July 29, 2010

Blast from the Past: Tale of the Tapes, from July 2005

Five issues into the existence of Modern Acoustic, the magazine started to gel for me. I realized I was not confident as an album reviewer (still working on that...), was not a great photographer and, being a family man, not getting to concerts as much as I'd liked. So how was I going to fill empty pages of a magazine I had just created? For the most part, what I like best about Modern Acoustic is dealing with musical issues that are personal to me. One of the first "issue-oriented" stories I wrote was on my despair at getting rid of my huge cassette tape collection. Recently, in a funny turn, the Boston Globe did a story on cassette tapes making a comeback (click HERE). They even used the same headline as my story! Anyway, below is MY tale of the tapes, from Issue No. 5, July 2005 (click HERE to read the whole issue) . Enjoy!


It was a collection that spanned more than 30 years 
of my life as a music listener and lover. 
The music was special; the memories attached to them even more so.

  About 400 empty cassette tape boxes are set out for recycling; the tapes that once filled them take up multiple trash bags. My once-majestic tape collection is no longer.
It was a collection that spanned more than 30 years of my life as a music listener and lover: rock records I bought second-hand, taped in my basement bedroom and returned for more albums during high school; then-cool jazz fusion tapes I made from my college roommate’s records which blew me away; classic and obscure blues I fell in love with after a trip to Chicago; and countless other genres, bands and musicians that led me to the musical place I am today. I will most likely never buy or download many of those albums again.
  But it was time, I suppose. Most of the cassettes sat dusty on shelves or in closets for years without a listen.
  Oh, there were days when a certain song or a mention by someone somewhere would send me scurrying deep into my collection for a certain tape.
Just to find that tape was an experience – even a chore. But over the years those searches had gotten fewer.
  The quality of the tapes had eroded badly in some cases. In the age of digital and MP3, tape hiss and album crackle – let alone sound dropout – had made some unbearable to listen to.
Even still, knowing I somewhere had copies of John
Mayall’s “Turning Point” or Jeff Beck’s “Truth” validated my musical taste, as self-indulgent as that sounds.
  There were also tapes I had of Stanley Turrentine given to me by a former co-worker, a crazy mixtape by a friend that moved away 10 years ago, and the UB40 album shared with me by my soon-to-be-girlfriend as I drove her home on our first date. (She later became my wife!)
  The music was special; the memories attached to them even more so.
  I remember the day I said goodbye to my albums – probably 15 years ago now – when compact discs became the Next Great Thing. That was an easier decision. I handed them over to my brother, sure they would be in good hands. Whether he has them anymore doesn’t matter; at the time I knew
they were appreciated. This is different. No one was going to take my recorded tape collection.
  There is little that is nostalgic about it – except to me.
  It’s time to move on, to start a new collection. I have hundreds of albums on CD and loaded into iTunes. I’ve downloaded many of those CDs into my iPod. Those that I haven’t will most likely become the next target for disposal ... but probably not for another 15 years.

July 15, 2010

Blast from the Past: An Ode to Liner Notes: A Casualty of the Digital Music Age

  In our continuing series, Blast From the Past, we bring you a story written for Issue No. 9 from March 2006 (to download the whole issue, click HERE). Apparently, I am not the only one feeling like we have lost something in the translation to digital. To this day, in conversation or on Facebook, talk of liner notes comes up and they are recalled with fondness and a wistful hope for their return.


We’d like to thank liner notes for all the great memories and for teaching us a few things about music

  A couple days ago, I was listening to Patty Griffin’s “1,000 Kisses” album and my daughter became interested in the lyrics.
  She began browsing the CD’s booklet. “Did Patty draw the pictures in here, Dad?,” she asked? It reminded me how much I like – and miss – album liner notes.
  This isn’t the first time I have come to this sad conclusion. When records were replaced by CDs there was an outcry that the reduced size of recordings would destroy the “art” of the album— which it did.   There was truly something great about being able to discover a band’s personality by browsing an album while you were listening to the music.
  Inside, you might find a collage of photos taken while the band was recording the album, the lyrics of each song, who played on the songs, or maybe even some written nugget of information that gave color or insight into the band. It was also where you’d discover trivial details that made you a “real” music fan: Duane Allman played slide guitar on Eric Clapton’s Derek & the Dominos album “Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs” or the fact that Muddy Waters’ songs were actually written by McKinley Morganfield, which later you learned was Muddy’s real name.
  Finding those morsels about a musician or band in the small print was the best part, and made you feel like you “knew” them.
 On Laurie Geltman’s “No Power Steering” album, she thanked a bunch of first-name-only folks, Dr. Altoids, the Geltmans, and “anyone else who’s given us a place to crash or picked us up on the side of the road.” OK, it’s not vital information, but it does give you a sense of her personality.
  With CDs, you could still find that information, albeit in even smaller print. It was not nearly as intimate to sit down with a 5-inch square booklet to check out the band photos, and at times it took a magnifying glass to read lyrics and other information. But at least the information was still available.
  Now comes downloadable music, and the end of music packaging.
  As many of you know, I’m a huge fan of downloading music. I do it all the time and love the convenience, the cost savings, and even the online searches for nuggets not available on albums or lesser known bands and musicians.
  But despite that joy, there still lingers a sadness from losing some of the intrigue I got from spending time with the liner notes.
Jazz, I believe, may be hurt the most from this loss because jazz musicians tend to play with many different pairings rather than stay with one band. Unlike in rock, it is much harder to keep track of who is playing on what album. Joshua Redman’s “Wish” album features Pat Metheny, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins. I know that because the album cover tells me so.
  The iTunes version of the album does not mention the supporting players. If I had bought Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” by download, I may never have known that John Coltrane played on the album. When I borrowed the original album from the library, I remember pouring over the sleeve notes to see who else played on it.
  That information today is readily available on the Internet, and I’m sure some eager music fans will take the time to research it, but I worry that the average kid listening to the album for the first time
would not take the time to find out such details.
  There is some hope on the horizon though. A company called TuneBooks has begun to produce “digital liner notes” for certain albums sold on iTunes.
  According to its website (www.tunebooks.com), “TuneBooks combines traditional visual elements — liner notes, cover art and band collateral — with custom-designed interactive art and media to create a new visual experience.”
  The company produced such materials for the Click Five, the Darkness and Prodigy.
  While it will never take the place of the visceral experience of sitting alone, headphones on, scouring the inner depths of an album jacket for clues to your favorite band, I am hopeful that liner notes will not disappear forever. And when the next youngster is turned on to the Beatles’ “When My Guitar Gently Weeps,” they will read somewhere on its liner notes (digital or otherwise) that helping out on guitar was none other than Eric Clapton.

July 10, 2010

CD review: Eilen Jewell Presents Butcher Holler

A Tribute to Loretta Lynn

Out July 27

One day last summer, instead of coming straight home from work, I decided to head to the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge for a show by a group called Butcher Holler. Full disclosure: I knew what I was in for. Eilen Jewell and her band performing the songs of one of her idols, Loretta Lynn. (Butcher Holler or, more accurately, Hollow in Kentucky, is in fact the birthplace of Lynn.) I also knew Lynn’s songs were not foreign to Jewell, who has covered of few on her albums and played even a few more live in concert.
But what was a surprise that night and on her new album called Butcher Holler, which comes out officially July 27, was how incredibly natural Jewell is to carry the torch of Lynn’s amazing, heartfelt tunes.
The album opens appropriately on one of my favorite Lynn-penned, Jewell-covered tunes, “Fist City.” It’s hard to believe a country gal living below the Mason-Dixon line in the ‘60s could get away with singing lyrics like this: “I'm not a sayin' my baby's a saint 'cause he ain't/N' that he won't cat around with a kitty/I'm here to tell ya gal to lay offa my man/If ya don't wanna go to fist city,”
Lynn broke some serious barriers for female singers of her time with her tough-as-nails, not-taking-any-guff tunes, and Jewell delivers them with a similar musical sneer. Both Lynn and Jewell are at their best on these tougher tunes - “Ain’t Woman Enough (to Take My Man),” “Don’t Come Home A’Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind.” “Wanna Give Me a Lift” is a sassy reminder of Lynn’s toughness, as Jewell sings “You wanna give me a lift but this gal ain’t goin’ that far.” There are so many fun songs on this album, its tough to pick out favorites. Jewell is once again backed by her superb band - Jason Beek on drums, Jerry Miller on guitars and Johnny Sciascia on bass - though they tend to stay more in the background on this album than on Eilen’s stellar “Sea of Tears,” released last year.
“Who Says God Is Dead” bounces along on Miller’s stellar guitar playing. And we don’t want to leave out how Jewell also capably handles Lynn’s gentler side: songs such as “A Man I Hardly Know,” fronting Miller’s gorgeous steel guitar-playing, “Whispering Sea” and “This Haunted House.”
The album finale is Lynn’s swinging hit “You’re Looking at Country,” a fitting way to close out a sentimental tribute from a modern country girl to her music legend idol.

July 8, 2010

Blast from the Past: Talkin' About Another Revolution, from Nov. 2005

This is the second installment in the series Blast From the Past, a look back at past stories published in Modern Acoustic. This one, the first "music-issue"-oriented story in the magazine, discusses whether or not a music revolution, like the one in the '60s, could ever happen again. Yes, it's long, probably too long. I had a professor of music write most of it and I didn't edit it much. Some of the stuff she writes about is already dated -- in just 5 years -- but I think it is an interesting read nonetheless.


(Reprinted from Modern Acoustic magazine, November 2005; to download the issue, click HERE)

From the parents of baby boomers to teenagers today, the names are familiar to us all: The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. Jimi Hendrix. Bob Dylan.
Even less popular acts – Canned Heat, Moby Grape and Ten Years After – are known to many. Nostalgia? Yes, much of what we hear today about the 1960s and its musical legacy are based on nostalgia. It is incessantly and nauseatingly packaged on radio stations nationwide as “Classic Rock.”
  But it is more than nostalgia that makes up the legacy of the decade’s songs. Sandwiched between the slick love songs of the ’50s and narcissistic ’70s disco, ’60s music was borne as part rebellion, part social change, and part love-in. It was a time of exploration, experimentation, and naivete.
  The influence of the music then was a reflection of what was going on in America: an unpopular president, an unpopular war, student protest, civil rights, women’s rights and young people questioning and defying the mores of their parents.
  There was also an explosion of exploration through visual art, music, theater, and film, at least in part fueled by psychedelic drugs. Technology was improving: Stereophonic sound became the norm for recorded music. Television, now a part of the furniture in homes, beamed back the first live images of war in living color, and Americans looked on in horror.
  And all this was synthesized into the songs. Young musicians allowed themselves to be carried by their ideals and emotions, and for the most part, were naive to the “business” of the music business.
  So could this kind of musical revolution happen again? Modern Acoustic posed the question to Roberta Schwartz, Assistant Professor of Historical Musicology at Kansas University to lend her perspective. Does she believe the ingredients are still here to spark something new and original? Here is her wonderfully in-depth response:

  No one knows what the future will hold, but I’m inclined to say that the kind of musical revolution that occurred in the ’60s won’t happen again. However, I believe that we are in the earliest stages of a musical revolution, albeit one that is different in many respects.
  The forces that brought about the “Renaissance” of the 1960s cannot be replicated. In the ’60s the world was a more dangerous place than ever before, thanks to the threat of nuclear annihilation.
  These dangers were mostly created by the older generation, which created a sense among young people that maybe authority didn’t have all the answers (or any of them); consequently, other foibles of modern society were questioned, and societal mores and expectations were weakened. World War II made the world a smaller place through the spread of popular culture. Paradoxically, this narrowed artistic choices while also creating room for new ideas and views, especially those from the East.
  These combined with economic prosperity of an unprecedented scale that gave youth more freedom to pursue interests beyond subsistence living. The entire movement was underscored by increasing notions of equality, in part brought about by the early flush of rock ’n’ roll, which brought black music to white youth.
  This idea extended beyond a black-white binarism to encompass all races, sexes (to a degree), religions, musical styles, and forms of expression. Psychedelic drugs and optimism were catalysts; these elements, above all others, captured the attention of a larger public.
  The sounds, sights, and messages were so outrageous, in comparison to the standards of the time, that “straight” America (and England, to be sure) had to take notice. This, I sense, is the key factor of the ’60s that can’t be replicated. In our media-saturated society, where every form of outrageous behavior, both innocuous and heinous, has been televised, the ability to shock bourgeois sensibilities is no longer a simple proposition!

  The current social and political situation in the United States is in many ways similar to that of the ’60s, though the climate is one of increased repression, rather than openness and tolerance. Still, the incubator is in some ways ready, and there are signs that political activism and music are coming together again.
  Acts as varied as Green Day, Eminem, Bruce Springsteen, the Dixie Chicks, and Steve Earle have produced overtly political recordings in the past few years that have been commercially and critically successful.
  However, their tone is not optimistic; rather, they evince strident criticism of politics and other institutions. Punk rock has left an indelible mark on popular music, and its influence will be felt for quite some time.
  Still, music that engages social issues is a refreshing change from the escapist, materialistic fare that dominates the Top 40. Hip-hop, long a vehicle for political content, has been revitalized as well. The current “worldrap” movement, exemplified by artists like M.I.A. and rappers X-Plastaz from the African Maasai tribe, demonstrates that in many parts of the globe rap has proven an excellent vehicle for political commentary among the poor, oppressed, and dispossessed.

  Musically, the key ingredients of the ’60s musical revolution were ones that increased potential musical influences. Rejections of popular culture led to revivals of pre-war styles, especially folk music and the blues, which expanded the possibilities of musical creation, as did the new soul sounds emerging from Motown, Stax, and other independent labels.
  New technologies like the massproduced electric guitar, the Mellotron, and effects pedals introduced a broaderpalate of tone colors, and the standards and possibilities for studio production granted unprecedented control over the sound of a recording.
  Today a similar broadening of possibilities is in play. Our on-demand world means that music – all kinds of music – is readily accessible. Virtually every conceivable form of recorded music, be it classical arias by Enrico Caruso, jug band music of the ’30s, or Yoruban highlife, is in circulation, and can be accessed through alternative radio, digital download, streaming audio, or your local record store. And it can be sampled, sequenced, looped, and manipulated from a home computer.
  The possibilities for fusion are endless, and have begun to yield a dizzying array of combinations and sub-genres that range from merely interesting to extraordinarily vital.
  The products of the American roots music revival are particularly interesting; I personally find the White Stripes one of the most exciting bands to emerge in years. Recent fusions of rap with jazz, soul, world music, and even country (who’d have thought?) have proven that hip-hop is not only the “new world folk music,” but also a resilient and expansive genre that can allow infinite variety.
  Concert audiences of the past few years, particularly the jam-band sect, have demonstrated a willingness to embrace startlingly diverse acts in a way that hasn’t been witnessed since the late ’60s; last year’s festival circuit included the Dirty Dozen Brass Band from New Orleans (talk about “old school”!), The Polyphonic Spree – a clash of influences so disparate and strange that they defy classification in any normal sense – Yonder Mountain String Band, Los Lonely Boys, Robert Randolph and the Family Band, Danger Mouse, Doc Watson,Taj Mahal, Ani DiFranco, Steve Winwood, and the Dave Matthews Band.
  Such diversity can only be for the musical common good, and the fact that some of these acts have hit the Top 40 is an indication that a revolution of some sort is afoot.

  The extraordinary freedom of artists to express themselves and experiment during the ’60s was the result of changes in the recording industry itself. Immediately after World War II only seven record labels controlled recorded output.
  Tape recording reduced the cost of producing records, and small, local independent labels began to emerge. Their successes in marketing R&B, jazz, and rock ’n’ roll records led to the development of an independent distribution system that bypassed the monopolies of the major labels.
  These independents launched nearly every major musical act of the 1960s; once their moneymaking potential was realized, the majors often moved in and capitalized on both the artists and the trends.
  In turn, this created an environment of corporate risk-taking; as executives had no idea what would be popular (who could have foreseen Beatlemania?), they were willing to sign just about anyone who came highly recommended by young staff members, hip agents, or “those in the know.”
  Once acts became successful, their ability to generate revenue was the only concern of their labels; the musicians were able to experiment fairly freely with a minimum of oversight.
  Some musicians were able to thrive even without major label contracts. Many of the San Francisco bands gained popularity through exposure on FM radio; this new broadcast spectrum was relatively loose and not dominated by Top-40 stations.
  This modest exposure was enough to promote concert attendance, which became a greater source of income for many acts during the decade; the Grateful Dead emerged as one of the most popular bands of the 1960s though they had no hit record or best-selling LP during that era and were never heard on popular AM stations. today.
  Lately the major record labels have demonstrated that their ability to divine what the “next big thing” will be has weakened. The most convincing evidence emerged in the spring of 2002, when the majors were taken completely by surprise as acts like the White Stripes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Strokes, and the Hives emerged to shatter the dominant boy band-teen pop-nu-metal hegemony.
  Recently “big money” releases by proven pop stars like Janet Jackson have generated disappointing returns, and the majors have had to rely on their smaller divisions (like Interscope, The Inc., and Vice) to produce successful hits.
  As this trend continues, more local artists and styles (like southern crunk and the Detroit rock sound) will gain national exposure.
  Moreover, the major labels have recently been taking some interesting risks lately, signing artists whose marketability is unproven.
  Independent labels have also proven that they can compete on the charts and in the marketplace with independent or unorthodox distribution networks. Jack Johnson’s latest, “In Between Dreams,” on the Brushfire label, recently hit the top five; and the White Stripes, despite achieving mainstream success, remained with the independent Third Man Records for a while before signing on with V2.

  Though only four companies now control all recording and corporate radio permits broadcast of very small sampling of music, there are now a host of alternatives. Alternative and college radio stations provide access to minor artists, though these stations have short transmission ranges and are not available in all markets.
  However, their demographic is considered significant enough that the industry maintains separate “college radio” charts.
  There is also a dramatic upswing in local radio startups and pirate radio stations – the latter particularly in Britain – and satellite radio, streaming audio and podcasting also offer alternatives to Clear Channel and other corporatecontrolled stations.
  The Internet is likely to be the carrier of the new revolution; while Kazaa and similar services are enmeshed in legislative battles, legal applications serve as completely anonymous distribution sites, where any artist can post their own music for download or sale.
  Anyone with a computer has a world of music at his or her fingertips at any time, day or night, and the most successful of these acts will emerge into the mainstream, not because major corporations think they might be saleable, but because they have already proven their appeal to a market niche.
  In times of declining record sales, niche markets wield significant power. For example, the major record labels ignored blues and country music until they proved to be consistent sellers, even in the depths of the depression.
  As long as those interested in new and independent music buy CDs and support concert appearances by these bands, the revolution will continue.

July 3, 2010

CD review: Sarah Harmer, "Oh Little Fire"

Oh Little Fire (Out now)

Sarah Harmer has always followed her own path. Her initial breakthrough album, “You Were Here” in 2000 was followed four years later by “All of Our Names,” which netted her the nice little hit “Almost,” and it looked like she was headed for some commercial success in Sarah McLachlan-like territory.
But instead this Sarah took a U-turn and went back home to try to help save her native Canada’s escarpment, and in the process created a wonderful acoustic folk and bluegrass album, “I’m a Mountain.” The 2005 album may have had little commercial appeal but it was a smash with critics and independent-thinking music fans, including this one.
So five years later, we had no idea what to expect from “Oh Little Fire,” her new album. And after a couple of listens we’re still a little in the dark. The album is filled with a group of country, folk and soft-rocking indie-pop tunes.
Harmer has said in interviews that she doesn’t want to be tied to a style, which is great. We were not expecting another “I’m a Mountain,” but few of the songs stand out on “Oh Little Fire” the way some of her past successes have.
The album opens with “The Thief,” which sounds like it could have been very much at home on a Laura Veirs album. “New Loneliness” has a nice slinky sound with organ backing up her acoustic. “One Match” offers glimpses of the voice we fell in love with on “Mountain.” Her voice and her lyrics on such songs as “New Loneliness” have an honesty and sadness to them that makes us think she was going through a rough patch romantically during the making of this album. On “Washington,” she sings: “I didn’t go to Washington/instead I swept the floor. The only things I’ve ever done you can’t see anymore.”  “Silverado’’ gets some beautiful harmonies from fellow Canadian Neko Case,  who seems to be everywhere lately from the New Pornographers to backing Jakob Dylan.
The title “Oh Little Fire” seems to perfectly encapsulate many meanings for the songs on this album. We just wish one of them wasn’t the lack of fire we felt listening to them.