Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Kansas Are Back, Nothing's Changed, And That's Fine

Relentless, Unchanging...

Kansas are many years removed from their days as a chart-topping arena act, and have taken a decade-and-a-half to record a studio album of new material. Now, having acquired a new vocalist and signed with Inside Out Music, they have announced a new album and begun releasing some teaser material.

Unsurprisingly, Kansas & Inside Out Music have chosen an upbeat ballad as the first full preview track from their upcoming album, The Prelude Implicit. To anyone who has lost touch with the band, or who simply found themselves skeptical of a new vocalist, "With This Heart" announces that Ronnie Platt and the band are quite prepared to make this new Kansas album a worthy event.

David Ragsdale
 and Platt are front and center here in a track that leans more toward a classic 80's Kansas sound (think Drastic Measures and In The Spirit Of Things) than it does toward "Carry On Wayward Son." But that choice may reveal a strength overlooked by casual fans, who forget that this band has been around for a long time after the 70's. There's nothing new or spectacular here, but the track is refreshingly mundane--no gimmicks needed, as Kansas simply turn in a song that is clearly Kansas and nothing else. And that's enough for now.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The July Playlist: Summer Jamz

What does it take to make a song worthy of the title 'summer jam'?

Common ingredients seem to include pop hooks, bouncy rhythms, electric guitars, and topics such as romantic love, sunshine, cars, and dreams for the future. It probably also helps if it cruises well and includes some catchy theremin licks.

The following playlist includes all of the above ingredients.

1. Haley Reinhart- Show Me Your Moves
2. Prince- Compassion
3. Yes- Roundabout
4. ELO- State of Mind
5. They Might Be Giants- Bills, Bills, Bills
6. Anneke Van Giersbergen- Take Me Home
7. Leigh Nash- The State I'm In
8. Chuck Berry- Maybellene
9. Bill Mallonee- Wintergreen
10. Brian Wilson- Good Vibrations
11. Paul Gilbert- Make It (If We Try) + Full I Can Destroy album stream

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Album Impressions: Bill Mallonee's Winnowing, Track-by-Track

Winnowing is available for listening and purchase at Bill Mallonee's Bandcamp. It is also available as a limited edition vinyl LP.

"Dover Beach"- Not even a minute passes before we get our first refrain of “out in the cold,” which serves in place of a chorus for the album opener, and as a thesis for the album as a whole. Mid-tempo and shuffling, the song hangs on layered electric guitar parts that have become the musical hallmark of Bill’s recorded work since Permafrost. "Dover Beach" was, earlier, the album’s title, and the song still serves the purpose of a title track. We find a pilgrim who has “traveled for these many years & knocked on all these doors,” now tired and broken-hearted, still searching for a home unseen.

"Those Locust Years"- Despite a little more spring in the musical step here, the themes of scarcity, loss, and resignation continue. Now, instead of a bleak ocean view, we glimpse something going on beneath the skin.

"From An Old Beat Up Ford"- This is one of the strongest tracks, musically, with a gorgeous yet disturbing extended guitar effect on the ending. Though a cold dark has settled in, we are reminded of a prior time when the sun shone brightly. Ignored at the time, perhaps the memory can still provide some “illumination” and a “beacon in the storm.”

"Got Some Explainin’ To Do (Gotta Give The Devil His Due)"- The rocker here, featuring blistering harmonica and social commentary. Against such obvious devilry at every turn, what was only a memory of goodness becomes a renewed passion, a public commitment to “banishing darkness” and “doing what is right.”

"Dew-Drop Inn (I Love You Just Because)"-The lone traveler, cold, empty-handed, and wearied by the evils of this life, finds momentary respite in the company of fellow pilgrims. “Stories get told” and “drinks get poured,” and all the reason needed for love is “just because.” Lovely organ work at the end hints at the grace to be found in moments like these.

"Blame It On The Desert (Whisperin’)"- “Farther up the road,” the traveler stops in at a “roadside diner Communion table,” and, true to the commitments expressed across the previous two songs, remembers that “you only ever own/what you give away” and to “leave what you are able.” The lonely road is no longer home; now, it is the solitude of a desert existence that surrounds our pilgrim. Such existence provides only too much time for the introspection and mourning of the opening tracks, but also the “mystic insight” that prepares the heart with love for fellow travelers.

"In The New Dark Age (The Only Lamp Burning Bright Is You)"- The lushest and most psychedelic of the tracks here, hearkening back somewhat to the mood of Perfumed Letter. The kind company of fellow pilgrims cannot quite protect against the oncoming night of “the new dark age,” where such love and grace is a rarity, where “no one trusts anyone” and love has been “escorted out.” Which is stronger: the encompassing dark, or the lone lamp “burning bright”?

"Hall of Mirrors/Room Full of Woes"- The lamp may burn bright as the desert wind blows through the night, but in the late hours one is all too aware that “death is a boxer stalking the ring” who’s “always stealing the show.” Another early contender for album title, this song gathers all the introspection and quiet resignation of the album, speaks it clearly, yet dares to whisper into the night: “what is lost is nothing/compared to what gets found.”

"Now You Know"- The official album closer. A restatement of all the darker themes of the album, the sadnesses ever-present as one travels the hills, deserts, and seas. Can things get that bad? Can all hope and faith be lost? “Now you know…”

"Tap Your Heart On The Shoulder"- The last word is never the last word. What seems most certain in the darkest hours of the night may still be questioned in the “eternal dawn and gloaming” of sunrise. When faith and hope no longer remain, love is still “the greatest of these,” and may yet bring the others back with her. In the lowest moment of the “locust years,” if the “prize-fighter” has not yet taken “all the prize money,” then “this old flesh & blood has gotta find/a reason to believe.” What better reason than love? No guarantees, but maybe Love has persevered through the night, accompanying the pilgrim through his desert Gethsemane. “Hey, reach over & tap your heart on the shoulder/and see if she’s still awake.”

Hear the Desert Whispering on Bill Mallonee's Winnowing

22 LPs.

12 Full-length “collections,” most of which include previously unreleased songs, demos, alternate takes, or concert recordings.

6 live LPs.

25 EPs.

Add in singles, DVDs, and 40 months of Billtunes material, and Bill Mallonee has over 100 official releases to his credit going in to Winnowing, which is his 23rd full-length studio album in the 24 years since Jugular. Oh, and they’re all great.

Scene set.

Let us begin.

Thematically, Bill has described Winnowing as an “Autumnal” record, and meditations on loss, scarcity, and desert existence abound. “Dover Beach,” and “Hall of Mirrors/Room Full of Woes,” both early contenders for title track, lay these themes right out on the table. As Bill often says in interviews, the songs are a way to conjure up some “nomenclature” for the inner landscape, and landscape as such plays a lead role in these songs and throughout the album. On “Dover Beach,” the loneliness of a cold beach reveals a heart broken from doors never opened and a home never found, while a fruitless desert farm provides a setting for contemplating death on “Hall of Mirrors/Room Full of Woes.” In between, the album stops in at various desert locations, full of beat-up trucks, horses and wagons, hotel bars and roadside diners, a desert wind whispering through them all.

Musically, the album is right in step with Bill’s last four full-length releases; that is to say, this is mostly a collection of shuffling Americana tunes, with plenty of organ and mellotron flourishes. Muriah Rose features more here than on last year’s Dolorosa, much to the songs’ benefit. Since Permafrost at least, Bill has focused on layering electric guitar parts, and Winnowing features his lushest work yet; seldom raucous, with hardly a proper “solo” within earshot, there’s a lot going on here with the guitars. This is also the best-produced of the “home studio” albums, as the experimentation of the WPA series of EPs has paid off in the engineering and mixing on Winnowing.

The packaging follows the example of the last few releases, featuring design by Jason Judy and consisting mostly in photographs taken around Bill and Muriah’s New Mexico home. Like Amber Waves, the cover offers no title or artist credit, just a desert scene of early-fall greens, oranges, and yellows. This desert scene focuses on Bill, head bowed, as in many of the songs. Full lyrics are included in the packaging, and even the printed words are cast against the backdrop of the desert.

Not a “concept album” in the usual sense, Winnowing is nonetheless one of Bill’s most cohesive albums, and serves as a strong entry to his already impressive body of work. As such, it’s a great jumping-on point for newcomers, and an “essential” album for already-fans. It captures the essence of Bill’s work as a songwriter, guitarist, singer, and album artist.

Winnowing is available for listening and purchase at Bill's Bandcamp. It is also available as a limited edition vinyl LP.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Deep Cuts: Big Big Train's "Winkie"

Our 'Deep Cuts' feature highlights album tracks that (1) have not been released as the A-side of a single, (2) do not appear on an album titled "Best of..." or "Greatest Hits..." and yet (3) represent a high point in an artist's overall catalogue.

Completing Side 3 of the lauded Folklore album, "Winkie" finds Big Big Train simultaneously at their most progressive and their most accessible moment. After a brief intro featuring flute, the track opens with booming drums and bombastic organ--a clear signal that this 8.5 minute song is intended as an entry to the canon of progressive rock epics. Almost immediately, the bombast drops and Logsdon delivers the opinions of character Major Osman in a voice lifted almost directly from classic XTC.

"Winkie" continues--across several distinct musical movements--to recount the story of a heroic pigeon whose faithful flight facilitates the rescue of a WWII bomber crew stranded in the ocean. The song could almost serve as a definitional initiation into the world of progressive rock: this is a narrative track, traversing several time signatures and musical dynamics, featuring non-standard rock instruments (flute, organ, brass) and non-standard rock subject matter (the National Pigeon Service in WWII, the superiority of the natural world over technology). Nevertheless, "Winkie" proves more accessible than many progressive epics in its unrelenting directness. The 7 distinct parts of the song are distinguished more by their place in the unfolding plot than by progress of musical movements. No musical moment extends for long without the return of lyrics and melody to anchor. The lyrics themselves tell the story straightforwardly, without requiring additional explanation from the artist.

While Folklore includes many songs focused on the natural world ("Lost Rivers of London," "Wassail," "Telling the Bees"), "Winkie" stands out as the most musically expansive and lyrically immediate of the bunch. It also perfectly encapsulates its album's theme and its band's style, without duplicating any other track in the Big Big Train catalogue.