Thursday, October 29, 2009

Music Review: Imogen Heap - Ellipse

Published originally by Blogcritics Magazine October 22, 2009

English songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist Imogen Heap is a one-woman machine. For over 11 years, she has made a distinctive brand of music that is a mix of electronica, experimentalism, electro-pop, and rock.

Sound-wise and vocally, her songs range from the dramatic to the majestic, and contain hints of everyone from Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, and Tori Amos, to Annie Lennox and Bjork. In fact, Heap’s ex-Frou Frou partner Guy Sigsworth co-wrote songs with such noted non-conventional pop artists like Seal and Bjork in the early and mid-1990s before co-producing Heap’s 1998 debut album i Megaphone with Lennox’s Eurythmics bandmate Dave Stewart.

Since then Heap has made three records, one with Frou Frou (2002’s Details) and two more solo full-lengths, including the two-time Grammy nominated Speak For Yourself (2005) and its eagerly anticipated follow-up, Ellipse (RCA/White Rabbit).

Her new album debuted at a personal career-high #5 on Billboard’s 200 chart last month and also debuted #1 on Billboard’s Internet album and Dance/Electronic album charts. When you take a close listen to the album’s 13 tracks, it’s not hard to see why.

To start, the warm electro-pop track “First Train Home” retains the infectiousness of Heap’s prior album’s hit single “Goodnight and Go” and is an instant album highlight.

Besides being a call-to-action to clean up our planet, “Earth” is an experimental all a cappella track with a digital vocal harmonizer coloring its melodies, much like Speak For Yourself hit “Hide & Seek.” It also contains some of the oddball lyrics Heap is known for coming up with, such as her imagination of “lego land empires.”

The album loses steam for a bit on the calm but largely unmemorable electronic track “Little Bird.” It picks up its perkiness once again with the slightly spooky electro-pop love song “Swoon.”

Ellipse was recorded in various places around the world, including Hawaii, Japan, China, Thailand and at her newly built studio inside the basement of her family’s 18th century home in London, England. The new album’s name is a reference to the “elliptical” shape of this house.

“Bad Body Double,” written in Japan, is about looking at oneself in a bathroom mirror one day and not liking the image staring back at you. The sight of healthy and fit Japanese women surrounding Imogen Heap and the sudden realization that her own body was out of shape inspired this album highlight. Besides its overtly catchy rhythm, it features brilliant production, complete with actual bathroom-sounding reverb for a short stretch early on and a snare drum made via a sample of Heap slapping her own buttocks, according to an interview of Heap in The Sunday Herald in August. (Talk about experimental sounds!)

The romantic number “Between The Sheets” features some of the catchiest piano phrases Heap’s written yet, but is over before you know it (and seems a lot shorter than 2:54).

“Aha!,” with its brooding synths and Middle Eastern-sounding and cinematic strings is a typical enchanting Imogen Heap track, one clearly ready for a future soundtrack to a scary film. In fact, “Aha!” appeared in a 2009 episode of the new Melrose Place, and “Bad Body Double” appeared in the current (and fourth) season of Heroes, which is no surprise given her contribution of the song “Not Now But Soon” to the 2008 soundtrack to this hit NBC show.

Heap has become a master of marketing her music to TV, films, and soundtracks over the years, from the Garden State soundtrack (with Frou Frou) to The Chronicles of Narnia and the teen drama The O.C. being just some examples.

Elsewhere, spacey, warped beats accompany the romantic cellos of “2-1,” while “The Fire” recalls “Candlelight” from her debut album, as well as Under The Pink-era Tori Amos, due to its ghostly melodic piano runs. Album closer “Half Life” has delicate strings and Sarah McLachlan-esque piano chords - think “Angel” – but doesn’t actually sound like the Canadian songstress overall.

In all, Ellipse is a well-written and arranged album (by Heap), at least 80% of which is worth re-experiencing again and again. Compared to the British songwriter’s other two solo works, this one is, relatively speaking, her quietest collection, even if at least half the material is full of upbeat music.

It’s the first album in which she does not have at least one outright rocker to shake things up a bit, even if "Tidal" does rock a bit towards its end. It’s not a disappointment but a sign of a new direction. And with a batch of engaging songs like Ellipse has, Heap’s rabid fan base will surely continue to follow her career in whatever direction it takes her.
4 Stars

Stream Imogen Heap’s entire Ellipse album at her website, and in exchange for one tweet, download the "Canvas" video to your computer. You can also view a recent video interview from

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Music Review: Radiohead - Hail To The Thief: Collector's Edition

Radiohead is such a powerful and insanely creative force that in 18 years of recording, it has not and probably can not repeat itself from album to album if it tried. Even if its much hailed early 2000s works Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001) shared a common theme of experimentalism, almost every song was a new revelation. The same was true for the recently reissued follow-up to Amnesiac, 2003’s Hail To The Thief, now complete with a second bonus disc of live tracks, remixes and demos.

When you read critics or fans say – as they have - that Hail was, among other things a slight return to the more guitar-heavy sound of Radiohead’s 1990s output, this should not be taken to mean it sounds like old material, though there are a couple of hints of older songs to be found. The “slight return” really means that pure, delicate acoustics, clean and distorted electric guitars, and actual solos via Jonny Greenwood are present here more than on the band’s previous two albums.

In fact, guitar-centered tracks are a significant minority - six by my count - on Hail but are nowhere near as numerous as they are on the band’s first three records, Pablo Honey, The Bends, OK Computer.

At nearly an hour in length and 14 tracks long (plus 14 more on a bonus disc), Hail To The Thief is at its core a healthy, complex mix of forward-looking experimental beats, electronics and other synth/keyboard-heavy technology and more conventional instruments like guitar, bass, drums, and Thom Yorke’s methodical piano work. In political terms, it has bipartisan appeal, with just enough guitar work to satisfy old fans and a lot of creative, adventurous sounds for the more versatile music fan.

Looking back, this is a stronger and more consistent album than I originally thought it was, with guitar-central tracks “There, There,” “Go To Sleep,” “2+2=5,” and “A Wolf At The Door” not only being the album’s highlights but among true Radiohead classics. The latter track ("Wolf"), with Yorke's rambling and frantic lyrical verses that give way to the band's swirly melodies in the refrains, along with Yorke's gorgeous falsetto at song's end all combine for a soothing and well selected way to close out the album.

As impressive as it is, Hail has just a few clunkers that prevent the album from being one of Radiohead's best: the deep bass booming and tape loop-dominated “The Gloaming,” which is a noble experiment but in the end an uneventful track, the funeral music/vocals of “I Will,” and the slow and sour piano-based “We Suck Young Blood.” Not that they are bad songs, but the latter two tracks may suck the life out of any room they're played in and would’ve been better off as b-sides.

On the newly included bonus disc, highlights include the lovely, folky acoustic "Go To Sleep” b-side “Gagging Order,” a live acoustic rendition of its A-side, the Four Tet remix of “Scatterbrain” and an exciting live 2003 performance of “2+2=5”. Other tracks are fairly intriguing at first but lose its cool upon repetitiveness or lack of substantive content, like the strange strings and funky bass of “Paperbag Writer” and the quasi-industrial experiment “I Am Citizen Insane.”

This 14-track bonus disc complements HTTT pretty well as a total package but isn't quite as essential as it would be if it contained a full show or comprehensive disc of demos and b-sides from the era.

HTTT was the last proper album Radiohead recorded specifically for a record label (EMI). And though it may not be the band's very best CD, its inventiveness and songwriting depth was truly remarkable for a sixth album and should not be under-appreciated. In that respect, it’s at least better than debut Pablo Honey, which itself is an underrated album. Radiohead, you see, doesn't make bad records.

In sum, if you’re a Radiohead or alt-rock fan who missed HTTT the first time around, it would be an unwise move to miss out again on an album with as much rich music as this one has.

Note: Originally published October 2, 2009 in Blogcritics Magazine

Dead Red Special Edition: A Sunday Afternoon with the Lowell Spinners

Note: Originally published September 5, 2009 in Blogcritics Magazine as part of my "Dead Red" weekly Boston Red Sox column

The Boston Red Sox may have their share of pricey free agents on its roster, but from Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury to Jonathan Papelbon and Manny Delcarmen, a growing amount of essential players are in fact, homegrown. This season, especially has seen a plethora of talent come up from the minors to help the big club, including Josh Reddick, Chris Carter and perhaps most notably, Daniel Bard.

As fun as it is seeing players like these develop on the big league level, I thought it would be a great idea to see and cover some of these future big leaguers in their own element someday. That someday was last Sunday.

It was around quarter-to-four on the afternoon of August 30, with nary a cloud in the sky in Lowell, MA when I arrived at LeLacheur Park, home to the Lowell Spinners. It is a Red Sox single-A affiliate that has seen future stars like Jonathan Papelbon and Jacoby Ellsbury play there, among many others.

Game time was set for 5:05 pm, but as a credentialed media member, I was there to get my media pass and hopefully make my pre-game time eventful. In other words, I was hoping to interview at least one Spinner before game time.

Once I got my pass and went upstairs, I saw a guy writing out in blue marker the starting lineups of the Spinners and their opponent, the Brooklyn Cyclones. To my surprise, local product Alex Hassan was written into the lineup, starting at RF. He grew up next to my hometown of Quincy, MA in Milton, so many in my town are quite familiar with this hitter/pitcher’s success at BC High, then Duke University and now career with the Red Sox, whom drafted him in the 20th round of the 2009 draft.

Hassan was previously in Lowell for a few weeks before getting promoted to single-A Greenville. I didn’t see any pregame reports mentioning he was back in Lowell for Sunday’s game, but was glad he was there.

One of my goals was to interview the biggest name and prospect on the Spinners, Ryan Westmoreland, an outfielder who unfortunately broke his collarbone trying to make a play in a game two days earlier. I saw him walk across the field minutes after I arrived but found out later he left the premises soon after.

So my next choice to interview was, you guessed it, Alex Hassan. After asking an usher when and how the media does interview players here, she radioed down to Jon Boswell, the head of media relations for the Spinners and had me meet with him downstairs.

Next thing you know, I race downstairs and the two of us (Boswell and I) walk past the tunnel area that leads to team locker rooms, and into the Spinners dugout, where I awaited Alex Hassan to interview. At this point I didn’t keep track of time but it was before 4:30 pm and I was about to accomplish my main goal of scoring a player interview.

He came out a couple minutes after Boswell left to get him. The rightfielder was taller in person than I thought but he was a low-key kind of guy, which made the interview experience less intimidating. After telling him how pleasantly surprised I was to see him in today’s lineup, he told me that he and Chris McGuiness were told to report from Greenville to Lowell today. He didn’t look at this move as a demotion when I asked him, just looked at it as “a chance to play.” When asked, he was also happy with his progress offensively and defensively, though is always looking to improve. And no, he’s not going to pitch anytime soon.

After a couple more minutes of questions (including what it was like to play for Duke, which he loved and elaborated on for a bit), the interview was over. Boswell tried to get me another interview, with the speedy leftfielder Wilfred Pichardo, but he (much like the rest of the team) were busy getting ready for the game. So one interview was enough for me. Mission Accomplished.

It was then time for me to decide where to sit for the game, as the Spinners staffers let me know I had that freedom to go anywhere I liked. Should I sit with the sold-out crowd of over 5,000 in the hot sun, or take advantage of my press pass and see if there’s room for me in the (cooler) press box. And the press box is indeed where I spent the game, taking notes on my laptop and note pad, chatting with the other couple of staff members and media members who were there, all of whom were friendly and very much into this well-played game.

As I sat down to set up, everyone in the ballpark roared for the ceremonial first pitches, thrown by newly re-signed Boston Celtics big man, Glen “Big Baby” Davis, and legendary Celtic JoJo White. The crowd gave a mixed response to Davis bouncing his pitch to home plate while cheering for the older but still very strong-armed Jo Jo White’s excellent throw. Then it was game time.

The Cyclones got to Spinners starter Pedro Perez early, scoring one run in the first. He had control issues over his four innings, allowing five walks. And the Spinners had little answers for their starter Brandon Moore, who’s only run allowed over six innings occurred in the bottom of the fifth inning when Pichardo scored on a double by shortstop Derrik Gibson.

But as the lights came on and the evening got dark, the Spinners bats got hot. In the bottom of the eighth, this 1-1 game became untied when centerfielder Ronald Bermudez singled home designated-hitter Drew Hedman, who doubled to start the inning. Alex Hassan, who reached first on a throwing error, scored the insurance run to make it a 3-1 game. And with Cesar Cabral pitching four score innings in relief of Perez, and closer Jordan Flasher pitching a scoreless top of the ninth, that’s how it stayed, with Cabral getting the win.

It was one heck of a game, and manager – former California Angels player and Massachusetts native – Gary DiSarcina deserves credit for his part on managing the pitching staff, the clear strength of this year’s team.

Getting to cover the Lowell Spinners was a truly eye-opening experience for me. And did I mention fun? I wasn’t the only one, of course, as Glen Davis had a ball with the fans in between innings, throwing them souvenir balls, dancing around and then helping to give away an autographed basketball to a lucky fan. The friendly atmosphere extended to the stands as well, as one lucky handicapped kid got a foul ball handed to him from a fellow fan he didn’t know. And all the kids got to line up and run the bases after the game was over.

It’s no wonder why the Spinners sell out their games year after year. That and the fact they are now a playoff team for the second year in a row helps too, having clinched the Stedler Division in the NY/Penn League on Wednesday.

When it was time to pack up and leave for the night, some kid with an autographed baseball asked for my autograph (and those of anybody coming out of the media room) which I politely declined, telling them I’m nobody that special, just a member of the media for a day. If I become the next Sean McAdam or Peter Gammons, then that’s different. But you’ve got to start somewhere, and for me, that was Sunday, August 30 at LeLacheur Park in Lowell, MA, covering the Lowell Spinners.

Music Review: Blur - Midlife: A Beginner's Guide To Blur

Though largely underappreciated by the States for much of its career, British rock quartet Blur was one of the biggest and most versatile bands the UK produced in the 1990s and into the current decade before going on hiatus in 2003. With seven studio albums to its name over a 12-year span, plus a best-of album that was released three years before its last LP, 2003’s Think Tank, there has yet to be a compilation that encompasses highlights from all of Blur’s works. Until now.

The Midlife: A Beginner’s Guide To Blur (Capitol/EMI) collection, which hit stores during the heart of summer in late July, features 25 tracks spread over two discs. It contains most of the usual hot tracks that put Blur on the map, including “Girls And Boys,” “Song 2” and “She’s So High.” But the band members themselves selected the tracks for both discs. Thus, there are some serious gems here, but in a couple places, curious choices as well.

Not so unpredictably, CD 1 starts out with the opening track from Blur’s most popular – at least here in America - self-titled 1997 album, “Beetlebum.” Graham Coxon’s zigzag guitars carry the core of this easygoing pop song that also has musical refrains and chord progressions underneath singer Damon Albarn’s falsetto that are not too different stylistically from British rivals Oasis.

Of course, there’s no mistaking these two seminal groups - Blur was the more consistent and musically adventurous force. One need not look any further than the inventive (and lyrically regret-filled) “Death Of A Party,” another ’97 self-titled album essential track on CD 1 to prove this point. It features some of the leanest and meanest Coxon guitar sounds in Blur’s catalogue. And its scary-to-bright melodies – the verses being spooky and choruses more pleasant-sounding – go back and forth like they were always meant to be together. It’s bloody brilliant, as British lads might say.

There really is no apparent chronological sequence to the tracklisting of both discs, but again, plenty of variety of sound. So on CD 1, you’ll hear the noisy “Bugman” (from the 13 LP) after hard-chargin’ sports stadium smash (1997) hit “Song 2,” both of which come after the lovey-dovey “Blue Jeans.” And, the near disco-dance pop of (1994 album) Parklife standout “Girls And Boys” comes right after “Beetlebum.” Elsewhere, the celebratory and horns-filled (1995 album) Great Escape single “The Universal” appears directly after “Death Of A Party,” and the early shoegaze-ish sounds of (debut 1991 album) Leisure track “Sing” appears near disc’s end.

The gospel/soul pop of (1999 album) 13’s lead single “Tender” leads off Midlife CD 2, and is followed by the only other Leisure track on the compilation, the dreamy guitar pop of “She’s So High.” The once out-of-print 1992 single “Popscene,” which later made its way onto the 1993 album Modern Life Is Rubbish, also appears on CD 2, along with excellent choices like the electric/acoustic straight out rocker “Chemical World” and “Advert” from that same record.

In fact, if you count “Popscene,” five tracks from Modern Life appear on Midlife. Four tracks each from Parklife, Blur’s self-titled 1997 CD and follow-up 13 album are included, along with three each from The Great Escape and final album Think Tank, and two from Leisure.

Aside from its non-chronological track list, this new compilation has a couple of minor flaws worth noting. First of all, most of the selections are either no-brainers or smart choices by the band. But given the fact that Blur released a best-of in 2000 that featured 18 studio tracks – 10 of which are repeated on the new disc – plus 10 more live ones, at 25 tracks, Midlife could’ve used a few more tracks, deep album cuts in particular, like “Jubilee” or the exotic punk rockish “We’ve Got A File On You.”

Also, though it may mean something to the band (which also includes bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree), I don’t think most fans would view “Strange News From Another Star,” from the ’97 CD, as an essential Blur song. And though “Battery On Your Leg” has memorable dark and Cocteau Twins-esque guitar lines, Blur could’ve chosen somewhere else for it other than ending CD 2. Perhaps the loud ‘n’ fast guitar licks of ’97 self-titled standout “M.O.R.” could’ve both substituted for “Strange News” and closed this compilation out with a bang.

Alas, as the title of this collection suggests, Midlife is only an introduction to Blur. It is most likely geared towards newer fans who know Damon Albarn mainly from his post-Blur group Gorillaz, and perhaps for those only vaguely familiar with the Blur catalogue – which probably includes Gorillaz fans as well. Its release coincides with the band’s short-lived reunion tour, which took place over the summer, with shows in native England, Ireland and Scotland in June and July.

The band may or may not tour or record again anytime soon and go on another extended hiatus, but in the meantime, if you need a comprehensive course on Blur’s rich library of music, Midlife is the right two-disc collection for you, either on its own or as a complement to its best-of release from nine years ago.

This review was originally published in Blogcritics Magazine 9/12/09

Music Review: The New Up - Better Off EP

Note: Published originally 8/20/09 in Blogcritics Magazine

San Francisco’s The New Up is a quintet of alt-rock rockers that have quickly made a big impression on the indie rock world. Having recorded three EPs worth of music in 2008 - because albums are so yesterday – and releasing Broken Machine, the first of them last year and second one Better Off this week, the female-fronted group was recently picked as one of three finalists for MTV’s “Best Bay Area Breakout Awards.” The winner will be announced during the live broadcast of the annual MTV VMA’s on Sunday, September 13.

This is quite an accomplishment for a group with only a couple of EPs and one album out (2007’s Palace Of Industrial Hope).

They are led by ES Pitcher, a talented front woman and guitarist who has been compared to everyone from Chrissy Hynde and Metric’s Emily Haines to Gwen Stefani. I’m not sure about Stefani but certainly the Haines comparison is apt, especially on New Up tracks including “Top of The Stairs,” a power-popper from Broken Machine.

While that first EP was a fine first outing in this trilogy of EPs, the brand new Better Off EP shows a stronger sense of musical melody and vocal harmony than anything The New Up’s released in the past.

Opener “Dear Life,” with its crunchy power chords, rocks like a cross between The Pixies and a faster version of the refrain of Weezer’s beloved hit “Say It Ain’t So.” Only this hot track hits hard right from the get-go and features a flute and wah-wah-pedaled guitar in the bridge section that is purely The New Up. Bonus points for the cowbell in the choruses.

The title track of Broken Machine sees Pitcher singing of “taking chances.” But on the quintet’s latest, its willingness to diversify its sound is more conspicuous the deeper you go into the EP’s five tracks.

Better Off’s namesake shows off Drew Bertrand’s percussive skills, a little sitar and Hawk West’s ever melodious flute. But the sure-to-be showstopper of this release is third track “Bitch,” with its pinnacle being the mid-song bridge that features a steady, dance floor-ready beat followed by a Kirk Hammett-like guitar solo by lead guitarist Noah Reid. The hard rocking guitar riffs that set up the solo are as memorable as those on older New Up tracks like “Chewbacca’s Garden.” Reid also does well on vocals, joining Pitcher as co-lead vocalist, singing the lower harmonies while she handles the high ones.

Though not as instantly memorable as others on this EP, “F*** You Roger (Until Further Notice)”, with its hypnotic and psychedelic single note guitar lines and strong group vocal harmonies that end it, it’s still a great number that exemplifies how The New Up has not only grown as a band over the years but why they can’t be boxed into any particular genre. The New Up brings something different to the table not just with every release but with every new song.

Broken Machine had a relatively soft and lovely closing track called “Just Because” whose melancholic feel isn’t too dissimilar from fellow female-fronted San Francisco group Minipop’s “Precious.” On Better Off, The New Up again chose a chill-out track to close an EP. “Wait” reveals the group’s urban mid-western roots and charm, with ES Pitchers’s Chrissy Hynde-like vocal prowess soaring above dense piano chords and Hawk West’s serene flute lines truly standing out on this, the softest – and depending on your preference, weakest – number on the EP.

The New Up’s sound may recall familiar rockers from the past at first but after the EP is through, it will be clear as day to you The New Up is their own band, and getting better at what they do all the time.

In sum, Better Off is a versatile and mostly rockin’ EP. If you liked the first one (Broken Machine), you’ll definitely love this second one. The third EP in this trilogy will hit shelves in 2010. (4 stars)

For more on this buzz band, including a full stream of this EP and current tour information, check out or visit its Myspace page.

Music Review: Beastie Boys - Ill Communication (Remastered, 2-CD Edition)

Ill Communication took on a whole new meaning when Adam Yauch (aka MCA) announced through a Youtube video post July 20 that he had a form of throat cancer that is localized in one area in the neck but which miraculously doesn’t affect his voice and is “very treatable.”

As a result, the Beasties have postponed all concert dates as well as the release of new album Hot Sauce Committee Pt. 1 until late in 2009. Yauch says he will be fine after surgery and radiation treatment. Here’s to hoping he does indeed make a full recovery.

Debut record Licensed To Ill introduced the world to the Beasties in the mid-‘80s but between 1989 and 1994, the young (and healthy) Beastie Boys departed from party rap-rock hero status and instead became ambitious, influential innovators of hip-hop. While the masterpiece and sample heaven of 1989 sophomore LP Paul’s Boutique was the trio’s artistic statement, the 1992 follow-up Check Your Head and 1994’s Ill Communication in particular solidified their coolness and success in hip-hop and alternative rock circles.

Originally released in May 1994, I.C. was well timed to be unloaded on the masses, as America (and the entire rock world) was still coping with the loss of Kurt Cobain over a month earlier. It rocked alternative rock radio (as well as MTV via the “Sabotage” video) and came out during a memorable year in rock that saw the rise of the likes of Weezer and Hole, the Smashing Pumpkins co-headline Lollapalooza (in place of Nirvana) with the Beasties, modern and classic rockers coalesce for Woodstock ‘94 and Pearl Jam take on Ticketmaster.

Produced by Mario Caldato Jr. (aka Mario C.) and remastered by the Boys and Chris Athens, Ill is a relentless and remarkable mixture of cutting edge and old-school style hip-hop, cop-show themed proto-metal (“Sabotage”), jazz-funk fusion and Buddhism-inspired soundscapes (“Bodhisattva Vow”). It is available to buy on vinyl, 2-CD and eco-friendly digital formats.

Early standout “Sure Shot,” with its bluesy looped flute is a freestyle joint which name drops Rod Carew and Caldato, among others. And in an instance of lyrical maturity not found in a lot of mainstream rap records out there, it features a call by MCA for “disrespect to women” to stop and an offer by him to respect all the “mothers” and “sisters” to the end. Of course, the Beasties themselves threw in some immature (though admittedly fun) lyrics into some of its early, classic cuts (i.e. “The New Style”) but here and elsewhere, are lyrically bold and clever without being classless.

With CYH and I.C. having been released closer together than any other two Beastie Boys studio albums, one would rightly think they share some common characteristics (besides being multi-platinum records). For one, the cowbell-dominant “Alright Hear This” and “The Scoop” from I.C. have the same distorted mic sound that worked so well on C.Y.H. hit “So What’cha Want.”

Number two, both LPs contain short, raw skate-punk cuts: I.C.’s rough and tough “Tough Guy” and “Heart Attack Man” aren’t too dissimilar from the prior album’s “Time For Livin.’” Even more important, both records also feature more organic sounds than the Beasties’ first two (‘80s) albums, via the multi-talented MCs’ ability to play their own instruments live and sample their own creations.

Also, where the Dust Brothers were the secret to the success of Paul’s Boutique, producer Mario C. and keyboardist “Money Mark” Nishita were unheralded significant contributors to the Beasties’ next two records, with the latter shining on hits including C.Y.H.’s “So What’cha Want” and Ill’s “Root Down.” And on Ill’s many instrumentals (i.e. “Sabrosa,” “Futterman’s Rule,” “Shambala”), session musicians like percussionist Eric Bobo and Nishita gel well alongside MCA on bass guitar/upright bass, Ad-Rock on guitar and Mike D on drums.

From the downloadable hour-long audio commentary the Beastie Boys recorded to accompany this remastered LP, you learn among other facts that the many sounds of “Root Down” were “chopped up” from just one record, and the group’s favorite loop on this album is the one that carries the ultra cool (and foul-mouthed) “Get It Together.” This bass and beat-heavy track, featuring A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, was one that could’ve fit just as well on a Tribe record as this one.

“Get It Together” may have an old-school feel to it, but with the four-man tag team trading rhymes back and forth here, it still sounds as fresh today as it did back in 1994. Speaking of old-school, friend of the Beasties Biz Markie cameos on the standout body movin’ track, “Do It.”

On the half hour-long bonus disc, you get rarities like a laugh-filled live acoustic version of “Heart Attack Man,” b-sides that should’ve been album cuts like the killer telephone signal-looped “Resolution Time” and “Dope Little Song.” And if they could have cleaned up the rough production of the rockin’ punk of “Mullet Head,” which features one of the first known uses of the term “mullet,” it too would’ve been a solid album track for this or any Beasties era.

There’s amusing but non-essential filler too, including “Atwater Basketball Association File No. 172-C,” which is just audio of the Boys playing an intense game of b-ball, a favorite pastime of theirs. But flaws like this are few and far between on this release.

Ill Communication was then, as it is now, a record full of the cool, crossover and kickass hip-hop you’ve come to expect from the NYC trio. As a re-issued set with a bonus disc of rare mixes and some golden b-sides, this essential collection of 32 tracks has even more gems now than you bargained for. All told, this LP was the Beasties’ third instant classic in three tries and listening to it all over again without hitting the skip button once only confirms that it was and still is one of the top hip-hop records of the 1990s.
(4 1/2 stars)

To get more info on the remastered Ill Communication, stream all 32 remastered tracks and download the Beasties’ recent audio commentary on the making of the album, visit this link.

Note: This review was originally published at the website of Blogcritics Magazine

Product Review: Digitech HarmonyMan Intelligent Pitch Shifter Pedal

Note: Originally published in Blogcritics Magazine

Whether it’s the Whammy pedal or the GNX 3000, Digitech has a long history of designing quality floor pedals and boards, particularly ones that help take a guitarist’s sound to unforeseen levels (think Tom Morello). And while Digitech’s invention, the HarmonyMan carries over certain characteristics of Whammy pedals of old, this bright red box is a whole other beast.


The HarmonyMan has four different types of pitch-shifting effects, all of which can be seen through alphanumeric displays above the “Voice 1” and “Voice 2” knobs: triad-centered (for three-part harmonies), scale-based (key harmonies), chromatic (or “fixed), and detune. The last of these four effects is a group of four distinct “detuned” chorus-like effects found at the end of the “Voice 1” or “Voice 2” knobs, which are used to select all harmonies. The four detuned/chorus choices are labeled “D1,” “D2,” “D3,” and “D4.”

It also contains a built-in guitar tuner (via holding down the left black footswitch, which doubles as the HM's on/off switch). The tuner uses seven LEDs at the pedal’s center and the “Voice 1” note display window above the “Voice 1” knob for accurate tuning. The pedal features four memory locations (via the pressing the black footswitch on its right side), viewed via four LEDS, and a “store” button to store your harmony presets to these memory locations. In all, the are 42 different voicings/effects in the pedal's Voice knobs, including 24 semitones.

Other features include the “musIQ” button (for key recognition), a “Mix” knob (which controls the mix between lead guitar and harmony effects), “Distortion Send/Return” loop (for stompboxes), “Harmony Key” display, and “Sidechain Input/thru” jacks (for a rhythm guitarist to be the chord recognition source).


Before trying out the HarmonyMan, I needed three quality instrument cables to connect my guitar to it, another floor pedal (for distortion, reverb) and an amplifier. Therefore, I plugged my Fender Stratocaster into the HM’s guitar “input” slot, then connected the “Left (mono)” output of the HM to the guitar input of my Digitech GNX3000 Multi Effects Pedal, then cabled the GNX’s “Left” balanced 1/4'' slot to one of the “Line In” channels on my Behringer KX1200 Keyboard/PA system. Of course, if you want just a clean signal, you can always plug the HM straight into an amp, using the “Left (Mono)” or “Right” outputs. On occasion, I connected my pedal to an old Marshall amp.


I was excited to try out the pedal for its ability to create triad-centered (a.k.a. three-part) harmonies. For those not theory-trained or who may need a quick refresher course, triads are created by hitting/fretting three notes: the root (the bottom or first note), the third (a major or minor sound), and the fifth (perfect/P5, diminished or augmented).

And the first foray into this territory, as well as all subsequent ones did not disappoint, no matter what setup I used. Since you the reader (and guitarist, presumably) do not have the pedal in front of you, keep in mind that there is only one way to create triad-based harmonies, and that is to use both the “Voice 1” and “Voice 2” knobs on the left side of the pedal.

For instance, turning the “Voice 1” knob to “5H” (a perfect fifth above the root note you are playing, plus that root note) and turning the "Voice 2" knob to "3L" (a major or minor third interval below the same root note you are playing) gives you three distinct notes, thus a three-part harmony/triad. As you play around the guitar neck using this setting, you’ll find yourself sounding a bit like Brian May of Queen (without having to double or triple the guitar parts yourself, of course) or the Allman Brothers. Talk about instant gratification.

One can still create the same kind of two-part harmonies found on Whammy pedals of old using one Voice knob at a time. But what makes the HarmonyMan different and powerful is its ability to recognize the chords and keys you are playing. The aforementioned black footswitch on the HM's right side can be pressed on while hitting any major or minor chord and when you let go of it, the circular display of all 24 major and minor keys, called the “Harmony Key,” will instantly and correctly light up the key you are playing the chord in.

This is highly impressive and indeed, it is where the “Intelligent” aspect of the pedal truly manifests itself.

Using the “musIQ” button on the right side is also smart, as it automatically figures out the scale and key you are playing in. One can use this feature when a second guitarist plugs into the “Sidechain” input/thru channels, so while he/she strums chords that the musIQ uses to identify the chord's key, you solo over but in key with that other guitarist. This full and loaded sound will definitely turn some heads.

With 42 different voicings, there’s a ton of creative possible harmony combinations guitarists can come up with. For example, though there are four distinct “detuned” effects here (from swirly-sounding to warbly), a basic chorus effect can be created instantly by turning both Voice 1 and Voice 2 knobs to the same pitch-shifting voice, whether they are both set to “5L,” “3H” or other voicings.

About the only slightly disappointing feature of this otherwise brilliant pedal is that one can only store up to four harmony presets at one time. With the many voicing combinations one can play around with using the two Voice knobs, storing four of them at a time seems a little small.

That said, playing guitar with this pedal, clean or distorted, is a trip. And the real-time left-side footswitch that turns the HarmonyMan on and off instantly is another plus, whether you want to flash your stored (or experimental) harmonies for seconds or several minutes at a time. So is the pedal’s realistic bass guitar replications (“2o,” as in two octaves below and “8L”). The high Whammy-like octave voicings can be a bit warbly but have high-class tone and accuracy.

Bottom line: Digitech’s HarmonyMan pedal, since it’s release last year can be purchased at a reasonable price these days (in the $300 range). But the creativity one can engage him or herself in using this pedal is priceless. Therefore, it is definitely a keeper.

For a quicker overview and demonstration of how the HarmonyMan pedal works, check out this video.