Thursday, June 11, 2015

Dan Patlansky's Dear Silence Thieves (2014) brings it home.

Dan Patlansky is hosting one of his annual guitar weekends in the Stellenbosch surrounds at the end of June 2015 and he invites 30 guitarists of various skill levels to join him to learn technical stuff about playing the guitar.  I guess, if you want to learn technical stuff about playing the guitar, that Dan is your man because he certainly is technically proficient on the instrument.

On the other hand, Dan has thus far not had great success with songwriting, that is: how to put together a decent, memorable tune with some melody and some hooks that will linger in the mind long after you’ve finished listening to the album.  I own all of Patlansky’s albums and for the life of me I cannot recall any single tune off any of them.

Well, that was very true until Dear Silence Thieves where Dan Patlansky has, much to my surprise, recorded an album that has at least one very memorable tune, “Windmills and the Sea,” and a number of others, if not memorable, that are pretty decent efforts as the combo of song and performance.

I would go so far as to say that this is Dan Patlansky’s best rock album, the album on which he’s reached maturity as artist and has produced a piece of work that is very listenable and bears repeated listening, unlike the previous 4 or 5 albums.  

The Patlansky method used to be that he would write a nifty riff, prepare a solid arrangement with a bit of funk in it, and then add some perfunctory lyrics he can sing with a hoarse voice to impart the feel of emotion that is otherwise lacking. The other approach is to play meandering, “atmospheric” instrumentals that show off his command of chord and note voicings and still have no emotional impact.  One cannot help but admire his technique and ability and unfortunately that was generally the high point of the previous albums: technique and ability.

For Dear Silence Thieves Patlansky has more or less abandoned all pretense of being a straight blues musician and is now firmly entrenched in the field of the modern blues rock funk guitarists who might be influenced by blues and play some blues changes and blues inflected guitar solos but who are miles removed from the genre.  This is not necessarily a negative and the power and flashy dexterity with which Patlansky plays is probably suited to a rock audience anyhow. The thick smear of power guitar chords are aided and abetted by rock funk bass and that grating loud, dull, reverberating thud of drums that I particularly dislike although it works quite well in a hard rock context. The main effect of this relentless hard rock drum sound is to add a deliberate pounding power to the performances and removes any of the taught swing that good ensemble blues has. In fact, the Dan Patlansky band at times sound like mid-Nineties grunge with blues guitar solos

The chunky chordal riffing and fluent solos are present and correct, as is the hoarse intensity of his voice and this time he has quite decent batch of songs too. Thankfully there is absolutely no atmospheric instrumental track. Even better: there are no pointless, uninspired and crappy cover versions.  

“Pop Collar Jockey” (WTF?) has a very excellent melodic guitar solo and “Hold On,” “Your War,” “Feels Like Home,” “Windmills and the Sea” and “Madison Lane” have choruses that resonate and the last two are warm, partly acoustic songs that are as tender as Patlansky can get.  “Windmills and the Sea” is probably the best thing on this album.

One wonders why Patlansky keeps releasing albums, as it does not seem to me that he has a driving need to write songs. Perhaps it is anther income stream; he can sell the albums at his gigs, by mail order and via iTunes. It all ads up.

Having said that, Dan Patlansky has hit something of a jackpot with Dear Silence Thieves, unlike the recent release by Sannie Fox, Serpente Masjien, which is about as tedious a collection of uninspired tracks as one can get.  Patlansky’s music exudes verve and brio.

Don’t get me wrong: Dear Silence Thieves is not an undiluted masterpiece and is not a record I will listen to a lot, and perhaps it shines only in comparison to its half-baked predecessors. But. And very big “but” at that. But this is a damn fine example of the genre and a damn fine example of how Patlansky is on his way, if he can maintain this standard and improve on his songwriting, to genuine greatness that goes beyond simple amazing technical ability.

I guess it is a good thing that an album grows on one, and improves with each listen.  That is what defines a keeper. Before Dear Silence Thieves the albums simply became more irritating the more one listened to them.  This time the pleasure has grown exponentially with repetition. Damn, son!  


Thursday, May 21, 2015

Sannie Fox idles with Serpente Masjien

Serpente Masjien (2015)  is one of those albums, when the opening riff of the opening track comes on, where you think, hmm, nice, low-key blues rock groove going on here. And you have pretty much the same thought when the second track slinks in. By the 10th cut that is about all you can say for the record. Actual, hummable tunes are thin on the ground. Well, non-existent, really. Mostly it’s just Sannie Fox spitting out her lyrics. At the end of the set nothing sticks in the memory as, well, memorable.

Fox was the front woman for Machineri, which has either broken up or is on hiatus, and for this debut solo album she’s stuck to the conceptual framework of that band. For that one must give her credit, for sticking to her guns and not suddenly coming out as a sensitive singer songwriter with acoustic backing and subtle drum programming.

The song titles are enigmatic. The lyrics are expressionistic and poetic, I guess, narrative vignettes; a few tracks contain “explicit language.” The musicianship is solid. The band plays mostly heavy and simple. Sometimes too simple; one longs for fiery lead guitar. Track for track each song is quite a good performance and the production values are solid. It’s the lack of variety and tunes that palls after a while.

Having said that, the two final “official” cuts on the album (before the 3 bonus tracks), “Sea Skull” and “Call,” do shine more than the tracks preceding them because they have the most tune, the most emotion and the most wonderment of the 13 tracks on offer. That is to say, they are the two most distinctive tracks amidst some ultimately pretty dull fare. “Sea Skull” is the closest the album gets to a guitar rave up, with something of a tune and some singing to complement the heavy riffing. The vocals on “Call” seem to be inspired by Alison Kraus from Oh Brother Where Art Thou? and the atmospherics are quite appealing.

Well, then we get to “Titan Love,” the first bonus track, a demo apparently, and this, too, is quite a bit different to the rest and one wonders why it was not included in the main set. Damn me, the second bonus track, “With Light,” is quite nice too, with a lilting acoustic thing going on.

Sadly the final bonus cut, “Wuthering Heights,” is not the Kate Bush song, or does not appear to be.  Heavy on the digital delay guitar effect.  Fades quickly from sight.

The above were my thoughts after listening to the album once. I then listened again and much the same impression remains. The lyrics are interesting yet the basic tempo of all the cuts is a lazy lope, which is a fine groove on its own, but after a while one really starts hoping for a differentiation in tempo. And for an actual tune that Sannie Fox sings. It seems, when she wails, that she has a fine voice and would be able to do a proper melody justice. As a non-musician I always wonder how one learns to play these things that are seemingly based only on a groove and no tune.

To paraphrase Robert Christgau, there is nothing here that merits an independent existence outside of the context of the album. There is just no attention grabber here. The album has no legs. There is sound, not a lot of fury, and in the end it signifies nothing.  Pursue your vision by all means but if it is such a tedious vision, why inflict it on others and expect them to pay for it and also expect them to give you kudos for it?

Here’s the thing: I’ve listened to the album twice and there is no incentive to listen to it again.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

John Frick Band presents the K.02 Sessions

It is kind of ironic that I listened to K.02 Sessions, the brand new release by the John Frick Band, for the first time on the night that B B King died. I’m not going to make the claim that a torch has been passed on from Riley to John yet I believe that John Frick represents not only a future of blues in the tradition of the late B B but also the type of innovation that King himself brought to blues when he started out.

John Frick is no novice to the blues and has been plying his trade for about 25, or more, years now. Over the two recent albums, from Urban Crossroads (2014) to K.02 Sessions (2015), John Frick is demonstrating to us that he is a musician maturing and even peaking as songwriter and instrumentalist. The fact that you might be a technically adept guitar player does not make you a good songwriter and ultimately one does not want to listen to just fleet fingered solos. If the songs are not memorable the experience of listening to an album becomes quite wearying if each song is no more than the empty vessel for a sequence of glib guitar solos.

As was the case with Urban Crossroads, the immediate impression is that Mr Frick is a really good, interesting and intriguing musician. He has the blue tropes down cold but the intricate and often unpredictable arrangements and quirky licks that are generously distributed over the length of the album are proof that John Frick is not merely a bloke who can replicate conventional blues licks very well but is a musician deserving of close attention.    

The second thing is the quality of the songwriting itself, with actual hooks that make the songs stick in the mind. The hard riffing horn arrangements add that cool element of classic Stax soul–blues.

The two tunes that are the immediate standouts from just that first listen are second track “Frankie” a tribute to the late Frank Frost, original drummer of the Blues Broers and father of master guitarist Albert Frost, and a narration of the history of the Blues Broers, and the last track “March for Peace,” which (to be honest) is a surprisingly low key and cliché-free plea for, well, peace. In the former track John Frick seems almost preternaturally delighted in his own delight in singing this exultant paean, with strong rockabilly echoes, and in the latter he has a more gentle, thoughtful tone and words of hope backed by an old timey string band supported by second line horns. These two tracks are head and shoulders above the rest because they are so individual and so viscerally engaging.

Having said that, there is not a single bad track on this album and each tune has something catchy to offer, such as the way the riffing horn, stinging lead guitar, wailing blues harp and tough rhythm section on opening cut “Bank Robber” set out the stall for the wares to follow; the opening riff and amazing tune of “I Just Can’t Go On” (K.02 Sessions’ equivalent of the indelible “The Same Way Too” from Urban Crossroads); the soul pop insouciance, powered by Tom Moerenhout’s horn and organ, of the chorus of “Inside of Me”; the cool jazz swing of “Got Me Going”; the guitar riff, horns (again) and stone groove of “Thrill Seeker”; the slow blues bravura of “Storm Rolling In” (which seems meant to be the centre piece of the album both in its positioning in the set and in the emotional impact); the ‘Booker T & The MGs fronted by Elmore James’ locomotion of “Ride That Lonesome Train”; the delicious interplay between the almost heavy guitar riff, keyboards, the horns and the backing vocals of “Superficial Love” (yet another smart soul-pop groove); the slide guitar filigrees of “Get Up And Go There”; the delicate yet driving piano and blues harp of “Down In Mexico”; the Stax soul power of “Go, Baby, Go” (probably the weakest track on the album because it has the feel of a jam rather than as a proper song, with only the punchy performance to carry it); and, finally, the New Orleans-influenced string band sound of “March for Peace”  with the horns playing a swinging counterpoint against Dobro bottleneck.  
And I’m just mentioning some highlights. As I’ve said, each track has plenty more to offer. The band is on top of its game, with particular emphasis on Tom Moerenhout, Leo Birza and old comrade-in-arms Rob Nagel as the soloists alongside John Frick himself. There is a hard edged, whip smart toughness on display that can only be achieved by a group of musicians that play well together, have years of experience and the chops to show for it and are not afraid to just play the damn blues without restrictions. The rhythm section is so on point it is a subtle and sassy sum of its parts. The lyrics are good and John Frick sings unrestrainedly, more so than on the previous album, as if he has finally discovered his voice and is letting it speak, so to speak, for itself. 

I am really enthralled by this album of modern blues with plenty of gutsy innovation and yet with deep roots in various genres I love.  It’s an album to listen to with wonderment, admiration and joy. It’s an album that proves that blues can bring a smile to one’s face from the sheer thrill of being a spectator to masters of the form doing what they do extremely well. 

Yeah, I kinda like this record.

Friday, May 15, 2015

B B King: An appreciation

Riley “B B” King died on 15 May 2015 at the age of 89 and with his passing we’ve lost yet another, and perhaps the last, of the bluesmen who popularised the blues after World War II and eventually took it to an international audience that was way beyond the original Black audience for whom they performed in the early years of their careers.

My abiding memory of B B King as performer (he never toured South Africa, even post 1994) was a performance in an Imax movie called All Access where King had a throw down with some well-known, much younger White rock guitarist. BB, whilst sitting down (he must have been in his seventies by then), played some of the toughest, loudest, fiery lead guitar licks I’d ever heard, with a harsh metallic edge to the violence of his attack on the strings, completely and utterly cutting the other guy.  King may not have been the most facile of technicians but he did what he did extremely well and beyond compare. It was truly astonishing that an old guy, sitting down no less, could produce such ferocious sounds from his guitar.

I got into blues through the trinity of John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and it was some time before I came to appreciate and even love the music of BB King. Literally the first King track I’d heard was “Blue Shadows,” a track from the album BB King in London, which was on a compilation on the BluesWay Records label.  King was backed by only a rhythm section and made a tough blues that, as it turned, out was not necessarily typical of his work. This song induced me to buy an album of earlier material, where King fronted his big, jazzy band and to my ears at the time it sounded like tepid swing with lead guitar and an emphasis on gospel driven vocals. It was considerably more sophisticated than the Southside of Chicago downhome electric blues I was listening to at the time. To me the sophistication took the edge off the blues and I did not listen to the record much. It was many years before I bought any other B B King album. I became a fan or Albert King instead.

My musical tastes broadened over time and I started buying CD albums of BB King’s music, mostly compilations but also proper albums, such as the aforementioned In London, the much later Six Silver Strings, and the joyous collaboration with Eric Clapton called Riding With the King.  There are also a number of live albums that are less rewarding because, as was the case with so many of the old blues guys, King kept re-recording a core group of his best known songs and even though each version may be different to the rest one does eventually get tired of the umpteenth version of “Sweet Sixteen” or “Everyday I Have The Blues.”

BB King was one of the leading proponents of the “urban” style of blues that White bluesographers once looked down on as not being the authentic folk voice that Delta blues supposedly was.  The irony was that the rediscovered folk bluesmen lionized by these bluesographers were introduced to adoring White audience while King was still playing to Black audiences, his own people, and the White blues cognoscenti were looking down their noses at his music.   The triumph of B B King is that he stuck with his vision and his mission and kept going on his path until the White audience came to him and he became the beloved Ambassador of the Blues.

BB King recorded some classic blues, mixing elements of big band jazz, gospel vocals, R & B pop smarts and stinging single string lead guitar playing.  Perhaps one could never call him of think of him as a folk bluesman and perhaps he always was a showman who thrived on the big stage, as entertainer, sticking to renditions of his greatest hits, but he was an undoubted icon of the genre he represented and advanced.

There are not that many musicians currently working whose roots and style can be traced back to Muddy Waters or Howlin Wolf but there must be thousands who are directly or indirectly influenced and motivated by the style of blues B B King gave us: a soulful vocalist and strong lead guitarist fronting a band. The modern blues guitarist is most probably more technically adept than King ever was but, as that example from All Access showed, none of them can do what he could do, even with a limited bag of licks.

King was a prolific recording artist and one would have to be carefully selective in picking out the best of his albums. Live at the Regal is generally regarded as the one to own, and, as I’ve indicated, one should be wary of the various live albums released in its wake.  I am fond of In London and Riding With the King, probably because I own them. The trio of albums King recorded with the Crusaders in the late Seventies has their moments but on the whole they represent an attempt at real jazz sophistication that I still find hard to enjoy even now. I guess the Greatest Hits album on MCA is as good a point of entry as any and to a degree one does not need all that much more, as the impact will be diluted if one were to be a completist.

I suppose one can make a list of the 50 best B B King recordings. There probably are no more than about 20 that are truly essential. Beyond that one would simply hear variations on the theme that become less and less rewarding as the number of performances increase.

Nonetheless, it is a sad day for lovers of the blues.  Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, Albert King and John Lee Hooker (and I’m referring only to some of the giants; there have been many others who were also noteworthy) have passed on since I became an aficionado of blues and it almost seemed as if B B King would go on forever.  He became the greatest living blues musician simply by outliving most of the completion but he was pretty great anyhow.

No doubt there will be numerous glowing (and even overly sentimental) tributes and a rekindled interest in his recordings, particularly the ones with which he made his reputation.   

That is okay. The flame must be kept burning.

B B King took his take on the blues all over the world and made friends everywhere. “Ambassador of the Blues” sounds like a marketing slogan, yet it was probably as any description of the stature B B King achieved in his lifetime, a stature that will not be equaled again.