wooden shjips, the pretenders, fiona apple album covers

Random record reviews: Wooden Shjips, Pretenders, Fiona Apple

By Joel Francis

Wooden Shjips – Back to Land

The moment the needle drops on Back to Land, the third album from the San Francisco psychedelic group Wooden Shjips, a trace amount of smoke seeps from the speakers. By the time the title song is going full bore the sweet smoke is now unmistakably filling the room. Short of stopping the record, nothing can be done to stop the foggy ambience. It’s best just to lay back and embrace the feeling.

It doesn’t take long for the four-piece band to lay down a groove wide enough to accommodate an aircraft carrier. Once there, an organ spars with Ripley Johnson’s echo-laden vocals against a tight, minimalist rhythm section while Johnson’s guitar soars high in the heavens. There isn’t necessarily a lot of deviation from song to song, but why play with a perfect formula? Listeners will figure out pretty quickly if Wooden Shjips are their cup of tea. If so, welcome to the promised land.

Pretenders – Hate for Sale

Every so often, if music fans are lucky, a veteran artist will put out an album that reminds fans why and how they fell in love with the band in the first place. Hate for Sale, the 11th album from the Pretenders, is that album.

Clocking in at a brisk 30 minutes, Hate for Sale snarls out of the gate with and rarely slows down. Frontwoman Chrissie Hynde seems invigorated by the return of founding drummer Martin Chambers and guitarist James Walbourne, with whom she wrote every song. Walbourne’s riffs and solos add muscle to Hynde’s undiminished vocals. He even manages to singlehandedly salvage the album’s least-effective track (“Junkie Walk”). Sidesteps into reggae on “Lightning Man” and orchestral pop on the introspective ballad “You Can’t Hurt a Fool” reinforce the raw force on the rest of the album.

The Pretenders are selling hate. Buy it. There is a lot to love.

Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters

When this Fiona Apple’s fifth album was released digitally last April, and dealing with the coronavirus appeared to be a season and not A Thing We’d Have to Live with Indefinitely, I was convinced it was going to be the soundtrack for the pandemic.

Although this naiveté is laughable in hindsight, Fetch the Bolt Cutters still captures that mood. It is charming, angry, insecure, elegant, awkward and funny – often effortlessly shuffling through several emotions within a few bars.

Apple recorded these songs at her home studio in the years following her previous album, eight years ago. The resulting baker’s dozen tunes are complex and authentic and provide a heartening catharsis especially needed right now.

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Acid Mothers Temple

Review: Gillian Welch and David Rawlings

Social Distancing Spins – Day 55

By Joel Francis

With today’s entry, we cross the 300 album threshold for social distancing spins. How many more will be added? As much as it takes for everyone to be safe in public.

George Harrison – Brainwashed (2002) George Harrison’s final album appeared 15 years after his previous release and a year after his death. Of course, this meant Brainwashed received far more attention than it would have otherwise, but the extra press didn’t diminish the fact that Brainwashed features some of the most consistent songwriting and playing in Harrison’s catalog. Certainly being able to cherry-pick the best work from such a long period of time works in the album’s favor, but the songs all hang together as a relaxed portrait of the Quiet Beatle abandoning any pretense of chasing a hit and meditating on the same themes of spirituality and mortality that go back to “Within You, Without You” and “The Inner Light.” The tablas and sitars of those Beatles songs have been replaced with acoustic guitars and ukuleles. Although completed after Harrison’s death by his son and fellow Traveling Wilbury Jeff Lynne, Brainwashed never feels incomplete or patched together. It is an incredible, cohesive parting gift from a major talent.

Carolyn Franklin – Chain Reaction (1970) Carolyn Franklin may not have the pipes of her older sister Aretha, but then again, few people did. What she is also sadly lacking on Chain Reaction, her second album and first for major label RCA, is a sympathetic producer. Most of the songs on Chain Reaction are drowned in strings and the type of earnest production that sunk many of her sister’s better moments on Columbia. Also, curiously, despite penning the hits “Angel” and “Ain’t No Way” for her sister, Carolyn Franklin didn’t write any songs for Chain Reaction. The album is pleasing – Franklin is too good a singer for it to be a bust – but also leaves me wishing she had punchier production like Aretha was finally receiving at Atlantic at the time Chain Reaction came out.

By the end of the decade, Carolyn Franklin was all but out of the music industry, although she did appear as one of her sister’s backing singers in The Blues Brothers. Sadly, Carolyn Franklin died from breast cancer in 1988.

J Dilla – The Shining (2006) J Dilla’s third album was more than halfway done before the revered hip hop producer succumbed to lupus six months before The Shining’s release. As such, it feels a little incomplete as an album and rushed as a tribute. There are some amazing moments to be found here, to be sure. Common and D’Angelo ride a sample of the Isley Brothers’ “Don’t Say Goodnight” into the spiritual stratosphere. As a bonus, the version on The Shining is 60 heavenly seconds longer than the one on Common’s album Finding Forever. Another high point is the Pharoahe Monch feature “Love,” built around Curtis Mayfield and the Impression’s “We Must Be in Love.” Less successful is Busta Rhyme’s pointless profanity on the introductory cut and MED and Guilty Simpson’s waste of a great percussive track on “Jungle Love.” Solid contributions from Black Thought and Dwele make up for these missteps, but it’s hard not to wonder if executive producer Karriem Riggins had waited a bit longer he could have found stronger contributors for all the tracks. Then again, maybe Busta and Guilty Simpson were already in the can when Dilla passed. It’s hard to know for sure. What is definite, however, are Dilla’s skills as a producer (and MC, as he shows on the final song here). Gone too soon at age 32, any time with Dilla is well spent.

Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite – No Mercy in This Land (2018) Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite won a Grammy for their first album together, so a sequel was inevitable. Funny thing, though – I like No Mercy in This Land even more than the first one. Chemistry wasn’t a problem before, but it feels like the two musicians play off each other even better this time around. Maybe all the time on the road broadened their musical rapport. The songs here, again all written and primarily sung by Harper, are uniformly excellent. Musselwhite knows exactly how to dart around Harper’s voice and guitar, to accent and punctuate without getting in the way. The song “Love and Trust” first appeared on Mavis Staples’ album Livin’ on a High Note two years prior (and discussed back on Day 41). It’s hard not to miss her husky, soulful voice on this version. Otherwise No Mercy in This Land is the blues at its best.

Flaming Lips – Oczy Mlody (2017) The days of the Flaming Lips being able to write a catchy pop melody along the lines of “Do You Realize” or “She Don’t Use Jelly” were well behind them when they started work on their 14th album. Instead, the songs on Oczy Mlody – Polish for young eyes – float in the same atmosphere, equally informed by hip hop beats as much as psychedelic prog rock.  As such, most of the songs tend to blend together. One of the sonic experiments that stands out is “There Should Be Unicorns.” I’m not going to attempt to decipher the lyrics, but the song itself is a wonderful mix of bells, drum machines, droning synthesizers and falsetto vocals. The arrangement is captivating on its own terms, but also screams for a remix with someone rapping over the top. Album closer “We a Famly” (featuring Miley Cyrus on backing vocals) is the closest thing to a single here, bringing this unsettling yet satisfying anthology of fairy tales to a close.

Jenny Lewis – On the Line (2019) Before the release of On the Line, I was more of a Jenny Lewis appreciator than a fan. Then I had the opportunity to see Lewis in concert at the Ryman Auditorium a few weeks after On the Line came out. That night converted me, in no small part because the material from On the Line is so strong. A Southern Californian bacchanal, On the Line is steeped in the 1970s MOR sound of Carly Simon, Carole King and Stevie Nicks. Lewis processes the death of her mother and the end of a long relationship with help from studio aces Benmont Tench (from Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers), drummer Jim Keltner, Beck, Don Was and, unfortunately, Ryan Adams. The lyrics are peppered with references to Elliott Smith, Candy Crush, the Beatles and Stones while the music swoons like someone stepping into a sunny Los Angeles afternoon fighting a hangover.

Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream (2012) The second album from Los Angeles-born R&B singer Miguel starts with what sounds like a sideways interpretation of the synth and drum line to Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.” Miguel, however, is more about the sexual than the healing. What keeps the album from being a one-topic wonder, however, are the masterful arrangements that make each song feel like a different psychedelic fantasy. The soundscape grows even more fascinating as one discovers the snippets of the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” and the Carpenters “We’ve Only Just Begun” casually slipped between the futuristic soul spells.

A closer look at the lyrics, however, reveals that Miguel isn’t as interested in the sex as much as the intimacy. He confesses to wanting to the lights off in “Use Me” and wants to play paper, rock scissors in “Do You.” The reverie ends with “Candles in the Sun,” an entrancing song that asks hard questions about living in poverty and being ignored by the larger society. It’s a somewhat surprising end to an album that has been so inward-focused most of the time, but it also fits with Miguel’s passions. He feels everything so deeply that it is all magnified, especially the existential questions that can’t be easily answered.

Kraftwerk – The Man-Machine (1978) It’s been a while since the excellent Drive soundtrack brought synthpop bubbling back to the surface alongside bands like Cut/Copy and Phoenix. But really, from Gary Numan and Thomas Dolby in the ‘80s to Chvrches and Shiny Toy Guns today, the shiny, synthetic music pioneered by Kraftwerk more than 40 years ago has always survived in one form or another. The Man-Machine didn’t start this movement – that honor mostly likely belongs to Trans-Europe Express, Kraftwerk’s previous album – but it built upon the concept of layering minimalist songs until they form something more elaborate and inviting for the dance floor. As a result, The Man-Machine became the defining album in Kraftwerk’s catalog. In fact, when I saw the band nearly five years ago (time flies!) they performed every song from the album. To make it even more exciting, they had actual robots come out and perform “The Robots” for the first encore.

Florian Schneider played an immense role in taking Kraftwerk from the primitive nob-twiddling on their early albums to the expansive synth masterworks that defined their best songs. I’m not versed enough in the band to tell you where he added to specific songs. The group likes to remain fairly nebulous. Even seeing them in concert, it looked like four men at podiums. However, Schneider was a founding member of Kraftwerk and present on all their albums through Minimum-Maximum. He also got name-checked by David Bowie on Heroes, and that’s enough street cred for me. Sadly, Schneider died from cancer in late April. The next time you’re on a dance floor, moving to a pulsating synthesizer, or tearing down the highway humming the melody to “Autobahn,” remember this pioneer.

Acid Mothers Temple

(Above: Acid Mothers Temple perform at Kansas City’s Riot Room in April, 2013.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Note: This feature was scheduled to run in the Kansas City Star.  Because of our language barrier, Kawabata Makoto requested an interview via e-mail. Unfortunately, the Mothers’ touring schedule didn’t give Makoto much time to respond to my questions. His short answers necessitated using quotes from the band’s Website. Ultimately the feature was shelved.

The Acid Mothers Temple welcomes all, but entry can be daunting.

The ambition of Kawabata Makoto, the founder and leader of the Japanese rock band, is both impressive and intimidating. For fans, the group and its affiliated side projects has released more than 80 titles since forming in 1995. For musicians, Makoto offers several homes across Japan where musicians can jam and do whatever they like. There is a good chance, however, that neighbors will report these free spirits as terrorists.

“Our slogan is “Do whatever you want, don’t do whatever you don’t want!!’” Makoto said in an extensive interview on the Acid Mothers Web site. “When all the Aum Shinrikyo (the group behind the 1995 poison gas attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995 that killed 12 people) stuff was going on in Japan a few years back, the neighbors mistakenly thought that our house was a secret Aum hideout and managed to get us evicted. Also, mountain villages are always suspicious of outsiders, and sometimes we are ostracized by the community. These kinds of problems pop up from time to time, but there’s not much we can do about it.”

It’s not unusual for a Mothers’ composition to reach well beyond 20 minutes. Makoto wears his influences like badges of honor, naming albums in homage to Pink Floyd, Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. The music often sounds like an update to the rock scenes in Haight-Ashbury and London in the late 1960s. Psychedliec rock may be an easy handle to hang on the band, but Makoto prefers the term trip music.

amt“As I see it, psychedelic rock is a type of rock music that evolved under the influence of the drug culture,” Makoto said. “For me trip music does not mean the same as psychedelic rock. … A simple explanation of what I mean by a trip is something that allows you to hear sounds that you do not usually hear, or that allows you to experience those dangerous frequencies that mount a violent assault upon your soul.”

The writing and recording process is relatively straightforward. Makoto gathers whatever musicians he can find in a collective attempt to record whatever he is hearing in his head. Beyond that, anything goes.

“Music is constantly changing, depending on time and place and atmosphere, and attempting to tie it down never breeds good results,” Makoto said. “Our recording process is basically to improvise the broad structure of the songs, then to overdub stuff later. The line-up depends on who’s available on the day. So I suppose you could say it’s down to fate, since we don’t adjust the schedule to try and fit in with everyone’s plans. “

Makoto formed his first band in 1978, when he realized there was nothing on the radio like the sounds in his head. Completely self-taught, Makoto and his bandmates played through trial and error. It took four years, Makoto said, for him to realize there was a standard way to tune the guitar.

“I have always only mastered just the bare minimum of technique so that I can play my own music,” Makoto said. “I believe that it’s best in all things to have neither too much or too little. If you have too much knowledge or technique, then you’ll naturally want to show that off to others. At that point it ceases to be music, and just becomes a display of skill. That is not what I want my music to be.”

The Mothers’ were the final act of last year’s Middle of the Map festival. Unfortunately, their start was delayed and the band was unable to play a full set. Makoto is hoping to play a full set this visit.

In his many trips around the world, Makoto has noticed audiences behave differently depending on the country.

“Japanese audiences come to hear the music and that American or European audiences come to enjoy themselves,” Makoto said. “I don’t know which attitude is better. If you’ve paid your money to get in, then you should have the right to enjoy the music in whichever way you like. You can listen quietly or if you’re bored you can chat with your friends, it’s up to you. Maybe it’s more important for the musicians to try and play in such a way that people won’t feel like chatting.”

With Makoto’s AMT label dropping new albums in March, April and May and the band a third of the way through a six-week tour, it doesn’t look like the Mothers will be slowing down anytime soon. But Makoto knows there may be a day when his days of exploring new sounds and textures will come to an end.

“My personal goal is to recreate the music played by a heavenly orchestra I heard once in a dream. If I ever succeed, I will have no more need to play music,” Makoto said. “The other members of Acid Mothers Temple may have different goals – I don’t know. But even if I were to quit, I would like AMT to continue to exist, since I think of it as less of a band and more of a collective will.”

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Review: Flaming Lips at Liberty Hall

(Above: The Flaming Lips get an assist from Deerhoof to cover King Crimson at the second show of their two-night stand at Liberty Hall in Lawrence, Kan. on June 22, 2012.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Standing in Liberty Hall during a sold-out Flaming Lips concert was like being inside a kaleidoscope. In fact, the overwhelming number of balloons, confetti and streamers made things a little claustrophobic.

The Oklahoma City rock band brought so much firepower to its two-night stand in Lawrence that the show opened with a disclaimer from frontman Wayne Coyne: Don’t stare at the strobe lights, and be cool when the space bubble rolls out.

The famous inflated see-through orb that Coyne inhabits and then rolls over the outstretched hands of the crowd came out during a cover of Pink Floyd’s “On the Run.” As Coyne rolled over the masses, it looked like he could have easily hopped into the balcony.

With a capacity of 1,200 people, the building seemed like a bandbox compared to the acres of festival grounds the Lips usually have to play in during summer festival seasons. A massive mirror ball hung so low over the stage it seemed like Coyne might be able to touch it. Late in the set he donned giant hands that shot lasers and pointed them at the ball, spraying light across the room.A giant LED screen filled the back of the stage and troupes of dancers dressed like Dorothy Gales buttressed the wings.

Fans got their chance to sing early. Favorites “Race for the Prize,” “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song,” “She Don’t Use Jelly” and the slow campfire arrangement of “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Part One)” all came out in the first half of the set. The second half displayed newer, more experimental material. It wasn’t as bubbly, but fans ate it up just the same.

Deerhoof: The four-piece experimental band’s carefully planned cacophony was balanced by singer Satomi Matsuzaki’s manic pixie singing and dancing. Lips drummer and Lawrence resident Kliph Scurlock joined the openers for two numbers, and the two bands joined forces for two songs during the Lips’ encore. Their first collaboration was a curveball –- a cover of Canned Heat’s “Going Up the Country.” For the second number they went full-prog with a thunderous cover of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man.”

The show was part of the 100th annniversary party for Liberty Hall. Seventh Street was blocked off south of the venue, between Massachusetts and New Hampshire streets. Vendors sold everything from beer and BBQ to T-shirts and cake. Families lined up around the bounce castle while groups performed on the stage at the other end of the block. A screen at the back of the stage broadcast a live feed of Lips show.

Setlist: Race for the Prize, She Don’t Use Jelly, The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song (With All Your Power), On the Run (Pink Floyd cover), Worm Mountain, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Part One), Sea of Leaves, Drug Chant, The Ego’s Last Stand, What Is the Light?, The Observer. Encores: Going Up the Country, 21st Century Schizoid Man, Do You Realize?

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Rare Earth – “Get Ready”

Rare Earth – “Get Ready,” Pop # 4, R&B # 20

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Motown’s signing of Rare Earth in 1968 was the sign of a label attempting to spread its wings. Although Rare Earth wasn’t the first all-white rock group signed by to Motown (that would be the Messengers in 1967), it was the most successful.

“Get Ready” was the Earth’s second and biggest single. The song was originally recorded by the Temptations in 1966 when it rose to No. 29. It was written by Smokey Robinson and Pete Moore and Bobby Rogers of the Miracles. When the Temptations version of “Get Ready” failed to chart high enough, Robinson passed production reigns of the group over to Norman Whitfield.

But that was four years ago, before the psychedelic movement and power trios started stretching songs to fill an entire album side. Which is exactly what Rare Earth did to “Get Ready.” Modeled after their show-closing performances, the song reached more than 21 minutes and packed the entire second side of their Motown debut.

The quintet lobbied label honcho Berry Gordy to release the song as a single, but given the song’s length he balked at the proposition. Finally, a three-minute edit was released in February, 1970 and the song shot up the chart.

Despite the genre transplant, “Get Ready” emerged relatively unaltered. The horn line was replaced with electric guitar, and faux crowd noise was added. The biggest change was Pete Rivera’s gritty white soul vocals replacing Eddie Kendricks’ tough falsetto. A saxophone solo by Gil Bridges closes the number.

The song became a staple not only for Rare Earth and the Tempts, but was a sort of label warhorse. It was included on albums by the Supremes, Miracles, Smokey Robinson on his own, and again by the Temptations in 1991.”Get Ready” was also covered by pop-punk band Ash, the Scottish folk band the Proclaimers and sampled by the Black Eyed Peas, who later turned it into a full-blown cover for their singer Fergie on her solo album.