Category Archives: A to Z

A ~~ Z – Jim O’Rourke “Insignificance” (2001)

Most musicians desire to be labeled ‘original’ or ‘uncategorizable’, but few actually warrant such a characterization. Jim O’Rourke, however, would satisfy the qualifications for such a description. labels him as a “post-classical composer”, but depending on the context from which you know him, he could be considered a pop producer, an alternative-rock bassist, a jazz musician, an electronic artist, an avante-garde musician…the list goes on. But what is most fascinating among all of this multi-faceted artist’s output is his own. Alone, O’rourke really is a sum of all his parts. He has a natural songwriting ability, but he can’t help but push the boundaries of convential form. He has a knack for straight-forward alternative pop, but at the same time feels the need to express his more creative components. And he understands the importance of a cohesive, artistic statement, but that doesn’t prevent him from wandering from what is expected. Among his many solo albums, Jim O’Rourke’s “Insignifance” stands as his magnum opus. Not because it is overtly adventurous or groundbreaking, but rather because it is a seamlessly concocted combination of a seemingly incompatible variety of sources and influences, and because in the end it just sounds so good.

And again, think of what sum all of O’Rourke’s parts generates: Imagine Wilco meets Tortoise meets Sonic Youth meet Gastr del Sol with splashes of the Beatles and electronic surges straight out of Edgard Varese or Paul Lansky. That statement alone sounds overwhelming and seemingly impossible, but O’Rourke achieves it. It is easy, upon first listen, to discard this work as unambitious, considering what O’Rourke has strived for in the past, but that would be missing the point. O’Rourke might have expected such a reaction; after all, the title of the album seems to be a tongue-in-cheek reference to his own ‘backwards step’. But the beauty in this record actually lies in it’s ability to deceive. The music sounds so simple and familiar, but it is so rich in texture and individuality that the more one digs in, the more one realizes there isn’t anything else quite like it.

“Therefore I Am”

“Therefore I Am” hits you early on in the album. Much of the song is a repetitive guitar riff that sounds like the best of an amateur garage band, but it is exactly this repetition, and what comes out of it, that makes the song so entrancing. When O’Rourke finally gets to the end of the chorus, what seemed to begin with one drummer and one guitarist has evolved into an orchestra of multiple drum sets, hand claps, layers upon layers of interlocking guitar parts, all complete with the obligatory “ooohs” and “aahhs”, only to resolve right back to where it started from.

“Memory Lame”

The layering of instruments continues into the beginning of “Memory Lame”, whose first minute is built out of a very Steve Reich-esque tapestry of guitars, eukeles, mandolins and god knows what else, before falling into an all too familiar pop sequence. O’Rourke uses the opposite approach with the final track, “Life Goes Off”, which begins with familiar movements but evolves into an extremely rich amalgam of instruments and harmonies before fluttering out in an electronic buzz.

“Life Goes Off”

What the album as a whole communicates after even a single listen is that O’Rourke has an innate talent, respect, and love for pop music, enough so that he can leave it at its heart unchanged but also put in so much of his own effort and individual touches as to make it unique, special, and his own.

A ~~ Z – Idris Muhammad “Power of Soul” (1974)

When I was a budding young music collector, I would often endlessly wander around any record store I could find, exploring. Sometimes I had things in mind, and usually I would just check out specific artists and see if there were any recordings I didn’t have or hadn’t heard of before. When major chain record stores still existed (I can’t believe I can actually say that), oftentimes CDs would have accompanying stickers or tags that advertised their specific awards and/or accolades. Being a relatively knowledgable collecter even in my high school years, I often was already aware of the important or ‘famous’ records. But when I came across a copy of Idris Muhammad’s Power of Soul record, I was dubious to the fact that an album I had never heard of could be coined “One of the greatest jazz-soul recordings of all time.” I had actually never even heard of Idris Muhammad. But then came the obligatory ‘flip’ of the CD to see who else was in the band. Grover Washington Jr. and Randy Brecker were already obvious names to me, and I knew Bob James only because he was on one of my favorite Chet Baker recordings (my discovery of his production abilities was yet to come). This made me curious enough, and while I didn’t buy the album that day, it did soon enough end up on my computer (somehow).

“Loran’s Dance”, composed by Grover Washington, Jr.

The “sticker” did not lie. I myself would likely suggest this album to anyone looking for a quintessential soul-jazz recording. While there is no shortage of heavy production on this album, its beauty really lies in its simplicity. The first track, “Loran’s Dance”, is the standout. James’ rhodes intro is still haunting after hearing it 1000 times, and when the band comes in there is nothing but the heaviest, most in-the-pocket groove you have ever heard. This is what Muhammad is known for: turning the simplest, most basic groove into something moving and addictive. Muhammad’s idea to move the downbeat of each new phrase onto the previous measure’s 4 is a perfect example of his expertise in subtelty; it takes the song to a whole new level. Other than the basic arrangement, this song was blessed with an amazing take, and the trumpet and tenor solos are highlights of Brecker and Washington’s careers, respectively.

“Piece of Mind”, composed by Bob James

Still, this album really is all about Muhammad’s unstoppable groove. He is not known solely as a funk/soul player, he has been a member of Ahmad Jamal’s trio as well as in the groups of Sonny Rollins, Archie Shepp, Eric Alexander and Pat Martino, but this is where he really shines. Even at the most unsuspecting (but perfect) times, Muhammad will dig as deep into the groove as possible, bringing more and more out of each soloist and rhythm member. Check out soprano solo on James’ “Piece of Mind” (the track on the album most influenced by James’ production flair) and how Muhammad pushes the band to get as much as possible out of the form.

The other two tracks, Joe Beck’s ballad “The Saddest Thing” and a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Power of Soul” keep the consistency up. Power of Soul is one of those albums that knows its good. Just like Headhunters and Mister Magic (two other legendary albums from the same decade), only 4 tracks were necessary to convey its message. Not too little, not too much, but just the right amount to make an almost perfect album.

A ~~ Z – The Grays – Ro Sham Bo

graysThe Grays were the most unexpected “supergroup” of the 90’s. Unexpected because, well, none of them were at all famous at the time of the recording. And, to be completely truthful, none of them are that famous even today. Jon Brion is the most well-known of The Grays’, having established himself as not only a successful pop producer (contributing to the likes of Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, the Crystal Method, and even Kanye West), but also as a film score composer (for films like Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and I [Heart] Huckabees), and (to a lesser extent) as a pop artist himself. But the Grays aren’t about one person, and by no means is their sound the result of one musician. The second most currently established former member of the band is Jason Falkner. Falkner, while taking a path similar to that of Mr. Brion, is now more renowned as an ace studio musician in addition to his output as a leader. While not as recognized in his home country for his solo work, he is quite established abroad as a pop singer, having released over 6 records in the last 15 years. The third “leg” of the grays was Buddy Judge, a singer/songwriter whose own wave of success has largely been boosted by help from both formerly mentioned artists. The forming of the Grays was essentially about three singer/songwriters in LA, frustrated with their previous exploits and failed bands, hoping to form a “more perfect union.” They hoped to form a group where everyone’s submissions and contributions were treated equally, a sort of democratic enclave within what was a highly feudal musical society. A noble idea, no doubt, and one that did actually work, for a brief period.

Jason Falkner Live

In the recruitment of their friend Dan McCarroll on drums, the Grays set out to evenly split their album into 4 original songs each. In the end, Falkner got a fifth, and 13 tracks were presented as 1994’s Ro Sham Bo. The opening track, Falkner’s “Very Best Years,” is as illustrative of the guitarist’s style as you will find. In hindsight, it really epitomizes 90’s pop/alternative rock (so if you have any friends who are obsessed with 90’s era radio, this will most likely strike their fancy), but despite its retrospectively typical sound, at the time it was quite a new style. I mean, essentially we are dealing with studio legends on this album, so it is no surprise to hear that they were one step ahead of everyone else.

“Very Best Years”

This studio-friendly sound really rings true on Buddy Judge’s debut track, “Everybody’s World.” The first minute and thirty seconds act as an exposé of the band’s talent in the studio. It is actually kind of creepy listening to today, to think that such a well-written, expertly produced and radio-friendly album could be so under the radar and then go out of print, and still, to this day, be relatively unknown.

But as well-intentioned as the Grays were, they were also essentially doomed from the start. Having three massively talented musicians trying to form a band that is completely democratic in nature is extremely oxymoronic. And for listeners, the seams show. Falkner, Judge, and Brion may all be coming from similar places and striving for similar sounds, but stacked side by side they couldn’t sound more different. Judge clearly is the weakest writer: his songs stand out the least on the album and ultimately act as fillers. Contrastingly, Falkner has an incredible knack for writing verse hooks and melodies, and his voice is certainly the strongest of the three, but his ability to string together entire well-rounded songs is lacking, and thus his input suffers. jonbrionJon Brion is not only the most talented member of the Grays, but he also is the most devoted to their concept. His first track on the album, “The Same Thing,” features verses and choruses sung by himself, but a bridge sung by Falkner, a guitar solo by Falkner, and even a curious little drum interlude by McCarroll. Not only are Brion’s songs the best on the album, but they’re also the most unconventional, which on an album like this is far more of a blessing than a curse. Even when taking a step away from conventionality doesn’t workout as planned, it ends up leaving a stronger mark when the album is all said and done.

“The Same Thing”

Like its finest parts, I like to treat this album as a deviation from what it was supposed to be. Think of it as a compilation: “Where were they then? Works by three of the last decade’s best pop producers/songwriters.” The album sounds a lot better this way, and it will make a lot more sense.

A ~~ Z – The Fire Theft – “The Fire Theft” (2003)

sunnydayIf Emitt Rhodes was the best album that Paul McCartney never recorded, then The Fire Theft is the best album that Sunny Day Real Estate never recorded. Except…that’s not an entirely accurate statement because, well, The Fire Theft pretty much are Sunny Day Real Estate, minus one member. Sunny Day Real Estate was one of the best bands to come out of Seattle in the 90’s that nobody has heard of. Often horribly mislabeled as the founders of “emo,” SDRE carved a truly unique niche in the 90’s Sub-Pop catalog and evolved to become significantly more artistically minded than any of their contemporaries.

The band was never too concerned with recognition, they were notorious for shunning interviews and very little if any live footage of them exists, despite this medium being their primary pathway to whatever fame they did achieve. It is because of this and their similarly unmarketable decision to rename themselves that has led to the softening of their historical impact. Really, there is not much difference between SDRE’s “final” album, The Rising Tide, and The Fire Theft’s first album, other than slight personnel changes; both albums maintain three fourths of the original band. The real difference is the sound: play SDRE’s 1994 release Diary up against The Fire Theft’s 2003 eponymous debut and you’ll realize why people forget they are the same group.

thefiretheft2But perhaps the name change was necessary, because despite mainting the majority of members from SDRE, The Fire Theft is a significantly more mature band. Instead of simply crafting concise pop songs, vocalist/guitarist Jeremy Enigk, bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith constructed a real album. Complete with instrumentals, stacked vocal harmonies, string sections, samples, loops, and electronics all squeezed between intros, interludes, reprises and outros, The Fire Theft makes Diary seem like a demo tape.

Oceans Apart

Because of this newfound adventurousness, when all is said in done, these are also the best songs the band has ever written. When, after the haunting instrospection of the album’s opener “Uncle Mountain” and the curious “segue” (or [p]reprise) which is the second track, the crashing beat of Goldsmith’s drums fall 1 minute and 10 seconds into “Oceans Apart,” and we begin to realize this is not traditional fare. The song continues to build for 3 more minutes until it stops, almost suddenly, and only later do we realize that these entire first three songs and 11 minutes have been serving as the album’s introduction.

The sixth song on the album, “Summertime”, highlights the experimentation on this album. Enigk’s voice soars over the strings and keyboards when he takes his voice, powerful as ever, up an octave in the second verse. The familiar power of Enigk’s guitar is mixed with the previously unfamiliar strings and electronic loops that fade out the track.


“Heaven” is probably the best track on the album, a track which effortlessly summarizes everything I have been trying to convey about the album. Enigk again uses his voice remarkably effectively on this track, and the ever-growing harmonies that begin at 2:22 bring it to an incredible climax before the band returns to the idée fixe of the album at 2:55 and then fades to a simple, lingering piano line.firetheft1


Picture 15Yet, like I said before, despite everything else that makes The Fire Theft distinctly significant within the SDRE/TFT catalog, it is the magnificent songwriting that holds the record together. “It’s Over” is probably the best concise “pop” song on the record. The mix of Enigk’s insatiably catchy guitar loop, Mendel’s creative and every-developing bass support, Goldsmith’s unique drumming on the chorus, the band’s harmonies, their build to the chorus, and of course the totally unexpected ending of it all contribute to the song’s beauty in simplicity and lucidly illustrate a band that was not only meant to be, write and play together, but were destined to grow and mature together as well. This album is the result.

It’s Over

A~~Z – Emitt Rhodes – The Emitt Rhodes Recordings (1969-1973)

emitt+ICSomeone once called Emitt Rhodes’ eponymous debut “the best album Paul McCartney never made.” Because of comments like this and the obvious likeness to the former Beatle, I always just assumed that Rhodes was British. Not true, actually. He’s from Southern California by way of Illinois. So how could such an obvious difference have slipped by me? Well, the fact is that very few people seem to know anything about Mr. Rhodes. This is despite the fact that his songs have been used in movies and the track “Fresh As A Daisy” was a top 50 recording in 1970. Rhodes even scored a west-coast hit a couple years earlier in the band Merry-Go-Roung with the song “Live.” And now, despite his relative obscurity, the album “Emitt Rhodes” is considered a “true classic of the period.” What is most remarkable about the album, despite it’s sheer consistency in quality of songwriting, is that Mr. Rhodes wrote, sang and recorded every single instrument himself. As far as I’m concerned, this was pretty much unheard of in the late 1960’s in terms of the quality.

Upon looking up some of his songs on YouTube, one comment struck a chord with me: “If you actually listen to the lyrics, they’re pretty lame.” This is true. Rhodes may have some serious songwriting chops in terms of hooks, chords and production, and his voice may be good, but he doesn’t have much to sing about. The best songs tend to be the ones with the simplest and most repetitive story lines, because this helps him avoid such banal topics as dragons and fair maidens, or fairies and daisies.  It is clear to see why Emitt Rhodes sort of washed away in the early 70’s, after four very similar releases, and even clearer to see why he stuck with producing. That makes the tracks on this collection seem all the more like a ‘stroke’ of genius.

A~~Z – David Matthews – Dune

David Matthews - Dune

No, this is not a Dave Matthews album. That’s the first question that everyone asks upon seeing this album. In actuality, David Matthews has been the name of numerous famous musicians. There is of course the Matthews of DMB fame, the singer-songwriter who has generated a uncontestedly debated and thus ambiguous influence upon modern pop music. Then there is the Matthews of the classical field. Born and raised in Britain, he is one of the island’s foremost classical composers of the last 50 years. Then there is the Matthews of this post. Within the jazz community, this Matthews has generated a reputation very much akin to the Matthews of DMB fame. A pianist, composer, arranger and producer, David Matthews has dipped his toes into a wide array of sub-genres and has been associated with many of the music’s most famous musicians, but you probably have still not heard of him. Among his more famous collaborations include being an arranger for James Brown, Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon and Billy Joel, a producer for Idris Muhammad, Steve Gadd and Esther Phillips, a piano player for Nina Simone, Jim Hall, Art Farmer and (along with being a co-founder) the Manhattan Jazz Quintet. Matthews even has, indirectly, made a strong influence upon hip-hop. This is largely through the impact of his album “Dune”, which has become somewhat of a hip-hop producer’s classic, contributing to beats for Method Man and Redman, Large Professor, RJD2, and more.

The album’s history bears a strong resemblance to that of the leader’s, in the sense that it has notoriously been confused with the soundtrack to the David Lynch movie “Dune”, despite it’s coming over 8 years before the release of the film.

The impressive lineup on this particular disk is mostly the result of the partnership with Creed Taylor. Matthews was given full access to CTI’s full roster of talent, which included (on this album) such 70’s heavyweights as Grover Washington Jr., David Sanborn, Steve Gadd, Hiram Bullock, Randy Brecker, Lew Soloff, Jon Faddis, Eric Gale, and Will Lee. The first half of the disc makes up a sort-of suite that Matthews wrote, and contains the best material of the disk. The latter side is more of an ode to sci-fi, including appropriate covers of David Bowie and Star Wars-related numbers. (The disco take on the Star Wars theme shant be missed for those nostalgic for this missed era).

When taken for what it is (and perhaps with a generous serving of salt), this album stands as a classic example of what CTI and 70’s era arrangers such as Matthews were capable of. It’s legacy lives on in, if nothing else, it’s sample-ability and the classic hip-hop tracks it has influenced.

A~~Z – Carmen McRae – Bittersweet

BittersweetBittersweet is an appropriate name for this collection of ballads by Carmen McRae. Unlike most ballad albums, however, this 1964 recording more than holds one’s attention throughout. In my opinion Carmen’s best album, the song choice is amazing, and includes one of the most important recordings of “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most”.

Most of the arrangements were supplied by underrated pianist (and superb accompanist) Norman Simmons, but to whom we can attribute the set list I am unsure. McRae not only resurrects rarities such as “How Did He Look” and “I’m Lost”, but adds a new flame to classics such as “When Sunny Get’s Blue” and “Here’s That Rainy Day”.


Guitarist Mundell Lowe, who was apparently a last-minute replacement on this album, makes one of the best performances of his career here, matching the tasteful accompanying style of Simmons and complementing McRae’s classic delivery perfectly. Here is what Ken Dryden of Allmusic says:

carmen“Carmen McRae made many worthwhile albums during her long career, but this session of mostly melancholy ballads never received the exposure it deserved, possibly because it was done for Mort Fega’s small independent label, Focus. But the singer, who is in top form throughout the date, responds beautifully to pianist Norman Simmons’ well-crafted charts; the rest of the cast includes drummer Curtis Boyd; bassist Victor Sproles; and a last minute but valuable substitute, guitarist Mundell Lowe. Her dramatic lagging behind the beat in “The Meaning of the Blues” adds to its appeal. Picture 14“Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” is the only extended piece and was already a regular part of her repertoire by the time of this recording, so her effortless take is no surprise. McRae was an excellent pianist and accompanies herself on the defiant “I’m Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life.” Duke Ellington’s meditative “Come Sunday” provides a ray of hope among the otherwise bittersweet songs on this CD. Fortunately, Koch had the wisdom to reissue this lost treasure, and it easily ranks among Carmen McRae’s best recordings.”

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