Sunday, October 26, 2014

Two Steps From the Middle Ages - Game Theory

Two Steps From the Middle Ages
Game Theory
Enigma Records  7 73350-1

I only recently learned of Scott Miller's death last year from a fellow blogger (thanks,  If there was any justice in pop music, Miller would have been on the cover of "Rolling Stone" when he died.  I think he was one of the great talents of his generation and his bands Game Theory and the Loud Family made a lot of music that I treasure and which hardly anyone ever heard.  Game Theory's album "Lolita Nation" got great reviews but it didn't sell much and as a result became a pricey rarity for power pop aficionados.  Miller never got his due, on this record you might notice that it is producer Mitch Easter whose name is on the promotional sticker on the cover of the album.  I myself did not discover Game Theory until the 1990s by which time they had broken up.  This was the first Game Theory album that I bought (on CD) and later I was lucky enough to find a sealed copy on vinyl.  It was the final Game Theory album and some fans dismiss it as being weaker than the others, but I'm not in that camp.  Sure it is not as great as "Lolita Nation" but what is?  This album thrilled me when I first heard it and I still love it.  The album kicks off with the high energy "Room for One More, Honey" which is driven by a big drum beat and jangly guitars in the best power pop tradition.  It is sung by Miller and guitarist Donnette Thayer whose voices complement each other well.  The song takes place on a plane with a couple immigrating to Asia and wondering what lies ahead.  "What the Whole World Wants" sounds very 80s with its big drums and synth sound.  Miller's sneering vocal expresses dissatisfaction with everyday life and its expectations.  "The Picture of Agreeability" is a short song featuring only piano and synthesizer in which Miller expresses a desire to conform and not be viewed as a disappointment.  "Amelia, Have You Lost" is a beautiful song in which Miller describes a disintegrating relationship.  His high, sensitive vocal is extremely expressive.  The man was a terrific singer with a voice that conveys sadness as well as anyone in alternative rock.  There are some lovely guitar lines in this song as well.  Next is the wonderfully titled "Rolling with the Moody Girls" which is a supremely catchy and poppy song, one of my favorites on the record.  Miller sings about the rich girls of the title who are home from boarding school ready to make trouble.  A verse from the song provides the album with its title.  "Wyoming" is another one of my favorites, actually one of my favorite Game Theory songs period.  It is an evocative bit of jangle pop sung as a duet by Miller and Thayer.  The lyrics examine the complex relationship between growth and missing what one leaves behind.  I love the line "I know that every night you lie and stare at the ceiling till you start believing it's the sky."  Among his many talents, Miller was also an outstanding lyricist.  The side ends with the infectious power pop song, "In a Delorean."  This fast-tempo tune gets me bopping big time and the chorus is pure pop bliss worthy of the Go-Gos.  The lyrics examine youthful folly and learning from one's mistakes.  This track is also one of my faves.  Side two features more bouncy power pop with "You Drive" which is a song about lost youth and growing up.  "Leilani" name checks Donovan, Douglas Fairbanks and Clint Eastwood in a song about a girl living a theatrical, make-believe life.  It is a slow jangle pop song with a Beatlesque feel to it. "Wish I Could Stand or Have" expresses conflicted feelings about being dependent on a lover.  The song features acoustic guitar prominently in its sound and a raga rock guitar solo that makes it stand out among the 80s style music on the rest of the record.  It is another one of the best tracks on the record.  The synthesizer and big drums are back for "Don't Entertain Me Twice" which dissects a troubled relationship with a deceitful, thrill-seeking woman.  The bitter invective and word play in the lyrics are worthy of Elvis Costello.  Organ drives "Throwing the Election" instead of the usual synthesizer much to my approval.  It is a brilliant song in which Miller uses an array of metaphors to convey disillusionment with his lot in life and a messed up relationship.  Great stuff.  The album ends with "Initiations Week" which features just acoustic guitar and a high, quavery vocal from Miller.  It is quiet, delicate music in counterpoint to lyrics expressing seething resentment and rebellion.  This is such a terrific record, it is smart, charming and endlessly appealing musically.  Miller could toss out hooks with seemingly effortless ease and invested his music with genuine emotion.  In a crappy musical decade that featured a lot of formulaic music, superficial glitz and crass commercialism, Game Theory's music shines like a beacon with its intelligence, integrity and insight.  Recommended to fans of the dB's and Let's Active.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Colour Trip - Ringo Deathstarr

Colour Trip
Ringo Deathstarr
Club AC30  AC308021

This is the debut full-length LP by the Texas band Ringo Deathstarr pressed on avocado-green vinyl.  I was initially attracted to the band because of their fabulous name but when I heard some of their music on KXLU, I became an instant fan.  They could have called themselves "The Beatles Suck" and I still would have bought this record.  The band's mixture of psych and shoegaze is right in my wheelhouse and I play this record a lot.  It gets off to a strong start with the noisy "Imagine Hearts."  Bassist Alex Gehring has a lovely voice but I can barely hear her over the band's raucous playing.  Guitarist Elliott Frazier takes the mike for "Do It Every Time" which is a hard rocking song about breaking up.  Gehring and Frazier share vocals on "So High" which is a high energy, poppy song that reminds me of Heavenly and Talulah Gosh.  It is one of my favorite tracks on the album.  I think it is about getting high on love.  "Two Girls" is a dreamy slice of shoegaze reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine.  Frazier croons the psychedelic love song "Kaleidoscope."  Side one ends with the aptly named "Day Dreamy" which features another lead vocal from Frazier.  Like "Kaleidoscope" it also features some trippy lyrics, but it is a considerably slower tune, being more of a drone.  I think this group is more effective at high velocity.  The song has its moments though and I particularly like the line "she was just a teardrop, I was just a waste of time."  Side two gets off to a thunderous start with the pounding "Tambourine Girl" which is sung by Frazier.  The song is a paean to the title character and features a nice slow/heavy versus fast/poppy dynamic that I find very stimulating.  It is another one of my favorite cuts.  Guitar noise carries the day on "Chloe."  I can't understand most of what Frazier is singing about but I gather that he digs the girl of the title.  I find Frazier's breathy vocal on "Never Drive" even harder to decipher aside from his desire for someone to kiss him.  It is a hard rocking cut that reminds me of the Jesus and Mary Chain.  "You Don't Listen" is about a disintegrating relationship due to communication issues.  It is another rocker sung by Frazier.  The side ends with "Other Things" which is a who-needs-money-when-we-have-each-other type song.  The band slows down the tempo from their usual high speed pace and tones down the guitar noise as well enhancing Gehring's languid vocal.  The usual knock on Ringo Deathstarr is that they are too derivative and unoriginal.  I can't argue with that, but it doesn't bother me.  I love the music that inspires them and can never get enough of it.  The songwriting is more of a problem for me.  I don't mind the banality of the lyrics so much (especially since I can rarely understand them) but I think the band could benefit from stronger melodies and more variety in their music.  As much as I enjoy listening to their songs, not many of them stick with me when the record is over.  On the plus side, I love their sound and the instrumental textures they produce.  This record consistently excites me and gets me bopping.  Recommended to fans of Black Tambourine.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Reality...What a Concept - Robin Williams

Reality...What a Concept
Robin Williams
Casablanca  NBLP 7162

A post for the late Robin Williams.  I think the three greatest comedians of my youth were Richard Pryor, Steve Martin and Robin Williams.  They hit their prime while I was in high school and college and entertained me countless times.  What I especially liked about them was that they were not only funny, but they made me think as well.  Although I liked some of Williams' movies as well as his television series "Mork and Mindy" I think that scripted entertainment was not Williams' strength even though he was a fine actor.  I liked him best in situations where his manic imagination and improvisation skills could run free, namely stand-up comedy and appearances on talk shows.  This was Williams' first record album, taken from stand-up performances at the Copacabana in New York City and the Boarding House in San Francisco.  Of course records can't capture the visual side of Williams' humor, but his routines still come across pretty well.  The record opens with some bantering with the audience before launching into "Nicky Lenin" featuring Williams' Russian impersonation which is one of the funniest routines on the record.  It concludes with some rapid fire random jokes including a reference to Fritz Lang's film "M" (which nobody in the audience gets) followed by his fabulous Martian haiku "red sand between my toes, summer vacation in outer space" as well as some other weird poems which provoke the comment that provides the album's title "wow reality what a concept."  Fabulous stuff, Williams at his best.  "Pop Goes The Weasel" is an extended routine parodying "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" with Mr. Rogers as a maniac and "Firing Line" with William F. Buckley analyzing "Goldilocks."  I don't find it very funny but it is engaging just experiencing the weird tangents Williams' mind goes to as well as hearing his excellent impersonation of Buckley.  "Kindergarten of the Stars" pokes fun at privileged rich kids.  It is a funnier bit and has more great voices.  "A Touch of Fairfax" finds Williams impersonating a crabby, old Jewish man selling girlie magazines and snorting cocaine.  It is really funny and over way too soon.  Side one ends with "Reverend Earnest Angry" in which Williams portrays a southern preacher.  It is mostly lame and goes on way too long, maybe you had to be there to appreciate it.  It is funny though when a guy in the audience wants to kiss Williams and he starts riffing on homosexuality.  Side two opens with the highlight of the record, the amazing "Shakespeare (A Meltdowner's Nightmare)."  Williams asks the audience for some topical subjects to improvise around.  Someone suggests Mork which makes Williams react in comical horror.  Eventually he gets the topics of the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster and Studio 54.  Williams proceeds to make up a Shakespearean style play constructed around the topics with lots of funny detours on the way.  It is classic Williams, such a brilliant comic mind.  "Tank You, Boyce" is a short bit with Lawrence Welk talking jive talk.  "Roots People" is an absurdly condensed version of the mini-series "Roots."  "Hollywood Casting Session" features a bug auditioning for Kafka's "The Metamorphosis."  "Come Inside My Mind" is a crazy trip inside of Williams' mind as he argues with himself about how well his routine is going.  Williams' manic bravura performance is another album highlight for me.  The album ends with "Grandpa Funk" in which Williams portrays an old man in some post-apocalyptic future reminiscing about the past.  It is a rambling routine but consistently entertaining, occasionally even hilarious and concludes with a touching homage to Lord Buckley where he quotes his statement "people they're kind of like flowers, it's been a privilege walking in your garden."  For me it is a poignant moment.  The privilege was mine as well.  I think we were all blessed that Williams chose to walk in our garden and nurture us with his wit and imagination.  He was a unique talent and I'm grateful for the time he shared with us.  Recommended to surrealists with a sense of humor.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

FSM's Sounds & Songs of the Demonstration - Various Artists

FSM's Sounds & Songs of the Demonstration
Various Artists
FSM-Records  FSM 4

This is the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement at Cal.  In September 1964 the University banned political advocacy by students on University property, an action that was primarily directed at student groups supporting the Civil Rights Movement.  The students challenged the ban which resulted in arrests, mass protests and acts of civil disobediance throughout the autumn of 1964 until the University finally gave in and sanctioned political activity on campus which paved the way for the massive anti-Vietnam War rallies later in the decade.  I don't remember any of this stuff, but I grew up in the shadow of it living near Berkeley.  I first saw the campus as a young teen when my science class in Alameda made the short trip over to Cal for computer classes.  I loved the campus and was fascinated by the long-haired graduate students who taught us.  When I got to high school, I learned about the 1960s and the student movement and Cal became an obsession with me.  It was the only college I applied to and I was thrilled to go there.  Of course it was a different place by then, but you could still find traces of the past from the hippies in Peoples Park to the Marxists manning tables near Sather Gate.  Professors reminisced about having classes disrupted by tear gas wafting in through the windows.  There was even an occasional rally on the steps of Sproul Hall.  I participated in a die-in protesting the reinstatement of Selective Service Registration and I have to admit that I felt pretty silly lying on the ground pretending to be dead.  The great orator of the Free Speech Movement, Mario Savio, spoke at another rally I attended and lambasted us for being so passive and apathetic.  Neither the first nor the last time I heard a baby boomer diss my generation, but alas he was essentially correct.  We protested Reagan's policies in Central America and the University's refusal to divest its investments in companies doing business with South Africa, but there wasn't a sense of urgency or the drama of the 1960s.  Oh well at least I got a good education and didn't have to dodge riots on my way to class.  I picked up this FSM artifact from a record store in Los Angeles.  One side of the record features a narrator describing the events of the Free Speech Movement with lots of recorded sound excerpts of seminal events.  The other side is a bunch of topical folk songs about the events.  I like the spoken word side the best.  It opens with Joan Baez addressing students at the Sproul Hall sit-in at the beginning of October 1964.  It fades out as she begins to sing Dylan's "With God on Our Side."  There is some dramatic coverage of the police attacking the demonstrators followed by a recording of Jack Weinberg being arrested and a terrific speech from Weinberg denouncing the University as a "knowledge factory" that treats the students as "products."  There are numerous recordings of the students surrounding the police car holding Weinberg making speeches and singing.  This constitutes the bulk of the side.  This segment concludes with Mario Savio reading to the protestors the terms of the agreement that resolved the first sit-in.  The side abruptly ends with the narrator describing the subsequent breakdown in talks with the administration which lead to the December sit-in at Sproul Hall that resulted in the arrest of 800 protestors.  Regrettably there are no sound excerpts for this at all, although some very dramatic ones exist including Savio's famous speech about fighting "the operation of the machine."  The narrator briefly mentions the subsequent strike that shut down the University but the record ends with the conflict unresolved.  I suppose the record was rushed out to encourage the protestors which makes it an interesting historical artifact, but leaves it unsatisfying as a historical narrative.  The music side of the album can't match the drama of the documentary side.  The songs are amateurish for the most part aside from Dan Paik's contributions.  Paik was a real musician who was in an early line up of the Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band and who introduced Barry Melton to Country Joe McDonald resulting in the birth of Country Joe and the Fish.  Paik's songs are "Join the FSM," "Man Takin' Names" and "Womb with A View" which he sang with fellow activists Barry Jablon and Susan Chesney.  Paik's songs aren't very original but he sings them with a lot of enthusiasm and he has a compelling voice.  "Womb with a View" is the best of the trio, it has a lot of drive and funny lyrics.  The song pokes fun at the University Administration's paternalistic and patronizing attitude towards student activism.  Paik also co-wrote "Lesson of Berkeley" with Richard Schmorleitz who sings the song.  Unfortunately Schmorleitz's singing is much weaker than Paik's.  The song is lifted from "Streets of Laredo" and features some of the most heavy-handed lyrics on the record.  There are two talking blues songs, Dave Mandel's "Battle of Berkeley Talking Blues" and Dave Genesen's "Free Speech Demonstration Talking Blues."  Mandel's song is amusing but suffers from his weak singing.  Genesen was obviously a big Dylan fan and he shamelessly imitates him throughout the song.  His lyrics are clumsy at times but I still enjoy them for their wit and cleverness.  Lee Felsenstein's "Put My Name Down" is taken from Woody Guthrie's "Hard Travelin.'"  Felsenstein isn't much of a performer and the songs lyrics are often awkward.  Felsenstein later became an important computer engineer which was probably a better career choice judging from this song.  Richard Kampf's "Hey Mr. Newsman" benefits from Paul Gilbert's frenzied harmonica playing and I like Kampf's drawled vocal which reminds me of Country Joe McDonald.  The song puts down the media's biased coverage of the Free Speech activists. The side ends with Kevin Langdon's "Bastion of Truth" which I like the least of all the songs.  Langdon has a nice voice, but his song is slow, humorless, and oppressive to me.  These songs are so topical that they probably won't be of much appeal to people unfamiliar with Free Speech Movement unless they have a strong appetite for left-wing folk songs.  The documentary side will probably appeal to anyone interested in the 1960s.  Recommended to fans of early Phil Ochs.