Growing Old With Rock and Roll

Growing Old With Rock and Roll

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Astronomique - Sharp Divide (2018)

Written by Jason Hillenburg, posted by blog admin

Pop, synth pop, whatever label you want to assign to Astronomique, it still rates as some of the most across the board compelling music released on the indie scene today. Their artistic vision slants towards the substantive end of the creative spectrum driven by the creative partnership of lead singer Logan Andra Fongemie and guitarist/vocalist Sean Hogan coupling a psychedelic flavor with popular culture imagery and a penchant for artsy, top shelf synth pop from the 1980’s. The music for Sharp Divide, the band’s longest collection yet, is a physical release whose music involves listeners from the first, but the songwriting engages listeners intellectually as well and appeals to the imagination in satisfyingly individualistic ways. The band’s influences are apparent, but they slip free of imitation or pastiche with an approach and style recognizable, but all their own.

The intense bass pulse thudding in the heart of “Forefathers”, the album’s opener, tethers the song’s foundation to earth and allows Astronomique’s synthesizer lines flash like quicksilver over the fat backbeat. There’s some tasty dynamic shifts recurring throughout the song and atmospheric interplay between Fongemie’s keyboard playing and guitarist Sean Hogan’s echo laden guitar near the song’s conclusion is worth hearing the song for alone. “Side of Your Mind” has a more overt pop attack than the opener and the sprightly rhythm shifts listener’s attention away from the opener’s pace. There are some imaginative twists scattered throughout the arrangement elevating this above your standard synth pop fare and Fongemie’s vocal performance, treated by some light post production effects, comes across every bit as command as “Forefathers”, albeit manifested in a very different way.

The digitized beginning to “Losing Our Control” establishes the initial outlines of a simmering groove soon filled out by another potent rhythm section performance from bassist Preston Saari and drummer Mitch Billings. Sean Hogan’s taut, nervy guitar playing drops some funky, often shimmering fills throughout the track and the band contributes some tasteful backing vocals to enhance another fine Fongemie performance. The title song’s moody march has an almost spectral quality thanks to a ghostly Fongemie vocal and more spartan but effective Hogan guitar. Guitar players often possess a tendency to flash their skills in brief displays of pride, sometimes longer than brief, but Hogan’s playing throughout Sharp Divide as an orchestral bent – he’s an important part of the tapestry, but ultimately a key thread in a larger mosaic.

Fongemie’s synth once again opens a song with the track “Smoke” and the rhythm section distinguishes themselves again with a chest rattling performance and the album’s overall production wisely highlights this strength from the first. “Smoke” has some of Sharp Divide’s strongest melodic ideas and fine lyrical content. There’s more of a hard charging quality at the heart of “Bleed Me” than we hear with a lot of the material on Sharp Divide, but the band retains their capacity for nuance despite the music’s insistent push. The nice gallop in the rhythm section’s performance, never pronounced, gives the song an added sense of urgency. The cheerfully entitled “Heading Nowhere” has a much more deliberate pace and a strong focus on guitars and synthesizers instead of the rhythm section. It has some of the album’s best atmospheric touches, particularly thanks to Hogan’s six string contributions, and it is a satisfying final curtain for Astronomique’s Sharp Divide. This is synth pop with an artistic agenda and they accomplish everything they set out to do with sophistication, sincerity, and polish.

Monday, July 2, 2018

David Allan Coe - Tattoo (1977)

Written by Jason Hillenburg, posted by blog admin

David Allan Coe’s fifth album for Columbia, 1977’s Tattoo, is often singled out as one of his best moments from a time when his ascending star burned brightest. Its reputation is well deserved. It’s a ten song collection dominated by Coe’s songwriting, first class playing, and sympathetic production. Coe’s legendary pipes are, as well, in fine fettle and the opening number “Just to Prove My Love For You” has him engaged from the first and ably supported by female backing vocals deeper in the mix. The fiddle playing is especially tasty and provides a strong melodic counterpoint to Coe’s singing without ever overplaying its hand. “Face to Face” is an unyielding classic country weeper with Coe out Jones’ing George Jones with his lung-stretching dramatics. Ron Bledsoe’s production is note perfect for capturing the desperation Coe’s songwriting clearly wants to invoke. It’s an earthy, yet intelligent, one two punch to open the album and sets a high bar for everything following it.

The ambling fatalism of “You’ll Always Live Inside of Me” has bluesy overtones, but the treatment is pure country with spotless pedal steel and relaxed, confident fiddle playing further rounding out the sound. Bledsoe isn’t any Billy Sherrill with the latter’s arch distinctive style, but Bledsoe’s attention to balance and detail helps further ground these songs and presents them as unified performances with attention focused on where it should be – the song, singer, and band. There’s some stellar backing vocals accompanying Coe’s own heartfelt singing on “Play Me a Sad Song” and the languid pacing picks up a little nearly a minute in, but the song never rushes itself. Coe spent many of his prime years writing his own material and recruited a bevy of top flight talent to help him realize his craft – “Play Me a Sad Song” illustrates just how good David Allan Coe could be.

He opens “Daddy Was a God Fearin’ Man” with some spoken word and Coe’s penchant for storytelling, increasingly neglected as his career went on, helps this one shine. The pace picks up when Coe starts singing in earnest and fiddle laces over the top of its near shuffle tempo giving it added urgency. The continued presence of female backing singers doesn’t distract from Coe’s lead vocal but, instead, enriches it. Pedal steel and the aforementioned fiddle trade licks in a brief, but memorable, instrumental break. “Canteen of Water” is a rare cover, the song written by Jay Bolotin, and the lean arrangement has a light melodic touch distinctly different from the earlier songs. A light sheen of synthesizer brings an extra splash of color without ever sounding out of place. Bolotin shares a songwriting credit with Coe on the lightly Tex-Mex flavored “Maria is a Mystery”. The arrangement practically shimmers thanks to the interplay between the lyrical piano and stately violin response. The bottom end of the song, especially the bass, is pivotal for the song’s success thanks to its consistently melodic pulse. It’s one of the album’s most successful songs thanks to its wealth of specific detail.

Coe shares another co-writing credit with the slowly unfolding heartbreak ballad “Just In Time (To Watch Love Die)”. Coe and co-author Jimmy Townsend continue a trend on the album’s second half showing Coe’s deep love and appreciation for the sort of bleary eyed balladry made famous by earlier country singers par excellence. Coe’s voice, remarkably elastic and deceptively wide ranging, deserves mention among the elite in this style. Coe revisits songwriter Mickey Newbury with a cover of his “San Francisco Mable Joy”. It isn’t as affecting as Newbury’s “The 33rd of August”, one of Coe’s finest moments in the studio included on The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy, but it’s a fine song standing tall alongside the best Tattoo offers. Coe’s vocal may be his best moment on the album and both he and the band thoroughly inhabit the song as if they written it themselves and ripped it from their autobiographies. Coe closes the album with “Hey Gypsy”, co-written with Fred Spears, and there’s an elegiac quality to the song not carried away by another impressively full, dramatic arrangement. Some reputations are built on hype and often undermined by an artist’s personal or public indiscretions. The recordings are forever and Tattoo ranks among David Allan Coe’s best studio recordings.

David Allan Coe - Compass Point (1979)

Written by Jason Hillenburg, posted by blog admin

Though the 1980’s will prove to be a challenge on a multitude of fronts for David Allan Coe, he ends the 1970’s with two strong studio releases. 1979’s Compass Point, the first of two albums released that year is produced by legendary Nashville booth wizard Billy Sherrill and has a thoroughly modern sound for its time. It finds Coe mining the same traditional/”outlaw” vein of bluesy country music he is renowned for during the album's first half. The ten song collection isn’t uniformly excellent, but concludes Coe’s arguably peak years on a generally consistent note and reaffirms his position as one of his generation’s finest vocalists and an occasionally inspired songwriter.

“Heads or Tails” may leave you torn. On one hand, you will likely enjoy the bluesy mid-tempo pace, the gritty harmonica, and on point guitar work. There isn’t a hint of self indulgence weighing the song or performance down, but there is a cookie cutter quality to the songwriting, a sense of Coe hitting his marks and nothing more. It sounds like a cut aimed for radio and, as such, it dampens the track’s potential. It’s a solid, if unremarkable, opener. “3 Time Loser”, another Coe penned number, is much better in every respect. The satisfying vocal melody has enough uplift to mitigate Coe’s serious subject matter and it’s further to his songwriting credit that Coe refrains from leaning too heavily on clich├ęs. The song’s personal turn makes it a more compelling listen.

Harmonica returns for “Gone (Like)”, the closest thing to a classic country ballad thus far on Compass Point, and mixes nicely with some haunting pedal steel fills. Coe’s songwriting, once again, focuses on affairs of the heart with a sensitive, rueful eye. It’s clearly considered as one of Compass Point’s major songs with a six minute plus running time and proves worth each second. “Honey Don’t” is a kick out the footlights barnburner with lightning quick harmonica salvos spiking the track with bluesy flavor, but it’s ultimately a throwaway number not offering anything particularly new. Coe opens “Lost” like he’s about to take another whack at traditional country balladry, but the song unfortunately bandwagon jumps and cops a quasi-Jimmy Buffet feel with the remainder. He lived in the Key West area for a time and publicly feuded with Buffett but, ultimately, who cares? It isn’t excruciating, but ill-advised.

He retains some of the sunny bounce for the next song, “Merle and Me”, an entry in Coe's tradition of storytelling song.. It's one of the album's better lyrics and Coe gives us a typically strong vocal, but the tune and arrangement are mismatched and it never quite sinks its teeth into listeners. The album’s penultimate tune “X’s and O’s (Kisses and Hugs)” is a rousing track late in the album and Coe throws himself into the song with a slight rambunctious edge that kicks the song up several notches. The guitar playing stands out, as well, with a tasty instrumental break near the song’s halfway point. The finale “Loving You Comes So Natural” is the only Compass Point song not produced by Billy Sherrill and the sole track Coe doesn’t write alone. There’s a bevy of guitar players worked into this tune, at least five too many, but it’s an inoffensive final curtain – albeit one that shares much more in common with the album’s second half than it does the first. Compass Point has genuine highlights, particularly “3 Time Loser” and “Gone (Like)”, but Coe mars the overall effect with some uncharacteristic chasing the fashion of the moment in the second half.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Science NV - The Quest for Prester John Part One (2018)

Written by Jason Hillenburg, posted by blog admin

Science NV has always stood out as a feast for devoted progressive rock fans. Their latest release, a two volume set entitled The Quest for Prester John, reaffirms their status as one of the more forward thinking practitioners of the style working today and expands their conceptual and musical ambitions in a breathtaking way. Despite the scientific backgrounds of the band’s four members, Science NV’s writing and performances invoke the best of progressive music insofar as they are challenging yet accessible, intelligent yet relatable, and brimming with the same passion heard with the genre’s iconic acts. They’ve hit quite a creative stride with this fourth album and its wide canvas indicates their growing confidence as composers and an unit.

Volume One opens with the guitar and synthesizer driven theatrics of “Fanfare”, an instrumental introduction for the collection. The first conventional song on The Quest for Prester John, “Eloise’s Tale”, is a nine movement epic running over thirty two minutes, featuring two singers, and exploring a variety of musical textures. “What Is a Word” opens the song on a distinctly folky note before segueing into the very Yes influenced workout “Overland”. The song neatly bookends with its concluding movement, “Slowly”, albeit in a more rock influenced fashion than we heard in the track’s opening movement. It’s a fully realized effort rather than a tacked together affair; vocals melodies often upend expectations and seamlessly mesh with arrangements seldom standing pat and packed with surprise,

“An Earthly Paradise” has the unenviable task of following the aforementioned epic but it works the only way it can. Rather than taking another, smaller stab at the sort of grandeur they aimed for with “Eloise’s Tale”, Science NV strips “An Earthly Paradise” down to stark beauty instead. The fragmented, yet deceptively lyrical, piano playing has just enough gossamer synthesizer accompaniment to help this instrumental coalesce into an evocative, dramatic musical piece. The synthesizer salvos opening and recurring throughout “The Gates of Alexander” are definitely reminiscent of trumpet blasts; Rich Kallet’s drumming energetically embodies the onrush of countless horses charging through the aforementioned gates and the lead guitar playing has some remarkably straight forward rock music flair.

“Above the Hills” returns listeners to the softer, folk/progressive textures we heard with the early sections of “Eloise’s Tale”. The lyrics offer up some of The Quest for Prester John’s best storytelling and the vocals pay close attention to hitting the right phrasing, but it’s the confluence of these elements making “Above the Hills” one of the sharpest tracks emerging from this release. There’s definitely a note of grandeur struck with Part One’s final song “The Mongols” and some hard hitting rock influences percolating to the surface of the band’s musical attack. It’s a fiery instrumental interspersed with some brief, dreamier passages that contrast well. If it’s intended to act a sort of musical “hinge” swinging listeners into the project’s second part, it’s quite effective. Science NV’s The Quest for Prester John is the concept album on a larger scale than we’ve heard in some time.