My prolificacy has waned somewhat. I haven’t blogged for almost seven weeks, and even then my last offering was a rather inane, woeful rant about the state of the music industry and the sham that is The Voice. Rest assured I’ve not been entirely inactive. I’ve been writing three 5,000 word essays for my MA (on immortality, political interpretation of Revelation, and subordination in the Trinity), and preparing a six week series of talks on the book of Revelation. Sadly I’ve published no books, submitted no film scripts, and written no hit TV shows, but I need to keep some projects for the summer!
I often find that good music helps me through times when I need to write profusely. (In fact I have some rather bizarre predilections when it comes to music for writing, which maybe one day I’ll share if I manage to summon the strength of character to be comfortable with admitting to my quirkiness!) And I just thought I’d take a moment or two to distract me from writing things that matter, in order to share a couple of thoughts on the five albums that have helped me through the past few months of writing:
Flying Colors by Flying Colors
I decided to forgive the bastardised spelling because of the sheer quality of the music on this album. This self-titled album is the first offering from an American supergroup of some of my favourite musicians. Neal Morse (ex-Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic) is one of my absolute favourite songwriters, Mike Portnoy (ex-Dream Theater, Transatlantic) is a powerhouse of a drummer who can do everything from blistering metal to complex prog and now, it would appear, pop! Steve Morse (Dixie Dregs, Deep Purple) is an astonishing guitarist who I saw a few years ago with Deep Purple and whose solo albums and side-projects span a whole range of styles: folk, jazz, rock – School of the Arts is one of my favourite modern jazz instrumental albums. Dave LaRue is a monster on the bass. I’m not sure I’d been conscious of his work before, but have come to discover that he’s been ‘the guy’ who I’ve heard on a dozen tracks and thought ‘I’ve no idea who that is, but he’s brilliant.’ And Casey McPherson (Alpha Rev)… well I’d never heard of him before, but I shall have more to say on him later.
This album is a brilliant fusion of styles. The progressive rock influences are kept to a minimum and the more poppy, straight-forward rocky elements come to the fore, making this a great album for those who like world-class musicianship but find progressive music just a little too cheesy, overblown or self indulgent.
Highlights include The Storm, a powerful, perfectly crafted 4:44 pop-rock song, Love is What I’m Waiting For, which sounds very Beatles-esque and will undoubtedly bring a smile to your face, and my personal favourite Forever in a Daze, which has one of the most amazing bass solos you’re ever likely to hear. The entire album is a tour de force, full of brilliant song-writing, virtuoso soloing, and infectious melodies. The only thing I would change about it to be honest is that I would make Casey the only lead vocalist. Perhaps it’s just because I’m over-familiar with Neal’s voice (which I generally love), but I found some of the moments where the vocals switched from Casey to Neal to be a little disappointing. It just felt like a slightly jarring switch, and I think Casey’s voice was so strong that it wasn’t necessary.
Each of the musicians on this album has an insanely packed schedule, so I’m amazed they’ve found time to squeeze in a brief European tour in August and September. I cannot wait. Rarely will you hear such a talented collection of musicians putting together such a well-rounded sound that draws out elements of each of their individual styles but still manages to remain cogent.
And Casey McPherson… well…
New Morning by Alpha Rev
…Casey is the lead singer of a group from Texas called Alpha Rev. I’d never heard of them to be honest, but as soon as I heard about Flying Colors I decided to check them out. And I think I started in the wrong place. First of all I listened to their album The Greatest Thing I’ve Ever Learned, which was ok but had a bit of a moody indie vibe that didn’t particularly grip me. So it was only a few months later that I bothered to check out any of their other music. I’m glad I did.
New Morning is a fantastic album. The songs are perfectly crafted and beautifully textured. This is not progressive at all – it’s just powerful, well written, pop-rock with beautiful melodies that stick in your head, great instrumentation and a real feel good vibe. Casey’s song-writing is some of the best I’ve heard in a long time, and his voice suits the music perfectly. It’s got that soaring Chris Martin kind of feeling, and in places their music does sound like how Coldplay might be if they were… well… you know… interesting!
The music is not complex in the sense of being overblown, but it is deep and many layered. The guitar tone of the solo in New Morning rips at your ears beautifully if you crank it up (2:30-2:53). Get Out really reminds me of Elbow, with soaring strings. Alone With You is a brilliant song, with a slightly lingering off beat vocal line over a driving rhythm that keeps you longing for the next line. Colder Months and Goodbye from the Start are brilliant slower numbers that bring the album to a mellow close.
Chances are you’ve never heard of Alpha Rev, which is a real shame. That should change. And if you need another reason to check them out…
New Morning B-Sides by Alpha Rev
…normally I expect a B-Sides album to be a collection of half-baked, distinctly average songs, thrown together with little attention to detail. Off cuts that should not only have been cut off, but cut up and thrown away never to see the light of day. A treat for collectors who value rarity over quality. Not so with this. There are tracks of the New Morning B-Sides album that really should have been on the main disc. The majority of tracks here are better than the hit songs most bands put out! Not one of the offerings feels half-finished, or like it’s had less time or attention than any of those on the actual album. I downloaded it for about £3 and it’s the best £3 I’ve spent in ages!
The funny breathed vocals of the opening track are a bit odd, but the song itself is great. Don’t Seem Right displays some beautifully controlled falsetto over an otherwise powerful song. Fade opens with haunting strings that give way to an anthemic chorus, with the odd bit of stripped down bass and drum work and growly bursts of guitar here and there. Upside Down has some fun programming, and builds to an infectious, funky outro. I love the aggressive passion in Give it Up, especially with the guitar riff at the end of the song and the fun, feel-good track Labor Day along with disco beats and female gospel vocals. Stand Around is a hazard to listen to, because it sticks in my head for ages.
The only disappointment on the entire disc is one tiny editing error in Shelf Life, where a small electronic beep is left in by accident. It’s one of those things that, once you’ve spotted it you can’t stop seeing it, and it slightly takes the edge off an otherwise brilliant track.
If you’re after something new but don’t want to splash out too much money, this is a great place to start. Download it from iTunes or http://alpharev.spinshop.com/ and I will be very surprised if you don’t end up moving on to listen to the main album, or Flying Colors.
LoveBlood by King Charles
This is an eclectic, fun, feel-good album from the eccentric-looking, flamboyant King Charles. It’s not really my usual style, but I’m enjoying this album. The lyrics are whimsical and the melodies are simple and catchy. Hearing someone singing over and over about riding around on bicycles in the rain could very easily grow dull, but there’s a kind of childish playfulness that keeps it entertaining.
The genius of the songs is the combination of simple melodies with incredibly varied, multi-layered instrumentation. All the usual instruments, plus steel drums, bagpipes and the odd banjo. Mississippi Isabel is a simple infectious track that will stick in your mind. Polar Bear alternates a kind of Boublil and Schonberg French feel and trancier synths, which makes for an eclectic mix that weirdly works, though I can’t fathom why. Lady Percy is amusing and enjoyable with its use of steel drums, and the addition of Mumford and Sons makes The Brightest Lights a decent modern-folk anthem. Despite starting out as a fairly unremarkable track, Coco Chitty has one of my favourite moments of the album, with the strings building to a powerful and catchy guitar hook.
I have mixed feelings about the lyrics. I can’t decide whether I think the constant juxtaposition of love, lust and blood in almost every song is an endearing continuity trait or an irritating repetition that belies a lack of creative breadth. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. Neither do I know how I would feel about seeing him live… reviews seem to be positive, but I wonder if the live show, presumably with vastly stripped down arrangements, will be able to keep the interest that comes from the diversity of instrumentation on the album? All in all though, a fun, upbeat, quirky, feel-good album.
Blunderbuss – Jack White
I never got on with The White Stripes, primarily because of the drumming, which made me feel somewhat like I was on an aeroplane with a bored child kicking repeatedly and aimlessly into the back of my chair…
But this solo album is great! There’s no doubt that Jack White is a great songwriter, and I love that he has surrounded himself with some great musicians for this album including, yes, decent drummers. As a result, the music is rich and well crafted, with jazzy elements here and there. Yet it still hasn’t given up its rawness. This is no highly polished album – the drums echo like they were recorded in a tunnel, the cymbal work seems a bit haphazard, and the vocals aren’t autotuned to hell. So it’s still got a kind of raw, in your face feel to it, which I appreciate.
I was surprised at how much the piano comes to the fore above the guitar work, and how varied the instrumentation was; some songs being incredibly stripped down, and others packed with layers: double bass, pedal steel, mandolin and clarinets all make an appearance.
That said, there are some strong guitar driven tracks and some of the solos have a gut-wrenching crunchiness to them, which is enjoyable. Sixteen Saltines oozes angst – the music video is thoroughly depressing, but fascinating, I love the solo in Take Me With Me When You Go, I Guess I Should Go To Sleep could have come straight off a Beatles album, and Weep Themselves to Sleep is, for me, the standout track of the album, with the catchy piano motif, the sung-spoken vocals and the brilliant tone of the guitar solo.
All in all, a great album that’s a bit more rocky and raw than the other offerings, and better when I’m in need of something a bit more miserable… Which I occasionally do.