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Americana [2013]

Americana

The album began with the idea to create music that elicited the imagination to conjure up the sweeping vistas of America. Then the word Americana got stuck in my head. Then as I started to create the music, I thought wouldn’t it be nice to tell a story of a man who is in love with the American dream who gets a chance to trade in his life for another.

And so something that was going to be instrumental became a modern-day concept album telling the story of Eddie Pilgrim: The Last of the Electric Horsemen. The music tells a story both thematically and narratively and puts the hero in a very Faustian conundrum, but where would the Devil reside? Why in Las Vegas, of course! And so the gamble is played out on the roulette table and a decision needs to be made.

The music is eclectic: being painted instrumental, guitar driven pop to out-and-out progressive rock featuring a splash of faux mellotron to whet your whistle.

The CD version of the album comes complete with a second disc, which is a DVD that contains a 5.1 surround sound mix in both DTS and Dolby Digital, plus the stereo mix and a commentary track from myself talking about the making of the album. There’s also a discography track that features 60 minutes of music from my back catalogue and two bonus extra videos that didn’t make the final edit. The DVD-ROM section of the disc contains a PDF of the book of the album and a free multimedia eBook that’s compatible with the iPad.

So for your money you get over three hours of original content and the electronic album sleeve that takes you through the story of Eddie Pilgrim and his fight against the things he desires.

REVIEW: Caravan – In the Land of Grey and Pink [40th Anniversary Edition]

In the Land of Grey and Pink

1971 was a good year...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I came to the Caravan party a little late, discovering their music in July 2000 when I picked up their compilation “Where But for Caravan Would I?” and was immediately a fan. I always say that if I were a contemporary of Caravan, then this would be the band I’d be in. They probably match my level of technical competence – not too flashy, but full of soul and ideas.

With the 40th Anniversary edition of their seminal 1971 album, I shall be talking mainly about the 5.1 Dolby Surround Sound mix that appears on the accompany region-free DVD. Over the years, I have become quite interested in these surround mixes put out by classic bands as they often throw up new auditory experiences for the listener, uncovering instrumentation that’s often been buried in the mix.

The thing about this record is that while Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree does a sterling job of the mix, there’s not a lot here to impress the listener. The problem with Caravan is that they are not a symphonic band like Genesis or have the power or detail of a King Crimson, so this remix just sits there and does its job nicely.

Granted it’s nice to hear the acoustic guitars of “Golf Girl” and the sub-woofer thump certainly reinforces the mix, with the bass now being a more prominent member of the team, but it’s hard to overly excited by this remix. The last remaster done at the start of the millennium is a good starting point, and the mixes here (and the stereo mix for that matter) doesn’t really bring anything new to the table, but they are obviously cleaner.

Yes, you are getting the ultimate Caravan listening experience, but I would argue that the work here isn’t as radical as what you hear on the Genesis or King Crimson 5.1 surround mixes. That’s because what you hear on a Caravan album is very much a live experience committed to vinyl. There’s no multi-layering of instruments as you’d hear on King Crimson’s “Lizard” for example and you don’t gain any extra “ooomph” either.

While Steven Wilson has done a great job, retaining a lot of the original’s roundness and warmth, it’s not going to blow anyone’s socks off. But maybe it’s because this album was more about the original homespun “vibe” than supersonic, 21st century, clarity? What you do get is good separation of the instruments and for those of you who want to study the record, you are going to be more than satisfied with this.

The DVD also contains two Beat Club appearances by the band, which if you look hard enough are already available to view on YouTube. The quality isn’t bad and certainly makes interesting viewing if you are unfamiliar with the clips.

The packaging is great, but the record company has scrimped by not including a plastic outer slipcase that often comes with these “Deluxe Edition” releases and instead the fold-out four-panel sleeve is initially secured by a seal that needs to be broken to open the case – meaning you can seal it up again. The inner booklet is packed with the usual collection of photos and there are some nice words to read.

The CD side of things sees the album being expanded over two discs. The first disc contains the album with three extra tracks tacked onto the end. I’m one of those weirdos who likes albums to keep their original tracklisting and any extra material to be put on a separate disc. The stereo mix is very clean and there’s some excellent separation on show. Comparing it with the reissue from a decade ago, this version just has the edge in terms of crispness and definition, but there’s really not much in it.

Some of the extra material from this release also appeared on that previously-expanded edition, but whoever compiled this collection has really pulled out the stops and collected enough relevant extra tracks to fill a second CD including five live tracks from various BBC sessions.

The bottom line is that this really is the ultimate edition of this album and represents excellent value if you don’t own “In the Land of Grey and Pink” in any format. If you are not interested in the 5.1 mix or the extra CD, then I am not so sure this is such a good buy, but fans are fans and the MusicBizTM knows that like slavering dogs we will buy our favourite albums again and again and again!

Overall, a positive experience…

And here’s the review I posted on YouTube:

CD Review: Penguin Café – A Matter of Life…

Penguin Café - A Matter of Life...

The new album from Arthur Jeffes, Penguin Café

I’ve written many words about my fondness for the original Penguin Café Orchestra and its proprietor, Simon Jeffes, and you might have already read my review of the recent concert by the revived, rebooted, Penguin Café helmed by son-of-Jeffes, Arthur. Well now there’s an album of new material written by Arthur Jeffes featuring this new configuration of musicians.

It’s a hard job to fill anyone’s footsteps, probably even harder to fill your father’s footsteps but “A Matter of Life..” is brave attempt at resurrecting his musical heritage. Before you even listen to the CD you have to commend his strength of character for even attempting such a feat. I mean, what if the record is a stinker? What if it is just a piss-poor shadow of the original Penguin Café music?

Thankfully, the answer to those questions is a resounding “No!”. There are some classic moments on the record where you forget that this is Jeffes Jr work and you kid yourself that the PCO are back in town, the opening track “That, Not That” and “Landau” are examples of the music just spiriting you away to the good old days and a are worth the price of admission alone.

And while it is a brave record, you can sense that there is a lot of nostalgia here, the tunes are looking back and not looking forward. A lot of the musical cues and ticks and styles are borrowed wholesale from Jeffes Snr (the “Fox and the Leopard”, for example). Is this a bad thing? Yes, if you are looking for a work of startling genius. No, if you accept the record and the project for what it is: remembering and reviving.

I must admit I’ve never experienced music or a record like this before. It feels right as a continuation, but the snickering cynic at the back of my mind asks: “Is this music genuine – does it come from a genuine place?” I don’t want to even try and answer that because I have already accepted the record and I can’t imagine my own children being remotely interested in the music I make, let alone setting out on a path to recreate it.

The bottom line is that if you are a Penguin Café Orchestra fan and you want the closest thing to bringing the band back from the dead and experiencing a new PCO album, then this is it. My only criticism is some of the later tracks feel a little underdeveloped and meandering, but the original band were guilty of this trait sometimes too.

It truly is a remarkable piece of work and my admiration for Arthur Jeffes continues. I look forward to seeing the band again in May.

CD Review: Present – Van der Graaf Generator

CD REVIEW
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Van der Graaf Generator – Present

This is the first proper studio album from the progressive rock band that’s respected by all manner of fans from John Lydon of the Sex Pistols to Mark E Smith of The Fall since 1977. The band have pushed out the boat by giving the fans a veritable feast of music, spanning two CDs and 1 hour 42 minutes. The album “Present” is like a football match and is a game of two halves: the first is the CD of studio material and the second is a disc of improvised instrumental music.

The first disc opens up with the song “Every Bloody Emperor” in which Hammill rants and raves against all those meely-mouthed politicians out there. The scary thing is that it sounds like the VDGG boys are back in the seventies and nothing has changed. The song has a nice enough lyric and the music backs it up, but there’s not enough of the Hammill fire that we are so used to and the song deserves. Where’s the vitriol, Pete? This goes into a really good instrumental by David Jackson called “Boleas Panic” and it is a cool, sax lead, slinky slice of VDGG that echoes back to the Godbluff album.

The second proper song in the collection is “Nutter Alert” and here we see Hammill revisiting old themes that he presented with “Energy Vampires”. It’s about those people who turn up, those people who are a few sandwiches sort of a picnic. It has all those manic vocal twitches that we expect from pH and gives you fair warning about all those nutters out there. “Abandon Ship” starts with some spiky guitar chords (guitar and VDGG, surely not?) and it there’s a lot interplay between the six string and the sax again, with lots of call and response going on. It’s a bit loose and I am not particularly impressed with this track. It feels a little half-baked to me.

“In Babelsberg” again starts with a heavily distorted guitar and it sees VDGG returning to that ugly music we all love and hate. It’s pretty standard stuff but again just needs that edge to push it further. I am hoping that the band tears this one up live, because it “feels” more like a live track to me.

“On the Beach” starts with some studio chatter between the band members before going seeing Hammill and keyboard delivering a lilting and sad refrain. Then Jackson comes in with his saxophone again and the song shuffles along before being enveloped in a sea of sound effect waves lapping against the shore. It’s a nice ending to the first CD.

The second CD, which begins with the waves that ended the first disc, is a completely different kettle of fish. Here the band is in improvisational mode. I am not personally a fan of the improvisational VDGG. Like the Long Hello album and the Time Vaults album, the stuff here varies in content. Some of it is pleasant, some of it is a waste of time – the band noodling around, trying to find ideas. This is a shame because the first CD is quite strong and I feel that it is let-down by the second set.

Overall, I really like the first CD of “Present” with “Every Bloody Emperor”, “Nutter Alert” and “On the Beach” being the stand out tracks. My only criticism is it seems to be a Hammill/Jackson album and Hugh Banton doesn’t really find his feet in this collection. Guy Evans is Guy Evans and he can drum his way out of anything so no complaints there. The second CD is a bit iffy. I’ll be honest and say that I don’t like it. I could probably have it on in the background when I was working, but I wouldn’t want to listen to it out of choice. It is worth buying? Of course it bloody is – only so you know the material for the up-and-coming comeback show on 6 May. I’ll be there – I have some good tickets already in my greasy mitts. 😉