Left Banke – Strangers on a Train (review)

Left Banke – Strangers on a Train (Omnivore Recordings)

A great “lost” baroque pop album…complete with bonus tracks

The Left Banke brought a new level of sophistication to AM radio in the mid-Sixties with singles like “Walk Away Renee” and “Pretty Ballerina,” mixing melodic hooks with grandiose elements of classical music.  Eventually, this style would be dubbed “baroque pop.”  Unfortunately, the band’s time was brief, managing just two studio albums and a handful of singles before crushing under the weight of expectations.

Omnivore Recordings has just issued Strangers on a Train, featuring tracks from, not one, but two attempts at a Left Banke reunion, and the results stand up to anything the band did previously.  

The first ten tracks come from 1978, when three of the four original Banke members (Steve Martin Caro, George Cameron, and Tom Finn) reconvened without primary songwriter Michael Brown.  “Strangers on a Train” starts out subdued, and piano-led during the verses, before giving way to a rockin’ chorus.  The only thing that dates it is the synthesizers near the middle of the song.  But, there’s fantastic harmonies here that just pull you in.  

Brown wrote most of their original material, but the remaining members show that they can capture the spirit without him.  “Heartbreaker” is another strong track with an excellent chorus and great guitar solo – it comes off sounding like latter-day Badfinger.

Throughout, the real standout is Caro – he’s in fantastic voice, showing he can really shout, like on “Yesterday’s Love.”  I dig the echoed effects and the tight harmonies on the chorus of “Hold on Tight, and “Lorraine” is an excellent ballad that stands next to their best work.  

“And One Day” features a sophisticated chord structure and strings, while both “You Say” and “Queen of Paradise” add a gentle funk element that sounds like late-Seventies’ Boz Scaggs.  

Originally recorded in 1978, these tracks weren’t actually released until 1986, on small labels in both the US and UK. Honestly, I’m not sure why it took eight years – these are really good songs.

The final six tracks come from another reunion, circa 2001-2.  This time, Brown has returned as songwriter.  These recordings bear a stronger, classical feel, but once again, Caro is still in fine voice.  Let’s be clear, most of these seem unfinished – more like demos, and most lack drums.

“Airborne” features pounding piano and string accents, but Caro’s vocals are kind of buried in the mix, while “Buddy Steve (Long Lost Friend)” is the most-realized track here, featuring drums.  But, when Caro goes into the falsetto part, his voice cracks (again, I doubt these were originally planned for release).  The best cut here is “Until the End,” a grandiose, gorgeous ballad, with great strings.

Sadly, all the founding members of the Left Banke have passed away.  Strangers on a Train is a welcome extra chapter to the brief, but colorful career of one of rock’s most under-appreciated bands.  —Tony Peters

389 – Matt North – New Album, Bullies in the Backyard

Matt North spent his 20’s living and working in LA, writing screenplays, starring opposite James Woods in 2000’s Dirty Pictures, and was a guest on Curb Your Enthusiasm. He also became a in-demand session drummer, working with Maria McKee, Peter Case, Blondie Chaplin of the Beach Boys, and others. Eventually, North relocated to Nashville and began working on his own songs.

We first talked back in 2017 for his debut solo record, Above Ground Fools. Now comes Bullies in the Backyard, again recorded in his home studio with help from some of his Nashville friends.

The album was recorded during a seven-year court battle with his local school system in Nashville over the treatment of his son, who has special needs. North seems to get inspiration for his songs from just about anywhere – from hiding things on the “Top of the Fridge,” to lamenting the high cost of sporting events in “Burial Grounds.” He also tells us how the pandemic actually helped him record his new album.

388 – Marshall Crenshaw – Reissue of Classic Album, #447

Marshall Crenshaw’s 40 plus-year career has included ten studio albums, a US top 40 hit in 1982 with “Someday, Someway,” some collaborations, and some movie appearances. 

Crenshaw recently regained the rights to several albums he released originally on the Razor & Tie label.  We talked to him in 2020 for the first in that series, Miracle of Science. 

Now comes the reissue of #447.  The eleven-song album is arguably one of his most adventurous, and is augmented by two newly-recorded tracks, issued on his own Shiny Tone label.

He talks about his struggles with major labels and how being on a smaller one gave him the freedom to do the things he really wanted to do. He also gives us a preview of Deluxe Editions of his first two albums, coming later in the fall.

Martha & the Muffins – Marthology (review)

Martha & the Muffins – Marthology: In and Outtakes (Popguru)

Very good compilation of odds and ends from an under-appreciated band

This Canadian group had one monster hit, “Echo Beach,” in 1980, hitting Top Ten in both their native country and the UK.  Problem is, they may have been a little too ahead of their time for the States, where they remain cult favorites at best.  

Marthology is a collection of unfinished demos, b-sides and remixes, covering 35 years of material, yet it all holds together surprisingly well. While many members have come and gone over the years, the duo of Martha Johnson and Mark Gane have been the constants.

The set starts with “On a Silent Summer Evening,” which reworks parts of their signature, “Echo Beach,” into a pulsing, dance track.

Some songs definitely sound older – “Don’t Monkey With My Love” was a demo the pair cut in the mid-Eighties, and it has a pop sheen, indicative of that era, while the bouncy “Do You Ever Wonder” sounds like the 80’s, but was recorded in 1999.

One of the real treats is “Big Day,” a hard rocker that previously only showed up as a b-side.  Here, Martha has great harmonies and the catchy, “365, 12, 52” chorus is catchy as hell.  

“Act Like a Woman” is another standout.  The song originally appeared on a Martha Johnson solo record in a sparse arrangement.  Here, retitled, reworked into a stomping punk number, it’s a vast improvement.

The set also features “Echo Beach (30th anniversary version),” a more recent reinterpretation of their hit.  This new take is slower, somber, and full of regret.  It also puts more emphasis on the lyrics, which sort of speed by in the 1980 original.  

Martha & the Muffins may not be a household name, but Marthology proves they deserve a closer look.  —Tony Peters

Urge Overkill – Oui – (review)

Urge Overkill – Oui – (Omnivore Recordings)  

Chicago duo returns with a badly-needed set of rockers

Urge Overkill created one of the finest rock albums of the Nineties with Saturation.  That 1993 record was full of loud guitars and melodic hooks, coming out at the height of grunge.  The band opened for both Nirvana and Pearl Jam, before notching a surprise hit the next year in their cover of Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” from the Pulp Fiction movie and soundtrack. 

There was just no way to follow up that one-two punch, so 1995’s Exit the Dragon was kind of a letdown, and the band broke up.  Reforming in 2011, they delivered Rock n’ Roll Submarine (which we reviewed here).  Now, the pair of Nash Kato and King Roeser is back eleven years later, with Oui.  

Oui is unabashedly ROCK.  From the album title, that recalls a now-defunct men’s magazine, to the guitar-heavy music within, everything here is gleefully out of step.

In the pole position on the record is their surprise cover of Wham’s “Freedom.” Kind of shocked they placed it first, but also – it’s so different, slashing guitars, muscled drums, I honestly didn’t recognize the song at first.  Kato spits out the abbreviated lyrics and there’s a fantastic guitar solo in the middle.

After that bit of initial euphoria, things get decidedly darker with “Necessary Evil.”  Roeser admits “you want someone to fill your glass all night” and “it’s killing me to pass on by.” Yet the twin guitar interlude makes even this bitter pill easier to consume. 

The pounding “Follow My Shadow,” which features both Kato and Roeser on vocals, could’ve fit perfectly on Saturation.  “How Sweet the Light” opens with a Who-inspired thunder before things get more contemplative and Kato confesses “I’m walking away from my suicide” and “I almost crossed over.”  

No song here better captures the current mood quite like “Forgiven.” Over a driving blues riff, Roeser sings:

“I wanna be among the living”

“I don’t wanna hear your opinion”

“I wanna be…forgiven”

The thing that really stands out here is how solid of an album Oui really is.  Past Urge records always had at least one song where the band got silly or experimental.  Here, it’s surprisingly focused.  Whether it’s the midtempo “Totem Poll” or the brooding “Litany,” it all fits.  

“I Can’t Stay Glad @ U” features another Who reference – Kato uses the “shake you” / “wake you” rhyme, which recalls “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” But the acoustic guitar-led jangling makes it another of the memorable tracks on the album.

All killer, no filler.  Is rock still alive?  Urge Overkill says an emphatic “Oui.” —Tony Peters

387 – loveland duren – new album – Any Such Thing

The Memphis duo of Loveland Duren is made up of singer/songwriter Vicki Loveland and multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Van Duren.  Both are veterans of the Memphis scene, with Loveland playing with the likes of Albert Collins and Isaac Hayes, while Duren played with Big Star alum Chris Bell & Jody Stephens before releasing solo material, and with his group, Good Question. 

The pair teamed up for their debut, Bloody Cupid in 2013, followed by Next in 2016.  Now, after literally traveling the world, then not being able to travel due to the pandemic, the pair is back with their most-focused album to date, Any Such Thing.

We chat with the duo about what is was like to visit Australia, while on a promo tour for Duren’s documentary, and how they managed to keep the album cohesive, despite having to record at several locations.

386 – John Hall of Orleans – New Holiday Album, New Star Shining

Orleans, formed in Woodstock, New York in the early Seventies, found success in the middle part of the decade with “Dance with Me” and “Still the One.” Founding member John Hall left in the late Seventies, scoring a Rock Radio hit with “Crazy (Keep on Falling)“ with his John Hall Band in 1981, while the rest of Orleans hit with “Love Takes Time” in 1979.

Hall became a US Representative for New York’s 19th Congressional District from 2007 to 2011. He documented all of this in Still the One: a Rock n’ Roll Journey to Congress and Back.

Now, Hall and his band mates in Orleans have put together their first-ever holiday album, called New Star Shining, which even features former lead vocalist Larry Hoppen on a couple of tracks.

We chat with John Hall about piecing the album together over email while COVID was raging, and the origins of the songs, some of which date back over 20 years. He also talks about the story behind “Half Moon,” a song he and his ex-wife, Johanna wrote for Janis Joplin.

NRBQ Dragnet (review)

NRBQ – Dragnet (Omnivore Recordings)

A new album from the Q?  Proof that the world isn’t ending…just yet!

Face it.  It’s been a tough couple of years.  The pandemic is still hanging around, yes.  But, we’ve also lost a lot of great, irreplaceable musicians.  Thankfully, the guys in NRBQ are still kickin,’ and they’ve just put together their first new album in seven years called Dragnet.

The band has spent the last few years looking backwards: first, issuing the fantastic, career-spanning box set, High Noon, in 2016, then a reissue campaign of some of their classic albums in 2018, and finally a rarities collection called In Frequencies in 2020.  The band did manage the five-song EP, Happy Talk in 2017, but Dragnet marks their first full-length in quite a long time.

And?  It’s everything we’ve come to love about NRBQ.

The album kicks off with the rockabilly-infused bit of weirdness, “Where’s My Pebble?” a song that could’ve easily been included on their debut, over 5 decades ago.  All four members contribute tracks to the project, and guitarist Scott Ligon turns in the catchy, country-flavored “I Like Her So Much.”  Drummer John Perrin penned the quaint “Memo Song.”

The band has always taken an “anything goes” approach to what gets included on their albums, and founder/keyboardist Terry Adams provides a lot of diversity, with the quirky “Miss Goody Two Shoes,” featuring a whacked out keyboard solo, being one example.

One of the highlights is Adams’ “You Can’t Change People”; it’s bouncing melody and sleigh bells make it sound like a Pet Sounds’ outtake, and the 12-string guitar solo is a nice touch.  The lyrics are certainly timely, with all the divisive air of today.  The song is a mere two minutes long with the resolution that “there ain’t nothing you can do / but let them exist.”  

The band has tackled TV themes before (their out-of-tune rendition of “Bonanza” from All Hopped Up comes to mind).  For “Dragnet,” they forgo the famous opening “bah, bah bah bum”and dive right into the next part of the song.  The track is powered by Casey McDonough’s bass, which sets the groove, before Adams’ adds a fuzzed-out, Clavinet solo, which Ligon answers with some tasty guitar work. 

One of the surprise tracks comes from McDonough:  “The Moon and Other Things” is a great ballad with some interesting chord changes, great harmonies on the chorus, and a nice acoustic solo in the middle.  “That Makes Me a Fool” sounds like a classic, supper-club jazz standard, but is in fact an original from Ligon, augmented by a beautiful Adams’ solo.  

The frenetic “Five More Miles” proves that the band can still exercise their free jazz side, while “L-O-N-E Lone-Ly” feels like a stream-of-consciousness piece with just Adams talking backed by a ticking clock and sparse piano. Not many songs capture the paranoia and despair brought on by the COVID pandemic better than this.  The album ends with “Sunflower,” at first just an Adams’ solo piece, but then the band joins, with Ligon mimicking his lyrics beautifully on guitar.  Yet, even that bit of beauty is brief.

The record is pretty short, clocking in at only 33 minutes.  I found myself going, “wait, that’s it”?  Which means, I just start the record over again, right?

Rockin, quirky, tender, with moments that still make you go “huh”? NRBQ still has it, and Dragnet is proof —Tony Peters

385 – Sue Foley – New album, Pinky’s Blues

Sue Foley has been putting out music for the last 30 years, issuing a remarkable 16 albums in that time.  She hails from Canada, but spent her formative years in Austin, soaking up the scene and playing with a host of legendary artists.  She’s won a Juno Award, many Maple Blues Awards, and most recently, A Blues Music Award in 2020, garnering the Koko Taylor award in the Traditional Blues Female category. 

When the pandemic hit, she grabbed her musicians and hunkered down in a Texas recording studio.  The result is Pinky’s Blues, named after her pink paisley Fender Telecaster, it’s some of the rawest, most immediate music she’s ever laid down.  She’s also hitting the road to play the album for the people.

Foley talks about working again with her friend, Jimmie Vaughan, on the song, “Hurricane Girl,” doing some interesting music videos for the song, and how she’s put together some basic guitar instructional videos that are available on YouTube.

The Beatles: Get Back (review)

Long and winding documentary might bore casuals, but will tantalize devoted fans

Despite what the commercials might suggest, The Beatles: Get Back isn’t for everybody.  An eight-hour movie (now available at Disney+) about the Beatles writing and recording an album will likely come off as utterly boring to most people, especially those who are not devoted fans of the band.  However, those who are, and those who are intrigued by the song creation process in general, will find this film highly rewarding, especially after repeated watching.  

Director Peter Jackson was tasked with wading through 60 hours of video footage and 150 hours of audio that was originally used to make the Let It Be album and film, which the Beatles were never satisfied with.  Jacksons goal?  To paint a more honest picture of what happened during the filming and recording of January 1969.  

Did he succeed?  Absolutely.

The video and audio restoration is staggering – you feel like you’re in the studio with them.  You also get a real feel for the individual Beatles as people – their humor, their warmth, their quirks.  You also get to know the people surrounding them – especially Beatles’ roadie Mal Evans, who is at the band’s beck and call.  Yes, Yoko is ever present.  But, you see that she and John are truly in love.  Photographer Linda Eastman (soon to be McCartney) drops by to take pictures and is filmed snuggling with Paul. 

There’s a fantastic scene with Linda’s daughter Heather, who’s just a child, dancing and carrying on in the studio.  Yoko starts singing and Heather’s look in response is just priceless. The little girl floats from band member to band member, and it’s really cute.

The movie is broken down into three parts.  But, be forewarned: the first segment is unfortunately the hardest to get into.  This is the footage filmed on the Twickenham soundstage and it’s largely full of endless noodling, with some arguing and flashes of brilliance thrown in for good measure.  But, realizing that “All Things Must Pass,” from George Harrison, “Another Day” from Paul McCartney, and “Gimme Some Truth” and “Jealous Guy” from John Lennon, all originated during these Get Back sessions is really cool.  Part one closes with Harrison quitting the band.

Part two is where things really start cooking.  Harrison returns, and soon enlists Billy Preston to help out on keyboards.  This immediately lightens the mood, as does the change of venue, from the cold, cavernous Twickenham soundstage to the newly-built Apple Studios.  The Beatles rise to the occasion, and the results are really good music.

The real highlight of part two is a never-before-heard exchange between McCartney and Lennon while eating lunch (the filmmakers had somehow placed a hidden microphone on the table where they were dining).  In it, Lennon humbles McCartney, telling him that he’s being too bossy toward Harrison, and really everyone.  

Part three’s high point is the historic rooftop concert.  Here’s where the filmmakers really shine, utilizing numerous camera angles, footage from down on the street and in the Apple offices.  It’s a spine-tingling bit of cinematography.  Truly capturing that magical, final time the Beatles’ played live as a band.  

There’s so many little bits of things that go by so quickly in the movie, you might miss them the first time.  For instance, Lennon coming in one morning raving about seeing Fleetwood Mac on television the previous night and how the singer sang “soft.”  Or Harrison helping Starr finish his “Octopus’ Garden.” 

Lennon is definitely high at least some of the time, and there are parts where he’s too enraptured with Yoko to contribute, while Harrison is often bristly.  Ringo Starr is seen sleeping several times, while McCartney is undeniably in charge of the proceedings, coming off as bossy, but certainly backing it up by introducing a string of fantastic new songs.  Despite their differences, it’s incredible when they all come together and the music is clicking.  There’s also plenty of laughs between all four members dispelling the notion that there was nothing but animosity during these recordings.

I watched my copy of the original Let It Be movie (on Beta!) to compare.  Jackson purposely used different footage wherever possible, so as not to “step on Let It Be’s toes.”  Still, the original, 80-minute film, while somewhat bleak, stands up.  It’s obviously more to the point, but also more music-centric.  If there’s one fault with Get Back, it’s that whenever the guys are really cooking with a song, it always seems to get cut short.  While in Let It Be, they let the full versions of songs play.  There’s also renditions of “Besame Mucho” and “You Really Got a Hold on Me” that didn’t make the 8-hour cut, along with a far-superior version of George’s “I Me Mine.”  

Word is that Let It Be will finally get reissued, in remastered form, when Get Back hits DVD status.

The real triumph of Get Back isn’t so much the music, we’ve all heard it over and over, it’s in the rare opportunity to really get to know the personalities of the Beatles, not as gods, but as human beings (human beings that smoke A LOT).  Get Back isn’t the kind of film to just veg to, you’ve really got to pay attention.  But, if you’re present, there’s a lot to love here.  —Tony Peters

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