Theo Bleckmann Performs Kate Bush (CD Review)

Theo Bleckmann

Hello Earth! The Music of Kate Bush

Winter & Winter CD

Often, we discuss covers – artists interpreting songs written by others – in relation to their original renditions. Hello Earth!, a quintet outing by vocalist Theo Bleckmann and a quartet of musicians with jazz and contemporary classical backgrounds, is devoted to the music of prog pop songwriter Kate Bush. It is a loving homage to Bush’s textured arrangements, and thoughtful, atmospheric, and, at times quirky, catalogue. However, to frame Bleckmann’s recasting of this music as a set of covers is to undervalue the considerable transformation these songs undergo here.

This doesn’t mean wholesale deconstruction. Although it starts out tempo rubato, one’s pulse will still surge by the second verse of Bleckmann’s rendition of “Running Up That Hill.” Both it and the title track inhabit a world of morphing, flexible, and swinging rhythms that are the stuff of modern jazz. But Bleckmann and drummer John Hollenbeck are well aware that, in order for the pop propensities of Bush’s songs to also be respected, this pliability of tempo must be met with corresponding forward momentum. Add to this the experimental touches that appear on the CD, such as prepared harpsichord, toy instruments, and other atmospherics, and the balance that is achieved would be the envy of many tight rope acts.

What the artists avoid doing, and perhaps this is a secret to some of the record’s charm, is seeking to recreate Bush’s well nigh inimitable and often theatrical performance persona. Bleckmann is a singer with a powerful and singular sounding instrument and formidable stage presence of his own; he wisely avoids any whiff of caricature. While the aforementioned affection and awareness for the originals is evident, there is no by the numbers recreation attempted on the instrumental musical front either. Instead, Bleckmann and his estimable cohorts pleasingly avoid literal mindedness when crafting their arrangements. The clearest demonstration of this: in “Saxophone Song” Caleb Burhans’ violin replaces the saxophone solo of the original. On “Violin,” the band moves from the more acoustic-based sound world that prevails on the album to a more rollicking and plugged in aesthetic. Burhans shreds on guitar in tandem with thrumming bass licks from Skúli Sverrisson, Hollenbeck unleashing an uncharacteristically aggressive barrage, and pianist Henry Hey’s Leslie-saturated rock organ work.

Bleckmann also refuses campy choices. “This Woman’s Work” could certainly have been accommodated at pitch in the singer’s attractive falsetto; As Ann Powers pointed out on NPR, this approach once helped to supply a big hit to Maxwell. Instead, Bleckmann allows the lead vocals, and backing vocals overdubs, to span his range from low to high; inhabiting the song’s emotive content rather than consigning it to a gender stereotype. It’s a masterful, and affecting, album closer.

Alexander Tucker: Third Mouth (CD Review)

Alexander Tucker

Third Mouth

Thrill Jockey

Alexander Tucker’s career began rustically and experimentally, with reference points ranging everywhere from folk inspired alternate tunings for acoustic guitar to doom metal drones. For a while during the aughts, it seemed as if his output was inexorably drifting further and further away from the immediacy of conventional song format in favor of more extended and out there meditations. Over the past couple years, as evidenced in his 2011 release Dorwytch (Thrill Jockey), Tucker has been seeking a rapprochement between aspects of popular song and the psych-drone cum prog-folk aesthetic he’s cultivated.  He takes this approach on Third Mouth, his latest recording for Thrill Jockey, as well.

A particular way in has been an expansion of his use of vocal harmonies, including overdubbed vocals and the participation of vocalists Frances Morgan and Daniel O’Sullivan (the latter also plays a variety of instruments on the recording). And there are even two cuts that clock in at three minutes with memorable choruses. No one will mistake them for straightforward pop; the layered arrangements still hold true to Tucker’s penchant for sumptuous timbral complications. That said, there’s a beauty in the simplicity of their melodic construction, which proves to be a unifying thread and straightforward thrust in the midst of various textural peregrinations, however lovely sounding these may be.

Those devotees of Tucker’s earlier work who may be fearful that this modification of his approach inherently means an adieu to freeform experimentation needn’t worry. Third Mouth also contains several longish compositions, and “Amon Hen,” an aphoristic piece of Waits/Partch inspired experimentation, too. “Glass Axe” has a pastoral cast while “Rh” indulges a more psych-drone ambience. And while both of these can also be said to be led by the vocals, in the former taking on the presence of a bona fide hook while in the latter being framed as an almost chant like refrain, the instrumental touches – glorious chords in alternate tunings, spacey reverberation, long held drones, and flashes of dissonance nicking each piece with slight distressing around the edges – remind one of the totality of Tucker’s sonic journey.

Squackett: “Can’t Stop the Rain” (Video)

Guitarist Steve Hackett (who, in addition to an active solo career, is known for his work in Genesis and GTR), bassist Chris Squire (Yes), and keyboardist/producer Roger King recently released their first recorded collaboration, Squackett, via Cherry Red. This all-star prog summit is a dream come true for longtime fans of the aforementioned bands. It features sharp songwriting, supple harmonized vocals, and deft guitar work.

Check out a video for album track “Can’t Stop the Rain” below.

Steve Hackett: Beyond the Shrouded Horizon (CD Review)

Steve Hackett
Beyond the Shrouded Horizon
Inside Out Music

Guitarist Steve Hackett may be best known for his work with early Genesis in the 1970s and participation in the 80s rock super group GTR, in which he played alongside Yes guitarist Steve Howe. But for over thirty years, he has had a distinguished solo career, releasing a number of exquisitely wrought recordings with a variety of collaborators. Those who are “in” on the existence of this impressive catalog might wish that it had less of a cult status, as that’s what would befit much of Hackett’s output from a qualitative standpoint. However, remaining slightly below the mainstream’s radar has had had a fortunate byproduct. Hackett has been able to avoid the pressures of mainstreaming and homogenizing his records’s content, a fate that has befallen far too many prog legends once the A&R people got their way. Instead, Hackett has happily explored eclectic music-making; work that encompasses prog rock epics, synth-haloed alt pop songwriting, blues-inflected electric guitar shredding, pastoral neo-folk ballads, and crossover classical compositions played on nylon string guitar. Sometimes all of these approaches appear on the same album.

Beyond the Shrouded Horizon, Hackett’s most recent studio release, epitomizes this eclecticism. Yet, amid all this variety, it is a musically cohesive and engaging recording. The principle reason: Hackett’s singular creative vision remains crystal clear and his chops and voice are both in sterling shape. Fans of the guitarist’s progressive rock catalog will warm to “Loch Lomond” and the twelve minute epic “Turn This Island Earth;” the latter features guest bassist Chris Squire (of Yes). Squire also provides a contrapuntal bass part on symphonic prog song “Looking for Fantasy,” and lays down a sepulchral groove on “Catwalk,” a roiling blues-rock number that showcases Hackett’s soloing at its most hot-blooded. Amanda Lehman lends nimble vocals to three songs, while John Hackett duets with Steve on the pastoral psych pop piece “Between the Sunset and the Coconut Palms.” Longtime collaborator Roger King provides beautiful synth textures and keyboard playing throughout.

Hackett’s two brief acoustic guitar solo compositions, “Wanderlust” and “Summer’s Breath,” are tantalizing palette cleansers: one would love to hear them in expanded incarnations. For those wanting a concise “single-worthy” pop song, complete with Beatles-esque harmonic shifts and supple string arrangements, Hackett supplies “Til These Eyes.” Yes, Beyond the Shrouded Horizon is a stylistically omnivorous collection; but one that maintains high musical standards throughout.

Anderson Wakeman Live (CD Review)

Anderson/Wakeman

The Living Tree in Concert Part One

Gonzo Multimedia HST097CD

For their latest studio album and recent tours, Yes opted to recruit vocalist Benoit David instead of continuing with signature singer Jon Anderson, who at the time of their decision to change personnel was sidelined with health issues. While one won’t wade into the the long, storied, and myriad interpersonal dynamics of Yes personnel, it’s nice to know that Anderson has recovered and rejoined music-making, releasing Survival, a stirring solo album. He’s also reunited with keyboardist and fellow Yes alum Rick Wakeman for another studio effort, The Living Tree.

A live outing, The Living Tree in Concert Part One, shows both in fine fettle. If some of the songs are now transposed down in deference to Anderson’s sexagenarian status, and if Wakeman’s playing now focuses on lyrical lines and stalwart harmonic support in favor of pyrotechnical displays, both display consummate musicality and a dynamic rapport that only comes with decades of association. Their delicate handling of the material, both new songs and works from their back catalog such as “And You and I” and “Long Distance Runaround,” emphasizes the melodic strengths and rich imagery of the lyrics, lending the set considerable poignancy. And, there are occasional surprises, such as bouncy, reggae-tinged version of “Time and a Word.” It is a recasting that might chaff the principles of Yes purists, but it’s jaunty fun all the same.

Thus, while one wishes Yes’s main contingent well, it’s not bad to have two groups out there inhabiting this body of work. As a bonus, Anderson and Wakeman present convincing new music – and a “wondrous story” of the rekindling of a longstanding musical friendship.

Levin Torn White (CD Review)

Tony Levin - David Torn - Alan White

S/T

Lazy Bones Recordings

This is a serious super group that delivers on its potential. Besides being session musicians to the stars and leaders on their own projects, bassist Tony Levin, guitarist David Torn, and drummer Alan White have played in countless groups associated with progressive rock, jazz fusion, and improvised music – King Crimson, Yes, and Liquid Tension Experiment chief among them. But this is their first recording together as a trio. And while it is indeed a powerful sound that they make, the music on Levin Torn White is intricately constructed and adventurous in a way that few modern day power trios can hope to emulate.

There’s more than a dash of the spirit of King Crimson – particularly its later lineups – alive in the music created here. Levin, of course, was the Crimson bassist for much of this time period, but Torn and White channel some signatures of Fripp and Mastelotto too. The guitarist’s own atmospheric improvisations are of course distinctive in their own right. But on the ethereal track “Convergence” they can also reasonably be likened to Fripp’s soundscaping. Meanwhile, Torn’s shredding on “Ultra Mullett” emulates the tart dissonances and skronkish squalls one heard from Thrak era Crim.

White propels the action with his characteristically forceful and energetic playing. But he’s able to turn on a nickel with each time change and unorthodox mathy metric configuration on the menu. I’ve long been an admirer of Tony Levin’s work, but he outdoes himself here, laying down thrumming low end and staccato Chapman stick filigrees that crackle with vivacity.

If you’re someone who thinks that fusion and prog – particularly of the instrumental variety – is rife with noodly indulgences and bathetic compositions, this release is strongly recommended as a corrective of your misapprehensions. Those already among the converted will find much in which to delight here. One hopes it isn’t a one-off collaboration: these three seem to be just getting started!

Jon Anderson: Without Yes, but still an Affirming Artist

Jon Anderson

Survival and Other Stories

After lengthy legal wrangling, Chris Squire holds the rights to the name of prog-rock band Yes (he’s the only one who hasn’t, at some point or another during its four decade history, quit the band!). Still, from an outsider’s perspective, it can’t help but seem churlish that the other members of Yes have ousted Jon Anderson, the band’s vocalist on all but one of its albums (Drama), in favor of a singer from a Yes cover band.

It’s more than a bit satisfying to find Anderson in such fine voice on a solo effort, Survival and Other Stories. Anderson’s solution to being “between bands” was to engage a host of collaborators via the internet. Despite trading mp3s back and forth and engaging in most of the interactions remotely, the results are surprisingly cohesive.

Survival brings together various strands of Anderson’s musical interests – Celtic, folk, New Age, prog rock – resulting in a collection that’s likely to please fans from various stages of his storied career. And, to answer the inevitable question, the 67 year-old can still hit all his high notes – with aplomb!

Battles sans Braxton (CD Review)

Battles
Gloss Drop
Warp Records

After appearing on their previous LP, Mirrored, Tyondai Braxton has left Battles to pursue solo projects (including several indie classical commissions). And while Braxton’s contributions were a significant component of Mirrored, the band does just fine without him on Gloss Drop.

They’ve retained their signature mathy rhythms and frenetically whimsical jump cut forms. In addition, Battles aren’t shy about delving into two styles whose heyday was in the 1970s: prog and fusion. But both of these (in my opinion, unjustly) maligned signatures are given a post-millennial reboot by the band; infused with aspects of glitch and house electronica.

What’s more, Gloss Drop includes several stirring guest vocal contributions. Matias Aguayo adds a vibrant presence to the up tempo, kaleidoscopically scored, and Latin pop tinged single “Ice Cream.” In a break from her regular gig with Blonde Redhead, Kazu Makino’s powerful pipes are pressed into service on the mid-tempo syncopated techno pop cut “Sweetie and Shag.” Yamantaka Eye (from the Boredoms) is heard amidst fervid ostinatos of pitched percussion and neo-prog guitar solos in layers of reverberant, incantatory singing.

On Gloss Drop, Battles have made a diversely attired yet adeptly constructed album that’s as fascinating as it is singular.