Holy Bouncer: Hippie Girl Lover

May 28th, 2016

From Spain, an interesting combination of ’60s and ’70s influences that include the Doors, Who, Stones and a helping of garage rock. This is the title track from their forthcoming full-length album.

Holy Bouncer’s Facebook Page

Swedish Polarbears: The Great Northern

May 25th, 2016

SwedishPolarbears_TheGreatNorthernHarmony and guitar-rich power-pop from Sweden

It’s been ten years since this Swedish quartet broke on the power-pop scene with their Teenage Fanclub tribute, “Norman Blake.” They’ve released the odd single and EP over the intervening years, but it’s taken a full decade for them to write and record a proper debut album. And yes, it was worth the wait. The group’s harmonies are gorgeous, the guitar sounds superb, and the first single, “Winter,” is awash in Byrdsian jangle and folk-styled harmonies. The group’s fascination with Teenage Fanclub hasn’t abated, but you can also hear the influences of the Searchers, Motors and Beach Boys. The album is awash in catchy melodies, tight harmonies and walls of electric guitars, all finely balanced against a solid rhythm section of hummable bass lines and full-kit drum fills. The group’s amalgam of pop influences may not break new ground, but the precision and joie de vivre with which they weave it all together is quite endearing. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Swedish Polarbears’ Home Page

Escondido: Walking With a Stranger

May 25th, 2016

Escondido_WalkingWIthAStrangerSophomore album trades desert spaces for studio layers

The lonely trumpet that opens Escondido’s second album suggests another round of Lee Hazlewood-Ennio Morricone mashups. But the sparse, DIY live sound of their debut has given way to heavier, more studied productions here, and though vocalist Jessica Maros can still strike a mood of detachment, she’s pushed by the music to a fiercer emotion. Think of Debbie Harry fighting her way out of a momentary lapse into ennui rather than Hope Sandoval getting lost in it. The opening “Footprints” includes chanting that echoes the tribal weight of Adam & The Ants, and the album’s first single, “Heart is Black,” is as insinuous as the addictions it essays.

This is a decidedly more modern album than 2013’s The Ghost of Escondido, but the trade from desert spaces to studio layers hasn’t sacrificed the duo’s mystery, nor obscured the power of their duet singing. The twanging riff and ghostly vocalization that introduce “Idiot” set up a kiss-off whose lack of anger adds to the sting. Maros and her multi-instrumentalist partner Tyler James manage to make music that’s fragile and strong and disaffected and focused all at once. Maros can say she’s over it, but the melody says otherwise, and James’ subtle (and not so subtle) touches of keyboards and trumpets point in both directions.

The album’s title is taken from the song “Apartment,” recognizing the estrangement that can grow alongside familiarity. It’s that sort of duality that colors the album’s betrayal and recriminations, and the music’s intensity draws from the conflict. The grounding in 90’s alt-rock gives the album muscle, but the duo’s country and western (as opposed to Country & Western) roots carry the songs to an original place. Fans of Mazzy Star will be hooked, as they were for the debut, but just as quickly find themselves transported byond. Maros and James each bring something unique to their pairing, and paired, they’re mesmerizing. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Escondido’s Home Page

Chris Robley: The Great Make Believer

May 25th, 2016

ChrisRobley_TheGreatMakeBelieverHanging on to hanging on

Whatever else he’s done, Chris Robley’s bi-coastal habitation of Portland, Oregon and Portland, Maine positions him as the answer to a singer-songwriter trivia question. It’s the sort of poetic, yet easily consumed detail that also threads through his songwriting. And though his poetry is filled with imagery and symbolism, his lyrics follow more traditional narratives, albeit with the observational details and sensitivity of a poet. Robley’s sixth album was written and recorded amid major life changes – including divorce, relocation and romantic renewal – and though the songs aren’t directly autobiographical, it’s easy to spot a very real path of anxiety, confusion, sadness, depression, weariness, relief and rebirth, sewn together by hints of optimism and a helping of catharsis.

Perhaps the most important musical change from previous releases is Robley’s choice to relinquish most of the instrumental duties to bandmates. Where his earlier albums had been insular, overdubbed studio productions, his latest relies not only on other players, but the dynamism of live recording and the shucking of orchestration and production tricks. Though much of the album draws its melodic tint from Robley’s long-time pop inspirations (i.e., the Beatles), several of the songs are stripped to country-tinged basics, with Paul Brainard’s steel and Bob Dunham’s guitar given prominent placement. Their twang pushes Robley to preach on “Lonely People” and underlines the sort of introspective reflections you’d rather not have staring back at you from the mirror.

The album opens with “Eden,” a moment of renewal spurred by the realization that mistakes are the fuel of improvement. The story then rewinds to follow the path of destruction that led to understanding. The betrayals are largely passive, with relationships quietly abandoned and allowed to disintegrate; but the wrong-doings nag the conscience and provoke the sleepless nights of “Evangeline.” The seemingly cheery recovery of “Lonely People” is turned back by self-doubt and apologies geared more to the sender than the recipient. “Silently” closes the album with the no-fault observation that even the brightest fires expire silently. The song’s old-timey vocal and kazoo solo are nice touches, and just two of the album’s many charms. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Chris Robley’s Home Page

Jackie DeShannon: When You Walk in the Room

May 7th, 2016

Perhaps even better than the original.

J.D. Souther: Home by Dawn

April 9th, 2016

JDSouther_HomeByDawn2Souther’s sole 1980s album reissued with four bonus tracks

After breaking in as part of the Los Angeles scene of the 1970s, Souther retreated from the record racks, releasing only a pair of singles and this lone 1984 album between 1979 and 2008. These mid-80s sessions were helmed by Nashville songwriter and producer David Malloy, with a mid-80s studio sound that would soon establish itself on the country charts – though not for Souther, whose album only lightly brushed the bottom rung of Billboard’s Top 200. It’s not for want of good original material, touching vocals (including an appearance by Linda Ronstadt on “Say You Will”) and a timely popped-collar video. Apparently Warner Brothers didn’t know how to market the album, despite the title track having some resonance with the then-current hit “Footloose.”

That said, the album’s aged reasonably well, with songs and performances that outweigh the period sound. Souther had been listening to a lot of rockabilly prior to making this album, and you can hear the 50s influences beneath the layers of production and digital studio effects. Among the bonus tracks added to Omnivore’s 2016 reissue is a demo of “I’ll Take Care of You” whose vocal is more restrained, yet more impassioned than the album take. Also included is Souther’s duet with Linda Ronstadt on the Urban Cowboy soundtrack’s “Hearts Against the Wind,” and the unreleased session tracks “Little Girl Blue” and “Girls All Over the World.” The bonuses make for a nice upgrade, and sweeten an often overlooked Souther album. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

J.D. Souther’s Home Page

Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis: Today I Started Loving You Again

April 9th, 2016

If you’re going to pay tribute to a fellow musician, there’s no better way to say it than with music.

Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis – Vocals
Warren Hood – Fiddle
Scott Davis – Banjo
David Grissom – Guitar
Kelley Mickwee – Background Vocals
Geoff Queen – Steel Guitar
Dom Fischer (Wood & Wire) – Bass
Trevor Nealon (The Band of Heathens) – Keys

Willie Nile: World War Willie

April 9th, 2016

WillieNile_WorldWarWillieNew York rocker on a roll

Last we saw Buffalo, NY rocker Willie Nile, he’d stripped himself of his six-string, and sat down for a more introspective turn at the piano for 2014’s If I Was a River. The declarative rock ‘n’ roll of his recent albums gave way to a more conversational style, both between Nile and the piano, and between Nile, the piano and their listeners. Though only a temporary detour, it proved a valuable addition to Nile’s catalog, and a resting spot to gather himself for another album of highly-charged rock. Now into the latter-half of his 60s, Nile hasn’t lost a thing; one has to wonder if there’s an album in his attic whose music is aging away, Dorian Gray style.

Nile’s rock ‘n’ roll was bred in the 1970s, as a fellow traveler of those who fused the resuscitating spark of punk rock with a reverence for the roots of rock ‘n’ roll and blues. He’s played alongside Springsteen and the original panoply of CBGB acts, and the true-believer banner he hoisted with his 1980 debut still flies just as freely in his fourth decade of music making. Rock ‘n’ roll isn’t mere entertainment for Nile, though it’s certainly entertaining; more deeply, Nile shares Springsteen’s view that music is a redemptive force, and in Nile’s capable hands, it’s an emotional contact sport.

The album opens with a line drawn from teenage years to elder statesman, but it’s nearly superfluous to say in the wake of Nile’s unwavering commitment to rock ‘n’ roll. Rock isn’t Nile’s avocation or occupation (or even pre-occupation), it’s a fundamental tenet that leads to the only halfway tongue-in-cheek “Grandpa Rocks.” And Grandpa does rock. Hard. But he also takes it down to a knowing ballad for “Runaway Girl,” with lovely castanets (courtesy of Patricia Vonne) that echo Mink DeVille channeling the Brill Building. He breaks down to the blues for “Bad Boy” and the humorous social critique, “Citibank Nile,” and free associates a Dylan-esque catalog of unusual companions for the title track.

The free-spiritedness continues with the rockabilly “Hell Yeah,” and Nile’s love of all things music comes in a pair of tributes: Levon Helm is remembered in the original “When Levon Sings,” and fellow New York rocker Lou Reed in the album-closing cover of “Sweet Jane.” The latter builds to an anthem, and rings especially true as Nile sings “me, I’m in a rock ‘n’ roll band.” Thirty-six years after his debut, that membership, both in his exceptional band and in the larger brotherhood of rock ‘n’ roll, still seems to fulfill Nile’s deepest need. Lucky for us, he’s willing to share his personal fountain of youth. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Willie Nile’s Home Page

John David Souther: John David Souther

April 3rd, 2016

JohnDavidSouther_JohnDavidSoutherThe debut of a ‘70s L.A. songwriter w/7 bonus tracks

Like many singer-songwriters, J.D. Souther is better known for songs performed by others, including the Eagles (“New Kid in Town”), Bonnie Raitt (“Run Like a Thief”) and Linda Ronstadt (“Faithless Love”), than for his own performances. But in the early ‘70s, the Detroit-to-Texas-to-Los Angeles transplant was introduced to David Geffen by his downstairs neighbor, Jackson Browne, and found himself signed to the nascent Asylum label. This 1972 debut features ten originals, and includes accompaniment by Souther’s then-roommate, Glenn Frey, as well as handpicked session stars Bryan Garafalo, Gary Mallaber, Wayne Perkins and Nashville West fiddler Gib Guilbeau.

The album’s sound helped develop the templates for ‘70s Southern California music, adding country to rock, while keeping the singer-songwriter sensibility front and center. The album was recorded at Pacific Recorders in Northern California, rather than one of the reigning L.A. studios, but you wouldn’t know it from the musical vibe. Souther sounds a bit like his pals Browne and Frey, and his songs have a similar shade of inviting introspection. In “Kite Woman,” which Souther had previously recorded with Frey as the duo Longbranch Pennywhistle, and “How Long,” you can hear the voice that would carry him forward, and the songwriting that would come to fit the Eagles. The latter song was in fact resurrected by the Eagles for their 2007 comeback Long Road Out of Eden.

The album failed to click commercially, and it would be four more years until Souther waxed his second solo effort, but the lack of sales doesn’t reflect on either the songs or the performances. Souther apparently didn’t have the commercial “it” of Browne, but his music is heartfelt and effective. Omnivore’s 2016 reissue augments the original ten tracks with seven period bonuses, including an alternate version of “Kite Woman” and six demos. The latter, stripped mostly to guitar and vocals, provide more intimate readings than the band versions, and include the otherwise unrecorded “One in the Middle.” Delivered in a digipack with a 12-page booklet, this is a worthy upgrade and a good introduction for those who haven’t yet dug J.D. Souther. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

J.D. Souther’s Home Page

Ron Jacobs: KHJ – Inside Boss Radio

April 2nd, 2016

RonJacobs_InsideBossRadioThe invention of Boss Radio

Originally published in 2002, and republished as an e-book in 2010, Ron Jacobs Inside Boss Radio is the story of Top 40 radio’s highest peak. From 1965 through 1969, Jacobs served as program director for KHJ-AM, and together with the legendary radio consultant Bill Drake, created the Boss Radio format that conquered Los Angeles and was duplicated successfully in markets around the country. Jacobs covers the format’s origin, the boss jocks who brought it to life, the promotions that furthered KHJ’s reach, and the day-to-day workings involved in seeding and growing a format into a competition stomping dynamo.

The story begins in Fresno, where, as program director for KMAK, Jacobs battled head-to-head with Bill Drake, who was consulting for station owner Gene Chenault at KYNO. Rock ‘n’ roll had reached the major markets through Chuck Blore’s “Color Radio” Top 40 format at KFWB (a time documented in Blore’s Okay, Okay I Wrote the Book), but by the mid-60s, Blore had left KFWB, and KRLA, with Dave Hull, Bob Eubanks and Casey Casem was getting hot. Drake had decamped from Fresno to work at KGB in San Diego, and upon moving to KHJ he brought in Jacobs as program director. The station switched formats in May 1965, rechristening Los Angeles as “Boss Angeles,” and rewriting the mechanics, content and focus of Top 40 radio.

Jacobs’ book is in two parts. The first half of the book is a multi-person verbal history that threads together stories and anecdotes from many of the original characters. The second half, and really the meat, is the blizzard of memos that Jacobs rained upon his DJ staff, announcing changes to the hourly clock, pushing upcoming promotions, nitpicking the details of their on-air work, highlighting records, discussing ratings and always reminding them to program their music (particularly the “goldens”) with thought and flair. The verbal history is difficult to follow the first time through, as the characters aren’t drawn with enough detail to become sticky in the reader’s head. But after plowing through the memos, you’ll want to circle back to the book’s first half for a second read.

KHJ’s innovations and methods were many, including 20/20 newscasts, fresh and numerous promotions (including The Big Kahuna, Mr. Whisper and Location X), a KHJ-branded television program, premieres, exclusives, musical specials (such as 1969’s 48-hour The History of Rock ‘n ‘Roll), and teen-targeted day-parting. Jacobs was relentless in driving towards a “standard of attempted perfection,” and his drive was rewarded by towering ratings. The format was technical, complex, intricate and always under revision. Jacobs’ biggest headache seems to have been the fight against complacency as the station quickly rose to #1 and crushed its competition. By early 1968, KFWB switched from music to news and KRLA was cutting shifts and eventually turned to automation.

What’s missing is an explanation of the philosophy or stimulus that led to many of the changes outlined in the memos. The reader is often left to guess what Jacobs was responding to, or exactly what he was trying to accomplish, but even for Jacobs, annotating the memos nearly fifty years after the fact may just not have been possible. Still, it would be fascinating to have him break down a few of the format tweaks, to give lay people some deeper insight into the day-to-day mind of a program director. Also missing from the memos is Bill Drake’s voice, and so the daily dynamic between consultant and program director is not seen.

By 1968, you can feel KHJ losing its dominance as the golden age of teen power began to wane. KHJ aimed itself at “mass appeal” musically, ignoring the youngest teeny-boppers and the oldest stoners, and shifted to fewer and bigger contests. Jacobs resigned four years after he arrived, departing in May of 1969 at the ripe old age of 31. Two of Boss Radio’s key jocks, Robert W. Morgan and The Real Don Steele, were leaving at the same time, and though KHJ carried on, it never again flew as high. Jacobs’ book is enhanced with reproductions of Boss 30 flyers and trade advertisements, showing how the station positioned itself with both listeners and advertisers. What’s missing most is the sound of KHJ, which you can find in airchecks on You Tube and Reel Radio. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Ron Jacobs’ Obituary
Ron Jacobs’ Blog