The knock on For Squirrels -- and I ought to know, because I mouthed it more often than just about anyone else -- always has been that they merely were R.E.M. Jr.: Pete Buck's Murmur-era guitar strum-o-rama laced with Michael Stipe's oblique mutterings. Well, while Example, For Squirrels's major-label debut, doesn't diminish the R.E.M. comparison A check out "Orangeworker," "Under Smithville," and "Mighty K.C." A it points up the inherent shallowness of such a contention, like saying Badfinger was just a Beatles knockoff or Polly Jean Harvey sees Patti Smith when she gazes into the mirror. Both were/are so much more. Ditto For Squirrels.
Using Buck's reverberating chording and Stipe's likable nasal vocals as a launching pad, For Squirrels -- singer Jack Vigliatura, guitarist Travis Tooke, bassist Bill White, drummer Jack Griego -- kick the guitar jangle into the sonic ionosphere on the aforementioned trio of tunes, a daisy chain of appealing melodies, potent production dynamics, and impassioned playing. Elsewhere they detour into a hardcore-with-hooks squall on the streaking "Long Live the King," with Vigliatura stripping his lungs during the frenzied outro; and on "The Immortal Dog and Pony Show," the singer waxes cynical on the vicissitudes of fame as his bandmates hunker down for a midtempo stomp. At almost seven minutes, the swaying, sighing "Disenchanted" works less well here than it did on-stage, where the band's presence kept it fully inflated -- a minor cavil.
As most people know by now, Vigliatura and White died when the band's van crashed a month ago, ending For Squirrels in this particular incarnation. Sad for their families, friends, and fans, because as Example amply demonstrates, For Squirrels wrote and played with honesty, insight, and vigor, while maintaining an unwavering artistic integrity.
By Michael Yockel
Falling Farther In
Fueled by the deeply expressive lead vocals of Mary Fahl, October Project moves closer to the mainstream with its second album, Falling Farther In. The group's sound lies somewhere between pasteurized ambient music and Celtic-flavored pop, a luscious landscape of desperate themes that nevertheless sounds incredibly uplifting. "Dark Time" is a perfect example of what a stirring conundrum the album amounts to, as Fahl sings about imminent darkness and prays for furtherance, turning the song into a fierce anthem rather than a whining plea. "Funeral in His Heart," with its percussive Stax/Volt riff on the chorus, tells the story of a man's lost dream. And love songs such as "Deep As You Go" and "Something More Than This" offer some corrective optimism to the album's otherwise sullen sensibilities; on the latter, Fahl sings, "In the shadow cast as you were leaving/In the beauty of the ending day/There is always something to believe in."
Ending on a note of reassurance, the set closes with the quietly breathtaking lullaby "If I Could," as a woman promises to always "shine like a lantern in the dark" for her lover or child. With each song cloaked in the shimmering harmonies of Fahl and singer Marina Belica, and rooted in Craig Thatcher's Stewart Copelandesque drumming (heavy on the toms and syncopation), Falling Farther In takes the emotional wreckage and makes perfect sense out of it. For all its tragic overtones, this is one exhilarating downer of a record.
By George Pelletier
Live at the Apollo 1995
Messin' With the Blues
Bobby Byrd Got Soul: The Best of Bobby Byrd
Years before the Grateful Dead's traveling circus hit the roads and arena parking lots of the United States, there were rabid followers of James Brown's stints at Harlem's Apollo Theater. Keeping their seats all day, these diehards watched multiple performances of Brown and his band, the Famous Flames, in their heyday. Beginning with 1963's epochal Live at the Apollo, J.B. cut a series of live albums at the venue that perfectly captured the intensity and growth of his music, from the gospel-drenched soul of the 1963 record to the hard funk of "Live" at the Apollo, Volume 2 (1968) and Revolution of the Mind (1971).
Given that some of the Godfather's proudest achievements of the Nineties have involved the use of his songs for lame TV commercials, it's no surprise that the belated fourth installment of the Apollo series is more a glossy greatest-hits rehash than a brain-bending throwdown. Not that Live at the Apollo 1995 (actually cut last year) isn't loaded with tight playing and heartfelt testifying. But the 67-year-old Brown is growing ever crankier, and much of his interplay with this audience is dated, unintentionally oddball, or both. For instance, he runs a roll call of zodiac signs (!) and babbles about cleaning up the streets before loosing the Rev. Al Sharpton on the crowd (and the home CD listener).
Better to check out the master's Sixties and Seventies investigations of his roots in jump blues and ballads on Messin' With the Blues, a double disc first issued in 1990 and recently re-released. From "Ain't Nobody Here but Us Chickens" to two wildly disparate takes on "Kansas City," it's incendiary stuff.
Bobby Byrd Got Soul clocks singles recorded by the long-time Brown sidekick between 1963 and 1972, most of them produced and arranged by the boss (and sometimes released by Miami record-biz legend Henry Stone). Brown occasionally puts some wrongheaded politics into Byrd's mouth; wonder what Brown's pals in the civil rights movement thought of the assertion in "If You Don't Work You Can't Eat" that goes, "The only way to end this [Nixon-era] mess" was to get a good job, work hard, and keep your mouth shut. But does it move? You know it. More surprising is how snugly records made around the time that hard-core funkateers such as Fred Wesley were riding the band bus fit beside Byrd's earlier, more traditional waxings. The CD makes clear that despite a set of fine, rough-sounding pipes, Byrd was no artistic threat to his partner. At its best, though, it convincingly posits him as more than a mere footnote to the legend.
By Rickey Wright
My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult
Hit & Run Holiday
A concept album. From My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult. Hold on to your undies, kids, this is going to be a bumpy ride. Hit & Run Holiday re-creates a sleazy Sixties-style B-movie A Krystal Starlust hits the road with pal Debbie Deathbeat in a souped-up hot rod on a quest for kicks. Soon they meet a charismatic maverick named Apollo, and the trio goes on a wild drug binge. The tawdry tale eventually takes them to Tinseltown and into a swirling vortex of trash. In accordance with the B-flick genre, the music reeks of kitsch, a smorgasbord of postmodern pop styles: Heavy disco horns and beatnik jazz pianos meet sizzling surf-music guitars and funky rhythm lines. And true to Thrill Kill Kult standards, the lyrics are rife with over-the-top sex and depravity. Beneath the gimmicks, however, lies some exceptional musicianship, notably Kitty Killdare's catchy keyboard melodies, Buzz McCoy's flexible, adept guitar playing, and get-down grooves from bassist Levi Levi, drummer Dick Fury, and horn man Wolfgang. And singers Groovie Mann, Jacky Blacque, and Cinderella Pussie convey the spirit of sleaze as well as any B-movie denizen. Unplug the VCR, pop this into the CD player, and get ready to trip out, man.
By Georgina Cardenas
Joshua Redman Quartet
Spirit of the Moment -- Live at the Village Vanguard
There always has been something a little too mannered, a little too studied about tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman for my liking. But as a friend of mine told me, wait till you see him live. Although I still haven't experienced Redman in person, the double disc Spirit of the Moment goes a long way toward proving what I'd been told: Redman excels in a performance setting.
With support from the solid rhythm section of Peter Martin on piano, Christopher Thomas on bass, and the outstanding Brian Blade on drums, Redman's phrasing is freer and looser here than it has been on his studio recordings; in fact, the first disc starts out with "Jig-a-Jug," a spirited romp that displays Redman's whimsical side. But it's the ghost of John Coltrane that really permeates disc one, most prominently on Redman's stunning sax-only solo at the end of the quartet's lush and unrushed reading of "My One and Only Love," and on Redman's deeply spiritual "Second Snow." While Coltrane's creative influence remains evident on the second disc, it is interwoven with the more avant-garde leanings of Redman's father, Dewey Redman, one of the most challenging horn players of the post-Ornette Coleman era. Although the songs never dissolve into atonal wanderings, the harmonic ideas show complexity without sacrificing the joy of just digging in and blowing. And that mixture seems to be what was largely absent from Redman's previous work.
By Bob Weinberg
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