Thursday, August 26, 2010

Lauren O'Connell - The Shakes

Lauren O'Connell is a new-folk artist from New York that you should know about.  Don't mistake her for just another pretty folk singer with a nice voice.  Miss O'Connell is an important poet.  Her lyrics are amazing.  Her use of language is delicious.  Her album The Shakes is her second, and is good.  I said it, and it is true.  She looks and sounds Irish, cause her dad is, but she's a New York gal.  I got on to her originally from her association with Julia Nunes.  If you're a fan of Julia, well, Julia is a fan of Lauren, who's a fan of Julia and credits Julia on the new album for writing harmonies.  Lauren's strengths are her voice and her powerful lyrics.  Her voice is personable, friendly, and makes you feel like you know her or should or would if you could.  It has irony falling off the back side of it and is more than everything you would ask for in a vocalist.  With the maturity of her performance, it's hard to believe that she was just born in 1988.  Miss O'Connell uses her voice to express sexy and shy and bold and hesitant and happy and playful, and sad, and defeated, and more.  Her voice is powerful and emotive. Just to give you an idea before you hear her, the sound of her voice is somewhere in the range between Melanie Safka, Alanis Morissette, Rickey Lee Jones, and Mark√©ta Irglov√°, with the irony and power of Bob Dylan.  But don't think that she sounds derivative of anyone, her sound is uniquely her own.  The album is fun to listen to, and you'll want to hear it again and again.  You can, (and should), buy this music through her My Space page and listen to more from her on her You Tube channel.  Make sure you check out her public facebook page as well.

From Chambers, Slow
This existential paean is the closest thing to a miss on the album, but I still like it.  The lyrics and the singing are as good as anything you'd wish for, and there's wonderful bass played by Pete Schirmer but the orchestration of this piece is otherwise strange and does little to support the song.   I applaud the desire to grow beyond her voice and guitar roots, but this piece just doesn't work well.  A particular problem is an uneven horn mixed up to loud.  In the beginning it supports the song, but then begins to compete with the voice, and finally at the end plays music unrelated to the main theme.  It's a shame, the horn in and of itself is done well, but doesn't fit in.  The problem is not with the horn player, but with the producer or arranger.  Once you get past that, though, the powerful lyrics, great melody, and strong vocals save it.  It's a good song.
Chicken Wire
The theme, played nicely on banjo, is evocative of a song from the soundtrack of the movie Once.  The close harmonies are wonderful, and there's some great guitar and banjo on it as well.  The lyrics are deliciously dark and despairing, speaking in painterly fashion of a relationship drifting away in passive aggression.
The Pilot
In this song Lauren O'Connell's voice begins with a tenderness that reminds me of the flower child of the sixties, Melanie Safka.  On the surface the song is a narrative about a pilot in World War II, but at its heart is about truth and motivation, and existence.  Just this song would make Miss O'Connell's reputation as a poet.
Things I Panic About
You could dance to this one.  It has a nice rhythmic beat.  That's deceptive.  The cheerful background is paired with lyrics and melody expressing existential angst  and doubt. It sounds like it wouldn't work, but the musical irony perfectly supports the lyrical irony.   The song has it both ways, expressing a tentative hopefulness along with the pain of existing in a world that's sometimes too much with a happy face painted for the world to see.  The poetry is beautiful and  it left me feeling thoughtful and unsettled.

I Don't Mind
What a pleasure to hear such poetry.  A sparse guitar supports the song beautifully, leading into a tender wistful song full of passive desire.  There's a bridge played by harmonica that is sweet, and later in the song a shimmering mournful electric guitar comes in for a beautifully done bridge.  Everything about this song works.
This song starts off sounding like southern rock, and when Miss O'Connell's vocal comes in it pulls it firmly into her musical space with a sassy, happy, song about being an outlaw on the outside looking in and happier for it.  It's a love affair with the outlaw.  Well done. 
Oncoming Traffic
Such a beautiful song about regret and pain and a world outside of your control disguised as a narrative.  I don't know what sort of guitar she's playing, but it has a beautiful tone and is really showcased in this song.
 1988 was the year that Lauren O'Connell was born, and this song sings about the freedom of a clean slate and new love.  It also sings about being caught by people's knowledge and expectations:
I think the world has got my number
Oh my God, there's digits in my eyes
I think that I've been dancing 'round
The brightest rooms in a cellophane disguise
And everybody still remembers
Things that I said last September
Oh, but worst of all, so do I.
A beautiful turn of phrase, a cellophane disguise.  1988 sings wistfully of a lost faith, and finally, the crux, how 1999 was fine too, and then her grandfather died.  I can't imagine a better way than this song to express this complex set of things so well.  The guitar part is worked out and fine, and the vocal is great, but the lyrics are phenomenal.
Sweet Lament
This is a song about how it is to be Lauren, but in a larger sense how it is to be a human being.  It's not happy about itself, but hopeful.  It's the strangest feeling it left in me.  I'm not wanting to talk about it.  Listen to the song for yourself.  It's beautiful and the lyrics are powerful.
Tangled Up Kites
This last song on the album is my favorite.  We don't get to know what's going on, except in metaphors describing being caught up in the events of life and knowing that even if you've lost sight of where you are and what's important, that if you calm down, if you let go, things will be alright.
But sometimes I think I'm losing sight
Of whatever it was that made everything right
But I lack violins to make sorrows or sins
So I guess it must be alright
The power of it is that it doesn't tie it to a particular thing, it's like Paul Celan says, "A poem...can be a message in a bottle".  You've found the message, you are the recipient.  You are supposed to complete the poem by hearing and being moved however you are moved.

Looking back through this article, I was struck by how many times I used the word powerful to describe the singer or her songs.  Usually I don't like using the same adjective over and over, but this time I'm leaving them in.  You should be warned.  She is powerful.  She's going to take over the world, one heart at a time.  Resistance is futile.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Aquamarines - Off the Radar

This was a difficult review, I think the hardest I've done.  I spent a lot of time with this music, (weeks), because there is so much here.  It's obvious that a huge amount of work went into this beautiful album.  It's startling how diverse the influences are, yet somehow it blends seamlessly--no part seems foreign.  It's seventeen songs and an hour and nine minutes of fun.  For fans of surf or spaghetti it's a must buy and a seminal album, but I would recommend it to anyone.  If you're just starting to get into this music, this is a great place to start and would be the equivalent of getting a graduate degree in surfology.  (I made that word up, so it must be a real word.)  To cut to the chase, you should buy this, and can get it at, on itunes, or at Amazon.   The Aquamarines, (in uniform!), are Lt. Colonel Ace Russell - Guitar, Special Ops, Captain Rick Escobar - Guitar, Logistics, MSgt. Farhan "Mr. Chicken" Mohamed - Keyboards, Percussion & Demolitions, Gunnery Seargent "Big Wave" Dave Becker - Bass, Artilliary

Fair Game
This short first track starts off with drums, then is joined by shimmers of wah-wah flavored guitar chords, then we're into the lead guitar theme.  Nice introduction to this album.  It's obvious that they understand this music, avoiding pat cliche and jamming on the real thing.  About 1:16 the lead guitar takes off for a bit.  It made me grin, then it made me get up and start dancing!  Thank goodness it's short!  I'm not in shape for jumping up and down anymore!
Sounds like a sound track to a Japanese spaghetti western.  Wish I knew what the words are.  The female vocalist matches the instrumentation perfectly, spiritually, happily.
Te Aa (Aerois)
This song begins with the sound of rain, building into storm, then into sounds of animals.  A percussive sound almost like bongos comes in to introduce us to a tribal bass vocal rhythm that carries it forward into the instrumental introduction.  At 1:50 the female vocal starts a section of alternation between two females vocalists in French.  Reminiscent of French film music from the mid-to-late 60s and early 70s, when surf and spaghetti was giving film directors all over the world permission to make music an integral part of the film.
Aoino/ Midorino
Uses a Japanese stringed instrument to introduce the song, then goes into a fast Fender'y (is that a word?), bendy (I know that's a word, shut up spell checker), theme that was still very Japanese. As it slid back and forth between the styles I was surprised to see how very similar they really were.  It makes me wonder about early Japanese influences on surf music (probably via Hawaii).
This Latin piece starts off with percussion, then bass (great bass!) then the other instruments come in-even horns!  It made me feel like I could dance surf cha-cha, but sadly I have no idea how.
Green Room
This starts off with a funny conversation between the musicians about percussion. Makes us feel a bit of the insiders.  Then a dramatic french sounding accordian leads us into the song.  Then the rhythm comes in along with a guitar theme that alternates between a low dramatic theme and a higher mandolin like theme.  The feel is happy, progressive, inexorable success.  A violin weaves in a bit later and turns happy to joyous.
Fab Life
This is so funny.  This lounge song is a dialogue between an almost pretentious self-celebrating man and an initially doubtful French woman. Imagine Sammy Davis Jr. as the guy.  As it goes on the woman becomes convinced that she must join the fab life, and if so the guy is the fabbest of them all.  The horns are celebratory, there's a wonderful jazz flute, and the vocals are great.  Kudos for capturing exactly this mood.
Spy Trap
Starts with a drum solo leading into a fanfare of distorted layered guitars, but when the bass kicks in we're really cooking.  This is boogy woogy meets surf, and is one of my faves on this album.
Malibu '62-'67
This has a nice repeated theme that let's you enjoy it with out too much work.  The bass and drums really drive it, and you get all comfortable, then a few accidentals slip in, then some strange vocals, and additional instruments change and suddenly you're deep into psychadelic acid music.  This song really captures that moment in time when acid was influencing everyone from the Beatles to the Beach Boys.  I think it's my favorite because of the surprise and because it's perfect in what it does.  It captures the age, the evolution, '62-'67.
Inside Neptune
This sounds like a spy song!  Starts with driving drums into guitars, and then the guitar moves into a theme that makes me think of Goldfinger.  The bass is standout, the organ (Hammond B-3?) is wonderful, and the whammy guitar is perfection.
Squid Chilli
The beginning of this is dramatic, powerful, strings, theremin, building up suspense and drama, like a classical introduction, then just a moment of strings and in comes the rythym section and organ and suddenly I'm convinced it's the sound track for a transitional section sans dialogue in a hip movie-or is it!  NO!  At 1:58, just under half way through, in comes a 30 second narrative reminiscent of Pink Floyd.  It changes the whole mood, but just 30 seconds, and  then there's a festive section, then back to the surf music theremin theme from the beginning.  I could really see this being music for a section of movie, changing seemlessly to match the mood, the import, of each section of movie.
This song, more than any other is driven by bass and drums.  It's introduced by drums and bass and features them extensively.  The rhythm guitar is good as well, but the drums and bass are standout.  If, like me, you love the rhythm section and wish that they had more chances to stand out, this will be one of your favorites.
Beautiful Arabic song with a wonderful female vocal.  You should listen to this with headphones on for the atmospheric effects.  It's surprising how the guitar manages so sound like surf arabic.  I wished for the words to this.  The female vocalist sings in English, but I was only able to understand parts of it here and there.  She is a real standout.
This starts off like an easy electronic/pop/surf tune.  You can dance to it.  Like much of the music on here, it gains complexity and excitement, but it always keeps that sense of innocent joyous dancing fun.
Rasta music meets surfer twang!  HUGE reverb on the vocal.  Stoney, happy, and perfect.  Made me want to roll up a spliff.  Oddly the musical theme reminded me of something off of Eleni Mandell's latest solo album.  You can imagine how long THAT bugged me.  I listened to it over and over again until I could figure out why the theme was so familiar.
A Surfer's Life
A sparse texture of guitar bass and drums that is quite moving.  In this case, less is more.  The great Fender twang shimmering along.
An Ordeal Involving Five Strangers
Sounds like a cha-cha at first.  Strong bass.  This is the only song that didn't make a strong impression on me, insisting on remaining background music.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Lori Ludy - The Cat's Pajamas

If you've never seen Lori Ludy live, you have missed a treat.  She's goofy and fun, she's serious and riveting.  You can find her on myspace to check out upcoming gigs and listen to some of her music, or you can buy a great kid's CD on cdbaby.

I should warn you up front, that this CD that I'm reviewing is not a kid's album, and some songs would not be playable on broadcast radio.  Lori has a tasty raunchy side that comes out at late shows without kids, and some of the songs she would do at a concert for adults are on this CD. 

What people love most about Lori Ludy is her big dramatic bluesy voice and great guitar playing on her '36 Gibson.  She writes and plays music in the stylings of the 30s and 40s--everything from blues to romantic ballads to novelty songs.   I don't want to lead you astray, she's not some wannabe pretending to be able to do this music, she is the real thing.  Had she been around back then she would have had steady work with her choice of bands.  I also don't want to lead you astray and make you think that this is all she does.  She sings Motown, and rock and folk and everything else.  She's a powerhouse.

Her singing blows people away.  She can emote anything.   And I'm talking with voice and guitar.  She leads a band, Purple Hat, and plays with some ad-hoc groups, but the work on this CD is close to the experience when you see her performing live at a solo gig.  She takes advantage of the studio environment to do some layering, so when you hear great harmony, that's her on every part.  The only thing you miss from a live performance is the adoration and riotous applause of her audiences.

This CD is produced by, recorded by, mixed by, sung by, and played by the immensely talented Lori Ludy.  The only hesitation I had about reviewing it is that you can't get it on-line.  You have to contact her (maybe message her on myspace), or find her performing live to buy it.  Nevertheless, it's such a significant piece that I decided finally to review it.

I can heartily recommend that you get this CD if you can.  Like most performers, the energy of the crowd gets great live performances out of Lori, but given that, she also does a great studio album.  The production is great, and every song is a gem.  I was particularly fond of the novelty song, Why Settle For One, which starts off with a sweet voice reminiscent of Rosemary Clooney, quickly dips into raunchy double entendre, and near the end asks for a revolving door for her bedroom!  There's not a weak song on this CD, so, figure out how to buy it!

The Cat's Pajamas - This is a terribly unkind song.  Trust me, you don't want to be the guy that Lori is singing about here.  The production is flawless, and the song is crazily funny.  Nice work.

The Answer - You do want to be the guy she's singing about here.  The vocals are in the close harmonic style of the Andrew Sisters.  The singing is great, and what could be greater than a song with a lyric, "I see dinner dancing toward me!"

Back Home - This road trip song is told backward, and glorifies the joys of coming home.

Baby, What Can I Say? - What a great love song.  All about missing someone you care about.

Evil Eyes - All about fatal attraction to someone you shouldn't be with, but can't resist.  Probably my second favorite.

Just You - A grand romantic ballad.

It's You're Fault - Starts and ends with only percussion and vocal, but has nice sensitive guitar in the middle.  Dark song of despair and loss.  Really painful to listen to if you've experienced loss, but you come out of it, somehow, feeling better.

If You Were My Man - Daydreaming about a guy.  Sweet song, wondering what they would do, and whether it would work out.

Pussy With an Apron - Dramatic bluesy song, full of pain and straight talking, about not being seen for the talented complete person you are.  It's easy to see that Bessie Smith and Billy Holiday are influences.

Why Settle For One? - Funny, funny, song.  People asked her to get this recorded
 for years.  It's reminiscent of great novelty songs of the forties and fifties.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Alien Operation Love Fest--Alesandra Valenzuela

Let's kick off this blog with a review of the amazing multimedia extravaganza that took place at Blue Rock Shoot, in Saratoga, CA for Valentines Day.  Those of you who don't know Alesandra Valenzuela yet need to.  She is an amazingly talented singer/songwriter who has always had something to say.  Woman who feel victimized by society's body image expectations consider her song Skinny Ashtray their personal anthem.  It stands up for them and gives them a way to break out with joy and humor.  She has a wonderful goofy sense of humor.

Last year Miss Valenzuela had a multimedia Valentines Day show that combined great music with video interviews about dating.  This year it looked like she was going to do the same thing, but it was all a trick.  Alesandra has long been passionate about the environment, organizing the Solar Tunes Music Fest, composing songs about the environment, Bird on a Wire, and founding a non-profit to preserve the earth through musical events.  She wanted to have a larger more comprehensive message about the subject and this show is a vehicle for that message.  The schtick was that aliens kept getting into the backgrounds of the video interviews, and they kept getting reported on the video news doing things, little things, that are clues to a greater puzzle.  As time goes on we get to know more about them and their motivations.  There's a surprise ending and it's great fun!

That summary doesn't capture how fun the show was.  I've presented it to you all at once, but the experience of watching it was very different.  We weren't hit over the head with what was going on with the aliens, we had to figure it out, bit by bit.  We waited for each new clue and rejoiced in each revelation.  All along the way there was music and fun.

The music and the video production was great fun and very entertaining.  The venue is a small one, and an act with drums can be overpowering.  Luckily, Alesandra's drummer, Crow, has an amazingly sensitive touch.  His support was complete.  The beat was strong yet never overpowered the music or the audience.  Most of the show was three piece (rhythm guitar - Alesandra Valenzuela; bass guitar - Aaron James; and drums - Crow), and he filled the spaces with gentile riffs and tasty flourishes.  When guest guitarist (Ron Teitze) joined the band, Crow pulled back and left the space needed for another instrument.  What a pleasure to see a drummer that can do it all but doesn't feel he has to do it all the time.  Miss Valenzuela handled most of the guitar duties with skill, but even better fun.  She can support a ballad, or rock it out.  She too understands how to play as part of an ensemble, knowing when to take up the musical space and when to leave room for others.  Quite tasty.  Bass player James Aaron doubled on bass and back up vocals.  It was clear that he saw himself in a supportive role with only occasional flash from the bass, but those occasional glimpses left me wanting more.  It would be nice to hear him on a jazz piece that left some room for a bass solo.  His supportive vocal work was wonderful.  It enhanced Miss Valenzuela's vocals without calling attention to itself.  My only complaint was that at times it was too deferential, fading out when it could have supported more.  The guest guitarist, Ron Teitze, took the lead guitarist role for a couple of songs.  His work was everything you could hope for, and added a lot to the mix.

Two young aliens, koorb, and tedirem (Brook and Merideth)  had supporting roles in the drama, but didn't participate musically.  Nevertheless, they were wonderful.

I hear rumor that this was a trial run to get the bugs out and that the show will be repeated.  Anyone that cares about the environment should see it, and they should bring along a friend that needs to hear the message.  The show is funny, the music is fun and great to listen to, and the band is easy on the eyes.  What more could you ask for?