his greatest asset. His voice is a little gruff and stacatto and slightly reminiscent of John Lee Hooker but it is astonishingly soulful instrument and affecting. (The third track on Contraband, "Look to the Side" has such an emotional vocal that it could pierce the blubber of the hardest heart.)

On My World is Gone, the mixed race musician has teamed up with Mato Nanji, the singer-guitarist of the band Indigenous. Mato has big shoes to fill: Many recent Taylor albums featured my all-time favorite guitarist, the late Gary Moore. The Native American more than rises to the occasion with guitar parts that linger long in the memory.

I previously interviewed Otis for PopMatters four years ago and you can read my interview with him here.

For his score for the TV drama Boss, Brian Reitzell wrote original pieces of music for each episode and roped in collaborators such as Air, Shearwater, My Morning Jacket, Mark Hollis, Explosions in the Sky, Paul Buchanan, Califone, Onehtrix Point Never and Ludwig von Beethoven.

You read that last part right. The creator of the show told Reitzell that the final episode was going to include a snippet of “Moonlight Sonata” so Reitzell wrote and recorded an 18 minute piece, titled "Punishment" (which includes an interpolation of “Moonlight Sonata”) in just two days. The result is pretty amazing. The whole soundtrack coheres as an album with a sustained mood. (The video below offers a seven minute preview of the music.) The new song by Shearwater (my favorite American band) is very good. Notably, the Boss soundtrack also includes the first new song by Mark Hollis, the reclusive songwriter and singer of Talk Talk, since his 1998 solo album. But downgrade your expectations for the Hollis track as it is only a 2 minute instrumental. Nonetheless, it reveals what sort of sound we might expect from Hollis on his next solo album (at least, we hope there will be another solo album).

Next, Brian Reitzell is doing the soundtrack for the new Sofia Coppolla's movie (he’s done them all, including The Virgin Suicides) and he did the soundtrack for Promised Land, the Matt Damon movie currently in theaters. He is currently scoring the TV show Hannibal, based on Silence of the Lambs.

A talent to watch.