ALT Discs

Large as Life and Twice as Natural *** Davy Graham is a legend of acoustic coffeehouse guitar. He developed the DADGAD tuning, wrote and performed the early 60s jazz/folk/guitar standard Anji, and influenced everyone from Bert Jansch, to Paul Simon to Jimmy Page. This album comes highly recommended as it usually gets 12 out of 10 stars everywhere! Allmusic says that: “With the exception of 1964’s Folk, Blues and Beyond, this is Graham’s finest non-compilation album… “ Unfortunately, my review isn’t quite as glowing. Davy’s guitar does shine on half the album, especially his forays into Indian/World music: Blue Raga, Jenra, Sunshine Raga, and his cover of Both Sides Now are all really good. Really, really good! Grahams’s sitar-tuning technique facility and his understanding of Eastern/Arabic music, plus the fact that he actually could play the Oud allow these pieces to sound completely original, yet very traditional. It seems to me the pitch is lower than “D”, which creates a natural comb-filter-type timbre. That is a great sound and one I would like to try myself! The supporting players also bring a really authentic ensemble presentation to this music that blends East and West in a more convincing manner than most of the other stuff that attempted same in the 60s. I also like Bruton Town, which is an Olde English folk/Madrigal type of song. Davey’s voice is well-suited to this kind of material and his fingerpicked guitar work is perfectly executed and evocative of the Renaissance Fair feel of the song. There should have been another 1-2 numbers with this vibe on the disc. The Elizabeth Cotton-penned folk classic Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie is also performed well but this folk style is very familiar to me and not as impressive.

Unfortunately, I don’t like much about the rest of the album. There are four “blues” songs: Freight Train Blues, Good Morning Blues, Electric Chair, and Bad Boy Blues, but I really don’t like this type of blues. He’s got that high, reedy, English-guy voice and that just don’t sound like the Delta. Then there’s Beautiful City, a swingin’ jazzy number where he sounds like Tony Bennett, which isn’t a terrible thing…if you are Tony Bennett and you’re singing a good song. He isn’t and this isn’t. The guitar on all of these tunes also sounds like an afterthought at times and certainly doesn’t have the strong vibe of the best 6 songs. There are weak and unconvincing runs and he does this annoying displacement thing where he steps out of key but it’s not cool, angular and dissonant; it just sounds like he played in the wrong key for two bars. Finally, there is his composition Tristano, which is a four-minute solo guitar piece that attempts to mash about 5 genres of music together. This should have been good, but it sounds like not enough thought was given to the arrangement. Some of the execution sounds forced and the musical thread wanders. There is nothing on this disc that has the laid back, stately cool of Anji and I am bummed about that because I’ve loved that song for decades. A couple more of the English folk style songs, an instrumental Beautiful City, and 1-2 blues instrumentals would’ve been a great compliment to the World/Eastern stuff.

The Shadow of Your Smile**** I’ve had this CD since it was released on Sub Pop in 1995 and I still listen to it regularly. I guess that makes me pretty old! But no matter; The Shadow of Your Smile is as close to a perfect album as you will find from the 1990s. Nevermind that Nirvana stuff. The disc (and group) featured ex-members of Giant Sand, Calexico and Naked Prey and the tunes found within are the perfect blend of lo-fi, instrumental Americana with awesome surf-rock, slide, pedal steel-ish guitars. A lot of this disc sounds like the desert and Bill Elm’s steel guitars are prominent throughout. Other guitars, ranging from clean acoustics to very dirty garage guitars (I imagine a Jaguar through two stompboxes into a Fender Twin) are provided by Joey Burns. This group has often been given the “cinematic” descriptor label and the tight and very focused arrangements more than make up for what little standard-type improvisation there is.

The band cruises through a wide range of tunes, including the jazz standard title track, a mellow version of Misty, Thelonious Monk’s Pretty Ugly, a roustabout version of the lullaby All the Pretty Little Horses and an assortment of Joey Burns originals. There is a great use of all manner of instruments in addition to the guitars like vibes, keys, organ, brass, violin and assorted percussion. The disc was recorded in Tuscon and it definitely has an element of Tex-Mex flavor as the atmosphere just drips off the tunes like beads of condensation on a bottle of Twisted X. In addition to this disc I ended up with a copy of the “Friends” version of Wichita Lineman and marvel at the gnarly, distorted guitar solo! This disc was a great inspiration when I began playing instrumental music!

Nutley Brass Plays the Greatest Hits of Shimmydisc**** This is also one of my very favorite discs from the 90s. I played it so much I wore the first copy out! How does one do that to a CD? I dunno, but I totally did. Except for some sweet and airy “oohing” and “aahing” …or is it “la la la..ing? I forget. Anyhow, this is an instrumental take on the Shimmydisc label classics, and it is hilariously original, brassy, and suave. While it could be labeled Lounge, to me it favorably recalls the Space Age pop/Bachelor Pad music of the late 50s and early 60s that I’ve written about on the site. The arrangements/instrumentation are brilliant and there is mucho tasty guitar that is very evocative of that era.

The Nutley Brass is the creation of one Sam Elwitt, who plays almost all of the instruments on the disc…which makes it all the more amazing! I’m not a Shimmydisc guy; as a matter of fact the only band I had heard of prior to this release was King Missile. That’s the genius part about the arrangements and execution of the music; you don’t have to care about Shimmydisc at all! Great performances include Sensitive Artist, Berries, South American Eye, Honey I Sure Miss You, and September in the Night (which has some very tasty guitar)… and many more! I don’t know if this disc is still available, but if you are a fan of this sound, the disc is well worth the purchase if you find it!

Together; Together Again***** This is a great collection of performances by two of the acknowledged masters of modern classical guitar. Their collaborative ventures stretch back to 1973 when Julian Bream and John Williams won a Grammy Award for their Julian and John (Works by Lawes, Carulli, Albéniz, Granados) album. This double disc combines the Together and Together Again albums, both of which show the artists in fine form recording all manner of celebrated player and composer from the Baroque, Romantic and Impressionist periods. The discs contain interpretations of composers including William Lawes’ Suite for Two Guitars, Georg Philipp Telemann’s Polish Partita, and Claude Debussey’s Réverie, Clair de lune and Golliwog’s Cakewalk. Master guitarists covered include the amazing Fernando Sor and Ferdinando Carulli. I have mentioned this recording quite a few times in other posts, including my two-part series on Impressionism. Composers from that time, Debussy, Enrique Granados, and Isaac Albéniz were obviously favored by Bream and Williams as their music is well-represented on the disc. Although much of the original Impressionist composers wrote and performed on piano, the pieces translate seamlessly to the guitar to the point where one would think that the originals must have been written with a guitar performance in mind.

While Bream and Williams demonstrate mind-blowing technique, meticulous attention to tone, highly technical and passionately textured contrapuntal reproduction of the pieces covered, it is perhaps the intense beauty and inspiration found in every performance that really carries the day. The complete history of the guitar is evident in these recordings and in them one hears and experiences the pinnacle of European art and culture.

Barbes-Brooklyn **** In 2006, Stephane Wrembel, Manouche guitarist extraordinaire, who is also a huge fan of prog-rock and student of Indian music, released his disc, Barbes-Brooklyn. Recorded basically in a trio format, (with bandmates Jared Engle on bass and David Langlois on percussion), although at times fleshed out with other instruments, the disc is the perfect modern synthesis of three major styles of music: jazz, prog-rock and Indo/Eastern music. There is some very stellar playing on this album and many years later it remains my favorite of everything Stephane has done. Not only are the originals fresh and inspiring, the band covers Django Reinhardt’s Fleche D’Or, Dizzy Gillespie’s Night in Tunisia, and John Coltrane’s Afro Blue. The performances are a dizzying array of chops, melodic invention, and subtle dynamics, at times taken at absolutely breakneck tempos. The ambient “mood” tunes, including (Introductions, Detroductions), and Boston are music of sparse instrumentation and indeterminate origin; Debussy? Django? Shankar? Yet they are no less impressive in terms of their musical perfection.

Out of all the modern Manouche players, Stephane has been an original with his determination to step out from the usual presentation and sound of the genre. He has constantly blended in all manner of influence and musical approach to create something completely bold and new. Even if that weren’t true, the guitar work on this disc is enough in and of itself to satisfy anyone looking for a six-string jolt. The title track is a hellacious jumpy riff slam, which then transitions to a patented uptempo Gypsy Jazz swing feel backing a tremendous Stephane solo. Nanoc is the celebrated Gypsy Bossa feel and is four minutes of sustained guitar soloing brilliance. Not content to merely burn through minor arpeggios, Stephane adds chime chords and melodic single string lines to his burning solo. The group motors through the previously mentioned Django cover at warp speed with Stephane credibly chasing the legendary artistry of the original master of swing guitar. Even with all of his success since this release, there is something very pure about the sound of this band and their approach to the music. I still derive much enjoyment and inspiration from listening to it.

Journey **** Ali Akbar Khan was a Hindustani classical musician of the Maihar gharana, known for his virtuosity in playing the sarod. Born in modern-day Bangladesh, he was trained on a variety of instruments under the guidance of very strict family members who had him practicing up to 18 hours a day. His sister, Annapurna Devi, was also an accomplished musician and was, for a time, the wife of fellow student, Ravi Shankar. On this disc Khan’s Sarod has a stoic depth and darkness even in happy moods, and his soulful playing is augmented by guitars, Tabla, shakers, tanpura, keyboards, duggi and dholak. All of the music is original and was recorded in 1990, which gives it a classic, but very modern sound.

Some of the best musical numbers on Journey include Morning Meditation, Temple Music and Lullaby. The sounds of this music conjure up great feelings of emotion and ambiance that I hear in any other great, sophisticated music. The happy, get up and go riff of the title cut, Journey, is brilliant and fun as is the dark and somewhat stormy Carnival of Mother Kali. The romantic, almost child-like melody of Come Back My Love sounds like a mid-60s George Harrison song. Some of the traditional offerings move a little slow at times but the riff and performance of Anticipation is really great! I’ve been listening to Journey for years and find it very enjoyable because I’ve always liked the sound of instrumental Indian music and the successful blended of traditional sounds with western pop structures and instruments on this disc is top-notch.

Tres Caballeros **** The Aristocrats’ third album is a total winner for me…and anyone who is into modern shred-style dynamic playing should definitely acquaint themselves with this band. The Aristocrats is a supergroup of sorts comprised of Guthrie Govan on guitar, Bryan Beller on bass and Marco Marco Minnemann on drums and percussion. These guys are all great players and writers and have pedigrees that include work with Asia, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and Dweezil Zappa. In a world awash with music and crap and sound and crap and crap and crap, there is still pure musicianship that is capable of jarring even the most aged, jaded listener (that would be me). While I didn’t know it when I originally mentioned posted, this disc was recorded all the way back in 2015, but since nothing new has been recorded since, this post is still a review of the band’s latest album (hehe) so I feel totally current and on-point. In addition to being a full-fledged post in the blog queue, this review will be added to the ever-expanding section under the “ALT” column in due time along with all of the other er, ALT stuff I’ve reviewed.

I have to admit that I don’t necessarily like bands like The Aristocrats as a rule. I never really listened to Vai, Satriani, Malmsteen or most of those shred/instrumental types mainly because I don’t hear a sense of humor or a certain dynamic sensitivity that I look for in music, therefore I find it hard to listen to. Let’s say a lot of seems to be made to impress and that’s it. Others will disagree I’m sure and that’s how music is; different strokes and all that. I would never dispute the guitar talents of any of those cats, or others like them, because they are obviously all great players. It’s just a matter of what type of music the guitarist/chooses as the environment from which to express. My tastes tend to either to the old school (Beck, Zappa, Howe, McLaughlin) or the Jazz Acoustic Manouche school (Lagrene, Rosenberg, Romane, Wrembel). So this is a bit of a departure for me, but I’ve really enjoyed the experience. The first thing that struck me about the Aristocrats is, aside from being great players, they obviously have a twisted sense of humor and don’t take themselves too seriously. I like that in a band, especially a band as “chops-city” as these guys. There is a great otherworldliness about the band; they would have made great guest stars playing some super-psycho dive bar on the rim of some spectral twilight in an episode of the X-Files. This wonderful weirdness pervades the music of the disc and the personality of the band and what’s not to like about that, I ask ya?

Musically the band is like a Ferrari; it goes from a sparse whisper to an over-the-top flurry of notes, percussive hits or rhythmic shifts in the space of a few bars. Sometimes this is dizzying…and if I were to say anything critical what I would say is that there were one or two places where I thought the rapid shift move was used one too many times, but let’s not quibble. There is no filler on the disc; every track is killer and obviously the band wanted each tune to be a statement in and of itself. The disc begins with a palm-muted, clean, almost chicken-picked guitar riff that segues into clean thrash and crash with Rush-style keyboard. Guitarist Guthrie Govan has a lot of love for all of the various classic tones he can wring from his axe, but then he’ll rip out something totally futuristic; the affected (with what I don’t know) quick picking legato on the solo to this track, Stupid 7, is pretty intense, yet just long enough to WOW! and then it’s back to the theme. Jack’s Back has a very odd-meter, bluesy vibe to it with some great solos from bassist Bryan Beller and some really tasty lines from Guthrie. Even though there are a lot of different styles to be found on the record, they meld them seamlessly into a singular sound that is very consistent and entertaining.

Texas Crazy Pants reminds me of a bit of 70s Fleetwood Mac multiplied by a factor of 500 with added crunch, UFO sounds and police sirens. The funny story that inspired this song (a lot of the band’s songs are inspired by weird life stuff) can be found online. It’s a great little rockin’ number though; one of the most balls-out on the disc. ZZ Top (yes that’s the name of the song) kind of reminds me of Rush’s Subdivisions, from the early 80s and I mean that in a good way. It’s a cool tune, but I don’t know why it’s named after the little ol’ band from Texas because it doesn’t put anything about that band in my head at all. But maybe it’s a head fake…

The next tune, Pig’s Day Off, is really pretty; a very clean, chordal, dynamic tune that descends into some twisted riffs and Zappa-style ensemble playing. This is one of the songs where the “jamming” is excessive I think…and that’s only because the mellow vibe of the tune is so great that the whole tune could’ve progressed in this manner without everyone going Bates Motel. But I stopped doing acid a long time ago so maybe I’m just too old to really appreciate it as much as I should. Smuggler’s Corridor is the anthem of the disc; a minor key surf rock that has everything but the kitchen sink, including Ennio Morricone-style vocalizing (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). Guthrie’s soloing on this tune is nothing short of brilliant; tasteful where it needs to be and completely crazy and off the charts when he cuts loose. Bryan Beller also does a nice little bass solo as well. The rhythm vibe had my girlfriend and cat dancing around the kitchen, which is a sure sign of success.

Pressure Relief has more chicken-palm picking, fast legato runs and an envelope filter/wah tone that is really cool. It also features some nice guitar harmonics, double stops and chords. Guthrie doesn’t use a lot of over-the-top distortion (at least on this disc) and is able to do all of the amazing guitar things he does with a very clean sound, which I think gives the band a more sophisticated and multi-layered presentation. They sound like seasoned professionals playing high-wire instrumental music. The next tune, The Kentucky Meat Shower has a sound and a riff straight outta Nashville y’all… and Nashville is pretty close to Kentucky so I think that’s why it sounds like that. HA! Later in the tune it goes all METAL FACE! It’s pretty funny, which fits the topic of the tune as it is another crazy “real-life” story from long ago. (Guthrie relates the background of the story on YouTube). The final tune Through the Flower is a supremo 11-minute prog-rock ballad that features amazing playing from all three instrumentalists and is a kind of synthesis of everything that has already occurred on the album. It’s a nice wrap up and the tune has a nice riff, great chords and cool use of effects as well. I would rank this tune, Smuggler’s Corridor, Texas Crazy Pants, and Pressure Relief as my favorites but there is something for any prog/fusion guitar head on this album. It’s certainly a great effort from three really awesome musicians and I hope they get back into the studio real soon!