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Recommended Listening: Mark Kostabi’s Kostabeat!

Kostabeat CD Cover

Some people have all the talent, it seems. It’s no secret that world famous pop artist Mark Kostabi is also a phenomenally gifted pianist and composer – and fortunately for us, he is not shy about sharing his music with a global audience. Mark Kostabi!

Kostabeat! is Mark’s new CD collaboration with Italian drummer, Tony Esposito. The album’s press release tells the fun story about how the two “met at one of Kostabi’s extravagant parties in Rome [where the artist lives for half the year. Nice]. Kostabi was on piano in the middle of a jam session when Esposito suddenly got on drums and Kostabi was blown away by Esposito’s commanding, percussive drive. They immediately agreed to collaborate on an album. Three years and 50 concerts later, Kostabeat! exists!

Of course, Mark and Tony gathered a group of top-shelf musicians to play on the album as well. Paul Kostabi (Mark’s brother, a musician of some repute who is also an artist), plays guitar on most of Kostabeat!’s songs, and he is joined by Italy’s most famous saxophonist, Stefano Di Battista; Lino Pariota providing his expertise on a variety of keyboards; and Antonio Nicola Bruno playing bass on all eleven tunes. Esposito produced the album in collaboration with Paul Kostabi.

As with 2011’s The Spectre of Modernism on which Kostabi collaborated with the legendary founder of Free Jazz: Ornette Coleman, drummer Jerry Marotta (Peter Gabriel) and Bass/Chapman Stick master Tony Levin, Kostabeat! achieves a multi-genre, crossover appeal and is notable for being Kostabi’s first not-entirely-instrumental album. Here, Mark’s Playful and provocative lyrics are sung by a team of female vocalists: Mollie Israel (daughter of film directors Amy Heckerling and Neal Israel) Elizabeth LoPiccolo, a very talented and fiery, emerging Brooklyn singer and Monica Marziota: a Cuban-Italian singer who also has careers in opera and Latin pop music. All technical proficiency aside, it sounds like everyone involved had a fantastic time making this record.

“Unexpected” is how you might sum up the variety of music you’ll hear on Kostabeat! The CD’s lively opening track, “New Muse” leads with Mark’s gorgeous classically-inspired piano, layered with hand percussion, before flowing into a staccato synth riff and distinctly world beat vibe highlighted by Marziota’s otherworldly vocals. “Oriental Scale” finds Di Battista toying with an arabesque motif on his sax over an insistent and undeniably groovy beat. The exultant “Eternity Now” seems a natural choice for a remix treatment by any one of the moment’s top DJ’s (and it would certainly pack the dance floor in any night club) but it’s sure to find that audience just as it sounds on the disc. Rave on!

Things get a little laid back with “Echoes of Twilight,” which begins with the delightfully seductive, spoken lyrics, “Thank you for a lovely invitation, but I already have plans for the evening.” The instrumental “Megatron Horizon” is a bit of genre-bender that will appeal to the electronic dance contingent, but things get sultry again with “Glide With Me.” Bruno’s funky bass lines anchor the song before LoPiccolo’s gorgeous vocal delivery has a chance to fully intoxicate you. Love this track!

Of course, we did not miss the significance of the title on “11:11” – which is number we seem to see very time we look at the clock. The lyrics, “Eleven Eleven, a sign from heaven” prove that Kostabi the lyricist is on the same page. We appreciate the uplifting lyrics on a non-rock song that truly rocks! “11:11” is also an example of the meticulous arrangements that feature on each song. Getting back to the CD’s lyrics for a moment, “Mine Tonight,” a song about, er, spending the night with a hooker, features a spoken word interlude that I’d guess was culled from Kostabi’s FaceBook feed, to wit: “just so you know, I feel very grateful for the times we shared together and I’m so glad that we are still friends. You’re a very special person and I hold you in high regard. I enjoy seeing your posts and watching her life evolve in positive ways.” So, who says FaceBook is a waste of time?

Last but not least, we would like to offer that “All The Way Jose” manages to mention both guacamole and margaritas and cheekily name-check Roger Daltrey while favorably recalling the very best of Steely Dan. Kostabeat! Is an ideal soundtrack for entertaining a group of any size or just lounging around by your bad self. Nice work, guys (and gals)! Kostabeat! is available via iTunes and on the historic Italian record label Azzurra Music at This Link!

GRADE: A

Recommended Listening: Kurt Vile, Wakin’ On a Pretty Daze

Kurt Vile Wakin On A Pretty Daze CD Cover
Album Cover Art By Steve Powers!

When it comes to modern music, not much impresses me these days. If you look back over the past few years at any Top 10 Albums list I might have compiled – in those years where I was even able to cobble together such a list at all – you’ll see it’s comprised partly of comeback records by classic rockers, greatest hits packages or tribute albums that revisit the material of a legendary artist. That’s rather pathetic, I know, for a writer who once embraced the tagline ‘Rock Critic at Large,’ but it is what it is. I don’t apologize for being unable to shake the feeling that the best years for popular music are, for the most part, 30 – or even 40 – years behind us.

It if it weren’t for Australia’s Tame Impala, who’ve managed to harness a sound comparable to Led Zeppelin on downers, or Canada’s The Sheepdogs, who pay homage to the seventies better than most bands did back in the ‘70s, there probably wouldn’t be one new band I could name in the past few years whose records gave me any kind of a thrill at all. And then there’s an enigma like Kurt Vile; a singer/songwriter/guitarist whose Murmur-esque vocal delivery is coupled with an amazing finesse for musical arrangements and an ability to turn a phrase that rivals Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen. On Wakin’ On a Pretty Daze, his follow-up to 2011′s brilliant Smoke Ring for My Halo, Vile once again completely and totally blows my mind.

In search of a contemporary reference, I’d say that Kurt Vile keeps company with fellow singer/songwriter and innovator Joseph Arthur, who possesses an equal gift for infusing seductive aural melancholia with an exhilarating emotional transcendence. Like Arthur, Vile’s lyrics are wickedly introspective and his knack for finely tuned word economy is juxtaposed with jam-heavy arrangements that indicate Vile is in no hurry to get where he’s going. The nine-minute-plus title track launches the disc with Vile’s countrified acoustic strumming that carry his dreamlike musings about what might be in store for the next 18 or so waking hours, as circular guitar patterns draw the listener deeply into the artist’s head. In fact, “Head Music” is not an entirely inappropriate label for these eleven aural journeys that play out over the course of a full, blissful hour.

And just in case you drifted away, the comparatively strident opening chords of “KV Crimes” jolts you back to consciousness before the hand percussion-driven, traveling rhythm of “Was All Talk” swallows you whole with its limitless gorgeousness. Over five albums worth of material, I don’t know if Vile has written a better song than this. “There was a time in my life when they thought I was all talk,” is such an exquisitely personal fuck you to naysayers, while remaining ambiguous enough to allow the listener to adopt the song as his or her own anthem of self realization. And when he sings, “Making music is easy – watch me,” one could believe that this song effortlessly flowed right through Vile. Seriously, when it comes to amazing songwriting, “Was All Talk” is right up there with “All The Young Dudes” and “Shake Some Action.” The fact that Vile lets a song that could have been neatly wrapped up in three and a half minutes continue on for over seven makes it all the more bittersweet when it finally comes to an end.

What’s most amazing about Wakin On A Pretty Daze is that every song on the record is that good. Each track packs a jaw-dropping Oh Wow Factor that makes my head explode. “Girl Called Alex” mines the minor chord gloom in a way that recalls a meatier version of Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” or Dylan’s “Knocking On Heaven’s Door.” Showcasing Vile’s flair for changing up arrangements, “Pure Pain” alternates between what I’d call a baroque stomp and a waltz. The remaining tracks could be summed up as follows: great, great, great, great, great. I recommend you pick up a copy of Wakin’ On A Pretty Daze and start developing your own relationship with a disc that I am just going to go ahead and call the Album of The Year.

Grade: A+

Recommended Listening: Palmyra Delran, You Are What You Absorb

You Are What You Absorb

Well known on the NYC rock scene as the guitarist and primary songwriter behind retro garage-pop quartet The Friggs, Palmyra Delran is a bit of a local music icon. While The Friggs never broke commercially, they opened for legendary bands such as The Ramones and Cheap Trick, earning a devote regional following as well as solid professional props for being an “all-girl” band that could rock as hard as any group of guys. In her second solo venture, Delran stays close to the layered pop sound she helped to hone in The Friggs, while continuing to demonstrate innovation with regard to arrangements and intriguing personal storytelling in songs that draw the listener into her very relatable world.

If Palmyra Delran isn’t the coolest chick on the block, I don’t know who is. Seamlessly blending the guitar rock grit of Joan Jett with the pop sensibilities and subtle humor of Blondie, You Are What You Absorb will feel instantly familiar to fans of the classic Girl Groups, Sixties Psychedelia, Surf Rock and the very best of the early eighties New Wave movement. There’s not a lot of timeless music being made today, but the twelve memorable tracks on You Are What You Absorb certainly qualify as such, being packed with lyrical hooks sharp enough to draw blood and retro musical flourishes, such as sitar and organ, that establish Palmyra’s reverential connection to the past while bringing her music into the present.

A favorite track among many is the single “Shy Boy” – an endearing love song to a reluctant wallflower that will melt the coldest heart. I also dig the way that the propulsive drumbeat and furious guitar outtro of “Lies For You” dig deep to fondly recall the Nick Lowe-penned Elvis Costello classic, “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love & Understanding.” Bringing other unexpected influences the forefront, Delran’s expert guitar playing on “Never to Be Back Again,” especially, recalls Jeff Beck’s distinctive riffage on The Yardbird’s “Heart Full of Soul,” and I don’t think there is much higher praise to give than that. Palmyra also shows her stylistic versatility on “The Turtle,” which successfully flirts with sixties lounge jazz.

Although it’s still pretty chilly on the East coast, as New York fights hard to break into spring, you need to grab a copy of You Are What You Absorb right away, so you can get ready to take it to the beach with you, add it to Party Mixes and slap it on the car stereo for long drives with the car top down as these songs become the soundtrack to your Best Summer Ever.

Palmyra Delran’s You Are What You Absorb is out now and available for purchase on iTunes, Amazon.com and wherever quality rock is procured.

Grade: A

View the acclaimed video for “You’re My Brian Jones” Below:

Recommended Listening: Johnny Marr, The Messenger

Johnny Marr The Messenger CD Cover

The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, starring comedian David Cross, ran for two seasons on the IFC cable channel. An absurdist dark comedy centering on the cringe-inducing adventures of the hapless title character – a criminally clueless American “businessman” living in London – Todd Margaret was portrayed as a blundering child-man, the consequences of whose utterly havoc-wreaking decisions progress from comic inconveniences to bringing about full-on global annihilation. It was a great show. One of the best parts of tuning in each week was getting to hear the Todd Margaret theme song, “Life Is Sweet,” written and performed by former Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr. Featuring cascading waves of Marr’s signature, chiming guitars and an adhesive refrain whose Morrissey-esque, fatalist lyrics promised “Things are gonna get worse,” the song is two minutes of pure aural bliss. For ninety-nine cents, “Life Is Sweet” is the most-valued purchase I made from iTunes last year.

Other than “Life is Sweet” and his brief, cameo appearance on the most recent season of Portlandia, I haven’t been paying much attention to what Johnny Marr has been up to, because Modest Mouse is not my thing. So, I am currently all over Marr’s new album, The Messenger, which is just insanely great. For those seeking comfort in the familiar, The Messenger sounds infinitely more akin to Marr’s definitive work in The Smiths than his previous solo outing, 2003’s Boomslang (with his band The Healers, whose rhythm section was comprised of Zak Starkey and Alonza Bevan). A brilliant collection of diverse tunes that came off like a Mancunian version of Sly & The Family Stone, Boomslang, puzzlingly, found itself on the receiving end of almost universal critical backlash, and fans didn’t seem to know what to do with it either. That said, if Marr’s guitar playing in The Smiths is what drew you in and hooked you, you won’t be able to stop listening to The Messenger.

Showcasing as much as it does Marr’s “Class of One” resonant guitar tone, this is not to suggest that the guitarist doesn’t adequately stretch on The Messenger. More here than on any previous recording I’ve heard, Marr sneakily incorporates some of his widely varied influences. The intro to the album’s lead track, “The Right Thing” sounds like it could have been lifted off The Who’s Quadrophenia before it shifts into an exuberant, sixities-esque call-and-response anthem. People are always saying that such and such a song is “like a drug,” but in the case of “The Right Thing,” it’s like an aural shot of your favorite upper. If you can’t find your groove to this song, you’re probably dead from the neck up.

The super-adrenalized “I Want the Heart Beat” dabbles in a minor chord, almost industrial feel without ever loosening its roots in pure ‘80s dance pop. “Upstarts,” the album’s first single, reminds me of those classic, early singles by The Undertones, which is probably not an accident, because those guys were sort of the Kings of Post Punk/New Wave Protest Songs, and I’m sure Marr was /is a fan. “Lockdown” is a rich, sonic blast of classic British rock, with Marr experimenting with a bit of a Big Country meets Def Leppard-esque chord progression – very nice!

Both “European Me” and the somewhat mournful, Bryan Ferry-tinged title track harkens back to the best of The Smiths (“William It Was Really Nothing,” “Panic”) with Marr’s vocals, as drenched as they likely are in reverb, as appealing and charismatic as Bono’s most earnest, pre-Messiah complex work with U2. Later on, the way Marr builds a creeping mood of foreboding on “Say Demesne” makes me think he should be (his contribution to Inception notwithstanding) writing soundtracks for James Bond films. Geesuz god, what a versatile player!

What I really love about The Messenger, as a complete work, is that it takes no initial “breaking in” period before each song claims its own identity. There are twelve tracks on the CD and each one is amazing in its own way. Unless Tame Impala release an album this year, I am pretty sure The Messenger will top my list of favorites for 2013. Johnny Marr FTW!

Grade: A+

Recommended Listening: The Sheepdogs

Sheepdogs Self Titled Album Cover

Back when I used to eek out a few bucks writing about music, one particularly hard ass editor accused me of being “not a real Rock Critic.” This was likely due to my unwillingness to indulge in the widespread practice of pondering the sociopolitical leanings of a band in the context of a record review rather than just basing my critique on how the music sounded to me. I never really got that approach. I’m not interested in reading paragraphs of turgid, impenetrable prose and rock-crit wankery. Just tell me how the music sounds so I know if I want to buy the record.

Along those lines, The Sheepdogs are a band that’s easy for me to write about, because their music sounds amazing. This Canadian Classic Rock quartet (who in 2011 won a contest making them the first unsigned act ever to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine) have three independent albums under their belts and an EP released on Atlantic last year, but this record is their major label debut (produced by Patrick Carney of The Black Keys), and it’s beyond impressive.

“Laid Back” and “Feeling Good,” the first two tracks on the disc set the tone for the entire album: This is an exceptionally great feeling album of groove heavy tunes performed by a band that embraces an extremely lyrical approach to their playing. Lead singer Ewan Currie (whose voice has been compared to The Guess Who’s Burton Cummings) delivers the kind of quietly confident, effortlessly powerful vocal performance that is the mark of true natural talent. Guitarist Leot Hansen is doing wildly innovative stuff on the guitar while paying homage to tone masters such as George Harrison (“Never Gonna Get My Love”), Duane Allman (“Javelina!”) and of course Jimmy Page (“Sharp Sounds”). He’s amazing. Drummer Sam Corbett varies his drum feels to serve the song and his rhythm section partner, bassist Ryan Gullen holds down the bottom end while layering in adhesive hooks. This means that The Sheepdogs are just as vibrant and tight live as they are on disc, and you can’t say that about many acts these days.

What’s most impressive about The Sheepdogs is the band’s ability to integrate their influences so seamlessly that the songs are instantly familiar without sounding derivative. “Is Your Dream Worth Dying For?” feels pleasantly infused with tiny reminiscences of Todd Rundgren’s “I Saw The Light”, “While We’re Young” comes off like a revamped version of “Shapes of Things” and “In My Mind” captures the same kind of transcendent, euphoric quality as a song like Cream’s “Badge” without sounding anything like that song. As an aside, at least half these tracks indicate that The Sheepdogs should have a ready-made fan base in anyone who ever cited The Grateful Dead as a favorite band.

In their review of The Sheepdogs, Rolling Stone wrote, “Listening to the Sheepdogs is like having good luck finding classic rock stations on a long road trip.” I agree with that sentiment, but to me it feels fresher than that: as if it were possible travel back in time and actually hear new songs from a ‘70s band. It’s a refreshing reminder that the most vital benchmark of what constitutes good music is (or should be) that the music just sounds good.

Grade: A