Friday, July 20, 2018

Redd Kross' Third Eye--Special Record Day 2018 Pressing

I'll go ahead and say it--Redd Kross is the most underrated power pop band of the '90s, and possibly beyond. I've liked them since the moment I watched The Spirit of '76, a 1990 comedy that was one of the first film parodies of the goofy trends of the '70s. It featured brothers Jeff (guitars, vocals) and Steve (bass, vocals) McDonald as two dim-witted teens who help David Cassidy and Olivia D'Abo repair their time machine and return to the year 2176--the time-travelers originally set the course for 1776 but wound up, obviously, in 1976. The brothers McDonald were part of the the Southern California punk scene, once even opening for Black Flag, and by the 1980s they had changed the name of the band from The Tourists to Redd Kross (a naughty reference to a famous scene in The Exorcist) and started playing their trademark brand of power pop that was heavy on pop culture and sheer fun.

My appreciation of the band was also boosted by my younger brother, who still adores them to this day. He turned me onto the original albums as well as some of their interesting side projects over the years. One of them, Ze Malibu Kids, featured Steve and his wife Charlotte Caffey--yes, that Charlotte Caffey from The Go-Gos. The band also featured their daughter Astrid, who was only 10 when she joined as the drummer. Perhaps the most gleeful side project of all came from Steve when he added bass guitar to all of the tracks from the White Stripes' White Blood Cells and called it Red Blood Cells. Jack White is said to have loved it, and gave his endorsement. I have it on my music server and it is fascinating--although I might still prefer the original. You can check out the tracks on YouTube.

Third Eye was their third album, originally released in 1990 as their major label debut with Atlantic, and it finally provided the band with some success due to the hit single "Annie's Gone." It also features long-time Redd Kross bandmate Robert Hecker on guitar, and Victor Indrizzo on drums. Jack Irons, one-time drummer for Red Hot Chili Peppers, toured with Redd Kross for the Third Eye tour. And that naked masked girl on the cover? That's Sofia Coppola.

They have a great pedigree, obviously, but to this day I meet very few people who know Redd Kross. When I do meet someone, they're always a huge fan. Maybe they were a SoCal sort of band, or maybe their overall sound is a little too bubble-gum to be taken seriously by some people. That's sort of missing the point. Despite the fact that they alienated some fans when they switched from punk to this guitar-driven pop music, there's a bit of irony in the delivery. The brothers and Hecker, who does an amazing impersonation of Paul Stanley on "1976," offer a believable and enthusiastic take on this style of rock, and they're also serious musicians. You want great hooks, furious drumming and kick-ass guitar solos? You got them right here. It's amazing how good this album still sounds 28 years later.

A lot of that can be traced to this new pressing, which was released for Record Story Day earlier this year. Well, sort of, since the release was delayed and didn't make it into stores on time, which is why I have it now. It comes in green vinyl and includes a new insert with the lyrics. It was remastered on vinyl by Infrasonic Mastering in Los Angeles, and it sounds unusually clean and the pressing is first-rate. Part of the thrill of having this album available is because it was out of print for many years. Maybe that's why they've faded from memory, despite releasing the well-received album Researching the Blues in 2012. Honestly, Redd Kross is the kind of group that deserves a major comeback in 2018, and maybe this exciting reissue will accomplish that.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Trees Speak

Just after I complained about the lack of band info on a couple of other indie-rock reviews this week, I received this very mysterious disc in for review. You can see the cover above, and that's pretty much all I had to go on. There are no credits on the back, no musician line-up, not even a list of tracks. I threw it in the CD player not knowing what to expect, and my God this stuff is fantastic. After a bit of research I found some info on social media, mainly on the group's Facebook page. Trees Speak defines themselves as experimental rock, which implies underground, which implies that this is uncommon music that's not being marketed in the traditional sense. "An exploration in expression!" the Facebook page also declares, and that seems again to imply that this is free-form music, It's definitely hard to describe, but I'll take a shot.

Imagine if the legendary and innovative Krautrock band Can, back during their '70s peak of creativity, decided to cover Brian Eno's Music From Films. That gets you close to what's going on here, I think. This eponymous first album is a collection of fifteen instrumental mood pieces, most of them only a couple of minutes along (there is an epic suite toward the end that lasts a little over twenty minutes), that are strangely devoid of traditional melody. There are two distinct sides to this music, however--they're blended together but still at odds with each other. The first half consists of some good old-fashioned acid rock, drums and bass and guitars, while the second half is more modern with lots of electronic touches and sounds and beats. Additional guitar work soaked in effects and distortion acts as the go-between. This music isn't modern in the sense that it's full of samples and such--everything sounds like it was recorded live with synthesizers and the random pummeling of percussive objects and machines with a lot of knobs.

This sounds extremely adventurous and weird, but I loved every minute of it. Despite the lack of a final element that might hold this music together and propel it into something more mainstream--vocals, a lead instrument or the aforementioned paucity of melody--it's still a fascinating and verdant soundscape. The drums and bass, as basic as they are, deliver plenty of momentum within the depths of these compositions so that you're feeling like this is indeed rock, perhaps a new offshoot of visionary jam band aesthetics. They do cite Can and Miles Davis as influences and go on to describe their approach as transcending "mainstream influences by incorporating elements of Avant-garde, neo-psychedelic and Minimalism."

That effectively covers it in a satisfying way, but you'll still be surprised at this music when you hear it for the first time. It's quite original, but not so weird that you won't "get it," especially if you do have a taste for the psychedelic. What's so enthralling about Trees Speak is the way they've brought those old trippy vibes into 2018 with a clean and well-recorded sound, and with touches of pseudo-electronica that may or may not actually be there. This album is such an eye-opener that I can't help but think this is part of a larger genre music, one I need to discover immediately.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Antonio Adolfo's Encontros Orquestra Atlantica

Composer and pianist Antonio Adolfo usually writes for smaller jazz ensembles. It's been a little over a year since I reviewed his last album, Hybrido: From Wayne Shorter to Rio--I started off that review with "I have to admit, I'm kinda sweet on this one." I loved the fact that he's firmly planted in the world of Brazilian jazz, and yet he doesn't necessarily subscribe to that trademark sound. His Brazilian influences are always subtle, placed carefully within layer after layer of sheer piano beauty.

His new album, Encontros Orquestra Atlantica, is Adolfo's fire foray into big band composition, with arrangements provided by Jesse Sadoc and Marcelo Martins. He's always wanted to do it, but he was always looking for the ensemble that could help him achieve his goal of creating vibrant Brazilian big band jazz. After seeing the Orquestra Atlantica perform in Rio, he knew his search was over. Adolfo has selected nine of his compositions, plus Miles Davis' "Milestones," to create one of the smoothest and sexiest big band recordings I've heard over the last couple of years.

Can big band jazz be sexy? In the Hybrido review I mentioned that "I believe his success and his accessibility is due to his understanding of the parallels between jazz and Brazilian tradition. He treats them differently and doesn't try to melt them into a whole--you can see the dual sensibilities weaving in and out of each other. Does that sound sexy? It is." I had the same immediate response to Encontros, that it featured such an easy, open feel for a big band recording, While there are certainly lively passages, which seems like a natural choice for Adolfo to make since he wanted to expand his compositions for more musicians, these compositions are imbued with a smooth demeanor that creates enormous amounts of air between the musicians. (The excellent sound quality helps in this respect.)

I also mentioned in my review of Hybrido that I'm not necessarily the biggest fan of Brazilian jazz--it's sleek and beautiful but too much of it and the fatigue starts to set in. Adolfo's music is different because it requires a modicum of skill and musical knowledge to unearth those Brazilian jazz themes, and there are many other things to consume your attention than connecting those dots. The Orquestra Atlantica is indeed a great muse for Adolfo's expansion into this realm, but the greatest gift continues to be this man and his piano. He's quietly become one of my favorite jazz pianists on the contemporary scene, and you should take the time to introduce yourself to him.

Vinyl Hampdin's Red

Dang it, if the band is named Vinyl Hampdin I should have received it on vinyl, right? I received it on CD, and of course it sounds great, but while checking out the Vinyl Hampdin website I found so much promotional material on the vinyl release of their new album, Red, that I felt kind of left out. Red, released on red vinyl, is available on CD Baby for just $15. So if I really want it...well, I should stop complaining now.

Who is Vinyl Hampdin? By checking out the website and other promotional materials, I feel like they're just another popular musical act that's flown over my thick noggin, but Red is their debut album so I can relax. They classify themselves as "Rocked Out Seriously Funky Jaw Dropping Ear Candy!"--the exclamation mark is not mine--and my first impression of this album was "let's put on a big show, but a really BIG ONE." This is big music indeed, full of pyrotechnics and theatrics that seem rare outside of Vegas or Broadway. Vinyl Hampdin is founded by trombonist/arranger Steve Wiest, and his idea was to combine a funky big band sound that's a cross between Tower of Power and Chicago before Terry Katz passed away. He's added four horns to a drums-bass-guitar-keyboards funk rock quartet and given them one task, to play the hell out of these songs.

The album is divided between Wiest's original compositions and a unusual cross-section of covers. He and the band starts off with Stevie Wonder's "Superstition," which shouldn't be much of a stretch for a funk-rock-soul outfit, but the arrangement is so unique in the way it amplifies the scope and pumps up the volume. Wiest adds this grand scale to just about everything, from Bonnie Raitt's "The Road's My Middle Name" to Bill Withers' "Use Me" to even Paul and Linda McCartney's "My Love." According to the liner notes, Wiest employs the Charles Mingus strategy that "if you want a band that sounds big, bring in musicians with big sounds." The cherry on top, so to speak, is singer Lisa Dodd. She has perhaps the biggest sound of all, her strong and sexy voice inspiring everyone else on stage to put a little more elbow grease into it and keep up. (She's also written the lyrics for two of the Wiest compositions, "Pay For it" and "Billions," so she's invested in every word.)

I can't overstate that this is big, exciting and ambitious music. There's a lot to enjoy here, but the real star is Wiest's arrangements, referred to as "re-imaginations," and how he keeps adding the gasoline to an already raging fire. There's no doubt that he intends to make a strong first impression as the leader of this group. Red is the closest thing to sheer spectacle that I've seen in the world of contemporary jazz. It's not intended as a soundtrack for a quiet evening at home. But for a big night on the town, this might be the recipe for getting the party started.

Maniac's Dead Dance Club

Here's another no-frills indie release, much in the same vein as the Machine review I wrote a few days ago--just a simple cover, song listing and credits on a single square of paper. Inside is something quite different from the goth aesthetic of Madeline Mahrie, a purist punk/pop that immediately reminds me a lot of the Ramones. The rhythm section--drummer James Carman and bassist Zache Davis, who's also one of the two singers--have that same "one speed fits all" approach to these ten songs, and you can almost hear Dee Dee counting off onetwothreefour at the start of each track. Most songs contain less than a handful of chords, albeit interesting ones. The guitar attack is heavy and congealed, although Justin Maurer and Andrew Zappin do assume the rhythm-lead hierarchy more than Johnny ever did on his own. The only thing missing is Joey's distinctive contribution--Maurer and Davis tend to sing it straight.

While there are a lot of bands that sound like this, I think it's a compliment to make comparisons to the boys from Forest Hills. That legendary band was all about energy and consistency, at least through the first three or four albums. (I may or may not continue to champion the more commercial Road to Ruin, but it was my introduction to the band.) Maniac sustains that same sense of exuberance, that garage band joy of figuring everything out and playing until your fingers are bleeding.

Maniac's from Los Angeles, and perhaps that sense of geography distinguishes them from that East Coast band. Sometimes the guitars suggest just a tiny scoop of '60s surf rock, and there's also a brightness and sunniness to the music that implies wide open spaces more than a claustrophobic garage in Queens. That's not to say they're a happy power pop ensemble--there's plenty of ragged edges in this music, confirmed by the recent video for "City Lights" which includes archival footage from LAPD crime scenes. But that's the essence of being punk in the 21st century, that you can't be afraid to tell the ugly side of your story.

It comes down to how you feel about garage bands. I've always enjoyed them because of the purity and lack of pretention, and plus I spent a good part of my youth hanging out in garages and listening to my buddies try to get it together so they could become rock stars. Dead Dance Club is cut from that same cloth, a minimalist jolt that's meant to be enjoyed at face value. It's a method for waking up, getting angry and getting things done. It's also plenty of fun.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Wayne Powers' If Love Were All

Wayne Powers, the second part of this two-fer, seems to walk the same rainy urban streets as Maurice Frank. The only problem with that observation is that Frank is a New Yorker while Powers plied his trade for years in Los Angeles, working with a band named Hoi Polloi. While Frank's album is his debut, Powers has recorded albums. His last one, however, was released in 1993. His story, therefore, is slightly different: "In the intervening quarter century, Powers' life has been full with both the poignant and the joyous--as all lives are." This seems to imply that life got in the way of Powers' singing career, and he has been working hard to get back to where he once belonged.

On the surface, this album sounds very similar to Mad Love and Romance. There's one subtle difference, of course, and that's Powers' equally amazing voice. Franks is upfront and genuine--he's just showing the world his gift and wants you to take him as he is. (I know, I said I wasn't going to compare the two.) Powers' voice, however, seems to be tinged with all of that experience he gained 25 years ago. He's more of a belter, and his voice is set back further from the front of the stage to accommodate that big delivery. There's a deeper resonance in his voice that sometimes sounds like he needs to distance himself from the emotions expressed in these love songs since they're still a bit too raw. There's something in his voice that suggests more of those poignant and joyous moments, and he may not be willing to let the audience see all of that pain.

Sinatra used to do that as well. Ol' Blue Eyes had a wry way of singing songs that revealed his strategy--sure that stuff happened to me, but years have gone by and I'm ready to move on even though it still hurts some. You'll also hear plenty of Sinatra in Powers' voice, the way he digs down deep and treats each lyric as if he's telling a story rather than talking solely about his feelings in front of strangers. Here and there you'll detect a catch in his voice, a moment where he starts to reveal something deep and personal and then changes his mind. Not every singer can add that much subtext to a love song. Sinatra could, and so can Powers.

Powers is backed by a relatively understated quartet--tenor sax player Ziad Rabie, pianist Keith Davis, bassist Ron Brendle and drummer Al Sergel--and they are there in service to that powerful voice. That's not to say the musicians are any less skilled than on "that other album"--they focus instead on creating a beautiful mood as a single, coherent unit. Another plus is that these performances were all captured live in the studio, so there's a spontaneous feeling afoot even if the solos aren't quite as dominant.

As I said, I won't tell you which of these two albums I preferred. There's a flow between them, but not one that feels like two separate albums from the same crew, captured at different times. The feelings, however, are still the same...a "personal yet universal saga of love lost and love found."