Thursday, June 24, 2010

Josh Ritter wows 'em in LA

I finally saw Ritter headline for the first time a couple weeks ago at Hollywood's Music Box Theatre and wow, what a show! For nearly two hours, the affable singer/guitarist and his crack band captivated and invigorated the large crowd with a major chunk of material from the stunning latest album "So Runs the World Away." Although the sound mix was muddled at times, it didn't detract from the performance.

Ritter played electric guitar for the first half and gradually switched to solo acoustic. He did a stark cover of "Moon River" and an affecting take on John Prine's "Mexican Home" from the new tribute album. LA was also fortunate to get a spirited "Kathleen" - a longtime concert favorite he doesn't do all the time.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Springsteen news in Backstreets

Attention all Bruce tramps:

There's a great rare interview with The Professor, keyboardist Roy Bittan, that includes fascinating details about his collaborations with Bruce on the "Human Touch"/"Lucky Town" albums in the latest (Spring 2010) issue of Backstreets magazine, now on selected newsstands.

Other chats with other E St. members in the issue devoted to longtime keyboardist Danny Federici's passing provide added insights. A lot of the news is dated, including wrap ups of the "Magic" and "Working on a Dream" world tours, but it's worth it just to read the interviews. Up to the minute Bruce news can be found on the website,

Friday, June 18, 2010

Bonus Q&A with Josh Ritter

Here is more from my way too brief phone interview with Josh Ritter, while heading through Alabama on his tour bus.

How have the new songs been going over live?
It’s always an exciting time - kind of like designing an animal. Then the stage is where they see what they’re going to do. For that reason alone, it’s pretty fun to be playing new stuff.

I read some recent live reviews that mentioned you’ve been tossing in a Tom Petty or Bruce Springsteen cover at shows.
On occasion, yeah. We do a bunch of different types of covers from the American songbook.

You toured with veteran country/folk singer John Prine awhile back. What was that like?
I learned so much from watching him on that tour. [One thing was] to go slow and appreciate what’s happening with the people onstage. It’s always good when you get a chance to tour with somebody who’s been doing it longer. You get a chance to see how they manage to incorporate their touring and artistic life into their family life, so they can keep doing it as long as somebody like John Prine has. It takes a lot of effort and work to have your life fully incorporated so you can keep on playing and be happy.

When you have the rare off day on tour, what do you do?
We try and do all kinds of things when we have our days off, just because it’s such an incredible opportunity. We hit the jackpot [this time out]. We’re in New Orleans on a day off and Las Vegas. We had a day off in Chicago and I threw out the opening pitch for the Cubs. Really fun stuff. Always a real change of pace. We live for those kinds of moments.

How have you adapted to the move to Brooklyn?
There are so many things to do and see, from the film forum and Central Park. You take the train up to Central Park and then walk back to Brooklyn and Chinatown...It’s like being in front of a museum with no order to it. You walk and see an interesting thing next to something else that has no relation, but is also interesting.

A couple songs on the new album revolve around travel, which you compare to the journey of songwriting.
It’s the same thing with mythical cities like El Dorado or Atlantis – these places that people look for, but they weren’t really looking for them. They were on a trip. It was sort of an afterthought where they were going. Once found, it wasn’t as important. I think that’s one of the reasons why explorers are solitary figures. They don’t fit in with the world.

You’ve said you wanted to go bigger with the sound on this album and remarked that Zach played instruments you hadn’t even heard of.
Totally. Oh man. We had the omnichord, flugelhorn, bass clarinet.

Plus you play an instrument other than guitar on a track as well.
I grew up playing violin but I was never very good. Nervously playing the violin [on the song], I think I had a couple beers before I played it, so it had a sort of off-kilter feel.

Along with the denser sounding songs like “Rattling Locks” and “Remnants,” you balance them out with quieter ones such as “Lark” and “Long Shadows,” which has a campfire sing along vibe.
I think an album should be a little like a party – you want to stay long enough, but not too long. A song is like that too. Part of the effectiveness of a song is whether you can say what you want to say without totally outstaying your welcome.

Your wife sings background on some songs. Did you feel a feminine vocal presence was needed?
I was just excited to hear her sing. We used her studio for portions of the recording, like the horns. It was great to be able to do that. It worked out terrific.

Referring to the album’s Shakespearean title, you’ve said these songs function like a play. How so?
A lot of the record felt like a play to me. It felt like a story that had the details filled in. A lot of time with the story of a song, you have glimpses of detail that stand for the larger story. With these, I wanted to make sure the glimpses were fully fledged looks. That you could see something. I felt like that was a lot like a play. It’s like the difference between reading a play and seeing one. I wanted that. A lot of the characters felt like they were getting run over by the world. They’re about to be tilled under.

Does the nautical theme on the album artwork, with the oceanic maps and everything, tie into the song “Another New World,” where you sing about Columbus and the voyage of his ships?
Sam took all the photos, including the Natchez [steamboat] down in New Orleans, with a medium format camera. Then with the other illustrations, I felt the symbols and the lyrics were totemic, like tarot cards. I wanted images like that, strong simple images that kind of alluded to the songs. Art designer Matthew Fleming had a beautiful idea how it could all fit together, displaced with the compass and ship.

Where did the phrase on the back of the CD come from?
It was something I woke up with and was the beginning of a song. I always think there’s something special about those phrases you wake up with; there’s something unplanned about them that is important to me. I always try to put one of those on my records somewhere.

Some of your older albums were recently reissued in deluxe editions. Were you glad to have them more easily available to fans?
I was thrilled to be able to do that and record them solo because your voice changes over time. It’s cool to go back and in some cases, change lyrics and arrangements. Then just have a look back over that stuff. That feels great. It also feels great to own my own records again, which is cool.

Were you surprised to discover an Irish Josh Ritter tribute band exists in Cork?
[laughs] I haven’t seen them for awhile, but that was quite cool at the time. They were certainly way better than we were.

It’s a sign you’ve really made it in the music business when tribute bands form specifically to do your music.
Yeah, right. That’s what they say.

Interview with Josh Ritter

A version of my interview originally appeared in the North County Times [] Photo by Marcelo Biglia, courtesy Sacks & Co. PR. Ritter performs on Tuesday at the Belly Up in Solana Beach and Wednesday at the Music Box Theatre (formerly Henry Fonda) in Hollywood.

Unusual characters and scenarios tend to populate Josh Ritter’s literary-minded lyrics.

During the stirring “Girl in the War” (from acclaimed 2006 disc “The Animal Years”), apostles Peter and Paul mixed it up with comedy team Laurel & Hardy. Then there was “The Temptation of Adam” (2007’s “Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter”), where a couple awaited the impending apocalypse in an old missile silo.

Not your typical singer-songwriter fare.

Now the Idaho native adds more unique songs to his impressive cannon via the release of excellent chamber folk album “So Runs the World Away,” whose title is taken from the play “Hamlet.”

“I always go to Shakespeare for ideas,” admitted Ritter in a phone interview. “It gives you something to shoot for, you know? I thought that phrase just rolled off the tongue well and felt so true to what I was trying to write about.”

Classic ballad protagonists are brought together in “Folk Bloodbath,” a bleak, gospel-tinged tune partially based on Mississippi John Hurt’s traditional “Louis Collins.” Delia (popularized in “Delia’s Gone” by Pete Seeger and Johnny Cash) and Stackalee (AKA “Stagger Lee”) are both referenced. Other “Bloodbath” versions existed from previous recording sessions, but they didn’t seem like enough of a departure.

“I was just painting somebody else’s picture a different way.” Once he suggested to producer Sam Kassirer – also the keyboardist in Ritter’s Royal City Band – that the guitar shouldn’t lead everything, “he figured out a great way to make it all work.

“I wanted it to be a mash up and have some justice on this record,” Ritter continued. “I crashed the characters together to see what would happen…they live around each other in the lexicon, but never really interact. I wanted them to walk into somebody else’s house and do something. I thought that would be fun.”

Ritter relocated to New York City after getting married last year and hit a wall creatively for several months.

“Moving there has been an amazing, sometimes jarring, switch…the amount of things to do in New York [is endless]; you can follow your interests in any direction. You almost feel guilty if you don’t. It’s a good place to walk around with a notepad.”

Regular visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Egyptian wing triggered the album catalyst “The Curse,” a poignant waltz and love story between an archeologist and a mummy come to life. Drummer Liam Hurley directed and crafted the accompanying award worthy music video, which is acted out by marionettes.

Reading about science history – specifically orbital decay – also helped Ritter get back on the songwriting track. “I thought about gravity as being a lot like love. It pulls us together, although we don’t understand it and can’t see it. But we can see the effects.” An upbeat, pop-inflected “Orbital,” where Ritter recites a litany of objects that circle each other, (think: They Might Be Giants) was the result.

The troubadour pushed his band “into places where they wouldn’t normally go otherwise.” The result is a rich sonic tapestry colored by such instruments as omnichord, flugelhorn, bass clarinet, e-bow, glockenspiel, ukulele and vibraphone.

“Other people’s ideas are like standing on the edge of a ship, looking at a continent and as you move closer, it gets more and more defined. That process is really exciting.”

Voyage is another topic that fascinates Ritter, as evidenced by the lush train themed “Southern Pacifica” and mysterious cinematic sweep of “Another New World,” which Christopher Columbus inspired.

“Writing is like a journey,” he said. “You start off with nothing and then travel across the page. When the song is done and you feel good, you’re excited to write the next thing.”

And for Ritter, that next thing is his first novel, “Bright’s Passage,” due out next year on Dial Press, a division of Random House.

Before choosing music as a career, Ritter studied neuroscience (his parents work in the medical field) at Oberlin College in Ohio. After switching majors to folk music, Ritter recorded an album on campus in 1999 and learned more about the genre during a short Scottish college stint. He put out another independent effort the next year, which was subsequently reissued by a small U.S. label and performed steadily at open mic nights in New England.

That’s where vocalist Glen Hansard (The Frames, Swell Season) was impressed enough to offer Ritter a 2001 tour opening slot back in Ireland. A Dublin music press and fan following quickly ensued. Former Frames guitarist Dave Odlum produced Ritter’s third album “Hello Starling”; it debuted at no. 2 on the Irish charts.

Stateside, Ritter’s appealingly verbose writing style led to Bob Dylan comparisons and tours with folk legends Joan Baez (she later covered his song “Wings”) and John Prine.

“He’s an American master,” enthused Ritter, among the artists contributing to Prine tribute album “Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows.” Due in stores on Tuesday, the covers collection features My Morning Jacket, Conor Oberst, Avett Brothers, Sara Watkins and others.

On singing Prine’s “Mexican Home,” he said, “it was especially difficult to choose a favorite, one that you can make your own. There’s so much personality to his songs. They’re tailor-made for him.”

Having shuttled between different labels for every album, the pressure’s off for his latest on Pytheas Recordings, a new venture launched by Ritter and his management. The track “Change of Time” is currently top 40 at AAA radio.

“I have nothing bad to say about labels. You play that game and take what you can get. I’m happy the team I’m working with can take credit for all the great things happening right now.”

Friday, June 11, 2010

Boz Scaggs concert review

A version of my review originally appeared in the Orange County Register's Soundcheck blog [].

Nice and smooth. That was the modus operandi for much of Boz Scaggs’ 90-minute O.C. concert on Tuesday night. No surprise there.

After a spacey blues/rock band stint in 1967-68 with frequent music collaborator Steve Miller, the singer-guitarist became a prominent purveyor of blue-eyed soul, alongside Hall & Oates, Average White Band and others during the Seventies.

Early on, Scaggs recorded with the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and put out several critically acclaimed albums. He found major success with 1976’s Silk Degrees, a sleek R&B, pop, rock and disco melange. It was a multi-platinum seller and spun off three multi-format top 40 singles. Scaggs reached a commercial zenith in 1980, when both Middle Man and Hits! kept him in the upper echelon of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart for an entire year.

Retreating from the spotlight, Scaggs focused on running San Francisco nightclub Slim’s and released just one other album in the Eighties. The next two decades found him unveiling new material sporadically, delving into blues and more recently, tackling the standards (2003’s casual, jazzy But Beautiful; 2008’s Speak Low, featuring Rogers & Hart and Hoagy Carmichael interpretations).

Scaggs also became a winemaker and added another music venue to his business portfolio (the baroque, century-old Great American Music Hall, where I had the pleasure of seeing Brendan Benson last year on a trip to the Bay Area).

The veteran musician - who turned 66 yesterday – was greeted by fans at a just over half-filled Grove of Anaheim constantly shouting “happy birthday” (later, Scaggs’ six-piece band would also mark the occasion by uncorking some poppers and a quick serenade).

Despite his reputation for penning romantic songs, Scaggs really excels at bluesier numbers like two vintage ones that served as bookends to the 14-song set. Opener “Runnin’ Blue,” from 1971’s Boz Scaggs & Band, found the front man displaying tasteful electric guitar chops as the other musicians took turns at solos. Then it was onto the luxurious groove of “JoJo, prompting a wildly enthusiastic audience response.

Before launching into the rock-oriented “Some Change,” Scaggs said, “we haven’t done this one in awhile. I wish we’d brought it out a few years ago,” referring to the Barack Obama election period. The humorous cover of Fats Domino’s “Sick and Tired” brought some New Orleans style boogie woogie to the proceedings. Here, Michael Logan played fine barrelhouse piano and female backing singer Miss Monet gave it her sassy best.

Bassist Richard Patterson and Monet’s robust harmonies throughout the show proved invaluable, especially at times when Scaggs’ creamy upper range thinned out (the idyllic “Harbor Lights,” a sweeping “Georgia,” stark piano-led drama of “Look What You’ve Done to Me”). The seated audience was up and dancing briefly amid the jazzy, more sedate-than-usual “Lowdown,” a favorite to sample among rappers over the years.

For awhile, Scaggs appeared to run on autopilot onstage, but he eventually loosened up during the latter track’s ad libbed ending. “Miss Sun” resulted in a fun exchange when Scaggs’ electric guitar and Monet’s wails were the basis for some call and response action. The gospel/soul take on Bonnie Raitt’s “Something to Talk About” found Scaggs content to play subtle rock flourishes in the background, while Monet led the way with Aretha Franklin-styled cries.

Scaggs and guitarist Drew Zingg bolstered “Lido Shuffle” by appending some blues licks. The main set closer had fans clapping and singing along loudly. Come encore time, the flowery disco vibe of “What Can I Say” found Scaggs hitting both the high and low notes with ease (maybe he just needed to warm up awhile).

The show’s shining moment was saved for last. Epic blues jam workout “Loan Me a Dime,” off the 1969 self-titled debut, originally featured guitarist Duane Allman. Scaggs totally immersed himself in the tune, displaying dexterous tandem runs with Zingg and singing with authority as if a fog had been lifted. Meanwhile, the band pulled out all the stops instrumentally. I wouldn’t have minded witnessing more Scaggs repertoire in this style.

Interview with Greg Laswell

A version of my article originally appeared in the North County Times []. Photo by Lauren Dukoff, courtesy of Vanguard Records. Laswell plays San Diego tonight and the Hotel Cafe in LA on Saturday-Sunday.

Making music videos are seldom easy, but Greg Laswell didn’t realize the one for “Take Everything” would be as challenging as his college studies in San Diego.

The concept revolves around a raucous house party where all the action takes place in reverse around the singer/songwriter. To prepare, he had to relearn his song lyrics backwards – a process that took four days (longer than recording the actual tune).

“I spelled it out phonetically, which took a good chunk of time,” Laswell explained, en route to a Boston gig. “Once it was done accurately, I had to start practicing.” The sentences came out like Russian. “It sounded like a completely different language; I was pretty stressed about the video.”

Currently top 10 at AAA radio, the spirited tongue-in-cheek track ridicules a dishonest person. It’s one of several songs on solid new album “Take a Bow” featuring backup vocals from Ingrid Michaelson and Cary Brothers (fellow regulars at LA club Hotel Café).

Deciding that he’d be more creative in a remote environment other than SoCal, Laswell wrote and recorded the third full-length Vanguard Records effort at a remote cabin in Mountainaire, Ariz.

“A friend of mine in Flagstaff let me borrow it once during an off day on tour. I just fell in love with the [relaxed] pace. I was living in LA at the time and it was quite a difference.”

During a six month span spent with his dog there, Laswell played all the instruments (guitar, banjo, piano, synths, drum programming). Occasionally, musician pals like Michaelson would stop by to contribute. He admits others will “play a part better than I do, I just like the way mine sounds with imperfections.”

Among the album highlights are an atmospheric, Doves-styled “Around the Bend,” haunting Radiohead-leaning “My Fight (For You)” and earnest, poppy “In Front of Me” (about pining for your best friend). Then there’s the vitriolic “Come Clean,” with an unusually edgy rock chorus.

People are often surprised to discover Laswell is an avid listener of heavy rock acts like Tool and Slipknot. They’d probably be more taken aback by his guilty pleasure of contemporary country music. “All my credibility, if I have any, is probably going to go out the door,” he said with a laugh, “but I also like Miranda Lambert.”

Last year, Laswell released the “Covers” EP, where he sublimely tackled Echo & the Bunnymen, Mazzy Star, Kristen Hersh and others. The enjoyable process alleviated a dry writing spell and “opened me up production-wise,” so he plans to do another batch soon.

A longtime San Diego resident who now lives in Brooklyn, Laswell majored in Communications at Point Loma Nazarene University during the mid-1990s. After graduation, he fronted Ocean Beach indie rock band Shillglen. Their self-released disc “Sometimes I Feel” came out in 1999.

About his time in the local music scene, Laswell said he considered it a learning experience. “I haven’t thought about that in years. It was just rock music. We were all real young and worked hard. It was fun.”

The novice musicians “really didn’t know what we were doing; we printed 1000 CDs we recorded ourselves and they sounded terrible.” Still, the album was moderately successful and earned a couple San Diego Music Awards nominations.

“We’d play once every two or three months at places like Easy Street, Java Joe’s and Brick by Brick.”

Laswell didn’t like being in a band and “was more serious than the rest of them” [about a music career]. Independent solo album “Good Movie” emerged in ’03 and garnered a SDMA. Steady gigs at Hotel Café and elsewhere in LA led to a deal with Vanguard.

Since then, various splintered relationship songs from subsequent albums “Through Toledo” and “Three Flights from Alto Nido” have landed Laswell multiple spots on prominent TV shows. Producers of “Grey’s Anatomy” were so pleased with Laswell’s lovelorn material (six placements to date), that they requested a song specifically written for the fifth season finale.

Only problem was the show execs were vague and couldn’t provide a script for reference. “I asked what the episode was about and they said, ‘we can’t tell you that.’ They wanted a song that got really big and really small without any resolution lyrically. I had started working on ‘Off I Go’ right before they came to me. Based on their description, I thought, ‘ok, I can change this one.’ It worked out alright.”

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Legacy announces live Setlist album series

This news came across the PR Newswire today. Legacy Recordings always puts out interesting releases and the classic rock fan in me can't wait to hear a few of these (especially Cheap Trick and REO Speedwagon, not to mention Johnny Cash).


The lights go on, and the curtain comes up – on Legacy Recordings' brand-new Setlist series of live collections from an A-list of core artists on the Columbia, Epic, and RCA labels. Hand-picked and sequenced by aficionados and (in some cases) the artists themselves, the first 11 volumes in the Setlist series – by Alabama, Blue Oyster Cult, Johnny Cash, Cheap Trick, Jefferson Airplane, Judas Priest, Kansas, Willie Nelson, Ted Nugent, Quiet Riot, and REO Speedwagon – will be available at all physical and digital retail outlets starting July 13.

In an exciting new configuration, each single-CD volume in the Setlist series will consist of remastered .mp3-ready live tracks drawn from each artist's vast archive of live album recordings. The CD is embedded with computer-accessible .pdf files containing liner notes essays, discographical information, photography, bonus features, and more. The package itself will be a plastic-free, 100% recycled paper, recyclable eco-friendly digi-pak, and the product line will be priced for budget-minded consumers.

The Setlist series takes advantage of the multitudes of live recordings – some rarities, others released on best-selling albums, and still some others remaining previously unreleased in the vaults – until now. In the case of Alabama, Quiet Riot, and REO Speedwagon, at least half the Setlist tracks are previously unreleased. Multiple unreleased tracks or rarities can also be found on the Setlists for Blue Oyster Cult, Jefferson Airplane, Judas Priest, and Kansas.

Rooney album review

(California Dreaming/WMG)
Grade: B+

Rooney should be as big as onetime tour and label mate Weezer. The Los Angeles-based band first emerged in 2003. It consistently crafts hook-filled, sing along power pop/rock tunes and makes albums devoid of filler (which can’t always be said of Rivers Cuomo and company).

Third effort Eureka – their follow up to 2007’s solid Calling the World and first on an indie label – is equally impressive. Handled entirely in house, the quartet didn’t scrimp on production values. They sound more mature here, but no less fun.

Groove-laden first single and surefire hit “I Can’t Get Enough” is about infatuation with a lady who’s playing hard to get (“I tell you yes, you tell me no/I ask you why, you never let me know”).

Front man and occasional actor Robert Schwartzman ("The Princess Diaries," "The Virgin Suicides") channels early Tom Petty on the breezy “Holdin’ On” - an autobiographical tune describing the uncertainty of a music career music and the patience required.

Drummer Ned Brower (also an actor, who appeared in a few episodes of TV’s “Dawson’s Creek”) gets his turn in the vocal spotlight on the punchy, horn-laden rave up “The Hunch.”

Standouts include “All or Nothing,” which glides by on a fizzy, synth happy retro plane, the sardonic “Only Friend” (key lyric: “Nothing’s free/You can pray all night, but they’ll take their fee”), peace and love sentiments in the smooth, soulful “Stars and Stripes” and syncopated Billy Joel-styled “Don’t Look at Me.”

The Cure album review

The Cure
Disintegration: Deluxe Edition
Grade: A+

In 1989, The Cure enjoyed continued mainstream success in America with platinum seller Disintegration, the crown jewel in its catalog and one of the decade’s finest efforts. During that time, singer/guitarist Robert Smith had been viewing various movie rough cuts as a precursor to possible scoring work. Those clips helped inspire the darkly cinematic scope and extended passages on the influential British band’s mesmerizing 10th studio album.

Now, after a lengthy break in Rhino’s ongoing Cure reissue campaign (initially 2004-06), an excellent deluxe edition is finally available as a three-disc set, on double vinyl and digitally. Clocking in at 3 ½ hours, diehard fans will find the wait was definitely worth it.

Smith personally oversaw the compiling, production and remastering process, which is unusual these days. The results make this masterful goth rock work’s dense soundscapes glisten even more. Featuring four modern rock radio hits (“Fascination Street,” “Lullaby,” “Pictures of You,” “Lovesong”), the frequently wrenching lyrics ranged from shattered relationships and paeans to lost love to journeys into the subconscious and beyond.

Interesting liner notes fact: Smith braved a studio fire to retrieve the only copies of his lyric sheets.

A rarities disc - mainly early instrumental demos and band rehearsals, plus a half dozen studio guide vocals - provides a revealing glimpse at the songs’ development. Some great unreleased tunes (“Noheart,” “Esten,” Middle Eastern-tinged “Delirious Night,” Smith’s solo sea shanty-styled cover of Judy Collins’ “Pirate Ships”) are a pleasant surprise.

The “Entreat Plus” disc expands upon a previous concert album from London’s Wembley Arena in 1989 with four additional live songs to complete the full Disintegration performance. All have been remixed, giving them a more dynamic sound.

Trashcan Sinatras concert review

My review originally appeared in the OC Register. Live photo by Izumi Kumazawa; courtesy of Transfer Media Group

There’s something about the allure of Scottish music. Through the years, the country has spawned an impressive crop of bands that specialize in sophisticated, highly melodic and frequently orchestrated alternative pop.

During the 1980s, the list included Aztec Camera, the Edwyn Collins-led Orange Juice and Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. The following decade turned out Trashcan Sinatras and Belle & Sebastian, among others.

The Sinatras, hailing from Irvine – located 25 miles southwest of Glasgow - debuted with wonderful album Cake (one of my year-end top 10 picks) in 1990. Rife with shrewd wordplay and jangly, atmospheric sounds, it found success at college and modern rock radio (KROQ/106.7 FM had singles “Only Tongue Can Tell” and “Obscurity Knocks” in heavy rotation and booked the Sinatras for the inaugural Almost Acoustic Christmas concert) and MTV via influential alt-rock video clip program 120 Minutes.

Sophomore disc I’ve Seen Everything was equally engaging, but arriving at the height of grunge in 1993, it was unjustly ignored. Financial and record label troubles meant large gaps between future stateside releases.

After a six-year absence, the band is finally back with enthralling fifth studio album In the Music. Produced by Andy Chase (Ivy, Brookville), the tunes about love and religion often boast a sunnier-than-usual vibe. Carly Simon even turns in a rare guest vocal appearance.

Returning to a moderate sized crowd at the Coach House (site of several memorable Sinatras gigs) on Thursday night, the sextet delivered a laid-back, yet captivating 90-minute performance heavy on newer material. Lanky vocalist Frank Reader came across like a college professor onstage, albeit one who does minimal talking.

An acoustic-based “Wild Mountainside,” from the same-titled 2005 EP, opened the 19-song set on a quiet note. The track, like another selection played off In the Music, was penned by rhythm guitarist/singer John Douglas and initially appeared on albums by his wife and Reader’s sister Eddi of Fairground Attraction fame.

The upbeat, breezy “I Wish You’d Met Her” was an early concert highlight as Reader added high falsetto bits and lead guitarist Paul Livingston did a short, tasteful solo. He also provided understated sparks at several junctures: namely the watery, Durutti Column-inspired guitar effect on rapturous “All the Dark Horses” and sinister sounds during frenetic older hit “Hayfever” – one of only five songs from the Sinatras’ 1990s heyday.

Not surprisingly, longtime fans were polite in their applause until the few recognizable numbers appeared. Reader sang in a near whisper about esteemed 18th century Scottish poet/lyricist Robert Burns on the idyllic, picturesque “I Hung My Harp Upon the Willows.” It included references to the band’s hometown and customs.

Another tribute - to Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett - came via extended main set closer “Oranges and Apples,” all awash in Stevie Mulhearn’s sweeping keyboards and regal piano work a la Burt Bacharach.

Douglas handled subtle lead vocals for the life recollections of “Earlies.” Younger brother Stephen used light brushstrokes on the drums to fine effect here and elsewhere in the show (the sibling was also an asset in the backing vocal department).

Despite a downshifted tempo, Reader strained a bit on the wordy hit “Obscurity Knocks” (granted, there are really no pauses), but redeemed himself on the jaunty “Prisons” by belting out the lyrics and appending a cool snatch of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.”

All told, the San Juan Capistrano gig was an exercise in musical elegance. With any luck, they’ll trot out more oldies during a proposed acoustic tour later this year to support a stripped down live album and box set retrospective.

Check out the new video for "People" here:

Remaining U.S. tour dates:
June 8 - Detroit, MI - Magic Stick
June 10 - Boston, MA - TT the Bear's
June 11 - New York, NY - Bowery Ballroom
June 12 - Hoboken, NJ - Maxwell’s
June 13 - Philadelphia, PA - World Cafe Live
June 14 - Washington, D.C. - Rock & Roll Hotel

Friday, June 4, 2010

Falling music sales

Today Billboard magazine reported that U.S. music sales totals for the week ending May 30 were just under 5 million, which is reportedly the lowest since 1994. Compare that to the Xmas 2000 period tally of nearly 45.5 million and the difference in a decade is astounding.

Eroding CD sales, illegal file sharing and the upswing of digital downloads are the culprits. Of course record companies' stubborn refusal to consider lowering CD prices until the last year or two are also to blame. I was at Amoeba Records a couple weeks ago and thought $15 for catalog titles from the latter part of the 2000s was too much.

If this keeps up, even the small minority of us who still cling to the CD as a preferred format choice will have no choice but put up with the compressed inferior sound of music files and lack of decent album art/liner notes.

The fantastic, just released deluxe edition of The Cure's masterpiece "Disintegration," is a perfect example of why we should keep the CD (read more about it in my review here soon).

Speaking of music declines, another indie record store in Riverside has apparently bitten the dust (we're down to two, one of which is part of a chain and not truly indie). The Pops store on Van Buren Blvd. was a new incarnation of Sounds Like... Music across from the Galleria at Tyler when it opened up about three years ago. Without advertising and a poor location, it didn't stand a chance. Very sad.