Recommended Albums #86

The Left Banke: Strangers On a Train (1978/1986)

Sometimes the spell of enchantment cast by a band’s music belies the tumult of the creative process.

The Left Banke, led by 17-year-old songwriter/pianist/whiz kid Michael Brown and his father, producer/arranger Harry Lookofsky, pioneered so-called baroque pop with a pair of gorgeous mid-60’s hits–“Walk Away Renee” and “Pretty Ballerina”–inlaid with the sounds of harpsichord, woodwinds, and a small string section.

The music was as innovative as it was sublime.

But the band’s short lifespan is testament to the fact that all was not harmonious in the studio.

Brown left during the recording of their second album, frustrated by the challenges of reproducing their complex sound live with young and inexperienced bandmates.

And his bandmates were frustrated with Brown, who wasn’t the easiest guy to get along with.

But like other bands who produced enduring and seminal work, the Left Banke had an extended afterlife, including short-lived reunions, one-off singles and even commercial jingles.

Strangers On a Train (titled Voices Calling in Britain) was recorded sans Brown by the remaining trio of vocalist Steve Martin-Caro, drummer George Cameron and bassist Tim Finn. The recordings are from 1978, though the album didn’t see release until ten years later.

Finn had signed a publishing deal with Camex music and recruited his former bandmates to fill out his demos at the suggestion of the company, who encouraged him to turn it into a Left Banke project.

It’s notable that Finn never considered the recordings to be “finished” even when released in ’86 under the Left Banke name.

George Cameron, Steve Martin-Caro, Tom Finn

That said, Strangers On a Train is worth hearing for fans of Badfinger, Big Star and even the Raspberries.

“Hold On Tight” could be an Eric Carmen power pop rave-up from ’72.

“And One Day” is a delicate, heart-tugging ballad of lost love featuring Martin-Caro’s McCartney-esque delivery.

And “Only My Opinion” lands squarely in Badfinger/Big Star territory, with tasty guitar fills and plaintive vocals.

The 2022 re-release of the album includes 6 additional tracks–Michael Brown demos recorded with Steve Martin-Caro on vocals–offering a tantalizing glimpse at what might have been had the band reunited one last time.

A moot point since Steve Martin-Caro and Tom Finn died in 2020, following George Cameron’s passing in 2018 and Michael Brown’s in 2015.

But the 1978 recordings–despite Michael Brown’s absence and the fact that the band had moved on from its trademark 60’s baroque pop adornments–sounds like a lost piece of the 70’s pop rock story.

If you miss that sound and have worn out your too-small collection of Badfinger and Big Star records, here’s some new old music for you.

Listen to: “Hold On Tight”

Listen to: “And One Day”

Listen to: “Only My Opinion”

Recommended Albums #85

Lindisfarne: Nicely Out of Tune (1970)

While not exactly a household name this side of the Atlantic, Lindisfarne and their fine 1970 debut LP should be on the radar of any fan of folk-influenced rock of the era.

The Newcastle group’s sound evoked The Band at times, but with decidedly English leanings. Or a looser version of early Fairport perhaps. And nicely in tune with the acid folk vibe in late-60’s/early 70’s Britain.

This album peaked at #8 in the UK charts a year after its release, having gotten a jolt when their second album Fog On the Tyne topped the charts in 1971.

But while Tyne was their breakthrough, Nicely Out of Tune is their strongest album.

The pretty, atmospheric “Lady Eleanor” kicks off the album. The song features mandolin accents by Ray Jackson, who also played the instrument on Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May”. The songs ends nicely with a mandolin-and-bass coda.

The simple, haunting beauty of “Winter Song” repays careful attention to the lyrics, while “Turn a Deaf Ear” displays the band’s harmonies and shanty-esque pub singalong side.

“Alan in the River With Flowers” is another pensive ballad reminiscent of David Cousins’ early Strawbs writing. Its title parodies “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”.

And “Down” is a jaunty tune with instrumental credit to multi-instrumentalist Ray Jackson for playing “flatulette”, which actually consisted of blowing raspberries.

Like Camel, Amazing Blondel, Fairport Convention and so many other fine English bands of the era, lineup changes took a toll just a few albums into Lindisfarne’s run.

But while the subtle brilliance of Nicely Out of Tune will be lost on many, if you’re among those with an ear for nicely-rendered 70’s British folk rock, this album is–as they like to say across the pond–just the job.

Listen to: “Lady Eleanor”

Listen to “Winter Song”

Listen to “Turn a Deaf Ear”

Listen to “Alan in the River With Flowers”

Listen to “Down”

Recommended Albums #84

The Moody Blues: Caught Live +5 (1977)

On this strange hybrid release, issued shortly before the Moody Blues reunited for their 1978 Octave album, 14 of the 19 tracks are from a December 1969 show at London’s Royal Albert Hall. The remaining five were previously unreleased studio recordings from 1967 and ’68.

The late-60’s Moodies simply couldn’t duplicate their complex, layered studio recordings in a live setting, Justin Hayward couldn’t play an acoustic guitar and electric at the same time. Later-era live releases such as A Night at Red Rocks more successfully did justice to the band’s symphonic sound.

But this 1969 show, recorded on a night when the band has admitted they were uh, high, is not exactly their crowning achievement.

What we’re concerned with here is the +5, the primary reason for a fan of the classic-era band to welcome this album, as I did in 1977.

The newly-reunited Moodies were about to embark on a new phase, in which Mellotron maestro Mike Pinder would only stick around long enough to record the Octave album. This new era would see the band’s sound “updated” first with ill-fitting saxophone, then later with the synthetic sounds of keyboardist Patrick Moraz bleeping, whirring and whizzing all over the next couple decades of Moody Blues music.

What contemporized their music and made it 80’s radio friendly–I mean it’s hard to argue with a number 1 album–seems like artistic desecration in retrospect. The Moody Blues aren’t supposed to sound current. At their best, they sounded like a band removed from time. Timeless.

A band that recorded with flute, harpsichord, cello, harp and, oh yeah a full orchestra wasn’t exactly trying to sound contemporary in the late 60’s.

At any rate, a year before before Octave–before the band made their artistic deal with the devil and began to slip into the slide zone–we got one last taste of the sound that defined them at their peak, by way of the belatedly-released “+5”.

Though there’s no “Nights in White Satin” among the studio tracks, all five songs (one each by Pinder and bassist John Lodge and three by Justin Hayward) are keepers. In fact, if the “+5” were “+10” it would make for an album worthy even of this band’s artistic peak.

Poppy and relatively succinct (none exceeds four minutes) most of these songs feature Lodge’s arcing falsetto crowning the layered vocal harmonies, drummer Graeme Edge adding the thunder of ominous timpani or stashing interesting fills into corners, Justin Hayward’s signature lead vocals and of course Mike Pinder’s mellotron, which more than any other single element gave classic Moody Blues music that mystical fairytale atmosphere.

If you liked “Voices in the Sky” from In Search of the Lost Chord, you’ll like “Gimme a Little Somethin'”, which combines Justin Hayward’s plaintive lead vocal, tasty Ray Thomas flute, Graeme Edge’s propulsive percussion, all underpinned by Mike Pindar’s mellotron, and ornamented by the aforementioned falsetto by Lodge, whose inventive bass playing is here, as always, the most overlooked aspect of this band’s sublime mix.

Pinder’s “Please Think About It” harkens to the band’s Denny Laine-fronted “Go Now” period–before Hayward and Lodge came on board–with Pinder playing a bluesy piano rather than mellotron.

But with Lodge again painting the ceiling with ethereal high notes above angelic harmonies, a trademark of the post-Laine period, the song bridges eras.

Hayward’s “Long Summer Days” sounds like it could have been a radio hit in 1967 and indeed was intended for single release that year. It actually predates the band’s landmark Days of Future Passed LP and is one of the first songs recorded with the band’s two “new” members, Hayward and Lodge.

“King and Queen” and “What Am I Doing Here” both date from 1968, and their lack of inclusion on the band’s In Search of the Lost Chord album illustrates just how many great songs Justin Hayward was churning out at the time.

Perhaps they were deemed not to fit the concept of the album, and it’s hard to argue with the choices of “Voices in the Sky”, “Visions of Paradise” and “The Actor”, the three Hayward songs that album did feature. Still, this pair of ’68 outtakes are both superb songs.

Lodge’s bass playing on “King and Queen” is inspired. The song is structured like Hayward’s great “Never Comes the Day”, beginning quietly and building in intensity as it progresses to a rousing chorus.

“What Am I Doing Here” inspires visions of Tolkien fantasy and indeed there are fan-made videos for this song on YouTube that connect the worlds of LOTR and the Moodies quite poignantly. Again Hayward’s wistful, melancholy lead vocal in the verses is complemented by Lodge’s eerie falsetto in the chorus.

This is the spellbinding sound of the Moody Blues on top of their creative, progressive game. Their brand of prog wasn’t about tricky time signatures, 16-minute songs, or even instrumental prowess. It was all about atmosphere and sonic beauty.

The five studio recordings from Caught Live +5 are not near the top of any Moody Blues streaming playlist. Released as they were, a decade late and tacked onto a live album, they were fated to be overlooked even by hardcore fans.

Then again, if you’re new to the band’s classic period, or looking for a deeper dive, these songs aren’t a bad place to start.

Random trivia: Caught Live +5 was one of the few 8-track tapes which maintained the exact playing order of the vinyl record, with no song breaks.

Listen to: “Gimme a Little Somethin'”

Listen to: “Please Think About It

Listen to: “Long Summer Days”

Listen to: “King and Queen”

Listen to: “What Am I Doing Here?”

Recommended Albums #83

The Silver Seas: Alaska (2013)

Singer/songwriter Daniel Tashian’s Silver Seas create the kind of soft rock that belies the denigratory trappings of the tag.

From the heartsick melancholy of the title track, to the lush bossa nova lilt of “A Night On the Town”, to the perky pop of “Karaoke Star”. Tashian’s excellent vocals and stellar songwriting are the through line of a fine, overlooked LP.

Listen to: “Alaska”

Listen to: “A Night On the Town”

Listen to: “Karaoke Star”

See also: Songs You May Have Missed #603 | Every Moment Has A Song (edcyphers.com)

See also: Songs You May Have Missed #666 | Every Moment Has A Song (edcyphers.com)

See also: https://edcyphers.com/2021/12/18/songs-you-may-have-missed-719/

Recommended Albums #82

Full Moon: Full Moon (1972)

This semi-legendary 1972 album featured Paul Butterfield Blues Band alumni in an early example of the Jazz-Rock fusion that would find greater visibility later in the decade as bands like Weather Report and the Crusaders would release their most successful albums and Steely Dan would create session star-studded records like Katy Lied and Aja.

Full Moon was an album that never garnered mainstream exposure but was influential among musicians, who shared it among themselves.

The musicianship is excellent, the feel is loose, the solos are tasty, and the styles vary from song to song. The rocking opening track “The Heavy Scuffle’s On” evokes Rare Earth, while “To Know”, which follows it, is a gorgeous Tower of Power-like R&B ballad. And so on, each track leaning a bit more toward jazz, or gospel or Miles Davis fusion.

This is one of those albums that hit the cutout bins unjustly. Now is your second chance (or more likely your first) to check out this obscure gem.

Listen to: “The Heavy Scuffle’s On”

Don’t Miss: “To Know”

Listen to: “Take This Winter Out of My Mind”

Listen to: “Midnight Pass”

Recommended Albums #81

Weezer: OK Human (2021)

Weezer’s 14th studio album OK Human is a baroque pop musical departure, recorded entirely on analogue equipment and backed by a 38-piece orchestra. It will almost certainly be among their lowest-charting albums. Oh, and it’s wonderful.

That’s not to say it’ll satisfy the segment of the band’s fans who hanker for the wall of shred of the band’s earlier work. Their upcoming Van Weezer album, scheduled for release just four months after OK Human, ought to meet their noise quota.

But that’s not the point of this album. OK Human is meant to link violin strings to heartstrings. The orchestral setting provides the perfect melodramatic foil for Rivers Cuomo’s endearingly dorkish songwriting voice, so full of misanthropic melancholy. It’s a mix that evokes Ben Folds’ finest moments.

When Sting makes literary references, he comes off a bit up his own arse. When Cuomo does so a winsome humor slips through. Particularly in “Grapes of Wrath” where such references drive home the song’s point.

Cuomo eschews rock machismo cliche, prefering to name check Mrs. Dalloway, Winston Smith and Frodo Baggins. Because he just don’t care, he just don’t care. And anyway “battling Big Brother feels more meaningful than binging zombie hordes.”

Indeed.

Dorkitude aside, it’s the massive pop hooks that have been Cuomo’s calling card ever since “Buddy Holly” in ’94. And on OK Human he delivers the goods again. Critics will talk about guitars vs orchestras, and opine as to whether the lyrics are cheeky, sincere or just corny. But few will take note of the fact that Rivers Cuomo is possibly the best melodist in the world of pop rock.

It’s time the man was given his due.

Listen to: “Aloo Gobi”

Listen to: “Grapes of Wrath”

Listen to: “Bird With a Broken Wing”

See also: Songs You May Have Missed #313 | Every Moment Has A Song (edcyphers.com)

See also: Songs You May Have Missed #484 | Every Moment Has A Song (edcyphers.com)

See also: Ten Great Weezer Songs That Aren’t from the ‘Blue Album’ | Every Moment Has A Song (edcyphers.com)

Recommended Albums #80

The Tripwores: Makes You Look Around (2007)

If you expect a collection of 90’s-era, Seattle-area musicians to sound grungy, quasi-supergroup The Tripwires–made up of members of such bands as Screaming Trees, The Minus 5, Young Fresh Fellows and Supersuckers–would be a suprise.

But the surprise would be a pleasant one if you appreciate guitar pop with smart lyrics, knockout hooks, sweet guitar interplay and tasty solos.

For fans of power pop, or the pub rock of Nick Lowe, Rockpile and Dave Edmunds.

 

Listen to: “Arm Twister”

 

Listen to: “Big Electric Light”

 

Listen to: “Comedienne”

 

Listen to: “Sold Yer Guitar Blues”

Recommended Albums #79

Yacht Rock Revue: Hot Dads in Tight Jeans (2020)

“I had a midlife crisis. That’s why we made this album,” says Nick Niespodziani, the group’s singer, guitarist, and spiritual leader. “Everyone in the band is a dad now, so we needed to make this happen, before we become grandpas. I’ve sung ‘Escape’ by Rupert Holmes at least a thousand times, and if that isn’t paying your dues, I don’t know what is.”

When is a cover band not a cover band?

In the case of front man Nick Niespodziani and his band Yacht Rock Revue, the answer would be when after a decade your tribute to 70’s and 80’s soft rock takes on such a life of its own that it pushes aside other musical aspirations and, like it or not, you’re a dedicated career yacht rock band. Writing new and original yacht rock.

What is yacht rock? It is–or was–or actually still is, I guess, a brand of Adult Oriented Rock that had a West Coast flavor and proliferated mostly from around the mid-70’s to the early 80’s.

The term came later, like around 2005, and was meant to be a less-than-complimentary label ascribed to the music of artists such as Boz Scaggs, Toto, Styx, Player, Little River Band, Orleans, Robbie Dupree, Christopher Cross, Atlanta Rhythm Section and the Michael McDonald-era Doobie Brothers.

But the thing is: people love Boz Scaggs, Toto and the rest. They can’t get enough “Africa” and “Lido Shuffle”. And bands like Yachtley Crew and Yacht Rock Revue can seemingly make a living leading lively polyester pop singalongs and crooning ‘how long has this been going on‘ for, well, as long as they want it to go on.

The genre is too legit to quit.

revue

With artists like Bruno Mars, Pharrell Williams, Fitz and the Tantrums and Lizzo seasoning the pop charts with retro-leaning sounds, Niespodziani and company saw this as the time to surf the nostalgia wave with a collection of new tunes that seems to fall midway between this new/old soft funk and that breezy late-70’s California sound.

Even Rolling Stone magazine has taken notice of a new pop album that–far from being a throw-away genre exercise–is actually crafted with the same care and attention to musical detail as the music it pays homage to, thanks to producer Ben Allen.

While the sax solo in “Step” might hit boomers right in the Kenny Loggins, it’s the musical equivalent of an in-joke in the context of a winning pop tune.

The flute in “Another Song About California” could evoke Firefall or Lizzo, depending who’s listening. The song has an intro that was naggingly familiar-sounding; took me a while to realize what it reminded me of: the first chords of Hall & Oates’ “She’s Gone”.

As for “Bad Tequila”, I don’t know how any pop fan could find it anything but irresistible.

Yacht Rock Revue have successfully updated a genre much loved and much maligned but universally thought to be passé. And they’ve done so with a winking self-deprecation that is itself refreshing considering it’s the self seriousness of some 70’s bands (I’m looking at you, Eagles) that makes them off putting to some younger listeners.

These guys clearly don’t take themselves too seriously. But they have crafted a seriously ear-friendly pop–excuse me–yacht rock album.

Listen to: “Step”

Don’t miss: “Bad Tequila”

Listen to: “Another Song About California”

Listen to: “House in the Clouds”

Recommended Albums #78

The Cowsills: The Billy Cowsill Benefit Concert (2004)

Family pop band (and inspiration behind the Partridge Family TV series) the Cowsills staged a benefit concert in September of 2004 at the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles to benefit oldest brother Billy, whose health was in decline (Billy would pass away in February of 2006, on the same day the Cowsills were memorializing brother Barry, who died in the wake of Hurricane Katrina).

The 2004 concert recording, enhanced by a little studio polish, is a document to be treasured by fans of the group, whose brief top 40 chart run lasted only from 1967-69. Treasured because there is precious little in the way of widely available audio documentation of the Cowsills in a live setting during the years when all performing siblings were still living. Treasured also because they delivered a visceral energy in a live setting that their more sterile studio recordings couldn’t match.

A prime example is the show’s curtain raiser, and their most enduring hit “The Rain, the Park and Other Things”, which perhaps sums up 1967 as well as anything from Sgt. Pepper–given a goosing here by a more prominent bass line and some sweet drum fills. The complexity of the Cowsills’ vocal arrangements may call to mind chart contemporaries like the Beach Boys. Or perhaps a better comparison would be the Mamas and the Papas.

Or “You’re Not the Same Girl”, previously released by Vancouver band Blue Northern, of which Bill Cowsill was a member. The Cowsill family harmonies make one wonder whether the Canadian top 40 hit could have been more than a footnote in America.

Sister Susan Cowsill takes the lead on “Nanny’s Song”, which she’d recorded on a solo album. The lyric–and her delivery–are simply heartrending:

And when I asked here’s what he told
I want to see my son grow old

Oh, Oh, I don’t want to leave this earth
Oh, Oh, I don’t want to let it go

With all the endless summer days
Watching winter while it fades
Autumn’s sunlight through the trees
The scent of springtime on the breeze
It’s real life that sets you free
Can I take it all with me?
Watching babies while they sleep
Chasing fireflies through the streets
Sleeping under star-filled skies
That moment real love arrives
It’s not as if I didn’t know
That I’d have to let it go

“All I Really Want to Be is Me” is the group’s first-ever release, written by brothers Bill and Bob in ’66 when they were 15 and 13 years old respectively. For this performance they hand over vocal duties to the one sibling who’d never sung in the band, brother Richard. Although his singing is uh…somewhat below the band’s–or perhaps any professional band’s–standard, the song itself is a burner, with more great drum fills from John.

It has one of those elemental choruses that might make you think of a Basement Tapes-era demo Dylan would toss aside and another band would resurrect. Basic and brilliant.

Richard, for reasons not entirely clear, was kept out of the band by his father, and served in Vietnam while his brothers and sister shared the limelight. While the concert is a benefit for Bill, the family carves out a space for Richard too. You can hear a lot of love in the room.

And a lot of talent too.

 

Listen to: “The Rain, the Park and Other Things”

 

Listen to: “You’re Not the Same Girl”

 

Listen to: “Nanny’s Song”

 

Listen to: “All I Really Want to Be is Me”

 

Recommended Albums #77

The Essex Green: The Long Goodbye (2003)

The difficult-to-categorize Essex Green swirl elements of psychedelia, chamber pop, 70’s-style folk rock and country into an intoxicating blend. They somehow evoke the feel of late 60’s psych pop more than they duplicate its actual sound–if that makes any sense.

From a band bio you’ll learn they hail from Brooklyn. But their music is like a passport stamped with sounds from jangly British invasion 60’s to sunny California, with diverse stops between.

At any rate, if they can be described as “psych pop”, the emphasis is on the pop.

Sasha Bell’s flute and vocals front a dreamy, sunlit mix on “By the Sea”. The harmonies in the bridge have Beach Boy ambitions. But equally enthralling is Bell’s lone and unadorned voice–for my money one of pop’s most beautiful.

“The Late Great Cassiopia” drives at a more uptempo speed, with handclaps and layered harmonies keeping it catchy, and “Lazy May” sees Bell in a supporting role vocally, bringing to mind the textures Neko Case brings to the New Pornographers when she isn’t singing lead.

For those who remember the era of the Seekers and Donovan, or for younger pop fans wanting to get off the beaten path a little, there’s a lot to love about the Essex Green.

 

Listen to: “By the Sea”

 

Listen to: “The Late Great Cassiopia”

 

Listen to: “Lazy May”

 

Listen to: “Southern States”

 

See also: https://edcyphers.com/2012/03/24/songs-you-may-have-missed-62/

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