Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Music Review: The Verve - Forth

The Verve was without question one of the best British rock groups of the 1990s. But they broke up in 1999 after ten years together and after the most successful period of its career. Singer Richard Ashcroft then launched a mildly successful solo career in the early 2000s.

Now, nearly ten years later, the band is back together and has made Forth (On Your Own Records), a comeback album that, though imperfect, sounds like it was made in the '90s, recently discovered and only now ready for release. And that's a good thing, especially for fans hoping to hear the group recapture the brilliant, spellbinding shoegazer rock and psychedelic terrain that made them a British and later worldwide sensation.

For fans looking for strings attached to grandiose orchestral pop rockers like Urban Hymns megahit "Bittersweet Symphony," there are plenty of strings coating the band's new and fourth record, but nothing as instantly memorable or hit-worthy as its biggest hit. So what we have here is a record geared more toward recapturing the spirit of early Verve records like A Storm In Heaven and A Northern Soul with a hint of Urban Hymns here and there.

The spacious post-rock, ProTools-aided rave-up "Love Is Noise" is not only The Verve's lead single off the new record, but a driving anthem that features some of the most passionate vocal performances Richard Ashcroft has recorded in years. "Judas" is another winner, with its blissful, dream-like melodies, as is the urgent vocals and tremolo-propelled guitars of album opener "Sit And Wonder."

Straight-up rocker "Noise Epic" is the hardest-hitting track (for them) on the album and starts out promising, then sees Ashcroft meandering a bit with hushed vocals before the group suddenly turns the tide and busts the tune wide open into a Stooges-like jam. Guitarist Nick McCabe must really look forward to cranking this one up live. In fact, The Verve made a conscious effort to give tracks like this a live feel and thus recorded the song as a band live in studio.

"Numbness," which treads pure psychedelic, Dark Side Of The Moon-era Pink Floyd territory is a pleasant listen for a few minutes, but Ashcroft's sleepy, repetitive vocals get tired after awhile and the tune never takes off structurally, just content to get lost in its own jam. The strings and piano-led dirge-like "I See Houses" seems to deal with the inner struggle of troops in war, but sounds too dreary to be memorable. It certainly gives you the opposite feeling of uplifting Urban Hymns numbers like "Sonnet" and "Lucky Man."

The seven-minute-plus enjoyable, dreamy album closer "Appalachian Springs" should have younger listeners realizing where Verve offspring like Silversun Pickups got some of its influence from. McCabe's swirly layers of guitars and effects, matched with Ashcroft's soft-to-loud vocal style add depth to a song that is classic Verve all the way through.

What's frustrating about this record is that like so many top-level rock bands over the years — think Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, Oasis — The Verve left some good b-sides off the original CD pressing of Forth that could've made it a stronger album and instead stuck them on other releases, including vinyl and digital versions. For instance, "Mover" is the best song that didn't make Forth but is worth checking out, as is the bass-heavy "Chic Dub."

Still, in an age where great bands of yesteryear get back together to simply tour (for example, Fleetwood Mac) and cash in, The Verve got back together after nearly a decade apart. They played some much talked about summer shows and made a very respectable comeback record, one that doesn't rewrite its hits or go off in an entirely new musical direction. If you're a fan from the "Bittersweet Symphony" days, you may be a bit disappointed with Forth. But for those who are familiar with all their records, there's enough '90s nostalgia to win you back as fans.

The Verve as a unit is tight and sound as inspired now as they did in their heyday. It's just that Forth isn't as focused a record as a whole as it could have been. But as long as Ashcroft, McCabe and the rest of the band stay together, The Verve's best album may be ahead of them. Forth may be a few tracks short of greatness, but it's still better than most bands' first albums. (3/5 stars)

Note: This review was posted on Blogcritics.org 12/21/08

Music DVD Review: The Who - The Who At Kilburn: 1977

At the London Coliseum on December 14, 1969 and at the Gaumont State Theater in Kilburn, North London, England on December 15, 1977, the other famous Fab Four from the original British Invasion era, known simply as The Who, performed two legendary shows for the ages, ones that weren’t digitally restored and remastered until this year.

Known as The Who – Live At Kilburn 1977, this DVD was released in mid-November on standard DVD and Blu-Ray via Image Entertainment. And though its main focus is the 1977 show on disc one, one of the very last shows the band did with powerhouse drummer Keith Moon before his death in 1978, the raw concert footage of the first ever performance of the band’s visionary and groundbreaking rock opera Tommy in 1969 on disc two is a special treat. Call it a bonus bootleg.

Lead singer Roger Daltrey tells his audience at the start of the Kilburn show that the band hadn’t played the songs in their set for more than a year, but The Who showed little sign of rust in this much-loved show. Pete Townshend leads the pack, starting with the influential pre-punk ditty “I Can’t Explain,” where he windmills on his Gibson guitar, does a few jumping jacks and then smoothly launches into the group’s early pop rock hit “Substitute.”

What follows is a sensational version of “Baba O’Riley,” where Townshend plays the first couple of minutes with a tambourine, Keith Moon–with headphones on—twirls, throws up and catches his drum sticks with seeming ease, and Daltrey finishes it off with a concentrated bluesy harmonica solo.

There is also the first-ever live performance of “Who Are You,” which was recorded just two days prior to this show! Seeing as the song was so new, Townshend and Moon improvised the ending before heading straight into the crowd-pleasing, set-closing hard rockin’ classic “Won’t Be Fooled Again,” which had Townshend sliding across the stage during rock and roll’s most memorable scream and pinnacle moment, the elongated “Yeaahh!” by Daltrey.

Speaking of rocking, the band was tight pretty much all show long, though there are little instances of imperfection, such as when Entwistle was a bit late starting his bass line on the Eddie Cochran cover “Summertime Blues.” But heck, nobody’s perfect.

It’s not just the performances that are memorable. Seeing Keith Moon take the microphone and joke with the band, particularly when he claimed he would go backstage and “OD” while the rest of the band played the first couple of minutes of the uplifting “Pale Blue Eyes” was a little alarming given his off-stage struggles, but in the end just a joke.

As far video and sound are concerned, the DVD is in High Definition, and the audio quality of Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital Stereo are impressive given the many years that have gone by since the show was recorded. Keith Moon’s cymbals truly splash your years in Digital Stereo, and the trebly action of John Entwistle’s bass is a bit more pronounced. But all the instruments and vocals in general sound evenly mixed throughout the show. As I went back-and-forth between audio selections, the only really noticeable difference between the Dolby choices is the somewhat louder audience cheering in Dolby Stereo.

For the much-treasured second disc, The Who’s legendary London Coliseum show in mid-December 1969 (which occurred a few months after its Woodstock appearance), you can tell the camera footage is extremely old by the grainy picture and raw sound. It’s “B” quality at best, considering the problems the show’s recording crew had to overcome, but the producers did a fantastic job remixing and refurbishing the audio and video to as superior a professional level as possible. The band made sure nothing view-worthy was lost, and that’s why you see subtitles that carry nearly every word of Keith Moon’s playful banter with Daltrey and Townshend between songs during this show.

For this show, Townshend’s Gibson guitar and amp combined to air out lots of dreamy reverb, making the type of sounds during clean parts of songs that may remind you of U2’s The Edge. Daltrey’s gritty and soaring vocals are spot-on for almost all of it (as on Kilburn), and his stage mannerisms, microphone spinning and other bodily motions match the energy put out by Moon and Townshend.

The band looks noticeably younger in the 1969 gig—minus the eternally boyish-looking Keith Moon—with Townshend and Entwistle a bit skinnier and totally clean-shaven. Moon though, with his health having deteriorated in the mid-1970s looks a bit slimmer and faster in 1969. Together though, The Who showed the lucky fans before them their inventive showmanship and concert themes, which included a few hits, plus the infidelity-themed mini-opera “A Quick One While He’s Away” (featuring Moon and Entwistle on lead vocals) to start. This was of course followed by the full-blown rock opera Tommy and it’s well-known masterpiece “Pinball Wizard” and the power chord crunchy gem “I’m Free,” among others. Guitarists will especially love the metallic hard rock edge to this show, as compared to Kilburn, right to the very end.

My only substantive criticism of disc two is the decision to put the full performance of Tommy in the “Extras” section instead of the main section, which starts with performances of Who songs like “I Can’t Explain,” “Fortune Teller,” and mini-opera “A Quick One.” Which then leads to a few Tommy cuts before closing with rockers like “Shakin’ All Over” and “My Generation.” Why not have the London Coliseum show run as one show, Tommy and all?

With valuable liner notes from former Spin editor-in-chief Alan Light, Nigel Sinclair and Richard Evans explaining the history behind these shows and the state of the band during these times, you’ll surely learn things about The Who you didn’t know before, including that pre-Tommy, Moon and Entwistle reportedly thought about forming a band with Jimmy Page because of The Who’s infighting at the time. Tommy of course, not only became an internationally successful double album but brought the band back together (until Moon’s untimely death several years later).

Overall, despite the less than top grade audio/video quality of the rare London Coliseum show, with over three hours and forty-eight live tracks, plus pages of insightful liner notes, The Who At Kilburn: 1977 is an outstanding, treasured 2-DVD package and definitely belongs in any longtime fan’s top five must-have live The Who releases—up there with Live At Leeds and The Kids Are Alright 1978 film, to be sure. Would it make a great Christmas/Holiday gift for your classic rock-loving parents? To coin a phrase, You Better, You Bet!

Check out trailers for the new DVD here and here.

Note: This article was posted on Blogcritics.org 12/17/08

Friday, December 12, 2008

Joe Satriani Vs. Coldplay: A Tale Of Two Songs

Note: First published on Blogcritics.org this morning

The recent commotion over whether or not Coldplay ripped off guitar whiz Joe Satriani is nothing less than surprising and mystifying. My bewilderment has nothing to do with Coldplay however, but with Satriani, the guitar teacher-turned instrumental rock god.

Last week, after months of not hearing back from Coldplay (who are in the midst of a major world tour), he went to a federal court in Los Angeles and filed a copyright-infringement lawsuit against them, claiming that the English rock stars' #1 2008 hit song "Viva La Vida" lifted material from his own 2004 instrumental "If I Could Fly."

Both are great, midtempo songs, no question. I have listened to both countless times. But one is an orchestral, grandiose pop song with relatively little guitar work (“Viva”) while the other is straight up steady bass, drums, and wailing guitar-based instrumental rocker (“If I Could Fly”).

More to the point: there is practically no basis for this rather frivolous lawsuit. And coming from someone who knows the ins and outs of musical composition in rock better than most, it boggles the mind why Satriani thinks the Coldplay song sounds so much like his work. There are brief patterns of similarity in both songs too be sure, but no more than a few seconds worth. So without boring you (musicians or non-musicians) with a lot of advanced musical theory jargon and notation, I will try and breakdown the few similarities and big differences these two great songs have, differences that should've convinced Satch right away that there was nothing major to make a fuss about, let alone go to federal court over.

For Coldplay to be successfully sued, Satriani would have to prove the band had access to his work and that the band’s song in question sounds “substantially” similar to Satch’s composition, among other criteria. I (and Coldplay) would argue that “Viva” and “Fly” are “substantially” different tunes, and one of the first ways you can tell is that these two songs are written in totally different keys and ways. But even if one were to do what a YouTube user did – deceptively speed up “Viva La Vida” one half step and lower the original pitch of Satch’s song by six half steps to make them unnaturally sound alike – you would still hear that no more than 3-4 consecutive notes (C#-to-D-to-B flat-to-B flat) in Satch’s expressive riffs in “Fly” and Coldplay leader Chris Martin’s vocals in “Viva” seem to match up note-for-note at any time.

The truth is, at no point do any notes from either composition in its original form match up note-for-note and only on a couple of occasions do you hear similarities between Coldplay’s vocals and Satch’s guitar work, starting at the :49-second mark of “If I Could Fly” (which is effectively the tune’s chorus) and later at around the 2-minute mark, where briefly Satriani’s riffs sound similar to but not exactly like what Coldplay singer Chris Martin sings during “Viva’s” verses.

So maybe you (or Joe) are thinking, it’s not just Martin’s vocals allegedly mimicking Satch’s guitar licks that I hear, it’s the songs’ chord progressions that are similar. Well, let’s look at that too. First of all, Coldplay’s and Satch’s rhythm sections are constructed differently. While Satriani has a regular drummer laying down a steady beat on “Fly,” Coldplay has a constant, almost techno-like beat going throughout “Viva.” On bass, Satriani’s song has a deeper sound, courtesy of a five-string, while Coldplay uses a standard four-string bass, which lays down considerably lighter notes on its tunes. And as far as guitar is concerned, there are no chord progressions in “Viva” to mimic Satriani’s, as Coldplay’s Johnny Buckland uses bright riffs and melodies to compliment the orchestral sound of his band’s hit. Satriani, on the other hand, uses acoustic guitar chords to compliment his electrifying electric guitar solos on “Fly.”

So where do the two songs’ non-vocal similarities begin and end? Perhaps “Viva’s” four consecutive bass notes on its chorus sound similar to the four-part melodic progression in the two choruses of “If I Could Fly.” But even then, the actual bass notes on both tunes don’t come close to matching up.

There are probably hundreds if not thousands of punk rock and blues-based songs out there that sound so much alike that musicians in those groups could reasonably accuse each other of being rip-off artists if they took the time to listen closely enough. Why Joe Satriani feels the need to seek a jury trial and recover profits over this one song that one could reasonably prove did not copy his material only he knows. Perhaps he lost patience with Coldplay and his legal team after not having his calls returned? Maybe he thinks the band’s silence on this issue proves they are guilty of stealing from him? Whatever the reason, it’s hardly justifiable. But hey, at least it’s not as laughable as little known band Creaky Boards’ similar claim from earlier this year that “Viva” rips one of their songs off. But they, unlike Satriani were wise enough not to sue.

So, that said, do yourself a favor and find a copy of the Satriani and Coldplay tracks and then compare them yourself - don’t evaluate them based on that highly misleading YouTube clip. I guarantee you’ll feel the same way I do that whatever brief similarities you’ll find, there is no copyright infringement to be found regarding “Viva La Vida.” This isn’t Vanilla Ice ripping off Queen/David Bowie we’re talking about.

In closing, it is my opinion that this lawsuit by Satriani is the biggest mistake he’s made in years, and he ought to be ashamed of himself for it, the same way The Rolling Stones ought to be ashamed of not allowing The Verve to make a penny on “Bittersweet Symphony” based on the younger band’s use of a sample of some obscure orchestral mix of the Stones song “The Last Time” that had little input from Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

But it was also a mistake for Coldplay to wait so long to respond to Satch’s charges. They finally did the other day and not only rejected these plagiarism charges but called any similarities between their works as “surprising” to them as they were to the instrumentalist and “entirely coincidental.” You can read Coldplay’s full statement on the band’s website. Now, Satriani ought to directly talk to the members of Coldplay about the charges and come to an understanding of each other's work. Hopefully then, Joe Satriani will finally come to his senses and drop this ridiculous lawsuit altogether.